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« Reply #5985 on: Apr 26, 2013, 07:12 AM »

Austerity blamed as unemployment soars in Spain and France

More than 6 million without jobs in Mariano Rajoy's Spain while figure in François Hollande's France is 3.2 million

Phillip Inman and Giles Tremlett in Madrid
The Guardian, Thursday 25 April 2013 19.55 BST   

Unemployment has soared to records in both France and Spain as the impact of government spending cuts and a collapse in consumer confidence forced employers to shed thousands of workers.

Spain's persistent rise in unemployment reached new heights over the first three month of this year, leaving a record 27% of the workforce jobless.

Spain now has 6.2 million unemployed after a 23-month run of falling employment figures, with the young and those living in the south of the country particularly hard hit as the economy continues to shrink.

Almost six out of every 10 people under the age of 25 who are not studying are now jobless, with the rate at 57%.

In France, the number of people out of work reached a record 3.2 million in March in a blow to socialist president François Hollande, who has struggled to stabilise the economy in the face of declining exports and a fall in domestic demand.

The figures triggered a heated debate about Europe's austerity drive with leading IMF and European Central Bank officials sharply at odds.

Some eurozone officials believe now is the time to ease back on debt-cutting drives because calmer financial markets are less easily panicked.

The IMF is also calling for a relaxation in austerity drives – for both the eurozone and Britain – but Germany and the ECB are opposed.

"There is … a risk that Europe could fall into stagnation, which would have very serious implications for households, companies [and] banks," IMF first deputy managing director David Lipton told a conference in London.

"To decisively avoid that dangerous downside, policymakers must act now to strengthen the prospects for growth," he said.

But ECB executive board member Jörg Asmussen urged governments to push on with budget consolidation and reforms.

"Delaying fiscal consolidation is not an easy way out. If it were, we would have taken it," Asmussen said.

"Delaying fiscal consolidation is no free lunch. It means higher debt levels. And this has real costs in the euro area where public debts are already very high."

The ECB is expected by many to cut interest rates next week, although a quarter-point reduction is unlikely to lift the eurozone economy out of recession.

"It will probably require additional unconventional measures from the ECB," Lipton said, while Asmussen said monetary policy was not an "all-purpose weapon".

But German chancellor Angela Merkel intervened in the debate yesterday saying the ECB was "in a difficult position,"

"For Germany it would actually have to raise rates slightly at the moment, but for other countries it would have to do even more for more liquidity to be made available."

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy plans to announce measures on Friday designed to promote growth while keeping public spending cuts in place.

The economy shrank 1.9% over the last year and is not expected to return to growth until the end of this year or 2014.

Analysts agree new jobs will not be created until growth rises above 1%, which seems unlikely until well into next year – by which time 2 million people are likely to have been unemployed for more than three years.

Spain posted Europe's worst budget deficit last year and, although part of that was a one-off €41bn (£35bn) payment to rescue the country's banks, it will still struggle to meet the deficit targets set by Brussels without pushing even more people into unemployment.

This year's deficit target is currently 4.5% of GDP, though that looks likely to be relaxed amid the Europe-wide recession.

Household spending power has fallen to 2001 levels, thanks to a combination of unemployment, falling salaries and increased income and sales taxes, with almost one in three Spanish households now struggling to pay monthly bills.

"This has grown brutally in recent years," said Carlos Susías of the Network against Poverty and Social Exclusion.

In France, a wave of industrial layoffs sent unemployment soaring further over the 3 million level hit last August and the previous all-time record of 3,195,500 set in January 1997.

Hollande reaffirmed his goal to reverse the rising trend, calling on his government to combine with industry and other players to use all means possible to create jobs.

"Everything the government does, in every ministry, must be to continue to strengthen the battle for jobs," he said. "I want all the French people to unite behind this one national priority."

Carmakers headed a list of businesses laying off workers. PSA Peugeot Citroen is scrapping more than 10,000 domestic jobs and rival Renault aims to cut 7,500 posts in France by 2016.
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« Reply #5986 on: Apr 26, 2013, 07:14 AM »

Does Spain's housing crisis offer us a glimpse of the future?

Though Spanish law is more sympathetic to tenants than the UK judiciary, it offers creative ideas for coping with housing pressures

Ben Reeve-Lewis
Guardian Professional, Friday 26 April 2013 08.45 BST   

A recent trip to Spain and a perusal of a selection of English ex-pat newspapers offered some interesting insights into the nature of the country's housing crisis, and the way the Spanish people and their government are responding to it.

Admittedly the Spanish situation is heavily underpinned by critical levels of unemployment, with some areas seeing 40% of the workforce out of work. Yet the toxic combination of an economy based on cuts, rising rent, mortgage repossessions and direct action by squatters provide parallels that may provide a glimpse into Britain's near future.

Spain responded to recession by implementing cuts in welfare benefits, leading to an exponential rise in the number of tenant evictions and mortgage repossessions.

The Spanish mortgage system is different from the UK in several respects: a home owner can find their property reposessed easily, if they fall into just one month's arrears, and a bank is entitled to be repaid the full loan amount at that point – even if the borrower has already paid back 50% of the original loan. If a bank repossesses and sells a property on, it is allowed to keep the entire sum raised at sale even if the loan is cleared and there is an excess.

Spanish judges have been protesting, thinking up creative ways to block evictions. So many Spanish citizens have committed suicide after being repossessed that a new movement has been established, the Mortgage Victims Platform, which has been busy picketing the houses of politicians to raise awareness of the crisis.

According to the National News on 17 April 2013, the General Secretary and regional premier of Castilla-la Mancha, for the ruling Partido Popular (PP) called these protests "Pure Nazism". Sigrid Soria, an MP for the PP, was suspended following Twitter comments in which he said "I will beat the shit out of any hippy who tries to harass or intimidate me".

The police are also taking action against the protests. Madrid Police chief Alfonso Jose Fernandez announced this month that he is prepared to arrest people who gather outside of politicians homes. Prosecution brings a €6,000 fine.

The Spanish housing crisis has also given rise to 'corralas', where groups of people take over apartment buildings that are left unoccupied. Unlike squatters, they approach the landlord and offer them a low rent in return for the chance to stay in the accommodation. If they can prove it will be their primary residence, courts can overrule a landlord's objection and the mortgage company can't intervene.

To establish any sort of occupancy rights under UK law, the landlord would have to agree to receive money from the occupiers from the outset, so a corrala couldn't work in the same way here. In fact, Spanish law tends to veer in favour of the tenant more generally.

On 9 April 2013 the Junta de Andalucía, the Spanish version of the local authority, ushered in new legislation to "ensure that housing performs its social function". According to Euro Weekly News, an English language newspaper for the Costa del Sol, a 47-year-old disabled woman and her unemployed 19-year-old son living in Estepona were the first to benefit from this new by-law when she could not pay her rent, following a costly operation that she was paying for.

The courts granted possession to the landlord but a local campaign group stepped in using the new edict blocking eviction, arguing that as the landlord owned two apartment blocks he or she could wear the loss. The courts allowed the family to stay.

Britons have yet to start protesting with any real force at government cuts and housing reposessions. But in terms of problems – and of possible solutions – Spain provides an interesting roadmap for Britian's housing future.

Ben Reeve-Lewis is a director of Easy Law Training and an expert in housing and tenancy issues

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« Reply #5987 on: Apr 26, 2013, 07:18 AM »

Bitcoin: the Berlin streets where you can shop with virtual money

The digital currency is rising in popularity among traders in the rebellious Kreuzberg area of Germany's capital

Kate Connolly and Guy Grandjean in Berlin, Friday 26 April 2013 11.08 BST   

In Kreuzberg, Berlin, Bitcoin has expanded off the internet into the local economy.

Link to video: Bitcoin: world's fastest growing currency migrates off the internet

Nadim Chebli remembers well the first of his customers who decided to pay for the records they bought with virtual currency rather than cash or credit cards.

"I'd only just agreed to accept Bitcoins," said the 36-year-old owner of the Long Player record shop, "and the first sales I made in it came pretty quickly, from a guy about my age who bought Tom Waits's The Big Time and a young woman who bought a Beatles compilation from 1967."

In the few months since Chebli signed up to the peer-to-peer electronic cash system, he finds it hard to come up with definitive characteristics for the "typical" Bitcoin user who walks off the street into what he describes as his "vinyl living room". "There's no typical age group, or sex, just, well, regular folk," he said.

Florentina Martens has had the same experience since opening her Parisian-style cafe Floor's two months ago just a couple of streets away. "There is not a prototype Bitcoin payer," she said. "It's random people. Not only nerds, let me put it that way."

Like Chebli, Martens, whose Kersenvlaai (cherry cake) from her native Maastricht is rated as one of the best culinary offerings of the area, says she decided to accept Bitcoins because of the ease, cheapness and transparency of its payment system.

