05/16/2013 05:43 PM
European Escape: Idyllic Islands You've Never Heard Of
They are beautiful, secluded and sometimes bizarre: Europe's smallest, least-known islands have their own unique charm. Some can only be reached by mail boat. Another asks that all visitors arrive in the nude.
Seychelles? Maldives? Bora Bora? The very idea of a deserted island awakens dreams of long, lingering sunsets, unspoiled natural beauty and endless seascapes without another human in sight. But who knew all this could be found without leaving Europe? Far from the chintzy tourist resorts of Majorca, there are several remote island destinations for the intrepid. Here are some of the best.
Europe 's Southernmost Island
This island is definitely not for those in a rush. Thirty-five kilometers off the southern coast of Crete, Gavdos is located in the Libyan Sea. Ten miles long and five miles wide, it is thought by some to be the mythical home of the nymph Calypso, who kept Odysseus captive for seven years. The mail boat comes by five times a week. Those who disembark will discover a striking green island with secluded sandy beaches tucked up against vertical cliffs hundreds of meters high. The pine-covered dunes at hippie beach Agios Ioannis make a lasting impression.
Not even 100 people live permanently on Gavdos. The island bus commutes only in July and August through cedar and juniper forests between the capital, Kastri, and Sarakiniko beach. There are, however, a dozen taverns and bars on the beach as well as a few simple guesthouses. And ultimately, every visitor to Gavdos travels at least once to Tripti Bay, Europe's southernmost point. There you'll find a natural rock arch on which a Greek artist has placed an oversized chair. To sit there is a truly uplifting experience.
Footprints in the Sand
Croatia's Susak is a tiny miracle: it's the only sand dune island in the Mediterranean. How the island formed remains a puzzle to scientists. Those arriving to the small island -- a mere 3 kilometers long and 1.5 kilometers wide -- on the edge of Kvarner Bay will be less puzzled. They have taken a liner from Mali Losinj and can now look forward to Susak's soft beaches and bamboo-fringed sand paths.
On Susak almost everyone gets around by foot -- the island is car-free. There are no hotels, just a number of pretty, renovated old fisherman houses. At the two villages on the island, connected by stairs, quaint guesthouses serve freshly caught fish and island wine harvested in the sand.
Capri 's Little Sister
The glamorous tourist islands Ischia and Capri are still within sight. But on Procida, there is little trace of all the hubbub and glitz. It is mostly just locals on the small Italian island. In the historical center, also called Procida, houses in shades of pastel-pink, white and yellow contrast with the deep blue Gulf of Naples. Fragrant lemon and orange trees are scattered throughout the singular island.
You can take in an unforgettable view of the island from its highest point, the Terra Murata hill, in the fishing village of Corricella with its maze of interlaced houses. And visitors can stay in stylishly outfitted former Neapolitan palaces such as the 18th-century Casa Sul Mare.
Madeira 's Neighbor
Madeira is entwined with flowers, but the Portuguese island in the Atlantic offers almost nothing in the way of sandy beaches. Those you'll find just a 15-minute plane ride away -- on Porto Santo. Locals call it "The Golden Island" because of the prevailing warm shades, from yellow to ocher, on the small island.
Because Porto Santo is located in the middle of the Gulf Stream, tourists can swim in the sea in winter. The biggest attraction is the nearly 10-kilometer-long sandy beach Campo de Baixo on the south coast. There are around a dozen hotels in the main town, Vila Baleira. The house where Christopher Columbus is said to have made the decision to sail to America attracts only a trickle of visitors. The regulars hope it will stay that way for many years.
Lanzarote's Little Sister
Only the two-kilometer-wide strait of El Rio separates Graciosa, the smallest inhabited island of the Canaries, from its big sister Lanzarote. In the semi-circular harbor, fishing boats bob up and down. A few whitewashed houses are scattered around the shore. Just 700 Spaniards live here in the fishing village of Caleta del Sebo and the tiny settlement of Pedro Barba. Except for a few stray Land Rovers, there are no cars.
The few tourists who come stay in a surprisingly comfortable apartment complex. For variety, visitors can take a one-hour hike across the island over the dunes, past the volcanic cones to the white sandy beach of Playa de las Conchas. There, even Robinson Crusoe might grow lonely.
Commissaire Maigret's Retreat
Crime fans know: One of the best Maigret books takes place on the village square of Porquerolles. By the time the detective devours his bouillabaisse in the island restaurant Arche de Noé, many readers had probably resolved to one day visit the Côte d'Azur. Georges Simenon described the leisurely island life of Porquerolles in "My Friend Maigret," back in 1949. But the French island is almost sleepier now than it was then.
In the 1970s, the island became part of Port-Cros National Park -- since then, no one other than the 350 permanent residents have been allowed to drive cars there. Guests can explore the 8-kilometer-island by bicycle. There they'll find the village square with its picture-perfect village bakery, and the Arche de Noé restaurant, which still exists. There are also three lovely beaches. And for those sunning on beach towels on the silvery Plage d'Argent, it is a matter of honor to pull a detective novel out of a picnic basket.
Into the Blue Lagoon
True treasure lies under the sea: Comino's top attraction is its fantastically beautiful Blue Lagoon. Divers love the turquoise bay with its floor made of yellow sand. Otherwise, the only other attractions on the 3-square-kilometer island are tranquility and the murmur of the sea.
Like a small child, Comino is guarded by the two larger islands of Malta and Gozo. Its name derives from the Comino cumin, which once grew here -- today, its 20-meter-high plateau smells mainly of thyme, rosemary and oleander. Aside from a medieval tower and a small chapel on the island, there is only one building: the Comino Hotel with its own sandy bay and a few bungalows. From there you can gaze dreamily at the sea and the neighboring island of Gozo.
Holiday in the Buff
It is one of the most remote places in Europe: the 13-kilometer-long Large Beach of Ulcinj where Montenegro ends and Albania begins. Just before the border river of Bojana flows into the sea, it splits in two and forms the island of Ada Bojana. A nudist camp has resided here since the Tito regime.
Gone are the days when travelers had to be ferried across to the island in a converted military SUV. Today you just go over a bridge. Simple bungalows stand in the middle of a green field. On the beach there is a strict prohibition against threads of any kind, and the lifeguards are as strict as ever. Those who stay on the west bank of the Bojana river -- to eat at one of the excellent fish restaurants there, for instance -- can keep their pants on.
With wire reports
Report: Shrinking glaciers behind a third of rise in sea levels
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 17, 2013 0:00 EDT
Water from the world’s shrinking glaciers was responsible for almost a third of the rise in sea levels between 2003 and 2009, new research showed Thursday.
A study published in the journal Science revealed that researchers had analyzed data gleaned from two NASA satellites as well as traditional ground measurements from glaciers around the world.
“For the first time, we’ve been able to very precisely constrain how much these glaciers as a whole are contributing to sea rise,” said Alex Gardner, assistant geography professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“These smaller ice bodies are currently losing about as much mass as the ice sheets.” The most significant ice losses occurred in Arctic Canada, Alaska, coastal Greenland, the southern Andes and the Himalayas, the study found.
The glaciers outside of the Greenland and Antarctic sheets lost an average of roughly 260 billion metric tons of ice annually during the period, leading to a rise in ocean levels of about 0.03 inches (0.7 millimeters) per year.
“Because the global glacier ice mass is relatively small in comparison with the huge ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica, people tend to not worry about it,” said Tad Pfeffer, a glaciologist of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“But it’s like a little bucket with a huge hole in the bottom: it may not last for very long, just a century or two, but while there’s ice in those glaciers, it’s a major contributor to sea level rise.”
Scientists estimate that if all the glaciers in the world were to melt, sea levels would rise by about two feet.
However if the entire ice sheet of Greenland were to vanish, the oceans would surge by 20 feet (0.6 meters). If the Antarctic lost its ice cover, levels would rise 200 feet.
The study used data from NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat, and the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE.
ICESat, which ceased operation in 2009, tracked glacier changes by bouncing laser pulses off the surface to calculate the shifting height of ice cover.
The GRACE system works by monitoring variations in Earth’s gravity field caused by shifts in the planet’s mass distribution, including displacements of ice.
In the USA...Report: Republicans were source of bogus Benghazi quotes
By Arturo Garcia
Thursday, May 16, 2013 22:29 EDT
CBS report says Republicans provided false quotes related to Benghazi attack
Republicans provided the erroneous quotes linked to White House emails regarding how to address the September 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya, CBS News reported on Thursday.
According to the report by chief White House correspondent Major Garrett, a quote leaked on May 10 attributed to then-Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes asking that talking points related to the attack “reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department” without undermining the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was put out by unnamed “Republicans on Capitol Hill.”
But, as CNN also reported on Tuesday, Rhodes’ email did not mention the State Department; what his email actually said was that the matter should be resolved “in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.”
Garrett also said that Republicans provided a false quote attributed to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland saying that, “the penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency (CIA) about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.”
But Nuland’s email did not actually mention the terrorist group, instead advising that “the penultimate point could be abused by members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings.”
Garrett reported that there was no evidence linking the White House to any changes made on the talking points. Instead, it was a mutual decision by the State Department and the Central Investigation Agency to revise the talking points to make them less specific.
***********Total Republican Fail As Americans Don’t Share Their Hysteria over IRS and Benghazi
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
May. 17th, 2013
“Deep-seated preferences cannot be argued about — you cannot argue a man into liking a glass of beer — and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Natural Law”, 32 Harvard Law Review 40, 41 (1918)
There is an old saying: ignorance is bliss. A similar expression is that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. While it is true that ignorance can sometimes have the happy consequence of lowering stress levels, it can also be the cause of them (think the consequences of Fox News). And what you don’t know absolutely can hurt you. But it’s not so often what you don’t know that is the problem, but what you think you know.
To cite a few unhappy examples in history, at the Little Bighorn, Custer knew the Native American confederation under Sitting Bull was going to run away (they didn’t). At Isandlwana, Lord Chelmsford (who was not actually there) knew that Zulus, in whatever quantity they were present, could not stand up to English firepower in the form of artillery and the Martini-Henry rifle (they could), just as later those same Zulus knew that a few Englishmen armed with the Martini-Henry could not hold them off at Rorke’s Drift (they did).*
There are many other examples from history, including many from Napoleon, who quite often turned up precisely where he could not possibly have been. Sarah Palin knew, however much she exposed the insipid product of her what passed for thought in her mind that she would not lose the 2008 election because God had promised her to “do right by America.”
Just like the god Apollo told King Croesus of Lydia that if he attacked Persia, a great kingdom would be destroyed. Croesus knew Apollo meant Persia. But what Apollo meant was Lydia.
Republicans, to cite a more recent and relevant example, know that with their manufactured Benghazi scandal, or their spun IRS scandal (it was not only conservative groups that were targeted by the IRS) and resultant voter outrage (all that loss of trust an consent we keep hearing about), they have President Barack Obama by the short and curlies. What they seem unaware of is that this outrage is mostly in their own minds. Worse yet, almost half of Americans aren’t even following either of the situations closely.
According to Gallup,
Slim majorities of Americans are very or somewhat closely following the situations involving the Internal Revenue Service (54%) and the congressional hearings on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and its aftermath (53%) — comparatively low based on historical measures of other news stories over the last two decades.
You would think this would be a rather large fly in the ointment. But Republicans don’t think so much as believe; as a consequence, they seem unable to grasp that we do not share their paranoid delusions. How often have we heard Glenn Beck break into tears and cry, “Why aren’t people talking about this?” The answer of course, is that since Glenn Beck has made it all up; it is all in his head. Americans do not even know about whatever it is that has him in such a panic.
Thank the gods (or whatever), but we cannot share Beck’s tortured mind. Which, by the way, lends some validity to the precept with which I opened this piece: that ignorance is bliss. Batshit crazy is certainly an antidote to happiness.
