Sunday, July 30, 2006

Getting Rich on line

A new business model emerged as Google adsense becomes popular to website owners.
Take this experience of Andrew Leyden as reported in the Washington Post.
He's making $ 30,000 to $ 40,000 a year. Holy ....

Here is an excerpt of the news:

For hundreds of thousands of people, the dream of making an Internet fortune works like this: Earn pennies at a time in exchange for allowing Google Inc. or Yahoo Inc. to place advertisements on a personal or small-business Web page.

Take Andrew Leyden, former House Commerce Committee counsel and founder of a dot-com venture that failed, who started, a search engine for podcasts. As the site's popularity rose from a hundred hits a month in 2004 to nearly a million now, Leyden started making the equivalent of an entry-level government worker's salary -- $30,000 to $40,000 a year -- simply because people clicked on ads. That allowed him to work at home in Chesapeake Beach, Md., trying to make more money by attracting still more traffic to his site.

Read the entire news here.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Home Prices Drop in the DC Region

Is this the start of the bubble?

Washingon Post reports:

In what may be the most telling sign yet that the real estate market here has shifted downward, median prices of homes in several parts of the Washington area have declined when compared with the same time last year.

In Loudoun County, for example, the median price of homes sold dropped 1.2 percent last month, compared with June 2005, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the area's multiple listing service. In Fairfax County, prices fell by half a percent in May and a tenth of a percent in June. And in the District, the decrease was 0.8 percent in March and 1.2 percent in May, compared with the same months last year, even though prices in the District in June were higher than the year before. The median is the point at which half of the houses cost less and the rest more.

The declines are small, and certainly not universal. Prices continue to rise in some areas, most notably Prince George's County, where houses are still relatively inexpensive. But the drops are significant because they mark the first time in half a decade that home prices have fallen in a 12-month span, illustrating just how much the real estate landscape has changed after five years of double-digit growth in home prices.

The areas with declines have some things in common: swelling numbers of houses for sale, slowing sales and lots of new houses on the market. In Loudoun, where developers have put up acres of new subdivisions in recent years, nearly 5,000 properties are for sale via the multiple listing service, which includes mostly resale homes. That compares with 1,800 a year ago. Homes there now take an average of 75 days to sell, compared with 21 days a year ago. In the District and Fairfax County, the number of unsold homes and time on the market has also increased, boosted by a large supply of condominiums.

Read the entire story here.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Business and Redemption

I am not talking about coupon redemption. Not even soul's redemption. This is the redemption of the tarnished image of Wal-Mart after issues about employment of non-documented aliens had put this big retail store chains in the limelight.

Here is the excerpt of the news:

A Bid to Get Religion? Wal-Mart Hires Ex-Nun
Firm Seeks to Address Critical Areas

Harsh public criticism can make any company search for redemption. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is hoping a former nun will help bring salvation.

The world's largest retailer has hired Harriet Hentges, a former nun and foreign conflict mediator, to help steer the company's policies on the environment, health care and labor relations -- three areas where Wal-Mart's public image has suffered.

Hentges, 65, this week assumed the newly created position of senior director of stakeholder engagement. She will work with nonprofit organizations, academic groups and government agencies to "lead the company's sustainability efforts," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark said.

What the union says about the hiring.

Wal-Mart "must walk away from is history of inaction and publicity stunts," he said. "It must become a better company that pays a living wage, provides affordable health care and reflects the best of American values."

What the other people in the religious sector say about Wal-Mart latest corporate strategy?

Plenty of companies reach out to people of faith for guidance, said Patricia Wolf, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Wal-Mart, however, may be the first to hire someone with Hentges's background to a position of such stature, she said.


Monday, July 17, 2006


As a Cerified Public Accountant, I feel bad when a big company trusted by many of its clients would go down the drain because of manipulation of its books. Do these people
understand that the partner of accounting is auditing whereby anything that is done can always be checked for its accuracy and appropriateness.

Exodus Continues at Troubled Fannie Mae
Chief Information Officer, Deputy General Counsel Are Among the Executives Planning to Leave

enior executives at Fannie Mae are heading for the exits two years into a $10.6 billion accounting scandal that has no end in sight.

Last week, the company announced that its chief information officer, Julie St. John, would step down at the end of the year. Deputy general counsel Renie Y. Grohl, a 12-year veteran of Fannie Mae, is leaving in September. Barry Zigas, who was senior vice president for corporate and regulatory housing goals and joined Fannie Mae in 1993, left last month.

The recent departures are part of a steady outflow of top management at the company since federal regulators first determined two years ago that the company botched its accounting.

Since the end of 2004, 44 of the top 55 executive positions at Fannie Mae have changed hands and are now occupied either by people from outside the company or by a handful of insiders who have switched jobs, spokesman Brian Faith said.

Some executives were forced out or left as part of housecleaning efforts in the aftermath of the scandal. But many, such as former senior vice president for investor relations Jayne Shontell and former senior vice president for portfolio transactions Andrew McCormick, have quit.

At least 29 senior executives, including 15 who have left Fannie Mae, are under scrutiny for their possible roles in the accounting manipulation. Some may be forced to return bonus payments based on the faulty bookkeeping, under an agreement Fannie Mae signed with federal regulators in May.