"It's an easier way of digital payment than credit cards, which cost me a lot of money as a business and to which I'm forced to sign up for years," she says.

These two tradespeople are among around a dozen in the Graefekiez, a cosy neighbourhood established in the 19th century in the southern Berlin district of Kreuzberg, which currently boasts the highest density of businesses accepting the currency in the world. Its growing list of Bitcoin establishments includes a restaurant, a printing shop, a bar and boutique.

Community leaders believe that Bitcoin's ethos is embedded in a similar political consciousness to that of Kreuzberg. The payments system, which has been viewed with scepticism elsewhere, arguably fits in well with the district's rebellious, critical, leftwing history, not least its residents' willingness to protest against the rising influence of capitalism, in particular the creeping gentrification that is threatening to envelop the district as Berlin undergoes a property boom.

"Kreuzberg is traditionally an area in which people are very politically aware, critical towards existing systems and are constantly discussing and looking for alternatives to them, which makes it the perfect breeding ground for Bitcoin," says Joerg Patzer, a staunch Bitcoin advocate who roams the neighbourhood with a missionary zeal in search of new recruits.

Patzer, 47, who typically trades by night and sleeps by day, is also the owner of Room 77, a popular bar in the Graefekiez, which has become a magnet for Bitcoin enthusiasts in the German capital. On a recent Tuesday evening with a jazz trio providing the music, law student Jeff Gallas, the owner of a few thousand euros' worth of Bitcoins, was tucking into a beefburger.

"Bitcoin is the first global money we have," he says, when asked to explain his enthusiasm for a currency that has been criticised for the ease with which drug and child porn dealers can use it and which many economists have called nothing but a craze, comparable to the Dutch tulip bubble of the 1600s.

"It could be from a science fiction novel, but the fact is we have it in the here and the now," Gallas said, listing the items he has bought with Bitcoins, including "honey from Thailand, historic flags from the United States, gold and silver, concert tickets", and of course, his beer and burgers.

He taps the amount he owes Room 77 into the virtual Bitcoin wallet on his Android phone and, aligning it with a code on the bar's device, presses a button to process the payment. A theatrical "kerching" sound follows and Gallas is grinning from ear to ear. "It could hardly be easier," he insisted.

Heidi Leyton, a British tour guide who takes business people around Berlin, said she was first drawn to the currency when two Spanish friends demonstrated their trust in it by deciding to use their entire inheritance to purchase Bitcoins. "They were very worried about the way the economy was going in Spain and so decided to invest their €30,000 inheritance in Bitcoins. I was really shocked, thinking what a gamble it was," Leyton admits. "But that was about three and a half years ago and their 30,000 has grown to 600,000, so they did very well. On the back of her friends' experience, she too decided to buy into the currency and to accept fees for her tours in Bitcoins.

"Looking at the way the economy is going and the way we're dealing with it, particularly after what's just happened in Cyprus, I don't really trust having my money in the banks," she said.

As with any currency, trust and the willingness of users to accept it is vital to Bitcoin's success or failure, and that mechanism is arguably clearer to see in a small community like the Graefekiez than anywhere else.

Patzer buys the beer for Room 77 from the nearby Rollberg brewery, owned and run by qualified brew and malt meister Wilko Bereit. He pays for the barrels with Bitcoins and, while Bereit says he doesn't fully understand the workings of the payment system, he is willing to trust it. "There is no middle man involved," he said, talking in his hop-scented brewing parlour with its gleaming copper kettles, and casually dropping into the conversation that the German president is among his customers.

"It's just a deal between Joerg and me and after I've opened my Easy Wallet, which is easier than sending an email, we have a beer together."

Bereit recently followed events as Bitcoin's value halved in less than six hours as a result of recent panic buying. But he remains unperturbed. "As my grandmother would say, it's only money, and it won't kill me if it doesn't work," he said. "The truth is, I really want to believe in it. And I like the fact that Bitcoin scares people in suits, because if this thing were to really take off, it would bankrupt a lot of bankers."

Crypto-currency experts meeting Patzer at a recent Bitcoin soiree in the back of Floor's cafe prefer to talk of the recent dip as a correction rather than a crash, which has brought Bitcoin back to a realistic price while it has retained its underlying value.

"I would look at these spikes and corrections as the birth pangs of an entirely new system," said Mike Gogulski, a Bitcoin developer. "It represents an opportunity to transform the way we deal with the flows of wealth and human energy."

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« Reply #5988 on: Apr 26, 2013, 07:21 AM »

Iceland's election: voters fear the EU more than a return to the bad old days

So much for the people's revolt. Icelanders are primed to return to power the very parties that led them to economic meltdown

Alda Sigmundsdóttir, Friday 26 April 2013 13.13 BST   

Here in Iceland, we are no strangers to catastrophe. All our banks collapse, the economy melts down, there is a political crisis, a currency crisis, and to top it all off, a volcano erupts and grounds planes all over the world – just a regular day at the office for us. Now, this weekend, we're being hurled towards another catastrophe, as the political parties that plunged us into the worst economic disaster in the nation's history are set to be voted into office again.

Yes, you read that right.

I am talking about the Independence and Progressive parties, which governed Iceland from 1995 to 2007. These parties privatised the banks in the early 2000s, which wreaked such havoc on the nation. That was a brazen act so riddled with corruption that it boggles the mind that they got away with it. The Progressive party was also instrumental in pushing through the construction of a large-scale power plant to feed an aluminium smelter owned by Alcoa. This despite widespread protests and numerous studies that such an undertaking could have catastrophic effects, both environmental and economic. That single project was largely to blame for creating the economic conditions that culminated in the meltdown.

We thought we tossed these parties where they belonged four years ago, ousting them from power after the most violent civil protests in decades. The nation elected its first leftwing government, and a coalition between the Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green movement was formed. Iceland had its first female prime minister, who was also openly gay.

While the nation celebrated what felt like a people's revolt, I knew that it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the new government would become wildly unpopular. After all, they were forced to clean up the mess of the previous shenanigans.

You see, despite the glowing reports that regularly appear in the international media featuring Iceland as some kind of "economic recovery wunderkind" – which are usually grossly exaggerated – the present government has failed to live up to expectations. They promised to create a "wall of shields" around the country's households, many of whom are still struggling under a mountain of post-meltdown debt, but they didn't. They also promised a new constitution, but that did not come to pass. They promised to finish accession negotiations with the EU, but those are still not complete.

Granted, there were many things they did do right: substantially lowering unemployment, paying off some of Iceland's debt to the International Monetary Fund early, turning the economy around, but, unfortunately, their successes have become obliterated in the pre-election propaganda war fought with the two parties now poised to take power.

The chairman of the Progressive party, the man most likely to become Iceland's next prime minister, is Sigmundur Davíd Gunnlaugsson. At 38 years old, he is the wealthiest MP in the Icelandic parliament.

His main election promise is that his party will "correct household debt burdens", that is, offer relief to those who are suffering under a load of debt in the wake of the meltdown. This primarily applies to mortgages. He proposes to take the funds to do this from foreign investors, primarily hedge funds, whose capital is still locked inside Iceland due to capital controls.

It has been pointed out repeatedly that these promises are both empty and unrealistic, and they would mainly help high-income individuals living in the Reykjavík area, who took out hefty mortgages prior to the meltdown. They would do nothing for the people who were prudent, who put all their savings into a downpayment that has now evaporated. Nor do they help those who need assistance most, like those who have lost their homes. So, what makes the Progressive party so popular?

They are vehemently opposed to joining the European Union. According to a new poll, the majority of Icelanders are opposed to EU membership. Indeed, many of the Progressives' policies and declarations lean precipitously towards a new nationalism, with mildly xenophobic stances on issues such as immigration and asylum seekers, and party symbols that are vaguely reminiscent of fascism. The Progressive party was also the party that was most fiercely opposed to Iceland repaying the UK and Holland for the failure of the Icesave online bank.

If Sigmundur Davíd Gunnlaugsson wins, it will be because Icelanders fear abuse and exploitation by outside forces more than they do a return to the corrupt days of old.

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« Reply #5989 on: Apr 26, 2013, 07:25 AM »

Reykjavík's radical mayor blazes a trail for the revolution in digital democracy

Jón Gnarr is one of Iceland's new politicians: alternative, engaged – and online. But now, as elections approach, the country's crowd-sourced constitution is in peril

Alexandra Topping in Reykjavík, Thursday 25 April 2013 18.11 BST   

Sitting in a bright, minimalist office in the heart of Reykjavík, the sleeves of his black shirt rolled up to reveal tattooed forearms, it is clear Jón Gnarr, the city mayor, is not a typical politician.