So Republicans seem confounded by our inability to share their sense of fear and outrage. The whole thing can be likened to that familiar and peculiarly Republican disease, cognitive dissonance. Certainly, there is some shared cognitive dissonance on the part of Republican audiences: Gallup reports that,
Republicans are much more likely to say they are following these news stories closely than are independents or in particular Democrats. There is a 21-percentage-point gap between Republicans and Democrats in terms of following the Benghazi story closely, and a 27-point gap on the IRS story.
While most Americans give equal weight to both issues (Benghazi and the IRS), Gallup points out that,
The amount of attention Americans are paying to the IRS and the Benghazi situations is well below the average for news stories Gallup has tracked over the years. This overall lack of attention is due in part to Democrats’ and, to a lesser degree, independents’ lack of interest, which stands in sharp contrast to the significantly above-average attention among Republicans.
Like the below average IQ responsible for the claim that Benghazi, like 9/11, was God’s judgment. We’re looking at you, Michele Bachmann.
One issue Republicans seem absolutely unconcerned about, is the widespread occurrence of rape, violence, and harassment of women in the military, lumped together by the president as “abuse.” Republicans are rather more concerned by an imaginary persecution of Christians in the military, when in fact, the exact opposite is true: it is non-Christians in the military who are being persecuted. The facts are quite clear where these issues are concerned and these facts are completely irrelevant when it comes to Republican discourse concerning them.
Obama has ordered, “top Pentagon officials to “leave no stone unturned” in the effort to stop the abuse” of women in the military while Republicans do not even think raping women is a form of abuse. After meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, the president told reporters,
Not only is it a crime. Not only is it shameful and disgraceful. But it is also going to make our military less effective than it can be.
While unable to comprehend that we do not share their outrage over their manufactured scandals, Republicans prove completely incapable of recognizing our outrage over actual crises, like, say, providing Americans with adequate medical care, fair and equal pay, our children with food and a decent education, and our workers with jobs.
They would rather repeal Obamacare than create a job. After all, if they created a single job (so far they have not), they would not be able to blame Obama for not creating any jobs. We’ll leave aside for a moment a wish for bridges that don’t fall down with our cars and our families on them.
To say the GOP is completely out of touch with Americans is to put the matter lightly.
Obama also told reporters (and therefore all of us, including Republicans) that the abuse of women in the military “is dangerous to our national security. So this is not a sideshow. … This goes to the heart and core of who we are and how effective we’re going to be” (rather like torture). But what Republicans insist is a danger to our national security is gays and lesbians in uniforms, or even women, or atheists.
We can quantify facts. We cannot quantify fantasy.
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with Republican faux outrage. As with the rather unsavory example of Republican fears that there might be fetuses in food, the real issue is pesticides and other chemicals that actually kill people and which, more particularly, are actually being put into our nation’s food supply, including our drinking water. The water our children drink. The water all those fetuses Republicans seem so concerned about, drink via their mothers.
All this seems so obvious to those with working brains, those who are unburdened by ideological preconceptions. To say that Republicans are like children who plug their ears and make nonsense sounds in order to avoid seeing and hearing things not congenial to their wishes, is no exaggeration at all.
It is funny when we see this behavior in characters in sitcoms. It is remarkably less funny coming from our elected officials on Capitol Hill. And while what they think they know will rebound back upon them, it is the American people who will suffer the most from their ideological obsessions.
* By far the best and most accurate account of Isandlwana is How Can Men Die Better: The Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed (2005), and of Rorke’s Drfit, Like Wolves on the Fold: the Defense of Rorke’s Drfit (2006), both by Lt. Colonel Mike Snook.
************Darrell Issa’s Lies Create an Uncomfortable Scrutiny of His Criminal Background
By: Sarah Jones
May. 16th, 2013
Ari Melber, co-host of “The Cycle”, joined Martin Bashir on his show Thursday evening to denounce Darrell Issa’s unprecedented behavior and charges toward Obama and Eric Holder. Ari pointed out that Issa’s unfounded accusations have caused several journalists to begin digging into his checkered past. It’s not pretty.
People in glass houses…
Transcript via MSNBC with slight modifications:
MARTIN BASHIR: Many of us don’t know much about him. Darrell Issa. He’s worth $745 million. He made that fortune largely by running a car alarm company which is funny because he was once indicted to stealing a car as well as one other arrest for carrying a concealed weapon, all of which I guess makes him the paragon of virtue and the man who can grandstand and treat with ranked discourtesy the attorney general, is that right?
ARI MELBER: Congressman Issa has been throwing out a lot of charges but there is finally some scrutiny of his background, both before serving in Congress and running the oversight committee. Ryan Lizza and “The New Yorker” as we discussed went in and looked at his record, looked at the indictment on the stolen car, an arrest for concealed weapons. Looked at Congressman Issa’s defense, often saying his brother who’s had trouble with the law was the target of these investigations. Also a lot of serious allegations about arson in a factory he owned although he says it was an accidental fire. Even before coming –
MARTIN BASHIR: Just on that, sorry, before we move off, that warehouse and that fire seemed to coincide with him just before the fire raising his insurance policy from $100,000 to $400,000.
ARI MELBER: That’s right. He took out a significant increase in the insurance and there was also an accident report that “The New Yorker” discovered that talked about the fact that the nature of the fire didn’t match up with the kind of — kind of accidental arson — nonarson, I should say, accidental fire that could have occurred.
On the oversight committee, I’m so glad you showed some of those clips just now because people have to understand a lot of those exchanges including Congressman Issa telling Eric holder you’re not a good witness, answer the question, kind of berating that is unusual treatment for our top law enforcement officer occurred a year ago in the fast and furious investigation.
And that led to the first contempt citation ever of a sitting attorney general. So Martin, when people say, oh, there’s always skirmishes, both sides do it, no. As a matter of historical precedent, this is the first time we’ve had a chair, Congressman Issa, take the oversight committee and hold an Attorney General in criminal contempt for what I wrote at the time were flimsy charges.
Ari Melber is an attorney, so when he says the charges against Holder were “flimsy”, it means a bit more than a convicted criminal calling AG Eric Holder a “bad witness”.
The New Yorker article referenced is from 2011, but it’s coming to the forefront now as journalists and pundits search Issa’s name for clues as to who he is. Described as a “working class high school drop out”, Issa makes for a colorful character with various criminal charges peppered through his life. “Issa, it turned out, had, among other things, been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.”
Naturally, this is the man the Republicans vested with total power to investigate the Obama administration for any reason at any time. You don’t appoint someone with actual ethics to do your dirty work, because, well, that wouldn’t work. “Now that he had been given the power to subpoena, investigate, and harass the Obama Administration, Issa was being described as a future leader of his party—and the man most likely to weaken the President before the 2012 election…”
What’s Issa’s word worth? Not much, except as a warning that what you’re hearing may likely be inaccurate. For example, Issa claims he was always given “highest marks” by the Army and had provided “security” to then President Nixon, but a reporter dug into his past and found that Nixon had not even attended the events Issa’ claimed to have provided security for, and Issa was known as a car thief in the army (separate incident from his later more well known arrests for car theft).
Furthermore, “In May of 1998, Lance Williams, of the San Francisco Examiner, reported that Issa had not always received the “highest possible” ratings in the Army. In fact, at one point he “received unsatisfactory conduct and efficiency ratings and was transferred to a supply depot.” Williams also discovered that Issa didn’t provide security for Nixon at the 1971 World Series, because Nixon didn’t attend any of the games.”
Issa was soon after arrested for stealing a red Maserati, but the judge dropped those charges around the time that Issa was arrested in a separate incident for having a .25 Colt and “44 rounds of ammo and a tear gas gun and two rounds of ammo for it.” Just the kind of guy you want leading your party, especially when your party stands for vigilante justice via the NRA. Issa pleaded that case down to a lesser charge.
Just when things started to look up for Issa in the Army, he was arrested yet again for car theft, but this time he was also indicted for grand theft. The prosecution ended up dropping that case after smoke and mirrors coupled denial and some fancy Issa footwork. That didn’t stop Issa from committing hit and run soon after evading prosecution.
After that narrow escape from the law, Issa was suspected by officials of arson and accused of firing an employee by giving him a box with a gun in it. While investigating the arson charges, authorities realized that they could not trace the original capital Issa used to start his business. Shady dealings, but Issa once again managed to escape the law, but not their suspicion. All of this adds up to a great criminal resume for a henchman, and that is what Issa is for the GOP.
Darrell Issa may discover that he doesn’t like the sort of scrutiny his behavior is bringing upon himself. After all, while his charges against his “enemies” don’t hold water, his criminal past is largely a matter of public record, rather than the fictional hysteria of a bitter party that can’t win a national election any other way.
***********In 863 Days House GOP Has Offered 0 Jobs Plans While Voting to Repeal Obamacare 34 Times
By: Jason Easley
May. 16th, 2013
This was an utterly pointless vote. Before the vote, Speaker John Boehner’s office was desperately trying to justify House Republicans using 15% of the time they have been in session to repeal Obamacare. Boehner is claiming that this was only the third House vote to repeal Obamacare. The other votes were to defund Obamacare. Defunding would have the same impact as repeal, so Boehner was playing a silly word game.
In the 863 days since Republicans have taken control of the House they have offered nothing in terms of a jobs agenda. What House Republicans labeled a “No Cost Jobs Plan” isn’t really a jobs plan at all. It is actually a series of proposals to eliminate regulations and lower taxes. (If this concept created jobs, George W. Bush would have presided over a boom economy instead of an economic collapse.)
House Republicans keep fooling themselves into believing that if they just keep passing bills to repeal Obamacare, someday it will happen.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if House Republicans would have taken the time they wasted and used it to deal with the issues that the American people really care about?
Republicans want to blame Obama for the dysfunction in Washington, when votes like this one make it clear where the real problem is. Americans want access to healthcare, so Republicans try to repeal the legislation that would help more than 30 million of our citizens. House Republicans hear the people wanting action on jobs, immigration, and background checks. They respond by giving them another useless vote on repealing Obamacare.
House Republicans have moved beyond do nothing and into do less than nothing territory. They have gotten to the point where they are voting again on things that they already voted on. Even worse, they are voting on legislation that has already been rejected dozens of times by the Senate.
The House hasn’t turned voters against Obamacare. They’ve turned voters against Republicans.
*************Reeking of Desperation, John Boehner Claims Obama Witch Hunt is All About Jobs
By: Sarah Jones
May. 16th, 2013
Referencing 1998 when GOP lost five seats after trying to kill the Clinton presidency with never-ending investigations, a reporter asked House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) on Thursday during a press conference, “Is there a line where all of these different investigations crosses too far and starts to generate potential backlash?”
What does Speaker Boehner reply? Waving his pamphlet on jobs, the spectre of former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s resignation hanging over him, a desperate Boehner pivoted, “That’s why I continue to talk about jobs. Jobs are our number one focus.”
The fact that Boehner said this on the day when the House is wasting taxpayer money on yet another fake ObamaCare repeal vote didn’t stop the Speaker from trying to sell his stumble as a huge success. But really, what choice does he have? His party is looking almost criminal with the leaked edited emails and the televised “hearings” from which actual experts are blackballed. So Boehner talked about what he wants the public to hear him talk about — jobs! But he can’t get his House to actually legislate on a real jobs bill — you know, one that will actually create jobs.
The Speaker continued, “But, uh, we have two jobs here. Our job is to legislate, and we’re trying to legislate things (this House is the least productive one in a decade, with just 146 roll-call votes since Jan. 3, so much so that we’ve taken to clapping when Boehner actually allows a vote) that will help create jobs in our country (except for an actual jobs bill, of course – those they refused to pass), but we also have a responsibility under the Constitution to provide oversight of the Executive Branch of government.”
Perhaps this harkens to a new respect on the part of House Republicans to do their constitutional duties. If so, we can expect them to stop obstructing the reconciliation process on the budget ASAP. Tick tock.
Also, unless “oversight” means “witch hunt” in Republicanese, they might want to allow the public to hear what the experts have to say about Benghazi, instead of trying to hide them from the public by keeping them behind closed doors and not allowing their testimony to be televised. The scandals are looking like a Republican propaganda effort gone too far, also known as overreach.
