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Longwood Gardens Orchid Extravaganza 2012
Longwood Gardens. March, 2012. Photo credit: joanneleon
“If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies... It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it.”

~ Albert Einstein


Dream of Taxpayer Bailout Profit Is Just That
The U.S. Treasury Department wants the public to believe the government’s bailouts of the financial sector might make money for taxpayers. It’s easy to see why.

If the government could show an overall profit, the implication would be that bailouts must be a good thing. Put aside the moral hazard they create, by encouraging reckless behavior. Never mind that the country’s largest too-big-to-fail banks are larger today than when the financial crisis began in 2007. The leaders who pulled off this amazing feat would deserve our praise, and everything will have worked out for the best -- or so goes this line of thought.

Whatever logic there is to this reasoning falls apart, however, if the prospect of future gains is false. And sure enough, it probably is.

Aviva Fires Everyone: Great Moments in Employee Motivation

Workers across Europe are on tenterhooks these days, with all the talk of debt crises and such. So it was a dark day indeed for 1,300 workers at Aviva Investors, the asset management arm of the U.K. insurance company, when they opened a company e-mail on Friday to find out they had been fired. Please hand over your passwords and any company property and leave the building, they were told.

The only problem: Just one unfortunate soul was supposed to get the message. Oops.

Meet the Media Companies Lobbying Against Transparency

The corporate owners or sister companies of some of the biggest names in journalism — NBC News, ABC News, Fox News, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Politico, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and dozens of local TV news outlets — are lobbying against a Federal Communications Commission measure to require broadcasters to post political ad data on the Internet.

[ ... ]

Washington lawyers representing the other companies fighting the rule — Barrington Broadcasting, Belo, Cox, Dispatch, E.W. Scripps, Gannett, Hearst, Meredith Broadcasting, Post-Newsweek Stations, Raycom Media, and Schurz Communications — lobbied FCC officials in February, March, and again this week.

The group suggested that instead of putting the full, itemized political ad data online, stations would post aggregate data once a week.

Misinformation campaign targets USA TODAY reporter, editor
WASHINGTON – A USA TODAY reporter and editor investigating Pentagon propaganda contractors have themselves been subjected to a propaganda campaign of sorts, waged on the Internet through a series of bogus websites.

Fake Twitter and Facebook accounts have been created in their names, along with a Wikipedia entry and dozens of message board postings and blog comments. Websites were registered in their names.

The timeline of the activity tracks USA TODAY's reporting on the military's "information operations" program, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan — campaigns that have been criticized even within the Pentagon as ineffective and poorly monitored.

Hard to know who our military considers the enemy to be...
USA Today pair hit by smear campaign after Pentagon propaganda story

Fake websites and Facebook accounts set up accusing Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker of being backed by the Taliban

Two USA Today journalists investigating private security companies engaging in foreign propaganda wars on behalf of the Pentagon appear to have been subjected themselves to a dirty tricks campaign, the newspaper has revealed.

Reporter Tom Vanden Brook and editor Ray Locker became the subject of a sustained internet campaign to discredit their work just days after they began publishing the results of their investigation into a multi-million dollar Pentagon-funded propaganda mission in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Games Politicans Play With Employment Statistics

Taking the less accurate, current population survey and using January 2009 as the base number of employed, women are still down -304,000 while men have gained a meager 151,000 to their employed ranks.

The explanation on why women from 2009 onward are the majority of job losses isn't quite up to snuff. Some are referring to manufacturing and construction which took heavy losses in 2008 and their better job growth numbers. That's true. Yet, there was supposedly something called equal opportunity way back when and lord knows women need that money as much as men. Somehow these various fields are not supposed to be for one sex, anyone remember this? Therefore claims these statistics are misleading and ridiculous doesn't quite cut it. Below is a graph of women (dark red) versus men (blue green) payrolls. While it's clear early in the recession we had a mancession, or 75.4% of the job losses were men, it also appears there was a womcession after early 2008, or a recession delayed. Interesting how few seemed to notice this until now that's it's time to call Romney ridiculous. For both sexes payrolls started to turn around, meagerly, in 2010, yet we also see payrolls growing faster for men than women after February 2010.

Two Years After the BP Drilling Disaster, Gulf Residents Fear for the Future
“People should be aware that the oil is still there,” says Wilma Subra, a chemist who travels widely across the Gulf meeting with fishers and testing seafood and sediment samples for contamination.

