Friday, November 27, 2009

Signal fading on radio traffic reports

Signal fading on radio traffic reports

By DAISY NGUYEN, Associated Press Writer Daisy Nguyen, Associated Press Writer – 36 mins ago

CORONA, Calif. – For more than 20 years, Mike Nolan was known to radio listeners as the "eye in the sky." He flew over Southern California freeways in his single-engine plane, reporting on the nation's worst traffic.

These days, he broadcasts about traffic snarls and lurking gridlock without leaving the ground — without even leaving his home in this Los Angeles suburb. Sitting in a chair behind computer monitors and a television, Nolan gathers traffic data and broadcasts live on two radio stations a day.

"What I'm best suited to do is look out the airplane window and tell people what I see," Nolan, 60, said. "When I was grounded, that world changed considerably so I had to reinvent myself."

His return to earth reflects the evolution of the traffic reporting business as a faltering economy forces news operation cutbacks, technology displaces traditional reporters and motorists increasingly rely on cell phones and GPS to monitor live traffic.

Most traffic news is now generated by reporters on the ground monitoring police reports, live highway cameras, data from ground sensors that can detect traffic speed and tips from drivers.

Reporters can be hundreds of miles away away from the scene and detail the latest traffic jams to three or four radio stations in the same hour, sometimes using aliases. Rebecca Campbell might report at the top of the hour for the Fox sports station using her own name, then 20 minutes later appear as Toni Jordan on an alternative rock station. For a station popular with Latino listeners, she goes by the name Lena Macias.

Even as traffic reporters have had their wings clipped in recent years, the airwaves ahead appear even more bumpy.

Music stations competing for listeners have been cutting back on disc jockey banter, and some industry veterans believe traffic reports could fade altogether.

"A number of years ago it'd be unheard of to have an FM station in L.A. without traffic reports," said Don Bastida, vice president of operations for Airwatch, one of the nation's largest traffic-reporting services. "Now traffic reports on the music stations become just an interruption that gives the listener an opportunity to hit the button and move on to the next station."

He said traffic reports will remain on the AM dial, but they'll decline to the point that they'll only be offered as part of a news story when a major incident happens.

The region's top-rated pop station, KISS-FM, recently dropped afternoon traffic reports after AMP-FM, a new Top 40 station received higher ratings without traffic updates.

Metro Traffic, a division of Westwood One Inc., began consolidating its 60 traffic reporting operations around the nation last year to just 13. As a result, reporters in the Washington D.C. hub also cover traffic news for Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Some plane and helicopter reporting flights were cut as part of cost reductions that will amount to $55 million to $63 million annually.

Airwatch, a subsidiary of radio giant Clear Channel Communications Inc., has 60 reporters and producers working around the clock to provide traffic updates to more than 40 Southern California stations. They sit side by side in a small studio overlooking an Orange County freeway, staring at computer monitors and TV screens as they speak into the microphones, sometimes talking over each other as they file live reports.

Airwatch's revenue grew each year for nearly 10 years. But in late 2007, seven reporters lost their jobs when Clear Channel downsized the operation.

Nolan was one of them. He took a substantial pay cut to work from the ground. He chose to work from home rather than commute 40 miles roundtrip to the Airwatch studio in Santa Ana.

He now takes a few steps from his bedroom to his study to start his split shifts, from 5 to 9 a.m. then 3 to 7 p.m. He puts on a headset, turns on the stopwatch application on his iPhone, and pulls up a half-dozen Web pages to gather traffic information.

When it's his turn to come on at the top of the hour, 20 minutes past and bottom of the hour on KFI-AM and twice per hour on KOST-FM, Nolan rattles off a list of congested freeways in 40 second to one minute bursts.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1960s, Nolan saw freeways expand deeper into suburbs. Flying over Southern California day in and day out gave him an understanding of traffic patterns that enhance his reports from the ground.

When he reads traffic maps on the computer, he can picture every tunnel, hill and curve and knows when drivers should be slowing down. He can suggest alternate routes and knows what type of incident is likely to cause more misery.

He said that kind of knowledge can't be replaced by GPS-equipped gadgets.

"The radio reporter is going to tell you what's going on where you're going to be in addition to where you are," Nolan said.

Bastida at Airwatch predicts that in a few years, motorists will steer further away from the radio as carmakers add even more navigation systems and Internet-access equipment to vehicles. Airwatch has a growing service providing traffic updates directly to navigational units in vehicles.

"There will be jobs for people gathering and inputting the traffic data, but jobs for broadcasters will be going away," Bastida said.

Not everyone has a bleak outlook.

John Frawley, executive vice president of broadcast operations for Metro Traffic, said traffic news remains a big draw on news and talk stations. He says a device may tell drivers where the traffic jams are and how far the backup is, but it doesn't explain the cause.

"When our people come on, people pay attention," Frawley said. "They're interested that somebody else is suffering in traffic, too."

Deflation, surging yen threaten Japan's recovery

Deflation, surging yen threaten Japan's recovery
Falling prices, soaring yen equal double trouble for shaky Japanese economy

* By Tomoko A. Hosaka, Associated Press Writer
* On 7:03 am EST, Friday November 27, 2009

TOKYO (AP) -- Japan got word Friday that prices fell again in October, just as a surging yen threatens to worsen the deflation that is undermining the country's fragile economy.
AP - Jobless people sleep with their belonging at a park in Tokyo, Japan, Friday, Nov. 27, 2009. The number ...

The core consumer price index, which excludes volatile fresh food, retreated at a near-record pace of 2.2 percent from a year earlier, the government said. Prices have now fallen for eight straight months -- a trend that the government highlighted last week for the first time in three years.

The news came amid heightened concern over the Japanese currency, which hit a new 14-year high against the dollar in early Asian trading. The greenback touched 84.41 yen before recovering to low-86 yen levels.

A strong yen and deflation represent a perilous combination for the world's second-biggest economy.

Falling prices, which plagued Japan during its "Lost Decade" in the 1990s, may sound like a good thing. But deflation can hamper economic growth by depressing company profits, sparking wage cuts and causing consumers to postpone purchases. It also can increase debt burdens.

