Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bush Suicidal!

Back Issues

The day the newspaper died.

Colonial newspapers, burdened by a new tax, floridly staged their demise. Liberty, they warned, would perish with them.

by Jill Lepore

Colonial newspapers, burdened by a new tax, floridly staged their demise. Liberty, they warned, would perish with them.The newspaper is dead. You can read all about it online, blog by blog, where the digital gloom over the death of an industry often veils, if thinly, a pallid glee. The Newspaper Death Watch, a Web site, even has a column titled "R.I.P." Or, hold on, maybe the newspaper isn't quite dead yet. At its funeral, wild-eyed mourners spy signs of life. The newspaper stirs!

The last time the American newspaper business got this gothic was 1765, just after the first gothic novel, Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto," was published, in London, and, in an unrelated development, Parliament decided to levy on the colonies a new tax, requiring government-issued stamps on pages of printed paper—everything from indenture agreements to bills of credit to playing cards. The tax hit printers hard, at a time when printers were also the editors of newspapers, and sometimes their chief writers, too. The Stamp Act—the "fatal Black-Act," one printer called it—was set to go into effect on November 1, 1765. Beginning that day, printers were to affix stamps to their pages and to pay tax collectors a halfpenny for every half sheet—amounting, ordinarily, to a penny for every copy of every issue of every newspaper—and a two-shilling tax on every advertisement. Printers insisted that they could not bear this cost. It would spell the death of the newspaper.

On October 10, 1765, an Annapolis printer changed his newspaper's title to the Maryland Gazette, Expiring. Its motto: "In uncertain Hopes of a Resurrection to Life again." Later that month, the printer of the Pennsylvania Journal replaced his newspaper's masthead with a death's-head and framed his front page with a thick black border in the shape of a gravestone. "Adieu, Adieu," the Journal whispered. On October 31st, the New-Hampshire Gazette appeared with black mourning borders and, in a column on page 1, lamented its own demise: "I must Die!" The Connecticut Courant quoted the book of Samuel: "Tell it not in Gath! publish it not in Askalon!" The newspaper is dead!

Or, then as now, not quite dead yet. "Before I make my Exit," the New-Hampshire Gazette told its readers, "I will recount over some of the many good Deeds I have done, and how useful I have been, and still may be, provided my Life should be spar'd; or I might hereafter revive again." The list of deeds ran to three columns. Nothing good in the world had ever happened but that a printer set it in type. "Without this Art of communicating to the Public, how dull and melancholy must all the intelligent Part of Mankind appear?" But, besides the settling over the land of a pall of dullness and melancholy, what else happens when a newspaper dies? In one allegory published during the Stamp Act crisis, a tearful LIBERTY cries to her dying brother, GAZETTE, "Unless thou revivest quickly, I shall also perish with thee! In our Lives we were not divided; in our Deaths we shall not be separated!"


Army charity hoards millions

FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) - The biggest charity inside the U.S. military has been hoarding tens of millions of dollars meant to help put fighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan back on their feet.

An Associated Press investigation shows that between 2003 and 2007, the Army Emergency Relief grew into a $345 million behemoth. During those years, the charity packed away $117 million into its own reserves while spending just $64 million on direct aid.

That's at a time when many military families were struggling with long war deployments and increased numbers of home foreclosures.

The Fort Bliss-based charity is tax-exempt and legally separate from the military but really operates under close Army control. The massive nonprofit is funded primarily by the troops themselves. It allows superiors to squeeze soldiers for contributions, forces struggling soldiers to repay loans and often violates its own rules by rewarding donors.

AER executives defend their operation, insisting they need to keep sizable reserves to be ready for future catastrophes.


Sexy scandal could destroy Obama!

The Floating Labor Camps of the Now

According to the Financial Times, this is the former prison ship that houses foreign workers employed at Lindsey Refinery, at Grimsby docks.

In the last few weeks fierce demonstrations and strikes have erupted across Britain over the issue of foreign labor. "Some 6,000 workers across over 20 construction sites at power stations and oil refineries took unofficial action as part of the dispute" from sites all across England, Scotland and Wales.