The self-described anarchic clown came to power after Iceland's financial crash, promising nothing but to break his promises and procure a polar bear for the local zoo.

But three years later, his zeal for direct – and digital – democracy is exciting reformers, who are looking to Iceland for a glimpse of how democracy might work for the Facebook generation.

With two-thirds of its 320,000 population on Facebook, Iceland can be a petri dish for democratic ideas, according to the mayor.

"What we have here is a very small community, but there are so many ideas that can be tried out to see if they work, which can then be adopted in a bigger place," Gnarr said, during an interview in which he touched on anarchy, hallucinations and the tedium of Linguaphone conversations as well as democratic reform. "Reykjavík and Iceland are perfect places to experiment with democracy."

The experiment will continue shortly when a politically engaged electorate takes to the polls for the first time since forcing its government to step down in 2009, following the implosion of Iceland's banking sector.

So many new parties have been formed that a law was passed to change the format of the ballot paper, while in the background the future of the country's constitution – widely proclaimed as the first crowd-sourced constitution in history – hangs by a thread.

After the crash, like many in the country, Gnarr was frustrated with conventional politics, but instead of "saying something sarcastic on Facebook", he formed the modestly named Best party. "I don't know if I believe in democracy, but in my opinion it's better than tyranny," he said.

"And if we want to maintain it, it is so important to find ways for people to participate. The reason we are in this mess is because people were careless and nonchalant about democracy."

Since gaining power, Best party has worked with non-profit democracy reformers The Citizens Foundation to create Better Reykjavík, an award-winning platform that allows users to debate and suggest policies, "like" policy ideas, make budget decisions and vote on micro-issues affecting their neighbourhood. If a policy – those mooted by members of the municipal government or Reykjavík residents have equal weight – is "liked" enough times, it works its way to the top of the priorities list and action is taken.

A new national party, Bright Future – a sister party to Best party, or the new-wave successors to Best party's punk, as Gnarr puts it – uses similar methods to create policy, and is running at about 10% in the polls. The Pirate party – which puts the internet at the heart of its policymaking – is on 7.8%.

The parties are small, but some of their ideas are gaining traction. "People are discussing politics 24/7 online, but nobody turns up to meetings," said Bright Future leader Gudmundur Steingrímsson, who called it an attempt to create an online party for the 21st century.

He described the party's homepage as a Facebook environment, with public debate around policy open to everyone. "It's a very open realm, the only rule is that you have to be polite," he said.

"People believe, quite rightfully, that politics is boring, and there is an incentive for politicians to keep politics boring so people don't question what they are doing. We want to open it up – not to say it's constantly fun, but show that politics does have a purpose."

A combination of extraordinary circumstance and mass internet penetration has created a fertile environment for democratic reform in Iceland, said Dr Andy Williamson, a digital democracy consultant.

"It is definitely a country reformers should be watching," he said. "Other countries could learn that you can create a shared conversation, and trust people to input into the national process."

But the stalling of Iceland's constitution revealed the challenges of digital reform, he added. "What Iceland shows us is that the internet can be an instrument for change, but it cannot break existing power structures."

If Iceland demonstrates the possibilities of direct democracy, recent months have also exposed its limitations. A row still rages over the country's constitution, which was created after its economic collapse. When 950 Icelanders, randomly chosen from the national register, gathered for one day in 2010 to decide its founding principles it was hailed as the world's first "crowd-sourced" constitution.

A 25-member constitutional council drew up the constitution in four months – despite Iceland's supreme court judging the election of the council void.

The draft was not without controversy: it stipulated that Iceland's remaining unprivatised natural resources should remain in the hands of the state, a move unlikely to be supported by Iceland's powerful fishing industry, and called for freedom of information and greater accountability for politicians.

Despite the fact that two-thirds of voters approved the document in a non-binding referendum in October 2012, the bill did not make it through parliament before it broke for elections, and several politicians told the Guardian it was unlikely to proceed in its current form.

Bjarni Benediktsson, chairman of the Independence party that held power at the time of Iceland's economic crash, said the constitution had been rushed and created without experts.

"I have to admit I think people went way ahead of themselves here," he said. "You can call me conservative, but that's what I am and I think we should be conservative when it comes to the foundation of the entire legal system in Iceland."

Now campaigners fear for the constitution's life. Any change to it must be approved by two successive parliaments, but outgoing prime minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir passed an amendment on her final day which means the constitution could be approved if it gains the support of two-thirds of parliament and 40% of the electorate in a further referendum. It is, campaigners say, a mammoth task.

"If the bill is killed, as many in parliament seem to hope – if the window of opportunity that opened up after the crash is closed – then it will open a wound deeper than any in history since Iceland joined Nato in 1949," said Thorvaldur Gylfason, professor of economics at the University of Iceland and a member of the constitutional committee.

"We want the world to know about this," he said. "A parliament ignores the will of its people at its peril."

But whatever the fate of the constitution, the mayor of Reykjavík is confident that the march of direct democracy in Iceland will not easily be halted. "Best party is like the first little mammal in the land of the dinosaurs," he said.

"The dinosaurs don't know that their time is over yet. And the little guy, who is mostly in his hole for the moment, he's the future."

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« Reply #5990 on: Apr 26, 2013, 07:28 AM »

Scientists warn orbiting space junk an urgent problem

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 25, 2013 21:21 EDT

Governments must start working urgently to remove orbital debris, which could become a catastrophic problem for satellites a few decades from now, a space science conference heard on Thursday.

Since 1978, the total of junk items whizzing around the planet has tripled, said Heiner Klinkrad, head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office.

“There is a wide and strong expert consensus on the pressing need to act now to begin debris removal activities,” he said in an ESA press release at the end of a four-day conference in Darmstadt, Germany.

“Our understanding of the growing space debris problem can be compared with our understanding of the need to address Earth’s changing climate some 20 years ago,” he said.

According to a count by ESA and NASA, there are more than 23,000 items in orbit that are bigger than 10 centimetres (four inches) across, and hundreds of thousands of items between one and 10 cms (0.4 to four inches) across.

Even though these items are relatively small and there is a lot of room in orbit, any collision could be calamitous because of the high level of kinetic energy.

Debris travels on average at 25,000 kilometres (15,600 miles) per hour, so even an object of small mass has the potential to cripple a satellite or punch a hole in the International Space Station (ISS).

The junk results mainly from disused rocket stages, failed launches and abandoned or broken-down satellites, the result of 55 years of space exploration.

These large objects eventually collide, creating more debris which in turn smashes together — a dangerous cascade cycle known as the Kessler Syndrome.

A major debris field was caused in 2007 when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old weather satellite, triggering an international outcry.

At the current rate of rocket launches, the collision risk could eventually rise by a factor of 25.

The Darmstadt conference brought together more than 350 experts from Europe, North America and Asia, including specialists from national space agencies and industry.

They heard proposals aimed at removing the largest chunks of debris out of orbit at the rate of five to 10 items per year.

These pieces could be nudged into a death plunge in the atmosphere by netting or harpooning them from a robot vessel or bombarded by an ion cannon to deflect them onto a new course.

Another idea is to attach a “solar sail” to large items of debris that would be gently driven by the solar wind — the particles blasted out by the Sun.

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« Reply #5991 on: Apr 26, 2013, 07:30 AM »

Earth’s core hotter than scientists originally believed

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 25, 2013 15:30 EDT

European scientists said Thursday that a new laboratory experiment shows the Earth’s core is likely much hotter than last reported 20 years ago.

It’s not that the iron core of our planet has warmed, but rather that the technique used to estimate its heat previously was flawed, researchers said in the journal Science.

Newer techniques have allowed experts at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility to determine the temperature near Earth’s center to be 6,000 degrees Celsius (10,832 degrees Fahrenheit).

That is about 1,000 degrees C hotter than an experiment conducted by German researchers in 1993.

Researchers are analyzing the solid iron core of the Earth, where extreme temperatures and pressure result in a hard center, while the surrounding iron at lower temperatures of about 4,000 degrees Celsius remains liquid.

“We have developed a new technique where an intense beam of X-rays from the synchrotron can probe a sample and deduce whether it is solid, liquid or partially molten within as little as a second, using a process known diffraction,” said Mohamed Mezouar from the ESRF.

“And this is short enough to keep temperature and pressure constant, and at the same time avoid any chemical reactions.”

The X-ray technique is believed to be superior to the optical technique used by Germany’s Reinhard Boehler, who reported a result about 1,000 degrees cooler based on the observation of recrystallization which was interpreted as melting.

“These measurements confirm geophysical models that the temperature difference between the solid core and the mantle above, must be at least 1,500 degrees to explain why the Earth has a magnetic field,” the French team said of its findings.

