Thursday, May 31, 2012

HEALTH - New York to Band Large Sugar-Ladened Drinks

"New York Plans to Ban Sale of Big Sizes of Sugary Drinks" by MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM, New York Times 5/30/2012


New York City plans to enact a far-reaching ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts, in the most ambitious effort yet by the Bloomberg administration to combat rising obesity.

The proposed ban would affect virtually the entire menu of popular sugary drinks found in delis, fast-food franchises and even sports arenas, from energy drinks to pre-sweetened iced teas. The sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 16 fluid ounces — about the size of a medium coffee, and smaller than a common soda bottle — would be prohibited under the first-in-the-nation plan, which could take effect as soon as next March.

The measure would not apply to diet sodas, fruit juices, dairy-based drinks like milkshakes, or alcoholic beverages; it would not extend to beverages sold in grocery or convenience stores.

“Obesity is a nationwide problem, and all over the United States, public health officials are wringing their hands saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible,’ ” Mr. Bloomberg said in an interview on Wednesday in the Governor’s Room at City Hall.

“New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something,” he said. “I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.”

COMMENT: Of course the beverage industry, whose interest is ONLY profits, are fighting this. They don't care that their sugar-ladened drinks are killing people. Like they don't make a profit on sugar-free drinks, or don't make profits on grocery sales, or just sell 10 ounce drinks.

"Bloomberg Could Buy the World a Coke, but He'd Make It a Small"
PBS Newshour 5/31/2012

EDUCATION - State of Sudent Loans

"The State Of Student Loans: More Debt, More Defaults, More Problems" PBS Newshour 5/30/2012


JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour): Now: the first of two reports on the ever-growing student loan debt problem.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman tallies up the larger toll it's taking and what it means for new graduates.

It's part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: America's age-old academic rite of spring: commencement. Degree in hand, graduates are about to begin real life and the world of work.

What's different these days is the cost of that degree, and the extent to which it's been financed with debt. Americans owe $700 billion in car loans, more than $800 billion on our credit cards. But student debt now tops $1 trillion, and it's not just weighing down the 37 million former students who owe it, but the whole economy.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

CYBERWARS - Latest Attack (Updated)

"Sophisticated Virus Infects Computers in Iran, Mideast" by FARNAZ FASSIHI And PAUL SONNE, Wall Street Journal 5/29/2012

Thousands of computers in Iran belonging to government agencies and private companies have been infected with a highly sophisticated virus, dubbed Flame, in the latest cyberstrike against the Islamic Republic, said cybersecurity experts and Iran's telecommunications ministry.

The malware was widely detected across the Middle East in Syria, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as in other parts of the world, but Iran has the largest number of infected computers, experts said.

At least three times since 2010, Iran has been targeted with sophisticated computer viruses such as Stuxnet, Duqu and Wiper. These viruses have disabled centrifuges for enriching uranium, stolen data from nuclear facilities and erased computers at the oil ministry.

The aim of Flame, said experts at Kaspersky Lab, a Russian information-technology security firm that reported the virus on Monday, was espionage, not physical damage or system interruption.

Flame, which Kaspersky said has been in operation since March 2010, was still active as of Monday morning, Alexander Gostev of Kaspersky Lab said. But after Kaspersky reported the existence of the virus publicly, Flame's operators immediately set about shutting the servers, an effort to protect the stolen data and hide the source of the virus. By Tuesday, Flame had become inactive, he said. "They are trying to hide."

The creation and operation of the Flame virus must have required a large staff, Mr. Gostev said. He estimated that at least 20 specialists would have been required to create and maintain the cyberweapon, similar to estimates of how many people invented and worked on Stuxnet.

Independent security experts said the scope of its complexity and method of operation suggests Flame was sponsored by a nation-state. It wouldn't be economically feasible, they argued, for a private corporation to run such a large-scale international cyberattack. Another reason a state is suspected is that the virus is designed to gather information but has no clear monetizing function.

Iran on Tuesday said it was a victim of cyberwarfare by Israel and the U.S., the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.

"It's in the nature of some countries and illegitimate regimes to spread viruses and harm other countries. We hope these viruses dry out," Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said on Tuesday.

Iran's computer emergency response team, known as Maher, a branch of the telecommunication ministry, said on Tuesday that it was sharing research information on the virus for the first time ever on its website. Maher posted a link to antivirus software developed by its researchers to remove Flame and offered assistance to any infected organization.

Maher also said Flame was linked to an earlier cyberattack that erased data. In March, Wiper disrupted internal Internet communications at Iran's oil ministry and stole massive amounts of data.

Flame is the biggest and most high-functioning cyberweapon ever discovered, various cybersecurity experts said. It is comprised of multiple files that are 20 times larger than Stuxnet and carry about 100 times more code than a basic virus, experts said.

The most alarming feature, experts said, is that Flame can be highly versatile, depending on instructions by its controller. The malware can steal data and social-network conversations, take snapshots of computer screens, penetrate across networks, turn on a computer's microphone to record audio and scan for Bluetooth-active devices.

The cyber espionage activities described by the researchers are cyberspying techniques employed by the U.S., Israel and a number of other countries, cybersecurity specialists said. Cybersecurity researchers said the complexity of Flame's coding and comprehensiveness of its spy capabilities could suggest it was the work of a government.

Experts said they believe Flame reports back the information to a central command-and-control network that has constantly changed location. Analysts found servers in Germany, Vietnam, Turkey, Italy and elsewhere, but haven't located the main server.

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on Iranian accusations of U.S. involvement.

Analysts suspected Israel and the U.S. to be behind Stuxnet, but the link hasn't been confirmed. U.S. officials have declined to comment on Stuxnet's origins, but former U.S. officials said they regard it as a joint effort between the U.S. and Israel. That virus infected computers in several countries but was written to only sabotage specific systems in Iran, they said.

Stuxnet's purpose differed considerably from the apparent aim of Flame. Stuxnet was designed to damage computerized control systems running nuclear centrifuges, while Flame appears to have been designed for high-end targeted espionage. Researchers haven't found evidence of any damage to systems caused by Flame.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied being involved with Stuxnet.

On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'Alon hinted that the country may be involved in Flame, saying in an interview with Army Radio, "Anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat—it's reasonable [to assume] that he will take various steps, including these, to harm it."

U.S. officials draw a distinction between cyber espionage and cyberattacks, which have a destructive or manipulative purpose and could be considered an act of war.

"We have strong beliefs that there are nations behind this malware. We assume it's related to the regimes and political situation in the Middle East," said Vitaly Kamluk, the chief malware expert for Kaspersky Lab.

Independent experts have been on the virus's trail for about a month. The International Telecommunications Union, the special agency at the United Nations that coordinates cybersecurity efforts, approached Kaspersky Lab in late April to investigate a series of incidents tied to a malware program known as Wiper. In the process of that investigation, the experts discovered Flame.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called the Internet a threat to national security and a dangerous double-edged knife that has benefits as well as risks.

Since 2009, Mr. Khamenei has instructed security forces to train and form units to battle cyberattacks to curb the influence of social-media websites.

In March, Mr. Khamenei issued a decree ordering the creation of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, a committee consisting of high-level military and intelligence officials tasked with supervising cyber activity and warfare.

COMMENT: In this context (Iran), hooray for 'our' side.

For the world, this is a reminder that when it comes to world-internet security, you must be vigilant.

Also, there is a lesson for everyone outside the context of the internet. Security of individual homes, states, and nations requires vigilance. Even then you can NEVER provide 100% protection. The most dangerous person IS the lone-gunman.

"Flame: Trying to Unravel the Mystery of 'Sophisticated' Spying Malware"
PBS Newshour 5/30/2012

SYRIA - Reaction to Houla Slaughter + 13

"Syrian Diplomats Expelled After Slaughter in Houla" (Part-1) PBS Newshour 5/29/2012

JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour): There was more fallout from a mass killing in Syria today, diplomatic repercussions, as government after government told Syrian representatives to leave. It was part of a wave of revulsion over the slaughter of at least 108 people in the Houla region on Friday night.

The diplomatic expulsions came as U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan was in Damascus, meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

We begin with a report from Alex Thomson of Independent Television News.

ALEX THOMSON: This has to stop -- Kofi Annan's central message to President Assad today. But, worldwide, governments are not using words. They're taking action, diplomats expelled, the French government describing President Assad today simply as a murderer.