The good news is that Boehner promised more talk, because that’s what we pay the House to do. The Speaker repeatedly mentioned how very soon his House would “talk” about a replacement for ObamaCare. While Speaker Boehner tried to deflect questions about why his House was wasting taxpayer money on yet another ObamaCare repeal vote, he pivoted into attack mode, calling the Obama administration “arrogant” (that’s “uppity” for those of you who haven’t spent time in the South, as in, one who does not know his place, aka, “boy”). He sold his fantasy narrative that a vote to repeal ObamaCare that will go nowhere is going to create jobs, and then this:
“Our system requires the bonds of trust between the American people and their government. And those bonds, once broken, are very hard to repair. Nothing dissolves the bonds between the people and their government like the arrogance of power here in Washington. And that’s what the American people are seeing today from the administration. Remarkable arrogance.
“This House will stop at nothing to get to the American people, the answers and the accountability that they expect. But the best way to repair this damage is for the administration to come forward with the truth. The whole truth so that the American people will have all of the facts.”
Speaking of accountability, Speaker Boehner rarely has his full pressers on his website, and today was no different. The video on his website does not include the part where the press does that awful thing of asking questions. Whereas the White House publishes the entire transcript, Boehner’s office only publishes the excerpt they want you to know about, and the video is edited so that the press questions are cut out.
Backlash is the natural result of overreach. It’s just a matter of time.
Continued failure doesn’t stop Republicans from banging their heads into the same wall of defeat, which is just another sign of their failure to adapt. Crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
It didn’t work against Clinton and it hurt their party, so their obvious choice for battle this time around is to do that again. Winning.
***********New Mexico Catholic school demands transgender male student wear female gown
By David Edwards
Thursday, May 16, 2013 15:52 EDT
A Catholic high school in New Mexico says that a transgender student must wear a female gown or not participate in graduation ceremonies.
Damian Garcia was born as Brandi Garcia, but now he identifies as a boy and had his name legally changed last year. His parents and the teachers at Saint Pius High School in Albuquerque all call him “Damian.”
“I look at him and call him my son,” Damian’s father, Luis Garcia, told KRQE. “That’s how he wishes to be acknowledged is as a male.”
But the school is insisting that Damian wear the white gown intended for girls at graduation instead of the boys’ black black gown.
“I just want to walk in my black robe, nice and proud and have that memory to look back on with my family and friends,” he explained to KRQE. “I would rather not walk than to embarrass myself by wearing a female robe.”
Although Damian had his name legally changed, his birth certificate still states that he is a female, and officials at Saint Pius insisted that they would go by his legal gender.
Damian’s father said that he did not expect that the school would change policy by next week’s graduation, but he hoped to see all graduates wearing the same color gowns in the future.
“All you want in life is to see your kids happy and healthy. You never want to see them suffer or being ridiculed or be made fun of.”
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Two-thirds of Europe’s LGBT community ‘still afraid to show sexuality’
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 17, 2013 9:50 EDT
Two-thirds of Europe’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are still afraid to show their sexuality in public and a quarter have been victims of physical or verbal attacks, an EU report said Friday, on the International Day Against Homophobia.
“Fear, isolation and discrimination are everyday phenomena for the LGBT community in Europe,” the director of the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Morten Kjaerum, wrote in the report.
The online survey, described as the largest of its kind, questioned around 93,000 people in the European Union’s 27 member states plus Croatia, which is to join the bloc in July.
Just over a quarter (26 percent) of the respondents said that they had been physically or verbally assaulted over the last five years.
Transgenders suffered particularly, with 28 percent saying they had been attacked or threatened more than three times in the last 12 months because of their sexuality, the report said.
Some respondents said that even in countries traditionally considered to be tolerant, attitudes were worsening.
“My situations of harassment/discrimination/violence are mainly random acts of verbal aggression,” a 27-year-old gay Belgian wrote.
“The situation is worse now than it was, for example, four years ago.”
In The Netherlands, the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage in 2001, almost 20 percent of those taking part said they felt discriminated against when going to sport clubs or hospitals, looking for an apartment, going out at night, or dealing with banks.
The average figure across Europe was 32 percent, with the highest figures reported in Lithuania (42 percent); Croatia (41 percent); Bulgaria (40 percent); and Romania (39 percent).
Many said they were afraid to go to the police, including in France where the beating of a gay couple in April hit the headlines after pictures of the bloodied face of one of the victims spread across social media.
“(I am) reluctant to report anything that might indicate that I am gay, as I know (the police) just dismiss everything,” a 42-year-old Frenchman said.
The most common reason for not going to the police is the belief that it “would not change anything”, as well as fear of the police’s homophobic reaction.
There are wide disparities between EU countries, with less discrimination and violence in the Benelux countries and Scandinavia but also in the Czech Republic and Spain.
Nevertheless, a 32-year-old Czech lesbian said: “For me, the most alarming discrimination experienced is in health.
“I feel strong enough to deal with street harassment now, but I feel upset about having to justify my lifestyle to every doctor.”
Two-thirds of respondents and three-quarters of gay men said they were afraid to show their sexuality in public.
The FRA report noted that discrimination often begins at school, where two-thirds of respondents hid their sexual orientation.
“Ten years later, I still consider being bullied at school the worst form of homophobic abuse I’ve ever been subjected to,” said a gay Maltese man, 25.
“The constant insults for being effeminate (‘and therefore gay’) were unbearable at school, and not much action was taken by the teachers against the bullies! Bullying forced me to remain in the closet until I reached the age of 18.”
Around 300 politicians and experts are meeting in The Hague on Friday to discuss measures to fight homophobia within the EU.
“Member states must take care that LGBT students feel secure at school, given that that is where LGBT people’s negative experiences, social prejudice and exclusion often begins,” the FRA said.
Politicians’ public support makes life easier for the LGBT community, the FRA said, calling on EU states to promote dialogue through public awareness campaigns as well as through political and religious institutions.
The United Nations has launched its own education campaign, with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reassuring the world’s LGBT community: “You are not alone.
May 17, 2013
Crowd Led by Priests Attacks Gay Rights Marchers in Georgia
By ANDREW ROTH
MOSCOW — A throng of thousands led by priests in black robes surged through police cordons in downtown Tbilisi, Georgia, on Friday and attacked a group of about 50 gay rights demonstrators.
Carrying banners reading “No to mental genocide” and “No to gays,” the masses of mostly young men began by hurling rocks and eggs at the gay rights demonstrators.
The police pushed most of the demonstrators onto yellow minibuses to evacuate them from the scene, but, the attackers swarmed the buses, trying to break the windows with metal gratings, trash cans, rocks and even fists.
At least 12 people were reported hospitalized, including three police officers and eight or nine of the gay rights marchers.
“They wanted to kill all of us,” said Irakli Vacharadze, the head of Identoba, the Tbilisi-based gay rights advocacy group that organized the rally.
Nino Bolkvadze, 35, a lawyer for the group who was among the marchers, said that if they had not been close to the buses when the violence began, “we would all have been corpses.”
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili of Georgia condemned the violence in a news release Friday evening, as the police urged the mobs to leave the city’s central avenue.
The attack comes amid an increase in antigay talk in Russia and Georgia, whose Orthodox churches are gaining political influence.
In a statement Wednesday, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, compared homosexuals to drug addicts and called the rally a “violation of the rights of the majority” of Georgians.
Conservative-minded Georgians traveled from other cities to condemn the gay rights demonstrators, and one told a television station that she had come to “treat their illness.”
“We are trying to protect our orthodoxy, not to let anyone to wipe their feet on our faith,” said Manana Okhanashvili, in a head scarf and long skirt. “We must not allow them to have a gay demonstration here.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Vacharadze of Identoba said that priests from the Georgian Orthodox Church had led the charge that broke through a heavy police corridor.
“The priests entered, the priests broke the fences and the police didn’t stop them, because the priests are above the law in Georgia,” he said.
Ms. Bolkvadze, the lawyer with Identoba, speaking by telephone from a safe house in the city, said that despite promises from the police that there would be “unprecedented” protection for the rally, the riot police were unprepared.
“They didn’t have helmets,” she said. “They didn’t have the right equipment.”
Olesya Vartanyan contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia.
French same-sex marriage law signed by François Hollande
After intense protests, law allowing same-sex couples to marry and adopt children is approved, but key issues still unresolved
Staff and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 18 May 2013 10.39 BST
The French president, François Hollande, has signed a law authorising same-sex couples to marry and adopt children, after months of street protests, political slanging matches and a rise in homophobic attacks.
The move makes France the ninth country in Europe and the 14th globally to legalise same-sex marriage.
France's official journal announced on Saturday that the bill had become law after the Constitutional Council rejected a challenge by the rightwing opposition on Friday.
The first same-sex marriage is due to be held in Montpellier in the south of France on 29 May, Reuters reported.
Hollande and his ruling Socialist party have made the legislation their flagship social change, but the right to marriage and adoption for everyone regardless of sexual orientation has triggered the biggest conservative and rightwing street protests in 30 years, with more than 200 arrests. Opponents have called for another protest on 26 May.
While French opinion polls have long shown that a majority of the public support same-sex marriage, the issue of adoption is more controversial.
The law also leaves key issues on family rights unanswered. It will not grant automatic co-parenting rights for same-sex couples in civil partnerships, nor allow access to medically assisted procreation or IVF to lesbian couples. Rights campaigners want these issues to be addressed in a family law this year.
The government has referred the issue of medically assisted procreation to France's national ethics council, which will rule in the autumn. But the issue of parenting and procreation rights remains deeply divisive in opinion polls and among politicians.
The other 13 countries to legalise same-sex marriage include Canada, Denmark, Sweden and most recently Uruguay and New Zealand. In the US, Washington DC and 12 states have legalised same-sex marriage.
As the world's only transgender MP, I want to ensure our voices are heard
In Poland and elsewhere, trans people have to ensure that the shift to liberal social polices includes the way they are treated
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 May 2013 16.49 BST
My election to the Polish parliament in 2011 caused a huge stir. I was the first transgender MP in my country, and I am now the only one in the world. So I have a high profile and people sometimes listen to what I have to say – hence you are reading this. But my high visibility illustrates a strange paradox that we as transgender people experience daily. We are highly visible and yet almost invisible at the same time.
Individually you often can't miss us. On a bus or in the street many trans people stand out, even if we would like to pass as a woman or a man. And because we are easy to spot, we are easy to bully. I have lost count of the number of times I have been shouted at in the street or felt threatened by unwanted attention from drunk men who think it's funny to ridicule someone who looks different from the norm. Most of my trans friends report similar treatment.
The consequences of this anti-trans sentiment are sometimes far more severe than name-calling. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project there were a total of 1,123 reported killings of trans people in 57 countries from 1 January 2008 to 31 December 2012. And the figures show a significant increase in reported killings of trans people over the last five years. In 2008, 148 cases were reported, in 2009 217, and in 2012, 267 trans people were said to have been killed. Most people are shocked when they hear these figures, and learn the extent of violence against us.
I think this is because although on an individual level we are often all too visible, as a social group our voice is rarely heard. Despite estimates that 2-5% of the population is transgender (ie experience some kind of gender dysphoria) the violence against, and even murder of, transgender people is rarely discussed.
Where the human rights of ethnic minorities, gay and disabled people are now taken very seriously, and in the case of the former, rising fast up the international agenda, the rights of transgender people remain an afterthought.
I put this down to the unsettling challenge transgender people can represent to norms of masculinity and femininity, which many hold dear. The fear and discomfort we can engender sometimes results in mockery and contempt from those with power, including from some well-known media commentators.
Even among the gay and lesbian communities, which you might assume would be our natural allies, we are often made to feel like an awkward interloper, an unwelcome guest at a party where we don't quite belong. Indeed, the Kaleidoscope Trust lecture I am delivering on 17 May in London is to mark Idahot day (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia). But until this year, the "T" was missing, and it was simply Idaho day. A small but telling example.