Subra says that the reality she is seeing on the ground contrasts sharply with the image painted by BP. “I’m extremely concerned on the impact it’s having on all these sick individuals,” she says. Subra believes we may be just at the beginning of this disaster. In every community she visits, fishers show her shrimp born without eyes, fish with lesions, and crabs with holes in their shells. She says tarballs are still washing up on beaches across the region.

While it's too early to assess the long-term environmental impact, a host of recent studies published by the National Academy of Sciences and other respected institutions have shown troubling results. They describe mass deaths of deepwater coral, dolphins, and killifish, a small animal at the base of the Gulf food chain. "If you add them all up, it’s clear the oil is still in the ecosystem, it’s still having an effect,” says Aaron Viles, deputy director of Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental organization active in the region.

Gulf of Mexico Spill Takes Toll on Health

Two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, local residents and clean-up workers say they have developed serious illnesses.

Are we on the deck of another Titanic?
The other day, I was in a restroom papered over with pages of the New York Times from the Great Depression. It was very eerie - some of the stories sounded very contemporary.

Every day we seem to be reading about new waves of layoffs and cutbacks, when we hoped to be reading about new jobs and recovery.

[ ... ]

Not surprisingly, writing in the Financial Times, billionaire moneyman George Soros now sounds like a very worried man:

   "Far from abating, the euro crisis has recently taken a turn for the worse. The European Central Bank relieved an incipient credit crunch through its longer-term refinancing operations. The resulting rally in financial markets hid an underlying deterioration; but that is unlikely to last much longer.

    "The fundamental problems have not been resolved; indeed, the gap between creditor and debtor countries continues to widen. The crisis has entered what may be a less volatile but more lethal phase."

The Bankers’ Subversion of the Rule of Law, Notary and Land Records edition

First, let’s recap the role of notaries in the foreclosure fraud crisis: Notaries are the people who verify that someone actually is who they say they are when that person signs a document. Because banks and their agents industrialized “Document Execution” as part of their foreclosure business model, notaries did not do their jobs. Notaries’ failure to verify identities has been so complete that many people will sign as one person, say, “Linda Green.” Notaries have also been told to sign documents using one name, and then notarize their own “surrogate” signature. “Well, what’s the big deal?” bank defenders say. Beyond the fact that there’s no “business convenience” exception to following the rule of law, consider Bernal.

[ ... ]

Note: Law enforcers have neither indicted or sued a single big banker for this conduct. If the low level folk focused on now are used to flip people up the chain, fine. But if not it’s hard to see how the US can continue to see itself as operating according to the rule of law.

And no, the practices aren’t harmless even if LPS insists they are. Title is clouded in many places, and in Massachusetts may be flatly invalid. Communities denied millions of revenue in troubled economic times are suffering needlessly.

World’s ‘Most Expensive’ Art Fair Heads to Hong Kong From Paris
The Biennale des Antiquaires, France’s oldest art fair, is looking to profit from the growth of Asian wealth by starting a mini-biennale in Hong Kong.

[ ... ]

The decision to bring to Hong Kong next year a scaled-down version of the Biennale, which Deydier describes as the “world’s most expensive art fair,” demonstrates the city’s growing importance on the international art market.

Last year, China overtook the U.S. to become the world’s largest art and antiques market, a report by the Netherlands- based European Fine Art Foundation said last month. The annual Hong Kong International Art Fair is a stop on the global circuit, dealers said.

IMF boosts resources by $430 billion to calm market fears over European debt crisis

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde announced the new figure at the conclusion of discussions of the G-20 major economic powers Friday. She said that some countries, including Russia, India, China and Brazil, had made private pledges but did not want to issue public commitments until they had conferred with officials in their home capitals.

But she said when the public and private commitments were combined, the total raised would exceed $430 billion, nearly doubling the IMF’s available resources to make loans to nations in trouble.

Lagarde called the fundraising a “huge effort” that would increase the current $485 billion available for loans to more than $1 trillion.

[ ... ]

Lagarde said the extra resources would help support global economic stability. Finance officials hope the new lending power will be a backstop should another, larger European country get into trouble in repaying government debts.

'My parties just saucy fun' says Berlusconi

The former Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi, made a rare appearance yesterday at his Milan trial on charges of paying for sex with a minor, dismissing the notorious "bunga bunga" sessions at his Arcore mansion as "just a burlesque competition".

