Sunday, February 19, 2012

Greek crisis 'soon worse than Argentina's'

(ANSAmed) - ATHENS - The record is one that the birthplace of the Olympics would have been glad to see pass it by: the Greek crisis will soon surpass that of Argentina in terms of severity, with a GDP down by 16% since 2008, when the international crisis exploded.

Greece is about to become an unprecedented case in modern history. However, going around Athens and speaking to people there brings home the realization that behind all the percentages and talks with the troika there are the lives of people in the balance, struggling like never before. People - when asked ''How is the crisis going?'' - unleash on you all their rage and fears about the future.

Some state employees say they have seen their salaries cut in half, while the minimum monthly wages for the private sector will soon drop to 600 euros. Retirement age continues to slide farther and farther away. Some medicines have begun to become scarce, and many young couples with children have been forced to go back to living with their parents.

In Argentina at the height of the crisis, there were clashes and the 'protest of the pots-and-pans': the 'cacerolazo'. In Greece on Sunday there was instead what many see as ''only a taste'' of things to come: street battles between protestors and police, dozens of buildings and banks set on fire. Read More

After Layoffs, Execs Get Big Raises at Taxpayer-Funded A123

A taxpayer-funded electric vehicle battery company, that is considered in great danger due to its dependency on troubled EV company Fisker Automotive, has awarded its top executives big salary increases despite a steep downward trajectory in its stock price.

Massachusetts-based A123 Systems -- which received $279.1 million in stimulus money from the Department of Energy, and up to $135 million in incentives from the State of Michigan -- boosted the base salaries of two vice presidents and its chief financial officer on February 8.

Chief Financial Officer David Prystash was bumped 27 percent to $380,000; VP of Energy Solutions Robert Johnson’s base salary increased 51 percent from his 2010 level to $400,000; and VP of Automotive Systems Jason Forcier saw his pay rise 32 percent from 2010, to $350,000. The news was first reported by the Boston Web site of Citybizlist.com, which obtained the information from an A123 SEC filing. Read More

Foreclosure abuse rampant across U.S., experts say

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A report this week showing rampant foreclosure abuse in San Francisco reflects similar levels of lender fraud and faulty documentation across the United States, say experts and officials who have done studies in other parts of the country.

The audit of almost 400 foreclosures in San Francisco found that 84 percent of them appeared to be illegal, according to the study released by the California city on Wednesday.

"The audit in San Francisco is the most detailed and comprehensive that has been done - but it's likely those numbers are comparable nationally," Diane Thompson, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, told Reuters.

Across the country from California, Jeff Thingpen, register of deeds in Guildford County, North Carolina, examined 6,100 mortgage documents last year, from loan notes to foreclosure paperwork. Read More

Inside Facebook’s Outsourced Anti-Porn and Gore Brigade, Where ‘Camel Toes’ are More Offensive Than ‘Crushed Heads’

Amine Derkaoui, a 21-year-old Moroccan man, is pissed at Facebook. Last year he spent a few weeks training to screen illicit Facebook content through an outsourcing firm, for which he was paid a measly $1 an hour. He's still fuming over it.

"It's humiliating. They are just exploiting the third world," Derkaoui complained in a thick French accent over Skype just a few weeks after Facebook filed their record $100 billion IPO. As a sort of payback, Derkaoui gave us some internal documents, which shed light on exactly how Facebook censors the dark content it doesn't want you to see, and the people whose job it is to make sure you don't.

Facebook has turned the stuff its millions of users post into gold. But perhaps just as important as the vacation albums and shared articles is the content it keeps out of user's timelines: porn, gore, racism, cyberbullying, and so on. Facebook has fashioned itself the clean, well-lit alternative to the scary open Internet for both users and advertisers, thanks to the work of a small army of human content moderators like Derkaoui. Read More

Preventing a Blowout in the Arctic

In September 2011, Vladimir Putin announced a program to begin offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Russian Arctic. Putin is also interested in creating new sea terminals, which he said would rival the Suez and Panama Canals. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas lay beneath the Arctic Seas. The United States, Canada, Norway, Greenland, and Russia, which make up the Arctic 5, are each interested in tapping these Arctic energy reserves.

Russia, the largest oil producer of the five, gets nearly half of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from oil exports, a level comparable to Saudi Arabia. As a result, Putin perceives fossil fuels as vital to Russia’s economy and political stability. However, the extreme Arctic climate, characterized by unpredictable weather patterns, heaving sea ice, sub-zero temperatures, dense fog, and darkness half the year, requires specialized equipment. Russia holds a technological advantage over the other Arctic countries because it has already invested in 20 icebreakers, while Canada has 12 and the United States only one. Russia signed a deal with British Petroleum last month to explore the Arctic. Therefore, Russia is currently leading the extractive assault. Read More

Sanctions Begin to Bite in Tehran

As Iran remains defiant over its nuclear program, tough new sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union have sent prices for basic foodstuffs soaring on the streets of Tehran.

