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Song of the Salaryman

The global financial crisis has given Japan's salarymen—its famously loyal-for-life white-collar workers—plenty to worry about. With exports plummeting, as the yen rises, and a 12% drop in gross domestic product for fourth-quarter 2008, companies have closed plants, cut hours, laid off workers, and slashed pay. And nowhere has the corporate warriors' angst been more obvious than in this year's salariiman senryu contest—sponsored, as usual, by Dai-Ichi Mutual Life Insurance.

A senryu resembles a haiku, but usually involves a play on words that adds a dark or comic tone. In previous years, the poems, submitted under pen names, have touched on the economy, but also on hit songs, a clueless boss, and Nintendo's (NTDOY) Brain Age game. This year, the overwhelming theme in the top 100 senryu—picked by Dai-Ichi from more than 20,000 entries and printed in newspapers so readers can choose a winner—is economic loss.

And loss of purpose. As companies cut back, it's tougher for salarymen to feel useful by lingering at the office. Panasonic (PC) has warned managers that underlings are not to stay past 5:30 p.m. FujiXerox has been turning off the lights at its Tokyo headquarters at 6 p.m.

Next year's competition, however, may reflect something else: Some salarymen are starting to embrace a life without late-night office work or client entertaining. "I used to get home no earlier than 10:30 or 11 p.m," says Masaaki Bando, a 52-year-old manager at FujiXerox who didn't enter the senryu contest. Now, he says, "I'm home by 7:30 p.m." He takes baths with his kids, helps with the housework—and is finally getting a chance to improve his English by listening to Barack Obama's Presidential campaign speeches.

It has been a while

Again we queue and

hunt for jobs

A class reunion


The yen is surging

I long for its benefits

But have no fortune


As work disappears

My vacation days


There's no home

for me


A Boon from the Housing Bust

As newspapers across the country fold, declare bankruptcy, or sell at fire-sale prices, one part of the industry is doing well: community and legal papers that print home foreclosure notices. Most states require such notices to be published, with the fee for doing so paid by those taking over the property. The announcements tend to show up in small papers, which charge less for classifieds than big dailies do.

Minneapolis-based Dolan Media (DM), which owns 58 papers, including the Arizona Capitol Times and Minnesota's Finance and Commerce, earned $14 million last year on sales of $189 million—in part because of a 25% rise in such notices. Another beneficiary: billionaire Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's partner in Berkshire Hathaway (BRK), who has a controlling interest in the Los Angeles-based Daily Journal Corp. (DJCO) Thanks largely to a 50% jump in public notices in 2008, profits at the company's 12 papers, including Sacramento's The Daily Recorder, rose 33%, to $7.1 million, on sales of $40 million. "It's kind of like being an undertaker in a plague year," Munger says. "I can't tell you how much I'd rather see this crisis go away."

A Doll Bailout? Da

First it was wobbly banks. Now it's wobbly dolls. Russia's latest candidate for a government bailout: its matryoshka dolls, the chubby, nesting figures that have been scooped up by generations of souvenir hunters since first appearing in 1890. (Matryoshka is the diminutive of an old Russian female name.)

Slumping exports and sales to tourists have hurt the makers of the matryoshki and other Russian handicrafts. The Moscow Times reports that the country's largest maker of the handpainted dolls—the Khokhloma Painting Plant in the Nizhny Novgorod region—recently halved salaries after a 40% revenue slump. All told, some 240 Russian enterprises, employing 30,000 people, are involved in making the dolls and other traditional pieces.

On Mar. 13 the government announced it will come to the rescue of the industry—by ordering more than $28 million worth of matryoshka dolls, lacquer boxes, and wooden dishes and spoons. The Kremlin and its ministries plan to use them as official state gifts. With matryoshki selling for about $15 a set, it could be years before enough visiting dignitaries pass through to take all those dolls home.

How a Doodle Serves Your Noodle

Often viewed as a sign of a wandering mind, doodling may actually help us absorb information. In a study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Jackie Andrade at Britain's University of Plymouth played a rambling voice-mail message to 40 people, half of whom were given shapes to fill in as they listened. The result: The doodlers recalled 29% more of the message than those who just listened. Andrade says idle scribbling uses just enough cognitive bandwidth to prevent daydreaming, so it may help us stay focused. One boardroom doodler, retiring GM (GM) Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz, says he isn't surprised by the finding. "I can look at old sketches done in meetings 40 years ago," he says, "and experience sudden recall of the room, the table, the voices."

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