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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1089853 times)
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« Reply #9195 on: Oct 08, 2013, 07:03 AM »

Brazil accuses Canada of spying after NSA leaks

Canadian ambassador summoned to explain claims spy agency collected Brazilian energy ministry internet and phone data

Associated Press, Tuesday 8 October 2013 10.10 BST   
Brazil has demanded clarifications from the Canadian government about allegations that its spies targeted Brazil's mines and energy ministry, in what the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, said appeared to be an act of industrial espionage.

The foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, summoned the Canadian ambassador to "transmit the indignation of the Brazilian government and demand explanations," the foreign ministry said in a statement following the revelations, broadcast on Sunday night on Brazil's Globo network.

The report said the metadata of phone calls and emails to and from the ministry were targeted by Canada's Communications Security Establishment (CSE). It did not indicate if emails were read or phone calls listened to.

The report was based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and follows revelations that the US and the UK had also targeted Brazil..

During Monday's meeting, Figueiredo's statement expressed "the government's repudiation of this serious and unacceptable violation of national sovereignty and the rights of people and companies".

A spokeswoman for the CSE said it "does not comment on foreign intelligence gathering activities".

Ray Boisvert, a former high-ranking member of Canada's spy service and the deputy director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service until last year, said he thought Canada could have been using Brazil as part of a war game scenario and not for actual espionage. He added that he did not think industrial spying was taking place because "we're all too busy chasing things that could kill people, frankly".

Boisvert said the reports did not indicate it was about real targeting.

"It's a hypothetical thing, like 'could we do something?' Quite often it's an exercise and they'll use any country just to test the theories," he said.

In comments on Twitter on Monday, Rousseff said industrial espionage appeared to be behind the alleged spying. Canadian companies have large mining interests worldwide, including in Brazil.

In her Twitter comments, which the president's office confirmed were authentic, Rousseff also instructed mines minister Edison Lobão to strengthen the ministry's data protection systems.

American journalist Glenn Greenwald, based in Rio de Janeiro, worked with Globo on its report. Greenwald broke the first stories about the NSA's global spy programme focusing on internet traffic and phone calls.

Globo previously reported that the communications of Rousseff herself, and also state-run oil company Petrobras, were targeted by NSA spying.

Earlier, Greenwald wrote articles in the O Globo newspaper saying the NSA was gathering metadata on billions of emails, phone calls and other internet data flowing through Brazil, an important transit point for global communications.

The fallout over the spy programmes led Rousseff last month to cancel a planned visit to the US.

Rousseff last month spoke at the UN general assembly and called for international regulations on data privacy and limiting espionage programmes targeting the internet.


The NSA's mass and indiscriminate spying on Brazilians

As it does in many non-adversarial countries, the surveillance agency is bulk collecting the communications of millions of citizens of Brazil

Glenn Greenwald, Sunday 7 July 2013 00.32 BST   

I've written an article on NSA surveillance for the front page of the Sunday edition of O Globo, the large Brazilian newspaper based in Rio de Janeiro. The article is headlined (translated) "US spied on millions of emails and calls of Brazilians", and I co-wrote it with Globo reporters Roberto Kaz and Jose Casado. The rough translation of the article into English is here. The main page of Globo's website lists related NSA stories: here.

As the headline suggests, the crux of the main article details how the NSA has, for years, systematically tapped into the Brazilian telecommunication network and indiscriminately intercepted, collected and stored the email and telephone records of millions of Brazilians. The story follows an article in Der Spiegel last week, written by Laura Poitras and reporters from that paper, detailing the NSA's mass and indiscriminate collection of the electronic communications of millions of Germans. There are many more populations of non-adversarial countries which have been subjected to the same type of mass surveillance net by the NSA: indeed, the list of those which haven't been are shorter than those which have. The claim that any other nation is engaging in anything remotely approaching indiscriminate worldwide surveillance of this sort is baseless.

As those two articles detail, all of this bulk, indiscriminate surveillance aimed at populations of friendly foreign nations is part of the NSA's "FAIRVIEW" program. Under that program, the NSA partners with a large US telecommunications company, the identity of which is currently unknown, and that US company then partners with telecoms in the foreign countries. Those partnerships allow the US company access to those countries' telecommunications systems, and that access is then exploited to direct traffic to the NSA's repositories. Both articles are based on top secret documents provided by Edward Snowden; O Globo published several of them.

The vast majority of the GuardianUS's revelations thus far have concerned NSA domestic spying: the bulk collection of telephone records, the PRISM program, Obama's presidential directive that authorizes domestic use of cyber-operations, the Boundless Informant data detailing billions of records collected from US systems, the serial falsehoods publicly voiced by top Obama officials about the NSA's surveillance schemes, and most recently, the bulk collection of email and internet metadata records for Americans. Future stories in the GuardianUS will largely continue to focus on the NSA's domestic spying.

But contrary to what some want to suggest, the privacy rights of Americans aren't the only ones that matter. That the US government - in complete secrecy - is constructing a ubiquitous spying apparatus aimed not only at its own citizens, but all of the world's citizens, has profound consequences. It erodes, if not eliminates, the ability to use the internet with any remnant of privacy or personal security. It vests the US government with boundless power over those to whom it has no accountability. It permits allies of the US - including aggressively oppressive ones - to benefit from indiscriminate spying on their citizens' communications. It radically alters the balance of power between the US and ordinary citizens of the world. And it sends an unmistakable signal to the world that while the US very minimally values the privacy rights of Americans, it assigns zero value to the privacy of everyone else on the planet.

This development - the construction of a worldwide, ubiquitous electronic surveillance apparatus - is self-evidently newsworthy, extreme, and dangerous. It deserves transparency. People around the world have no idea that all of their telephonic and internet communications are being collected, stored and analyzed by a distant government. But that's exactly what is happening, in secrecy and with virtually no accountability. And it is inexorably growing, all in the dark. At the very least, it merits public understanding and debate. That is now possible thanks solely to these disclosures.
The Guardian's reporting

One brief note on the Guardian is merited here: I've been continuously amazed by how intrepid, fearless and committed the Guardian's editors have been in reporting these NSA stories as effectively and aggressively as possible. They have never flinched in reporting these stories, have spared no expense in pursuing them, have refused to allow vague and baseless government assertions to suppress any of the newsworthy revelations, have devoted extraordinary resources to ensure accuracy and potency, and have generally been animated by exactly the kind of adversarial journalistic ethos that has been all too lacking over the last decade or so (see this Atlantic article from yesterday highlighting the role played by the Guardian US's editor-in-chief, Janine Gibson).

I don't need to say any of this, but do so only because it's so true and impressive: they deserve a lot of credit for the impact these stories have had. To underscore that: because we're currently working on so many articles involving NSA domestic spying, it would have been weeks, at least, before we would have been able to publish this story about indiscriminate NSA surveillance of Brazilians. Rather than sit on such a newsworthy story - especially at a time when Latin America, for several reasons, is so focused on these revelations - they were enthused about my partnering with O Globo, where it could produce the most impact. In other words, they sacrificed short-term competitive advantage for the sake of the story by encouraging me to write this story with O Globo. I don't think many media outlets would have made that choice, but that's the kind of journalistic virtue that has driven the paper's editors from the start of this story.

This has been a Guardian story from the start and will continue to be. Snowden came to us before coming to any other media outlet, and I'll continue to write virtually all NSA stories right in this very space. But the O Globo story will resonate greatly in Brazil and more broadly in Latin America, where most people had no idea that their electronic communications were being collected in bulk by this highly secretive US agency. For more on how the Guardian's editors have overseen the reporting of the NSA stories, see this informative interview on the Charlie Rose Show from last week with Gibson and Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.


Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, isn't happy with Barack Obama

She's snubbed him because leaked documents suggest the NSA has been spying on her and the Brazilian oil and gas firm Petrobras

Wednesday 18 September 2013 15.53 BST
The Guardian
Dilma Rousseff: 'Do I look happy, Mr Obama?'

Age: 65.

Appearance: Jack Black: The Powerful Woman Years.

Who is she? The second-most powerful woman in the world.

Says who? And why? Says Forbes magazine. Because she's the president of Brazil.

And what has she done now? Snubbed the world's most powerful man. Rousseff has postponed an official visit to Washington to meet with Barack Obama.

On what grounds? On the grounds that there has yet to be "a timely investigation" into reports, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, that the US National Security Agency has been spying on her phone calls and emails, her aides and the state-controlled oil and gas firm Petrobras.

And this is a problem for her? Yes. Quite a big problem.

Why? Apart from the fact that, as a rule, people don't like being spied on? Because Rousseff is quite protective when it comes to Petrobras. As are the people of Brazil. The government-run firm is the country's largest company and produces more than 90% of Brazil's oil and natural gas. Plus Rousseff was chair of its board of directors for seven years. Making it kind of her giant multibillion dollar baby.

So she's an oil baron who went into politics? No, if anything she's a radical politician who went into oil. Rousseff's political life began on the far left, in the underground resistance to the military dictatorship that seized power in Brazil in 1964. She was arrested in 1970 and tortured with electric shocks to her feet and ears, before spending the next three years in prison.

How did she get from there to president? With a steely determination for which she was dubbed Brazil's "Iron Lady". She entered the government as energy minister, rose through the ranks, and ran for president after an extensive makeover – including heavy dental work and plastic surgery – to make her look softer and more electable.

But she's still as hard as nails? Clearly. And, after snubbing the US president, just a little bit more re-electable.

Do say: "The lady's not for alleged industrial espionage."

Don't say: "What, we can't spy on your state-run oil firm now? Come on!

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« Reply #9196 on: Oct 08, 2013, 07:04 AM »

Venezuelan lawmakers to debate special powers for Maduro

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 7, 2013 21:36 EDT

Venezuela’s legislature starts debate Tuesday on granting special powers to President Nicolas Maduro for use fighting corruption, a move opponents say could lead to witch hunts.

Just two months before crucial municipal elections, elected leftist Maduro will personally ask the National Assembly to grant him power to toughen laws on corruption.

But the measure is one vote short of the number needed for approval under the country’s constitution. And complaints have already started surfacing from opposition and independent legislators that they have been pressured to cast the missing vote.

To pass the act, which authorizes the president to issue “decrees with the force of law” three-fifths of the 165 National Assembly deputies must approve the measure.

The president announced Friday that he will also use the measure to address an “economic war” he claims is being waged against his government, as Venezuela faces record inflation and product shortages, which Maduro blames on the opposition and private entrepreneurs.

Weeks ago, Maduro ignited political debate when he accused opposition leader and Miranda state governor, Henrique Capriles, of covering up corruption.

In turn, Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Maduro by less than 1.5 percent, dared the government to imprison him and accused the president of corruption — and using his fight against bribery to persecute the governor.

Capriles holds that Maduro seeks to weaken the opposition with an eye on the December 8 elections, which Capriles says are a “referendum” on the socialist government.

The National Assembly has already prosecuted two opposition deputies for corruption. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan justice system is investigating two opposition governors and opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

Maduro said that “there are no untouchables” in his crusade against corruption, citing several examples of his own officials being arrested.

Former Venezuela president Hugo Chavez, who died on March 5, used special power to legislate in 2000, 2001, 2008 and 2010, periods when more than 200 laws where enacted.

Venezuela ranks 165 on a list of 176 countries in terms of its success in fighting corruption, according to an index compiled by Transparency International, released last December.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9197 on: Oct 08, 2013, 07:15 AM »

Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Peter Higgs and François Englert

The Higgs boson scientist went on holiday without a phone to avoid media storm in runup to physics Nobel announcement

Ian Sample, science correspondent, Tuesday 8 October 2013 13.27 BST   

And so the wait is over. Half a century after he wrote down a theory that would change the world, Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh-based researcher, has won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Higgs, 84, shares the 8m Swedish kronor (£775,000) prize – and no shortage of kudos – with François Englert at the Free University of Brussels for showing how fundamental particles get their masses. Before the theory, the answer to this basic question was unknown.

The Royal Swedish Academy awarded the prize for "the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the Atlas and CMS experiments at Cern's Large Hadron Collider."

Higgs made himself unreachable for reaction. He recently had a bout of bronchitis and then had a bad fall outside his apartment in Edinburgh's Newtown, and the media attention had become unbearable. "The pressure was so much he decided to go on holiday without a phone to avoid the media storm. He's not available and good for him. He didn't tell even me," said Alan Walker, a friend and fellow physicist at Edinburgh.

The theorists produced a series of papers in 1964 that described how an invisible field that lurks in the vacuum of space interacts with elementary particles and gives some of them mass.

Higgs was the first to point out that the theory came with a signature particle, later named the Higgs boson, which became the smoking gun that proved the field was there.

When the award was announced, the physicists at Edinburgh University erupted with applause. "A huge cheer went up," said Walker. "The delay was tantalising. The forecast was correct, but we had no indication. I have tears in my eyes."

The particle's discovery was announced last year by scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider at Cern near Geneva, ending a decades-long hunt at facilities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Immediately after the big bang, the first particles that formed were entirely massless and zipped around the fledgling universe at the speed of light.

But a billionth of a second later, the field switched on and gave scores of particles mass, including the quarks and electrons that make up atoms, the building blocks of all that is around us. Particles of light – photons – do not feel the field and remain massless.

Without some means of giving particles mass, the universe would look very different than today. There would be no stars, planets, or life.

This year was the earliest the prize could be awarded for the work, though it is exceptional for the honour to be given so swiftly.

The announcement of the prize was delayed for an hour while the Nobel committee voted on the award. The prize excludes a trio of researchers who developed the theory independently and published one month after Higgs in 1964. Two US physicists, Gerald Guralnik and Dick Hagen, worked with Tom Kibble at Imperial College London and delayed publication of their paper to ensure it was complete.

First into print, in August 1964, were François Englert and Robert Brout at the Free University of Belgium. Brout died in 2011, a year before Cern announced they had discovered the Higgs boson. Peter Higgs published two articles on the theory in September and October the same year.

Tom Kibble at Imperial College, said he was happy to see the Swedish academy recognise the work.