So what about the future? Was my election a flash in the pan, or are there grounds for optimism? The fact that in Poland – a strongly Catholic county with historically traditional views on sexuality and gender – a transgender MP has been elected is, I think, significant. I say that because my election coincides with a more general shift towards a liberal outlook in my country. I sit in our parliament next to gay MP Robert Biedron, also from the Palikot Movement party, to which I belong.
Our party gained 10% of the national vote at the last Polish general election despite the fact that our policies include legalisation of gay marriage, abortion and marijuana.
There is an unmistakable shift in social attitudes across the western world as more and more countries embrace liberal social policies such as gay marriage. The challenge for transgender people is to ensure our rights are included in this wider shift, and that we become visible for the right reasons.
Silvio Berlusconi aides' 'bunga bunga' trial: Ruby takes the stand
Case protagonist, real name Karima el-Mahroug, says parties at ex-PM's house had women dressed as nuns and Barack Obama
Associated Press in Milan
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 May 2013 14.54 BST
The Moroccan woman at the centre of a sex scandal involving Silvio Berlusconi testified in court for the first time on Friday, describing how a young woman attending one of the former Italian PM's "bunga bunga" parties dressed up like a nun, danced provocatively and stripped down to her underwear for the premier.
Karima el-Mahroug took the witness stand in the trial of three former Berlusconi aides charged with recruiting her and other women for prostitution. They deny the charges. The trial is separate from the one in which Berlusconi is charged with paying for sex with a minor – Mahroug herself – and trying to cover it up.
Mahroug, also known as Ruby, has made carefully orchestrated statements to the media since the scandal broke but has never publicly given sworn testimony. Both she and Berlusconi deny having had sex.
The three Berlusconi aides – Emilio Fede, an executive in Berlusconi's media empire; Nicole Minetti, a former dental hygienist, showgirl and local politician, and talent agent Dario "Lele" Mora – are accused of recruiting women for prostitution at the parties and abetting prostitution, including of a minor.
Mahroug's testimony confirmed the sexual atmosphere at Berlusconi's infamous bunga bunga parties, which were filled with beautiful young women. Many of those women have said they received money from the billionaire media mogul.
Dressed soberly with her hair pulled back, Mahroug said she first made contact with Berlusconi's inner circle when she participated in a beauty contest organised by Fede in Sicily when she was 16. After that she made her way to Milan, hoping to find work. She said she tried to get work through another defendant's talent agency but wound up landing a job as a hostess in nightclubs, earning around €100 (£84) a night.
Eventually, she ran into Fede at a restaurant, where she reminded him of his promise in Sicily to help her. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to a dinner party – at Berlusconi's villa outside of Milan. She said she met the premier that night – on Valentine's Day in 2010 – and that he gave her an envelope of €2,000 – €3,000 , saying it was "a little help" and asking for her telephone number, which she gave him.
At that party, she said, she introduced herself as Ruby and told other guests a fake tale that she was Egyptian, that her mother was a famous Arab singer and that she was related to then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. She was 17 at the time but had passed herself off as being 24.
Mahroug confirmed what other witnesses have testified previously: that at some of the soirees, young female party guests had dressed up like nuns and danced for Berlusconi and then stripped down to their underwear.
Mahroug said Minetti, one of the defendants, had dressed up like a nun at that 14 February party and lifted her costume to show off her legs as she danced in Berlusconi's in-house disco, which was outfitted with a lapdance pole. Mahroug demonstrated from her seat how Minetti had raised her hemline. She said Minetti eventually took off her costume and was in just her lingerie.
She said other girls dressed up as President Barack Obama and a Milan magistrate, who is leading the prosecution against Berlusconi in the sex scandal. "The girls who were dressed in costumes approached him in a sensual way as they danced. They raised their skirts," Mahroug said. She added: "I never saw contact."
Mahroug said she visited Berlusconi's mansion, Arcore, a half-dozen times, and that each time she was given an envelope with money, always in €500 bills. The second evening she went she said she was given around €2,000.
Prosecutors in Berlusconi's separate trial have said Mahroug's testimony is unreliable and are relying on her sworn statements. The defence had initially called her as a witness, but then changed its strategy and didn't call her. That trial is nearing a verdict.
Madeleine McCann case: Scotland Yard identifies new leads
Madeleine was nearly four when she went missing from her family's holiday apartment in Praia de Luz, Portugal, in 2007
The Guardian, Friday 17 May 2013 14.57 BST
Scotland Yard has identified several people who may be "of interest" in the case of Madeleine McCann, who was abducted in Portugal in 2007.
Investigators conducting a review have drawn up a list of people who could be properly explored if the Portuguese authorities re-opened the case.
Detective chief superintendent Hamish Campbell, head of Scotland Yard's homicide and serious crime command, said there were a "good number" of individuals who should be questioned.
Madeleine was nearly four when she went missing from her family's holiday apartment in Praia de Luz as her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, dined with friends nearby.
Scotland Yard launched a review of the case in 2011, after the prime minister, David Cameron, responded to a plea from Madeleine's parents. The official Portuguese inquiry was shelved in 2008.
In a statement, Campbell said: "The purpose of the review was to look at the case with fresh eyes and there is always real benefit in doing so. The review has further identified both investigative and forensic opportunities to support the Portuguese.
"There is more than a handful of people of interest which could be explored further if only to be eliminated.
"The key things are to investigate the case and our work is happening to support the Portuguese."
Last year the review team led by Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood said it had identified 195 potential leads after examining a huge bundle of material.
It was "perfectly probable" that information which could identify the person responsible for Madeleine's disappearance was already within the Portuguese files, Campbell said.
"We have to ask ourselves why are cases unsolved and, on many occasions, we find we passed the suspects by already and the suspect sits within our system," he told the London Evening Standard.
"The Portuguese hopefully will pursue some of these investigative opportunities with our assistance. There is room for further work and collaboration to resolve the case" he added.
Detectives from the Scotland Yard team have travelled to Portugal around 10 times to liase with the authorities there and gather evidence in an inquiry which has reportedly cost more than £2m.
So far, Portugal's attorney general has ruled out a fresh inquiry.
Litvinenko inquest close to collapse after coroner rules crucial evidence secret
Coroner upholds Foreign Office application to withhold material as critics claim move subordinates justice to UK trade with Russia
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 May 2013 15.41 BST
The inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko is close to collapse after a coroner partially upheld an application by William Hague to keep crucial evidence secret.
The coroner, Sir Robert Owen, reluctantly agreed to exclude material from the inquest that suggested Russian state agencies were involved in Litvinenko's death. He also agreed to keep secret evidence that considered whether or not the UK authorities could have prevented Litvinenko's 2006 murder.
In a judgment published on Friday afternoon, Owen acknowledged that his ruling meant the inquest scheduled to begin on 2 October could end up being "incomplete, misleading and unfair". He took the highly unusual step of inviting the government to hold a secret public inquiry into Litvinenko's killing, which would involve the sensitive excluded evidence heard behind closed doors.
Other parties to the inquest including Litvinenko's widow, Marina, as well as lawyers acting for the media, opposed Hague's application. On Friday, they said they were deeply dismayed by the ruling, which follows several days of secret hearings from which they were excluded.
"It would mark a low point in open justice if evidence concerning the responsibility for and preventability of the killing of Litvinenko were only heard in a secret hearing," Jan Clements, a lawyer acting for the Guardian and other media groups, said.
The foreign secretary applied for a PII certificate on 7 February. He argued that if secret evidence were revealed it might damage "national security and/or international relations". He gave no further details.
Ben Emmerson QC, acting for Marina Litvinenko, vehemently opposed Hague's request and accused the government of a "cover-up". He said Hague and David Cameron were seeking to suppress material not for reasons of intelligence but so as not to damage Britain's trade interests with Moscow. The government, he told the hearing, was in effect "dancing to the Russian tarantella".
Litvinenko inquest coroner agrees to keep crucial evidence secret
Foreign secretary accused of sabotaging inquest into 2006 death of former Russian spy as coroner says proceeding might now end up 'incomplete and misleading'
The Guardian, Friday 17 May 2013 18.41 BST
William Hague has been accused of sabotaging the inquest into the death of the Russian Alexander Litvinenko, after a coroner upheld his application to keep crucial evidence secret.
The coroner, Sir Robert Owen, reluctantly agreed on Friday to the foreign secretary's request to hide material which suggested Russia's state agencies were behind Litvinenko's cold war-style killing. Owen also agreed to exclude other documents that examined whether UK officials could have done more to prevent the murder.
In his ruling, Owen said the inquest might now result in an "incomplete, misleading and unfair" verdict. The coroner said he was considering inviting the government to hold a public inquiry instead, which would hear the sensitive evidence buried by Hague.
Litvinenko died in November 2006 after two former KGB agents – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun – allegedly slipped radioactive polonium into his tea at London's Millennium hotel. The Kremlin has refused to extradite the two spies, who have both vigorously denied Litvinenko's murder.
Relations between London and Moscow have recently thawed, with David Cameron last week warmly praising Vladimir Putin following discussions on Syria. The prime minister and the Russian president bonded last summer at London's Olympics, when they watched the judo together.
Litvinenko's widow Marina said she was disappointed with the coroner's ruling. Her lawyer, Ben Emmerson QC, had previously accused Hague of attempting to stage a cover-up and of placing Britain's trade interests with Moscow ahead of justice. Both Hague and Cameron were shamelessly "dancing to the Russian tarantella", he told a pre-inquest hearing.
Speaking on Friday, Litvinenko's close friend Alex Goldfarb said it was now apparent that Hague was indeed hiding evidence in the case in order to appease the Kremlin. "It's obvious: the government is trying to protect its relations with Putin. They have their reasons. They want Russian co-operation and investment. But in this case it's being done at the expense of justice."
Goldfarb said it was practically meaningless to soldier on with an inquest if it could no longer examine the role of Russia's spy agencies, nor damning evidence indicating that the polonium used in the murder plot came from Russia. He added: "They [Hague and Cameron] appear more concerned about chemical weapons in Syria than polonium spread around the streets of London."
In his ruling, the coroner said the secret evidence held by the British government "does establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state in Mr Litvinenko's death". This evidence will now not be revealed. Owen made clear his unhappiness with this situation.
Litvinenko's widow and other interested parties now have 14 days to challenge the coroner's decision. But they have little chance of success – not least because they have been kept in the dark as to what the secret evidence includes. Hague's lawyers have shown "samples" of the controversial material in closed-door hearings held over several days.
National newspapers and the BBC have joined forces to oppose Hague's secrecy application and on Friday expressed their dismay at the ruling. Jan Clements, a lawyer acting for the Guardian and other media groups, said: "It would mark a low point in open justice if evidence concerning the responsibility for and preventability of the killing of Litvinenko were only heard in a secret hearing."
Earlier, Alex Bailin QC, the lawyer acting for the media, said "the public and media are faced with a situation where a public inquest into a death … may have large amounts of highly relevant evidence excluded from consideration by the inquest. Such a prospect is deeply troubling."
Hague applied for a public interest immunity certificate (PII) on 7 February. His lawyer argued that if sensitive evidence were revealed it might damage the UK's "national security and/or international relations". Critics complained this wording was excessively vague. The coroner did eventually reject a part of Hague's PII claim, but the subject was redacted and is shrouded in mystery.
The government has consistently refused to say what evidence it wants to hide. But it will almost certainly include revelations made at a hearing in December that at the time of his death Litvinenko was working for the British secret services.
Litvinenko was also a "paid agent" of the Spanish security services. MI6 encouraged him to supply information to the Spanish about Russian mafia activities, and alleged links between top organised criminals and the Kremlin, the hearing heard.
In 2006, a few months before his death, Litvinenko travelled to Spain and met his MI6 handler, "Martin". The fact Litvinenko – a former Russian spy – was working for MI6 raises embarrassing questions as to whether British intelligence should have done more to protect him. Litvinenko had a dedicated phone to contact "Martin" and received regular payments to his bank account from MI6 and Madrid, it emerged in December.