In addition to paying $400 million to settle charges of earnings manipulation with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, Fannie Mae also agreed to determine whether any of the current and former executives named in OFHEO's report on the accounting scandal should be punished or fired retroactively and forced to return money. OFHEO set a deadline of around October for the company to complete its review.

Neither Fannie Mae nor OFHEO officials would comment on whether any of the recent departures were related to the personnel review. St. John, Grohl and Zigas were not singled out in OFHEO's report or by a second inquiry led by former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) at the request of the board of directors.

The Rudman report largely blamed former chief financial officer J. Timothy Howard and former controller Leanne G. Spencer for the accounting mistakes -- allegations that both Howard and Spencer deny -- and faulted former chief executive Franklin D. Raines for fostering a culture that was obsessed with hitting earnings targets and took a fast-and-loose attitude toward accounting rules. Raines denies those charges.

St. John, in a written statement, said she was leaving because it was time for her to consider other opportunities. She will turn 55 in December, making her eligible for early retirement.

Grohl, 56, said in a telephone interview that she had long been planning to take early retirement and delayed her departure by a year out of "loyalty to the company."

Zigas did not return messages left at his home.

The committee set up by the board of directors to lead the personnel review has cleared chief executive Daniel H. Mudd and allowed him to keep his job. But it is still looking at whether to force him to repay bonus payments.

OFHEO found that Mudd attended a 2003 meeting at which earnings management appeared to have been discussed and that he didn't sufficiently look into an employee's complaints about the company's bookkeeping.


Friday, July 14, 2006


It was in the movie BONE COLLECTOR starring Denzel Washington as the quadreplegic detective solving crime when I saw how a paralyzed man could make himself useful with the use of modern gadgets using his brain power. The other one was a movie which title I could not recall. It starred Christopher Reeve,a quadreplegic in real life when he was still alive. I could not believe that controlling the computer by thoughts is now a reality. Thanks to technology.

Paralyzed Man Uses Thoughts to Move a Cursor

Excerpt of the news:

A paralyzed man with a small sensor implanted in his brain was able to control a computer, a television set and a robot using only his thoughts, scientists reported yesterday.Those results offer hope that in the future, people with spinal cord injuries, Lou Gehrig’s disease or other conditions that impair movement may be able to communicate or better control their world.

In a variety of experiments, the first person to receive the implant, Matthew Nagle, moved a cursor, opened e-mail, played a simple video game called Pong and drew a crude circle on the screen. He could change the channel or volume on a television set, move a robot arm somewhat, and open and close a prosthetic hand.
Although his cursor control was sometimes wobbly, the basic movements were not hard to learn.

Mr. Nagle, a former high school football star in Weymouth, Mass., was paralyzed below the shoulders after being stabbed in the neck during a melee at a beach in July 2001. He said he had not been involved in starting the brawl and did not even know what had sparked it. The man who stabbed him is now serving 10 years in prison, he said.

The sensor measures 4 millimeters by 4 millimeters — less than a fifth of an inch long and wide — and contains 100 tiny electrodes. The device was implanted in the area of Mr. Nagle's motor cortex responsible for arm movement and was connected to a pedestal that protruded from the top of his skull.
When the device was to be used, technicians plugged a cable connected to a computer into the pedestal. So Mr. Nagle was directly wired to a computer, somewhat like a character in the
Mr. Nagle would then imagine moving his arm to hit various targets. The implanted sensor eavesdropped on the electrical signals emitted by neurons in his motor cortex as they controlled the imaginary arm movement.
Obstacles must be overcome, though, before brain implants become practical. For one thing, the electrodes’ ability to detect brain signals begins to deteriorate after several months, for reasons not fully understood. In addition, the implant would ideally transmit signals wirelessly out of the brain, doing away with the permanent hole in the head and the accompanying risk of infection. Further, the testing involving Mr. Nagle required recalibration of the system each day, a task that took technicians about half an hour.
Still, scientists said the study was particularly important because it showed that the neurons in Mr. Nagle's motor cortex were still active years after they had last had a role to play in moving his arms.

The implant system, known as the BrainGate, is being developed by Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems Inc. of Foxborough, Mass. The company is now testing the system in three other people, who remain anonymous: one with a spinal cord injury, one with Lou Gehrig's disease and one who had a brain stem stroke.
Timothy R. Surgenor, president and chief executive, said Cyberkinetics hoped to have an implant approved for marketing as early as 2008 or 2009. Dr. Donoghue, the chief developer, is co-founder and chief scientist of Cyberkinetics. Some of the paper’s other authors work at the company, while still others are from academic or medical institutions including Massachusetts General Hospital.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Male Scientist Writes of Life as Female Scientist

This is a very interesting news for women like me. It answers the questions why almost all Nobel Prize winners are men. Read this news from Washington Post.

Male Scientist Writes of Life as Female Scientist
Biologist Who Underwent Sex Change Describes Biases Against Women

Neurobiologist Ben Barres has a unique perspective on former Harvard president Lawrence Summers's assertion that innate differences between the sexes might explain why many fewer women than men reach the highest echelons of science.