"My two collaborators, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Richard Hagen, and I contributed to that discovery, but our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published … and it is therefore no surprise that the Swedish Academy felt unable to include us, constrained as they are by a self-imposed rule that the prize cannot be shared by more than three people.


Nobel Prize for Medicine awarded for work on cell transport mechanism

Faults in the system can lead to a host of diseases including diabetes and disorders of the immune and nervous systems

Alok Jha, science correspondent
The Guardian, Monday 7 October 2013 19.03 BST   
The 2013 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to three scientists, all based in the United States, for working out how biological cells organise and transport the many molecules they need to function.

In the 1970s and 1980s, James E Rothman, Randy W Schekman and Thomas C Südhof worked on separate aspects of the mechanism by which molecules such as hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters move around cells in small bubbles of fatty membrane called "vesicles". The three laureates discovered how these packages get to the right parts of the cell at the right times.

Announcing the award on Monday at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, the Nobel Assembly's citation read that the award was "for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells". The trio will share 8m swedish krona (£772,000) in prize money.

Prof Schekman, now based at the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, worked out the genetic underpinning of the vesicle manoeuvres, using yeast as his model organism. On being woken up with the news of his prize at 1:30am local time on Monday by the Nobel Prize committee, he said: "My first reaction was, 'Oh, my god!'. That was also my second reaction."

Prof Rothman, currently a professor and chairman in the department of cell biology at Yale University, discovered the complex protein structures (pdf) that allow the vesicles to fuse with their targets and off-load their molecular cargo.

Prof Südhof, born in Germany and now based at Stanford University in California, focused his work on nerve cells, uncovering the cellular signals that make the vesicles release their molecular cargo precisely.

Errors in this exquisitely tuned cell transport mechanism can lead to a host of problems including diabetes and disorders of the immune and nervous systems.

Responding to the news of the three new Nobel laureates, Dame Jean Thomas, vice-president of the Royal Society, said: "Their seminal work on the transport and delivery of 'cargo' within and between cells (relevant to the release of insulin, signalling between neurons, signalling in the immune system and other processes) has provided fundamental insights into cellular processes and is also highly relevant to understanding various disease processes. The Society offers its warm congratulations to all three."

Like many Nobel laureates before them, today's winners have already collected a haul of major scientific accolades between them. Prof Südhof won the 2013 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, which was also won jointly by Profs Schekman and Rothman in 2002. Profs Südhof and Rothman were joint winners of the 2010 Kavli Prize for neuroscience, and Prof Schekman was elected as a foreign member of the Royal Society earlier this year.


Nobel Medicine Prize winners warn: Science in the U.S. is in peril

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 7, 2013 20:30 EDT

Three American winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday said scientific progress in the United States is in peril due to unprecedented funding cuts and ideological challenges.

The scientists were honored for their work on how cells organize their cargo and move molecules — a process that contributes to normal body and brain function but is also at the root of neurological diseases, diabetes, and immune disorders.

But after they recounted their anecdotes of shock and amazement — including the German-born neuroscientist Thomas Suedhof who admitted he was “a bit lost” driving around in Spain when he got the call with the news — their speeches turned to a future that may hold fewer opportunities.

Co-winner James Rothman, 63, of Yale University, who studies how cells transport energy outside of themselves, said he was struck by how hard it is to get research funding these days.

“It is much, much more difficult… for a young scientist to get started today,” he told reporters, describing a shrinking budget for the National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of US research.

The NIH pays out about $31 billion per year, more than any other government gives to researchers, but budget constraints have kept funding flat for the past several years, meaning even less money when adjusted for inflation.

NIH officials say that competition has also increased for grants, leaving about 16-17 percent of applications funded, far short of the target of 30 percent.

Rothman said he was concerned about funding long before the budget cuts brought on by the recent sequester, or the current shutdown of the federal government by Republicans opposed to President Barack Obama’s health care reform.

Reflecting on his own beginnings as a scientist, Rothman wondered aloud if he would have been able to make the same strides under the present circumstances.

“I really am very concerned that I would not have been,” he said.

“I see today the kind of enormous opportunities and yet the discouragement that young scientists in this country feel and it is something we need to pay attention to if we want to maintain this country as the great competitive world leader that it has been.”

Rothman praised his co-laureates as men whose work had at times been “complementary, and sometimes competitive.”

Rothman’s co-winner Suedhof, 57, whose lab is at Stanford University, focuses on how synapses form in the brain and how messages get sent, with a view to unlocking the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease and autism.

“It seems to me there is a significant increasingly vocal percentage of the population that thinks we shouldn’t go after truth and truth is not important. And so that worries the hell out me,” said Suedhof, who is an American citizen.

Funding is “in danger,” leaving enormous hurdles to overcome in solving the main mysteries of the brain, he said.

But he described the biggest problem as “this cognitive dissonance” in America. “You can’t at the same time be for science and against it,” he said.

“I would consider it as progress if everybody, no matter what their ideology or religion is, could agree on the principle that truth is not an ideological issue.”

The third co-winner, Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley, recalled his humble beginnings, including getting turned down for research funding early on, and how US government support later became “an enormous benefit.”

He also said he was able to work his way through university despite coming from a middle class family and being one of five children.

“I could work a summer job and pay for the entire school year,” Schekman said, recalling that his tuition in 1966 was $40 a term and room and board cost $400.

“Unfortunately as you know this is no longer true. Tuition fees… have escalated dramatically.”

Schekman, 64, is best known for his work on cell organization in yeast and for identifying three classes of genes that control different parts of the cell transport system.

Rudy Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Harvard University, told AFP that he sees many American science majors head for high-paying consulting jobs rather than academia.

“Because federal funding is so weak we are now in jeopardy of losing a generation or two of American scientists,” said Tanzi, who has collaborated with both Suedhof and Schekman.

“The reason is job security. They are afraid to embark on a future that relies on unstable funding,” he added.

“Most of the PhDs we see coming in are from other countries.”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

"My sincere congratulations go to the two prizewinners, François Englert and Peter Higgs. A sad omission from the list was Englert's collaborator Robert Brout, now deceased.

Ben Allanach, a theoretical physicist at Cambridge University, said: "This is the recognition of a triumph for fundamental physics that will stay in the history books for millennia to come. I am thrilled about the prize, and Englert and Higgs both deserve it well," he said.

"I cannot over-stress the importance of the discovery. The mass mechanism that the higgs boson is a signal for has had a huge impact on particle physics over the last 50 years. I think many of us felt that it had to be correct, although we were willing to let data dissuade us."

Around 500 of the Atlas team from Cern, who helped find the Higgs boson, are at a meeting in Marrakesh. Speaking from the city – which is overlooked by the Atlas mountains – John Butterworth, head of physics at UCL, said: "Everyone cheered through the announcement, never mind that it was in Swedish."

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« Reply #9198 on: Oct 08, 2013, 07:17 AM »

Neuro-enhanced super-soldiers: Far-fetched science fantasy or an inevitable future?

By Chris Chambers, The Guardian
Monday, October 7, 2013 11:37 EDT

About five years ago, not long after I started up my research group at Cardiff University, something rather strange happened. One morning I came down to my lab to find the door wide open and a suited man standing in the middle of the room, peering around and scribbling on a clipboard. He told me he worked for a private defence firm who were interested in applications of my research on human brain stimulation. He also said there was funding available for joint research projects. We spoke for a couple of minutes before I made it clear I wasn’t interested in that sort of collaboration.

Thinking about it afterward, something about the encounter chilled me. It wasn’t the fact that this person had gained access to the lab seemingly unannounced, and it wasn’t even the sense of entitlement that seemed to exude from the guy, as though he was standing in his lab not mine. What bothered me was the realisation that the work I do operates anywhere near the line where a military firm might find it useful. My opinion at the time – still unchanged – was that I would sooner quit science than get into bed with the profiteering wing of those whose raison d’être is foreign intervention and invasion.

Five years later, brain stimulation research has moved far and fast. A fascinating new issue of Frontiers in Neuroscience includes a timely review on the various ways brain stimulation can enhance human thought and behaviour – with special consideration of applications in the security services and military.

Different forms of neurostimulation in humans have now been shown to boost our ability to learn and perform motor actions, to pay attention to events in the environment, to recall information in memory, and to exercise self-control. At the same time, evidence is mounting for more complex effects on cognition. For instance, stimulation of the human prefrontal cortex can enhance or inhibit our tendency to lie, improve our ability to lie successfully, and can encourage us to comply with social norms that carry a punishment for disobedience.

Most of these findings stem from two basic forms of brain stimulation. The first, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (or TMS), uses the physics of electromagnetism to activate brain cells. How this activity influences behaviour depends on what the brain cells are important for in the first place. So, were I to apply TMS to a particular part of your motor cortex then it would make your finger twitch, but if I instead stimulated Broca’s area then it would disrupt your ability to speak.

The second major approach, called transcranial direct current stimulation (or TDCS), works quite differently. TDCS is generally too weak to make brain cells fire – instead it alters the sensitivity of the cells, making them more or less active in response to something that stimulates them later. Both TMS and TDCS can have aftereffects lasting from minutes to hours, sometimes even days, causing changes in neurophysiology and neurochemistry.

As the scientific questions being asked by brain stimulation expand, so too are the methods becoming more sophisticated. One exciting new technique, called transcranial pulsed ultrasound, theoretically allows precise stimulation of any neural region. So far it hasn’t been tested in the human brain but such studies seem only a matter of time. Together, these techniques and their applications hold great promise for understanding the machinery of human mental processes, with hope for treating patients suffering from brain injury and disease.

Well, at least that’s the line that we use in our grant applications and press releases. And it’s true, except that it doesn’t tell the whole story because anything that can boost or rehabilitate human abilities could also be exploited for military or security purposes, as well as by questionable private enterprises. Predictably, some of the major innovations in brain stimulation research are being funded by the US military.

So far the applications of brain stimulation proposed by the military are far-fetched, but what happens when the science catches up with their ambitions? What army wouldn’t take advantage of a method that could make soldiers more alert, faster to react, faster to learn, less likely to binge-drink off duty, and more compliant with authority? What intelligence agency wouldn’t embrace a technology that could help their operatives become better liars, or which limits the ability of prisoners to lie under interrogation?

Applications like these, in turn, raise ethical questions. Would a soldier be able to refuse brain stimulation, and if not, wouldn’t that violate the principle of consent underlying ‘medical’ interventions? Would soldiers under the influence of brain stimulation still be accountable for their actions in conflict? Would a prisoner subjected to brain stimulation lose their right to silence?

Going deeper we might ask whether it is ethical for neuroscientists and psychologists to collaborate with organisations whose ultimate research objective is to develop more efficient ways of killing people. How, we might wonder, do such activities fit with the benign aims of the Society for Neuroscience or the British Psychological Society?

Fortunately we’re still some distance from a future of routine neuro-enhancement and, as always, we should be wary of hype that suggests otherwise. Among the cognitive neuroscience community there is much valid scepticism about the potential of brain stimulation to genuinely improve neural function. It could be that, like a zero-sum game, improving any one function necessarily impairs another.

Even so, the dazzling pace of brain stimulation research warns us not to downplay the interests of the military and private industry. Whether such concerns should hinder the progress of basic science is a vexed issue. Few of my colleagues would accept that advances in neuroscience should be limited beyond consideration of whether the research itself is ethical. After all, they would say, who can possibly foresee all the unethical applications of basic science? I agree, but the argument has one problem: when it comes to brain stimulation, there is a foreseeable future in which the neuroscience becomes enmeshed with the politics of security and war.

As Western governments cut basic science funding and push academics toward working with industry, it is easy to see why those in my position may be tempted to align with wealthy defence contractors. Yet in the race to achieve REF impact, society may well ask who is assessing the risk of that impact being harmful. © Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #9199 on: Oct 08, 2013, 08:07 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

America’s police are looking more and more like the military

By Michael Shank, The Guardian
Monday, October 7, 2013 11:28 EDT

America’s streets are looking more and more like a war zone. Last week, in a small county in upstate New York with a population of roughly 120,000 people, county legislators approved the receipt of a 20-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, donated by the US Defense Department to the county sheriff.

Between the Armored Personnel Carriers locking down main streets in major American cities – mimicking our MRAPs in Afghanistan – or Special Weapons and Tactics (Swat) and Special Forces units canvassing our country, if we’re not careful, this militarization of our domestic policing will make-over America, and fast.

Here’s how it all happened. A little-known Pentagon program has been quietly militarizing American police forces for years. A total of $4.2bn worth of equipment has been distributed by the Defense Department to municipal law enforcement agencies, with a record $546m in 2012 alone.

In the fine print of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1997, the “1033 program” was born. It allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment to local police forces.

Though the program’s existed since the 1990s, it has expanded greatly in recent years, due, in part, to post-9/11 fears and sequestration budget cuts. The expanse, however, seems unnecessary given that the Department of Homeland Security has already handed out $34bn in “terrorism grants” to local polices forces – without oversight mind you – to fund counter-terrorism efforts.

Additional militarization, then, deserves congressional attention as the program is harmful and must be scaled back for a number of reasons.

First, the program is transforming our police into a military. The results of such over-militarized law enforcement are apparent from the dispersion of Occupy protesters in Oakland to the city-wide lockdown in Boston. As retired police chief Norm Stamper stated to the Associated Press:

We make a serious mistake, I’m convinced, in equipping domestic law enforcement, particularly in smaller, rural communities, with this much military equipment.

Tanks, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and assault rifles are just a few of the items that have been transferred from military control to municipal police forces. Law enforcement agencies need only to arrange and pay for shipment in order to receive the items of their choice (pdf). One particularly egregious example is found in South Carolina, where Richland County’s sheriff acquired a tank with 360-degree rotating machine gun turrets. Sardonically, the vehicle has been named “the Peacemaker“.

Swat teams, furthermore, are no longer found only in large, high-crime areas. Instead, even small rural towns now have the equipment to arm their own paramilitary units. Investigative reporter Radley Balko estimates that around 150 Swat raids are performed every day in the United States.