“Prices have been going up really quickly,” said Hossein, the co-owner of a downtown Tehran shop. “And businesses are suffering. People buy less, so we order less, and our suppliers suffer. It’s a chain reaction.”

“The government says inflation is at twenty percent, but the true figure is at least twice that,” he added. “Imported goods have been rising in price almost daily.”

A housewife doing her afternoon shopping smiled sadly when asked how her family was managing to cope with the newly exorbitant cost of living.

“It’s getting tough,” she said. “But what can we do?” Read More

Changing equations in Afghanistan: Is America going to stay after all?

February 16, 2012:

The Americans are now sending confusing signals on their withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan and their “dialogue” with the Taliban. Their NATO allies would like to pack up and leave immediately.

The Russians appear concerned regarding the American bases in Central Asia, even while keeping their Northern Supply Route open for American forces in Afghanistan. Accusing the Americans of involvement in espionage and destabilisation from Afghan soil, Iran is now making common cause with the Taliban, earlier regarded by it as an enemy.

Pakistan, America's “major non-NATO ally” in the “War on Terror,” now belatedly labelled a supporter of global terrorism, would love to see the Americans pack up and leave. India is working on a gas pipeline through the Af-Pak corridor for gas from Turkmenistan and is ready to invest billions of dollars in Afghanistan's coal, iron ore, copper and gold deposits.
CONDITIONS RELAXED

With Vice-President Joe Biden proclaiming that the Taliban shouldn't be regarded as a global terrorist group like the Al-Qaeda, the Americans have commenced a “dialogue” with the Taliban, which has left President Hamid Karzai dumbfounded, and the Pakistanis mystified. The Obama Administration has let it be known that Mullah Omar sent a message last summer indicating a readiness for dialogue. The earlier American conditions that the Taliban should renounce violence and accept the Afghans' Constitution have been dropped. Moreover, eyebrows have been raised at their readiness to remove hardcore Taliban leaders from the list of international terrorists. Read More

Foreclosure activity edges higher in January

LOS ANGELES – Banks took back more U.S. homes in January than in the previous month, the latest sign that foreclosures are accelerating after slowing sharply last year while lenders sorted out foreclosure-abuse claims.

Foreclosures rose 8% nationally last month from December, but were down 15% from a year earlier, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac said Thursday.

All told, 210,941 U.S. homes received a default notice, were scheduled for auction or were repossessed by a lender in January, RealtyTrac said. Read More

Forbes: Bernanke 'Supreme Socialist'

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is running the economy in such a heavy-handed manner that he more resembles a socialist strongman reminiscent of the Soviet Union than the head of the world's largest and most iconic of capitalist economies, former GOP presidential hopeful and publisher Steve Forbes writes.

By swelling the Fed's balance sheets via massive purchases of Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities from banks and by controlling interest rates and money supply with various monetary policy tools, Bernanke has become a "supreme socialist" who dictates how Americans manage their money.

"Our central bank tries to manipulate our economy in ways befitting a Soviet commissar. Take interest rates. Fixing the price of money is a form of price control, pure and simple," Forbes writes in a column in the magazine that bears his name.

Read more: Forbes: Bernanke 'Supreme Socialist'

The Maine Man: Did Ron Paul actually win Maine?

Bankrupt Rhode Island city pays employees $26,000… a month

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. --

Central Falls is Rhode Island's smallest city and also one of its poorest. Boarded up homes line many streets and one-quarter of the city's families live below the poverty line.

"The people are not getting better. Five years of tax increases, people who make $14,000 to $20,000 a year," said state Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls.

Some at City Hall make more money than that in a month.

Chief of Staff Gayle Corrigan has essentially replaced the mayor as the executive in charge and answers directly to state-appointed receiver Robert Flanders.

Corrigan owns Municipal Management Solutions, a company aimed at righting the city's sinking ship. For her services, she's paid $100 an hour. Her deputy gets $60 an hour. That's roughly $26,000 a month and more than $300,000 a year. All of it comes from the coffers of Central Falls.

"That's ridiculous. It's not right when we're not financially doing great in this city," said Luis Lubo, a Central Falls resident. Read More

300-Pound Naked Man Walks into Walmart, Steals Socks: Police

A 300-pound man was arrested after he was seen walking around an Exton, Pa., Walmart wearing nothing but socks. It was later discovered that the only apparel the man had on was stolen from the store, police say.

Employees at Walmart called police at about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, saying that there was a naked man walking around the store, authorities say.

When police arrived they found 32-year-old Verdon Lamont Taylor in the store wearing only socks, police say. When Taylor would not comply with officers, the 6-feet, 4-inch tall, 300-pound man was tasered and taken into custody. Taylor proceeded to spit in an officer’s face, police say.

MI5 files: Was Chaplin really a Frenchman and called Thornstein?

MI5 investigated whether Charlie Chaplin was actually a Frenchman called Israel Thornstein, previously secret files on the Hollywood film star have revealed.

Intelligence officers could find no trace of the actor's birth in Britain despite Chaplin always claiming he was born in London in 1889.