That's because Barres used to be a woman himself.

In a highly unusual critique published yesterday, the Stanford University biologist -- who used to be Barbara -- said his experience as both a man and a woman had given him an intensely personal insight into the biases that make it harder for women to succeed in science.

After he underwent a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."

And as a female undergraduate at MIT, Barres once solved a difficult math problem that stumped many male classmates, only to be told by a professor: "Your boyfriend must have solved it for you."

"By far," Barres wrote, "the main difference I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect" than when he was a woman. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."

Barres said the switch had given him access to conversations that would have excluded him previously: "I had a conversation with a male surgeon and he told me he had never met a woman surgeon who was as good as a man."

Barres's salvo, bolstered with scientific studies, marks a dramatic twist in a controversy that began with Summers's suggestion last year that "intrinsic aptitude" may explain why there are relatively few tenured female scientists at Harvard. After a lengthy feud with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Summers resigned earlier this year.

The episode triggered a fierce fight between those who say talk of intrinsic differences reflects sexism that has held women back and those who argue that political correctness is keeping scientists from frankly discussing the issue.

While there are men and women on both sides of the argument, the debate has exposed fissures along gender lines, which is what makes Barres so unusual. Barres said he has realized from personal experience that many men are unconscious of the privileges that come with being male, which leaves them unable to countenance talk of glass ceilings and discrimination.

Barres's commentary was published yesterday in the journal Nature. The scientist has also recently taken his argument to the highest reaches of American science, crusading to make access to prestigious awards more equitable.

In an interview, Nancy Andreasen, a well-known psychiatrist at the University of Iowa, agreed with Barres. She said it took her a long time to convince her husband that he got more respect when he approached an airline ticket counter than she did. When she stopped sending out research articles under her full name and used the initials N.C. Andreasen instead, she said, the acceptance rate of her publications soared.

Andreasen, one of the comparatively few women who have won the National Medal of Science, said she is still regularly reminded she is female. "Often, I will be standing in a group of men, and another person will come up and say hello to all the men and just will not see me, because in a professional setting, men are not programmed to see women," she said. "Finally, one of the men will say, 'I guess you haven't met Nancy Andreasen,' and then the person will turn bright red and say, 'Oh Nancy, nice to see you!' "

Summers did not respond to a request for an interview. But two scientists Barres lambasted along with Summers said the Stanford neurobiologist had misrepresented their views and unfairly tarred those who disagree with crude assertions of racism and sexism. Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and Peter Lawrence, a biologist at Britain's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, said convincing data show there are differences between men and women in a host of mental abilities.

While bias could be a factor in why there were fewer women at the pinnacles of science, both argued that this was not a primary factor.

Pinker, who said he is a feminist, said experiments have shown, on average, that women are better than men at mathematical calculation and verbal fluency, and that men are better at spatial visualization and mathematical reasoning. It is hardly surprising, he said, that in his own field of language development, the number of women outstrips men, while in mechanical engineering, there are far more men.

"Is it essential to women's progress that women be indistinguishable from men?" he asked. "It confuses the issue of fairness with sameness. Let's say the data shows sex differences. Does it become okay to discriminate against women? The moral issue of treating individuals fairly should be kept separate from the empirical issues."

Lawrence said it is a "utopian" idea that "one fine day, there will be an equal number of men and women in all jobs, including those in scientific research."

He said a range of cognitive differences could partly account for stark disparities, such as at his own institute, which has 56 male and six female scientists. But even as he played down the role of sexism, Lawrence said the "rat race" in science is skewed in favor of pushy, aggressive people -- most of whom, he said, happen to be men.

"We should try and look for the qualities we actually need," he said. "I believe if we did, that we would choose more women and more gentle men. It is gentle people of all sorts who are discriminated against in our struggle to survive."

Barres and Elizabeth Spelke, a Harvard psychologist who has publicly debated Pinker on the issue, say they have little trouble with the idea that there are differences between the sexes, although some differences, especially among children, involve biases among adults in interpreting the same behavior in boys and girls.

And both argue it is difficult to tease apart nature from nurture. "Does anyone doubt if you study harder you will do better on a test?" Barres asked. "The mere existence of an IQ difference does not say it is innate. . . . Why do Asian girls do better on math tests than American boys? No one thinks they are innately better."

In her debate with Pinker last year, Spelke said arguments about innate differences as explanations for disparities become absurd if applied to previous eras. "You won't see a Chinese face or an Indian face in 19th-century science," she said. "It would have been tempting to apply this same pattern of statistical reasoning and say, there must be something about European genes that give rise to greater mathematical talent than Asian genes."

"I think we want to step back and ask, why is it that almost all Nobel Prize winners are men today?" she concluded. "The answer to that question may be the same reason why all the great scientists in Florence were Christian."


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Semiconductor Trade Show in San Francisco

When I was taking up my MBA, my classmate and I prepared a business plan for a
semi-conductor as an exchange deal for a course requirement and their need to expand
in terms of additional equipment and manpower. So I immersed myself in studying the market of integrated microchips, knowing the demand and supply, the pricing, the suppliers and competitors in Asia.