Meanwhile, a strong yen erodes the overseas profits of Japan's big exporters like Sony Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. It can also aggravate deflation. Prices of imports and raw materials decline, which then pushes domestic consumer prices lower.

"In the midst of deflation, such a sharp rise in the yen is a very serious problem and could drag down the economy," said Fujio Mitarai, head of the Nippon Keidanren, the country's biggest business group. "I certainly hope the government responds with emergency steps."

Concerns overnight about debt problems afflicting Dubai have driven investors to the yen as a safe haven. Dubai World, a government investment fund with debts totaling around $60 billion, has asked creditors if it can postpone payments until May.

The yen also strengthened because of the disappointing comments Thursday by Japanese Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii, analysts said. He sharpened his tone Friday, calling the yen's recent rise "one-sided" and saying the government would take appropriate measures if needed.

"What the market wants is for him to go a step further and say he is actually going to do something," said Akane Vallery Uchida, foreign exchange strategist at The Royal Bank of Scotland in Tokyo. "Unless he becomes more specific about taking action, it's not convincing enough."

Japan hasn't intervened in the currency market since March 2004. But it looks to be edging closer to some sort of action with prices expected to continue falling. The core consumer price index for Tokyo, seen as a barometer for prices nationwide, declined 1.9 percent.

On the labor front, the government released slightly better news.

Japan's unemployment rate improved to 5.1 percent in October, better than 5.3 percent the previous month and July's record high of 5.7 percent.

The number of jobless, however, rose almost 35 percent from a year earlier to 3.44 million, while the number of employed people fell 1.8 percent to 62.71 million, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

The ratio of job offers to job seekers stood at 0.44, up for the second month, the labor ministry said. The figure means there were 44 jobs available for every 100 job seekers.

Analysts said the figures confirm that the labor market probably bottomed this summer, but they warn that the future is far from bright. Companies continue to cut costs and wages, and they may be pressured to pare even more as the strong yen and deflation squeeze profits.

Friday's figures also show that many workers have simply given up looking for work and thus are not counted in the official jobless rate.

"Today's unemployment rate should be seen as indicating stagnation rather than improvement in labor conditions," said Chiwoong Lee, economist at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo. "At the same time, the number of involuntary unemployed remains high, suggesting sustain improvement is not about to begin."

Monthly household spending rose 1.6 percent in October from a year earlier, the government said. The figure was lifted by consumer incentives that drove sales of energy efficient appliances and vehicles, analysts said.

The spending outlook appears mixed, with the uptick in labor market conditions, exports and production serving as positive drivers, said Masamichi Adachi, senior economist at JPMorgan Securities in Tokyo.

"But a stall of improvement in business sentiment, particularly with the recent sharp appreciation of yen, and an expected record plunge in winter bonus are discouraging," he said in a note to clients.

Household spending is a key indicator of private consumption, which accounts for about 60 percent of Japan's economy.

Shoppers pack stores as holiday season revs up

Shoppers pack stores as holiday season revs up
Ready, set, shop: Stores open doors to crowds for traditional start of holiday buying season

* By Anne D'Innocenzio, AP Retail Writer
* On 8:56 am EST, Friday November 27, 2009

Shoppers crowded stores and malls in the wee hours Friday, some after spending the night waiting in line, to grab early morning deals and hard-to-find items.
AP - Shoppers line up to pay for their purchases at a Kohl's store in Omaha, Neb., Friday, Nov. 27, ...

The nation's retailers expanded their hours and offered deep discounts on everything from toys to TVs in hopes of getting consumers, many of whom are worried about high unemployment and tight credit, to open their wallets.

A number of stores, including Walmart and many Old Navy locations, opened on Thanksgiving, hoping to make the most of the extra hours. Toys R Us opened most of its stores just after midnight Friday.

But worries about jobs clearly were on top of shoppers' minds as they focused on big bargains on TVs and practical gifts.

At a Best Buy in suburban Cincinnati, store officials said some people starting camping out with tents at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. The store started handing out tickets for big items, like laptop computers and televisions, around 4 a.m. Friday.

Robin Fryman, 47, of Mount Orab, Ohio, said she and her daughter, a friend and her husband got out at 6:30 a.m. for deals at Best Buy. Her hours as a food worker were recently cut from 40 to 25 per week.

"I've definitely cut down. You have to cut down, because you have to eat," Fryman said. "It's definitely made a difference in the way I'm shopping."

She said she usually shops on Black Friday, but got out earlier this year to find a camera for her daughter. They bought a $300 Nikon camera for $172. Other than that, she's focusing mostly on practical items like clothing.

Dondrae May, a manager at Best Buy's Framingham, Mass., store, said shoppers started lining up at 4 p.m. Thursday for the 5 a.m. opening for the limited early morning specials like the $299 32-inch Dynex flat-panel TV.

He noted that crowds were larger than last year and that shoppers were filling their basket with more items than a year ago, when they were shellshocked following the ballooning of the financial meltdown. The biggest draws were laptops, TVs and GPS systems, he said.

"A year ago, they were focused on what they needed," he said.

At a Walmart in suburban Marietta, Ga, early morning specials on flat-panel TVs, cameras and other electronics were sold out before 7 a.m., two hours after the store started selling the early morning specials. Aside from electronics, store clerks said $2 bath towels, kitchen items and children's toys also were selling well.

Most of the Walmart stores were open on Thanksgiving to prevent the mad dash for the 5 a.m. opening in the aftermath of the death of a Walmart worker on Black Friday in a Long Island store.

After suffering the worst sales decline in several decades last holiday season, the good news is that the retail industry is heading into the Christmas selling period armed with lean inventories and more practical goods on their shelves that reflect shoppers' new psyche.

Still, with unemployment at 10.2 percent, many analysts expect that total holiday sales will be at best about even from a year ago.

Optimism rose in early fall as shoppers spent a little more, but stores say they've seen a sales slowdown since Halloween, putting merchants more on edge.

The promotional blitz typical for the traditional start of the holiday shopping season has high stakes for retailers who've suffered through a year of sales declines. It's also important for the broader economy, which could use a kickstart from consumer spending.