Kofi Annan wouldn't use such language, of course, but told the Syrian president to be bold in stopping this war.

KOFI ANNAN, former U.N. secretary general: I shared with President Assad my assessment that the six-point plan is not being implemented as it must. We are at the tipping point. The Syrian people do not want a future -- their future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet, the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today.

ALEX THOMSON: According to the United Nations, fewer than 20 died in the initial government shelling, after rebels clashed with soldiers on Friday.

Another 88, mostly women and children, were executed, according to U.N. monitors who visited the town. People there insist it was Shabiha, government-backed armed civilians, who slaughtered people house to house, family to family.

RUPERT COLVILLE, spokesperson, U.N. Human Rights Office: A few, a fairly small number appear to have been killed by shelling, artillery and tank fire, which took place over a period of more than 12 hours.

But the majority appear to have been the result of house-to-house summary executions.

ALEX THOMSON: One eye witness told Channel 5 News he had hidden in a pile of hay and seen men in black and army uniforms surrounding the town. He said, at first, they were welcomed in this Sunni town surrounded by largely Shia and Alawite areas.

Another villager said they went building to building shooting people in the head and then looting. The U.N. confirms 49 children, 34 women were killed on Friday. Amateur video shows tanks still surrounding the town today, and I certainly witnessed them in action here two days ago.

President Assad, of course, blames what he calls terrorists, and today warned people that such groups are stepping up their activities across Syria, heavy firefights in some districts of Homs until the early hours, so, this morning, the U.N. cease-fire monitors were patrolling with caution from its streets out along the main north-south highway towards Rastan, where they tried to negotiate a cease-fire just three days ago, and then a halt after one incoming round was fired at the patrol from the direction of the town. It happens routinely.

These U.N. monitoring patrols come under fire in this area with great frequency. This is not a situation where there's much trust. And each cease-fire has to be renegotiated almost town by town, village by village. But still tonight -- and rightly -- the Houla massacre commands the agenda, its consequences reverberating around the globe.

"Canadian Ambassador: Syrian Massacre Is Another 'Horrific Incident'" (Part-2)
PBS Newshour 5/29/2012

COMMENT: I know my opinion will be controversial, but we (U.S.) need to stop being (frankly) wimps. At the very least we need to start arming the Syrian Resistance.

Yes, this will increase the killing but it will be less one-sided. Also Syria is ALREADY at civil war, unless you have your head in the sand.

As to the UN, they are not a military organization, they were formed as an organization to promote peace. On the other hand NATO is an international military organization who can take action in Syria.

"Following Houla Massacre, 13 More Bodies Found in Syria"
PBS Newshour 5/30/2012

WAR ON TERROR - President's 'Kill List'

"How Obama Maintains His Secret 'Kill List'" PBS Newshour 5/29/2012


RAY SUAREZ (Newshour): In recent years, Yemen has emerged as the hottest front in the war against al-Qaida.

Tonight's edition of "Frontline" travels to the heart of the Arabian Peninsula nation.

Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reporting for "Frontline," gained rare access to militant strongholds. He visited several towns and met with insurgent leaders and fighters.

Here is an excerpt.

Frontline - Al Qaeda in Yemen (28:28 min)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

LAW - From the Gossip Column

"Sex, Drugs, And Violence Are At The Heart Of Divorce Case Against Siegelman Judge Mark Fuller" by Roger Shuler, The Public Record 5/22/2012


A request for admissions can be one of the most entertaining documents in a lawsuit. The requesting party, in so many words, is saying, “We all know the following statements are true, so why don’t you admit to them so we can haggle about something else?”

It can be a rare moment of clarity in a legal action, where one party is trying to cut through the many layers of BS and establish facts. That doesn’t mean the receiving party is going to admit to everything–or anything–in the request. But the effort to get at what one party considers to be the clear truth can be most enlightening.

From that standpoint, a request for admissions in a divorce case involving U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller certainly does not disappoint. Fuller is a George W. Bush appointee who is best known for presiding over the political prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and codefendant Richard Scrushy, the former CEO of HealthSouth Corporation.

Lisa Boyd Fuller is suing the judge for divorce. If even half of the items in her request for admissions are true, it’s a wonder Judge Fuller could even pay attention during the Siegelman case–much less rule correctly on key matters of law, with the freedom of two men at stake. (You can read the Fuller request for admissions at the end of this post.)

Lisa Fuller’s request is filled with sex, drugs, and violence–but no rock and roll (so far). The 18 items hint at a judge with a clouded mind, a nasty temperament, a lust for women other than his wife, and a monumental sense of entitlement.

The process for a request for admissions here in my state is governed by Rule 36 of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure. It’s one of my favorite rules because it essentially says, “Let’s dispense with all the posing and posturing and get on the record what we all know to be the case–that these statements are true.” A savvy defense lawyer, of course, can take steps to ensure that the truth is clouded–and Mark Fuller’s lawyer is likely to do just that. But you at least have to admire the thought behind Rule 36.

Here is how the committee comments to the Alabama rule sum things up:

The purpose of this rule is to expedite the trial and to relieve the parties of the cost of proving facts which will not be disputed at the trial and the truth of which can be ascertained by reasonable inquiry. The rule is self-sufficient, and clearly defines its purpose and limits its effect, and it should be liberally construed.

WORK - Co-Ops As Alternative to Conventional Business

"Are Co-ops the Answer?" by Rebecca Burns, In These Times 5/29/2012

Long before the Occupy movement sparked renewed protest of growing inequality, another global movement was quietly engaged in building a more democratic economy. From coffee growers in Kenya seeking a fair market price to worker-owned green businesses reviving the American Rust Belt, cooperatives are helping to spur a reinvention of work in a period of worldwide recession.

In the current economic crisis, cooperatives have often proven more resilient than traditional businesses, and many believe that the scope of worker- and member-owned enterprises across the world represents a revolution in the making. Globally, an estimated 1 billion people are members of cooperatives. With combined earnings rivaling Canada’s GDP, co-ops could be the fastest-growing business model by the end of the decade. To promote awareness of their potential, the United Nations has declared 2012 the “International Year of Cooperatives.” In response, cooperative organizers are calling for protest movements to support building “an economy worth occupying.”

“It was really serendipitous that the ‘Year of Cooperatives’ happened at the same time as the Occupy movement,” says Cheyenna Weber of SolidarityNYC, a group that links social movements with “solidarity economy” initiatives. “There’s so much attention to this because people are intimately aware that the economic crisis is not going away on its own … they’re starting to get serious about doing it themselves.”

But do the swelling numbers of cooperative businesses amount to a force capable of transforming the broader economy? Governmental support for co-ops, though increasing at the behest of the U.N., is based on the principle that co-ops can create employment as part of a mixed economy, most often in sectors where capital has retreated. And though most co-ops follow a set of seven principles – among them open membership, autonomy and concern for community – there are significant differences in how directly members or workers participate in decision-making and how explicitly they engage with broader economic justice movements.

Moreover, because growth-oriented cooperatives must continue to compete in a capitalist market (though the Evergreen cooperatives in Cleveland have been able to make use of a quasi-public market that draws on the purchasing power of local hospitals and universities), contradictions often emerge between the enterprise’s business practices and the values it espouses. While the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain’s Basque region – often considered the most successful example of worker-owned enterprise – have been hailed for their collaborative handling of economic downturn, protecting jobs at home has necessitated an expansion of their operations overseas. Today, the group has more subsidiaries abroad than actual cooperatives, and uses a two-tier system of membership in which nonmembers are not eligible to vote or share in other benefits enjoyed by members. In January 2011, one of Mondragon’s appliance factories in Poland became the target of a go-slow strike from workers fighting stagnant wages and the use of temporary workers.

Elsewhere in the world, worker-owned enterprises have also struggled with identity crises: Argentina’s famous occupied factory movement has suffered divisions between those factories that seek legal recognition from the state and viability within a market economy and those that have maintained an anti-capitalist stance and attempt to further the spread of occupations.

Though cooperatives represent a promising means of building new economic models, many activists are quick to point out that the old ones aren’t going to disappear without a fight. For this reason, Weber says, her group’s early efforts to engage with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) were sometimes marked by distrust. “Certain people are really attached to the idea that cooperatives aren’t radical enough,” she says. “But there’s a tension: You have to build something, and you also have to create space for it to be built. We’re looking for a way to push our vision as far as we can within existing economic models.”