[ ... ]
At yesterday's hearing, the mogul heard police officials relate how he had rung Milan police headquarters in May 2010 to secure the release of Ms El Mahroug after she was held on suspicion of theft. A senior official, Piero Ostuni, told the court that Mr Berlusconi suggested that Ms El Mahroug was the granddaughter of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and should be released into the safe hands of one of his associates. Prosecutors claim Mr Berlusconi was determined to get Ms El Mahroug away from the police before she spilled the beans on her involvement in the sex parties.

Despite the gravity of the charges, Mr Berlusconi appeared in combative and even nonchalant mood yesterday as he insisted that his Arcore parties were merely a bit of saucy fun. "Bunga bunga? It was just a burlesque competition," he told journalists during a break in proceedings.

The Roundup for April 20, 2012
❖ Bartering in the time of austerity: citizens of the Greek town of Volos have created an on-line system using a local currency called TEMS for providing each other with needed goods and services. “People sign up for a TEMs network account, see what services they might offer to other folks in their area who are in need, and start amassing credits that can be cashed in for things they themselves need. TEMs can be used for everything from bakers to babysitters, teachers to technicians. In theory, the value of one TEM is equal to the value of one Euro.”

❖ In a non-binding resolution, the European Parliament has now condemned Argentina’s nationalizing the oil company YPF, stating that action was an “attack on the exercise of free enterprise”. Shares in the Spanish firm Repsol, which had a majority stake in YPF, have been in decline all week. YPF was put under private ownership in 1993, major shale oil and gas deposits were discovered last year, and Argentina moved to acquire 51% of YPF just recently. Repsol is also arguing that Argentina’s action has rendered certain financial agreements moot. Meanwhile, Argentina wants Brazil to increase its state-owned Petrobras’ investment in the Argentine market from 8% to 15%.

❖ The great U.S. income chasm is just got greater, with corporate heads now bringing home an unprecedented 380 times what the average worker makes. (In contrast, in 1980, CEOs earned “only” 42 times more.) Meanwhile, one shareholder of Citigroup seems to be fed up and has filed suit over the huge salaries the Chief Executive and directors have awarded to top executives. This followed on the action of 55% of the shareholders earlier in the week who rejected (advisory vote, btw) the pay package for the CEO, Vikram Pandit.

Thousands of Bahrain F1 protesters dispersed

Thousands of anti-government protesters have been dispersed after flooding a major highway in Bahrain demanding a halt to the Formula One race on the first day of its practice ahead of Sunday's race.

The move came as the Gulf kingdom's crown prince vowed that the country's premier sporting event would go ahead.

Robert Fisk: This is politics not sport. If drivers can't see that, they are the pits
Supposing it was Assad shelling out £40m for a race. Would Ecclestone be happy to give him a soft sporting cover for his repression?

When the Foreign Office urges British motor racing fans to stay away from Bahrain, this ain't no sporting event, folks, it's a political one. The Bahraini authorities prove it by welcoming sports reporters but refusing visas to other correspondents who want to tell the world what's going on in this minority-run, Saudi-dominated kingdom.

But what do our lads tell us from the circuit, 25 miles from the Bahraini capital, Manama? Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton are only in it for sport. Bahraini repression of its democratic majority? Nothing to do with us, governor. And Sebastian Vettel? "I think it's a lot of hype." Hype? HYPE? The Arab Awakening came to Bahrain a year ago, a majority Shia people demanding a democratically elected government – with a minority Sunni monarch still at its head, for heaven's sake, as generous an Arab Spring as you could find – and it's met with police gunfire, torture and death. And Master Vettel – is there anything left of the old cliché "moral compass"? – claims "it's a lot of hype". What a disgraceful man.

Queen Elizabeth II Celebrates 86th Birthday

The Queen will celebrate her 86th birthday on 21 April privately, with family. There will, however, be a series of traditional gun salutes across the city.

The occasion calls for a 21-gun salute at Windsor Great Park, a 41-gun salute at Hyde Park and a 62-gun salute at the Tower of London.

The Queen, will, however, also celebrate a second birthday - her "official" birthday in June; the exact date, additionally, varies from country to country within the Commonwealth. The officially-recognised (an earlier IBTimes UK report details this fascinating tradition) birthday is celebrated in a grand manner, the highlight of which is the "Trooping the Colour" parade,  a tradition followed since 1748, which will see the Queen proceed down The Mall inspecting troops before returning to Buckingham Palace for a march-past and a Royal Air Force (RAF) fly-by.

