Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hong Kong Goldfish Market: Shops for threatened species threatened

More than gold fish: These albino African spurred tortoises are on sale at Lake Tung Ting for over HK$100,000 each.

A ball python from Urban Jungle, worth more than HK$10,000.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thousands flee Indonesia volcano

Jakarta, Aug 30 (DPA) Monday, August 30, 2010 --> Mount Sinabung on the Indonesian island of Sumatra Monday erupted for a second time, forcing more than 20,000 people to remain in evacuation centres, officials said. The Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Centre said Sinabung's second eruption occurred at 6.30 a.m. (2330 GMT Sunday), belching a column of smoke and dust 1,500m in the air. Indonesia has already issued a red alert after the Sinabung volcano on the western island of Sumatra erupted for the first time in 400 years. So people are migrating to the safer places.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tiger Cub Found in Luggage

The cat's out of the bag—at least for a woman caught smuggling a live, two-month-old, drugged tiger cub in a travel case full of toys (pictured) at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport on Sunday.

The 31-year-old Thai national, whose identity has not been exposed by Thai authorities, was scheduled to board a Mahan Air flight to Iran. But when she was seen struggling with a large bag at check-in, airport officials decided to x-ray her luggage.

Officials are investigating whether the cub was wild caught or captive-bred, as well as where the woman planned to bring the tiger.

All Asian tigers are listed as endangered or shoddier by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), mostly due to the illegal trade in tiger parts.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Children abused, killed as witches in Nigeria

Akwa Ibom state, Nigeria -- Some pastors in Southeast Nigeria claim illness and poverty are caused by witches who bring terrible misfortune to those around them.

In the second part of the investigation by Christian Purefoy he looks at some of accused children who have found a sanctuary and one of the pastors who carries out the deliverance ceremonies.

Those denounced as witches must be cleansed through deliverance or cast out, say the pastors -- many of whom charge between $300 and $2,000 for their services.

In many cases the accused witches are children who can be beaten or even killed if they are not just thrown out of the family home, say community workers.

But there are others pastors who believe education is a more powerful tool against the fear if witchcraft.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Google's new Gmail phone-calling service presents a challenge to Skype, as well as Gmail's email competitors. Google has been making aggressive plays

Google is rolling out a service that makes phone calls through Gmail. Calls to the United States and Canada will be free through at least January 2011, with international calls ranging between 2 cents and nearly $5 a minute. That presents a challenge not only to Google’s email competitors, but also Skype.

“We’re rolling out this feature to U.S. based Gmail users over the next few days, so you’ll be ready to get started once ‘Call Phones’ shows up in your chat list,” Robin Schriebman, a Google software engineer, wrote in an Aug. 25 posting on the Official Gmail Blog. “If you’re using Google Apps for your school or business, then you won’t see it quite yet. We’re working on making this available more broadly—so stay tuned.”
Once the feature is active, clicking “Call Phone” on Gmail’s chart list will open a window with a virtual keypad. From there, users can either enter a number or a contact’s name

“If you have a Google Voice phone number, calls made from Gmail will display this number as the outbound caller ID,” Schriebman wrote. “And if you decide to, you can receive calls made to this number right inside Gmail.”

Google’s other recent improvements to Gmail include Google Calendar Sync that supports Outlook 2010, an updated and streamlined layout, and additions to Gmail Contacts such as keyboard shortcuts and custom labels. Apps Search, available through Google’s Gmail Labs, allows users to sift through Google Docs and Google Sites.

Gmail’s rapid feature-adding could be a symptom of Google’s rising competition with Yahoo and Microsoft for email users. Although Gmail has managed to build substantial business off its sizable inbox and rapid-search features, its rivals have been working to level the playing field: on May 18, for example, Microsoft announced updates to Windows Live Hotmail that included clutter-elimination and security tools.

Google has also been additional plays in the VoIP market, including its May 18 agreement to purchase Global IP Solutions (GIPS), which makes software for processing high-definition audio and video over the Web, for $68.2 million. Along with phone-calling from Gmail, Google Voice and its 2009 acquisition of Gizmo5, that puts Google in a stronger position to compete against Skype and its 400 million users.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Moon may be shrinking, but very, very slowly

Not to worry though, lovers and crooners, it won't be vanishing any time soon.

New research indicates cracks in the moon's crust that have shaped as the interior has cooled and shrunk over the last billion years or so. That means the surface has shrunk, too, though not so you'd become aware of just from gazing at it.