Alexander Litvinenko widow accuses William Hague of sabotaging inquest
Marina Litvinenko speaks out after coroner agrees to exclude material suggesting Russian agencies were involved in killing
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 May 2013 23.07 BST
The widow of Alexander Litvinenko has launched a blistering attack on William Hague and David Cameron, accusing them of sabotaging the inquest into her husband's murder and hiding the Russian state's role in his death.
Marina Litvinenko said she was "utterly dismayed" after a coroner on Friday upheld an application by Hague to keep crucial evidence from the inquest secret.
Sir Robert Owen reluctantly agreed to exclude material which suggested Russia's state agencies were behind Litvinenko's cold-war style killing.
Owen also agreed to suppress documents that examined whether UK officials could have done more to prevent his murder.
A furious Mrs Litvinenko said on Friday: "The effect of today's ruling is to protect those responsible for the murder of a British citizen on the streets of London, and to allow the Russian government to shield behind a claim for secrecy made by William Hague with the backing of prime minister David Cameron."
She said there had been "increasing signs over the past year" that the government was moving to strike what she called "a secret political deal with the Kremlin".
She cited increasingly warm recent meetings between Hague and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and Cameron's talks on Syria last week with Vladimir Putin in the Russian beach resort of Sochi.
Afterwards the two leaders announced that Russia and the UK were resuming intelligence co-operation.
The former Labour government severed all contacts with Russia's FSB spy agency in 2007 after concluding it had played a leading role in Litvinenko's assassination. Putin is the agency's former chief.
Mrs Litvinenko added: "This is a very sad day, a tragedy for British justice which has until now been respected around the world, and a frightening precedent for all of those who have been trying so hard to expose the crimes committed by a conspiracy of organised criminals who operate inside the Kremlin."
In his ruling (pdf), Owen said the inquest scheduled to take place later this year might now result in an "incomplete, misleading and unfair" verdict.
The coroner said he would consider inviting Theresa May, the home secretary, to hold a public inquiry instead. The inquiry could hear the sensitive evidence buried by Hague in secret sessions.
On Friday Mrs Litvinenko said that since the inquest had effectively abandoned its search for the truth, she had therefore written to the coroner asking him to initiate a public inquiry within five days.
The inquiry could begin on 2 October 2 – the date originally set for the inquest. Owen, who is a judge, could preside over it.
Litvinenko died in November 2006 after two former KGB agents – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun – allegedly slipped radioactive polonium into his tea at London's Millennium hotel. The Kremlin has refused to extradite the two spies, who have both vigorously denied Litvinenko's murder.
Mrs Litvinenko's lawyer, Ben Emmerson QC, had previously accused Hague of attempting to stage a cover-up and of placing Britain's trade interests with Moscow ahead of justice.
Both Hague and Cameron were shamelessly "dancing to the Russian tarantella", he told a pre-inquest hearing.
Litvinenko's close friend Alex Goldfarb said it was now apparent that Hague was indeed hiding evidence in the case in order to appease the Kremlin.
"It's obvious: the government are trying to protect their relations with Putin. They have their reasons.
"They want Russian co-operation and investment. But in this case it's being done at the expense of justice."
Goldfarb said it was practically meaningless to soldier on with an inquest if it could no longer examine the role of Russia's spy agencies, nor damning evidence indicating that the polonium used in the murder plot came from Russia.
He added: "They [Hague and Cameron] appear more concerned about chemical weapons in Syria than polonium spread around the streets of London."
In his ruling, the coroner said the secret evidence held by the British government "does establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state in Mr Litvinenko's death".
This evidence will now not be revealed. Owen made clear his unhappiness with this situation and admitted it made it difficult for him to carry out the "full, frank and fearless investigation" he originally promised.
Litvinenko's widow and other interested parties now have 14 days to challenge the coroner's decision. But they have little chance of success – not least because they have been kept in the dark as to what the secret evidence includes.
Hague's lawyers have shown "samples" of the controversial material in closed-door hearings held over several days.
National newspapers and the BBC had joined forces to oppose Hague's secrecy application and on Friday expressed their dismay at the ruling.
Jan Clements, a lawyer acting for the Guardian and other media groups, said: "It would mark a low point in open justice if evidence concerning the responsibility for and preventability of the killing of Litvinenko were only heard in a secret hearing."
Hague applied for a public interest immunity certificate (PII) on 7 February. He argued that if sensitive evidence were revealed it might damage the UK's "national security and/or international relations".
Critics complained this wording was excessively vague. The coroner did eventually reject a part of Hague's PII claim, but the subject was redacted and is shrouded in mystery.
05/17/2013 03:57 PM
Living by the Numbers: Big Data Knows What Your Future Holds
By Martin U. Müller, Marcel Rosenbach and Thomas Schulz
Forget Big Brother. Companies and countries are discovering that algorithms programmed to scour vast quantities of data can be much more powerful. They can predict your next purchase, forecast car thefts and maybe even help cure cancer. But there is a down side.
On balmy spring evenings, Hamburg's Köhlbrand Bridge offers an idyllic postcard view of the city's harbor. The Elbe River shimmers in the reddish glow of sunset, forklifts, cranes and trucks seem to move in slow motion, and occasionally a container ship glides by. But from the standpoint of Sebastian Saxe, the area is primarily an equation with many variables. For the past four-and-a-half years, the 57-year-old mathematician has been working on his trickiest computing task yet at the behest of the company that manages the Hamburg port.
The port covers an area of 7,200 hectares (about 28 square miles). Roughly 200 trains a day traverse its 300-kilometer (186-mile) network of rails and its 130 bridges to transport goods that have arrived by ship. Saxe, as chief information officer of the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA), faces the enormous task of optimizing this logistical nightmare.
The amount of land is finite, and further expansion is not possible. Nevertheless, the Hamburg Senate has announced its goal of almost tripling container transshipment volumes in the city by 2025. This will only work if Saxe and his 60-member IT team manage to optimally exploit another resource: data. He certainly has plenty of it.
The port is already filled with sensors today. Trucks and freight trains are constantly transmitting their positions while incoming container ships report their location and speed. Sensors that constantly monitor port traffic are built into the Köhlbrand Bridge.
"Our goal is a totally interconnected, intelligent port, a Smart-port," says Saxe. He envisions a port in which, for example, a railroad drawbridge would no longer open at specific times, but rather just before a ship actually reaches it. This eliminates unnecessary delays for the railroad and at the terminal. Even the Köhlbrand Bridge would become "intelligent," in that it would report its current condition and predict future maintenance needs, all through the use of sensors. The frequency of scheduled maintenance dates was recently increased because significantly larger numbers of heavy trucks were crossing the bridge than had been planned for. This was of interest to Saxe and the HPA, but also to police and the customs agency, because some of the trucks were carrying illegal loads.
In the end, the complex harbor logistics will create a machine that controls itself. Saxe's vision of the future is a sort of port exchange, allowing shipping companies to predict, down to the minute, how quickly their containers will be moved from the water to the road.
Many other companies worldwide are in the same position as the HPA. They are rediscovering a raw material that they, their facilities and their customers produce in excess every day: data.
The expression "Big Brother" has become dated. Experts would seem to have reached consensus on the term "Big Data" to describe the new favorite topic of discussion in boardrooms, at conventions like Berlin's re:publica last week, and in a number of new books. Big Data promises both total control and the logical management of our future in all aspects of life. Authors like Oxford Professor Victor Mayer-Schönberger are calling it a "revolution." According to Mayer-Schönberger, Big Data, which is also the title of his current book on the subject, will change our working environment and even the way we think.
The most important factor is not the sheer volume of data, even though it is currently growing faster than ever. An estimated 2.8 zettabytes of data were created in 2012. One zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilobytes. Experts predict that the volume of new data could increase to 40 zettabytes by 2020. It would take about 250 million DVDs to store the amount of data being transmitted on the Internet in a single day. This volume doubles about once every two years.
New is the way companies, government agencies and scientists are now beginning to interpret and analyze their data resources. Because storage space costs almost nothing nowadays, computers, which are getting faster and faster, can link and correlate a wide variety of data around the clock. Algorithms are what create order from this chaos. They dig through, discovering previously unknown patterns and promptly revealing new relationships, insights and business models.
Though the term Big Data means very little to most people, the power of algorithms is already everywhere. Credit card companies can quickly recognize unusual usage patterns, and hence automatically warn cardholders when large sums are suddenly being charged to their cards in places where they have never been. Energy companies use weather data analyses to pinpoint the ideal locations for wind turbines down to the last meter. According to official figures, since the Swedish capital Stockholm began using algorithms to manage traffic, drive times through the city's downtown area have been cut in half and emissions reduced by 10 percent. Online merchants have recently started using the analyses to optimize their selling strategies. The widespread phrase "Customers who bought this item also bought …" is only one example of the approach.
Turning Data into Dollars
Google and Facebook are pure, unadulterated Big Data. Their business models are based on collecting, analyzing and marketing information about their users, through advertising tailored as closely as possible to the individual. This gigantic database and the notion of what can be done with more than a billion individual profiles in the age of Big Data was worth at least $100 billion (€78 billion) to Facebook investors.
The prospect of turning their treasure troves of data into dollars is now fueling the fantasies of businesses in many industries, from supermarkets to the automobile industry, and from aviation to banks and insurance companies. According to figures published by industry association Bitkom, global sales related to Big Data applications amounted to €4.6 billion in 2012. That number is expected to increase to about €16 billion by 2016.
Countless Big Data applications are also being tested in medicine and science. Even the public sector, especially police departments and security agencies, not always the most progressive when it comes to IT, have recognized the potential benefits in their fields.
What captivates so many people is the promise of gazing into the future, thanks to the lightning speed at which massive amounts of data can be analyzed. In fact, algorithms allow for astonishingly precise predictions of human behavior, be it in front of supermarket shelves, in traffic or when it comes to credit-card payment patterns.
In 2010, Google predicted a wave of flu outbreaks on the basis of user searches. American data specialist Nate Silver predicted the outcome of the last US presidential election well in advance and more precisely than all demographers.
'The End of Chance'
Some cities even predict the probability of crimes in certain neighborhoods. The method, known as "predictive policing," seems like something straight out of a Hollywood film, and in fact it is. In Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report," perpetrators were arrested for crimes they hadn't even committed yet.
Finding the presumed delinquents also doesn't seem to present a problem. Scientists have figured out that, with the help of our mobile phone geolocation and address book data, they can predict with some certainty where we will be tomorrow or at a certain time a year from now.
The increasing accuracy of such forecasts have led American tech guru Chris Anderson to proclaim that we are arriving at the "end of theory." Austrian media executive Rudi Klausnitzer, who has just written a book on the subject called "Das Ende des Zufalls" ("The End of Chance"), has reached a similar conclusion.
It is a prospect that is not altogether appealing to some. But many already rely on the prognostic ability of soulless algorithms in the most intimate spheres of life. The extensive questionnaires used by online dating agencies are fed into algorithms designed to increase the probability of finding a compatible partner.
A gold rush of sorts is taking shape in companies, research laboratories and some government agencies. In many places, the mantra of data is extolled as the new "oil" or "gold" of the 21st century. Some people are already benefiting financially: statisticians, physicists and so-called data scientists or data miners, who advise companies on Big Data applications. As with the classic American gold rush in the 19th century, most of the money is being made by those who sell equipment, tools and expertise, Big Data specialists like Blue Yonder, a company with 85 employees.
How Data Revolutionizes the Economy
The man doesn't look much like a fortune-teller, and yet he repeatedly makes the same odd remark: "Our job is to provide predictions of all kinds." Uwe Weiss is the managing director of Blue Yonder, a company founded five years ago. Weiss doesn't consult tarot cards or scrutinize the entrails of innocent farm animals, but instead analyzes the columns of figures generated by supermarket cash registers, weather services, vacation schedules and traffic reports. All of this data flows into data analysis software developed by Blue Yonder, which, according to the company's advertising, can be used to provide customers like the Otto Group, one of the largest mail-order companies in the world, and the dm drugstore chain with "precise prognoses" -- on, for example, the expected sales of a specific item.