This all seems to have ignited around some of the dealings at the Kent power station, which – as far as I can tell – has been subcontracting major labor contracts to firms who use foreign laborers exclusively, which of course has set off a firestorm over cheap labor moving in on the territory of the local workforce.

Tough times, tough economies, the borders of desperate capitalism bursting wide open at the seams.
Now, admittedly I know nothing about this situation. There are apparently a number of firms who have been granted contracts that UK labor unions claim have been dolling out work to non-British citizens: from Polish and Lithuanian construction workers to Italian and Portuguese, primarily.

The Socialist Worker made this comment: "Behind the rash of strikes in the construction industry lies a concerted attempt by multinational construction companies to tear up hard-won agreements covering the safety, wages and conditions on multi-million pound sites." In the same article they point to the Financial Times who reported "building bosses admitting to using the subcontracting system to try and hold down militancy in the industry." The real reason, Socialist Worker says groups of workers are being shipped in is to control the subcontracting system.

It's not a surprise, nor is it even remotely unfathomable.

But, labor politics aside, what caught my attention in all of this was the vessel one company has used to bring over Italian laborers and house them as well, moored on the docks for the duration of their contract.
According to this article, it is quite literally an old prison barge that's been converted into dismally cheap shelter. Not only is the interior what you mght expect of an old prison ship, but "Italian workers living there claimed they could not leave it without being attacked by angry locals." They are being vanned in to the sites for their protection.

Wow. Not only is it literally and functionally an old prison ship but by virtue of the violence looming on the outside of those walls they are even all the more confined there.

Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street

In the mid-'80s, Wall Street turned to the quants—brainy financial engineers—to invent new ways to boost profits. Their methods for minting money worked brilliantly... until one of them devastated the global economy.
By Felix Salmon

A year ago, it was hardly unthinkable that a math wizard like David X. Li might someday earn a Nobel Prize. After all, financial economists—even Wall Street quants—have received the Nobel in economics before, and Li's work on measuring risk has had more impact, more quickly, than previous Nobel Prize-winning contributions to the field. Today, though, as dazed bankers, politicians, regulators, and investors survey the wreckage of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, Li is probably thankful he still has a job in finance at all. Not that his achievement should be dismissed. He took a notoriously tough nut—determining correlation, or how seemingly disparate events are related—and cracked it wide open with a simple and elegant mathematical formula, one that would become ubiquitous in finance worldwide.

For five years, Li's formula, known as a Gaussian copula function, looked like an unambiguously positive breakthrough, a piece of financial technology that allowed hugely complex risks to be modeled with more ease and accuracy than ever before. With his brilliant spark of mathematical legerdemain, Li made it possible for traders to sell vast quantities of new securities, expanding financial markets to unimaginable levels.

His method was adopted by everybody from bond investors and Wall Street banks to ratings agencies and regulators. And it became so deeply entrenched—and was making people so much money—that warnings about its limitations were largely ignored.

Then the model fell apart. Cracks started appearing early on, when financial markets began behaving in ways that users of Li's formula hadn't expected. The cracks became full-fledged canyons in 2008—when ruptures in the financial system's foundation swallowed up trillions of dollars and put the survival of the global banking system in serious peril.

David X. Li, it's safe to say, won't be getting that Nobel anytime soon. One result of the collapse has been the end of financial economics as something to be celebrated rather than feared. And Li's Gaussian copula formula will go down in history as instrumental in causing the unfathomable losses that brought the world financial system to its knees.


Gold fever sweeps suburbia

As prices soar and personal finances sour, Californians are selling off their old jewelry to generate extra cash.
By Tiffany Hsu
Unwanted gold jewelry is melted down at NTR Metals in downtown Los Angeles'
jewelry district to be formed into bars and eventually recycled into new coins and trinkets.

Juggling glasses of white wine and baggies filled with baubles, dozens of women descended on a well-appointed Orange County home this week to trade in their old golden treasures for hefty checks.

There were earrings from ex-boyfriends, ring settings with missing stones and chain bracelets from sorority sisters. One woman brought in her husband's wedding ring -- from a previous marriage.
Julia Geivet, 39, had hopes of selling an "embarrassing" Italian horn bauble she had owned since eighth grade and a few other small trinkets, which she thought might get her $30.