Scientists have identified 14 landforms called lobate scarps speckled over the surface of the moon, explained Thomas R. Watters of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Watters and colleagues describe their find in Friday's edition of the journal Science.
The scarps had formerly been noted at the moon's equator, but this is the first evidence in other areas, indicating they result from a global process.

The study calls the scarps "evidence of recent thrust faulting on the moon." But this is planetary science, where "recent" can mean a billion years ago.
The scarps, or cliffs, widen across some small craters, and small craters tend to be obliterated over time, Watters explained in a telephone interview. In addition, there are no large craters forced on top of the scarps, another indication they are relatively recent, in planetary terms, he said.

"One of the really cool parts of this ... the mistakes are so young-looking that you can't escape the possibility that this contraction occurred recently, and could indicate that the moon is still active," Watters said.

The size of the scarps indicates shrinkage in the size of the moon of about 100 meters (328 feet), which wouldn't be nearly enough to be noticed with the naked eye. The moon is about one-fourth the size of the Earth in diameter.

The scarps range up to 10 meters (a little over 30 feet) high and a few kilometers long, he said. By comparison, the planet Mercury has much larger scarps indicating considerably more shrinkage over time.

The moon's not going to disappear and its shrinkage won't affect the Earth in any way, Watters stressed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Letitia become the first woman major of US Intelligence Agency

Letitia A. Long became the first woman to lead a major U.S. intelligence agency in the Department of Defense when she took over the directorship of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at a ceremony at the agency's half-built, high-tech campus in Springfield, Va.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was founded in 1996 as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, bringing together work by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, among others. It was renamed in 2003. The NGA is responsible for collecting and analyzing information from satellite imagery and works with the Pentagon and other departments on defense issues, homeland security, and navigation safety.

Letitia A. Long (right) is applauded by Vice Adm. Robert Murrett as she takes over as director of the National Geospatial-Inteligence Agency.

Long was sworn in at the GeoSpatial agency's planned new headquarters, a half-built high-tech campus in Springfield Va. The current headquarters is a huge, nondescript building, with few windows, in Bethesda, Md.

Some employees are already using the campus a technology center is in operation but most of the workforce will begin relocating in January. The site offers parking for about 5,000 and the agency is trying to assist with carpools. Additionally, the organization plans to operate shuttles to public transit. The facility will help the agency accelerate its work, and Letitia promised NGA will continue its close collaboration with the rest of the defense and intelligence community.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dollar advance strengthen against the yen

The dollar traded near the weakest in eight months against the yen on speculation a report will show the U.S. lost jobs for a second month, spurring the Federal Reserve to take additional steps to keep borrowing costs low.

The dollar may advance against the yen and strengthen versus Australia and New Zealand’s currencies because the U.S. Federal Reserve is unlikely to change its monetary policy tomorrow, Barclays Plc said. The dollar index (DXY 80.53, +0.12, +0.15%) , a measure of the greenback against a trade-weighted index of major rivals, drifted higher to 80.492 from 80.406 in North American trade. The index and the dollar slipped Friday after July U.S. jobs data proved weaker than expected.

"There's certainly a lot of negativity priced into the U.S. dollar lately based on the outlook for the U.S. economy," said Greg Gibbs, a currency strategist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in Sydney. "The fall in U.S. yields can to some extent be pinned on the expectation that the Fed is prepared to do more quantitative easing."

The Federal Reserve may offer more cautionary language on the growth outlook, but probably won't move this month to buy more bonds in an effort to ward off a double-dip recession, economists said.

A reversal in yields should push the Aussie dollar and kiwi dollar lower against the U.S. currency, Subbarao wrote. “However, we fell the best way to position for this would be through dollar/yen, which has historically shown a high degree of correlation with short-term interest rates.”

Friday, August 6, 2010

Christina Romer Chair of Obama’s Economic Advisor Resigned

The White House Council of Economic Advisor chair Christina Romer is resigned at the end of the July, which, combined with Peter Orszag's departure, leaves the Obama economic team without two of its lead players. MIT professor Peter Diamond's nomination to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors has been sent back to the White House by the Senate because of GOP opposition.

Christina Romer has resigned her post to return to her old job as an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the White House said Thursday. Her resignation is effective Sept. 3.

Romer, 51, is one of the nation's leading scholars of macroeconomic history and an expert on the Great Depression. She was tapped by Obama to serve as chief economist for the White House in November 2008 as the newly elected president was devising a response to a global economic panic. In a statement, Romer called her White House service the "honor of a lifetime."