Liquidmetal and Apple's path to becoming Skynet
Rumors that Apple will use an alloy with sci-fi characteristics in the next iPhone are like an energy drink for a paranoid imagination.

My fellow residents of Nerdville, we are on the front lines. If there is to be an early warning system for the impending robot apocalypse, it must come from this community of readers, techies, and general smarty-pantses. That is why I've gathered your eyeballs here today to discuss the signs of Apple's inevitable transformation into Skynet.

For some time now it has seemed that Google might be more likely to be the first worldwide network of information and machines to become self-aware and start a global war between handsome humans and handsome robots (with handsome future governors playing both sides) -- given the company's lock on the world's data, that whole Android thing, and Google's clever "Don't Be Evil" propaganda.

But over the past year a pattern has emerged that points to Cupertino, Calif., as the home of a sleeper cell that could pose an even more grave and existential threat, capped off by this week's rumor that Apple is considering using a liquid metal material -- a clearly sinister product cleverly hiding in plain sight under the name Liquidmetal -- to house its next iPhone.

How to catalog your vinyl collection online
The resurgence of vinyl as a preferred music format may baffle some who can't get enough of their Spotify subscription, but for those who get the experience of digging for records at your favorite local music store or prefer the warmer sounds provided by a vinyl LP, keeping track of your music collection is a priority.

If you're anything like John Cusack's character, the obsessive music-file, Rob Gordon from the movie "High Fidelity," you might categorize your albums chronologically one day and biographically the next.

If you want to keep better tabs on your 7-inches, 12-inches and whatever other rare shapes and sizes vinyl records are pressed in nowadays, Discogs is a very useful Web site for your music collection needs.

Nearby dark-matter-free zone poses cosmic conundrum
The surprising finding contradicts otherwise successful predictions about the distribution of dark matter in the universe, leaving many puzzled about how else to explain the universe's history. It also fits with new observations by a fiery minority of physicists who dispute whether the mysterious matter, which has never been observed directly, is even necessary.

Rather than seeing it directly, physicists first deduced the existence of dark matter from the way that our galaxy rotates. If the only matter in the Milky Way is the visible stuff like stars and planets, then stars at the edge are moving too quickly to be held by our galaxy's gravity.

Spring Cleaning: Get A Green Thumb

It's the perfect time of the year to get into gardening. While you're at it, make your garden greener by taking steps to conserve water and make your own soil.

Plants are secret geniuses

Annalee Newitz at io9 has collected 10 pieces of evidence that plants are smarter than you think, and it might make you look at your potted ficus in a new light. It turns out there’s reason to believe that plants can communicate, remember, recognize related plants, and measure time. Let’s hope nobody finds out they can feel pain, or the vegans will all starve.

Gardens: self-seeders
Self-seeders are a cheap and easy way to fill up gaps and inject change and interest

Self-seeders have developed an unfortunate reputation in some parts of the gardening world. The phrase "may become invasive" evokes Viking-style raids with borders overrun by interlopers. But these plants are rarely so aggressive and given the largesse they offer to gardeners, open arms rather than open warfare seems a more fitting welcome.

Free seed is their most obvious benefit. Invest in an initial packet of love-in-a-mist, honeywort or pot marigold and you should never need to purchase again: perfect if you have space to fill but a small budget. Best of all, given the right soil and aspect, you don't even have to scatter the seeds yourself. Self-seeders find the ideal spot to grow without you needing to consult nursery labels or gardening books.

Resupplying an Endless War: Bleeding the American Taxpayer in Afghanistan
by Tom Engelhardt

Take as an example the cost of the war and a startling development of the last four-plus months that has driven it significantly higher.  Keep in mind that the Afghan War is being fought by a fuel-guzzling U.S. military in a landlocked, impoverished South Asian country with almost no resources of any sort.  Just about everything it needs or wants -- from fuel, ammunition, and weaponry to hamburgers and pizzas -- has to be shipped in by tortuous routes over thousands of exceedingly expensive miles.

Up until last November, more than 30% of the basic supplies for the war came by ship to the Pakistani port of Karachi and were offloaded onto trucks to begin the long journey to and across the Pakistani border into Afghanistan.  Late last November, however, angry Pakistani officials slammed that country’s border crossings shut on American and NATO war supplies.  Those crossings have yet to reopen and whether they will any time soon, despite optimistic U.S. press reports, remains to be seen.