Within OWS, New York activists have started two co-ops – a screen-printing guild and “OccuCopy,” which provides printing and designs for progressive groups – and are in the process of starting two more.

Gar Alperovitz, author of America Beyond Capitalism, notes that activists could also play a greater role in organizing within existing cooperatives and supporting workers’ efforts to become owners. After winning a reprieve of their plant’s closing with support from local labor groups and Occupy Chicago in February, the United Electrical workers who famously occupied the Republic Windows and Doors plant in 2008 are now considering purchasing the plant and running it as a worker co-op. And in March, the United Steelworkers and Mondragon announced details of a plan to develop manufacturing cooperatives using a “union co-op model.” Both developments represent promising models of how traditional progressive institutions can foster initiatives for democratic ownership.

“Any serious political movement has historically walked on two legs,” says Alperovitz. “It had to involve protests, elections and demonstrations … [and]building a new direction institutionally… . We’ve got to do both.”

COMMENT: I am a member of Kiva, a micro-loan organization that I highly recommend. I just recycle (reloan) an amount I donated years ago, and ALL of my old loans have been paid in full. They have many loans to co-op groups around the world, including the U.S., and they do make micro-loans to individuals.

OPINION - Republican-Conservative Clueless

"Dissecting the GOP Brain" by Theo Anderson, In These Times 5/24/2012

Why can’t Republicans handle the truth?

Did humans evolve over the course of millions of years, or were we created by God just a few thousand years ago? A letter signed by more than 50 scientific societies in 2009 said that the theory of evolution is “the foundation of modern biology, and is crucial in fields as diverse as agriculture, computer science, engineering, geology and medicine.” The letter was addressed to the Texas State Board of Education. That group, dominated by creationists, had only faith and the Bible on its side, yet it was squarely within the American mainstream. Polls show that about 40 percent of the population believes God created humans within the last 10,000 years.

Do tax cuts increase revenues? Is abstinence education more effective than comprehensive sex education? Does human activity create climate change? The answers are no, no and yes, if you believe experts and the body of empirical evidence that has emerged from their work over the past several decades. But clearly, many Americans don’t believe experts and empirical evidence, and instead choose to base their opinions on little more than faith, or on dubious experts whose work is considered marginal within their field.

What exactly is going on when humans choose to reject truth claims that emerge from experimentation and actual evidence? And why is it that conservatives are far more likely than liberals to hold counter-factual opinions?

In his new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality, Chris Mooney aims to explain why Republicans “deny science – and reality.” He looks for answers primarily in the field of psychology – the “rarely discovered continent in our politics” – and what he finds is fascinating and frightening. It isn’t news that many Republicans hold contrarian beliefs. But did you know more education often leads to a greater level of reality denial? According to Mooney’s statistics, 19 percent of college-educated Republicans believe human activity is responsible for global warming, while 31 percent of Republicans without a college degree believe so. And the same is true of the most politically engaged Republicans: The most “knowledgeable” are also the most misinformed, and presenting them with counter-evidence only makes them more sure of themselves.

It isn’t that Republicans explicitly want to be detached from reality. They claim their own version of things is true, obviously. The root of the trouble is that holding beliefs that square with reality is less important to them than their need for certainty and for loyalty to their tribe. This is especially true of a subset of conservatives Mooney calls “authoritarians,” who are particularly allergic to uncertainty and fiercely refuse to modify their beliefs in response to new evidence. They “extol traditional values, are very conventional, submit to established leaders, and don’t seem to care much about dissent or civil liberties.” When Mooney describes the “Republican” brain, it’s mainly these authoritiarian conservatives who he has in mind. He doesn’t attempt to quantify them, but they seem to constitute a significant minority within the GOP – perhaps between one-third and one-half of the party’s voters.

Authoritarians are best understood in contrast to their antithesis, what Mooney calls the “open” personality, which he says is the defining characteristic of liberals. Being an open personality means seeking out new experiences and having a basic curiosity about foreign ideas, people and places. Open personalities are also driven by a need for self-expression, and they value creativity with the same enthusiasm that conservatives, particularly authoritarians, value conformity.

These links between psychology and politics are well-established and supported by a solid body of scholarly work, according to Mooney. But we have less ground for certainty about the physiology of those links: how the brains of conservatives and liberals might literally be different. There is suggestive but not definitive evidence that the size of the amygdala – “an almond-shaped bunch of neurons located in an evolutionarily older part of the brain, the limbic system” – may play a role in one’s political orientation. The amygdala is strongly associated with fear; one of its tasks is to “structure our life-preserving defense responses.” Experiments have shown that conservatives tend to have bigger and more active amygdalas, but the field of “neuropolitics” is in its early stages, as Mooney notes. It’s clear, though, that genetics helps shape our political beliefs. According to Mooney, “40 percent or more of the variability in our political outlooks is ultimately attributable to genetic influences.”

It’s also clear that, whatever the extent of its physiological origin, fear is a major motivator in the GOP’s drive to deny reality. In The Republican Brain and in his previous work, The Republican War On Science, Mooney describes the network of institutions and counter-experts that conservatism has fostered over the past several decades. The well-known think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, are just the beginning. There are dozens of smaller institutions that are little-known outside of conservative circles but enormously influential within them. One example is WallBuilders, which is devoted to “America’s forgotten history and heroes” and presents a highly mythologized, Christian-focused account of the nation’s past. The head of WallBuilders, David Barton, has accused President Obama of being anti-Biblical.

In field after field, from economics to political philosophy to the sciences, such institutions and “experts” have created a counter-narrative that challenges and often inverts the mainstream consensus. Their aim isn’t to get at the truth as it is commonly understood. Instead, it is to bind believers together and reinforce their faith. In a world that seems increasingly perilous and incomprehensible, this faith offers a measure of security. Indeed, facts seem to matter so little to modern Republicans because the facts are irrelevant to – or else a threat to – the elaborate alternate realities that they’ve constructed. And the reason the most highly educated and engaged Republicans are also the most detached from reality is that they’re aware of the opposing points of view. So keeping the faith requires continual rationalizations. In other words, it takes more than cluelessness to be a reality-denying Republican. It takes hard work.

Mooney paints the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives in broad strokes. More precision – and more breadth – would be welcome. Precisely how do we explain, for example, the astonishing exceptionalism of American conservatism in relationship to much of Western Europe, where conservatives are far more comfortable with scientific expertise and modernity in general? This nation’s high level of religiosity surely has much to do with the disparity – but how does that fact square with the psychological and physiological determinism at the heart of his book?

And are there any plausible solutions? It’s ironic The Republican Brain will only heighten the dilemma that Mooney presumably wants to help resolve. The dilemma is that conservatives won’t read or engage with this kind of book.

Mooney goes to great lengths to say that the Republican brain isn’t necessarily bad, just different, but his provocations can only sound to conservatives like more liberal smugness and self-righteousness. The book’s premise suggests that a solution to the dilemma he lays out is virtually impossible, and Mooney offers none, aside from a vague hope that we can all learn to appreciate our differences. But the unsettling truth is that the health and future of our democracy depend in large part on whether there are, in fact, any real solutions.

CALIFORNIA - Mortgages, Vultures Circling

Song as the vultures circle, 'Money, money, MONEY...'

"Texas firm targets Calif. homeowners with foreclosed 2nd mortgages" by Rick Jurgens, California Watch 5/23/2012


Adding new uncertainty in the state’s ongoing mortgage crisis, a Texas company is aggressively pursuing hundreds of Californians to collect second-mortgage debt – on homes they’ve already lost through foreclosure.

Many of these former homeowners believed their mortgage debt had been erased after their houses were taken by banks and lending companies. But the Texas company, Heritage Pacific Financial, has aggressively pursued collections and filed lawsuits claiming those debts still linger.

For Ahmed Abdelfattah of San Jose, debt collectors started calling in 2009, saying he owed Heritage Pacific $135,000. He said he’d never heard of the company before.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Abdelfattah said. “It’s cost me money and time, and they ruined my credit until now.”

Oscar Trejo said his first encounter came a few days before he expected to exit bankruptcy and get a fresh financial start. That was in November 2010, he said. Heritage Pacific sent Trejo, who also lives in San Jose, a letter saying it had asked a bankruptcy judge not to discharge, or erase, its $88,800 claim against him.