Second, the program encourages waste. Never mind, for a moment, that neither the Defense Department nor the Homeland Security Department has been audited – the only two unaudited government departments incidentally. Any waste from the 1033 program, then, has gone unnoticed thus far.

Municipalities’ stockpiles have grown exponentially with billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry and equipment they simply do not need. This giveaway has created a shopping frenzy among law enforcement officials keen to scoop up equipment before someone else does.

Take a look at these examples. A small town in Georgia without a body of water acquired boats and scuba gear. The same town ordered a shipment of bayonets, which is now collecting dust. In Texas, a town of only 835 residents received more than $3m worth of equipment, including deep-fat fryers, televisions, and playground equipment. The stories abound.

Authorities often claim that the program assists local law enforcement without incurring costs for taxpayers. Yet the program requires that localities accept equipment “as is”, meaning that taxpayers foot the bill (pdf) for all repairs, storage, or maintenance of the growing stockpile. Thus, the arms race ignited by these policies is as wasteful and costly as it is dangerous.

Lastly, the program’s lack of oversight is irresponsible. Indeed, the amount of unaccounted for weapons, fraud, and abuse is alarming. Officially, state coordinators are required to ensure that local law enforcement agencies keep full inventories (pdf) of the equipment they receive, and the localities must report any missing equipment and return any that is unused. But in practice, federal and state authorities infrequently check – if ever – to ensure that inventories are up to date. Effectively, then, it is the recipients of weapons who are left to regulate themselves. The results have been disastrous.

For example, a sheriff in Illinois was accused of lending the assault rifles, which he got through the 1033 program, to his friends. Meanwhile, a firearms manager in North Carolina pled guilty to selling his on eBay. Worse, 11 districts in Indiana were completely suspended from the program because of the high volume of weapons they lost. And a county in Arizona acquired $7m worth of weapons and Humvees before giving them to unauthorized persons and attempting to sell them to boost their budget.

The lack of oversight is appalling. State coordinators admit that they conduct very few in-person inspections. In New York, the state is apparently outsourcing the majority of their inventory work to a part-time, unpaid intern. And in Mississippi, it took six years before federal authorities discovered that a state office, which was ineligible for the program, had received $8m worth of equipment, despite the fact that the Defense Department is supposed to review the program every two years. The Pentagon program cannot continue in this manner. Congress should acknowledge the failure of this program and permanently ban military-grade weaponry, armored vehicles and aircraft from transfer to municipal police forces. If the Defense Department is to continue to lend surplus equipment to localities, it must vastly tighten oversight and ensure that no item go unaccounted for. On-site inspections must be frequent and consequences for noncompliance should be severe.

If America is concerned about helping its police forces prevent violence, there are more cost effective ways of doing that. Since we know that cities and states with lower levels of violence have higher levels of education, healthcare coverage and economic opportunity, and lower levels of poverty and income inequality, that is where we should be investing taxpayer dollars.

But when local police forces carry assault weapons and patrol America’s main streets with tanks and drones, the lines blur between the military and law enforcement. The growing militarization of the United States appears to be occurring at home as well as abroad, a phenomenon which is troublesome and sure to continue without decisive action. Scaling back the 1033 program is a much-needed start and would cast some light on the blurring line between military forces and the local police who are meant to protect and serve. © Guardian News and Media 2013

*********For those of you who live in America why is such an article not in your own media ? ******


Michele Bachmann is Sleeping with Putin, Proving We Are in the End Times

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Tuesday, October 8th, 2013, 7:31 am

Well, okay, that’s not the best example because of its stomach-churning implications, but you get my point, I think, about what Bachmann and other tea party Republicans are doing, when you see Bachmann say, as part of a large anti-Muslim diatribe, that “Obama is supporting Al Qaeda, proving that we are in the End Times.”

What Bachmann did was to take a false premise and say because A=B then C. But A is NOT B and even C itself has not been proven to be true regardless of the relationship between A and B.

Now Bachmann sleeping with Putin might well herald the end times, rather like the old adage about dogs and cats, but it illustrates how something that is not true does not make something else true.

I said something about Bachmann’s premise being false: What is rather funny about Bachmann’s claim is that she said this on Saturday, on the very same day that an Army special forces unit sent to Libya by President Obama nabbed al-Qaeda leader as Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known by his alias Anas al-Libi, and Navy SEAL Team 6, operating in southern Somalia, attempted to nab Ikrima, a leader of terrorist group linked to al Qaeda, Al-Shabaab.

Breaking News

Will this change Bachmann’s thinking? No. Facts cannot be allowed to intrude on a good anti-Obama diatribe, which began when the Minnesotan lunatic, er, I mean, Representative, invented another lie she could use as an excuse for the whole End Times thing:

    President Obama waved a ban on arming terrorists in order to allow weapons to go to the Syrian opposition…US taxpayers are now paying to give arms to terrorists, including al Qaeda.

Oh dear.

If you look at what President Obama is ACTUALLY doing as opposed to what Bachmann claims he is doing, back on September 16 a White House press release revealed that,

    Today, the President signed a Presidential Determination exercising his authority to waive certain restrictions under the Arms Export Control Act. This action will allow the U.S. Government to provide or license, where appropriate, certain non-lethal assistance inside or related to Syria. This includes: 1) chemical weapons-related personal protective equipment to international organizations, including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for the conduct of their operations; 2) chemical weapons-related life-saving assistance for organizations implementing Department of State or U.S. Agency for International Development programs to strengthen local Syrian health care providers’ ability to prepare for and respond to any use of chemical weapons; and 3) defensive chemical weapons-related training and personal protective equipment to select vetted members of the Syrian opposition, including the Supreme Military Council, to protect against the use of chemical weapons. This action is part of longstanding and ongoing efforts to provide life-saving chemical weapons-related assistance to people in need in Syria.

Of course, Bachmann had to completely invent some implications for this completely humanitarian aid (drum-roll please):

    This happened and as of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists. Now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the end times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history. Rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to rejoice. Maranatha Come Lord Jesus. His day is at hand. When we see up is down and right is called wrong, when this is happening, we were told this, these days would be as the days of Noah.

Besides Bachmann’s evident inability to express herself clearly, there are several problems with all this, including the fact that she is speaking of a relationship between things that are demonstrably untrue and other things that cannot be proven to be true.

I’ve used this example before when discussing such absurdities as the GOP’s crazy reaction to the Boston bombing, but it clearly needs to be trotted out again. These attempts to obfuscate remind me a bit of an episode of the British comedy The Black Adder, in which one of Edmund the Black Adder’s cronies tells him that the eyes of the Spanish Infanta are “as blue as the blue stone of Galveston”:

    Edmund: Mm! … What?
    Percy: The famous Stone of Galveston, My Lord.
    Edmund: And what’s that, exactly?
    Percy: Well, it’s a famous blue stone, and it comes … from Galveston.
    Edmund: I see. And what about it?
    Percy: Well, My Lord, the Infanta’s eyes are bluer than it, for a start.
    Edmund: I see. And have you ever seen this stone?
    Percy: (nods) No, not as such, My Lord, but I know a couple of people who have, and they say it’s very very blue indeed.
    Edmund: And have these people seen the Infanta’s eyes?
    Percy: No, I shouldn’t think so, My Lord.
    Edmund: And neither have you, presumably.
    Percy: No, My Lord.
    Edmund: So, what you’re telling me, Percy, is that something you have never seen is slightly less blue than something else you have never seen.
    Percy: (finally begins to grasp) Yes, My Lord.

Bachmann claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, yet she demeans his name by lying through her teeth as often as she gets the opportunity. I don’t remember that injunction from the New Testament, to lie on Jesus’ behalf. Bachmann, like other Christians real and fake, claims belief in a capital-T Truth, but fundamentalist Christians (like Bachmann) seem to think it is perfectly permissible, even obligatory, to lie on behalf of this Truth.

I suppose that makes as much sense as me saying that because Michele Bachmann has a secret harem of incubi that her husband Marcus is an al Qaeda operative. Much as I despite everything Bachmann and her husband stand for, I would not say this because it is ridiculously, obviously untrue.

This sort of rubbish belongs on the pages of the National Inquirer, but even tabloids can’t match the sheer dishonest creativity of tea party Republicans. And to make matters worse, unlike the National Inquirer, people like Bachmann get to spout their lies before a national audience on a major television network as though it were documented fact.

On Sunday, the White House said, “This operation should be a clear reminder that the United States will seek justice against those who would attack Americans, and never forgets those who are victims of terrorism,” and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the raids “send a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long they evade justice.”

    We will continue to maintain relentless pressure on terrorist groups that threaten our people or our interests, and we will conduct direct action against them, if necessary, that is consistent with our laws and our values.

For Bachmann then, this can only mean President Obama is signalling his support for al Qaeda. But what is really happening is that she is signalling her own divorce from reality, ethics, common decency, and abrogating any right to claim a relationship to Jesus Christ, who never once in his short career said, “Blessed are the liars, and those who lie in my name.”


Republican Rep. Dent: Ted Cruz ‘put us in a ditch’ without ‘a plan to get out’

By Scott Kaufman
Monday, October 7, 2013 15:31 EDT

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) on Monday echoed Peter King’s statement that the person to blame for the current government shutdown is Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

“If I had to cast blame anywhere, I would say it was Sen. Cruz and those who insisted upon this tactic that we all knew was not going to succeed,” Dent told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

“What he did essentially, Sen. Cruz, basically, he took a lot of folks into the ditch. Now that we’re in the ditch, you can’t get out of the ditch, the senator has no plan to get out of the ditch, those of us who do have a plan to get out of the ditch and will vote to get out of the ditch will then be criticized by those who put us in the ditch in the first place.”

Dent also challenged House Speaker John Boehner’s assertion that there aren’t enough votes to pass a “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government, saying “I believe there are the votes to pass a clean CR.”

Earlier this afternoon, Obama issued Boehner the same challenge. “Hold a vote,” the president said. “Call a vote right now. Let’s see what happens. If Republicans and Speaker Boehner are saying there aren’t enough votes, then they should prove it. Let the bill go to the floor and let’s see what happens. Just vote.”

On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that Boehner’s afraid such a vote would actually pass, as almost 20 Republicans, including Rep. Dent, have agreed to support it.

“Are you [Boehner] afraid this measure will pass, the government will reopen and the American people will realize you took the country hostage for no apparent reason?” Reid said.

Click to watch:


Harry Reid will push for ‘clean’ debt ceiling increase

By Arturo Garcia
Monday, October 7, 2013 17:15 EDT

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is expected to introduce a bill calling for an increase to the federal debt ceiling that will not include social program cuts demanded by House Republicans, ABC News reported on Monday.

The bill, which has been referred to as a “clean” increase, is scheduled to come before the Senate floor Monday evening or early Tuesday, with just over 10 days left until the U.S. Treasury Department will lose the ability to borrow more money to pay off the country’s financial obligations. For it to pass in the Senate, not only would Democrats need to vote for it unanimously, but they would need to attract six Republicans. On Oct. 2, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) accused Reid’s party of “scaring people” over the prospect of the country defaulting on its debts.

The Washington Post reported that President Barack Obama’s administration supports raising the debt limit both for a six-week period, as well as through the 2014 midterm elections. During an appearance at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., Obama challenged House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), “Call a vote right now, and let’s see what happens,” in response to statements from Boehner saying there were not enough votes in the GOP-dominated House of Represenatatives to pass an increase.

A spokesperson for Boehner, Brendan Buck, told the Post that he would continue to make a debt limit increase contingent on including cuts to social service programs like Social Security and Medicare.

“Any debt-limit increase is going to require cuts and reforms to address America’s enormous budget deficit,” Buck said to the Post.


Tea Party Captive John Boehner Says No Debt Ceiling Vote Without ACA

By: Dennis S
Monday, October 7th, 2013, 7:24 pm

Here’s my first problem. After disciplining myself to stay clear of the absurd partial government shutdown issue, the most recent pronouncement by former bar back, family saloon mop-jockey, Tea Party Bitch and Speaker of the House John Boehner, has forced my hand. I can’t just watch the threatened House refusal to raise the debt ceiling march by unabated.

Here’s my second problem, oft-stated in these quarters. A large part of the nation’s population that bows at the altar of political extremism is, to be charitable, politically dumber than a box of rocks, naïve as a tiny-town blond on her first day in the big city and lazy as hell. That pretty much shuts the door to reasonable discourse with someone who is devoid of actual facts and whose opinions are molded by media Benedict Arnolds with but one goal in mind; millions upon millions of dollars in their bank accounts. And if a country must be reduced to relative ruin to fill those coffers, who gives a s**t. Certainly not Limbaugh or O’Reilly, two snake-oil social carnival barkers with bottom lines exceeding their groupies by a factor of thousands, sometimes, millions.

So I’m swimming upstream against a tide of possibly the most ill-informed public in modern times, all the more incredible given the endless sources of legitimate information. But let me plow this non-fertile intellectual ground nonetheless with inevitable duplications girding my efforts.

Let’s start at the beginning; Boehner’s arrogant, tea-driven pronouncement that there will be no house vote on boosting U.S. borrowing authority absent “concessions” from President Obama. Of course, “concessions” simply mean paths (you’ve already seen a few) to the total destruction of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, hereafter known as ACA for our purposes. Exactly how much camouflaged brown-envelope money, back-room deals, slit-skirted ladies, endless free dinners, scholarships for the kids, admissions to Fancy Schmancy U for the not-quite-smart-enough Congressional son or daughter, trips to exotic locales, and après-term million dollar per year jobs and assorted other political catnip must be dangling in front of House members to rid the country of ACA? I know I’m going “House of Cards” on you, but nothing short of variations of the above could drive elected officials to vote 42 times to repeal ACA when chances for such a repeal were zero!

The same ACA blackmail exists with the partial government shutdown, but the stakes are much lower and the country can theoretically survive a few more weeks of that nonsense though a further extension would push us back into a deep recession. The government cannot survive refusal to raise the debt ceiling. That’s a generational and international economic predicament of the highest order.