This is extremely important to the retail business because it enables companies to avoid delivery problems and minimized storage costs. Blue Yonder software is programmed to learn more with each piece of new information it acquires, as well as to independently recognize relationships.
In this manner, Weiss and his employees discovered that in a specific branch of a supermarket chain, sales of milk, chocolate bars and apples shot up on certain days -- coinciding with the arrival of new school groups at the nearby youth hostel. The software now calculates, using data that includes school vacation schedules in the surrounding states, the probability of new busloads of students arriving at a given time.
Blue Yonder employees had a similar realization with sliced bread. "Children don't go to school on days preceding or following midweek holidays, and the demand for sliced bread goes down as a result," says Weiss. Inventory ordering systems are now adjusted automatically, he explains. "It's a relatively straightforward process."
Increasing Accuracy of Sales Forecasts
The constant in-stream of new data has enabled Blue Yonder to develop something of an ad hoc market research system on buying behavior, which can also be used for other purposes. The drugstore chain dm has Weiss's team calculate optimal staffing levels for its stores, and it also provides sales forecasts for each store.
The data analyses are of similar interest to insurance companies. As a "future scenario," Weiss describes a car equipped with more than 1,000 sensors, which permanently monitors driving behavior. Drivers who provide their insurance companies with the data, which can easily be used to develop a risk profile, could in the future be enticed with especially low premiums, says Weiss. "Big Data is currently revamping our entire economy, and we are only at the beginning," says the head of Blue Yonder, for whom, of course, this is a positive development.
Important Big Data customers are also reporting the first measurable successes. A study IBM has compiled on a few "success stories" among its own customers reports increases in efficiency of about 20 percent. According to Blue Yonder customer Otto, the data experts' work has improved "the quality of sales forecasts for individual items by 20 to 40 percent." The mail order company is so enthusiastic that it is now using the method with corporate brands like German sporting goods retailer SportScheck, as well as acquiring a 50 percent stake in Blue Yonder.
Netflix, an American company that began its business with DVD rentals and now provides its 36 million customers with movies primarily through streaming video feed, is yet another example of the far-reaching possibilities of Big Data. Netflix recently achieved record viewership levels with the series "House of Cards," a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey. The show's success, though, was hardly by chance: Netflix used data analysis in its decision to buy the series. Netflix has the ideal qualifications to take such an approach. The company knows, on a day-by-day basis, which genres are doing well, when viewers are losing interest or which actors are especially popular. Based on such information, "House of Cards" corresponded precisely to the predicted tastes of Netflix viewers, and proved a success.
The music-streaming portal Spotify is popular for similar reasons. It provides participating record companies with current information about music tastes and usage behavior, and it allows bands to plan upcoming tours by choosing locations where Spotify users listen to their songs most frequently.
An Electronic Brain to Defeat Cancer
But Big Data also promises to benefit society in other ways. Hope for millions of cancer patients can be found on the second floor of the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI), in Babelsberg, a district of Postdam outside of Berlin. It consists of a rack with 25 slots, each with blinking diodes. Each of the computers has 40 processors instead of only one. The room is kept at low temperatures to prevent the €1.5 million brain, with its 1,000 processor cores, from overheating.
Plattner, founder of the SAP software group and sponsor of the institute, was personally involved in the development of the idea, which seems relatively straightforward. The Babelsberg computing machine sucks all data directly into its main memory, which enables it to compute at 1,000 times the speed of conventional computers, and sometimes even faster.
The process, which began at HPI as a project by eight undergraduate students with the working title "Sanssouci DB," is known internationally by the name "in-memory." It has won prizes for innovation and has become part of SAP's portfolio. The company's current Hana database technology is based on the in-memory process. The head of HPI, mathematician Christoph Meinel, sees the technology as a foundation for both commercial applications and opportunities for cancer therapy. "Thanks to the in-memory process, we are on the threshold of personalized medicine," says Meinel.
It currently takes months to decode a person's genome in order to come up with a treatment tailored to an individual patient, Meinel explains. This isn't surprising, given the roughly three billion genetic building blocks in a person's DNA. But now scientists know that every tumor is different, which means that the same treatment can affect people in different ways.
Triggering the Alarm
With the help of his new "super brain," the decoding of an individual genome can be reduced to a few seconds, says Meinel. In addition, the Babelsberg computer spends its nights extracting all information from publicly accessible genome databases, searching the data for comparable cases to find treatments that resulted in high survival rates and the best possible quality of life. "Until recently, this matching process would have taken months," says Meinel.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Manchester are working on another Big Data project, a "magic carpet" that could help senior citizens who live alone. The device is installed on the floor like an ordinary carpet, with built-in sensors recording the person's steps. The data enables a computer to determine whether the person has gotten out of bed, for example, and can analyze activities to see how they compare with the person's normal movement pattern. Deviations could indicate a medical emergency, and an alarm is triggered.
The carpet sensors can detect the tiniest of differences in a person's step, and thus indicate that something isn't right with the patient before a possible fall. Scientists are also experimenting with other logical extensions of the concept. For instance, chips and sensors with these kinds of alarm functions can also be incorporated into artificial hips.
The Algorithm Builder
Stefan Henss, a student, had initially hoped to earn a little extra cash by betting on sporting events. Hoping to outsmart the bookies, he wrote a program that was supposed to precisely predict football scores. But it didn't work very well.
Henss was 10 when he got his first computer, and he started programming at 13. Three years ago, when he was in his early 20s and studying at the Technical University of Darmstadt, he happened upon Kaggle, a platform where companies tender data projects. The companies are interested in obtaining the most precise predictions possible, as well as solving difficult problems for which they are unable to find solutions on their own.
Henss chose a task that had been posted by a car dealership platform, which was searching for a way to predict the resale prospects of used cars. He built an algorithm, in which he inserted a large number of details about the cars "into a context that made sense," as he describes it. The information included data such as original registration dates, mileage and annual distance driven.
He submitted his solution and came in sixth among the 571 teams from around the world competing for the $10,000 award. The challenge had awakened his ambition. "Competing with others was incredibly motivating. I knew that I was onto something," says Henss, who has since become one of the most successful algorithm builders on Kaggle. Nowadays he chooses his challenges more strategically, partly based on the amount of the award.
The approach led him to his biggest triumph to date. The challenge was to write a program that could automatically and reliably evaluate student essays -- essentially a grading machine. Using various standard algorithms, Henss built a program that takes the wealth of language into account, determines the number of spelling errors per word and recognizes grammatical errors. The program can draw conclusions on the content of essays. His algorithm can even detect how levelheaded the writer was or whether emotions were at play.
He spent a month and a half working exclusively on the program, which eventually consisted of 12,000 lines of code. A week before the end of the contest, he joined forces with two other competitors to increase his chances of winning. His new partners, an Englishman and an American who only knew each other through the platform, combined their solutions. They won the contest and split the prize money of $60,000.
"Tests have shown that our evaluations did not differ significantly from the teacher evaluations," says Henss. The trio has since sold the software to Pacific Metrics, a US company. Henss, who is now writing his master's thesis, can look forward to a bright future.
But there are also people whose lives are made more difficult by Big Data applications.
The End of Inspector Chance
Things couldn't have gone more wrong for the car thief. As he was trying to break into a vehicle in an underground parking garage in Santa Cruz, California, a policeman happened to be sitting in an unmarked car just a few meters away, eating his lunch. The thief was arrested before he could complete his nefarious deed.
But the officer wasn't in the right place at the right time purely by chance. He was spending his lunch hour in the parking garage on that particular day, based on the recommendation of a computer program.
For the last two years, the city's roughly 100 police officers prepare for their shifts every day with instructions from both their supervisors and an algorithm. The program, which is constantly being fed all relevant data the police apparatus has to offer, calculates the probabilities of crimes, like burglary, robbery and car theft, being committed at certain times and in certain neighborhoods. Homicide has been excluded from the program so far.
The 15 most dangerous neighborhoods appear as rectangles on electronic cards. In two-thirds of cases, the predicted incidents actually occurred. "I would have been happy with only 10 percent," says Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark.
Two professors, computer scientist George Mohler and anthropologist Jeffrey Brantingham, who specializes in crime scenarios, were instrumental in developing the predictive method of fighting crime. Their program is based on models for predicting the aftershocks of earthquakes.
Clark had accidentally heard about the two professors' idea in early 2011. Together the three men set up a pilot project. They fed eight years of crime statistics into the program, as well as countless other pieces of potentially relevant data, like weather statistics and proximity to parks and bus routes. In addition, the program places each crime in relation to every other crime.
"There were many skeptics at first, including me," says Clark. "But the numbers speak for themselves: It works." According to Clark, burglaries declined by 11 percent and car theft was down by 8 percent in Santa Cruz after the new crime prediction system had been in use for one year. In addition, the arrest rate in Santa Cruz went up considerably -- by 56 percent.
The entire police force now uses high-tech equipment. All cops carry smartphones and tablet computers to access the web-based prediction program while on patrol. They are encouraged to spend time in the marked zones whenever possible. Clark can tell many stories about how his officers have caught burglars and thieves red-handed in the predicted zones.
The two data experts, Mohler and Brantingham, have since started a company and are marketing their product, Predictive Policing, worldwide. In the United States alone, more than a dozen police departments have already introduced the software, including Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago. Clark was recently in England to help the police in Kent launch the program.
The military and intelligence communities also employ the power of data analysis. For instance, Big Data played a key role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, as American author Mark Bowden describes in his book "The Finish." According to Bowden, database analyses were partly what ultimately led investigators to Abbottabad in Pakistan.
One of the suppliers to the US Defense Department is Palantir, a company founded in 2004, partly with backing from Peter Thiel, a German-American investor. Another hot commodity among intelligence agents and military officials is the California software company Splunk, which is headquartered in a former sausage factory in San Francisco. A few weeks ago, technology journalists named Splunk one of the five most innovative companies in the world. Google only made it to 11th place in the ranking.
Governments, agencies and businesses in more than 90 countries use Splunk's applications. Its customers in the US include the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. The nine-year-old company's software analyzes and interprets data supplied by all kinds of machines, including cell phone towers, air-conditioners, web servers and airplanes.
"The turbines of an Airbus A380 produce as much data during a single flight as a medium-sized computer center," says Guido Schröder, senior vice president of products at Splunk.
Schröder, who is originally from Paderborn in northwestern Germany and spent many years at SAP, now supervisors 160 developers and engineers, whose goal is to make the flood of data produced by machines usable. In the case of the A380, for example, Splunk's work can help airlines minimize kerosene consumption or optimize maintenance intervals.
"Security is one of the biggest growth areas for Big Data applications," says Schröder. In addition to crime and terrorism, Splunk focuses on the growing number of attacks in, and by means of, the Internet and its software can detect hacker attacks or other cyber attacks. "We are positioning ourselves for an expanding cyber war," Schröder says. But the data hunters' new war also has many civilian aspects.
The brick building in Hamburg's Winterhude neighborhood doesn't look like a bank branch, and yet loans are made there. A plastic banner identifies the company as "Kreditech," and the atmosphere inside the building is a mixture of garage startup and shared apartment. Signs are posted on the walls exhorting employees to "Take off your shoes."
Sebastian Diemer and Alexander Graubner-Müller bear no resemblance to typical German lenders, whose business model they consider to be outdated. "At least the classic branch bank model is on its way out," says the young and dynamic Diemer, dressed in the classic start-up look: jeans and a hoodie.
The self-confident founders of Kreditech lend money through the Internet: short-term mini-loans of up to €500, with the average customer receiving €109. Instead of requiring credit information from their customers, they determine the probability of default on their own, using a social scoring method that consists of high-speed data analysis. "Ideally, the money should be in customers' accounts within 15 minutes of approval. This is already working in Poland," says Diemer. In return, Kreditech wants as much data as possible from its users. The more information the company gets, the more precise are its predictions and the higher a customer's potential credit line.