Black Friday gets its name because it traditionally was the day when huge crowds would push stores into "the black," or profitability. But the weekend doesn't provide a forecast for the rest of the season, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual sales and profits for many stores.

Still, retailers closely study buying patterns for the Thanksgiving weekend to gauge shoppers' mindset -- what kinds of items they're buying, what deals are luring them.

Stores need to perform well for the traditional start because chances are slim they'll be able to make up for lost sales for the rest of the season.

Associated Press Writer Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati, AP Writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta and AP Retail Writers Betsy Vereckey and Mae Anderson in New York City contributed to this report.

Chile Ministry Formally Answers Peru Espionage Allegations

Chile Ministry Formally Answers Peru Espionage Allegations

SANTIAGO -(Dow Jones)- Chile's Foreign Affairs Ministry handed Peruvian authorities a formal response Tuesday to Peru's accusations Chile has been spying on its neighbor.

Peruvian authorities recently detained a Peruvian military officer, alleging he had spied for neighboring Chile, increasing tensions between the two nations- -which are currently disputing a shared maritime border.

Through diplomatic channels, the Ministry sent its Peruvian counterpart a " verbal note" in which it said that Chile will carry out a "careful study" of documents sent by Peru as evidence of the alleged espionage. Chile's Foreign Ministry, however, does not mention whether a formal investigation will be launched. The results will be sent to Peru once the study is finished, the ministry said in a statement.

Last week Peru's foreign relations minister, García Belaunde, said that if Chile doesn't "investigate" the supposed case of espionage "the whole of the two countries' ties would be evaluated." Some members of Peru's Parliament have asked for the bilateral trade agreement with Chile to be revoked.

The Chilean response also states that the tone of Peru's allegations aren't conducive to "the constructive spirit in which bilateral relations should be conducted."

Relations between the two countries had already been especially cool this year because of increased Chilean arms purchases, and Peru's demands at the International Court of Justice at The Hague over a maritime border Chile considers its own.

-By Anthony Esposito, Dow Jones Newswires;

Oil slides below $74 as Dubai woes roil markets

Oil slides below $74 as Dubai woes roil markets
Oil price slides below $74 in Europe as Dubai woes roil markets, deepen economic concerns

* By Barry Hatton, Associated Press Writer
* On 6:38 am EST, Friday November 27, 2009

Oil prices dipped below $74 a barrel Friday as Dubai's debt problems jolted world markets and raised concern about the prospects for global economic recovery.

By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark crude for January delivery was down $4.01 to $73.95 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose $1.94 to settle at $77.96 on Wednesday.

Just a year after the global downturn derailed Dubai's explosive growth, the emirate is now so swamped in debt that it's asking for a six-month reprieve on paying its bills. Its main development engine, Dubai World, has said it would ask creditors for a "standstill" on paying back its $60 billion debt until at least May.

That news roiled markets worldwide and sent crude tumbling more than 6 percent in Asia to $72.39 a barrel before the price recovered.

Dubai "provided a wake-up call that not all is yet back to normal" with the world economy, Petromatrix Research said in a report.

"The main factor in the fall seems to be the events in Dubai," said Nick Raffan, head of mining and resources research at consultancy Fat Prophets in Sydney. "People are suddenly reevaluating their risk appetite."

Raffan said oil's losses Friday were driven by increased wariness about investment in riskier assets such as stocks and commodities rather than new information about actual demand for oil.

However, recent figures on durable goods orders in the U.S. suggest growth in demand for oil is likely to remain subdued for awhile, he said.

"Overall U.S. demand for petroleum products remains weak," Petromatrix Research said, adding that most OPEC countries are exceeding their production quota despite the uncertain market for crude.

Trading in the U.S. was closed Thursday for the Thanksgiving holiday.

After zooming to $147 a barrel in July 2008 and crashing to $32 in December, oil prices have meandered in the high $70s for more than a month as investors weigh a slow U.S. recovery against surging Asian demand.

In other Nymex trading, heating oil fell 7.5 cents to $1.9152 a gallon. Gasoline for December delivery dropped 8.9 cents to $1.9083 a gallon. Natural gas for January delivery slid 8.3 cents to $5.080 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, Brent crude for January delivery was down $1.87 to $75.12 on the ICE Futures exchange.

Associated Press writer Stephen Wright in Bangkok contributed to this report.

European Banks Have Total UAE Loan Exposure Of $83.7 Billion -RBS

European Banks Have Total UAE Loan Exposure Of $83.7 Billion -RBS

LONDON -(Dow Jones)- European banks have a total of $83.7 billion of loan exposure to the United Arab Emirates, Jaques Callioux, Chief euro-zone Economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland said in a report released Friday.

Using data compiled by the Bank for International Settlements, Callioux said U.K. banks have by far the largest exposure at $49.5 billion, while French and German banks top the euro-zone list with $11.3 billion and $10.2 billion respectively.

Dutch banks have exposure of $4.7 billion, while Swiss banks have $4.3 billion and Italian and Belgian banks share in $3.2 billion.

The scramble to assess which banks have the largest exposure comes after Dubai World, a state-controlled investment company in property and financial services, announced earlier this week that it is asking for a six-month standstill on its debts.

Dubai is one of seven emirates comprising the UAE.

Around half of Dubai World's $60 billion in liabilities have been estimated by Credit Suisse analysts to be held by European banks.

Indeed, analysts at Unicredit commented in their morning credit note that exposure is most likely concentrated in euro-zone and U.K. banks which could " still represent a blow to several names."

Most banks have so far said that either their exposure to Dubai and Dubai World is small, or wouldn't comment on the situation.

RBS's Callioux stressed that, while the data in the report measure exposure to the United Arab Emirates and not to Dubai, they should still serve to provide a rough guide to relative European country exposures.

Callioux also noted that the data only covers loans and not bonds.