The U.S. has been debt-free exactly one time, back in 1835 under Andrew Jackson (sad to say, the first Democrat elected president). PolitiFact says it’s mostly true that there was only one day of no debt, though this has been the subject of historical debate. However short the absence of debt was, it was followed by a horrific economic crisis, mostly landing in the lap of Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren. An April 2011 NPR story by Robert Smith backgrounds the path to debt freedom by Jackson who, though a Democrat, would have been very comfortable snuggled up to the modern-day House Tea Party Caucus. It’s worthwhile on background to visit this site. Pay special attention to the role of the states and the ultimate outcome of the Jacksonian strategy. The similarities to our current desperate situation are striking and those with open minds could learn a lot from the Jackson experience.

So we’re clear, the definition of debt is quite simple: Money owed creditors by any level of government as accumulated deficits, plus interest. There’s Net and Gross dept. Included in gross debt are bonds, currency swaps and the most dangerous and irresponsible financial instrument in the world, Credit Default Swaps. What percentage of debt is represented by largely unregulated CDSs is unknown. It’s estimated there are some 60 TRILLION in Credit Default Swaps out there. Net debt is simply the difference between gross debt and government fiscal assets. I’ve written on this specific subject before. The Jackson blip notwithstanding, we’ve always been in debt from the very birth of our great nation when the founding fathers inherited $75 million in Revolutionary War debt. Wars have been great contributors to our debt. We’re currently hovering around $16.7 trillion that the fed owes its creditors who hold U.S. government debt securities.

The real measure of concern is government debt to Gross Domestic Product. Among industrialized nations, we’re on the high side at 101.6. Japan is a whooping 211.70, troubled Greece 156.90, Italy 127.00, Portugal 123.60, Ireland 117.60, the United Kingdom 90.70 and Germany 81.90.

I’ve written about the easy fix for this alleged debt “problem” before. Collect taxes from the cheap corporate bastards that go to the ends of the earth (literally) to avoid paying them. Why do you think Mitt Romney took such a shine to the likes of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands and numerous other tax-dodging destinations? Because their corporate tax rates were ZERO. Granted, you really have to manipulate the books to escape paying your fair share to the country where you make most of your money, but by golly the offshore whores have mastered the art of cheating America out of trillions over time.

The conservative estimate is that major corporations escape paying well over $100 billion per year in taxes. Look ‘em up. They’re listed on a lot of sites. Add individual tax cheats and you probably double that number. Collect what these tax traitors owe. The U.S. corporate tax rate is supposedly 35%. No corporations pay it. The effective tax rate is about 12%. A huge percentage of Fortune 500 companies don’t pay a dime.

Regulate and go through these cooked corporate books with the equivalent of an accountant Palomar telescope. Legislate hiding of profits to the junk pile. Regulate Credit Default Swaps down to the last penny. Regulation, in fact, is one key reason some progressives have placed a woman named Warren at about the same level (if not higher) as a woman named Clinton when considering the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.

Just the thoughts of an old guy in Upstate South Carolina.


Jay Carney smacks down ABC’s Jonathan Karl: ‘I’m sure you’ll represent’ GOP talking points

By David Edwards
Monday, October 7, 2013 15:39 EDT

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took a jab at ABC Senior White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl on Monday and suggested that he was little more than a Republican Party stenographer who would “represent” House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) point of view.

During Monday’s White House briefing, Carney was telling Reuters correspondent Mark Felsenthal about Boehner’s insistence over the weekend that Republicans would not pass a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling when Karl broke decorum and interrupted.

“That’s not what he said, Jay,” Karl objected. “I’m telling you that’s not what he said.”

“I’m having a conversation here,” Carney shot back. “I’m sure you’ll represent what the Speaker’s saying in a minute.”

And when the ABC reporter’s turn came, he did exactly that.

“What the Speaker said is they are not going to pass a clean debt limit increase,” Karl explained. “He didn’t give a specific set of demands. He said he’s not going to have a clean debt limit increase. If the Speaker of the House sticks to the position, are we going to default?”

“If you’re saying, if the Speaker attaches to the debt ceiling increase a recognition of, you know, the importance of motherhood, we might accept that… I’m trying to be funny, but nobody laughed so I apologize. It’s been a long shutdown already.”

“We’re not going to negotiate over Congress’ responsibility to raise the debt ceiling,” the press secretary added.

Earlier this year, media observers called Karl’s reporting “highly problematic ethically” after he claimed that emails showed that the Obama administration had edited references to terrorism out of talking points about attacks in Benghazi for political purposes. Even after CBS News and others revealed that those emails had been doctored by Republicans, Karl continued to stand by his reporting.

According to the media watchdog group FAIR, Karl’s “high profile at ABC demonstrates that conservative messages can find a comfortable home inside the so-called ‘liberal’ media.’”


Obama Dares Boehner to Prove That He Doesn’t Have The Votes to Open the Government

By: Jason Easley
Monday, October 7th, 2013, 2:22 pm

President Obama is calling John Boehner’s bluff and daring him to prove that he doesn’t have the votes to reopen the government through a House vote on a clean CR.

The President said, “The truth of the matter is that there are enough Democratic and Republican votes in the House of Representatives right now to end the shutdown immediately with no partisan strings attached. The House should hold that vote today. If Republicans and Speaker Boehner are saying there are not enough votes then they should prove it. Let the bill go to the floor, and let’s see what happens. Just vote. Let every member of Congress vote their conscience, and they can determine whether or not they want to shut the government down. My suspicion, my very strong suspicion is that there are enough votes there, and the reason that Speaker Boehner hasn’t called a vote on it is because he doesn’t apparently want to see the government shutdown end.”

John Boehner made a colossal blunder when he went on national television yesterday, and lied his tan off about the House not having the votes necessary to reopen the government. House Republicans have been coming out of the woodwork for days, and telling the country they would be willing to vote for a clean CR. Everybody knows that the votes are there for passage. The only thing stopping the government from reopening is John Boehner’s refusal to allow a vote.

There is one question that Speaker Boehner can’t answer. If House Republicans are willing to vote in favor of reopening individual parts of the government, why won’t they allow a vote on the Senate passed bill that would open the whole government? Everytime that this question is asked the Republicans duck and dodge, and try to change the subject to the bills that they have passed, but they refuse to talk about the one that they will not allow a vote on.

When Boehner blatantly lied yesterday about the House’s ability to pass a clean CR, he opened the door for President Obama to issue a challenge that the Speaker will never accept. Obama and the Democrats aren’t just winning the political argument. The Democrats are exposing to the world the fact that House Republicans are unfit to govern.

John Boehner is outmatched, outwitted, and he has had his bluff called by President Obama.


Boehner’s Bad Math: 195 Dems + 22 Repubs Doesn’t Equal Magic 217

By: Sarah Jones
Monday, October 7th, 2013, 1:51 pm

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) keeps saying that he doesn’t have the votes to pass the “clean CR” that passed the Senate. Boehner refuses to prove that he doesn’t have the votes by putting it up for a vote.

There are now at least 22 Republicans (and a lot more if they’d make it a secret vote) who are willing to end this shutdown by voting for the clean CR, according to Jennifer Bendery at the Huffington Post. Her count:

    The number of those Republicans hit 22 (a soft 23, including Rep. Rodney Davis) — surpassing the magic 17 votes needed to pass a clean funding bill if all 200 Democrats stick together and team up with them.

There are 195 Democrats who would vote for the CR (200 excluding five non-voting delegates) that is set at Republican spending levels, because Democrats are putting their country first. (Note: I don’t agree with this clean CR business, since it was set at Republican levels and the American people didn’t vote for that, but we’re ten steps down the hostage plank at this point.)

Someone needs to tell John Boehner that 195 plus 22 equals 217. Even in Republican Math.

Let’s recall that this all started because Republicans claimed that ObamaCare was destroying the economy. They never provided any proof of that claim. The CBO has repeatedly said that ObamaCare lowers the deficit, and Republican claims about ObamaCare creating a part-time economy were also discredited. If these things were really true, Republicans would let Democrats fall flat on their ObamaCare faces. Of course, the real problem is that Americans want their ObamaCare. The real problem is that once again, Democrats came up with a way to help average Americans and that makes Republicans look bad.

But really, none of this is even relevant because it doesn’t matter why Republicans object to ObamaCare.

Republicans don’t get to hold the economy hostage because they are out of power and they disagree with policy being set by the party that won power per the democratic process. Republicans have placed themselves in opposition to the country’s best welfare. They have made their position the party that will crater the economy unless it gets concessions. Logically this places them against the country – Democrats must entice them to keep them from destroying the country. This is not a good bumper sticker for 2014.

Cartoonists are already noting that Republicans have managed to do what Al-Qaeda couldn’t. At some point, it loses its cuteness, if it ever had any. If only the Democrats had a missile like Sarah Palin, they’d be accusing Republicans of working for terrorists.

Republicans are claiming they “stumbled” into this shutdown, but it was planned by conservative groups as soon as Obama’s second term started.

Republicans aren’t good at math. We know this. But can’t someone get Speaker Boehner a calculator?


From Hostage Takers to Buffoons, House Republican Ineptitude Heads for Default

By: Sarah Jones
Monday, October 7th, 2013, 6:20 pm

Even a short term debt ceiling agreement is up in the air now. Not the actual debt ceiling limit, but a short term agreement. We can’t even do that now, if Robert Costa’s readings are accurate.

Costa tweeted, “One of my best House R sources thinks Boehner may, just may, be able to get votes for short-term DL ext, but even that is up in air”

    One of my best House R sources thinks Boehner may, just may, be able to get votes for short-term DL ext, but even that is up in air

    — Robert Costa (@robertcostaNRO) October 7, 2013

Robert Costa just published a detailed breakdown at the National Review, in which he writes that many House conservatives are unlikely to support any debt ceiling “deal”.

“They may try to throw the kitchen sink at the debt limit, but I don’t think our conference will be amenable for settling for a collection of things after we’ve fought so hard,” Representative Scott Garrett (R-NJ) told Costa. “If it doesn’t have a full delay or defund of Obamacare, I know I and many others will not be able to support whatever the leadership proposes. If it’s just a repeal of the medical-device tax, or chained CPI, that won’t be enough.”

They must get something more than everything they want, in order to stop destroying America. Got it?

We had an indication this was coming. “You’re seeing the tremor before the tsunami here,” Ted Yoho (R-FL) said a few days ago, swearing, “I’m not going to raise the debt ceiling.” So there. Neener neener, economy!

It is indeed the House of Indecision, as Costa quoted a Republican aide saying in a separate article.

    “It’s the House of indecision,” says a weary Republican aide familiar with the talks. “We don’t have the votes for a big deal, small deal, or short-term deal.”

Of course, that’s not true. Boehner does have the votes, unless he’s still pretending that the Hastert Rule is a real thing, and it’s not. It’s only real as far as his career goes, so while we can understand that Boehner is choosing to let the country implode in order to save his own skin, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify.

Unless, of course, they’re not dealing with reality. To wit, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is pretending that not raising the debt ceiling is no biggie:

    Burr: “I’m not as concerned as the president about the debt ceiling bc the Fed are the only people buying our bonds.”

    — daveweigel (@daveweigel) October 7, 2013

This opinion places Burr in opposition to actual experts on the economy, but hey. Whatevs.

As the Maddow Blog pointed out in late September, Burr wasn’t always this extreme. He once called the idea of shutting down the government over ObamaCare “dumbest idea” he’d ever heard.

    “I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of,” Burr said at the time. “Listen, as long as Barack Obama is president, the Affordable Care Act is going to be law.”

And who can forget Republican Representative Dennis Ross of Florida admitting that this entire debacle is all about wounded GOP pride. Seriously.

If you’re wondering how Republicans can be so out of it when the polls keep instructing them otherwise (as if the ONLY issue here is their own political survival, forget the people or this country), perhaps this level of utter cluelessness will be informative. When asked if the Republicans have their next move mapped out and if Boehner has any legislation drawn up regarding the debt ceiling, “Negatory,” Representative Pete Sessions replies. You see, it’s all about “messaging”. “We’re going to keep with our great, positive attitude and tell the president, ‘you’ve got to sit down and negotiate.’”

So, their great positive attitude involves tanking the economy and shutting down the government because they lost an election. Huh. Also: Only in Republican world is holding a gun to the country’s head before being willing to “talk” an act of good faith.

Republicans don’t understand this president very well at all, but then, we tend to project our own values onto others so this is understandable. They never should have threatened the country. They could have threatened anything but the American people and the democratic process, and this President wouldn’t have felt compelled to take a stand.

But they don’t know who Barack Obama is, and they don’t even know what they want. They certainly don’t know how to get what they want, unless losing 2014 has been their secret goal.

Republicans shutdown the government and they can’t sort out how to pass the CR that was funded at levels they requested. Now they can’t figure out how to pass a short term agreement to raise the debt ceiling in order to pay for the bills they themselves approved.

Republicans are obviously incapable of governing.


Blame Obama Backfires as Disapproval of Republican Shutdown Tactics Surges to 70%

By: Sarah Jones
Monday, October 7th, 2013, 4:34 pm

Oopsie. Republicans were planning on blame for the GOP shutdown being shifted to Democrats as time went on, but a new Post-ABC poll shows that in week 2, more Americans disapprove of the GOP’s tactics. Disapproval “shot up to 70 percent, with 51 percent disapproving ‘strongly,’” according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

At the time, President Obama’s approval rating went up a few notches. Or, as Ted Cruz likes to call it, “Winning GOP Style.”

The poll asked the question, Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way The Republicans in Congress are handling negotiations over the federal budget? Just 24% approved, with 70% disapproving. That’s moving in the wrong direction for the GOP, since in the polling from September 25-29, 63% disapproved of Republicans and 26% approved.

“Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling negotiations over the federal budget?” 45% approve to 51% who disapprove, which is an up from the 41% approval to 50% disapproval in the September 25-29th poll.

But the public is blaming Democrats too. They have 61% disapproval, and 35% approval, but Republicans have 51% who disapprove strongly. That number grew from 42% in the September 25-29 poll. In the September 25-29 poll, 56% disapproved of Democrats while 34% approved.