"I figured I'd come get a little money and socialize and chat," said Geivet, who was recently laid off as a manager at Verizon Communications Inc. "It might not come out to a lot, but right now, every little bit helps."

She left with a check for $302.92.

Gold is hot. The precious metal soared $25.70 an ounce Friday to $1,001.80, topping the $1,000 mark for the first time in nearly a year. South African Krugerrands, American Eagles and other gold coins are in demand as people seek safe investment havens in uncertain times.

That has people digging through their drawers and jewelry boxes looking for watchbands, cuff links, chains and bracelets that can be sold to jewelers, pawnshops and other brokers to be melted down to feed the growing demand for gold coins.

When is a free credit report not a free credit report?

Free Credit ReportI pride myself on being able to recognize an online scam when I see one, but I was recently taken in by a website promising free credit reports, but which actually sneakily charges your credit card for a service you probably don't want.

Several years ago, the Federal Trade Commission started requiring the national credit reporting companies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—to provide people with a free copy of their personal credit report on request. There's a web site to get your credit report: annualcreditreport.com. I've used it in the past to check my credit history and look for anymistakes or evidence of identity theft.

Last month, I decided it was time to take another look at my credit report (the FTC says you're entitled to one free report every twelve months). I couldn't remember the name of the website , so I typed in "free credit report" on Google*,. The first link was for www.freecreditreport.com. I clicked it was sent to a Web page with a bold headline stating: "America's #1 Free Online Credit Report!" It was run by Experian, one of the big three reporting agencies, which reassured me that I had come to the right place.

I clicked on the large bright orange button that said "Get your Free Credit Report & Score!" and was presented with a form. I filled it out. I hesitated for a second when the site asked for my credit card number, which it stated was "required to establish your account," but the site assured me that my "credit card will not be charged during the free trial period." Having done this before (or so I thought), I went ahead and entered the information. A shopping cart receipt indicated that the total was $0.00.

I got my credit report, looked it over, and forgot about it. A week later I was looking at my checking account register online and I noticed a $14.95 charge from a company called CIC*Triple Advantage. I didn't recall buying anything from a company with that name, so I entered "CIC*Triple Advantage" into Google. The search results made my eyes bug out of my head. This was the name of the billing entity for freecreditreport.com. The thousands of search results were full of words like "deceptive practices," "scam," "ripoff," "unauthorized billing!" and "beware!" In fact, all the top results were either from people complaining that they'd been conned into signing up for a $14.95 monthly credit monitoring service without their permission, or they were about how to cancel the service.

Angered that I had been duped so easily, I went back to the freecreditreport.com site and took a closer look. I found fine print that stated: "If you don't cancel your membership within the 7-day trial period, you will be billed $14.95 for each month that you continue your membership." Why didn't I see this earlier? Because the site had practically hidden this information in a powder blue box with blue text, making it almost invisible in comparison with the shiny orange "Click here to see your Free Credit Report & Score!" button.

There was no way to cancel the service online—you had to call them. It took me a couple of days to get through to the website's customer care departmentby phone (1-888-829-6560) because the phone either rang and rang or it would simply disconnect after a few rings. I finally got through to a woman who worked there. She was pleasant, and I was pleasant with her. I told her to cancel my account. She responded by reading from a script designed to a) blame me for signing up for the service, and b) persuade me not to cancel. I insisted that I was not aware that I has signed up for the service and that I wanted it to be canceled immediately. She finally consented, and sent me an email message confirming that my subscription had been canceled. But they didn't refund my $14.95. I felt that wasn't fair, so I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, pointing out that if your enter "freecreditreport.com scam" into Google, you get 83,300 search results. After a bit of back and forth with the company, I got a refund.

The lessons here?

  1. Read the fine print.
  2. Don't ever give out your credit card number unless you know exactly what the requester is going to do with it.
  3. If you want a truly free credit report use annualcreditreport.com, not freecreditreport.com.

Old Jews Telling Jokes

Larry Donsky, "Hospital"

Since his retirement a few years ago, Larry Donsky has lived in an active-adult community in New Jersey where he sits as Chairman of the Entertainment Committee.