Obama said “Romer has long expressed a desire to return to California and has provided extraordinary service to me and our country during a time of economic crisis and recovery. The challenges we faced demanded more of Christy than any of her predecessors, and I greatly valued and appreciated her skill, commitment and wise counsel."

He added “I'm gratified that she will continue to offer her insights and advice as a member of my Economic Recovery Advisory Board.”

Romer is an extraordinary friend and colleague of the White House.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Two Chicago Women honored by Obama with Civilian Award

Two Chicago area women were among 13 people honored Wednesday by President Barack Obama with the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second-highest civilian honor. Daisy Brooks and Lisa Nigro were among 13 nationwide winners of the Presidential Citizens Medal. The award was started four decades ago to recognize Americans who have provided outstanding service to their country. They were among 13 winners selected from 6,000 people whose names were submitted by the public for the award.

Brooks runs Daisy's Resource and Developmental Center in North Chicago. It's a place for young mothers and their infants to live and get their lives on track with school.

Lisa Nigro, 49, a former Chicago Police officer, is the founder of the Inspiration Corp., which offers a package of services to assist the homeless, including the Inspiration Cafe at 4554 N. Broadway and the Living Room Cafe at 63rd and Woodlawn.

Daisy Brooks, 72, is the founder of Daisy's Resource and Developmental Center in North Chicago, which delivers a variety of educational and social services to people who need extra help.

The medals were bestowed on 11 women and two men; an imbalance that Obama observed "tells you something about who really gets stuff done in the neighborhoods." Honorees included a Sept. 11 widow who helps Afghan widows and children impacted by war and terrorism; a paralyzed woman who feeds poor children in Michigan; and an ex-Marine from Minnesota, a veteran of World War II who began a memorial rifle squad that has performed final military honors for 55,000 veterans.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

California Supreme Court banned affirmative action

The California Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 209, the ballot measure that banned affirmative action by government and public programs, did not violate the federal Constitution.

In a 6-1 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the 1996 voter-approved law, in the process invalidating a 7-year-old San Francisco ordinance designed to aid minority and women-owned businesses in the contracting process. The majority opinion, written by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, reinforced past state and federal court rulings that have kept Proposition 209's tight limits on public affirmative action programs in place across California.

The court said the affirmative action program may continue only if the city shows it was narrowly tailored to address intentional discrimination by the city against businesses owned by women and minorities and that preferences were necessary to rectify the discrimination.

Injectivity test on oil spill

The BP spill spewed 4.1m barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days, making it the biggest unintentional offshore oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. A crucial "injectivity" test meant to determine whether an effort to seal the ruptured BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico could proceed.

BP siphoned off an additional 800,000 barrels from when the well exploded on April 20 to when it was capped on July 15, the U.S. government-appointed group said yesterday in its latest estimate of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

The Macondo spill exceeds the 3.3 million barrels that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences estimated leaked from Mexico’s Ixtoc-1 well in the Bay of Campeche after a blowout in 1979. The world’s worst spill was in the 1991 Persian Gulf War when retreating Iraqi forces opened oil pumps, causing the release of 6 million barrels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In the test, "base oil" will be pumped into the ruptured well bore to determine whether it will go back into the reservoir. The test will start with pumping one barrel per minute, then two, then three. How much is pumped will depend on how the test goes and the test is meant to help officials decide whether adjustments need to be made on "how and if" the static kill will proceed.

According to a statement from BP, the administration will continue to hold the responsible parties accountable for repairing the damage and repaying Americans who've suffered a financial loss as a result of the BP oil spill. To date, 139,261 claims have been opened, from which more than $271 million have been disbursed.

US push to ban BlackBerry in UAE and Saudi Arabia

The US is to push the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to lift the proposed ban on people using BlackBerry email, messaging and web services. BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is willing to block porn sites and let government spies snoop on users, newspapers reported, following a shock ban on its key services in the Gulf.

With the State Department’s criticism of the United Arab Emirates for blocking BlackBerry services, the U.S. government is left walking a fine line preaching for global Internet freedom at the same time that federal authorities are seeking greater powers to monitor Web users, privacy advocates say.

It has also emerged that the ban will apply to foreign visitors in the country including the 100,000 travelers who pass through Dubai airport every day. The UAE has increased its security efforts since it arrested two men in 2009 for plotting to plant a bomb near a massive shopping center with nearly 4,000 shops in Dubai, the Middle East's trade and business hub. In January, Dubai was rocked by the assassination of a Palestinian Hamas commander in a luxury hotel which police said was the work of Israeli agents.