-By Michael Wilson, Dow Jones Newswires; 44 20 7842 9349, michael.wilson@

US stock futures tumble as world market slide on fears over fallout from Dubai debt problems

US stock futures tumble on fears over Dubai debt

US stock futures tumble as world market slide on fears over fallout from Dubai debt problems

  • On 7:22 am EST, Friday November 27, 2009
NEW YORK (AP) -- U.S. stock futures plunged Friday as a wave of fear swept through world markets over concerns that financial trouble in the Middle Eastern city-state of Dubai will upend a global economic recovery.
Stock futures fell more than 2 percent and Treasury prices jumped sharply. The dollar gained against most other major currencies as investors sought safety following steep drops in overseas markets Thursday and again Friday. Commodities prices tumbled.
U.S. markets were closed Thursday for Thanksgiving.
Investors are worried that a default by a government investment company in Dubai over $60 billion in debt payments could have a ripple effect in world financial markets. The fear is that losses in the small emirate, which has drawn wealthy tourists from around the globe in the past decade with its Las Vegas-in-the-Middle East appeal, could imperil a nascent economic rebound.
Worries about bad debt are fresh in investors' minds after the collapse of the U.S. brokerage Lehman Brothers in September last year pushed the world overnight deeper into recession as banks halted lending on fears of a domino effect of bad loans.
The latest trouble on Wall Street come as the U.S. kicks off the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season. Investors will be tracking news from retailers for insights into how much consumers will spend in the coming month. Consumer spending is the biggest driver of the U.S. economy.
Dow Jones industrial average futures are down 222, or 2.1 percent, at 10,220. Standard & Poor's 500 index futures are down 29.20, or 2.6 percent, at 1,079.70. Nasdaq 100 index futures are down 47.25, or 2.6 percent, at 1,747.00.
Trading volume had been expected to be light ahead of a shortened trading session. Light volume could trigger volatility. Stock markets close three hours early, at 1 p.m. EST. Bond markets close a 2 p.m.
Investors rushed into the safety of U.S. government debt. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 3.22 percent from 3.28 percent late Wednesday. The yield on the three-month T-bill rose to 0.04 percent from 0.03 percent.
The ICE Futures U.S. dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of foreign currencies, rose 0.6 percent. The yen, also a safe-haven currency, was higher, hitting a 14-year high against the dollar.
Commodities, which are priced in dollars, fell as the dollar gained. The move reflected an unwinding of trades that relied on a weak dollar to finance purchases of higher-yielding assets. Spooked traders reversing the so-called "carry trade" were demanding safe-haven assets.
Light, sweet crude fell $3.68 to $74.28 in electronic trading ahead of the open of the New York Mercantile Exchange.
European markets, which fell more than 3 percent Thursday, pulled off their worst levels Friday. In afternoon trading, Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.5 percent, Germany's DAX index fell 0.5 percent and France's CAC-40 fell 0.3 percent.
In Asia, Japan's Nikkei stock average slid 3.2 percent. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index tumbled 4.8 percent. South Korea's benchmark dropped 4.7 percent.
Dubai woes hit world stocks again; Asia down most
Dubai debt trouble weighs on world markets again; Asia bears brunt of selling

* By Pan Pylas, AP Business Writer
* On 7:38 am EST, Friday November 27, 2009

LONDON (AP) -- European stock markets regained their poise Friday but Asia fell sharply as investors weighed the impact that Dubai's trouble with $60 billion in debt would have on the global financial and economic recovery.
AP - A money trader work at a dealing room the U.S. dollar rate against Japanese yen on the Foreign ...

AP - A money trader work at a dealing room the U.S. dollar rate against Japanese yen on the Foreign ...

Market confidence has been hit hard by Wednesday's news that Dubai World, a government investment company, has asked creditors if it can postpone its forthcoming payments until May. That stoked fears, mainly in Europe on Thursday, of a potential default and contagion around the global financial system, particularly in emerging markets.

Asian stocks were particularly badly hit as they played catch-up following the big losses in Europe in the previous session. Hong Kong's Hang Seng closed 1,075.91 points, or 4.8 percent, lower at 21,134.50, while South Korea's benchmark plummeted 4.7 percent to 1,524.50.

In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was down 14.18 points, or 0.3 percent, at 5,179.95, while Germany's DAX fell 13.08 points, or 0.2 percent, to 5,601.09. The CAC-40 in France was 15.02 points, or 0.4 percent, lower at 3,664.21. On Thursday, Europe's main indexes slid over 3 percent, with banks, especially those thought to have exposure to Dubai such as Barclays PLC, HSBC PLC and Standard Chartered PLC, particularly badly hit.

All eyes in Europe will be on Wall Street, which was closed Thursday for the Thanksgiving Holiday. Expectations are that it will open down but that the selling won't turn into a rout -- Dow futures were down 236 points, or 2.3 percent, at 10,206 while the broader Standard & Poor's 500 futures slid 31.1 points, or 2.8 percent, at 1,077.80.

"It is likely to take at least a few days before the implications of the impact of a possible default from Dubai are properly digested but for the present it seems that the market is seeing this negative news as a blow to the global recovery but not one that will push it off course," said Jane Foley, research director at

Across all markets, there is a growing awareness that investors may use the upcoming year-end to lock-in whatever profits have been made over the last 12 months.

"Market cynics have been looking for a correction in the equity market, which has blazed the trail in the past seven months," said David Buik, markets analyst at BGC Partners.

"However they have been unable to find sufficient reasons to nail their flag to the mast, by taking profits, whilst alternative asset classes were unattractive options -- well they certainly found an excuse yesterday with the Dubai debt debacle," he added.

Investors were also keeping a close eye on associated developments in the currency markets after the dollar slid to a new 14-year low of 84.81 yen.

However, the dollar climbed back off its lows to 86.46 yen amid mounting expectations that the Bank of Japan may intervene in the markets by buying dollars or selling yen after Japan's finance minister Hirohisa Fujii said he was "extremely nervous" about the movements in the yen and that the "market had moved too far in one direction."

On Thursday, the Swiss National Bank reportedly intervened to buy dollars to prevent the export-sapping appreciation of the Swiss franc. That seems to have worked -- for now, at least -- as the dollar has moved back above parity, trading 0.9 percent higher at 1.0118 Swiss francs.

The British pound has also been battered amid fears about the exposure of Britain's banks to the region. The pound was down 0.9 percent at $1.6375.

Another currency losing some of its shine was the euro, which fell 0.8 percent to $1.4906 -- in times of uncertainty the dollar is considered to be more of a safe haven currency. Investors are also concerned about the exposure of European banks to Dubai.