They have thinnest margin for error
For chipmakers, improving by a hair would be gigantic

Smaller, faster and above all cheaper -- those words will rule San Francisco's Moscone Center this week as the toolmakers of the semiconductor industry gather to show off the industrial wizardry to create the chips of the future.

The annual Semicon West trade show is expected to draw about 1,300 companies and 35,000 people to show off the latest tools and techniques for turning thin slices of silicon into electronic brains inside everything from computers to cell phones.

Making chips is a capital-intensive business. Worldwide sales of semiconductors totaled $227 billion in 2005. The toolmakers whose wares will be on display this week booked sales of $32.9 billion last year.

That works out to roughly 14 cents spent on equipment for every dollar's worth of chips sold. Before the dot-com crash, spending on equipment was higher, ranging from 17 to 20 percent of semiconductor sales, according to Dan Tracy, research director for Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International, the trade association behind the show.

In recent years, however, caution in the aftermath of the crash, coupled with a change in the nature of the electronics marketplace, have lowered the tool-to-chip spending ratio.

Many semiconductors now end up in cars, cameras and music players, rather than in computers. About 46 percent of chips went into computers in 2005, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association, which represents the chipmakers who buy equipment from the tool vendors meeting in San Francisco. The next-biggest chunk, 20.9 percent, went into communications equipment, followed by 17.2 percent for consumer electronics. Automobiles and industrial equipment each consumed roughly 8 percent of the chip market.

This trend has increased the pressure to cap costs throughout the production chain from toolmakers to chipmakers to finished-goods makers.

"A lot of the (electronics) industry is moving toward the consumer and price becomes essential when you're dealing with consumer rather than corporate buyers,'' said Doug Andrey of the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Just as chips are the key component in electronic devices, transistors are the bedrock of each semiconductor. Transistors are switches that turn electricity on or off. When the transistor was invented nearly 60 years ago at Bell Telephone Laboratories, it was about the size of an old-fashioned, metal-case cigarette lighter.

Today, a 4-GB iPod Nano stores music on a flash memory chip that incorporates 32 billion transistors, according to Mark Pinto, chief technical officer at Applied Materials Inc., one of the world's leading semiconductor toolmakers.

"A lot of the things consumers want today are small and mobile,'' said Pinto, articulating the challenge of making tools to mass produce tiny objects that must be flawless and cheap: "Can you make a billion of them and can you sell the (electronic) product for $10?"

On a recent tour of the Applied Materials campus in Santa Clara, company officials showed off the dust-free clean rooms, where technicians in white suits and booties design and test the machines that stamp out chips. Given the number of transistors that must fit into so little space, even minute amounts of airborne dust could foul the process. According to Applied, the air inside clean rooms is about 2 million times more dust-free than what we breathe at home.

About 500 to 700 steps are required make a chip, said Applied spokesman Dave Miller. The process begins with a circular wafer of silicon about the thickness of a credit card. On this silicon base, a variety of techniques -- some borrowed from printing and others from baking -- build up a series of layers that constitute the chip's electronic features.

The working parts of a chip are so small as to be scarcely imaginable. A state-of-the-art chip incorporates millions of transistors, each 65 nanometers wide. How small is that? Well, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick -- which means that 1,230 or so transistors could sit side-by-side in a hair's width.

The ever-shrinking size of these switches was first observed by Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, when he predicted that the number of transistors per chip would double roughly every 18 months. During the past four decades tool vendors and chipmakers have continued this doubling feat, making what is now called "Moore's Law" an article of faith in the electronics industry.

At some point, however, Moore's Law may run afoul of the more fundamental laws of physics or chemistry as semiconductor-makers continue this incredible shrinking act.

"The transistor is supposed to be a switch, it's either on or off,'' said Applied's Pinto. "Trouble is, when it gets very, very small it's hard to make it stay off."

Of course, small is relative when it comes to chips. Not content with 65-nanometer transistors, the industry is working on ways to slim these electronic gates to 45 nanometers -- which would allow nearly 1,800 of them to fit in a hair -- all to keep producing the ever-cheaper and more-powerful gadgets to which modern consumers have become accustomed.

"The lever to drive down the cost per transistor is to make it smaller,'' Pinto said.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


This news from San Francisco Chronicle is very important to me since I live in the
BAY AREA. Let me reproduce the whole news article so I will have a full record why the Golden Gate's retofitting projects did not make it safe for earthquake.

Ricardo Ramirez seemed an unlikely success story: At 57, the former Marine Corps judo instructor had spent more than 20 years as a paving contractor and had little to show for it but a long string of lawsuits, business failures and bankruptcies.

Then, in 1998, the struggling businessman appeared to hit upon a way to make it in a new venture. Taking advantage of city and state programs designed to help minority-owned businesses, Ramirez started turning out low-priced, locally produced concrete for projects that included earthquake retrofit work on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. By 2003, his Pacific Cement venture was supplying a third of the concrete used in San Francisco's public works projects.

Prosecutors now believe it was an empire of sand.

Ramirez built Pacific Cement on a combination of moxie, deceit and greed, prosecutors say, only to have it crumble. Left behind, they say, was a costly and potentially dangerous legacy: tons of substandard concrete built into vital public structures.