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« Reply #5992 on: Apr 26, 2013, 07:32 AM »

Einstein’s theory of relativity holds up in deep space

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 25, 2013 15:36 EDT

Some 7,000 light years away, Einstein’s theory of general relativity has stood up to its most intense test yet, scientists said on Thursday.

The project involved observing a massive, fast-spinning star called a pulsar, and its companion white dwarf — a smaller but very dense star that is dying, having lost most of its outer layers — doing a dizzying orbital dance.

The unusually heavy neutron star spins 25 times each second, and is orbited every two and a half hours by the white dwarf star, in a system dubbed PSR J0348+0432.

Would this strange interaction finally shed light on the limits of Albert Einstein’s 1915 theory that explained gravity as a space-time entity that is distorted by any matter within it?

General relativity predicts that even light is deflected by gravity, so astronomers can test the theory by peering through a telescope — in this case a big one at European Southern Observatory’s site in Chile.

“I was observing the system with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, looking for changes in the light emitted from the white dwarf caused by its motion around the pulsar,” said John Antoniadis, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany and lead author of the paper in the journal Science.

“A quick on-the-spot analysis made me realize that the pulsar was quite a heavyweight. It is twice the mass of the Sun, making it the most massive neutron star that we know of and also an excellent laboratory for fundamental physics.”

Scientists expect that Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which is already incompatible with quantum physics, would at some point no longer hold true in extreme conditions.

But they found that in this case, the theory did indeed predict the amount of gravitational radiation emitted.

“We thought this system might be extreme enough to show a breakdown in general relativity, but instead, Einstein’s predictions held up quite well,” said Paulo Freire of the Max Planck Institute.

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« Reply #5993 on: Apr 26, 2013, 07:48 AM »

In the USA....

April 25, 2013

Russia’s Warning on Bombings Suspect Sets Off a Debate


WASHINGTON — In March 2011, the Russian security service sent a stark warning to the F.B.I., reporting that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was “a follower of radical Islam” who had “changed drastically since 2010” and was preparing to travel to Russia’s turbulent Caucasus to connect with underground militant groups. Six months later, Russia sent the same warning to the C.I.A.

On April 15, law enforcement officials say, Mr. Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, set off bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and maiming many others.

The Russian warnings to the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. also raised questions about Mr. Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat, according to two senior American officials. The Russians were most concerned about Mr. Tsarnaev because they had information that he planned to travel to Russia, according to one of the officials. “The Russians were concerned that mother and son were very religious and strong believers, and they could be militants if they returned to Russia,” the other official said.

The mother, the officials said, did not fit the profile of a potential extremist, leading American counterterrorism officials to not express much concern about her. They did not set up a travel alert on her, for instance, one of the officials said. But they nonetheless added her name to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE database, when Tamerlan’s name was added to it in October 2011, the official said.

Should the Russian warnings — seemingly confirmed in part last year when the counterterrorism task force in Boston learned that Mr. Tsarnaev was traveling to Russia — have permitted American officials to foil the marathon plot? That question emerged on Thursday as the crux of a debate among members of Congress, counterterrorism officials and outside experts about whether, and how, the security system failed.

F.B.I. officials have defended their response to the Russian tip, which prompted agents to interview Mr. Tsarnaev and his parents and check government databases and Internet activity. The bureau found nothing.

On Thursday, some members of Congress and former government officials said Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s six-month visit to Dagestan last year was a missed opportunity to refocus attention on him and potentially prevent the attack. Others suggested that the criticism was 20-20 hindsight, and that the F.B.I.’s performance was reasonable under the circumstances.

The critical moment came in January 2012, when a Customs database sent an alert about Mr. Tsarnaev’s plan to travel to Russia to a Customs agent assigned to the F.B.I.-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston, according to a Congressional official. It is unclear who else saw the information, but it does not appear to have prompted any new scrutiny of Mr. Tsarnaev at the time or when he returned to the United States that July.

“If there was a failure at any time, maybe it was at that point, to get a follow-up interview,” said Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a former F.B.I. agent. “But even so, it’s hard to say they did something wrong. Travel in and of itself is not derogatory information, and that area is far down on our priority list.”

Across Capitol Hill, senators from both parties emerged from a classified briefing on the bombings sounding generally supportive of the F.B.I. “I wish there would have been more,” said Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican on the Intelligence Committee, “but I’m not in a position to say that I would have done it differently.” Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who leads the Armed Services Committee, said, “Unless there’s additional information that pops up, I’m not critical of their actions.”

But Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in earlier remarks to reporters that the Boston bombing case “is becoming, to me, a case study in system failure.”

“You have Russian intelligence services contacting two agencies within our federal government responsible for our national security, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A.,” he said. “They tell us, ‘We believe you have a radical Islamist in your midst.’ ” Despite the warning and the F.B.I.’s initial follow-up, Mr. Graham said, Mr. Tsarnaev was able to visit Dagestan and return unnoticed, and discuss “killing Americans” openly on the Internet undetected.

Jimmy Gurulé, a former counterterrorism official who teaches at Notre Dame Law School, said the alert about Mr. Tsarnaev’s travel plans should have prompted new attention, since it appeared to give weight to the Russian warning. He said that the authorities should have sought a court warrant to monitor his cellphone and e-mail while he was in Russia. “When he came back to the United States, they should have pulled him out of the Customs line, inspected his belongings, looked at his laptop and cellphone and questioned him about what he had done in Dagestan,” said Mr. Gurulé.

But law enforcement officials said it was unrealistic to expect the F.B.I., which had already taken a hard look at Mr. Tsarnaev, to reopen the case merely because of his travel. The TIDE database has roughly 700,000 names in it, a senior law enforcement official said, and Customs officials get 20 or 30 alerts every day about travel by people in various databases.

In addition, the official said, it would have violated Justice Department guidelines to keep pursuing Mr. Tsarnaev after the initial assessment found no evidence of a crime. “You pursue the original information, come to conclusions,” he said.

The official said that the F.B.I. would certainly have looked at Mr. Tsarnaev again if the Russians had told the bureau that they had developed more information on him during his trip. “That is all that would have taken,” the official said.

One factor in the failure to follow up may have been Mr. Tsarnaev’s ethnicity as a Chechen and his destination, Dagestan, according to both government officials and independent specialists. While those might have set off suspicions in Russia, militants from the Caucasus have generally not targeted the United States.

The authorities would most likely have given Mr. Tsarnaev a closer examination when he returned to the United States if he had traveled to Yemen or Pakistan, where multiple plots against American cities have been hatched.


April 25, 2013

Parents Deny Sons’ Guilt and Accuse U.S. of Plot


MAKHACHKALA, Russia — The parents of the two brothers accused in the bomb attack that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others near the finish line of the Boston Marathon insisted on Thursday that their sons were innocent and had no connections to radical Islamists.

In an outpouring of anguish and anger at a news conference here in the capital of Dagestan, a Russian republic on the Caspian Sea, the brothers’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev, and mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, also made accusations of a conspiracy in which the American authorities killed their older son, Tamerlan, after capturing him alive.

Officials in the United States have said that Tamerlan, 26, died after being shot during a standoff with the police in Watertown, Mass., and then run over by a vehicle driven by his younger brother as he escaped. The younger of the brothers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was captured and has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction. He is recovering in a Boston hospital and may face the death penalty if convicted. Officials have also released video showing the brothers near the site of the bombing.

Despite this evidence, and after two days of questioning by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents here, Ms. Tsarnaeva said she could not accept that her sons were guilty.

“No, I don’t — and I won’t,” she said. “Never!”

During an emotional question-and-answer session that lasted nearly an hour, the parents addressed many of the questions that investigators and the American public have been asking in the anxious days after the bombing, declaring that their sons were not religious radicals and were not connected to any militant organizations.

Their answers were a mixture of denials and conspiracy accusations. They seemed exhausted, their grief raw. They expressed concern about Dzhokhar, but did not offer any condolences to the victims in Boston. Ms. Tsarnaeva — who at times sobbed, raised her voice and pounded a table for emphasis — said she was considering giving up her American citizenship.

In one dramatic moment, Ms. Tsarnaeva said the F.B.I. agents who went to the family’s home in Massachusetts to question Tamerlan about his religious views had asked her if she worried that he might commit an act of terrorism.

“Actually they told me, ‘Don’t you think that Tamerlan is being a little bit, you know, like, extreme about religion?’ ” she said. “ ‘Do you think that he would think about organizing some kind of, you know — ’ ”

She broke off and then stumbled over her words. “Probably that was their meaning,” she continued. “Terroristic, terrorism or whatever, aggression.”

“ ‘Do you see any aggression in Tamerlan?’ ” she quoted the agents as saying. “No, I did not.”

She said that in the days after the bombing she saw what she described as video footage on the Internet that showed a man that she said was Tamerlan being put into a police car naked, apparently stripped of his clothes to check for explosives. The next day, she said, she saw gruesome images of his corpse.