The evaluation profiles of EBay accounts are already publicly accessible. Kreditech also requires access to Facebook profiles, so that it can verify whether a user's photo and location match information on other social networking sites, like Xing and LinkedIn -- and whether his or her friends include many with similar education levels or many colleagues working in the same company.
All of this increases the likelihood that Kreditech is dealing with a real person. Even the question of whether the loan request was submitted from an expensive iPad or a cheap Aldi computer goes into the evaluation. The applicants' behavior also plays a role, such as how much time it takes them to fill out the questionnaire. Kreditech also records the frequency of errors and use of the delete key.
Loans on Faith
In this manner, the Kreditech algorithm can process up to 8,000 different pieces of information, say its creators, who founded the company in March 2012 and are expanding rapidly. Kreditech is currently online in Poland, Spain and the Czech Republic, and the Hamburg-based lender also plans to launch its business in Russia in the coming days.
The lending operation had only been available in Germany for three weeks when Kreditech terminated its service here, "for preventive reasons," as Diemer says. In fact, the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) had contacted the company and announced its intention to examine its business model. That's because Kreditech doesn't just charge high interest rates, but also requires its customers to pay up to €49 for a "certificate of creditworthiness."
The mandatory purchase of certificates has since been eliminated in its other markets, say Kreditech's creators. The amount of interest they charge ranges from 5 to 28 percent a month, depending on the loan amount, a customer's score and the terms of the loan.
Kreditech's founders don't just expect to generate substantial revenues with microcredit requests and interest income. Their real goal is to develop an international, self-updating creditworthiness database for other companies, such as online retailers. Current scoring methods are based on fewer parameters, which also only reflect a person's credit past, says Diemer. Even that doesn't exist in many countries. A credit bureau with market penetration similar to the German system exists only in a few markets. "For almost three-quarters of the global population, there is still no reliable information on creditworthiness," says Graubner-Müller.
In addition to Kreditech, lenders like Zestfinance and Britain's Wonga are pursuing similar goals as they dabble in this precarious market, raising both legal and moral issues. Wonga was maligned in the British press when it tried to lure students away from government-backed student loans into its own, vastly more expensive loans.
The Kreditech founders, who have known each other since adolescence in the western city of Wiesbaden, insist that they are above reproach when it comes to privacy issues and the amount of interest they charge. "SCHUFA (the German credit agency) keeps data in storage, while we only use data for a specific request." Besides, they explain, almost all of the data relating to rejected applicants is deleted after 90 days. The company only retains the information it needs to recognize applicants who were previously turned down.
Despite the limitations, investors find social scoring to be extremely attractive. Kreditech secured $4 million in capital in December, and in April a German fund invested at a similar level. Wonga, for its part, has already raised $141 million in investor capital.
A Tyranny of Data?
Business models like Kreditech's illustrate the sensitivity of the issues that many new Big Data applications raise. Users, of course, "voluntarily" relinquish their data step by step, just as we voluntarily and sometimes revealingly post private photos on Facebook or air our political views through Twitter. Everyone is ultimately a supplier of this large, new data resource, even in the analog world, where we use loyalty cards, earn miles and rent cars.
Perhaps many people do so with so little inhibition because what happens to our data often remains ambiguous. To whom and how often is our data sold? Are these buyers of data also subject to rules for deleting the data and preserving anonymity? And what will happen, for example, with Kreditech's credit profiles if the small business is ever acquired by a larger company or goes bankrupt?
An attempt by the established credit reviewers at SCHUFA to launch a pilot project on social scoring, together with the Hasso Plattner Institute, revealed just how sensitively the public reacts to such issues.
As with Kreditech, the project sought to analyze data from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks and examine its role in determining creditworthiness. Merely the announcement of the project triggered angry protests, and the effort was promptly abandoned.
There was an even greater storm of indignation when many drivers realized that their navigation devices don't just help them find the best route to their destinations, but can also be used against them. TomTom, a Dutch manufacturer of GPS navigation equipment, had sold its data to the Dutch government. It then passed on the data to the police, which used the information to set up speed traps in places where they were most likely to generate revenue -- that is, locations where especially large numbers of TomTom users were speeding.
TomTom's CEO issued a public apology, saying that the company had believed that the government wanted the data to improve traffic safety and reduce road congestion. TomTom had not anticipated the use of the data for speed traps, he said.
Similar conflicts are practically pre-programmed into the technology, especially as a central conflict is inherent in its development. Big Data applications are especially valuable when they are personalized, as in the case of credit checks and individual medicine.
Personalized profiles, which bring together a wealth of information, from expressions of opinion on Facebook to movement profiles, provide companies with tempting possibilities. For instance, if someone "likes" a particular pair of jeans on Facebook, the storeowner could send a discount coupon for precisely the same brand of jeans to that person's mobile phone the next time he or she enters the store.
This may be appealing to retailers and some consumers, but data privacy advocates see many Big Data concepts as Big Brother scenarios of a completely new dimension.
So far, many companies have tried to dispel such fears by noting that the data they gather, store and analyze remains "anonymous." But that, as it turns out, is not entirely accurate, in that it sells the power of data analysis radically short. Take the analysis of anonymous movement profiles, for example. According to a current study by the online journal Scientific Reports, our mobility patterns are so different that that they can be used to "uniquely identify 95 percent of the individuals." The more data is in circulation and available for analysis, the more likely it is that anonymity becomes "algorithmically impossible," says Princeton computer scientist Arvind Narayanan.
In his blog, Narayanan writes that only 33 bits of information are sufficient to identify a person.
From the standpoint of businesses, the slightly schizophrenic attitude of consumers is the real crux of the issue. On the one hand, we have become shockingly forthcoming -- and apparently accessible -- online. Yet we ascribe the most sinister of motives to those who would analyze that data and collect more.
A study by New York advertising agency Ogilvy One concludes that 75 percent of respondents don't want companies to store their personal data, while almost 90 percent were opposed to companies tracking their surfing behavior on the Internet.
This conflict explains the heated nature of the current controversy over the proposed new European data protection directive. If the European Commission's plans, which also include a "right to be forgotten" on the web, become a reality, many providers could see their Big Data growth fantasies in jeopardy. This is one of the reasons Brussels currently faces a barrage of lobbying from the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook.
But for a modern society, an even more pressing question is whether it wishes to accept everything that becomes possible in a data-driven economy. Do we want to live in a world in which algorithms predict how well a child will do in school, how suitable he or she is for a specific job -- or whether that person is at risk of becoming a criminal or developing cancer?
Is it truly desirable for cultural assets like TV series or music albums to be tailored to our predicted tastes by means of data-driven analyses? What happens to creativity, intuition and the element of surprise in this totally calculated world?
Internet philosopher Evgeny Morozov warns of an impending "tyranny of algorithms" and is fundamentally critical of the ideology behind many current Big Data applications. Morozov argues that because formulas are increasingly being used in finance and, as in the case of Predictive Policing, in police work, they should be regularly reviewed by independent, qualified auditors -- if only to prevent discrimination and abuses of power.
A dominant Big Data giant once inadvertently revealed how overdue a broad social and political debate on the subject is. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt says that in 2010, the company toyed with the idea of predicting stock prices by means of incoming search requests. But, he said, the idea was discarded when Google executives concluded that it was probably illegal.
He didn't, however, say that it was impossible.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
May 17, 2013
Trying Unlikely Comeback, Ex-Iran President Strikes Chord With Public
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — There was a time when Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani seemed to have it all. A founder of the Islamic Revolution, he headed a family empire that owned the second biggest Iranian airline, Mahan, had a near monopoly on the lucrative pistachio trade and controlled the country’s largest private university, Azad.
But then things started to go wrong. Iranians, angered by his wealth, back-room dealings and supposed involvement in the killing of dissidents, nicknamed him “Akbar Shah,” after the old Persian rulers who sat on velvet cushions in lush courtyards. Political rivals, jealous of his grip on the economy, seized on his support for reformists and labeled him an “aristocrat,” a “capitalist” and a supporter of “American Islam”
His political stock fell so low that in 2002 he could not even muster the votes to win a seat in Parliament. He suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election, and two of his children ended up in jail. His speech in favor of greater freedom during the 2009 protests alienated him from Iran’s conservative clerics and military commanders.
Now, from the fringes of Iran’s closed circle of power, Mr. Rafsanjani, 79, is attempting a comeback, entering his name last Saturday for the June 14 presidential elections. Though once widely reviled, his reputation as an economic pragmatist and modernizer — by Iranian standards, anyway — seems to be hitting a responsive chord with the public.
“He is the only one that can fix this mess,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a journalist who spent several months in jail for his ties to the opposition. “This man is an icon of our revolution. He owns the shop, so to speak. He will fix the economy.”
Tired of Iran’s stumbling economy and galloping inflation rate, most Iranians yearn for policies that stimulate business while lowering the prices of staples, real estate and foreign exchange. While generally fed up with politics, many in Tehran say that Mr. Rafsanjani, whose policies as president formed the basis for Iran’s modern day middle class, is the man for the job.
“He is a master of economy, and at the moment my business is doing really bad,” said Hasan Sarhangi, 35, a trader from the poorer southern part of Tehran. “We have no one with his qualities. He can make us rich again.”
If approved as a candidate — and that is by no means assured — Mr. Rafsanjani is likely to find himself walking a tightrope, trying to address his natural constituency of dissatisfied urban Iranians who want more freedoms and realistic economic policies while not further alienating the country’s leaders, many of whom say he should be tried for corruption and links to the opposition.
A close associate of the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, and president from 1989 to 1997, Mr. Rafsanjani was once the nation’s kingmaker, said to have brought the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to power after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. It is only that pedigree, most analysts agree, as well as Ayatollah Khamenei’s continuing support, that has allowed him to survive his fall and even hope to fight his way back into power.
And even then, the road back is bound to be treacherous. Iran’s intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, an appointee of Ayatollah Khamenei’s, recently warned Mr. Rafsanjani not to become a candidate. The only reasons Mr. Rafsanjani was not under house arrest for his speech in 2009, the minister said, were “certain considerations by the system,” meaning his relationship with the supreme leader.
“Do not make the mistake to think the role you have played is forgotten by the revolution,” said Mr. Moslehi, referring to the 2009 protests.
Another hurdle is whether the Guardian Council, an evaluating body whose 12 members are appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as the head of the judiciary, and confirmed by Parliament, will even allow Mr. Rafsanjani to participate in the elections.
On Tuesday, 100 members of Parliament sent a letter to the Guardian Council, asking its jurists and clerics to reject Mr. Rafsanjani’s candidacy, calling him a “seditionist” for “supporting” the 2009 protests.
In fighting that effort, Mr. Rafsanjani can count on his relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei, his “friend for 50 years,” as Mr. Rafsanjani likes to say. The supreme leader, who preserves his power by playing various factions against one another, has refused to cut the lifeline that protects Mr. Rafsanjani from his foes. In turn, Mr. Rafsanjani has been careful never to criticize the supreme leader.
Nevertheless, despite their longtime ties, the two men have fundamentally different ideas regarding the state the country is in.
For years now, Mr. Rafsanjani has been arguing that Iran faces the threat of “Islamic fascism” and is in a “dangerous crisis,” while the supreme leader insists that Iran is a “beacon of freedom” and is making “astonishing leaps of progress.”
The effect is to severely limit what Mr. Rafsanjani can say in any campaign, analysts say. Not only does his relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei limit him from bluntly addressing the issues facing the country, Ayatollah Khamenei’s supporters are eager to label any potential criticism as an insult of the supreme leader, which is illegal under Iranian law.
But Mr. Rafsanjani is plainly dependent on the support of his old friend. In an interview with the reformist Shargh newspaper on Sunday, his daughter Fatemeh described how her father had waited next to the phone all day on registration day for Ayatollah Khamenei to call and give his blessing for his candidacy. He had earlier said he would not run without it.