Ramirez, now 65, faces charges of grand theft and fraud for allegedly passing off inferior recycled concrete -- a cheaper material that is more prone to wear, cracks and water penetration -- as meeting higher durability standards for the Golden Gate Bridge and a Burlingame wastewater treatment plant. He has pleaded not guilty.

Continued from Page A1: Ramirez was a well-connected political player who sometimes broke the rules. He had given nearly $100,000 to state and local politicians since 1995, and twice had been fined for making illegal contributions. Some of his work for San Francisco had been criticized by city officials for its poor quality. Still, he was able to secure work on major state and city projects.

His fall finally came when former truck drivers for Ramirez told prosecutors that they delivered load after load of flawed product -- recycled concrete made from ground-up construction debris, rather than hard rock -- not just to the Golden Gate Bridge and to Burlingame, but also to the retrofit of the Bay Bridge's western approach, the Muni's Third Street light-rail line and a new parking garage in Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco officials say Pacific Cement's concrete failed a "disproportionate'' number of strength tests in 2004 and 2005 as the company began to run into financial problems.

Prosecutors say Ramirez ignored warnings from his own staff against using recycled concrete. "I just said it was improper, immoral and wrong,'' said Ramirez's former sales manager, Wayne Breider. "He said I didn't know what I was talking about.''

Ramirez's attorneys and supporters say that the charges are overblown and that any flaws in the concrete were inadvertent, the result of a company expansion that proved to be too rapid. They say even prosecutors admit that nearly all the concrete Ramirez sold to public agencies passed strength tests when it was poured, and that the small amount that failed was nevertheless structurally sound.

"He was not a malicious guy. He didn't go into this business thinking he was going to rip people off,'' said San Francisco Supervisor Fiona Ma, who gave back $5,500 that Ramirez contributed in 2004 to her state Assembly bid after the news broke of the fraud allegations in May.

"He's a hard-working guy, just trying to survive,'' Ma said. "He takes care of his grandkids. He doesn't have an easy life.''
Some former workers, however, say life wasn't all bad for Ramirez. They say he liked to wear $500 cowboy boots, drove a $100,000 Mercedes-Benz and threw parties at restaurants, complete with mariachi bands, for friends he amassed over three decades as a contractor.

"He drove around looking like a big shot," said Breider, who worked five years at Pacific Cement before he was laid off in 2005. "He liked being thought of as a big shot.''

Ramirez's attorney, Dek Ketchum, said his client was "a self-made guy.''

He was also generous, Ketchum said, someone who sponsored scholarships for local high school students and never refused to help an employee in a pinch.

One of his advocates was former San Francisco Supervisor Jim Gonzalez, who did some work for Ramirez as a lobbyist in the 1990s.

"I knew him as a good, active Latino person, a self-made man,'' Gonzalez said. "He was a very strong family man -- he raised two grandchildren. I always considered him a really salt- of-the-earth guy.''

His attorney said Ramirez served stateside during the Vietnam War as a drill instructor for the Marine Corps. His career as a contractor began in 1975, when he and a half brother, Reynaldo Nunez, started a construction equipment rental business and ran it out of Ramirez's home on a 12-acre ranch in Gilroy. On his resume, Ramirez boasted that the business had started with equipment worth $39,000 and he "turned it around 30 times,'' giving him a net worth of $1.2 million in 1990.

Over the next two decades, Ramirez started at least four more businesses, including an asphalt company that he said did $5 million in work for the city of San Francisco in the 1980s. At least two of his firms were certified by the state and city as disadvantaged and minority-owned businesses. That gave Ramirez, the son of a Mexican immigrant, a leg up on bigger, white-owned companies in winning contracts for such public works projects as paving and sewer replacement.

Still, by the late 1990s several of his companies either had folded or were in bankruptcy protection. In one 1998 bankruptcy filing, Ramirez said he had $4.6 million in paving and other contracts in 1996, mostly from the city, but that business had dwindled to just $75,000 two years later.

His attorney acknowledged that Ramirez had an up-and-down financial history, but said that bankruptcies were common in that line of work. "Construction is a tough, brutal business,'' Ketchum said.
Financial issues, however, were not Ramirez's only problem.

In 1985, on a one-mile paving job on San Francisco's Bay Street from Embarcadero to Fillmore Street, Ramirez's West Bay Contractors, Engineers Inc. was faulted by city officials for defective work in at least eight locations, records show. The blacktop started to break apart soon after the project was done, and Ramirez was ordered to repave it at his expense. Ramirez complained that city inspectors were harassing him.

In 1997, in a Ramirez project to replace sewers along Jackson Street, the city refused to pay his company nearly $40,000 because of poor-quality or unfinished work, records show. Ramirez complained again of harassment.

Public Works Department construction manager Larry Wong later said Ramirez had suffered big losses on the Jackson Street project "due to third-party claims from illegal debris dumping, flooded basements, electrical outage to (an) apartment house and restaurant business, and runaway equipment damaging (a) concrete truck.''

Wong said Ramirez and West Bay had been plagued by "mismanagement, lack of proper resources, ongoing disputes with his business partner, continued bickering with general contractor and poor quality of concrete products.''