Reporters without Borders, a press freedom group has urged the UAE government to lift its ban and reach a compromise “that does not limit the freedom of the Emirati population”. Research in Motion, the manufacturer of Black-Berries, said it “respects both the regulatory requirements of government and the security and privacy needs of corporations and consumers”.

A new poll revealed by Elena Kagan

A new poll reveals most Americans would like to see the Senate confirm Solicitor General Elena Kagan to serve on the Supreme Court, but Democrats are more likely to support her. The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll asked 1,018 adults by telephone whether Kagan should be confirmed by the Senate. About 54 percent of the respondents said yes, and about 34 percent said no.

That gives Kagan virtually the same amount of support that the public gave the two most recent Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Samuel Alito just days before they were confirmed by the Senate. Three-quarters of Democrats support Kagan's nomination; half of all Republicans oppose her. Independents tend to favor her nomination by a 48 percent to 40 percent margin.

Democrats repeatedly characterized Kagan as a strong legal thinker who would be a fair judge, while Republicans slammed her as an inexperienced activist who would be unable to divorce her legal judgments from her political opinions. President Obama and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, have called Kagan one of the country's top "legal minds."

After the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of Kagan last month, Obama said Kagan would be a "fair and impartial Supreme Court Justice who understands how decisions made by the Court affect the lives of everyday Americans."

But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has said Kagan has "extremely limited experience" as a practicing attorney. Republicans have highlighted Kagan's role in limiting military recruiters at Harvard Law School because of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bars openly gay and lesbian soldiers from military service.

Several Republicans have said Kagan, who was the law school dean, sought to treat the military as second-class by denying recruiters access to the campus Office of Career Services.
Kagan has argued she provided an "equally effective substitute" by requiring military recruiters to use a veterans service office.

The full Senate vote is expected to vote on Kagan's nomination before departing for its August recess on Aug. 9. If approved, Kagan will fill the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens and become the 112th person to join the high court.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Gasoline Taxes on Mileage Fee

For decades, paying for roads has been fairly straightforward. Motorists pay at the pump through gasoline taxes. It's more or less fair, too: The more you drive, the more you pay. But more and more, people involved in transportation planning and construction say that model is breaking down as many vehicles get better gas mileage or don't use gasoline at all.

They say state and federal governments eventually should switch to a system that charges a tax based on how many miles you drive, not how many gallons you consume. As gasoline-tax revenue stagnates, the idea is to institute a true user fee tied to miles driven.

It was a major recommendation in 2009 when a 60-member panel met to discuss Ohio's transportation future. Gov. Ted Strickland hasn't taken up the idea, said Scott Varner, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, but it hasn't been dismissed, either.

In a time when global-positioning systems can track exactly where you go, how much would the government know about where or how far you drive? Could cities demand a share for the mileage you drive on their streets? Could it cost more to drive at rush hour? Would collection be as seamless as the gasoline tax?

The Oregon Department of Transportation tested replacing the state's gasoline tax with a vehicle-miles-traveled, or VMT, tax. Readers on gas pumps accessed computers mounted in volunteer participants' cars to download information about how many miles the car had traveled in different tax zones. There was one charge for miles traveled in a zone in and near. Portland and a lower rate for miles driven in other parts of the state. The system didn't keep track of the actual route taken or when the trip was made.

The main problem for those who build and maintain roads is that gas-tax collections have dropped off or stagnated. The poor economy means people are driving less and vehicles are getting better gas mileage. Since 2008, Congress has added billions of dollars in non-gas-tax money to transportation funding to make up for shortfalls in gas-tax revenue. In 2009, the federal stimulus also covered the gap.

In the short run, Congress should increase the gas tax, said Chester Jourdan, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, which helps plan transportation projects in central Ohio. A VMT tax is an alternative that should be considered for five to seven years out, he said.

We try to have it both ways: We have a national policy of increasing fuel economy and moving to non-gasoline vehicles and a system for funding highways that depends on fuel consumption. Every major manufacturer will have an electric vehicle out by 2012. These things will be in our communities. We'll have alternative fuel sources like (compressed natural gas) that aren't tied to how we fund highways. The key is to replace the gas tax, not add to it, said Matt Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute, a conservative research group in Columbus. Ohioans now pay an 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax and a 28-cents-a-gallon state gasoline tax.

Life Insurance death benefits to families of U.S. soldiers and Veterans

Representative Debbie Halvorson introduced legislation that would impose new requirements on life insurance companies that hold onto money from death benefits to families of U.S. soldiers and veterans.