Trejo invested in properties in Merced and later lost them all in foreclosures. But he hadn’t done business with Heritage Pacific. “I had never seen the company’s name,” he said.

Heritage Pacific was started by identical twin brothers, Chris and Ben Ganter, who once starred in a reality TV show, “PayDirt,” about investing in the Dallas-Fort Worth real estate market.

The company’s lawsuits often accuse defendants of misstating their incomes on loan applications. While many borrowers did overstate their incomes on applications, consumer attorneys say Heritage Pacific is targeting people who filled out their forms honestly or whose mortgage brokers pumped up their applications without their knowledge.

Critics of Heritage Pacific say the company’s central tactic is forcing settlements from people who can’t afford a drawn-out legal fight and who don’t know the details of California law. The company has sued people with second-mortgage debts of less than $150,000, despite a state law prohibiting lawsuits alleging fraud on mortgages below that amount.

Heritage Pacific’s collection methods now face legal challenges, including a class-action lawsuit in Santa Clara County Superior Court that contends that the company is carrying out an “insidious and illegal debt collection scheme.”

The company doesn’t make mortgage loans, but instead attempts to collect payments on loans originated by others. Heritage Pacific launched its effort in late 2008 when it began buying – at a steep discount – second-mortgage loans that borrowers had stopped paying. Many of the loans were secured by houses that already had been sold in foreclosure by first-mortgage lenders.

By demanding payments from more than 1,000 individuals in California, the lawsuit contends, Heritage Pacific has violated “the rights of those who have already suffered the emotional and financial distress that results from the loss of their foreclosed home.”

Heritage Pacific is nothing more than “people in Texas acting as vultures,” said Will Kennedy, a lawyer in the class-action suit.

In an answer to the lawsuit, Heritage Pacific says it’s not suing “innocent home-owners who, through no fault of their own, lost their homes.” Instead, the company says it targets defendants who “made material misrepresentations to secure large loans upon which they soon stopped paying.”

Fraud claims “are the only ones we’re interested in pursuing,” Chris Ganter, the company’s chief executive and main owner, said in an interview.

But some former homeowners now threatened with legal action by Heritage Pacific dispute these claims. They told California Watch that the income they claimed on their mortgage applications was valid, and they stopped paying because they lost their jobs, their income plummeted and banks foreclosed on their houses. Others said they signed applications that had been prepared by brokers.

CALIFORNIA - Bond Underwriters and Donations

This is a "something smells fishy here" article.

"With campaign donations, bond underwriters also secure contracts" by Will Evans, California Watch 5/3/2012


Leading financial firms over the past five years donated $1.8 million to successful school bond measures in California, and in almost every instance, school district officials hired those same underwriters to sell the bonds for a profit, a California Watch review has found.

The practice is especially pronounced in California, where underwriters gave 155 political contributions since 2007 to successful bond campaigns for school construction and repairs. One major underwriter, Piper Jaffray, has said it gets more requests for campaign contributions in California than in any other state where they do business.

The success rate of these underwriters is extremely high. In only five cases since 2007 has a campaign donor failed to receive a bond-selling contract from the school district.

School districts say they choose bond underwriters for their expertise and competitive rates and because they’ve served them well in the past. And underwriting firms say they contribute only after they’ve been hired to sell the bonds, avoiding any undue influence.

But critics say that no matter when the agreement is made, the campaign donations influence school districts’ business decisions. They argue that pre-arranged underwriting contracts bypass a truly competitive sale, leaving in doubt whether districts got the best possible deal.

“If this isn’t clear proof of pay to play, then pay to play doesn’t exist,” said Glenn Byers, Los Angeles County’s assistant treasurer, who oversees some school bond sales but doesn’t control the hiring of underwriters. “The timing of the payment is irrelevant. You paid and you got the job. That’s pay to play.”

Some states have banned the practice. Missouri, for one, outlaws donations to bond campaigns from companies with a financial interest in the bond sale.

In the past five years in California, five major underwriters donated $1.8 million to help pass 111 ballot measures, authorizing $15.5 billion in debt. A couple dozen other measures received underwriter contributions but failed at the ballot box.

Overwhelmingly, bond underwriters who donated to these campaigns were granted contracts by school districts.

In nearly all cases, the only underwriters that donated to a successful school bond campaign ended up working on the bond sale. Bond Buyer, a trade publication, found the same pattern in an earlier review of 2010 campaign contributions.

At times, multiple underwriting firms will donate to a single bond campaign. But even there, the success rate is high. In almost all cases in which multiple bond underwriters donated to the same campaign, they all were given contracts by the school district to market those bonds.

For donors, failure is rare. In only five cases out of 111 did an underwriter make a donation and fail to receive a contract to sell the bonds. In four of those, however, more than one underwriter made donations and the contract went to the firm that had contributed a larger amount to the campaign.

Former Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a Democrat from Pittsburg, tried and failed to pass a law in 2005 requiring competitive bidding of bond sales. In a competitive sale, which takes place after the election, the underwriter with the lowest bid wins the bonds.

Canciamilla said school districts instead negotiate underwriting deals before bond elections specifically to draw in campaign money. Districts are “in effect negotiating much more attractive deals for the underwriters in order to generate the money necessary to run the campaign,” he said.

Under state law, school districts can’t use their own funds for bond campaigns. That leaves other interested parties – underwriters, builders and organized labor – to pony up the necessary cash. For their part, underwriters have justified the practice to federal regulators by noting that bond campaigns simply need these contributions in order to convince voters.

Last November’s $63 million bond measure for the Newark Unified School District in Alameda County, for example, raised money from architecture and construction firms, the financial adviser and the law firm working on the bond issue, and local construction unions.

The only underwriter to donate, Los Angeles-based De La Rosa & Co., gave $20,000.

HEALTH - Coral-Killing Seaweed Beneficial?

"Coral-killing seaweed has medicinal benefits, researchers say" by Susanne Rust, California Watch 5/25/2012

California researchers have discovered that there may be a silver lining to an invasive and toxic seaweed that is killing some of Hawaii's coral reefs: It seems the seaweed contains compounds that could treat human diseases.

"I think this finding is a nice illustration of how we need to look more deeply in our environment, because even nuisance pests, as it turns out, are not just pests," said William Gerwick, a researcher at UC San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "It's a long road to go from this early-stage discovery to application in the clinic, but it's the only road if we want new and more efficacious medicines."

The study appears in today's issue of the journal Chemistry & Biology.

The seaweed, a tiny photosynthetic organism known as a cyanobacterium, was identified in 2008 on coral reefs near the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, off Hawaii’s Kona coast.

Researchers say it is native to Hawaii and generally inconspicuous. Indeed, they think a little of it is always around Kona's reefs.

It was first noticed during a routine survey of the coral, said Jennifer Smith, a co-author of the study and researcher at Scripps. “It was clearly smothering the corals at one of the most popular dive sites in Hawaii.”

Research on marine cyanobacteria shows that climate change can accelerate the organism's growth. It thrives in environmentally stressful conditions, such as UV exposure, high solar radiation and temperatures, and scarce or overly rich nutrients.

And on the reefs of Kona, the cyanobacteria was thriving. According to the researchers, the bloom was growing and suffocating the coral below.

Lena Gerwick, another co-author, said she and her team were unsure of the exact reason for the recent blooms, but they suspect runoff from nearby coffee plantations could be a factor.

In any case, the scientists took some of it home to find out more about it in their lab.

Lena Gerwick said the fact that it was overtaking the coral indicated that it had ecological advantages over the coral. And there were two theories put forward. The first was that the cyanobacteria was killing a beneficial film of bacteria that usually covers the coral and protects it from disease and pathogens. The second theory was that cyanobacteria was inhibiting the coral's immune system, making it susceptible to attack.

When they got into their La Jolla lab, they found the cyanobacteria generates compounds known as honaucins, which have both the bacteria-killing and anti-inflammation properties they had predicted.

Lena Gerwick said the researchers have now shown that the cyanobacteria can be used as an effective topical anti-inflammatory ointment for mice. And they hope that the combined activity – anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties – can be used to fight diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

"It's a long shot, but that's just the kind of thing we work for," she said.

COMMENT: There are already many drugs based on seaweed and other ocean sources.