This is that phenomenon that Republicans bank on – the blame for “gridlock” and “shutdown” gets spread around, especially with our media reporting “he said she said” style instead of fact checking. So Republicans take a hit, but so do Democrats. Republicans bank on the “both sides do it” false equivalency meme that our media likes to embrace. But even the white knight of false equivalency might not be able to save the GOP this time, because polls are also showing them losing the House in 2014 against generic Democrats.

Yes, it’s early for 2014 predictions and the Republican party is no doubt soothing itself with dreams of gerrymandered safe districts and the short term memories of the American voters, but if they let this shutdown continue and default on the debt ceiling, they can forget 2014. They are already facing challenges in red states due to their unprecedented failure of governing responsibility.

It should be noted that the poll question itself is a misleading one. Do you approve or disapprove of the way the party is handling “negotiations over the federal budget”? That’s not what’s going on. That is how Republicans are framing what’s going on, but it’s not what’s going on.

A) No one is “negotiating”. B) Republicans refused to come to budget conference 18 times, preferring to wait until they had two hostages in their crosshairs. C) This is not about the federal budget; it’s about whether or not one party should be allowed to hold the government hostage when they lose elections. D) ObamaCare is unrelated to the federal budget. It’s a law that already passed and was vetted by both the Supreme Court and the voters. If this is about the “federal budget” why did Republicans shutdown the government over ObamaCare?

So, even within the framework of this poorly worded, Republican narrative oriented question, Republicans are still losing support for the way they are handling things. Meanwhile, Obama’s approval over his handling of it is moving skyward. If Obama is the enemy of Republicans, this means they are losing their battle against this President.


Bernie Sanders Terrifies the Koch Brothers By Outting Their Role In the Government Shutdown

By: Jason Easley
Monday, October 7th, 2013, 3:58 pm

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is standing up the Koch brothers attempted takeover of the United States government by outing the conservative billionaires’ role in causing the government shutdown.


Sen. Sanders put the blame for the government shutdown square on the Koch Brothers, “Let’s not kid ourselves. This shutdown is not something that just came about a couple of weeks ago through Ted Cruz. This has been planned by the Koch brothers and other very, very wealthy people from the day after Obama was reelected, and what their feeling is. Let us go to the extreme. Let us be prepared to shutdown the government, not pay the national debt. Let us use every ounce of leverage that we have. Even if it means catastrophic pain for America and the world, so long as we get our way.”

Later Sanders discussed the Koch brothers’ agenda, “If you look at what the Koch brothers agenda is. Look at what many of the extreme right wing people believe. Obamacare is just the tip of the iceberg. These people want to abolish the concept of the minimum wage. They want to privatize the Veterans Administration. They want to privatize Social Security, end Medicare as we know it, massive cuts in Medicaid, wipe out the EPA. You don’t have an Environmental Protection Agency anymore. Department of Energy, gone. Department of Education, gone. That is their agenda, and many people don’t understand it. Koch brothers have poured hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars into the tea party, and to all other kinds of ancillary organizations to push this agenda. So what you are finding now is a continuation of the class warfare that as been going on this country for the last many years. The rich are getting richer. Poverty, number of people in poverty all time high. Middle class disappearing, and these guys using Citizens United and other forms are now banging away and doing everything they can to get more tax breaks for the people on top, and devastating cuts for working families.”

The Koch brothers don’t like the kind of attention that Bernie Sanders brings to them. They want to operate behind closed doors. The Koch brothers know that their agenda is doomed if the American people understand what they are trying to accomplish. Charles and David Koch are happy to let their Republican stooges like John Boehner and Ted Cruz take the fall for them. As long as they are willing to spend the money, Republican politicians are disposable goods.

The Koch Brothers are the real power behind the government shutdown.

The point that Sen. Sanders made can’t be expressed often enough. The real ideology and agenda behind the government shutdown belongs to the Koch brothers. The Koch boys hate Obamacare because they don’t want the working and middle class people to have the same access to healthcare that they do. They are opposed to anything that empowers working class individuals, because are seeking a new Gilded Age where the employer controls the lives of their employees.

Sen. Sanders is one of the few members of congress that is willing to stand up and tell the Koch brothers no. Bernie Sanders is also doing something that is very important. He is pulling back the curtain and showing America who is really running the Republican show.

At heart, the Koch brothers are cowards who hide behind Citizens United in order to anonymously advance their agenda. A senator like Bernie Sanders scares the Koch Brothers. He ignores their money and rallies the masses to join the fight. If the American people are ever going to get their government back from the conservative money men, they are going to have to send more people like Bernie Sanders to the House and Senate.


October 7, 2013

Health Exchange Delays Tied to Software Crash in Early Rush


WASHINGTON — The technical problems that have hampered enrollment in the online health insurance exchanges resulted from the failure of a major software component, designed by private contractors, that crashed under the weight of millions of users last week, federal officials said Monday.

Todd Park, President Obama’s top technology adviser, said the failure occurred in the part of the Web site that lets people create user accounts at the beginning of the insurance sign-up process. The crash prevented many people from viewing any of their insurance options or gaining access to information on what federal subsidies might be available.

“At lower volumes, it would work fine,” Mr. Park said of the Web site, “At higher volumes, it has problems.”

“Right now,” he added, “we’ve got what we think we need. The contractors have sent reinforcements. They are working 24-7. We just wish there was more time in a day.”

In some cases, the Web site does not recognize users who established accounts before Oct. 1, when the online marketplaces opened for consumers to shop for insurance. Other users are prevented from establishing accounts. Some who successfully established a marketplace account received an e-mail asking them to verify their e-mail addresses, but the link provided did not work.

The identification of the software component as the main cause of the Web site’s problems was the most detailed explanation that federal officials have given since the online marketplaces opened. The officials also rejected mounting criticism about the Web site’s overall design, saying that the rest of the site appears ready to handle the large volume of traffic.

But because of the initial failures, other parts of the complex system have yet to be proved under the intense strain of real-world conditions. And outside experts said that White House officials should have spent more time tending to the computer code and technology of the Web site, rather than recruiting Hollywood celebrities to promote it.

“It’s poorly designed,” said Luke Chung, the president of a database company in Virginia who has publicly criticized the site in recent days. “People higher up are given the excuse that there are too many users. That’s a convenient excuse for the managers to pass up the chain.”

Those comments echoed similar criticism on sites across the Internet, where Web designers and developers speculated about the reasons for the ongoing problems at the Web site, One discussion on the popular Web site was titled “How not to optimize a website.”

White House officials declined to identify the private contractors who had built the account creation function, citing a decision to keep that information private. They said the contractors had moved that part of the new system to beefed-up hardware and were busy rewriting the software code to make it more robust and efficient.

In the past week, wait times have dropped by half, officials said.

Officials said they had also added staff members at call centers to provide customers an alternative to the online system. The Web site currently says that people “in a hurry” can apply faster at a government call center using a toll-free telephone number, (800) 318-2596. But an operator at the call center said Monday that he could not help because he, too, was “experiencing technical difficulties with the Web site.”

Aneesh Chopra, who preceded Mr. Park as the federal government’s chief technology officer and helped create an earlier version of, said he was confident that the system would be working effectively in the coming weeks.

Mr. Chopra noted that when United Airlines and Continental merged their online reservations systems, it took weeks to iron out problems.

“This is par for the course for large-scale I.T. projects,” Mr. Chopra said. “We wish we could launch bug-free, but in reality that’s not that easy to do. The reality is that if you have a product that people want, people will tolerate glitches because they expect them.”

Administration officials said they had relied heavily on contractors to build and operate the federal exchanges, under supervision of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In the weeks before the marketplaces opened for business, those contractors expressed high optimism that their computer systems would work.

The prime contractor for the federal exchange — CGI Federal, a unit of the CGI Group, based in Montreal — and the company operating a “data services hub” for the government — Quality Software Services Inc., a unit of the UnitedHealth Group — told Congress at a hearing on Sept. 10 that they were ready for a surge of users when enrollment opened on Oct. 1.

But in recent days, officials at the companies declined to answer questions about the Web site’s problems. Linda F. Odorisio, a spokeswoman for CGI, and Matthew H. Stearns, a spokesman for UnitedHealth, refused last week and again on Monday to answer questions about their companies’ performance. Both companies said they had passed operational readiness reviews conducted last month by the federal government.

The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said that CGI had received $88 million for work on the federal exchange through March, while Quality Software Services had received $55 million for work on the data hub. The hub allows exchanges to get information about a person’s income and citizenship from the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

As the engineers for the contractors struggle to recover from the Web site’s failures, officials said, the partial shutdown of the federal government is also hampering efforts to carry out Mr. Obama’s health care law and has slowed work on a federal insurance marketplace for residents of more than 30 states.

All insurers participating in the federal exchange have been assigned an account manager, who serves as the primary point of contact with the exchange. The account manager is supposed to assist insurers, clarifying their responsibilities and answering questions about the federal Web site, enrollment transactions and other operational matters.

But many of the account managers have been furloughed in the shutdown.

The Obama administration has drafted a manual describing operations of the federal exchange, including the enrollment process. But federal officials said the shutdown had delayed a final review of the manual by lawyers and other federal employees who have been furloughed.

Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that work being done on the Web site, in response to “overwhelming demand,” had begun to show results, reducing wait times and allowing more people to enroll.

“But,” she said, “we won’t stop until the doors to are wide open.”

Quentin Hardy contributed reporting from San Francisco.


October 8, 2013

U.S. Adults Fare Poorly in a Study of Skills


American adults lag well behind their counterparts in most other developed countries in the mathematical and technical skills needed for a modern workplace, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study, perhaps the most detailed of its kind, shows that the well-documented pattern of several other countries surging past the United States in students’ test scores and young people’s college graduation rates corresponds to a skills gap, extending far beyond school. In the United States, young adults in particular fare poorly compared with their international competitors of the same ages — not just in math and technology, but also in literacy.

More surprisingly, even middle-aged Americans — who, on paper, are among the best-educated people of their generation anywhere in the world — are barely better than middle of the pack in skills.

Arne Duncan, the education secretary, released a statement saying that the findings “show our education system hasn’t done enough to help Americans compete — or position our country to lead — in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills.”

The study is the first based on new tests developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a coalition of mostly developed nations, and administered in 2011 and 2012 to thousands of people, ages 16 to 65, by 23 countries. Previous international skills studies have generally looked only at literacy, and in fewer countries.

The organizers assessed skills in literacy and facility with basic math, or numeracy, in all 23 countries. In 19 countries, there was a third assessment, called “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” on using digital devices to find and evaluate information, communicate, and perform common tasks.

In all three fields, Japan ranked first and Finland second in average scores, with the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway near the top. Spain, Italy and France were at or near the bottom in literacy and numeracy, and were not included in the technology assessment.

The United States ranked near the middle in literacy and near the bottom in skill with numbers and technology. In number skills, just 9 percent of Americans scored in the top two of five proficiency levels, compared with a 23-country average of 12 percent, and 19 percent in Finland, Japan and Sweden.

“The first question these kinds of studies raise is, ‘If we’re so dumb, why are we so rich?’ ” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor. But that advantage is slipping.”

In several ways, the American results were among the most polarized between high achievement and low. Compared with other countries with similar average scores, the United States, in all three assessments, usually had more people in the highest proficiency levels, and more in the lowest. The county also had an unusually wide gap in skills between the employed and the unemployed.

In the most highly educated population, people with graduate and professional degrees, Americans lagged slightly behind the international averages in skills. But the gap was widest at the bottom; among those who did not finish high school, Americans had significantly worse skills than their counterparts abroad.

“These kinds of differences in skill sets matter a lot more than they used to, at every level of the economy,” Dr. Carnevale said. “Americans were always willing to accept a much higher level of inequality than other developed countries because there was upward mobility, but we’ve lost a lot of ground to other countries on mobility because people don’t have these skills.”

Among 55- to 65-year-olds, the United States fared better, on the whole, than its counterparts. But in the 45-to-54 age group, American performance was average, and among younger people, it was behind.

American educators often note that the nation’s polyglot nature can inhibit performance, though there is sharp debate over whether that is a short-run or long-run effect.

The new study shows that foreign-born adults in the United States have much poorer-than-average skills, but even the native-born scored a bit below the international norms. White Americans fared better than the multicountry average in literacy, but were about average in the math and technology tests.

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« Reply #9200 on: Oct 09, 2013, 05:38 AM »

The left in Greece must rise up against Golden Dawn

The only way to stop the fascists profiting from the breakdown of the Greek state is to offer a socialist alternative to capitalism

Costas Lapavitsas, Tuesday 8 October 2013 17.32 BST   

Greece – and the rise of Golden Dawn – is an extreme parable of what has happened to many developed countries since the global crisis broke out in 2007. The policies of the Greek "rescue" – where the Greek people had no inkling what was afoot until the agreement was signed in 2010, leading to a tremendous spasm of anger – are instantly recognisable, if exceptionally severe. Wages, salaries and pensions have been cut; austerity has been imposed on the public sector; privatisation and liberalisation have been promoted. It did not take long for any hope of a change in approach following the collapse of Lehman Brothers to fade and for the forces of neoliberal economics, powerfully entrenched in ministries, international organisations, thinktanks and universities, to reassert themselves. By the middle of 2009 the familiar mix of favouring private capital, squeezing labour, attacking the welfare state and proclaiming the virtues of the market had prevailed.

The renewed neoliberal ascendancy has bred a sense of popular impotence in developed countries, rendered particularly dangerous by two features of the crisis. First, the root causes of the turmoil manifestly lie with private capital, particularly its financial component. In popular perception across the world, bankers are the main culprit, and rightly so. Second, and even more important, the crisis has not simply hit wage labour, which is the normal way of capitalism. Middle-class living conditions have also been ravaged as salaries and pensions fell, real estate took a hit, health systems suffered and education was disrupted.

This is the background to the rise of the extreme right in Europe, including fascism in Greece. As the economy collapsed and unemployment soared, the living conditions of working and middle class Greeks became unbearable. There are entire streets in Athens where no one holds a regular job, and many families rely on food handouts. Health and education are falling apart, while the state machinery is being dismantled. Helplessness has spread, together with a profound sense of national humiliation and loss of sovereignty in a country treated like a beggar by its EMU "partners". There is despair at the corruption of politicians and the effrontery of the unchanged networks of power. There is also a widespread conviction that democracy is a sham, protecting those who are to blame and masking the rising authoritarianism of the state.

