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News Flash

Vacancy rates on Sand Hill Road, headquarters of Silicon Valley's venture-capital community, have gone from absolutely zero last year to 7.5%. Next month, they're expected to hit 11%--a number not seen since the early '90s. --San Jose Mercury News If you're looking for a rosy economic forecast, don't knock on Warren Buffett's door. Seems the Berkshire Hathaway chairman and King of All Value Investors has been telling the executives he meets with to brace themselves for a long slowdown. Not only is there no turnaround in sight this quarter or even this year, according to Buffett, but those who've met with him say that he is predicting eight years of economic stagnation. Buffett attributes the standstill to a "hangover effect" from the excesses of the late 1990s, says one private equity investor who has heard the Sage of Omaha's reasoning.

Buffett generally doesn't speak to the press, and questioning his headquarters about his economic forecast proved to be no exception. But if the 70-year-old business guru is right--as he so often has been in the past--his strategy of rational investing for the long term is going to look even smarter down the road. Add "the dog ate my palm pilot" to the list of homework excuses this fall--that is, if you're a student at Forsyth Country Day School. The posh private high school in Winston-Salem, N.C., will be the first in the nation to require all 280 students to purchase a Palm IIIC this fall. Not even such ritzy Eastern prep schools as Andover and Phillips Exeter do. But Forsyth has embraced the devices as versatile alternatives to the laptop.

At $200, a Palm costs one-fifth the price of a laptop. It can download assignments and beam finished work to a printer. With special software and keyboard attachments, students can use Palms as word processors for English class and pH detectors for science class. "It's a lot simpler than the laptop solution," says Assistant Headmaster Eric Peterson.

Public and private schools around the country are increasingly experimenting with personal digital assistants. The Orland Park school district near Chicago bought 3,000 Palms last year for its 7,580 students, becoming the largest school system in the country to integrate them into its curriculum. This year, Palm has provided discount handhelds to 175 classrooms from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin and offers teacher training on how to use them. Martha Rolley, director of marketing for Palm's K-12 Div., says she's "mobbed" by school administrators at trade shows.

But what about Johnny beaming final exam answers to his friends? Teachers will just have to be more vigilant than ever. Washington, D.C., is a center of hip-hop culture, but that usually doesn't extend to Capitol Hill. Soon it will. Get ready for Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre chomping on chilled shrimp at Hill fund-raisers: The music genre with the outlaw image is form- ing a political action committee.

Nu America is the creation of rappers and music moguls trying to improve hip-hop's reputation while heading off labeling requirements and restrictions, such as pending legislation that would prohibit marketing adult-rated entertainment to children.

The PAC has a platinum lineup: Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons and former NAACP President Benjamin (Chavis) Muhammad, who is no stranger to controversy since his 1994 ouster from the civil-rights group. He talks of flexing "some political muscle" on issues including censorship, racial profiling, voter registration, and funding for inner-city schools. The Reverend Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, MTV, the NAACP, and a host of record labels pledge to help.

While the music industry has long been a potent lobby, never before has a specific genre formed its own PAC. Backers note that hip-hop is a $2 billion-a-year industry. Says DePaul University professor Michael Eric Dyson, who studies hip-hop culture, if fans flock to the polls at the urging of music idols, they'll be "one of the most powerful" untapped constituencies yet. Word. Teenagers are notoriously fickle consumers, but they list the same few clothing brands as their top back-to-school preferences:

Teen Girls 2001

1. Old Navy

2. Gap

3. Tommy Hilfiger

Teen Girls 2000

1. Gap

2. Old Navy

3. Tommy Hilfiger

Teen Boys 2001

1. Tommy Hilfiger

2. Nike

3. Adidas

Teen Boys 2000

1. Nike

2. Tommy Hilfiger

3. Old Navy

Survey of 495 teens, July, 2001

Data: American Express Co. After years of kryptonite strength, the dollar has fallen 9% vs. the euro since July.

But the plunge may not continue. The U.S. lured a huge surplus of money last year, while capital fled from Japan and Europe. Dollar-doom scenarios miss why money keeps pouring into the U.S., says Paul Podolsky, chief foreign exchange strategist at FleetBoston Financial, whose Creative Destruction Index ranks 25 countries annually. (The term refers to new technologies replacing old ones.) Reasons include a growing U.S. population and embrace of the Net, says Podolsky. Higher birth and immigration rates vs. Europe and Japan also contribute to growing U.S. demand.

The index ranked the U.S. No. 1 overall and in Internet use and percentage of college-educated people. Even Mexico (No. 10) beat out the euro zone (No. 14) because of its more flexible economy, growing population, and strengthening peso. So did South Korea (No. 12) because of its high Internet penetration rate, among other factors. "Whenever you mention things like demographics and changing technology affecting currency, people think you're nuts," says Podolsky. "But actually I think it makes a huge difference." Baseball fans have been known to pay $100 for an autographed ball and $500 for a bobblehead doll of their favorite players. So what would they be willing to shell out for a private chat?

Call of Fame is betting on $4.95 a minute. That's for up to 10 minutes talking with about 200 old-timers enlisted to sit by their telephones from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (in their respective time zones) a couple nights a week and schmooze with fans. Former players for the Cubs, Dodgers, Mets, Red Sox, and Yankees are already taking calls or will be by summer's end. Dodgers ex-pitcher Don Newcombe is one, as are All-Star first baseman Steve Garvey and 1960s outfielder Andy Kosco, whose claim to fame was his oversized eyeglasses. Cubs fans get ex-pitcher and Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, among others. Callers can request a team, but not a player.

The old-timers get a cut from each call they take and additional cash if they sell an autographed photo for $11 to $35. Call of Fame, based in Beverly Hills, gives them a manual with tips on what to say when the conversation drags. Calls have been slow so far. But, says former Dodger star Ron Cey, who works for Call of Fame: "The potential for this is enormous. These guys have so many stories to tell, it's unbelievable." The number: 800 352-3959. Your boss pulls you aside in a meeting to "talk offline" about your "action items." Translation? She wants to chat later about your to-do list. Why can't she just use plain English?

Because corporate gobbledygook is still on the rise, communications experts say--Dilbert cartoon parodies notwithstanding. A study from British employment agency Office Angels finds 20% of workers believe it necessary to use jargon to keep up, even if they don't know the words' meanings. In the U.S., it's more like 60%, says Steve Crescenzo, whose Chicago-based consultancy helps corporate clients improve internal communication. "Nobody wants to say these words are empty and meaningless and vague and vacuous," says Crescenzo. "So they all pretend they know. And they all continue to use them." Plus, people often use jargon to try to signal superiority, says New York University professor Irv Schenkler: "You have people in finance who can't talk to people in operations who can't talk to people in IT."

But even if companies do eliminate "synergy" from their lexicons, count on more words springing up to take its place.

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