HEALTH - Dibetic Deaths Drop

"Steep Fall in Death Rates Among Diabetics" By NICHOLAS BAKALAR, New York Times 5/28/2012

Death rates among people with diabetes have declined substantially in recent years, according to a survey conducted by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Since 1997 the C.D.C. has done five surveys of people with and without diabetes, each sampling about 107,000 adults. Compared with the 1997-98 figures, 2006 death rates from cardiovascular disease had declined 40 percent and all-cause mortality had declined 23 percent among people with diabetes, even after the researchers controlled for age and other health factors. Death rates also declined among those who did not have diabetes, but the decline was not as steep.

The study, in the June issue of Diabetes Care, attributes the progress to advances in medical care and self-management.

But every silver lining has a cloud.

“The good thing is that people with diabetes are living longer,” said one of the authors, Sharon Saydah, a senior research scientist with the C.D.C. “But people with diabetes are at risk for a number of complications — cardiovascular disease, lower leg amputations, kidney disease, eye problems, dementia and other kinds of disability. Preventing all of these complications means that we will have greater health care expenses for people living with diabetes.”

RELIGION - Vatileaks Scandal

"Pope's Butler to Cooperate in Vatican Scandal Inquiry" PBS Newshour 5/28/2012


MARGARET WARNER (Newshour): The cloud has been gathering over Saint Peter's Square for months, ever since January, when Vatican documents began leaking, showing infighting over allegations of corruption and even descriptions of private papal meetings.

Then, late last week, the scandal, dubbed Vatileaks suddenly widened. The president of the Vatican Bank was ousted and the pope's personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested for allegedly having confidential documents in his apartment.

Today, the butler's lawyers said he will cooperate with the Vatican's criminal investigation of the leaks -- adding to the feverish speculation, new reports in Italian newspapers that a cardinal, still unidentified, may be at the center of the disclosures.

MILITARY - "Hell and Back Again" Video Documentary

"'Hell and Back Again': What it Means to Lead Men in War, and Then Return Home" PBS Newshour 5/28/2012


SUMMARY: In the summer of 2009, Marines pushed hard against the Taliban, hoping to attain control of Helmand province. News photographer Danfung Dennis shot video, capturing the combat life and the stress of one Marine's difficult readjustment into home life. Dennis discusses his film "Hell and Back Again" with Jeffrey Brown.

Monday, May 28, 2012

POLITICS - Our Economy and the Latest CBO Report

"Brooks, Marcus on Coming Economic 'Chaos,' New Recession Fears, Bain Debate" PBS Newshour 5/25/2012

Excerpt on CBO report

JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour): And what is more exciting to talk about than the Congressional Budget Office?

So, this week , there was a sobering report from the Congressional Budget Office, David, in which they warned the country could land in another recession if Congress does a couple of things, lets these -- doesn't let these Bush era tax cuts expire, and if there are serious cuts made in government spending.

And there are members of Congress who want both of these things to happen. So what do people think is really going to happen there?

DAVID BROOKS, New York Times columnist: Chaos, decline, apocalypse.


DAVID BROOKS: You know, it's all going to happen. . .

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post columnist: Have a nice weekend.



No, the weekend will be fine. It is only going to happen in December. It will be after the election. And all these things come due, tax cuts, spending. All these automatic things start happening. And we hand this incredibly knotty problem on to a Congress which is unable to do the easy problems.

So dealing with a tough problem is going to be tremendously difficult. And so, is there any reason to be other than despairing?

I think there is a couple. And, again, this is silver lining land. One is, I think the Republicans have decided that what happened last summer wasn't good for them. They have taken the country to the brink. They are a little more chastened. They're a little more flexible on the idea that tax revenue, not tax rates, but tax revenues, should be allowed to rise, so long as the money can be thrown into the debt.

And so that is some flexibility there. But if you had to bet long-term will we do what we need to do, all these different things to get sort of a fiscal balance over the next year, I certainly wouldn't bet on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congress going to come to its senses?


RUTH MARCUS: Well, I don't think anybody should ever bet on that.

But David said that Republicans seem chastened. You certainly couldn't tell it from the comments of Speaker Boehner, who seems more than willing to do a replay of the disastrous, from my point of view, economically, and also disastrous politically for Republicans, replay of the debt ceiling showdown last time around , a year ago.

And what's going to happen is, all of this Taxmageddon, as we are calling it, is going -- because of the timing of it, we will probably kick the can down the road from the lame-duck, for maybe six months into the next Congress. And guess what? That is going to coincide with, collide with hitting the debt ceiling yet again.

So the CBO -- I just -- quick thing on the CBO report. CBO used the R-word, which is very, very scary, recession. If all of these things come to pass, they said, the economy would be in recession in the beginning of 2013.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what got everybody's attention.

RUTH MARCUS: Which got everybody's attention, but in some ways, that wasn't really the message that CBO wanted to send, because, yes, that would be a very bad outcome.

But the second thing they said is that the alternative, if you filled that entire fiscal cliff and cushioned it, and you just dug the debt deeper, the debt hole that much deeper, that would also be a terrible outcome, just later.

And so they have been begging in their very quiet-sounding CBO language, please, members of Congress, you need to both avert the fiscal cliff now and come up with a plan that markets can understand that you really have to fill the debt hole later on.

Whether Congress can manage that. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: So -- but, David, Congress this year is watching the election. Not a lot is going on over the summer. So does a warning -- does something like this that is said in the late spring, does it really have an effect?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think they are taking it seriously. I know the Republicans are. They take the debt extremely seriously.

And how much they want to move is a matter of internal debate. So, publicly, Ruth is absolutely right, John Boehner is lining down these stark markers. Underneath, I really don't think those stark markers exist. I think there is some room for flexibility. There is some feeling, we need more revenue.

Now, the question is, you have got to disguise the revenue increases in a comprehensive tax reform. And the Republicans really want to do a comprehensive tax reform. They think it would allow them to secretly raise a lot of revenue, but also it would be good for the economy, it would create growth, more jobs, more tax revenues.

Democrats are -- and especially the Obama administration -- a lot less persuaded that tax reform would be a great thing. They don't think it would produce a lot of growth. They think, politically, it would be extremely tough to get rid of some of these big deductions.

And so it's very interesting to me to talk to people in the Obama administration and hear them being very tepid on the whole idea of comprehensive tax reform.

NUCLEAR PLANTS - Meltdowns, Is the U.S. Ready?

"Are U.S. Nuclear Plants Ready for a Fukushima-Like Meltdown?" PBS Newshour 5/25/2012


SUMMARY: When Chairman Gregory Jaczko resigned from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week, reports suggested it was linked to battles within the commission over safety requirements. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Miles O'Brien reports on how government regulators in the U.S. set the safety bar for nuclear plants.

JEFFREY BROWN (Newshour): In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, how should government regulators here set the safety bar for nuclear power plants in the U.S.?

This week, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced his resignation, and news reports suggest that battles within the commission over safety requirements may partially account for his departure.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien has been looking into these bigger questions well before the latest news.

His report was produced in partnership with ProPublica.

COMMENT: Looking at this video I am struck by the site having a backup generator as the last ditch defense against meltdowns JUST OUTSIDE the plant IN THE OPEN!

At the very least, these generators should be underground or in bunkers. In the case of terrorist attack, generators in the open could be wiped out or an actual secondary target to ensure the primary is succeeds.

Significant excerpt

MILES O'BRIEN: Among the recommendations (UCS Report)? A requirement that plants have vents designed to prevent buildup of explosive gas, that operators plan for outages at more than one reactor simultaneously, and, most important, the installation of extra generators like this one at River Bend that would allow a nuclear plant to endure a long blackout of at least eight hours without losing the ability to keep cooling water flowing over the hot nuclear fuel rods.

Come ON, they have to even think about this?! Assuming the commissioners have brains.

Union of Concerned Scientist (UCS)

CHILDREN - Etan Patz Case Legacy

"After Murder Suspect's Arrest, a Look at the Legacy of Etan Patz" PBS Newshour 5/25/2012


RAY SUAREZ (Newshour): For three decades, the question hung over the New York City Police Department: What happened to Etan Patz? The 6-year-old boy disappeared as he walked two blocks to his school bus stop in Manhattan 33 years ago today.

The case set in motion a massive search effort and galvanized a movement. Etan Patz became one of the first missing children featured on milk cartons and billboards.