The phone did not ring, and Mr. Rafsanjani had given up hope and had ordered his staff to write a letter explaining why he had not joined the race.
There are different versions of what exactly happened, but around half an hour before the closing of the registration period, Fatemeh said that her father suddenly rushed out of his office and said, “In the name of God, let us go!” barely making it in time for registration.
“We don’t know if Mr. Khamenei clearly gave his blessing,” said one Iranian journalist close to Mr. Rafsanjani’s camp, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation. “But I guess we will find out soon.”
Bombs targeting Sunnis kill at least 76 in Iraq
Fears that country is again heading towards civil war as tensions intensify between Sunnis and Shias
Associated Press in Baghdad
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 May 2013 22.33 BST
Bombs ripped through Sunni areas in Baghdad and surrounding areas on Friday, killing at least 76 people in the deadliest day in Iraq in more than eight months. The major spike in sectarian bloodshed heightened fears the country could again be veering towards civil war.
The attacks followed two days of bombings targeting Shias, including bus stops and outdoor markets, with a total of 130 people killed since Wednesday.
Scenes of bodies sprawled across a street outside a mosque and mourners killed during a funeral procession were reminiscent of some of the worst days of retaliatory warfare between the Islamic sects that peaked in 2006-2007 as US forces battled extremists on both sides.
Tensions have been intensifying since Sunnis began protesting against what they say is mistreatment at the hands of the Shia-led government, including random detentions and neglect. The protests, which began in December, have largely been peaceful, but the number of attacks rose sharply after a deadly security crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq on 23 April.
Majority Shias control the levers of power in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Wishing to rebuild the nation rather than revert to open warfare, they have largely restrained their militias in the past five years or so as Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida have frequently targeted them with large-scale attacks.
Nobody claimed responsibility for Friday's attacks, but the fact they occurred in mainly Sunni areas raised suspicion that Shia militants were involved. The bombs also were largely planted, as opposed to the car bombings and suicide attacks that al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents are known to use.
Talal al-Zobaie, a Sunni politician, called on politicians across the religious and ethnic spectrum to put aside their differences and focus on protecting the nation.
"The terrorist attacks on Sunni areas today and on Shia areas in the past two days are an indication that some groups and regional countries are working hard to reignite the sectarian war in Iraq," he said. "The government should admit that it has failed to secure the country and the people, and all security commanders should be replaced by efficient people who can really confront terrorism. Sectarianism that has bred armies of widows and orphans in the past is now trying to make a comeback in this country, and everybody should be aware of this."
The areas hit on Friday were all former Sunni insurgent strongholds that saw some of the fiercest fighting of the US-led war as sectarian rivalries nearly tore the country apart.
The deadliest blast struck worshippers as they were leaving the main Sunni mosque in Baqouba, 35 miles north-east of Baghdad. Another explosion went off shortly afterward as people gathered to help the wounded, leaving 41 dead and 56 wounded, according to police and hospital officials.
Grocery store owner Hassan Alwan was among the worshippers who attended Friday prayers in the al-Sariya mosque. He said he was getting ready to leave when he heard the explosion, followed by another a few minutes later.
"We rushed into the street and saw people who were killed and wounded, and other worshippers asking for help," he said. "I do not know where the country is headed amid these attacks against both Sunnis and Shias."
Baqouba was the site of some of the fiercest fighting between US forces and insurgents. Al-Qaida in Iraq essentially controlled the area for years, defying numerous US offensives aimed at restoring control. It also is the capital of Diyala province, a religiously mixed area that saw some of the worst atrocities as Shia militias battled Sunni insurgents for control.
A roadside bomb exploded later on Friday during a Sunni funeral procession in Madain, about 12 miles south of Baghdad, killing eight mourners and wounding 11, police said. Two medical officials confirmed the casualties.
Another blast struck a cafe in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, killing two people and wounding nine, according to police and hospital officials.
Ahmed Jassim, a 26-year-old taxi driver, took a wounded friend to the Fallujah hospital after the attack.
"We used to meet every Friday to smoke shisha and we thought we would have a good time today, but things turned into explosions and victims," he said, waiting outside the hospital.
In Baghdad, a bomb exploded near a shopping centre during the evening rush hour in the mainly Sunni neighbourhood of Amariyah, killing 21 people and wounding 32. That was followed by another bomb in a commercial district in Dora, another Sunni neighbourhood, which killed four people and wounded 22, according to officials.
"It is not a coincidence that the attacks were concentrated in some areas of one sect and then moved the next day into areas of the other sect," said Jawad al-Hasnawi, a lawmaker with the bloc loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"It is clear that terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and Baathists are trying hard to reignite the sectarian war in Iraq," he added. "But the government bears full responsibility for this security chaos and it has to take quick and serious measures in order to stop the bloodshed, instead of just blaming other political blocs."
Hasnawi added: "Today and yesterday, the Iraqi people paid for the failure of government security forces. Everybody should expect darker days full of even deadlier attacks."
May 17, 2013
Myanmar: Political Prisoners Freed
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
President Thein Sein pardoned at least 20 political prisoners on Friday, just ahead of a state visit to the United States. A member of the government’s political prisoner scrutiny committee, Ye Aung, said 20 prisoners had been freed by early Friday, with more releases expected.
“According to our list there are still 160 political prisoners remaining in prison,” said Mr. Ye Aung, a former political prisoner. Burma Campaign UK, a group campaigning for democracy in Myanmar — which is also known by its old name, Burma — accused the government of using political prisoners for public relations purposes and called Myanmar’s reforms incomplete. Mr. Thein Sein will visit the White House on Monday, the first state visit by a leader of Myanmar in almost 47 years.
May 18, 2013
SKorea Says NKorea Fires 3 Short-Range Missiles
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired three short-range guided missiles into its eastern waters on Saturday, a South Korean official said. It routinely tests such missiles, but the latest launches came during a period of tentative diplomacy aimed at easing tensions.
The North fired two missiles Saturday morning and another in the afternoon, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said by phone. He said the North's intent was unclear. His ministry said it is watching North Korea carefully in case it conducts a provocation against South Korea.
In March, North Korea launched what appeared to be two KN-02 missiles off its east coast. Experts believe the country is trying to improve the range and accuracy of its arsenal.
North Korea recently withdrew two mid-range "Musudan" missiles believed to be capable of reaching Guam after moving them to its east coast earlier this year, U.S. officials said. The North is banned from testing ballistic missiles under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Earlier this year, North Korea threatened nuclear strikes on Seoul and Washington because of annual U.S.-South Korean military drills and U.N. sanctions imposed over its third nuclear test in February. The drills ended late last month. This past month, the U.S. and South Korea ended another round of naval drills involving a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier off the east coast. North Korea calls such drills preparation to invade the North.
Analysts say the recent North Korean threats were partly an attempt to push Washington to agree to disarmament-for-aid talks.
This past week, Glyn Davies, the top U.S. envoy on North Korea, ended trips to South Korea, China and Japan. On Friday, an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned from North Korea but didn't immediately give details of his talks with officials there.
On Monday, North Korean state media showed that the country's hard-line defense minister had been replaced by a little-known army general. Outside analysts said it was part of leader Kim Jong Un's efforts to tighten his grip on the powerful military after his father Kim Jong Il died in December 2011.
The United States and Japan are participants in six-nation nuclear disarmament talks along with the Koreas, Russia and Japan. North Korea walked out of the talks in 2009 after the United Nations condemned it for a long-range rocket launch.
North Korea possesses an array of missiles. U.S. and South Korean officials do not believe the North's claim that it has developed nuclear warheads small enough to place on a missile. Last week in Washington, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and President Barack Obama warned North Korea against further nuclear provocations.
Tension between the two Koreas remains high after both sides pulled out their workers from a jointly run factory complex earlier this year. The countries remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce instead of a peace treaty.
Ex-dictator who waged Argentina’s Dirty War dies
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 17, 2013 13:26 EDT
Former dictator Jorge Videla, who ruled Argentina during its “Dirty War,” died in prison Friday while serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. He was 87.
Videla, who led Argentina at the head of a military junta between 1976 and 1981, died of natural causes, according to a medical report.
Videla launched a campaign against the left in which as many as 30,000 people were kidnapped and “disappeared” by the military and suspected opposition figures were swept into secret prisons, tortured and murdered.
Videla, who came to power in a 1976 coup, was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for the disappearance of 31 prisoners and to another 50 years in 2012 for the theft of children born to female prisoners.
He was convicted in 1985 of a series of abuses under his regime, including kidnapping, torture and murder, but was pardoned five years later by then president Carlos Menem.
The pardon was declared unconstitutional in 2006 as Argentina reopened one of the darkest chapters in its history with a series of high profile trials of former military officials.
Videla showed little remorse for the systematic abuses that occurred during his presidency, a traumatic five year upheaval still being felt today.
“Let’s say there were seven thousand or eight thousands people who had to die to win the war against subversion,” journalist Ceferino Reato quoted Videla as saying in a prison interview.
“We couldn’t execute them by firing squad. Neither could we take them to court,” he was quoted as saying.
The military leadership agreed that secretly disposing of their prisoners “was a price to pay to win the war,” Videla said, according to Reato in his book “Final Disposition.”
“For that reason, so as not to provoke protests inside and outside the country, the decision was reached that these people should be disappeared.”
After the interview was published, Videla said he had been misinterpreted. The journalist said the general had reviewed his handwritten notes and approved them before publication.
As recently as Tuesday, in another trial stemming from the period, Videla refused to recognize the jurisdiction of civilian courts in cases “involving the army in the anti-subversive struggle.”
He died in the Marcos Paz prison southwest of Buenos Aires, where he spent his final days in a spartan cell with a wooden cross on the wall.
“Last night he didn’t feel well. He didn’t want to eat and this morning they found him dead in his cell,” Cecilia Pando, the head of the Association of Family and Friends of Political Prisoners, told reporters.
Videla was the head of the army when the military overthrew Isabel Peron, the widow of Juan Peron, at a period of mounting instability, punctuated by guerrilla attacks and a surge of killings by right-wing death squads.
As the head of the three man junta that assumed power, Videla suspended the constitution, outlawed political parties and imposed censorship on TV and radio in what was called a “Process of National Reorganization.”
He unleashed the military on the leftist guerrilla groups active in Argentina in a campaign of repression that soon spread far beyond their ranks.
Family members, suspected sympathizers, labor organizers, politicians, clergy, students, journalists, artists and intellectuals were killed or secretly imprisoned in clandestine concentration camps.
The regime’s trademark became the unmarked Ford Falcon sedans that hooded agents used to drive their captives to some 500 detention centers set up around the country.
Among the victims were French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, Catholic bishop Enrique Angelelli, Swedish student Dagmar Hagelin, the union leadership at Ford and Mercedes Benz, and even members of Argentina’s diplomatic corps.
Argentina’s military also joined forces with like-minded dictatorships in Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay under “Operation Condor,” sharing intelligence and helping capture each other’s political enemies.
Rail-thin and with a rigid military posture, Videla in his heyday cut a somber, unsmiling figure with large dark eyes, a brush mustache, and hair slicked back from a bony face.
He delivered speeches in a strident manner and often appeared uncomfortable in public, wringing his hands as a nervous tick played across his cheeks.
Videla put Argentina’s economy in the hands of a civilian group called the “Chicago Boys” because of their admiration for Milton Friedman, a conservative American economist whose ideas were also put into practice in Chile.
Although aligned with the United States, Videla was at loggerheads with US president Jimmy Carter over the regime’s human rights abuses and for refusing to join a US-backed grain embargo against the Soviet Union.
In 1981, Videla handed over power to General Roberto Viola to begin the slow transition to democracy.
But General Leopoldo Galtieri ousted Viola in a palace coup and took Argentina to war and ultimately to a humiliating defeat against British forces in the Falkland Islands the following year.