Elsewhere in Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 stock average fell 301.72 points, or 3.2 percent, to 9,081.52 while Australia's index dropped 2.9 percent. China's main Shanghai stock measure was off 2.4 percent.

Oil, meanwhile, tracked developments in stock markets and benchmark crude for January delivery fell $3.79 to $74.17 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

AP Business Writer Jeremiah Marquez in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

The FDIC Is Broke

Link 1

TickerForum Link 2

Yes, really.
Off the wire this morning:
FDIC Deposit fund had negative $8.2B balance in Q3
That's broke.  Bankrupt.  Kaput.  Gone.  Poof.  Dead.  Rotting.  A corpse.
Yes, yes, I know, Treasury has their back.  But let's not forget - The FDIC does not have a legal "full faith and credit" guarantee from the US Federal Government and Treasury.
It has a "sense of Congress" resolution, but not a formal, legally-binding guarantee.
I am not, by the way, predicting an actual FDIC failure to pay.  Should such an event happen it would be tantamount to a declaration of revolutionary war (by the government about to be deposed!) as if there is one thing that would cause Granny to reach for her shotgun, it would be getting screwed out of her life savings after Sheila Bair and everyone else in our government has trotted out how their money is "fully safe" and that "nobody has ever lost a penny of insured deposits and never will" for more than 20 years, including lots of pronouncements of exactly that mantra over the last year.
Nonetheless this outlines the underlying problem the FDIC has - it has willfully and intentionally ignored the fact that banks have mismarked their "assets" to overstate their values, it has refused to demand that accounting be done on a strict "mark to market" basis by bank examiners, and indeed, it has backed the "extend and pretend" commercial real estate "rollover" provisions of recent months, all of which is manifestly unsound, intentionally misleading, a consequence of willful refusal to enforce 12 USC Ch 16 Sec 1831o ("Prompt Corrective Action"), and has led to enormous losses being absorbed by the Deposit Insurance Fund that should have never happened.
The result?
Let's put this in common-man terms:
Congratulations Sheila - is that your resignation I see in your hand or is that your promotion from Obama - after all, we all know that in Government the more you screw up and screw the taxpayer, the better the job you're offered.
One final question: Is the only thing preventing panic and bank runs the sheer stupidity of The American People?

Monday, November 23, 2009

21 Filipinos Are Reported Dead in Election Violence

Published: November 23, 2009

MANILA — In one of the worst incidents of election-related violence in the Philippines in recent memory, a group of 36 people — including lawyers and journalists — were kidnapped by armed men on Monday, and military officials said that 21 of them had been killed.

Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner, a military spokesman in Manila, said 21 bodies had been recovered in Maguindanao, a province in the southern Philippines that has often been wracked by violence during elections.

Maj. Gen. Alfredo Cayton, a security official in the province, said in a radio interview that the victims had been shot. But relatives of most of the victims said at least 30 abductees had been killed — many of them beheaded — by a group of about 100 men.

The victims were reportedly stopped on their way to an election office to file candidacy papers for Esmael Mangudadatu, the deputy mayor of the town of Buluan who plans to run for governor of Maguindanao. Mr. Mangudadatu said on ABS-CBN television that his wife, his sister and several other female relatives were among the group and that he had received confirmation that they had been killed.

He said they were filing his candidacy documents in the hopes that women would not be attacked.
Lawyers and reporters accompanied the group, although the military did not identify the bodies they had recovered.

Mr. Mangudadatu’s uncle, Pax Mangudadatu, the governor of Sultan Kudarat Province, said the deputy mayor’s supporters had been targeted by backers of Andal Ampatuan, the current governor of Maguindanao.

The families are bitter political enemies.

The governor did not issue an immediate comment about the attack.

Islamist separatism and longstanding clan rivalries can complicate and inflame the security situation during Philippine election campaigns. Armed criminal groups and thugs hired by political warlords have worsened the situation.

The Philippines is due to hold local and national elections in May. The filing of candidacy documents began Nov. 20.
Researcher's labour of love leads to MS breakthrough

Elena Ravalli was a seemingly healthy 37-year-old when she began to experience strange attacks of vertigo, numbness, temporary vision loss and crushing fatigue. They were classic signs of multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating neurological disease.

It was 1995 and her husband, Paolo Zamboni, a professor of medicine at the University of Ferrara in Italy, set out to help. He was determined to solve the mystery of MS – an illness that strikes people in the prime of their lives but whose causes are unknown and whose effective treatments are few.

What he learned in his medical detective work, scouring dusty old books and using ultra-modern imaging techniques, could well turn what we know about MS on its head: Dr. Zamboni's research suggests that MS is not, as widely believed, an autoimmune condition, but a vascular disease.

More radical still, the experimental surgery he performed on his wife offers hope that MS, which afflicts 2.5 million people worldwide, can be cured and even largely prevented.

“I am confident that this could be a revolution for the research and diagnosis of multiple sclerosis,” Dr. Zamboni said in an interview.

Not everyone is so bullish: Skeptics warn the evidence is too scant and speculative to start rewriting medical textbooks. Even those intrigued by the theory caution that MS sufferers should not rush off to get the surgery – nicknamed the “liberation procedure” – until more research is done.

U.S. and Canadian researchers are trying to test Dr. Zamboni's premise.

For the Italian professor, however, the quest was both personal and professional and the results were stunning.

Fighting for his wife's health, Dr. Zamboni looked for answers in the medical literature. He found repeated references, dating back a century, to excess iron as a possible cause of MS. The heavy metal can cause inflammation and cell death, hallmarks of the disease. The vascular surgeon was intrigued – coincidentally, he had been researching how iron buildup damages blood vessels in the legs, and wondered if there could be a similar problem in the blood vessels of the brain.

Using ultrasound to examine the vessels leading in and out of the brain, Dr. Zamboni made a startling find: In more than 90 per cent of people with multiple sclerosis, including his spouse, the veins draining blood from the brain were malformed or blocked. In people without MS, they were not.