Ramirez's attorney said there was simply a personality clash between Wong and Ramirez. The quality-control problems such as those Ramirez suffered are common for contractors and, given all the work Ramirez did over the years, were not significant, Ketchum said.

"When you look at that volume of work, and you look at the number of jobs he was asked to do over, it's minuscule,'' Ketchum said. "I would put that record up against any record in the industry.''
Ramirez also had a record of making political donations to people who could help him -- though he didn't always do so legally.

An investigation by state regulators in 1997 found that Ramirez illegally contributed $2,000 to Willie Brown during the 1995 San Francisco mayoral campaign. The state Fair Political Practices Commission concluded that Ramirez had funneled money to the Brown effort by using employees and family members to get around the $500 individual limit that the city imposed.

Ramirez was ultimately fined $6,000 in the civil action by regulators and was separately ordered to perform 25 hours of community service to resolve a criminal case filed by the San Francisco district attorney's office.

Several years later, as he was branching out into work on state road projects, Ramirez donated $70,000 to Cruz Bustamante and independent expenditure committees headed by the lieutenant governor. He also gave $12,000 to groups tied to John Burton, the San Francisco Democrat who was president pro tem of the state Senate.

"He was friends with John Burton, Willie Brown, Cruz Bustamante, all the traditional folks," Supervisor Ma said.

The contributions to Bustamante and Burton got him in trouble again with state regulators, who found last year that he had failed to report most of his donations in a timely manner -- in some cases waiting three years after the fact. He was fined $1,600.

Brown says he doesn't remember Ramirez. A spokesman for Bustamante said the lieutenant governor had no comment.

Burton said Ramirez impressed him as hardworking. "It seemed like he was a little guy being pushed around by big guys,'' he said. "Like a little guy struggling to stay afloat.''
In 1998, with his latest paving and engineering business in bankruptcy protection, Ramirez hit on the idea of starting a concrete plant that he would call Pacific Cement.

He approached the Port of San Francisco about leasing a site on Pier 80, on the southeastern waterfront near the end of Cesar Chavez Street. Ramirez advertised himself in his lease proposal as a "skilled, accomplished and experienced professional in such areas as concrete, paving, excavating and building.''

He won approval, in part, because of his contacts with longtime Brown friend Charlie Walker.

Walker, a trucking contractor and self-styled "mayor of Hunters Point," went to prison in the 1980s for bilking the city's minority contracting program. Brown was his lawyer at the time, however, and when the former Assembly speaker took over at City Hall, doors opened for Walker.

When San Francisco International Airport built a new international terminal, Walker obtained a share of more than $800,000 worth of city trucking subcontracts.

In 1999, Walker testified at Port Commission hearings on behalf of Ramirez's lease bid. Walker said that he considered Ramirez a business partner and that he had invested in concrete trucks on his behalf.

Ketchum confirmed that Walker had been a business partner but said their arrangement had fallen through.

Mike Hardeman, a port commissioner who voted with the board to approve the Pier 80 deal, said he had been impressed by Ramirez's proposal. Ramirez said he would provide about 50,000 cubic yards a year of quality concrete for city projects at cut-rate prices. He promised 30 new jobs and predicted $2 million to $3 million in sales within a year.

Hardeman said commissioners had relied on port staff to do background checks on Ramirez and review his proposal. Nothing alarming turned up, he said.

"It seemed like a real reasonable deal. Everybody was happy,'' Hardeman said. "Charlie (Walker) spoke on his behalf, as did a lot of members of the public. This was a big win-win situation for everybody.''

Among the winners was Walker -- Ramirez hired his daughter Crystal Sims as a driver for the plant.

The Port Commission formally approved the deal that secured the lease for a little over $7,000 a month, and Ramirez began operations in July 1999.

But at first, business was slow. Ramirez didn't know much about concrete, and the relatives he brought in to work at the office didn't either.

"Let me put it this way," said Breider, a concrete-industry veteran who was hired as a salesman but quickly filled the expertise void in early 2000. "It used to be when you went to the prom, you dressed in a suit, with a handkerchief in the top left pocket and one in the back pocket. One is for blow, and one is for show. He's the show.''
Although he may have lacked knowledge, Ramirez's status as the only concrete provider certified by the city as a disadvantaged minority contractor practically ensured his success. And soon, Ramirez was swamped with orders. He started making twice the amount of concrete that he had estimated on his business plan.

His product didn't always pass muster. In 2000, city officials faulted Pacific Cement for pouring several loads of concrete at the Crocker Amazon skateboard park that did not meet specifications for the project. The city ordered Ramirez to replace the concrete at his expense.

That same year, Pacific was accused of supplying substandard material to the Golden Gate Park reservoir and pump station, a project worth $180,000 by Pacific's estimate. But the prime contractor defended Ramirez's product, saying "the city has in no way been compromised'' by receiving Pacific's concrete.

Ramirez's big break came in 2001, when the Golden Gate Bridge district awarded a contract that included a deal for his firm to provide concrete for an earthquake retrofit of the span, Breider said.