The result has undoubtedly been a resupply disaster for the American military, but you would never know it from the startling lack of coverage in the mainstream media here.  All supplies now have to be flown in at staggering cost or shipped, also at great expense, via the Northern Distribution Network from the Baltic or the Caspian seas through some portion of the old Soviet Union.

Soon after this happened, there were brief reports indicating that the costs of shipping some items had gone up by a factor of six, depending on the route chosen.  Back in 2009, it was estimated that a gallon of fuel cost $400 or more by the time it reached the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and that was by the cheaper Pakistani route.  How much is it now?  $600, $800, $2,400?

Nominated Defense Intelligence Chief Flynn Tied to Petraeus, McChrystal Night Raid Policy
As I pointed out in this post on an excerpt from Michael Hastings’ The Operators, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn was a key intelligence staffer for Stanley McChrystal during the Camp NAMA torture and torture cover-up in early 2004. His biography notes that “Major General Flynn commanded the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade from June 2002 to June 2004.”  Many of those who were victims of torture during that time in Iraq had been rounded up in night raids. Here is Michael Hirsh as quoted by Chris Suellentrop in the New York Times:
Reading “Fiasco,” Thomas Ricks’s devastating new book about the Iraq war, brought back memories for me. Memories of going on night raids in Samarra in January 2004, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, with the Fourth Infantry Division units that Ricks describes. During these raids, confused young Americans would burst into Iraqi homes, overturn beds, dump out drawers, and summarily arrest all military-age men — actions that made them unwitting recruits for the insurgency. For American soldiers battling the resistance throughout Iraq, the unspoken rule was that all Iraqis were guilty until proven innocent. Arrests, beatings and sometimes killings were arbitrary, often based on the flimsiest intelligence, and Iraqis had no recourse whatever to justice. Imagine the sense of helpless rage that emerges from this sort of treatment. Apply three years of it and you have one furious, traumatized population. And a country out of control.
[ ... ]

Flynn has now parlayed the success with which he is credited into a nomination to head the Defense Intelligence Agency:

   A US general who once blasted the work of military spies in Afghanistan as “only marginally relevant” has been nominated to take over the Pentagon’s intelligence agency, officials said.

    The decision to name Lieutenant General Michael Flynn suggests a possible shake-up of the sprawling Defense Intelligence Agency as the general has earned a reputation for pushing for dramatic change in his work with special forces.

China's Military Paper Warns US Of Armed Conflict Over Sea Dispute

A top military publication in China has warned that the US may be risking an armed confrontation by undertaking a joint military exercise with the Philippines amid maritime tensions between Manila and Beijing over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

The military drills involving nearly 7,000 US and Philippine forces, which began in the South China Sea Monday, has intensified the standoffish atmosphere between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal, also known as the Panatog Shoal.

Army probes drug use by soldiers in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON (AP) – The U.S. Army has investigated 56 soldiers in Afghanistan on suspicion of using or distributing heroin, morphine or other opiates during 2010 and 2011, newly obtained data shows. Eight soldiers died of drug overdoses during that time.
Losing the media war in Afghanistan
Today, every village, no matter how isolated, has a battery-powered radio and every day and every night someone listens to the BBC or VOA and learns the news. The Afghans are illiterate, but they are not naive. After 30 years of war they understand international politics. They understand war. They form their opinions by what they see, or hear about, happening in their country.

And by now, every Afghan, no matter how isolated, will know that U.S. soldiers again have been mocking dead Afghans. U.S. soldiers have been disrespecting the dead.

Libya militia hands Tripoli airport control to govt

(Reuters) - The Libyan government took control of Tripoli's international airport on Friday from the militia that has run it since Muammar Gaddafi was deposed last year, an important step in its struggle to assert its authority over numerous armed groups.

The ruling National Transitional Council now faces the challenge of showing it can maintain security and operate the North African country's busiest airport, which reopened last November in the hands of the powerful Zintan militia.

3 killed in south Libya clashes

TRIPOLI — Fresh fighting flared in the Libyan desert town of Kufra overnight leaving three people dead and 17 others wounded, local sources told AFP on Saturday.

"The situation is very bad," Toubu tribe leader Issa Abdelmajid Mansur told AFP in reference to fresh fighting in Kufra, where tribal clashes claimed more than 100 lives in February.

He said that Toubu living in the southeastern town were attacked on Friday by what was meant to be a peacekeeping brigade, Shield Libya, under defence ministry command.

Mansur said cries for help to the national army had fallen on deaf ears.

"No one has come yet and we are still under fire," he said.

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