“Killed, truly killed,” she said, describing the images. “I wanted to scream, to scream to the whole world: ‘What did you do? What have you done with my son?’ He was alive. Why did they need to kill him? Why not send him to Guantánamo or whatever? Why did they kill him? Why did they have to kill him? They got him alive. He was in their hands.”

The parents said they regretted having lived in the United States but wanted to return soon to see Dzhokhar, though they expressed fears that they would not be allowed to see him until he was in prison.

“Yes, I would prefer not to live in America now. Like, why did I even go there — why?” Ms. Tsarnaeva said, breaking into tears and sobs. “I thought America was going to, like, protect us, our kids. It was going to be safe for any reason. But it happened the opposite. My kids — America took my kids away from me — only America.”

“I don’t know,” she said, regaining her composure. “I am sure that my kids were not involved in anything.”

Mr. Tsarnaev responded sharply to a reporter who asked why Tamerlan had felt that he did not fit in among Americans, once saying he did not have any friends.

“That’s not true,” Mr. Tsarnaev said. “He have a lot of friends, you know. I know these friends, you know.”

Ms. Tsarnaeva jumped in to say that Tamerlan had meant he did not have a best friend. “So it doesn’t mean that he just did not fit in America,” she said.

The parents said the F.B.I. agents who questioned them in the past two days had been most interested in Tamerlan’s six-month visit to Dagestan last year, which they said had been undertaken so that he could obtain a Russian passport.

Although he was born in Russia, Tamerlan had traveled on a passport from Kyrgyzstan, where the family had lived, that was about to expire. They said he needed a Russian passport because he did not have American citizenship.

And while the parents insisted that his visit was focused on trying to get a passport, visiting relatives and helping his father, they confirmed that he worshiped occasionally at a mosque popular among Salafist Muslims. Dagestan has been riven by violence because of a split between Salfists and more tolerant Sufis.

Ms. Tsarnaeva expressed some of her greatest anger when one questioner said Dzhokhar had told officials that the brothers were motivated by an extreme interpretation of Islam. She said Dzhokhar’s lawyers had assured her that he could not yet speak or write.

“Where does this information come from?” she shouted.

Andrew Roth and Viktor Klimenko contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 25, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled, on one reference, the younger suspect’s first name. It is Dzhokhar, not Dzhokar.


April 25, 2013

House Panel Set to Offer Several Immigration Bills


WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee announced Thursday that it would introduce a series of bills beginning this week to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. The move was designed to keep the committee in the middle of the debate over the issue, which is now percolating on Capitol Hill, and to press a bipartisan group in the House that has been working in private on its own broad legislation.

Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and the chairman of the committee, said the first of several proposals in the coming weeks would create a guest worker program for agriculture and require employers to use an electronic verification system to check the immigration status of employees.

Mr. Goodlatte made it clear that his committee’s intention was to jump-start the debate in the House. The bipartisan House group studying immigration, which has been meeting in secret on and off for about four years, has yet to offer its own proposal.

“We think we can help move the process forward by beginning to examine the legislative details of various ideas that members have brought forward,” he said.

Mr. Goodlatte’s announcement is likely to create a sense of urgency among the House group, particularly its Democratic members, to introduce broad legislation. Many Republicans in the House prefer a piecemeal approach, similar to what Mr. Goodlatte is proposing, though Democrats fear that this approach would make it tough for them to win support for a path to legalization — a crucial part of any immigration overhaul, they say.

The announcement came after the Senate Judiciary Committee this week held the last of three hearings on legislation that would tighten border security and offer an eventual path to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants already here.

Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, both members of the bipartisan group of eight senators who wrote the legislation, said Thursday that they were aiming to win 70 votes in the Senate and hoped to gain the backing of a majority of senators in both parties — a prospect Mr. McCain described as “very doable.”

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced on Thursday that his committee would begin its markup of the immigration bill on May 9, shortly after Congress returns from its recess. Consideration of the legislation is expected to last for most of May.

“There’s a different mood in the Senate,” Mr. Schumer said. “I hope that our immigration bill sets the model for coming bipartisan agreements.”

“What we have found is, ironically, it may be a little counterintuitive, that the best way to pass immigration legislation is actually a comprehensive bill, because that can achieve more balance and everybody can get much but not all of what they want,” Mr. Schumer said. “And so I think the idea of doing separate bills is just not going to work.”

Mr. Goodlatte emphasized that his committee had not decided what should appear in the final legislation, and he did not dismiss the possibility of offering some kind of legal status. He said the committee would examine the Senate proposal and any proposal from the House group.

“They have been working on this process for a long, long time,” he said, “and we are very hopeful that they can reach a bipartisan agreement on what will be done to address these three major aspects of immigration reform: legal immigration reform, enforcement and what to do about the legal status of the 11 million or more people who are not here lawfully.”

House Democrats remain hopeful that a broad immigration bill will ultimately emerge. “This group has worked long enough that it will work toward producing a good compromise on a total fix to our immigration system — not a partial fix, not a piecemeal fix, but a total fix,” Representative Xavier Becerra, Democrat of California and a member of the House bipartisan group, said on Wednesday.

That group hopes to introduce its legislation by the end of May, aides said. One holdup has been Republican unwillingness to accept the Senate plan for a guest worker program, which has already been endorsed by leading business and labor groups.

“There is reluctance that establishment Republicans like the Chamber of Commerce are cutting deals with big labor,” a House aide said. “That’s not where House Republicans see themselves. They think establishment Republicans are the problem.”

The House group’s legislation will have other differences from the Senate legislation, aides said. The House bill, for instance, will probably offer a 15-year path to citizenship, rather than the 13-year path offered in the Senate plan, though both bills would allow unauthorized immigrants to earn a green card in 10 years.

Mr. Goodlatte pushed back against criticism that the committee was dragging out the process by proposing changes to the system one by one.

“I would point out that the House group, the bipartisan group that’s been negotiating this, has been negotiating it for about four years, so we want to see a product from that group,” he said, “but we recognize — and I’m sure they recognize — how difficult it is to work on this issue, and therefore making sure that we take our time is an important part of this process.”

Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.


April 25, 2013

Democratic Senators Tell White House of Concerns About Health Care Law Rollout


WASHINGTON — Democratic senators, at a caucus meeting with White House officials, expressed concerns on Thursday about how the Obama administration was carrying out the health care law they adopted three years ago.

Democrats in both houses of Congress said some members of their party were getting nervous that they could pay a political price if the rollout of the law was messy or if premiums went up significantly.

President Obama’s new chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, fielded questions on the issue for more than an hour at a lunch with Democratic senators.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, who is up for re-election next year, said, “We are hearing from a lot of small businesses in New Hampshire that do not know how to comply with the law.”

In addition, Mrs. Shaheen said, “restaurants that employ people for about 30 hours a week are trying to figure out whether it would be in their interest to reduce the hours” of those workers, so the restaurants could avoid the law’s requirement to offer health coverage to full-time employees.

The White House officials “acknowledged that these are real concerns, and that we’ve got to do more to address them,” Mrs. Shaheen said.

Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on health care, said he was extremely upset with Mr. Obama’s decision to take money from public health prevention programs and use it to publicize the new law, which creates insurance marketplaces in every state.

“I am greatly disappointed — beyond upset — that the administration chose to help pay for the Affordable Care Act in fiscal year 2013 by raiding the Public Health and Prevention Fund,” Mr. Harkin said.

The administration said it had transferred $332 million from the prevention fund to pay for “education and outreach” activities publicizing the new insurance markets, or exchanges.

To express his displeasure, Mr. Harkin has blocked Senate action on Mr. Obama’s nominee to be administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Marilyn B. Tavenner. By putting a “hold” on the nomination, aides said, Mr. Harkin hopes to draw the White House into negotiations on the future of the prevention fund, which he has championed.

At Congressional hearings this week, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said it was necessary to tap the prevention fund because Congress had refused to provide money requested by the president for outreach and education activities.

Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana and chairman of the Finance Committee, said last week that the administration deserved “a failing grade” for its efforts to explain the law to the public.

“I just see a huge train wreck coming down,” Mr. Baucus said then.

But after hearing White House officials on Thursday, Mr. Baucus said he was encouraged, and he praised the administration’s efforts to get healthy young people to sign up for insurance coverage.

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, said he told White House officials on Thursday that he was concerned about big rate increases being sought by the largest health insurer in his state. The company, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, has sought increases averaging 25 percent for individual insurance policies that will be sold in the state insurance exchange, and it is seeking increases of about 15 percent for small businesses. The company said the higher premiums reflected costs of complying with the new law.