Bridge officials would later say that most of the 1,400 truckloads of concrete that Pacific supplied over the next four years met specifications. Prosecutors do not dispute that, saying most of the problems with bad cement cropped up in 2005. But at least one driver said the company was known to cut corners even earlier.

Joe Riblie, who worked part time for Pacific, recalled that he took one load of the company's concrete to the Golden Gate Bridge in 2002 and inspectors turned it away as inferior. He said he drove it back to the plant, where it was simply retagged and shipped back to the bridge.

"They didn't throw it away," Riblie said in an interview. "They just wet it up and told me to bring it back out there.'' He said the bridge then unknowingly took the same load it had rejected earlier.

Ketchum said that workers could make all kinds of accusations, but that the material provided to the bridge had been inspected and passed muster.

Prosecutors say Ramirez would soon find a way to cut corners that would get him in trouble.

In 2001, Ramirez met Tom Chasm, who ran an Oakland-based concrete recycling company, Specialty Crushing. Chasm said he had talked up the advantages of using recycled concrete as the base for sidewalks and under roadbeds.

Recycled concrete -- which is composed of ground-up concrete and other construction debris -- isn't strong enough for major, load-bearing structures, but it is perfect for more decorative work, Chasm said.

Ramirez "didn't say anything'' in response to the recycling idea, Chasm recalled.

But the idea clicked, Breider said. Ramirez soon decided that he, too, could grind up old concrete and put it in the mix.
Ramirez got the port's permission in 2003 to set up a portable crusher for concrete recycling at his Pier 80 plant. He told officials he needed it to break up old material so he could use it for a concrete pad to be poured for a larger plant on nearby Pier 94, where the port had given him approval to expand. He later installed two larger machines without port permission, officials say.

Ramirez's business with the city of San Francisco was growing quickly. Over three years, Pacific won contracts for the city's Youth Guidance Center, the Muni's Third Street light-rail project and the earthquake retrofit of Summit Reservoir near Twin Peaks.

His business was going so well that in 2003, state officials said he had exceeded the $750,000 net-worth limit for eligibility for disadvantaged contractor status. Ramirez appealed the ruling, saying he had made mistakes in his application, and ultimately Caltrans let him keep his disadvantaged status.

By early 2004, Breider started to hear from drivers that Pacific was using recycled concrete in projects that shouldn't incorporate it, he told prosecutors.

He saw piles of old concrete and debris at the plant at Pier 80 and asked whether the recycled material was being used in major projects. Ramirez at first denied it, according to an affidavit that prosecutors filed in court in May.

Breider said in an interview that he had warned Ramirez that recycled concrete did not meet specifications for structural projects. Despite Breider's objections, prosecutors say, Ramirez went forward with grinding up chunks of old buildings, sometimes rebar and all, and throwing it into the mix. Within months, the use of recycled concrete at Pacific Cement was routine, prosecutors say.

At this point, the orders were rolling in not only from city projects, but from Caltrans as well. Ramirez provided concrete to the rebuild of the Central Freeway and poured roughly 2,700 cubic yards -- enough to cover a football field nearly 20 inches deep -- in December 2004 and January 2005, Caltrans officials say.

He also won bids for work on the Fourth Street off-ramp of Interstate 80. Most of that concrete, roughly 2,900 cubic yards, was poured from October 2004 to May 2005, Caltrans officials say. And he got deals to provide concrete for the western approach retrofit of the Bay Bridge -- 27,300 cubic yards, enough to cover a football field 161/2 feet deep -- and for the new eastern span.

A former dispatcher for Pacific who doubled as a maintenance supervisor, Jeff Kollmann, told investigators that Ramirez had ordered him in May 2004 to use recycled concrete on all Pacific's jobs because the company's supplier of the rock normally used in concrete no longer would fill orders on credit. Recycled concrete cost $2.50 a ton to make, compared with $20 a ton to buy rock, Kollmann said.

Kollmann said he made exceptions when the concrete ordered had to withstand heavy loads or when it was destined for customers who had already complained about poor quality. However, "Ramirez would often override their decisions,'' Kollmann told prosecutors, according to the affidavit in support of the case. "This overriding mandate by Ramirez would happen even for jobs where Ramirez had previously told them not to use recycled concrete aggregate for fear of getting caught or because of complaints.''

One project that drew repeated complaints was a Burlingame sewage treatment plant, where Pacific supplied concrete in 2004.

In August 2004, a load of concrete for the new plant's control house repeatedly jammed in a pumping apparatus, which became clogged with rebar and large chunks of recycled material, Robert San Felipe, a driver that day for Pacific, said in an interview.

After several attempts at cleaning the line, San Felipe said, the pump operator tried to flush it out. The hose jerked and smashed into the face of Kenneth Mercado, a worker manning the hose, according to Mercado's lawyer, Troy Otus.

Mercado was badly injured in one eye, limiting his vision, and suffered a broken nose, Otus said.

Otus claimed in a lawsuit filed on Mercado's behalf that Pacific had been negligent for jamming the hose with recycled concrete consisting of "all types of debris, including, but not limited to rebar, glass and painted cement.''