Golden Dawn thrived in these conditions. It spoke against the "rescue" and denounced foreign bankers; it blamed illegal immigrants for the breakdown of law and order and the disruption of normal life; it ridiculed democracy promising to cleanse corruption; it sought to restore national pride by using the symbols of nationalism; it penetrated the security forces, themselves under great pressure from spending cuts.

This is much more than a criminal organisation that terrorises the streets. It is a fascist party that has acquired genuine support by worshipping violence, glorying in primitive racism and reasserting national greatness. These views, of course, offer no way out to a devastated society, and certainly none in the interests of working people. But when the normal conditions of life have been destroyed, when everything looks uncertain and threatening, even the barbarous message of Golden Dawn can find resonance. The extreme right across Europe is perfectly aware of that.

It is wishful thinking to expect fascism to be defeated through police action, or by simply praising democracy. The extreme right will retreat only when the living conditions of the majority are no longer disrupted to serve the interests of private capital; when democracy is not constantly transgressed by an authoritarian state; when the threat to national sovereignty is lifted and national dignity is respected. In short, when the neoliberal ascendancy in Europe and elsewhere is decisively broken. For fascism has fed on the disasters of neoliberalism.

These conditions will not emerge without a mass popular movement in which the left is actively involved. Yet one of the most depressing features of the crisis has been the weakness of the left – organisationally, electorally and, above all, in the realm of ideas. The left has shown no self-belief, no burning desire to change the world. Even in Greece, where leftwing traditions remain very strong, the rise of Syriza has been more by default than through its own merits. As for the rest, including the Communist party, they have distinguished themselves by endless revolutionary verbiage that barely hides their fear of responsibility and power. People are not fooled by mere words.

To confront the extreme right the left needs to demonstrate in practice that the ascendancy of neoliberalism is not inevitable. For that, however, it must offer a realistic anti-capitalist programme that takes steps in the direction of socialism. Such a programme ought to reconsider immigration and its place in contemporary capitalism. It should also avoid treating supranational bodies, such as the EU and the EMU, as inherently progressive, while rethinking the connection between the nation state and democracy. We now know that sovereign power can be a bulwark against anti-democratic transnational pressures. Above all, the left needs to believe in itself, its ideas and its vision to overthrow capitalism. Perhaps the Greek left can beat such a path for the rest of Europe. Time is getting short.

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« Reply #9201 on: Oct 09, 2013, 06:13 AM »

Georgia wary of Russian encroachment

Tbilisi is eager to normalise relations, but fears its neighbour's motives in controlling South Ossetia

Piotr Smolar   
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 8 October 2013 14.05 BST      

Moscow refers to it as "propaganda hysteria" whipped up by Tbilisi. But little by little Russia is nibbling away at Georgian territory. Despite the conciliating gestures of the prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is anxious to normalise relations with his Russian neighbour, the border between Georgia and South Ossetia is definitely moving.

Russian troops, assisted by the Ossetian authorities, have put up barbed-wire fences along the demarcation line, purportedly moving it forward in some places. Last month the village of Ditsi witnessed a sudden flare-up that centred on this issue. Villagers complained about losing access to the cemetery, to farmland and a spring. Observers from the European Union Monitoring Mission called for restraint, but with scant resources they carry no weight. Nor are they authorised to intervene on the other side of the boundary.

The separatist province, which declared independence after a conflict in August 2008, is now under the financial and military control of Russia. The latter is in no mood to make any concessions as Georgia's presidential election, scheduled for the end of this month, approaches, marking the symbolic end of the Saakashvili era, 10 years after the rose revolution.

Indeed, Moscow is determined to persuade the Georgian authorities to join its Eurasian customs union, alongside Belarus and Kazakhstan. Behind the current pressure is the veiled threat of continuing regional instability, if Tbilisi seeks closer links with the EU.

Last month Georgia's foreign minister once again condemned the "illegal activities of the Russian occupation forces" near Tskhinval, the capital of South Ossetia. But Ivanishvili is in a quandary. For the past year he has been trying to reduce tension around the "occupied territories" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ivanishvili claims full normalisation could take five to seven years and has repeated many times that Tbilisi is determined to regain control over these provinces, but without the use of force. He is counting on Georgia's assets to win over the two enclaves.

The Georgian opposition criticises the prime minister's docile attitude to Moscow, but he has a ready answer in the form of the Sochi winter Olympics, which Russia will be hosting next February. "Everything that's happening at present, including the barbed-wire fences, is connected to the Games," Ivanishvili asserts.

"The whole of Russia is focusing on the problem of how to organise the Games peacefully. And we are doing all we can to make that possible and to help them." Questioned about the barbed wire and trenches being dug in some places, he tenses up. "What should we do? Start a new war?"

The Georgian president puts a more radical spin on events. In his speech to the UN general assembly last month, Mikheil Saakashvili described Russia as the "an old empire ... trying to reclaim its bygone borders".

Two-thirds of the way through his speech, the Russian delegation stood up and walked out in protest. "Despite the friendly statements made by the new Georgian government in the recent weeks and months, the Russian military keeps advancing its positions, dividing communities with new barbed wires," he insisted.

Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, dismissed this speech as "Russophobic" and called for a "professional assessment" of Saakashvili's mental health.

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde

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« Reply #9202 on: Oct 09, 2013, 06:28 AM »


Russian court bans Qur'an translation

Edition of the holy book joins 2,000 publications banned over the last decade, as city of Novorossiysk blacklists an "extremist" Russian version. It isn't unusual to see extremism laws used against minority groups, but how far will Russia go?

Daniel Kalder, Tuesday 8 October 2013 16.50 BST   

While Geert Wilders and assorted online provocateurs may like to talk about banning the Qur'an as an extremist text, few take the idea seriously. Except in Russia, perhaps, where on 20 September, a court in the Russian city of Novorossiysk banned a translation of the holy book of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

To be fair, it is one of several available in the country. This version, the work of an Azeri theologian named Elmir Kuliyev, was declared illegal for promoting extremism through "statements about the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims"; "negative evaluation of persons who have nothing to do with the Muslim religion"; "positive evaluation of hostile actions by Muslims against non-Muslims", and also, it was argued, inciting violence.

Unsurprisingly, the ruling – which automatically places Kuliyev's Qur'an on a nationwide blacklist – outraged many Russian Muslims. Russia's influential Council of Muftis denounced the verdict, and Kuliyev has one month to appeal. The ban is baffling, as the Russian authorities have little to gain by antagonising 15% of the population, including huge chunks of the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, never mind the restive republics of the Caucasus. Could it just be a case of an incompetent court gone rogue? Perhaps, but another major Muslim organisation has endorsed the verdict. Geraldine Fagan, an expert on religion in Russia, reports that "a representative of the All-Russian Muftiate – a rival to the Council of Muftis – defended the ruling against Kuliyev's translation of the Qur'an … From a theological point of view, Farid Salman maintained, Kuliyev's works 'correspond with the views of the "Salafi" school, not with [the] Islam that is traditional for Muslims of Russia'."

Could it be – as Fagan suggests – that "long-standing rivalries between Russian Muslim organisations may lie beneath state moves against Kuliyev's work"?

Maybe; however, Kuliyev's Qur'an is only one of over 2,000 publications Russian courts have added to the ministry of justice's blacklist since the law On Counteracting Extremist Activity was passed in 2002. All works by Nazis and Fascists are banned, while a cursory inspection reveals that many ultranationalist, antisemitic and jihadist texts have also been proscribed. Mussolini's tedious autobiography has actually been "doubled-banned" – although it was already illegal under the 2002 law, recently a publishing house named Algoritm published it anyway, and so a Krasnoyarsk court declared it extremist again. Works by Goebbels and Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg have received similar treatment.

No doubt a lot of the forbidden books are extreme, although whether banning them makes any difference is another matter – after all, the Tsarist censor prohibited Lenin's writings, and look how that ended. Meanwhile, critics of the law object that many publications have been unfairly blacklisted.

For instance, Scientologists were upset when in 2012 a Moscow court banned the works of L Ron Hubbard for inciting extremism, on the grounds that the author of Battlefield Earth sought "to form an isolated social group whose members are trained to perform their functions generally aimed against the rest of the world". In this instance Russian attitudes are very close to those in France and Germany, where the governments also view Scientology with suspicion.

Other bans are more controversial. As if in a warm-up exercise for the Qur'an ban, last year a Russian court prohibited over 60 Islamic books, including classic hadith collections, while Jehovah's Witness texts – not normally identified with extremism – have also been blacklisted. In February this year a Kaliningrad court banned works by the Turkish theologian Said Nursi, who is apparently considered so dangerous that 13 people have received criminal sentences for possession of his writings, according to Geraldine Fagan.

Even the texts of minorities who are practically nonexistent in Russia risk proscription – last year, the Bhagavad Ghita narrowly escaped the blacklist, even though this Hindu text had originally been translated into Russian in 1788 and has been published numerous times since.

And yet even as the blacklist swells, one category of extremist publication is strikingly absent: books by and about the mass-murderer Joseph Stalin. So popular are these books that Eksmo, Russia's largest publisher, once ran two series – Stalinist and Stalin Renaissance – to satisfy demand. A cursory glance at Eksmo's catalogue reveals that there are still numerous decidedly pro-Stalin books still on their list, including Stalin: 20th Century Manager, whose author denounces the "propaganda" of perestroika-era critics, Stalin Before the Court of Pygmies and Marshal Stalin: Creator of a Great Victory. And why isn't Lenin's Tasks of Revolutionary Army Contingents banned? In this pamphlet, the great revolutionary advocates storing up acid to pour on the police, as well as inciting other forms of violence against the enemies of the proletariat.

Of course the absence of Lenin or Stalin from the blacklist is easily explained: there are still many people in Russia who endorse their rule – according to a 2012 survey, 42% of Russians polled named Stalin as one of the country's most prominent historical figures. Any judge who felt inclined to ban their works would face immense public opposition.

It is neither strange nor surprising, then, that vaguely worded laws against extremism should be inconsistently applied, or targeted at minority groups too weak to fight back. Russia is hardly the only country guilty of this, and the idea that people should be allowed to read and decide for themselves what is extreme is increasingly unpopular worldwide. Nevertheless, Russia does seem to have gone farther than most non-theocracies in empowering state functionaries to freely lob all sorts of texts on a blacklist. Soon, thanks to the vaguely defined "anti-gay propaganda" law and another vague law that prohibits offending religious feelings, even more publications will surely be banned.

The Qur'an case is interesting however, because it is so offensive to a large and long-established minority that is hardly voiceless in the country. I'd wager that it will be overturned as Pig Putin values stability highly. Then again, Russia can always surprise you. As for the Scientologists, well – sorry guys, you're just out of luck.


Bolotnaya trial: man sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment

Mikhail Kosenko convicted despite footage showing he was not violent during anti-Putin protests in Bolotnaya Square last year

Shaun Walker in Moscow, Tuesday 8 October 2013 17.29 BST    

A Moscow court sentenced a 37-year-old man to an indefinite term of forced psychiatric treatment on Tuesday in a case that rights activists say was fabricated and part of a crackdown on the street protest movement that has emerged in the past two years.

Mikhail Kosenko was one of 28 people arrested after clashes during a rally in central Moscow last year, the day before the Pig was inaugurated for a new presidential term. Although police officers were injured, the court heard that Kosenko was not involved in the violence.

The conviction for "calling for mass riots" came despite video footage showing Kosenko as a bystander to scuffles between police and protesters. Additionally, the officer named as the victim in the case, Alexander Kazmin, refused to identify Kosenko as the person who attacked him. "I do not know this person," he told the court during a hearing over the summer.

The trials of those arrested over the scuffles on 6 May 2012 have become known as the Bolotnaya affair, after the square in which the clashes took place. Late last year, Maxim Luzyanin was jailed for four-and-a-half years for his part in the protest, while a further 26 people face sentences of up to 13 years if convicted of taking part in, or provoking, mass disturbances.

Pig Putin said recently he could not rule out an amnesty of those involved in the case, which analysts say has been pursued with such zeal in order to discourage street protests against the regime.

Kosenko's case has appalled rights activists who say it is unclear why he was held separately in psychiatric carewhile awaiting trial, a punishment that echoes the Soviet practice of confining dissidents to mental institutions. He was not even allowed out to attend the funeral of his mother.

Kosenko suffers from a psychiatric disorder that resulted from concussion sustained during his military service but has received outpatient treatment for more than a decade and has never fallen foul of the law.

Nevertheless, the court decided he was not of sound mind and ruled that he should be confined to a psychiatric ward. During his final words to the court Kosenko said he was of sound mental state. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.

In the packed courtroom, Judge Ludmila Moskalenko murmured her way through the verdict for two hours, her voice frequently drowned out by chants of "freedom" from hundreds of people gathered in the street outside.

"If someone has committed a terrible crime and is not mentally stable, then there is nothing wrong with psychiatric treatment," said Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial, a leading human rights organisation, outside the court. "But in Kosenko's case, the evidence proved absolutely 100% that this man had nothing to do with the crimes he is accused of. He did not hit or kick anyone."

Orlov added that he had grave doubts about whether Kosenko's medical condition required forced treatment, given he had been living a normal life for years.

Those present to show their support for Kosenko included members of the protest movement who had been at Bolotnaya Square on the day of the protest as well as a number of older Soviet-era dissidents, some of whom had been subjected to forced psychiatric treatment. The veteran dissident and human rights campaigner Ludmila Alexeyeva left the courtroom in tears.

After sentencing Kosenko, the judge left the courtroom amid shouts of "Shame on you!" and "Send her to prison!"

Kosenko was led away in handcuffs by police to begin indefinite forced psychiatric treatment in a secure unit, until he is deemed to have "recovered".