Malcolm Busch, "Drobkin"

Malcolm Busch is a first-cousin of my father's. "Drobkin" is an outstanding example of a story that is well-practiced and honed to perfection. I especially love his use of the word "stripling." Right now, I laughed a little just typing that word. Stripling.

Barnett Hoffman, "Fidelity"

Barnett Hoffman is my dad. He was a criminal judge in New Jersey for twenty years where he would occasionally crack jokes from the bench. (Lawyers were not required to laugh but the smart ones did.) He was also the casting director for this project.

The Real Israel-Palestine story is in the West Bank

Israel's targeting of civilian resistance to the separation wall proves the two-state solution is now just a meaningless slogan

By Ben White

It is quite likely that you have not heard of the most important developments this week in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the West Bank, while it has been "occupation as normal", there have been some events that together should be overshadowing Gaza, Gilad Shalit and Avigdor Lieberman.

First, there have been a large number of Israeli raids on Palestinian villages, with dozens of Palestinians abducted. These kinds of raids are, of course, commonplace for the occupied West Bank, but in recent days it appears the Israeli military has targeted sites of particularly strong Palestinian civil resistance to the separation wall.

For three consecutive days this week, Israeli forces invaded Jayyous, a village battling for survival as their agricultural land is lost to the wall and neighbouring Jewish colony. The soldiers occupied homes, detained residents, blocked off access roads, vandalised property, beat protestors, and raised the Israeli flag at the top of several buildings.

Jayyous is one of the Palestinian villages in the West Bank that has been non-violently resisting the separation wall for several years now. It was clear to the villagers that this latest assault was an attempt to intimidate the protest movement.

Also earlier this week, Israel tightened still further the restrictions on Palestinian movement and residency rights in East Jerusalem, closing the remaining passage in the wall in the Ar-Ram neighbourhood of the city. This means that tens of thousands of Palestinians are now cut off from the city and those with the right permit will now have to enter the city by first heading north and using the Qalandiya checkpoint.

Finally – and this time, there was some modest media coverage – it was revealed that the Efrat settlement near Bethlehem would be expanded by the appropriation of around 420 acres land as "state land". According to Efrat's mayor, the plan is to triple the number of residents in the colony.

Looked at together, these events in the West Bank are of far more significance than issues being afforded a lot of attention currently, such as the truce talks with Hamas, or the discussions about a possible prisoner-exchange deal. Hamas itself has become such a focus, whether by those who urge talks and cooption or those who advocate the group's total destruction, that the wider context is forgotten.

Hamas is not the beginning or the end of this conflict, a movement that has been around for just the last third of Israel's 60 years. The Hamas Charter is not a Palestinian national manifesto, and nor is it even particularly central to today's organisation. Before Hamas existed, Israel was colonising the occupied territories, and maintaining an ethnic exclusivist regime; if Hamas disappeared tomorrow, Israeli colonisation certainly would not.

Recognising what is happening in the West Bank also contextualises the discussion about Israel's domestic politics, and the ongoing question about the makeup of a ruling coalition. For the Palestinians, it does not make much difference who is eventually sitting around the Israeli cabinet table, since there is a consensus among the parties on one thing: a firm rejectionist stance with regards to Palestinian self-determination and sovereignty.


What Iran’s Jews Say


At Palestine Square, opposite a mosque called Al-Aqsa, is a synagogue where Jews of this ancient city gather at dawn. Over the entrance is a banner saying: "Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution from the Jewish community of Esfahan."

The Jews of Iran remove their shoes, wind leather straps around their arms to attach phylacteries and take their places. Soon the sinuous murmur of Hebrew prayer courses through the cluttered synagogue with its lovely rugs and unhappy plants. Soleiman Sedighpoor, an antiques dealer with a store full of treasures, leads the service from a podium under a chandelier.

I'd visited the bright-eyed Sedighpoor, 61, the previous day at his dusty little shop. He'd sold me, with some reluctance, a bracelet of mother-of-pearl adorned with Persian miniatures. "The father buys, the son sells," he muttered, before inviting me to the service.