Senator Cardin said he was also distressed by the administration’s failure to require health insurers to provide affordable coverage of dental services for children. The law lists pediatric dental care as one of 10 categories of “essential health benefits” to be provided by all health plans.

Under a rule issued by the administration, Mr. Cardin said, “there is no guarantee or requirement that families have pediatric dental coverage, and the coverage could be provided in a stand-alone plan with a separate deductible, so that a family with two children might have to pay as much as $1,400 in out-of-pocket costs for dental coverage.”

In that case, he said, many families would go without dental coverage.

Congressional leaders wrestled at the same time with a more parochial concern, health insurance for members of Congress and their aides.

A provision of the 2010 law, sought by a Republican senator, says members of Congress and many of their aides must get their health benefits through the new insurance exchanges. Some lawmakers and their aides are worried that the government may not continue to pay its share of the premiums.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, said this was the “Democrats’ problem to solve.”

But Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, said, “No legislative fix is necessary.”


April 25, 2013

Senators Quietly Seeking New Path on Gun Control


WASHINGTON — Talks to revive gun control legislation are quietly under way on Capitol Hill as a bipartisan group of senators seeks a way to bridge the differences that led to last week’s collapse of the most serious effort to overhaul the country’s gun laws in 20 years.

Drawing on the lessons from battles in the 1980s and ’90s over the Brady Bill, which failed in Congress several times before ultimately passing, gun control supporters believe they can prevail by working on a two-pronged strategy. First, they are identifying senators who might be willing to change their votes and support a background check system with fewer loopholes.

Second, they are looking to build a national campaign that would better harness overwhelming public support for universal background checks — which many national polls put at near 90 percent approval — to pressure lawmakers.

Senators Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, have been talking in recent days about how they could persuade more senators to support their bill to expand background checks for gun buyers, which drew backing from only four Republicans last week.

“We’re going to work it hard,” Mr. Manchin said Thursday, adding that he was looking at tweaking the language of his bill in a way that he believed would satisfy senators who, for example, felt that background checks on person-to-person gun sales would be too onerous for people who live in rural areas far from a sporting goods store.

Those concerns were an issue for Alaska’s senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat.

Meanwhile, a separate gun measure, an anti-trafficking bill, is the subject of talks between Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and two Republican senators who voted no on the background check bill. The Republicans, Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, are discussing ways they might support the bill, which would criminalize the shipping or transfer of guns to someone who is barred from possessing a firearm.

While the bill on its own falls short of what the families of victims of mass shootings have been pushing Congress to enact — and is therefore less controversial — some Democrats believe it could be a good starting point to build a broader bipartisan compromise.

“I think trafficking can be the base of the bill, the rock on which everything else stands,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “I also think it’s complementary to background checks because, let’s be honest, criminals aren’t going to buy a gun and go through a background check. So if you really want to go after criminals, you have to have to do both.”

Ms. Ayotte said Thursday that she would continue talking with Ms. Gillibrand and was confident that some areas of agreement, on areas like expanding mental health care, could be reached.

“There’s a lot we have agreement on in terms of enforcing our current system,” she said. “And so I certainly think we should look for the common elements, including the mental health piece, which I support as well, and try to move as much of that as possible forward.”

Ms. Ayotte — the only one out of 22 senators on the East Coast north of Virginia who voted against strengthening background checks — has been the target lately of some of the most furious lobbying by gun control proponents, who have inundated local newspapers with letters to the editor denouncing her vote, run radio ads saying she “ignored the will of the people” and swamped her office with phone calls. On Thursday, two receptionists placed one call after another on hold as they politely listened to callers vent and replied, “Thank you for your message.”

Next week when Congress is in recess, gun control groups coordinating with the Obama committee Organizing for Action will be fanning out across the country in dozens of demonstrations at the offices of senators who voted down the background check bill.

As talks moved ahead on Capitol Hill, the White House was pressing on with its own efforts. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. summoned a group of gun control proponents to his office on Thursday — including representatives from Michael R. Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Gabrielle Giffords’s Americans for Responsible Solutions and the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence — and reassured them that the issue had become his highest priority.

The vice president recalled the long struggle to enact the Brady Bill, which established a five-day waiting period to buy a gun. And he told them gun control would become his new campaign to end the Iraq war, according to two participants in the meeting, comparing it to the issue he devoted much of his energy to during President Obama’s first term. The pressure campaign is evidently already starting to take its toll, the vice president added, because several senators have confided to him that they are feeling the backlash from constituents.

Those senators, he added, told him that they needed to be assured there was adequate support for expanded gun control to pass because they did not want to take such a great political risk on something that was doomed to fail. And some of them are already beginning to ask about what tweaks gun control proponents might entertain that could make the bills more palatable, the vice president said.

“It’s not a question of really changing their minds for or against this policy,” one of the meeting’s participants said. “It’s demonstrating that it’s safe to do the right thing and politically unsafe not to.”


Obama campaign’s next target: Climate change deniers in Congress

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Thursday, April 25, 2013 21:18 EDT

The campaign group formed to support Barack Obama’s political agenda has launched an initiative to shame members of Congress who deny the science behind climate change.

In an email to supporters on Thursday, Organizing for Action said it was time to call out members of Congress who deny the existence of climate change, saying they had blocked efforts to avoid its most catastrophic consequences.

The email linked to a video mocking Republicans who reject the science on climate change. “Right now, way too many lawmakers in Washington flat-out refuse to face the facts when it comes to climate change,” Jon Carson, executive director of Organizing for Action wrote in the email. “We’re never going to make real progress on this issue unless members of Congress get serious.”

The video mainly features Republican members of the House of Representatives who are notorious for denying the existence of climate change, or positing bizarre notions about its causes.

However, it also includes some national figures such as the Florida senator Marc Rubio and House speaker John Boehner, whose views on climate are not that broadly known. There are no Democrats in the video.

The video was the first foray into climate politics by Organizing for Action, the group which emerged out of Obama’s re-election campaign to promote his second-term legislative agenda.

Until Thursday, the group had focused on gun control, immigration and the budget. Climate change did not even rate its own heading on the OFA website. But Thursday’s video and an accompanying petition campaign suggest that Obama’s allies have now decided that climate change is a mainline political issue.

Obama singled out climate change as one of his priorities at his inauguration and during his first state of the union address.

Since then, however, Obama has failed to offer bold policy proposals to match the sweeping speeches. Last week the New Yorker speculated that Obama may have given up on climate action entirely.

Environmental groups in Washington say that is not at all the case, but admit that other issues have taken precedence in the first months of his second term.

The appearance of the video was seen by some as a sign that Obama’s allies are now ready for a broad grassroots fight on climate politics. A number of environmental organisations have tried similar grassroots efforts – most notably’s campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline and Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project – but the OFA move represented a new mainstreaming of climate politics.

“What is interesting to me is that it shows that climate is finally becoming a first tier political issue,” said Paul Bledsoe, a political consultant who was President Clinton’s climate advisor. “Every other issue in the first tier always has this kind of grassroots activism behind it, whether it’s the health care bill or immigration.”

But it will be an uphill battle. As the video points out, 240 Republican members of the house signed on to a measure describing climate change as a hoax.

Since Obama was first elected, opposition to climate action has become a core tenet of conservative and Republican party politics. Some Republicans deny any change in the climate, some dispute the burning of fossil fuels is warming the atmosphere. Others accept climate science but oppose broad economy-wide measures to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The video does not bother with those distinctions. However, there is broad cohesion among conservatives in their opposition to climate action – and that will make Obama’s course all the more difficult.

Click to watch the stupidity: © Guardian News and Media 2013


Senate committee advances bill for warrantless email searches

By Dominic Rushe, The Guardian
Thursday, April 25, 2013 14:18 EDT

Bipartisan group seeks update to Electronic Communications Privacy Act over concerns of misuse by law enforcement

A bipartisan committee voted Thursday to advance a bill to clamp down on warrantless government searches of email and other private electronic information.

The bill seeks to modify the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and require government and law enforcement agencies to get a judge’s approval in most cases in order to access electronic communications.

A vote is now expected next month but while the bill has cross-party support law officials, regulators and some senators are pushing for amendments to weaken its impact.

Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, co-sponsor of the bill with Utah’s Republican senator Mike Lee, said: “I think Americans are very concerned about unwanted intrusions into our private lives in cyberspace. There’s no question if someone wants to go into your house and go through your files and draws you are going to need a search warrant. But if you have those same files in the cloud you ought to have the same sense of privacy.”

The ECPA was drawn up before email became a ubiquitous form of communication. It has become a hot topic for tech and civil rights groups. In January Google announced that 68% of requests made by officials for its users’ private data were made under ECPA subpoenas, which, unlike wiretaps or physical search warrants, typically circumvent the need for a judge’s approval. Google said it complies to some degree with 90% of those requests.