He hypothesized that iron was damaging the blood vessels and allowing the heavy metal, along with other unwelcome cells, to cross the crucial brain-blood barrier. (The barrier keeps blood and cerebrospinal fluid separate. In MS, immune cells cross the blood-brain barrier, where they destroy myelin, a crucial sheathing on nerves.)

More striking still was that, when Dr. Zamboni performed a simple operation to unclog veins and get blood flowing normally again, many of the symptoms of MS disappeared. The procedure is similar to angioplasty, in which a catheter is threaded into the groin and up into the arteries, where a balloon is inflated to clear the blockages. His wife, who had the surgery three years ago, has not had an attack since.

The researcher's theory is simple: that the underlying cause of MS is a condition he has dubbed “chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency.” If you tackle CCSVI by repairing the drainage problems from the brain, you can successfully treat, or better still prevent, the disease.

“If this is proven correct, it will be a very, very big discovery because we'll completely change the way we think about MS, and how we'll treat it,” said Bianca Weinstock-Guttman, an associate professor of neurology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The initial studies done in Italy were small but the outcomes were dramatic. In a group of 65 patients with relapsing-remitting MS (the most common form) who underwent surgery, the number of active lesions in the brain fell sharply, to 12 per cent from 50 per cent; in the two years after surgery, 73 per cent of patients had no symptoms.

“ I am confident that this could be a revolution for the research and diagnosis of multiple sclerosis ”— Dr. Paolo Zamboni

Augusto Zeppi, a 40-year-old resident of the northern Italian city of Ferrara, was one of those patients. Diagnosed with MS nine years ago, he suffered severe attacks every four months that lasted weeks at a time – leaving him unable to use his arms and legs and with debilitating fatigue. “Everything I was dreaming for my future adult life, it was game over,” he said.

Scans showed that his two jugular veins were blocked, 60 and 80 per cent respectively. In 2007, he was one of the first to undergo the experimental surgery to unblock the veins. He had a second operation a year later, when one of his jugular veins was blocked anew.

After the procedures, Mr. Zeppi said he was reborn. “I don't remember what it's like to have MS,” he said. “It gave me a second life.”

Buffalo researchers are now recruiting 1,700 adults and children from the United States and Canada. They plan to test MS sufferers and non-sufferers alike and, using ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging, do detailed analyses of blood flow in and out of the brain and examine iron deposits.

Another researcher, Mark Haacke, an adjunct professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, is urging patients to send him MRI scans of their heads and necks so he can probe the Zamboni theory further. Dr. Haacke is a world-renowned expert in imaging who has developed a method of measuring iron buildup in the brain.

“Patients need to speak up and say they want something like this investigated … to see if there's credence to the theory,” he said.

MS societies in Canada and the United States, however, have reacted far more cautiously to Dr. Zamboni's conclusion. “Many questions remain about how and when this phenomenon might play a role in nervous system damage seen in MS, and at the present time there is insufficient evidence to suggest that this phenomenon is the cause of MS,” said the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.

The U.S. society goes further, discouraging patients from getting tested or seeking surgical treatment. Rather, it continues to promote drug treatments used to alleviate symptoms, which include corticosteroids, chemotherapy agents and pain medication.

Many people with multiple sclerosis, though, are impatient for results. Chatter about CCSVI is frequent in online MS support groups, and patients are scrambling to be part of the research, particularly when they hear the testimonials.

Kevin Lipp, a 49-year-old resident of Buffalo, was diagnosed with MS a decade ago and has suffered increasingly severe attacks, especially in the heat. (Heat sensitivity is a common symptom of MS.) His symptoms were so bad that he was unable to work and closed his ice-cream shop.

Mr. Lipp was tested and doctors discovered blockages in both his jugular and azygos veins. In January of this year, he travelled to Italy for surgery, which cleared five blockages, and he began to feel better almost immediately.

“I felt good. I felt totally normal. I felt like I did years ago,” he said. He has not had an attack since.

As part of the research project, Mr. Lipp's siblings have also been tested. His two sisters, both of whom have MS, have significant blockages and iron deposits, while his brother, who does not have MS, has neither iron buildup nor blocked arteries.

While it has long been known that there is a genetic component to multiple sclerosis, the new theory is that it is CCSVI that is hereditary – that people are born with malformed valves and strictures in the large veins of the neck and brain. These problems lead to poor blood drainage and even reversal of blood flow direction that can cause inflammation, iron buildup and the brain lesions characteristic of multiple sclerosis.

It is well-established that the symptoms of MS are caused by a breakdown of myelin, a fatty substance that coats nerve cells and plays a crucial role in transmitting messages to the central nervous system. When those messages are blurred, nerves malfunction, causing all manner of woes, including blurred eyesight, loss of sensation in the limbs and even paralysis.

However, it is unclear what triggers the breakdown of myelin. There are various theories, including exposure to a virus in childhood, vitamin D deficiency, hormones – and now, buildup of iron in the brain because of poor blood flow.

While he is convinced of the significance of his discovery, Dr. Zamboni recognizes that medicine is slow to accept new theories and even slower to act on them. Regardless, he can take satisfaction in knowing that the woman who inspired the quest, and perhaps a dramatic breakthrough, has benefited tremendously.

Dr. Zamboni's wife, Elena, has undergone a battery of scans and neurological tests and her multiple sclerosis is, for all intents and purposes, gone.

“This is probably the best prize of the research,” he said.

André Picard is the public health reporter at The Globe and Mail. Avis Favaro is the medical correspondent at CTV News.

With reports from Elizabeth St. Philip, CTV News
I have been a little lax in updating my articles about disease-modifying drugs for multiple sclerosis. Honestly, I attempted to find the pricing information a couple of times in the past, but this information was difficult to locate easily. I recently found a really cool site where all of this info is readily available – You can go to this site and enter your drug name and information about the minimum and maximum monthly cost (although the site does not provide information about where to get drugs at these prices).

This morning I decided to go in and “clean house,” bringing the prices of the currently available drugs up to date.