ERNIE ALLEN, CEO, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: Etan's case was a case that changed America. Millions of parents sat at home and thought, there but for the grace of God goes my child.

RAY SUAREZ: His parents, Stan and Julie Patz, endured years of false leads, but clung to hope that Etan might still be alive.

STAN PATZ, father of Etan Patz: The thought in the backs of our minds was always that we should be here for him.

RAY SUAREZ: The couple never moved from their SoHo apartment or changed their phone number, in case their son ever tried to contact them.

Etan was finally declared legally dead in 2001. Then, in 2010, police reopened the case. Last month, pursuing a possible lead, they dug up the basement in an apartment building near the Patzes' address. They found nothing, but the publicity prompted a new tip.

And last night, police arrested Pedro Hernandez, seen in these photos from "Inside Edition."

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Hernandez was clerking in a convenience store, a bodega, in the Patzes' neighborhood in 1979.

EGYPT - Partial Vote Results and Consequences

"Partial Vote Count in Egypt Reveals Deep Rifts Among Public" (Part-1) PBS Newshour 5/25/2012

JEFFREY BROWN (Newshour): And we turn to Egypt, where the vote count from round one of the presidential elections reveals deep rifts among the public. Preliminary results showed the two most-polarizing candidates for president might very well face each other in a mid-June runoff. That would set up a battle between the secular, military-backed elite that's ruled Egypt for decades and the Islamist forces it long suppressed.

The leading vote-getter appeared to be the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, with roughly 25 percent. The Brotherhood was banned in Egypt until last February's revolution toppled Hosni Mubarak. It dominated parliamentary elections late last year. Neck and neck with Morsi in the voting was Mubarak's final prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

The former general promised a return to law and order amid a cresting crime wave.

On Cairo streets today, the stark divisions were clear.

AHMED IBRAHIM, Egypt (through translator): Morsi is a religious man, not corrupted, and this is what we need.

DALAL ANWAR, Egypt (through translator): I am very upset with the results. I don't want an Islamist for president, and if there is a runoff, I will vote for Shafiq.

JEFFREY BROWN: In third place for now, just behind Shafiq, sat Hamdeen Sabahi, a socialist whose candidacy attracted liberal and leftist voters.

ADHAM EL KAMOUNY, Egypt (through translator): Hamdeen Sabahi is like what he says. He is one of us. He is not considered an Islamist or from the former Mubarak regime. He is just an Egyptian.

JEFFREY BROWN: Largely left out of the bidding was the fractious liberal contingent that fomented revolution in early 2011. It didn't coalesce behind one candidate, splitting its vote among several.

Two men who had recently shared frontrunner status with Morsi appeared well behind. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh's liberal Islamist candidacy had attracted voters seeking to blunt the Muslim Brotherhood's political force. And Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab league secretary-general, finished with a small percentage of the vote.

The runoff election is scheduled for the weekend of June 16 and 17, with a winner declared June 21.

"What a Muslim Brotherhood Win in Egypt Could Mean for U.S."
PBS Newshour 5/25/2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

POLITICS - Senate, FDA Overhaul

"Senate agrees on FDA overhaul" by Lisa Mascaro, Los Angeles Times 5/25/2012

In a momentary flash of bipartisanship, the Senate approved legislation that would allow Americans speedier access to generic drugs as well as breakthrough treatments for life-threatening diseases as part of a Food and Drug Administration revamping that now heads to the House.

But the comity didn't last, and the FDA accord was quickly followed by another round of partisan fighting over President Obama's push to keep student loan interest rates low. On party-line votes, senators blocked Democratic and Republican efforts to prevent interest rates from rising this summer.

The outcome of Thursday's session sends senators home for the Memorial Day recess with a toolbox for campaign season: On one hand, they can say they're working together to produce results; on the other, they can spread the blame for the partisan standoff in Congress.

"I wouldn't make too much of it, but we have had a string of legislative successes that have been bipartisan," said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). The FDA bill was approved 96 to 1, and the House is expected to consider similar legislation next week. "We are going to pass out a very comprehensive set of reforms that are going to be meaningful to patients and also to the bio-science community."

The FDA bill includes routine financial provisions as well as new policies that supporters say could save lives by bringing new drugs and medical devices to the marketplace more quickly.

The legislation would allow the continued collection of fees agreed to by brand-name drug and medical device manufacturers — in addition to launching new fees on generic drug makers — to fund FDA review and approval of product applications.

At the same time, the legislation would allow the FDA to create a "breakthrough" designation to speed the development of drugs that "may demonstrate substantial improvement over existing therapies" for those with serious or life-threatening illness.

The bill also would tighten oversight of the drug supply chain by requiring foreign manufacturers to register additional information about their facilities with the FDA, and it would enhance penalties for drug counterfeiting. More manufacturers would be required to give six months' notice to the FDA if they discontinued certain drugs or had a supply shortage.

The fees are a key source of funding for the FDA, and failure to pass a bill before the existing authorization expires in September would result in layoffs. The bill would extend the fee agreements for five years, through fiscal 2017.

Proponents say the new fee on generic drug makers, estimated to bring in $300 million a year, would slash the time it takes to approve new drugs from 30 months to 10.

Senators rejected an effort by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to regulate nutritional supplements and another by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to loosen restrictions on Canadian drug imports.

Moments after passing the FDA bill, the Senate was squabbling again, blocking dueling measures that would prevent interest rates on new Stafford student loans from doubling to 6.8% on July 1.

Democrats and a handful of Republicans rejected the House-passed GOP proposal to gut a federal public health and prevention fund to pay for the $6-billion cost of the federal student loan subsidy.

Republicans followed suit by voting down the Democratic proposal that would close a tax loophole on wealthier households whose profits through their S corporations are not counted as income.

COMMENT: Now lets see if the no-governance House Republicans will block this much needed reform, or underfund it so it's ineffective.

SPACE - Mars Rover Opportunity Update

In this undated image provided by NASA, Mars Rover Opportunity catches its own late-afternoon shadow in a view eastward across Endeavor Crater on Mars. The rover used a panoramic camera between about 4:30 and 5:00 p.m. local Mars time to record images taken through different filters and combined into this mosaic view. Most of the component images were recorded during the 2,888th Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity's work on Mars, which corresponds to March 9, 2012 on Earth. The view is presented in false color to make some differences between materials easier to see, such as the dark sandy ripples and dunes on the crater's distant floor. Opportunity has been studying the western rim of Endeavor Crater since arriving there in August 2011. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University)

"Say cheese! NASA Mars rover photographs own shadow" by AP, Boston Globe 5/25/2012

Even robots like to have fun. NASA's rover on Mars showed off its playful side by snapping a picture of its own shadow. It's the latest self-portrait since the rover, named Opportunity, landed on the red planet in 2004.

The photo was taken in March and NASA released it this week. The solar-powered, six-wheel rover was at an outcrop on the rim of a massive crater. The late afternoon sun set the crater aglow and Opportunity waited for just the right lighting to send a postcard back to Earth.

The result was a dramatic view of Opportunity casting a shadow with the crater in the background.

After nearly five months in one spot, the tireless rover is rolling again to explore more rocks.

Its twin, Spirit, stopped communicating in 2010.

SPACE - SpaceX Dragon Captured!

"SpaceX Dragon Capsule Successfully Captured by ISS" by Chloe Albanesius, PC Magazine 5/25/2012

The SpaceX Dragon capsule was successfully captured by the International Space Station Expedition 31 crew this morning, making SpaceX the first commercial company to send a spacecraft to the ISS.

The station's robotic arm captured the Dragon at 9:56 a.m. ET after a journey that took three days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 23 seconds. At the time of capture, the ISS was 250 miles above northwest Australia and now continues over the Pacific Ocean.

The ISS crew is currently working to install the Dragon on the bottom side of the station's Harmony node.

"SpaceX has done it," NASA Mission Control in Houston announced shortly after Dragon had been captured.

"CAPTURE COMPLETE!!!" an excited SpaceX tweeted shortly thereafter.

"Looks like we caught a Dragon by the tail," Astronaut Don Pettit chimed in from the ISS.

The Dragon was originally scheduled to link up with the ISS at 9:10 a.m., but was delayed slightly while SpaceX resolved an issue with the primary navigation sensors caused by reflections from the external pallet attached to the Japanese Kibo module, NASA said.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday morning at 3:44 a.m. ET.