Leahy said there was a broad support for the bill in the tech community, on both sides of the House and from liberal and conservative groups.

But other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed concern about the bill. Senator Dianne Feinstein said the committee should “take seriously” the concerns of law enforcement and regulators. Securities and Exchange Committee chairman Mary Jo White, among others, have argued that the bill will hamper its abilities to protect consumers from fraudsters.

Senator Chuck Grassley said that they were setting aside the concerns of law enforcement officials. “Instead it seems a growing distrust of government is driving a significant amount of public opinion these days,” he said. Grassley claimed the email debate was part of a wider concern among the public about government accountability, gun rights and civil liberties.

Grassley said Congress would be “abdicating our responsibilities” if it did not take into consideration the concerns of regulators and law enforcement.

Senator Jeff Sessions said major city chiefs of police, FBI groups, district attorney and others had expressed grave concerns about the bill. “It seems to me these concerns are very real,” he said. “In the real world agents sometime have to do 30, 40, 50 pages documents to get a warrant. It intimidates them and they just don’t try. In cases, particularly terrorism cases, may never be followed up on simply because of that burden”

He said “privacy is very real” but that email was similar to bank records, which can be obtained without a warrant, and that people had a similarly “diminished expectation of privacy” with email.

Leahy said ECPA had been “misused and abused” by law enforcement officials. “There seems to be a feeling in this country, more and more, that because we face threats, as this nation has from the time of its founding, that we somehow give up our rights to privacy. Americans believe in their privacy,” he said.

Leahy said amendments would be put online ahead of the hearing.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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Court denies parole to Pussy Riot punk

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, April 26, 2013 13:25 EDT

A Russian court ruled to keep Pussy Riot punk Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in jail on Friday, denying her request for parole from her two-year sentence for the band’s performance against President Vladimir Putin last year.

Judge Lidiya Yakovleva sided with prison officials, who said that 23-year-old Tolokonnikova does not deserve parole because she has not repented for her actions and has had reprimands while serving out her two-year term in a prison colony in Mordovia.

“Applying parole to Tolokonnikova is premature,” she said after taking about an hour-and-a-half to deliberate and failing to give the defence a chance for a final argument. “The court finds the arguments of the defence unsound.”

The decision was met with some cries of “Shame!” from the audience, which included her husband and father, as well as many journalists and supporters who came from Moscow.

Tolokonnikova, wearing green prison garb, silently stood in her courtroom metal cage as the decision was read.

Tolokonnikova, one of the two members of the all-female punk band jailed last year for their “punk prayer” performance at a Moscow cathedral, earlier told the court that she has “spent enough time in the prison camp… six months is time enough.”

She is serving a two-year sentence for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred along with her bandmate Maria Alyokhina. A third woman, Yekaterina Samutsevich, received a suspended sentence.

The parole hearing could have seen the striking opposition activist, philosophy student at the elite Moscow State University and mother of a small daughter, released immediately.

Prison administration representatives present in court argued that Tolokonnikova “does not repent for what she has done” and has received reprimands, and therefore needs to serve out her sentence.

One of the arguments against her parole was her lack of participation in prison activities, such as the Miss Charm Prison Camp 14 beauty contest.

The 2012 trial of Tolokonnikova and two other members of the provocative feminist band grabbed worldwide attention, with stars such as Madonna, Sting and Yoko Ono voicing their support.

Tolokonnikova has complained of severe headaches during her detention at a camp in the Mordovia region of central Russia.

Her lawyer Irina Khrunova argued in the Zubovo-Polyansky district court that her 5-year-old daughter, Gera, needed her mother.

“She has a family, a child. Her daughter misses her mother. The family must be reunited as soon as possible to allow the child to develop properly.”

Her defence also read out an appeal for her release signed by several prominent rights activists, including veteran campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva and the head of the Memorial rights group Oleg Orlov.

Tolokonnikova has lodged a complaint in court against a reprimand issued against her for failing to greet a guard while she was in the sick bay.

Alyokhina has filed a request for parole due to be heard in May but is seen as unlikely to receive it because of two formal reprimands issued to her in camp.

The three convicted members of Pussy Riot have submitted complaints to the European Court of Human Rights over their treatment in custody.

They were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for their short performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour protesting Putin’s close links with the Russian Orthodox Church.

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« Reply #5995 on: Apr 27, 2013, 05:51 AM »

Moscow hospital fire turns spotlight on Russia's terrible safety record

Russia's health minister denies reports patients had been tied to their beds after fire sweeps through Pyschiatric Hospital No 14

Miriam Elder in Moscow, Friday 26 April 2013 15.08 BST   

Fire swept through a decrepit psychiatric hospital in a Moscow suburb in the early hours of Friday, killing 38 people.

The hospital's windows were fitted with bars and some patients were tied to their beds, according to state-run NTV. Others were reportedly sedated.

Psychiatric Hospital No 14, a one-storey building in the suburb of Ramnesky, dated from the 1950s and was partly made of wood, prompting the flames to spread quickly. The hospital is a "special regime" facility, meaning patients are locked in.

There were only three survivors, a nurse who was able to save herself and one patient, plus one other patient. Two doctors were among the dead.

"The nurse said that when she saw the smoke, she took measures – she began to scream, no one heard her," said Irina Gumennaya, an official in the Moscow region's prosecutor's office. By 2am, the building was engulfed in flames.

Investigators believe the fire was started by a lit cigarette. One survivor told investigators he believed the fire was started by a chain-smoking patient who had been checked in to the hospital the day before. "He was a drug addict, had a [psychiatric] break and therefore smoked constantly, despite the smoking ban," Gummenaya said, citing the testimony of a survivor. The fire was believed to have started on the sofa in the hospital's rest area.

Firefighters said the drive from their base 32 miles (51km) away should take 20 minutes, but took an hour because poor roads forced them to take a winding route. By the time they arrived, "there was already no one to save", one firefighter told NTV.

Twelve patients were found dead in the hospital's corridors, according to Vadim Belovoshin, the deputy head of the Moscow region's emergencies ministry. "People went along the corridors, couldn't find an exit, moved along and died there," he said.

Russia has a horrific fire safety record, with about 12,000 people dying in fires in Russia last year.. Safety codes are not enforced, few buildings boast fire alarms, and ageing electrical infrastructure means fires are common.

Russia's health minister later denied reports that the patients had been tied to their beds.

"After speaking with the main doctor I can say that in general all the patients conducted themselves absolutely normally. There were no measures to tie down these patients, or other measures that would not have allowed them to react quickly," Veronika Skvortsova said.

State-run television said officials had been ordered to conduct a review of Russia's fire safety procedures. It also said that relatives had begun arriving at morgues to identify the dead, and would be given 500,000 roubles (£10,300) in compensation.

Ordering reviews and issuing compensation are regular procedures after Russia's many tragedies, from deadly fires to plane crashes, but few things ever change.

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« Reply #5996 on: Apr 27, 2013, 05:58 AM »

Mafia State

By Luke Harding

Subtitled, "How One Reporter Became An Enemy Of The Brutal New Russia". Paperback edition of the "Guardian" journalist's story of how he was harassed and expelled from his new post in Moscow by Russia's Federal Security Service.

Full description

In 2007 Luke Harding arrived in Moscow to take up a new job as a correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian. Within months, mysterious agents from Russia's Federal Security Service - the successor to the KGB - had broken into his flat. He found himself tailed by men in cheap leather jackets, bugged, and even summoned to Lefortovo, the KGB's notorious prison.

The break-in was the beginning of an extraordinary psychological war against the journalist and his family. Vladimir Putin's spies used tactics developed by the KGB and perfected in the 1970s by the Stasi, East Germany's sinister secret police. This clandestine campaign burst into the open in 2011 when the Kremlin expelled Harding from Moscow - the first western reporter to be deported from Russia since the days of the Cold War.

Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia is a brilliant and haunting account of the insidious methods used by a resurgent Kremlin against its so-called "enemies" - human rights workers, western diplomats, journalists and opposition activists. It includes unpublished material from confidential US diplomatic cables, released last year by WikiLeaks, which describe Russia as a "virtual mafia state".

Harding gives a unique, personal and compelling portrait of today's Russia, two decades after the end of communism, that reads like a spy thriller.


In 2007 Luke Harding arrived in Moscow to take up a new job as a correspondent for the British newspaper the "Guardian". Within months, mysterious agents from Russia's Federal Security Service - the successor to the KGB - had broken into his flat. This title presents the portrait of Russia, two decades after the end of communism.

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« Reply #5997 on: Apr 27, 2013, 06:02 AM »

Hungary warned its democracy could be put under international scrutiny

Council of Europe committee proposes country be monitored over actions taken by Viktor Orbán to cement power base

Ian Traynor in Brussels, Friday 26 April 2013 17.07 BST   

Hungary has been warned it could be the first country in the EU to have its democracy placed under international scrutiny.