I did know that the drug prices had risen in the two years since I wrote these articles, but I was pretty shocked at the extent of the increase. Check out these current annual prices:

* Avonex (was $10,000/year): Minimum price = $23,736; Maximum price = $30,660
* Betaseron (was $10,000/year): Minimum price = $22,272; Maximum price = $32,616
* Copaxone (was $10,000/year): Minimum price = $23,208; Maximum price = $33,804
* Rebif was (was $15,600/year): Minimum price = $25,068; Maximum price = $30,756
* Tysabri (was $28,400/year): Now costs 31,332 for the drug itself, with additional charges for the infusion facility or clinic fees.

However, it is unclear what triggers the breakdown of myelin. (Start eating corn again on a regular basis!)

'What's Twitter?' asks China following Obama revelation

'What's Twitter?' asks China following Obama revelation

US President Barack Obama greets guests at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

If the president had talked instead about Jiwai or Fanfou – Twitter's Chinese rivals – China would have been less confused

When Barack Obama told students in Shanghai last week that he had never used Twitter, there were two responses. In the west, surprise from some of his 2.6 million followers. And in China, reportedly, a surge in queries on Google China: "What's Twitter?"

On the mainland, it is "popular only within a tiny circle of white collar workers", observed a state-run website recently. The article failed to mention that the service had been blocked a few weeks before – two days before the 20th anniversary of the bloody suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square.

Other sites, including Facebook and YouTube, are victims of a longer running clampdown. While the tech-savvy still access them via proxies or a virtual private network (VPN), to do so is increasingly inconvenient. "If you look at the sites blocked now and those blocked five years ago, it's gone from web 1.0 to web 2.0 – it's social media," says Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based expert on internet use in China. "The authorities are not worried about people having access to what the rest of the world is saying, but about the ability of these tools to spread rumours very, very quickly."

Two of Twitter's most popular local rivals – Jiwai and Fanfou – were taken offline shortly after 197 people died in clashes in Xinjiang. State media have alleged that social media "spread misinformation" and even that outsiders used them to orchestrate the violence.

"It kills me that Jiwai and Fanfou were so much more widely used than Twitter and no one talks about them," adds Kuo. "Everyone is wrapped up in the belief that it's Twitter or nothing, but I'd guess the number of Twitter users here is vanishingly small."

China has the world's largest internet population, currently estimated at 360 million. But the online giants are all domestic. Users understandably prefer interfaces designed for them, in their language, and speedier service thanks to servers based on the mainland.

Social networking sites are hugely popular, with a recent report saying about 124 million people use them, on average having two or three accounts; QQ, the market leader, boasts over 60 million users. But such services survive because these companies are huge enough to constantly monitor content and delete anything sensitive.

One Chinese user has a special reason to stick with Twitter. When the blogger Peter Guo (@amoiist) was detained, his tweet "I have been arrested by Mawei police, SOS" alerted friends. The result: innumerable retweets – and, a few days later, his release.

China's hidden debt problem

China's hidden debt problem
Despite robust growth, the world's third largest economy is potentially deeper in debt than originally thought.

July 27, 2009: 6:32 AM ET

BEIJING (Reuters) -- On the surface, China presents a fiscal study in contrast with the United States, keeping a remarkably low ceiling on debt even as it spends its way out of the financial crisis.

But when Chinese leaders meet their U.S. counterparts this week, they should pause for reflection before venting any criticism, because hidden liabilities mean China's books are uglier -- potentially much uglier -- than at first sight.

Thanks to successive years of fast economic growth and even faster government revenue growth, the official debt-to-GDP ratio was 17.7% at the end of last year, far lower than almost any other major economy.

The trouble is that excludes local government borrowing, the current surge in loans backstopped by Beijing and bad assets cleared from the banking system but still floating about.

When all are thrown into the pot, analysts estimate that China's debt may be closer to 60% of GDP, putting it in virtually the same league as the United States, which was at 70% at the end of 2008 before it launched its massive economic stimulus program.

To be sure, Washington is now set on a path of exploding debt that Beijing will largely avoid. The United States budgeted for a federal deficit of 12.9% of GDP this year, whereas China is aiming for just 2.9%.

But China's finances are deteriorating more quickly than the government expected, fueling a rise in the stock of both explicit and disguised debt that will constrict its wriggle room.

"It is serious because, one, much of it is hidden and, two, local governments are currently doubling down on their bets," said Stephen Green, economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Shanghai. "As with all fiscal deficits, it limits space for further stimulus."

This is probably a moot point, for now. With China's economy back on track and private-sector investment kicking in, few think Beijing will need to ramp up spending beyond its existing 4 trillion yuan ($585 billion), two-year stimulus plan. But the narrowing of options still discomfits Chinese leaders.

"Our fiscal work is very grim," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told officials last week.
Eroding finances

Government revenues declined 2.4% in the first half compared to a year earlier, well shy of the official goal of an 8% rise. Expenditures were ahead of target and set to surge in the second half on the back of infrastructure projects.

Tax intakes are, of course, closely tied to economic activity, so China's upturn should deliver cash to government coffers. But improvement in June came mainly from land sales, a one-off revenue source that masks the difficult road ahead.

"Even when we are already factoring in relatively optimistic revenue growth due to the economic recovery, the deficit is quite sticky at around 5 % per year for the next three years," said Isaac Meng, economist at BNP Paribas in Beijing.

But the real worry is the thickening morass of indirect debt.

Officials at the Ministry of Finance estimated earlier this year that local government debt already topped 4 trillion yuan, or 16.5% of GDP, much more than previously assumed.

Above and beyond that are 400 billion yuan in bad loans in banks' hands and at least 1 trillion yuan in non-performing debt hived off their books and assigned to asset management companies. The buck stops with Beijing on all of these.

The record surge in bank lending this year means that its sum of liabilities is about to swell in size.

Banks have showered money on infrastructure projects that are seen as having iron-clad government guarantees. Green said he "conservatively" estimates that Beijing's bill for covering loans issued this year alone will be 1.75 trillion yuan, enough to push its 2009 deficit to 10% of GDP.
"Debt bomb"

Most troublesome of all is the potential for a "debt bomb", in the words of China's Economic Observer newspaper, at lower levels of government as officials engage in financial engineering that is both opaque and highly leveraged.

Rules prevent Chinese banks from lending to governments the equity capital which they need to obtain further loans for investment. But local officials and banks are now exploiting a vast loophole thanks to intermediaries known as trust companies.