According to NASA, Dragon is carrying about 1,200 pounds of supplies for the ISS crew - most of which is food and clothing - as well as student-designed experiments. The spacecraft can actually hold up to 7,300 pounds of supplies, but NASA and SpaceX are taking it slow and limiting the amount of cargo on this first run to only critical items.

The Dragon will remain docked at the ISS for about three weeks while cargo is unloaded. Astronauts will then remove it using the robotic arm, at which point it will return to Earth via parachutes and land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

EUROPEAN UNION - Economy and the 27-Ring Circus

"In Europe, Balancing Germany's Austerity Push With Hopes for Growth" (Part-1) PBS Newshour 5/24/2012

JEFFREY BROWN (Newshour): There was no clear way forward today for European leaders, as economic problems reached new crisis points. The continent's debt burden has now been joined by looming recession and deepening political divisions.

New data showed a worsening economic contraction throughout Europe today. The gloomy news came the morning after an inconclusive meeting of European leaders in Brussels. The summit reinforced the divisions between the two top eurozone economies, France and Germany, a main issue: how to balance Germany's push for budget austerity with the new French government's emphasis on economic growth.

GUIDO WESTERWELLE, German foreign minister: For the German, government austerity is not everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, acknowledged today a need for a balanced approach, including growth policies.

He echoed comments reportedly made behind closed doors in Berlin by Chancellor Angela Merkel. But Westerwelle said one proposal to ease the crisis, by issuing so-called euro bonds to lower interest rates in debt- laden nations, would make matters worse.

GUIDO WESTERWELLE: We think that we cannot solve a debt crisis by making it easier to take up new debts. And if we allow to make it easier to take up new debts, we do not solve the crisis. From our point of view, we increase the difficulties and the problems that we have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Left unsaid, euro bonds would mean higher interest rates in Germany, which has benefited greatly from its lower borrowing costs.

But Francois Hollande, the new president of France, in office just 10 days, has promoted the euro bond idea. He again stressed the need for growth as he headed into last night's meeting in Brussels.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, French president (through translator): We must work based on economic challenges, like how to bring growth back, on financial challenges, how to bring back liquidity, but also on the political challenges. What do we want to do together in Europe? What kind of project do we have?

JEFFREY BROWN: Hollande was joined by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. His nation is imperiled by its enormous debt, but it's largely the byproduct of a burst housing bubble, not public overspending, as in some other eurozone nations.

MARIANO RAJOY, Spanish prime minister (through translator): For Spain, the most urgent thing is that we need financing, we need liquidity, and we need sustainability for the debt. There are many countries which are making enormous efforts in order to control their public deficits and make structural reforms.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as elsewhere, there is increasing public pushback in Spain, with unemployment at a crushing 25 percent. Miners went on strike today, and protesters gathered outside the parliament to denounce labor reform.

NEFTALI RODRIGUEZ, civil servant (through translator): This will put an end to all the workers' rights that have been fought for 30 years. It leaves us workers sold out under the power of businessmen.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the businessmen are not immune either. This shop owner is shutting down after 40 years and liquidating his stocks of fabric and carpeting.

MANUEL AGUIRRE, business owner (through translator): Since 2009, it has been a torture. We have got to a point when this is impossible. Not only we do not have any profits, but we just can't keep our activity, guaranteeing the salaries of our staff.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was announced yesterday that Spanish banks badly damaged by the housing bubble will undergo an extensive audit to ensure that they can survive. Banks in Greece saw a modified run on their holdings earlier this week, as their fate in the Eurozone was openly debated in Brussels and on the streets of Athens.

A once-unthinkable return to the traditional drachma currency was on many Athenians' minds.

MAN (through translator): I prefer euro to drachma.

MAN: Euro is for Merkel, not for Greeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Whether the Greeks stay with the euro may now rest on the outcome of elections next month. They were mandated after voting this month failed to produce a government.

"Fate of Eurozone: Back on the Brink?" (Part-2)
PBS Newshour 5/24/2012

COMMENT: When will the EU get its act together, not soon IMHO. This is bad since this effects our U.S. economy and the rest of the world.

As to the primary concern, Greece, they are paying for decades of bad economic policies. We should not be surprised that the Greek citizen does not want to pay the piper. This is a no-win situation.

PAKISTAN - Doctor's Conviction and Effect on Aid Groups

"U.S.-Pakistani Relations Roiled Again With Punishment of Man Who Helped CIA" (Part-1) PBS Newshour 5/24/2012


MARGARET WARNER (Newshour): It's been a year since the U.S. raid on this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killed Osama bin Laden and roiled relations between the two countries.

Yesterday, there was fresh fallout, when a Pakistani court sentenced this man, Dr. Shakil Afridi, to 33 years in prison. Afridi, seen here highlighted in red, was convicted of treason for trying to help the CIA track down bin Laden. He was arrested after word leaked that he set up a vaccination program in Abbottabad to try to collect DNA samples from bin Laden's compound.

In Washington today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there was no basis for Afridi's conviction or sentence.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: His help, after all, was instrumental in taking down one of the world's most notorious murderers. That was clearly in Pakistan's interests, as well as ours and the rest of world. This action by Dr. Afridi to help bring about the end of the reign of terror designed and executed by bin Laden wasn't in any way a betrayal of Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: The trial took place in Pakistan's Khyber tribal region, a semiautonomous zone where Afridi was raised.

There, courts are governed by a separate set of laws, which human rights groups have criticized for failing to observe basic rights. The case also prompted the Pakistanis to impose new curbs on humanitarian organizations. Afridi had told investigators that one such group, Save the Children, introduced him to the CIA.

News of the doctor's sentence came just days after disappointment at the NATO summit added to tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan. The two sides failed to reach agreement on reopening NATO supply routes into Afghanistan. They have been closed since a U.S. airstrike killed two dozen Pakistani troops last fall.

Meanwhile, back in Washington today, a U.S. Senate committee voted to cut aid to Pakistan by $33 million, $1 million for every year of Dr. Afridi's sentence.

"Bin Laden Raid Led to 'Chilling Effect' on Aid Groups in Pakistan" (Part-2)
PBS Newshour 5/24/2012

TECHNOLOGY - View on Man vs Machine

"Man vs. Machine: Will Human Workers Become Obsolete?" PBS Newshour 5/24/2012


SUMMARY: Part of his series on Making Sen$e of financial news, Paul Solman has been showcasing the future of technology from a recent conference run by a California think tank -- things such as 3-D printing of prosthetic legs and iPhone heart tests. But the conference also resurfaced an age-old question about the future of human workers.

More significant excerpts

VIVEK WADHWA, Singularity University: One of the problems in America is that we believe that education ends when you graduate from college. Wrong. In the new world, in the new era of technology, we're going to have to realize that education begins when you graduate, when you join the work force.

We have to keep our skills current. We have to keep learning. We have to keep adapting to technology. That's how we're going to create employment.

PAUL SOLMAN (Newshour): Co-founder Gabriel Adauto worries not about putting teachers out of work, but about getting their digitally undereducated students into the game.

GABRIEL ADAUTO, co-founder, Motion Math: The digital divide is a big problem. Although national unemployment is high, we're having trouble finding the engineers we need in our small company.

PAUL SOLMAN: And those engineers, says partner Jacob Klein, will be part of the Motion Math mission.

JACOB KLEIN, Motion Math: The kids who play our games are going to have better math skills, they're going to be more likely to master engineering skills that will make them employable in the future. It's a long-term strategy, but I think creating better science, technology, engineering, math education is really the route of solving the digital divide.

VIVEK WADHWA: Right now, the apps economy, building up the applications for devices like this (SmartPhones, etc.), employs half-a-million Americans. It came out of nowhere. So what's going to happen is that the convergence of these technologies will create jobs in areas we can't even think of.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

EGYPT - First Elections Overview

"Millions in Egypt Cast Ballots in First Free Election" (Part-1) PBS Newshour 5/23/2012

GWEN IFILL (Newshour): All across Egypt, people did something today that they'd never done before, voting in a genuinely competitive election for president.

For some, it was a day to savor new freedoms. For others, there was skepticism about what comes next.

Millions of Egyptians waited hours in line for the chance to cast a history-making ballot. Voters went to the polls 15 months after mass protests toppled President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years. Election monitors said the first of two days of voting went smoothly.