An influential committee of the Council of Europe, the Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog (not part of the EU), proposed that Hungary be subject to a "monitoring procedure" that would place the country's democratic rights and liberties under international monitoring, something that has never happened in any of the EU's 27 countries.

The final decision to push ahead with the scrutiny needs to be taken by the council's parliamentary assembly which brings together lawmakers from the organisation's 47 member states. Ten countries outside the EU but members of the council, including Russia and Turkey, are being monitored.

The "opinion" delivered by the council's monitoring committee accused Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán of seeking to take control of independent institutions in Hungary, of using the constitutional rewriting to cement the power of his own political party, Fidesz, and of ignoring the country's supreme court.

Budapest and Brussels have been at odds for months over curbs on freedom in Hungary, including restrictions on media expression, pressure on judges, control of the central bank. Orbán has consistently and robustly rejected the charges, with his government and diplomats mounting a loud and detailed campaign aimed at disproving the criticism.

The committee said Orbán had acted hastily and opaquely in breach of democratic principles, had bypassed the country's constitutional court and was constantly changing the basic law and undermining the constitution in pursuit of "narrow party political interests."

Orbán's Fidesz has a two-thirds majority in the parliament in Budapest. Orbán has used that ascendancy to revise the constitution four times in the past 18 months. The legal changes are also being scrutinised by lawyers at the European commission and in another body of the Council of Europe.

"Each of the concerns outlined in this decision is inherently serious in terms of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights," the statement said. "Taken separately, they would already warrant close scrutiny by the monitoring committee. In the present case, however, what is striking is the sheer accumulation of reforms that aim at establishing political control of most key institutions while in parallel weakening the system of checks and balances."

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« Reply #5998 on: Apr 27, 2013, 06:10 AM »

France's Socialist party attacks 'selfish' German chancellor

Hollande's party accuse Merkel of acting in German interests and demand showdown with 'chancellor of austerity'

Ian Traynor in Brussels and Giles Tremlett in Madrid
The Guardian, Friday 26 April 2013 19.36 BST   

French president François Hollande's governing Socialist party has delivered a blistering assault on Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, accusing her of causing the single currency crisis that has been tearing Europe apart for more than three years, of acting selfishly and intransigently in her own political and German national interest, and demanding a "showdown" with the "chancellor of austerity".

The French socialists' criticisms, in a draft paper on party policy on Europe ahead of a conference in June, came as Spain dramatically shifted its commitment to austerity. Spain set a far higher budget deficit target for this year while admitting that the country's chronic unemployment would stay above 25% for the next four years.

The new budget deficit target, increased from 4.5% to 6.3%, means Spain only has to reduce spending by 0.8% of GDP over this year. But greater realism about its ongoing recession saw the government admit the economy would shrink by a further 1.3% this year.

The Spanish government has put back the target of reaching the Brussels-mandated deficit level of less than 3% until 2016, a move that will see public debt grow to 100% of GDP.

The French socialists' draft paper contends that Europe is being run by a rightwing Anglo-German cabal dominated by liberal free trade interests with the rest of the world and austerity within the EU.

It calls into question the Franco-German alliance that has been at the heart of the EU for as long as it has existed and argues that France alone of the big EU countries has a government that is genuinely pro-European.

Merkel, as well as Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron come in for severe criticism. Merkel and Sarkozy, the draft declares, managed to turn a small crisis that started in Greece more than three years ago into a European disaster.

The 21-page draft was leaked to Le Monde, which said it had the tacit support of Hollande's government. It said: "The [EU] community project is now scarred by an alliance of convenience between the Thatcherite accents of the current British prime minister – who sees Europe only as à la carte and about rebates – and the selfish intransigence of Chancellor Merkel who thinks of nothing else but the savings of depositors in Germany, the trade balance recorded in Berlin and her electoral future."

The paper reveals just how bad relations have become between Berlin and Paris, with Germany alarmed at the condition of the French economy and frustrated that Hollande appears unwilling to embark on the kind of radical structural reforms the Germans think are necessary.
France's President Sarkozy Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, also faced severe criticism. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

The document also calls bluntly for an end to austerity as the main response to the debt and currency crisis, accuses the political right dominating EU politics as being focused on "deregulation, deindustrialisation and disintegration".

Spain's move to ease its deficit burden was praised by the European commission in Brussels in what is a clear sign that it, too, has radically changed its previously hawkish insistence on harsh austerity.

It said in a statement: "Regarding the fiscal targets, the postponement of the correction of the excessive deficit (to below 3% of GDP) to 2016 is consistent with the current technical analysis by the commission services of what would be a balanced – but still ambitious – fiscal consolidation path, given the difficult economic environment."

The Spanish finance minister, Luis de Guindos, insisted that, despite continued recession and 27% unemployment, Spain was turning the corner and that last year's intense austerity measures - which helped tip a further 600,000 Spaniards into unemployment – had been worth the effort. "The results have not been good but they could have been much worse," he said.

However, the government said it would still have to raise taxes to meet the new deficit targets. The budget minister, Cristóbal Montoro, pledged no rises in VAT, income tax or fuel taxes, but said other special taxes would rise. He refused to say which ones they were.

Company taxes will also rise and a small tax on banks, based on their deposits, is to be introduced.

The prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, continued his tradition of avoiding the press and public when major announcements on the economy are made, and left ministers to present the changes.

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« Reply #5999 on: Apr 27, 2013, 06:14 AM »

Blow for Cameron as China welcomes Hollande

Beijing punishes PM for his meeting with Dalai Lama while French president gets full state visit treatment

Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent, Friday 26 April 2013 20.00 BST   

David Cameron's mission to change the focus of British foreign policy by boosting trade links suffered a setback after Downing Street was forced to abandon a trip to China as Beijing punished the prime minister for meeting the Dalai Lama.

In a blow to Cameron, who had hoped to hold an annual summit with the Chinese leadership, the French president François Hollande was on Friday feted in Shanghai on a full state visit a few weeks after the prime minister was due to visit China.

Cameron is understood to have abandoned the planned trip after Beijing indicated that he was unlikely to be granted meetings with senior figures. He is now expected to visit in the autumn, two years after his first and only visit as prime minister.

Britain accepts that Beijing is exacting punishment after Cameron met the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, at St Paul's Cathedral last May. The meeting, which was similar to Gordon Brown's discussions with the Dalai Lama at Lambeth Palace in 2008, was designed to minimise offence in China by showing that Britain regards him as a spiritual leader. Downing Street has made clear to Beijing that it accepts Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China.

Government sources said that tentative plans for the prime minister to visit China this month were put on hold before his visit to India in February for the simple reason that the new Chinese leadership only took over in March. Cameron spoke to Li Keqiang, his new Chinese counterpart, after his appointment.

But the Guardian understands from diplomatic sources that a visit was firmly placed in the prime minister's diary for earlier this month. This was abandoned when it became clear that the prime minister would be denied the access usually granted to a G8 leader.

Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary who has just returned from China, told the Guardian: "David Cameron came to office claiming he would prioritise the UK's diplomatic and trade relationship with China, and yet the real difficulties in relations have now been laid bare. I was in China this week and it is clear that the new Chinese leadership are focused on the French president's visit, along with a large number of French companies looking for business.

"In the past, UK prime ministers have met with the Dalai Lama without the deterioration in relations with China that we are now seeing. For all of their initial boasts and bluster, the UK government has lacked a strategic or a joined-up approach to China since it came to office, and that's now showing."

A No 10 source said: "Of course, as any good diary planner would, we pencil in early on dates when the prime minister could potentially travel overseas without going firm on destinations. We decided several weeks ago that we wanted to visit some European capitals in the time we had earlier this month. When the prime minister and Premier Li Keqiang spoke in March they looked forward to meeting in due course."

Officials said trade with China is still rising and the two countries are on course to achieve £1bn in bilateral trade by 2015. Exports to China grew 13.4% last year.

But the decision to abandon the visit is a personal setback for Cameron, who said after coming to office that he would place trade at the heart of foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on the so-called Bric countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China. A visit to India in February fell flat after private complaints that the prime minister appeared to regard the country as a trading opportunity rather than an emerging world power.

Hollande was greeted by Xi Jinping, the new Chinese president, when he arrived in Beijing with his partner Valerie Trierweiler on Thursday. They agreed to hold an annual summit – Cameron's original aspiration when he first visited China in November 2010 – after Hollande said he hoped to build a "multipolar" world. This is the classic French ambition to ensure the US cannot dominate the world in a "unipolar" world.

Cui Hongjian, director of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, a foreign ministry thinktank, told the South China Morning Post that this message was well received in Beijing. "France sometimes has different ideas from the US. China may co-operate with France."

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