Russia rejects bail appeals in Greenpeace 'piracy' case

Two activists and photographer to remain in jail after they, and 27 others, were arrested on ship approaching Arctic oil rig

Shaun Walker in Moscow, Tuesday 8 October 2013 18.25 BST   

A court in the Russian city of Murmansk has rejected bail appeals for two Greenpeace activists and a freelance photographer, keeping them confined in jail ahead of piracy trials.

The three are among 30 people of 18 different nationalities, including six from Britain, who have been charged with "piracy as part of an organised group" after being apprehended on board the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise. Bail requests for the other 27 are expected to be heard this week.

The boat was seized by Russian coastguards last month as it approached the Prirazlomnaya oil rig, an offshore Arctic drilling platform operated by the state energy giant Gazprom. President Pig Putin said it was "completely obvious" that the environmentalists were not pirates, but Russia's Investigative Committee went ahead with the charges. If convicted, the activists face jail terms of 10 to 15 years.

Courts in Murmansk have remanded all 30 in custody for two months while the charges are prepared. Appeals were filed on Tuesday on behalf of crew member Ekaterina Zaspa, activist Andrei Allakhverdov and freelance photographer Denis Sinyakov, all of whom are Russian citizens.

In the case of Sinyakov, the court was handed a petition signed by hundreds of journalists calling for his release, as well as a bail offer of 1 million roubles (£20,000) and evidence that a hotel room had been booked in his name in Murmansk, ensuring that he would not leave town before the trial. The judge remained unmoved and refused the bail application.

The executive director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, said in a statement: "There can be no justification for the continued detention of activists who did nothing more than express their beliefs through entirely peaceful means. They have been charged with a crime that did not happen, they are being held for something nobody thinks they actually did. They are now prisoners of conscience, and as such they are the responsibility of the world."


Freeing Greenpeace activists from Russian jails requires quiet diplomacy

As I know all too well, being held for an environmental protest is a frightening experience. In Russia it must be even worse

Nicholas Milton, Wednesday 9 October 2013 11.44 BST   
Like all Greenpeace actions, the peaceful protest against the Russian owned Gazprom oil platform in the Arctic last month would have been carefully planned. However, even Greenpeace lawyers used to trumped up charges would probably not have predicted that all 30 of the crew would be charged with piracy. In custody for more than two weeks and refused bail, the ludicrous charge shows how desperate the Russian authorities are to make an example of them but also why Greenpeace now needs to urgently rethink its strategy for freeing them.

There is no doubting the bravery of those who took part in the protest. While working for Greenpeace in 1998 I was also arrested for occupying a similar oil rig, the Ocean Alliance, which was test drilling in the Arctic. During the six-week voyage our antiquated German schooner, the Stahlratte or "Steel Rat", had been continually battered by force nine gales and even seasoned crew members had been violently sick.

Approaching the vast oil rig in our tiny inflatable was one of the most intimidating moments of my life. On reaching it we were immediately pulled underneath the rig by currents swirling around the platform and it is only through the skill of the boat driver, Tanya, that we weren't all drowned. When we finally got the climbers on to the rig they were met by a hail of spanners and other metal objects thrown by urinating rig workers.

Not long after the action our ship, just like the Arctic Sunrise, was boarded and impounded. We were all arrested and locked in the cargo hold. However, in the five days that it took the coastguard to get us to court the resulting negative publicity meant that the authorities quickly decided to caution and release us. The crucial difference was that the rig we occupied was owned by Statoil, a Norwegian company.

Greenpeace knows only too well that the sort of pressure that gets a reaction in democracies such as Norway doesn't work in countries like Russia or China. As a result it tends to deploy less confrontational methods. But did the fact that a similar protest last year passed off without incident lull the organisation into a false sense of security? Given what I know of Greenpeace, this seems unlikely. However, it may be that it simply underestimated the changed political situation in Russia given the hard line taken towards the west over issues such as Syria.

More importantly, the Russian authorities were always going to be much more resistant to the sort of publicity and protests that Greenpeace are so good at generating. What concerns me is that further high-profile events such as last Saturday's celebrity vigil could simply raise the stakes even higher. This in turn could mean that the Russian authorities feel pressured into not just confining the crew to two months behind bars without bail but using the much more draconian sentence of up to 15 years in jail.

Greenpeace veterans like Frank Hewetson, who I worked with and was supported by Jude Law and Damian Albarn at the protest, will deal with the psychological pressure. However, the fact that some of the younger crew are in solitary confinement and experiencing health problems shows why Greenpeace must now rethink its strategy.

To help free them, the organisation needs to find a way of allowing the Russian authorities to drop the charges without losing face, for example by fining them or making them persona non grata. That means using quiet diplomacy behind the scenes and arbitration like that offered by the Dutch government, not launching more criminal legal actions and mass demonstration "Free the Arctic 30"-type protests.

As an armchair supporter I'm very proud of the fact that Greenpeace has stood up to the Russian authorities for threatening the Arctic. But as an activist languishing in a cold Russian jail I would want them to get me the hell out of there.


Sochi 2014: the dearest Olympics yet but where has all the money gone?

With 120 days to go until the start of the $51bn Winter Games, concerns over corruption as well as human rights remain

Owen Gibson, Wednesday 9 October 2013 11.24 BST   
What does $51bn buy you in a Black Sea subtropical resort these days? A heap of trouble, if the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are anything to go by.

With 120 days to go until the opening ceremony, around half that sum is alleged to have disappeared in corrupt building contracts. At the same time, human rights concerns are mounting and global controversy caused by Russia's new laws forbidding "gay propaganda" refuses to go away.

And that's before you get to more prosaic concerns over whether there is going to be enough snow in a resort where temperatures reach 30C in the summer and remain a relatively mild 10C even in February.

The Pig this week launched the longest torch relay in Olympic history, a 40,000-mile route that will pass through all 83 regions of the vast country, from Kaliningrad in the west to Chukotka in the east.

At the earlier traditional flame-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Russia's deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, spoke of the "difficult road" that organisers had travelled since the Games were awarded to Sochi following a dramatic last-ditch intervention from Putin in 2007.

Kozak clearly has a gift for understatement. While it has become traditional to list the myriad concerns facing Olympic organisers before an event then to hail it as a triumph afterwards, Sochi is setting a new bar.

Pig Putin has long hoped that the twin "mega events" of the Winter Games in 2014 and the football World Cup in 2018 will showcase Russia's power and – just as was the case in various ways for the past three Olympic hosts in Beijing, Vancouver and London – boost its image in the eyes of the world.

So far, it has done little but justify the cynicism of those who characterise the Games as an offering to Mammon rather than embodying the lofty ideals that echoed around the walls of the Hilton Hotel in Buenos Aires when Thomas Bach was elected to succeed Jacques Rogge as the International Olympic Committee's president last month.

Like the IOC, the organising committee president, Dmitry Chernyshenko, has argued that it is unfair to conflate the money spent on infrastructure with the direct operational cost of the Games. But it is a line that is harder than ever to hold in an area that will struggle to make full use of all the upgrades when it reverts to being a luxury holiday resort after the Games. The initial $12bn (£7.5bn) cost has risen almost five-fold, with critics putting much of the inflation down to the corruption endemic in the Russian construction industry.

The opposition figures Leonid Martynyuk and Boris Nemtsov claimed in a May report that up to $30bn of the budget had gone missing in "kickbacks and embezzlement" to close associates of Putin, claiming the Games had turned into a "monstrous scam".

"An absence of fair competition, clan politics and the strictest censorship about anything related to the Olympic Games have led to a sharp increase in costs and a low quality of work," the report said.

An 18-mile road between Sochi, where events such as hockey, speed skating and figure skating will be held, and the mountain sports cluster of Krasnaya Polyana has become a symbol of the huge cost increases, spiralling to a reported $8.6bn. "You could have paved this road with five million tons of gold or caviar and the price would have been the same," Nemtsov said in an interview with the RBK television channel in July.

Visiting the site with one year to go until the Games in February, Pig Putin sarcastically berated the official responsible and fired him shortly afterwards. "So a vice-president of the Olympic Committee is dragging down the entire construction? Well done! You are doing a good job," he said on camera to Akhmed Bilalov, who left the country for Germany shortly afterwards.

The transformation of Sochi and the ski runs in the nearby Caucasus mountains, plus the construction of the roads, hotels and utilities required, has required an influx of tens of thousands of construction workers, including 16,000 from outside Russia. A Human Rights Watch report accused firms contracted to build venues including the Central Olympic Stadium, the main Olympic village, and the main media centre of cheating workers out of wages and requiring them to work 12-hour shifts with few days off. The companies were also accused of confiscating passports and work permits, apparently to coerce employees to remain in exploitative jobs.

Then there are concerns over human rights and freedom of expression that extend to Russia as a whole but will be highlighted more than ever in the runup to the Games. Campaign groups claim that local activists and journalists who have criticised preparations for the Games have come under pressure to keep quiet. Stephen Fry, among others, has already called for a boycott of the Sochi Games over new laws that forbid "gay propaganda".

It is an issue that will run all the way to the opening ceremony and beyond. The IOC is walking a tightrope, declaring that it is happy with Russian government reassurance that the law will not affect athletes or spectators and that the Olympic Charter will be respected but adding that it has no business to interfere with national laws.

The extent to which the IOC is able to hold that line, the response of Russian police and security forces to any protests from campaign groups and the IOC's response to athletes that speak out on the matter or display solidarity with the LGBT community by wearing rainbow colours will determine whether it becomes an issue that ignites during the Games themselves.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has already voiced concerns over Putin's recent crackdown on freedom of expression, best exemplified by the Pussy Riot case. This week, the human rights organisation complained that a protest timed to coincide with the start of the torch relay against the lack of freedom of expression allowed in Russia had, with an apparent lack of irony, been blocked by authorities in Moscow.

It emerged last week that Russian authorities planned to limit public demonstrations and access to neighbouring territories during the Games, while local investigative journalists revealed that intelligence services have made wide-ranging amendments to networks in the area to allow for all pervasive monitoring of internet and mobile phone traffic.

By the time the Olympic flame reaches Sochi on 7 February next year for the opening day of the Games, along with 5,500 athletes from 80 countries, the total cost is likely to have spiralled further and the questions surrounding the most expensive and extravagant Olympics in history multiplied.

The huge expense and political controversy surrounding the Sochi Games will represent a baptism of fire for Bach. Part of his campaign ticket was to argue that the Olympics should become cheaper to bid for and host. He also admitted that politics and sport could not be separated in the modern world, while trying to cling on to the principle that the IOC had no right to interfere in sovereign states.

Such have been the wider concerns facing the Games that there has been little external scrutiny of the usual operational issues. Chief among them, as in Vancouver four years ago, is whether there will be enough snow. Organisers began stockpiling snow in February this year and will employ 400 snow machines to ensure they are not embarrassed.

Meanwhile, there are also concerns about whether the remote location will have an effect on the atmosphere and spectator numbers, particularly for the Paralympic Games that follow – prompting the authorities to cap rail and air prices to the region.

There is little doubt that the Sochi Games will be a success. With a price tag north of $50bn and so much political and personal capital investment by Putin, he can't afford for them not to. At what cost beyond the financial investment, and whether they will also inflict lasting collateral damage on an Olympic movement that claims to be in the throes of preparing for a new era, remains to be seen.

Total estimated costs of recent Olympics (including Games-related infrastructure)

Beijing 2008 $43bn

Vancouver 2010 $8.9bn

London 2012 $13.9bn

Sochi 2014 $51bn

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« Reply #9203 on: Oct 09, 2013, 06:30 AM »

Croatia: ‘First stock-taking after 100 days in the EU’

Večernji list,
10 October 2013

Almost 100 days after Croatia’s official entry into the EU on July 1, Večernji list examines the mixed results of accession.

The conservative daily deplores “the threat of sanctions prompted by the "lex Perković" on the European Arrest Warrant. It further notes that “instead of cheap loans, the ratings agencies have downgraded Croatian debt to speculative grade. There are no more customs duties, but prices have not fallen. The visa system has chased away thousands of Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian tourists.” Worse still, Croatia is being “monitored by the Union for its soaring public spending deficit.”

The only positive points reported by Večernji list are “crossing the border is easier, and telephone calls are cheaper”.

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« Reply #9204 on: Oct 09, 2013, 06:32 AM »

Dutch authorities using ‘scratch and sniff’ cannabis cards to bust pot growers

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 8, 2013 19:05 EDT

A Dutch initiative to combat illegal cannabis cultivation through the use of marijuana-scented “scratch-and-sniff” cards has gone nationwide to alert citizens to what their neighbours may be up to.

The expansion comes after a pilot project launched three years ago to combat illegal weed plantations by helping people to recognise the smell proved a success.

Backed by police, city councils and energy service providers who have their electricity stolen, thousands of cannabis-odoured cards will be distributed in four Dutch cities including Amstelveen near Amsterdam, a spokesman for the initiative said.

“The cards are being made available across the country, starting with the four cities this week,” Martijn Boelhouwer told AFP. “We hope other cities will follow.”

Boelhouwer said since the cards were introduced in The Hague and Rotterdam, the number of reported plantations has “gone up enormously”, with one call to police a day in each city.

The proportion of people able to sniff out an illegal plantation increased from 40 to 60 percent, Dutch daily Trouw reported.

The Netherlands is known for its expertise in hydroponic cultivation and the growing of illegal cannabis is no exception.

There are an estimated 30,000 illegal cannabis nurseries in the Netherlands, with plantations often set up in attics, cellars, garages and even entire houses.

Police estimate the bulk cultivation and sale of cannabis was worth some 2.2 billion euros in 2012, most of it in the hands of criminal organisations.

“With this cannabis-scented card you will recognise the smell of marijuana cultivation. Scratch, sniff and help,” reads the text on the green scratch-card, which lists a police telephone number.

Illicit cannabis cultivation is dangerous because of the fire-risk created by illegal electricity connections and faulty wiring, Boelhouwer told AFP.

“At least 20 percent of all industrial fires are caused by illegal marijuana cultivation,” added Danielle Nicolaas, spokeswoman for energy company Stedin, which forms part of the project.

Illegal power connections also tapped some 200 million euros ($270 million) in stolen electricity from service providers every year.