Accepting, I inquired how he felt about the chants of "Death to Israel" — "Marg bar Esraeel" — that punctuate life in Iran.

"Let them say 'Death to Israel,' " he said. "I've been in this store 43 years and never had a problem. I've visited my relatives in Israel, but when I see something like the attack on Gaza, I demonstrate, too, as an Iranian."

The Middle East is an uncomfortable neighborhood for minorities, people whose very existence rebukes warring labels of religious and national identity. Yet perhaps 25,000 Jews live on in Iran, the largest such community, along with Turkey's, in the Muslim Middle East. There are more than a dozen synagogues in Tehran; here in Esfahan a handful caters to about 1,200 Jews, descendants of an almost 3,000-year-old community.

Over the decades since Israel's creation in 1948, and the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the number of Iranian Jews has dwindled from about 100,000. But the exodus has been far less complete than from Arab countries, where some 800,000 Jews resided when modern Israel came into being.

In Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Iraq — countries where more than 485,000 Jews lived before 1948 — fewer than 2,000 remain. The Arab Jew has perished. The Persian Jew has fared better.

Of course, Israel's unfinished cycle of wars has been with Arabs, not Persians, a fact that explains some of the discrepancy.

Still a mystery hovers over Iran's Jews. It's important to decide what's more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshipping in relative tranquillity.

Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.

That may be because I'm a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it's because I'm convinced the "Mad Mullah" caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.


So long mom

Soros sees no bottom for world financial "collapse"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Renowned investor George Soros said on Friday the world financial system has effectively disintegrated, adding that there is yet no prospect of a near-term resolution to the crisis.

Soros said the turbulence is actually more severe than during the Great Depression, comparing the current situation to the demise of the Soviet Union.

He said the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September marked a turning point in the functioning of the market system.

"We witnessed the collapse of the financial system," Soros said at a Columbia University dinner. "It was placed on life support, and it's still on life support. There's no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom."


Disappeared in the Name of National Security

Mohamed Farag Bashmilah by Mohamed Farag Bashmilah: Client of the International Human Rights Clinic at NYU

From October 2003 until May 2005, I was illegally detained by the U.S. government and held in CIA-run "black sites" with no contact with the outside world. On May 5, 2005, without explanation, my American captors removed me from my cell and cuffed, hooded, and bundled me onto a plane that delivered me to Sana'a, Yemen. I was transferred into the custody of my own government, which held me -- apparently at the behest of the United States -- until March 27, 2006, when I was finally released, never once having faced any terrorism-related charges. Since my release, the U.S. government has never explained why I was detained and has blocked all attempts to find out more about my detention.

What I do know is that the Jordanian government -- after torturing me for several days -- handed me over to a U.S. "rendition team" in Amman, which then abducted me, forced me onto a plane, and flew me to Afghanistan. During this, and several other transfers between CIA prisons, I was subjected to a brutal and deeply humiliating "preparation" ritual. I was stripped naked, dressed in a diaper, shackled, blindfolded and hooded, and then boarded onto a waiting plane. I was forced into painful positions, often reeling from the blows and kicks of the men who had "prepared" me for flight.

During my detention, I agonized constantly about my family back in Yemen, knowing they had no idea where I was. They never once received information about who had taken me, why I was taken, or even whether I was alive. They were never contacted by the U.S. government or the International Committee of the Red Cross. My mother and wife were in such anguish that they had to be hospitalized for illness, stress, and anxiety. My father passed away while I was disappeared and I am still distraught thinking that he died without knowing whether I was dead or alive. I continue to suffer from bouts of illness that medical doctors attribute to the treatment I experienced in the "black sites." My physical symptoms are made worse by the anxiety caused by never knowing where I was held, and not having any form of acknowledgment that I was disappeared and tortured by the U.S. government.

I believe that acknowledgment is the first step toward accounting for a wrongdoing. The American public needs to face what has happened to those of us who were disappeared and mistreated in the name of their national security, demand accountability for those who committed torture and other crimes, and acknowledge the suffering of those who became victims. Today, a group of concerned Americans called on President Obama to take the first steps to do just that, by demanding that he establish an independent commission of inquiry into the treatment of detainees in the "War on Terror."


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