Pacific denied the allegation and blamed the incident on the pump operator. The suit was recently settled for more than $100,000, paid by Pacific and the pump operator's insurance company, Otus said.

Pacific also told sewage plant officials that it had put construction debris in the concrete mix by mistake and that no recycled concrete had been used intentionally. According to Otus, Pacific officials said a worker had been fired over the mistake.

By December 2004, after several letters and a threatened work cutoff, the quality of the concrete being poured at the Burlingame plant improved, according to prosecutors.

Syed Murturza of Burlingame's Public Works Department said all the Pacific Cement concrete that eventually went into the structures at the sewage treatment plant met strength requirements. "Our consultant told us it is not an issue to worry about,'' he said.
Just where else Pacific's recycled concrete was poured is unclear.

In interviews with The Chronicle and statements to prosecutors, drivers said they had found rebar, wood, brick and other debris in many loads they shipped in 2004 and 2005. One driver, who was not named in a criminal affidavit, told prosecutors that Pacific Cement workers would "guard the operation from inspectors.''

The projects receiving Pacific Cement concrete were some of the biggest public works jobs going in the Bay Area -- the rebuilding of the freeway approach at the western end of the Bay Bridge, the extension of Muni's light-rail service to the Bayview neighborhood, and a garage in Golden Gate Park for patrons of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum.

Former driver San Felipe said that in 2004 he drove a load of recycled concrete to the Muni project that hardened so fast contractors on the site told him to take it back. The rate of hardening is critical to the ultimate strength and durability of concrete, and concrete that hardens too quickly is often rejected.

"When I pulled away, I couldn't get it out of my chute," San Felipe said. "I literally had to take a sledgehammer to get it out of my truck.''

Caltrans has confirmed that some recycled concrete is in the new western approach to the Bay Bridge and says it may have to undertake a costly procedure to try to keep water infiltration from destroying the concrete prematurely.

Golden Gate Park garage officials say they're confident no recycled concrete was used in their structure, but have conducted no tests to confirm their belief. Muni refuses to comment pending the outcome of city investigations.

Testing has not borne out drivers' suspicions on all projects involving Ramirez's company. Some drivers told prosecutors that they believed they had delivered recycled concrete to a retrofitting project at the 14 million-gallon Summit Reservoir on San Francisco's Twin Peaks, but samples have revealed no sign of substandard material.

"There is no reason to believe there is anything wrong with it,'' said Tony Irons, deputy general manager for the city's Public Utilities Commission. "All the cores taken showed the concrete was acceptable.''
After Gavin Newsom became mayor in 2004, the port began pressuring Ramirez about cleaning up a pile of concrete waste on Pier 80 that authorities say was as high as 13 feet.

Prosecutors say Ramirez put the dregs from that waste pile into making more recycled concrete.

As port officials started to crack down, Ramirez accused them in a letter to the Human Rights Commission in May 2005 of being insensitive to small business. "There seems to be a pattern of discrimination by the port against Pacific Cement,'' Ramirez said.

By mid-2005, the port moved to have Ramirez stop work at the Pier 80 site and to bar him from moving to the larger Pier 94 location.

Last July, Caltrans discovered that recycled concrete had been used on the western approach of the Bay Bridge. Tutor-Saliba, the general contractor, fired Pacific.

Prosecutors say that by then, Ramirez was also forced to let many of his workers go. Breider said he had already been moved from Pier 80 to an office after he continued to object to using recycled material.

Ramirez's attorney, Ketchum, said the city's refusal to let him move to Pier 94, together with the refusal of contractors to pay Pacific some $2 million, put Ramirez in a bind. He became "trapped'' at the Pier 80 site, unable to expand, Ketchum said.

Ramirez had invested $3 million at Pier 94 in preparation of the site and equipment. "To not get the permits, it was devastating,'' Ketchum said.
Ramirez now faces charges of breaking environmental law, as well as grand theft and fraud associated with the Golden Gate Bridge retrofit and Burlingame wastewater project. Nunez, his half brother, who oversaw the Pacific Cement plant, faces the same charges, and like Ramirez has pleaded not guilty.

At the Golden Gate Bridge, prosecutors say, tests showed that anywhere from 5 percent to 35 percent of the concrete that Pacific supplied for facades on the Fort Point arch pillars was recycled. They said the problem was most evident in concrete that was poured in mid-2005.

Tests on the Bay Bridge western approach continue.

Ketchum said the amount of disputed concrete is so small as to be insignificant. "It's a contamination problem,'' he said. "It's easy to have a contamination problem. It makes no sense to claim it's a deliberate substitution.''

Walker, who has known Ramirez for 30 years, said Pacific Cement was only doing what was needed to survive in a business climate where "white folks" had it in for Ramirez from the start.

"He was a Mexican, and the whites didn't want him in on it,'' Walker said. "He tried to cut the corners so he could make money like them, and now they say he is a big old criminal. That is what it boils down to.''

San Felipe, the former driver for the firm, said the story of Pacific Cement is one of how a "perfect" opportunity to build something lasting was squandered.

"They had this city wrapped around their finger," San Felipe said. "They could have kept this business going. It would have been able to give back to the community, as far as jobs, as far as quality product. No -- greed got in their way.''