Though it remains technically illegal, the Netherlands decriminalised the consumption and possession of under five grammes (0.18 ounces) of cannabis in 1976 under a “tolerance” policy.

Authorities turn a blind eye to citizens growing no more than five plants for personal use, though that too is illegal.

Last year police rolled up 5,800 nurseries, according to the latest police statistics.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9205 on: Oct 09, 2013, 06:34 AM »

Asylum requests for European Union increase by 50 percent

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 8, 2013 18:05 EDT

There were more than 100,000 asylum requests across the European Union in the three months to June, most of them from Russians, Syrians and Kosovars, a 50-percent year-on-year rise, EU data showed Tuesday.

The Eurostat statistics agency reported 16,845 requests for asylum from Russians in the second quarter, with a rejection rate of 80 percent.

On the other hand, EU nations accepted 90 percent of requests made by Syrian refugees and 60 percent of applications by Somalis, Afghans and Iranians.

In all, 8,310 Syrians applied for asylum, just a little more than from Kosovo with 8,140, followed by 6,000 Pakistanis and 4,285 Somalis.

Germany received the largest number of requests at 26,400, followed by France with 16,400, and Hungary and Britain at around 9,000 each. Italy recorded almost 6,000 applications.

On June 31, Germany had stacked up a backlog of 95,000 asylum requests for processing, followed by Greece with 50,000 and France 30,000.

France and Belgium rejected 81 percent of applications in the second quarter and Germany 67 percent while Italy and Sweden were among the most hospitable nations, agreeing to around half of the requests made.

Hungary faced a 25-fold increase in requests to 9,350, Bulgaria a four-fold increase to 980 and Poland a three-fold increase to 7,445.

In 2012, there were more than 330,000 asylum requests in the EU, 70 percent of them in Germany, France, Sweden, Britain and Belgium.

EU asylum policies are under the spotlight after a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa last week in which more than 300 African asylum-seekers are feared dead.

The 155 survivors of the tragedy are formally considered criminal suspects under an Italian law aimed at cracking down on irregular migrants.

The EU’s executive called Tuesday for member states to provide more resources to launch Mediterranean-wide search and rescue patrols to prevent future refugee tragedies.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9206 on: Oct 09, 2013, 06:35 AM »

Four arrested in UK over Silk Road drugs website

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, October 9, 2013 7:22 EDT

Four men have been arrested in Britain in connection with the online narcotics bazaar Silk Road, officials have confirmed.

Britain’s newly created National Crime Agency (NCA) said the men were arrested last week just hours after the founder of the infamous website, 29-year-old Ross William Ulbricht — also known by his online nickname “Dread Pirate Roberts” — was arrested in the United States.

Other British suspects are likely to be held in the coming weeks, the NCA added.

The agency said Tuesday it was investigating four men, one in his early fifties from Devon, and the others in their early twenties from Manchester.

All four were arrested on suspicion of supplying controlled drugs and have been bailed to a later date, a spokeswoman said.

“These arrests send a clear message to criminals — the hidden Internet isn’t hidden and your anonymous activity isn’t anonymous,” said NCA director general Keith Bristow.

“It is impossible for criminals to completely erase their digital footprint.

“These latest arrests are just the start — there are many more to come.”

US federal agents shut down the Silk Road — which used sophisticated privacy-protection technology to let users pay for drugs, hitmen, hacker tools and forged documents — in a bust last week.

Prosecutors say the website has been used by thousands of drug dealers to distribute hundreds of kilogrammes of heroine, cocaine and other drugs, in transactions worth more than $1.2 billion (900 million euros).

The NCA, dubbed Britain’s equivalent of the FBI, was launched on Monday.

Its 4,500 officers are tasked with targeting the estimated 37,000 people involved in serious and organised crime in Britain.

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« Reply #9207 on: Oct 09, 2013, 06:37 AM »

10/08/2013 03:28 PM

Penny Bun Pinchers: 'Mushroom Mafia' Pillaging German Forests

By David Crossland

The forests of Europe are a gold mine of gourmet mushrooms, and professional foragers are breaking laws to get their hands on them. Four of them tried to run over a forestry worker last week in Germany, where mushroom-madness is widespread.

Gourmets worship the boletus edulis, also known as the porcino or penny bun mushroom, as one of the finest edible mushrooms, a heavenly ingredient for risotto or pasta dishes. If they're fresh, restaurants will pay up to €50 ($68) a kilo for them. A few hours in the forest can yield a crop worth hundreds of euros.

In marketing terms, that's not exactly on a par with cocaine. But the high-protein, brown-capped fungus has spawned what media are calling a "mushroom mafia" of professional, determined foragers. Last week near the western German town of Bad Münstereifel, four of them in a car allegedly rammed a forestry worker who had tried to stop them.

He rolled off the hood of the car and was hurled to the ground. "While the forestry official struggled to his feet, the car reversed back toward him, rolled onto his foot and stopped," police said in a statement. The man was injured and had to see a doctor -- but police arrived and got personal details about the men, who now face criminal charges.

Later the official, identified only as Ernst A., described his ordeal to local tabloid newspaper Express. "They refused to give me their personal details and were extremely aggressive and violent from the start," he said.

He added that the leader, whom the others kept calling "boss," had a knife in his hand and wanted to pierce the tires of the official's car. But the others persuaded him not to.

Threatening Behavior

While telephoning the police, the forestry worker says, "the so-called boss threatened me, saying he was going to telephone someone, too."

A few days later, in the same area, police confiscated 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of illegally harvested penny buns from seven men who had been spotted heading into the forest with several bags.

"We've had to deal with professional mushroom foragers for many years," Horst-Karl Dengel, head of the regional forestry department for the upper Eifel region, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"You get mushroom pickers who come with a basket and collect them for their own consumption, which is legal," Dengel said. "And then you get the other ones, who arrive in vans and spend two or three hours picking loads of kilos and then driving off. That's illegal."

Mating Season

An additional problem is that the mushroom foragers are ignoring "Keep Out" signs in parts of the forest and disturbing red deer during their current mating season, Dengel said.

The mushroom-picking season, which is very popular in Germany, runs from early September to mid-October.

Peter Gwiasda, an expert who gives guided mushroom tours in the Taunus hill region of western Germany, gets 50 to 80 applicants for each of his excursions. "At the moment, I could do one every day," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"There's a big conflict between forestry workers and hunters, on the one hand, and mushroom foragers, on the other," Gwiasda adds. "Some gatherers behave irresponsibly and march through the forest in hordes, scaring off animals. It's a problem you find wherever forests are close to towns."

Germany has some 5,000 mushroom species, including many that are considered delicacies. In addition to the penny bun, there are chanterelles and -- Gwiasda's personal favorite -- boletus luridiformis, also known as the dotted stem bolete. "It looks terribly poisonous," he said.

'Death Sentence'

Beware, though -- it can be a hazardous occupation. Mushrooms picked in parts of eastern Europe and around Munich still contain high caesium levels resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, said Gwiasda.

It's not uncommon for overzealous mushroom pickers to choose the wrong ones and poison themselves.

Fool's Webcap, or Cortinarius orellanus, common throughout Europe, is among the most perfidiously poisonous mushrooms because the worst symptoms take weeks to materialize, said Gwiasda. Inexperienced foragers can confuse them with chanterelle mushrooms, he explained, before detailing exactly what happens if you eat one:

"After some hours, you feel very unwell, with a headache, fatigue, intense thirst, a burning sensation on your lips and tongue, and pain in your side. Then it stops. After two weeks you get the next bout and that's mostly the death sentence because, in most cases, your kidneys or liver have been irreparably damaged."

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« Reply #9208 on: Oct 09, 2013, 06:38 AM »

October 8, 2013

Envoys Near Deal to Free Ex-Premier of Ukraine


MOSCOW — European diplomats appear close to negotiating the release of Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine, whose imprisonment by the government under her political rival has strained ties with the West and threatened to derail a trade agreement with Europe scheduled for signing in November.

Under the agreement, Ms. Tymoshenko would be pardoned by the rival, President Viktor F. Yanukovich, in exchange for a commitment from Ms. Tymoshenko to leave the country, at least initially by traveling to Germany for medical treatment.

European envoys, led by a former president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, and a former president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, made the offer to both the government and Ms. Tymoshenko, her lawyer and political ally, Sergey Vlasenko, said.

In 2011, the former prime minister was convicted of corruption in what was widely considered a politically motivated trial, and she is serving a seven-year sentence.

In an open letter released Friday, Ms. Tymoshenko wrote that she had accepted the offer to leave the country, though only for the sake of removing an obstacle to Ukraine’s conclusion of the trade deal with the European Union.

That deal, called an Association Agreement, is a first step toward tighter economic relations and in theory eventual membership. In her letter, Ms. Tymoshenko vowed to return and remain active in politics.

With the publication of this letter, “the ball is in his hands now,” Mr. Vlasenko said of Mr. Yanukovich. Mr. Yanukovich has not responded publicly to the European proposal.

How that will be decided is not known, but a pro-government newspaper provided a rather strong hint when it ran a picture of Ms. Tymoshenko under the headline “Guten Tag, Berlin!”

The deal for Ms. Tymoshenko’s freedom is the first sign of a thaw in a fierce political feud between Ukraine’s two most influential politicians.

In addition to the 2011 conviction, the authorities have filed several additional charges against Ms. Tymoshenko, including one of murder in connection with the 1996 assassination of a lawmaker.

She has denied all of the charges and appealed her conviction to the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr. Yanukovich has nursed a grudge against Ms. Tymoshenko for her role in leading the street protests known as the Orange Revolution, which overturned his victory in a rigged election in 2004. In 2010, he narrowly defeated Ms. Tymoshenko in an election observers deemed free.

In her letter from prison addressed to “my dear Ukrainians,” Ms. Tymoshenko, 52, wrote that she viewed integration with Europe as so vital for her country that she had asked the European Union to cross her release off a list of conditions that Ukraine would need to meet before signing, at a summit meeting scheduled in November.

“I didn’t want the European future of my country to suffer for some reason, moreover because of my fate,” she wrote. Ms. Tymoshenko has said she needs surgery to treat back pain. In April she was beaten by guards, a routine event in Ukrainian prisons, her lawyer said.

Because the Europeans did not drop their demand for her release, she wrote in her letter, she would be willing to accept the offer presented by Mr. Cox and Mr. Kwasniewski to leave Ukraine for medical treatment.

European diplomats, acting on the axiom that Russia without Ukraine is just a country while Russia with Ukraine is an empire, have been trying to cut a deal with Ukraine before it agrees to join a Russian-backed customs union.

They want a face-saving deal for Ms. Tymoshenko quickly.

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« Reply #9209 on: Oct 09, 2013, 06:42 AM »

Britain and Iran pave way for reopening of London and Tehran embassies

William Hague tells MPs talks are under way and diplomatic atmosphere is more positive under President Hassan Rouhani

Ian Black, Middle East editor
The Guardian, Wednesday 9 October 2013   

Britain and Iran have taken a significant step toward reopening their respective embassies in Tehran and London by appointing chargés d'affaires and holding talks about staffing on the eve of new negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme.

William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, revealed to MPs that on Tuesday that talks with the Iranian government had taken place last week in a much more positive atmosphere following intensifying diplomatic contacts in the wake of the election of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani last June.

Progress would have to take place on a "step-by-step reciprocal basis", Hague said, but he made clear he hoped the moves would pave the way to reopen the British embassy. "We are open to more direct contact," he said, adding that the coming months "may be unusually significant" in British-Iranian relations.

A non-resident diplomat is to be appointed by both countries and talks have already been held about the key issues of numbers and conditions for local staff – often harassed in the past by the Iranian authorities. Inspection of premises was another matter being addressed.

"It is clear that the new president and ministers in Iran are presenting themselves and their country in a much more positive way than in the recent past," the foreign secretary said. "There is no doubt that the tone of the meetings with them is different. We must test the Iranian government's sincerity to the full, and it is important that our channels of communication are open for that."

Britain, which was closely involved in the overthrow of the Iranian prime minister in 1953, is often more vilified in Iran than the US. Britain shut Iran's embassy in London in November 2011 and expelled all its staff after its counterpart in Tehran was stormed in a way the UK insisted could not have taken place without the consent of the Iranian authorities.

A crowd ransacked offices and burned British flags in a protest over sanctions by Britain. The mission was closed and all UK staff were evacuated following the attack, the most violent of a series of incidents that marked a deterioration in relations due to Iran's wider dispute with the west over its nuclear programme.

The Foreign Office said in a statement: "The UK will not have a diplomatic presence in Tehran until we are confident our staff will be safe and able to carry out the full range of functions."

Hague warned that the "much more positive" tone from Tehran would need to be matched by "concrete action and a viable approach" when the long-stalled nuclear talks resume in Geneva next week. He hinted that the "step-by-step" approach would also help Iranian moderates win arguments with hardliners in the Islamic Republic.

He noted that Iran was still in breach of six UN resolutions over its nuclear programme, which Tehran denies is intended to develop nuclear weapons. He said: "In the absence of change to these policies we will continue to maintain strong sanctions. A substantial change in British or western policies requires a substantive change in that programme."

Rouhani's emollient message to the west, and especially a phone call with Barack Obama, was attacked by hardliners when he returned home after the UN general assembly in New York. Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who is now in charge of the hyper-sensitive nuclear file, met his British counterpart twice in the margins of the UN meeting. The two men spoke again on Monday.

Israel, which has its own undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal, has publicly opposed any western rapprochement with Iran and described Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing."

Reporting on wider Middle Eastern issues, Hague also surveyed hopes for progress on holding a new Geneva peace conference on Syria, which is scheduled for mid-November. But he said it was not clear whether Iran, a key supporter of Bashar al-Assad, would be invited to take part. "Iran will need to change its actual policies on the ground, which include supporting a regime which is murdering its people in huge numbers," Hague said. Invitations are expected to be issued by the UN secretary-general.

The situation in Syria was "catastrophic," Hague said, but he echoed positive reports about the early progress made to destroy the Syrian government's chemical weapons arsenal.

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