New rules proposed by the first-term Illinois Democrat would require companies such as Prudential Financial Inc. to disclose to survivors how the benefits have been invested and to counsel families on the advantages and disadvantages of letting the insurer hold the money instead of investing it elsewhere or putting it in a bank.

Bloomberg Markets magazine reported on July 28 that life insurance companies keep money in their own accounts, instead of paying a lump sum to survivors when a policy holder dies, pay uncompetitive interest rates and offer misleading guarantees about the safety of funds that aren't federally insured.

"To read stories about big insurance companies profiteering at the expense of the parents or spouse of a fallen soldier is outrageous," Halvorson said in a statement. Her bill, introduced July 30, requires the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to enforce the new rules and requires the agency to issue an annual report to Congress to make sure insurance companies "are being responsive to military families."

Prudential, the second-largest U.S. life insurer is the sole provider of life insurance coverage to 6 million U.S. military personnel and veterans.

Financial Counseling
Prudential spokesman Bob DeFillippo said the Newark, New Jersey based company is "working with the VA to address concerns raised about the program."

While saying it is "premature to comment on this legislation," DeFillippo said "I must stress that we already provide financial counseling through a third party at no cost to the beneficiaries."
Halvorson, 52, is the step-mother of an Army Special Forces soldier who was injured in Afghanistan. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, a California Democrat, is co- sponsor of the legislation.

The Veterans Affairs department is investigating the practice, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates pledged on July 29 that the Pentagon will help the agency complete its probe.

New York Probe
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on July 29 announced an investigation of the practice, which has allowed more than 100 carriers to retain and earn investment income on $28 billion owed to life insurance beneficiaries. Cuomo's office has subpoenaed at least eight insurers, including Prudential and New York-based MetLife Inc., the biggest U.S. life insurer. The New York State Insurance Department also plans to review the legality of the practice.

Families are often told that a relative's death benefit is being placed in a secure, interest-bearing account, and they are given what the company calls a "checkbook" to spend the money when they want, Bloomberg Markets reported.

Insurers place the so-called retained-asset accounts in their own general corporate accounts and they keep the difference between the interest rates they pay out and their investment income from bonds and other investments. The money in these accounts isn't guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the "checks" amount to IOUs from the companies.

Obama Signed Additional Unemployment Insurance Payments

On July 22nd afternoon, President Obama signed into law a bill granting workers out of a job for more than 26 weeks additional unemployment insurance payments, paid for by the federal government. The benefits had been in place since November 2009, but had lapsed for seven weeks an unprecedented hiatus, given the 9.5 percent unemployment rate. The bill, held up in the Senate for more than two months by Republicans concerned about the deficit, makes benefits retroactive to June 2 and forward to Nov. 30. In states with higher than 8 percent unemployment, workers will continue to receive up to 99 weeks of benefits.

Around the country, the 99ers those who have exhausted the maximum number of weeks of federal and state unemployment benefits rejoiced. Now, advocates for 99ers, pressing members of Congress to extend benefits beyond 99 weeks and to create additional job-training and public works programs to get them back to work.

But even the most active members of Congress on the unemployment issue say there will be no bill to help 99ers by adding a fifth tier of benefits the most direct way to keep families and individuals out of poverty. The Ways and Means Committee originates most bills concerning unemployment, Social Security, Medicare and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare benefits. Thus far, McDermott is the only member of Congress to have held hearings addressing the plight of the 99ers specifically.

The Senate inaction comes as the government reassesses the severity of the long-term unemployment crisis. Previously, the economists estimated the number of 99ers to be around 1 million. In June, the Labor Department said that 4.3 million Americans have been unemployed for more than one year. But the number is hard to tally. There is no way to track exactly what happens to individuals when they stop collecting benefits whether they make it back to work, or stop looking for a job, or continue the job search. And with the recession lagging on, some Labor Department economists believe the number might be as high as two or three million a population the size of Dallas, and bigger than the U.S. military.

And no matter how big that population is now, economist’s fear it is set to grow. Ninety-nine weeks ago, the recession had been ongoing for about eight months. But employment is a lagging indicator. It takes some time for businesses to notice the downturn in sales, and to make the choice to start reducing their workforces. That started happening in 2008 when the pace of layoffs climbed precipitously. In the first eight months of 2008, employers laid off 1.2 million workers. In the final four months, they laid off 2.4 million.

More layoffs two years ago translate into more 99ers now. And with job growth lagging far below levels needed to reduce the unemployment rate, the jobs situation continues to look parlous.