The mystery surrounding his origins emerged when the US authorities asked MI5 to look into the comic actor's background after he left America in 1952 under a cloud of suspicion over his communist links.

But British officers could find no birth certificate and the earliest official record was a passport issued in 1920.

They investigated suggestions he was born in Fontainebleau, near Paris, or nearby Melun, while the Americans claimed his real name was Israel Thornstein and raised the idea he may have been a Russian Jew.

Despite extensive searches, MI5 could find no evidence of any of the claims leaving his true origins a mystery to this day. Read More

Davina Travi seduced underage boys as reward for vandalising rival's car

The 42-year-old "struck a deal" with the schoolboys aged 13 and 14 after she was dumped by her boyfriend for another woman, it was alleged.

She is said to have asked them to damage the car of his new girlfriend Stacey Allright in return for sex.

The teenagers went and found Miss Allright's Peugeot 306 which they smashed up and brought Travi the number plate to prove they kept their end of the deal, it was said.

Travi was "as good as her word" and allegedly had full sex with the older boy in the bedroom of her home while her children weren't there before summoning the second one upstairs.

The mother-of-five had sexual intercourse with the younger boy before they both left, the court heard. Read More

Senate: Nuclear containment is not an option with Iran

A bipartisan slate of senators announced this afternoon they would reject “any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.”

Drawing a clear line in the sand, the senators – among them Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) – demanded that President Obama reject “any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat,” according to a new Senate resolution set to be unveiled later today.

The resolution “warns that time is limited to prevent the Iranian government from acquiring a nuclear weapon” and demands that the hostile regime immediately suspend all uranium enrichment activities.

Most noteworthy, perhaps, is the resolution’s thorough accounting of the Iranian regime’s hostile behavior. It details, for example, Iran’s connections to terror groups and its various efforts to harm U.S. interests across the Middle East.

“Iran has provided weapons, training, funding, and direction to terrorist groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Shiite militias in Iraq that are responsible for the murders of hundreds of American forces and innocent civilians,” the resolution declares.

It states unequivocally that Iran and nuclear weapons are simply anathema. Read More

REFILE-Al Gore takes aim at "unsustainable" capitalism

LONDON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore wants to end the default practice of quarterly earnings guidance and explore issuing loyalty-driven securities as part of an overhaul of capitalism which he says has turned many of the world's largest economies into hotbeds of irresponsible short-term investment.

Together with David Blood, senior partner of 'green' fund firm Generation Investment Management, the environmental activist has crafted a blueprint for "sustainable capitalism" he wants the financial industry to adopt to support lasting economic growth.

"While we believe that capitalism is fundamentally superior to any other system for organising economic activity, it is also clear that some of the ways in which it is now practised do not incorporate sufficient regard for its impact on people, society and the planet," Gore said.

At a briefing ahead of Thursday's launch, David Blood said capitalism has been blighted with short-termism and an obsession with instant investment results, which had ramped up market volatility, widened the gap between rich and poor and deflected attention from the deepening climate crisis. Read More

Can we shop our way out of a recession?

The retail sales data for January from the Office for National Statistics is stunningly good. One analyst has even said that he thought it had to be a mistake when he first saw the 0.9% rise today. There’s a lot of positive talk, prompted by the healthy figures, about how we might now avoid another quarter of contraction, and thus a return to recession.

A couple of caveats though.

First, the ONS data is massively at odds with the most recent survey by the British Retail Consortium, which suggested this was the second worst January for the sector in 17 years.

There’s a debate about which data is a better indicator. Both the ONS and the BRC say it’s their own. Frankly, I’m not qualified to judge. But the disagreement should give pause to anyone preparing the bunting.

Second, the idea that a lot of shopping translates into a healthy economy is dubious. This chart from Allan Monks of JP Morgan shows that the relationship between consumption – still one of the main drivers of our economy – and retail sales is actually rather weak. Read More

Vatican told to pay taxes as Italy tackles budget crisis

End of controversial property tax breaks leaves the Pope facing €600m-a-year bill.

After several years of scandal in which the Catholic Church has faced allegations of financial impropriety, paedophile priests and rumours of plots to kill the Pope, the Vatican is now facing a new €600m-a-year tax bill as Rome seeks to head off European Commission censure over controversial property tax breaks enjoyed by the Church.

As the EC heads closer to officially condemning the fiscal perks enjoyed by the Catholic Church and introduced by the Berlusconi administration, Prime Minister Mario Monti has written to the Competition Commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, saying that the Vatican will resume property tax, or Ici, payments.

Mr Almunia said in 2010 that the exemption amounted to state aid that might breach EU competition law. A parliamentary proposal by the Italian Radicals party last August to repeal the exemption, with a successful petition on Facebook, upped the pressure. A spokesman for Mr Almunia appeared to give the thumbs-up yesterday: "It is a proposal that constitutes a significant progress on the issue and I hope will be implemented," he said.

"This is a victory for public pressure," said Mario Staderini, the leader of the Italian Radicals party. "We've managed to break down – a little bit – the wall protecting the Church." Read More