MOHAMED FAYEK, vice president, National Council for Human Rights (through translator): We have received some complaints about the delay in opening some of the polling stations and about campaigning in front of the polling stations, but these were few, and we immediately contacted those responsible and put an end to these violations.

GWEN IFILL: Fifty million people were eligible to choose from a field of 13 candidates. They included figures from the Mubarak regime and leaders of the Islamist parties that dominated elections for parliament earlier this year.

Among the four main candidates, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamist group, many of his supporters favor installing a version of Islamic Sharia law.

AYAT ADBEL HAMID, Egypt (through translator): I believe that Egypt has to be an Islamic state that follows the Islamic Sharia, and those who refuse using the Sharia do not really understand it, which is why they are against following it.

GWEN IFILL: Another Islamist, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, is considered a moderate, with support from secular liberals and minority Christians. The leading secular candidates include Mubarak's former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who insisted he was his own man then and now.

AHMED SHAFIQ, Egyptian presidential candidate: I worked for myself. I worked for my family. I worked for the big family of Egypt, not for someone or for regime.

GWEN IFILL: Former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa is also a veteran of the Mubarak years, but says he firmly supports Egypt's turn to democracy.

AMR MOUSSA, Egyptian presidential candidate (through translator): This is a good start for the second republic, and if God wills it, the majority of votes will bring the right president to Egypt.

GWEN IFILL: Many of those votes were expected to be influenced by rising concerns about crime and the economy.

FATHEYA MOHAMED, Egypt (through translator): Regardless of the fact that Mubarak was corrupt, life was easier. Life was a lot cheaper.

GWEN IFILL: And no matter who wins, it remains unclear whether the losers will accept the outcome and whether the ruling military council will readily cede power. Voting lasts through tomorrow, with a runoff likely in mid-June and a winner announced June 21.

"Egypt's Historic Election: 'Even the Most Jaded Were Moved'" (Part-2)
PBS Newshour 5/23/2012

PBS Newshour Slide-Show

IRAN - Nuclear Talks Update

Off the bat, I do NOT trust Iran as far as I could pickup the White House and throw it across the Potomac River.

"Iran Holds New Talks Over Curbing Nuclear Program" (Part-1) PBS Newshour 5/23/2012


JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour): For the cameras at least, there were smiles among the diplomats who gathered in Baghdad today. Iran's top negotiator and the European Union's foreign policy chief were among those arriving for the latest talks. The same parties met last month in Istanbul, Turkey.

Today, the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany presented a proposal to rein in Iran's uranium enrichment and prevent any move to building nuclear weapons.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the detailed proposal included unspecified "confidence-building" measures.

VICTORIA NULAND, State Department spokeswoman: What we are endeavoring to do is to lay out a path for Iran to demonstrate the peaceful intent. We will see how that goes, but, as we have said consistently, we need concrete actions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Iran has said its program is only for peaceful purposes. It made a counteroffer today, apparently aimed at easing the bite of international economic sanctions.

A breakthrough appeared unlikely, but there were signs that some progress might be possible. On Monday, the head of the U.N. nuclear agency, the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, met with the Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in Tehran. As a result, Amano said a deal could be in the works to give U.N. inspectors access to critical Iranian sites, including the top-secret Parchin military complex seen here in a satellite image.

YUKIYA AMANO, director general, International Atomic Energy Agency: A decision was made by me and Mr. Jalili to reach agreement on the structured approach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amid the diplomacy, the threat of military action loomed in the background, in the form of possible airstrikes by Israel or the U.S. to destroy Iran's nuclear sites before any bomb can be built.

"Iranian Nuclear Talks: Are Expectations Seriously Mismatched?"
PBS Newshour 5/23/2012

HISTORY - San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge at 75

"As Golden Gate Bridge Turns 75, History Revised to Honor Engineer" PBS Newshour 5/23/2012


GWEN IFILL (Newshour): ..... the Golden Gate Bridge, an icon of American engineering and architecture, turns 75 this week. Its impact, its legacy and even some of the controversy that initially surrounded it are once again the center of attention.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our story.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even before it opened on May 27, 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge was hailed as a modern wonder, a spectacular feat of engineering. In the midst of the Great Depression, the bridge, then the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, brought hope and pride to a city and a country in need of optimism. It was far more than a roadway linking San Francisco with counties to the north.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

WALL STREET - The Facebook IPO Fiasco

"Facebook I.P.O. Raises Regulatory Concerns" by EVELYN M. RUSLI and MICHAEL J. DE LA MERCED, New York Times 5/22/2012


Just days before Facebook went public, some big investors grew nervous about the company’s prospects.

After publicly warning about challenges in mobile advertising, Facebook executives held conference calls to update their banks’ analysts on the business. Analysts at Morgan Stanley and other firms soon started advising clients to dial back their expectations. One prospective buyer was told that second-quarter revenue could be 5 percent lower than the bank’s earlier estimates.

As investors tried to digest the developments, Morgan Stanley was busy setting the price and the size of the stock offering. While some big institutions scaled back on their plans, others placed large orders. And retail investors clamored for shares.

In the end, Facebook and the Morgan Stanley bankers decided they had enough demand and interest for Facebook to justify an offering price of $38 a share.

They didn’t.

When Facebook went public on Friday, its shares barely budged — and they have been falling ever since. On Tuesday, the stock closed at $31, more than 18 percent below its offering price.

The I.P.O. of Facebook was supposed to be Morgan Stanley’s crowning achievement, but it is turning out to be a big embarrassment, raising broader questions from regulators about the I.P.O. process.

Over the last year, Morgan helped usher in a new generation of technology companies, leading the offerings of LinkedIn, Groupon, Pandora and more than a dozen other start-ups. Facebook was poised to be the biggest and most ambitious. When the dust settles, Morgan Stanley could make more than $100 million in fees on the I.P.O.

But rival bankers and big investors have complained that Morgan Stanley botched the debut. They contend that the bank set the price too high and sold too many shares to the public. Facebook’s management team is also shouldering some blame. David Ebersman, the company’s chief financial officer, spent more than a year orchestrating the stock offering, drafting the prospectus and meeting with investors long before the company picked its bankers.

"Facebook's 'Botched' IPO: What Went Wrong and Why?"
PBS Newshour 5/23/2012

COMMENT: Do you wonder if Wall Street has learned ANYTHING from our nation's recent economic crash (and 'crash' is an applicable term)? I don't think so.

EDUCATION - The Worth of College

"College: 'The Best Rehearsal Spaces We Have for Democracy'" PBS Newshour 5/22/2012


SUMMARY: In "College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be," Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco presents a biting defense of a traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education -- as opposed to a pre-professional training experience increasingly popular in a tough economy. Jeffrey Brown hosts the conversation.

COMMENT: I shouldn't have to say, but Mr. Delbanco is not exactly objective. Having said that....

Significant excerpt

ANDREW DELBANCO: ... I think that we want to keep in mind as firmly as we can and we want to defend this historical function of the American college, which is to help students discover themselves and to become citizens, not just competent employees, but thoughtful citizens. And that includes self-criticism.

There are ways to do that by, I think notably, having those students participate in classes which are, in my mind, the best rehearsal spaces we have for democracy. The college classroom should be a place where students learn to speak with civility, to listen with respect to each other, to know the difference between an argument based on evidence and an opinion, and most of all to realize that they might walk into the room with one point of view and they might walk out with another.

That adds up to a certain kind of humility. And I think all of our colleges have the responsibility to try to inculcate that as much as possible.

I totally agree with the above excerpt, and note I did not go to college. Just high school and technical training that gave me a very good career before I retired.

But some reminders from the 'I need a job' view:

  • Only some professions REQUIRE a college education (doctors, lawyers, etc.).
  • Students need not go to college directly from high school, especially considering the cost. There are other routes; get a job that is in a field you are considering for college (test the waters concept), go to a community college first, just to name two.
  • Students need to evaluate the availability of job in the profession/area of study. If the job market is bad, they MAY want to consider another field of study.
  • A Liberal Arts degree does give the widest opportunity in getting a job later in life. That is, except for the special professions you need not need college to train for a specific profession. Later you can  work for a more formal degree while on-the-job.
  • There is nothing WRONG with technical schools or training. Note that a trained machinist can make more that a person with a college degree, especially in today's job market.
Of course, this is just my opinion.