The process is simple enough. Trusts create specially designed "wealth products", which banks sell to their clients. Banks then give the funds to the trusts and they, in turn, funnel them to governments as equity capital.

Local authorities, in short, are piling debt on top of debt. The Chinese banking regulator has started to warn trusts and banks of the growing risks, state media recently reported.

It was not long ago that bad loans in China's banking system seemed to pose a massive debt threat to the wider economy. The core solution over the past decade was sustained double-digit growth, vastly expanding the denominator in debt-to-GDP ratios and generating the taxes to pay down the numerator.

Beijing is already looking to raise taxes where it can -- increasing the levy on cigarettes, for example -- but a return to super-charged growth is again its principal debt reduction plan.

In the meantime, China needs to fund its rising deficit.

On that front, at least, the government can be supremely confident, even if it has to issue more than the planned 950 billion yuan in bonds this year and yet more to cover shortfalls in coming years.

"There is so much saving and so much liquidity, so there is definitely not a problem that China will not be able to finance its deficit," said Tao Wang, UBS economist in Beijing. To top of page

Tight security a month from quake

Tight security a month from quake

A man wearing a T-shirt showing the date and time of the quake sits on a hillside in Luoshui on 8 June 2008

Millions of people lost relatives, homes and livelihoods in the earthquake

A month on from the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese officials have imposed tight security in some of the damaged areas, apparently to prevent protests.

Police in the city of Dujianyan stopped parents from holding a memorial ceremony at the rubble of a collapsed school where their children died.

Journalists were told they were banned from the city, and some were detained.

Parents have been demanding to know whether poorly-built schools played a part in the deaths of their children.

Thousands of schoolchildren were among the 87,000 people killed or missing after the massive 12 May earthquake.

Five million people also lost their homes, and officials estimate rebuilding work will take at least three years.

Looking for blame

The government's rapid response to the disaster has drawn widespread praise, but tensions are emerging as efforts shift to focus on reconstruction.

Parents who lost their children want to know why so many schools collapsed - something many blame on shoddy construction linked to local corruption.

The government has done a good job so far but we need to know what is going to happen to us
Bai Tao,
Sichuan resident

Early on Thursday, a number of parents tried to get the remains of the Dujiangyan primary school to hold a small memorial, but a line of police stopped them from going inside.

The Chinese media had been instructed not to cover this kind of story, and a member of the BBC and five other journalists were detained for a short time for approaching the parents.

"This is not censorship," one policeman told the BBC's China correspondent James Reynolds.

Police also reportedly cordoned off a collapsed middle school in Juyuan after a 50-strong crowd gathered outside.

"All we want to do is remember them this day," Zhao Deqin, a mother whose 15-year-old twin daughters died in the disaster, told Reuters news agency.

In Beichuan, where about 1,300 children were killed, parents were able to gather around the remains of a school to grieve.

Mu Qibing, whose 17-year-old son was killed, told Reuters: "They said this building was strong and quake-proof, but when we saw it, the concrete was like talcum powder and the steel was as thin as noodles."

"None of us have seen our children yet, not even after one month."

Beichuan suffered such severe damage that the whole town will be rebuilt in a new location.

'What happens now?'

China is not holding any formal commemorations to mark the one month anniversary of the earthquake.

A woman looks at pictures of children killed when a school collapsed in Luoshui, 8 June 2008

Burning questions of bereaved
The government has ordered its departments to cut spending so that funds can be allocated to reconstruction efforts.

"The government has done a good job so far but we need to know what is going to happen to us," Bai Tao, who lost his home and business, told AFP news agency.

"We business people have real problems. But all we've gotten is free water and instant noodles. We need to know about the future," he said.

The BBC's China analyst, Shirong Chen, says the earthquake has brought about unexpected political and social change that will directly affect the reconstruction effort.

The unprecedented openness in China's media coverage is likely to continue, he says, and there will be a demand for accountability in the way tens of millions of dollars of donations are used.

The earthquake has also injected a strong sense of national unity, he adds, with volunteers from all over the country pouring into disaster areas to work alongside soldiers and rescue teams.

Prison term for Chinese activist

Prison term for Chinese activist
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Chinese activist Huang Qi has been sentenced to three years in prison for "illegally holding state secrets".

Mr Huang was arrested after helping families whose children died during the earthquake in Sichuan in May last year.

The activist's wife, Zeng Li, said the verdict was "revenge" for his involvement in the earthquake cases.
Amnesty International said Mr Huang was a victim of China's "vague" state secrets laws and should be released immediately.

The verdict was delivered at a 10-minute hearing at Wuhou District People's Court in the city of Chengdu - although there were few details given about the charge.

School buildings collapsed
The activist's wife and mother were allowed to enter the court to hear the sentence, the maximum jail term for this crime.

Zeng Li said: "This is clearly revenge because he helped parents who lost their children during the Sichuan earthquake."

She said any government information that her husband had was freely available to the public.

Mr Huang was taken by the police in Chengdu in June 2008 and has been held in custody ever since.

He was giving advice to the families of five dead children who wanted to bring a legal case against the local authorities following the earthquake.

In some places schools were the only buildings to collapse and many believe this was because they were shoddily built. China's central government denies the accusation.

This is clearly revenge because he helped parents who lost their children during the Sichaun earthquake

Activist's wife Zeng Li

"The Chinese government is penalising someone who is trying to help the victims of the Sichuan earthquake," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific director.

"Huang Qi should be treated as a model citizen, committed to the rule of law, but instead he has fallen victim to China's vague state secrets legislation."

Amnesty said the activist had been treated badly while in custody and denied proper medical help.
"According to local sources, the police interrogated Huang Qi for many hours at a time, sometimes depriving him of sleep," said the rights group.

Huang Qi has championed the rights of ordinary people for a decade and has been previously been prosecuted.

He served a five-year sentence for "inciting the subversion of state power" in connection with material published on his website.

He is not the only activist to investigate the Sichuan schools issue - and not the only one to be prosecuted for his efforts.

Tan Zuoren called for volunteers to travel to Sichuan to compile a list of pupils who died when their schools fell down. He was tried in August and is awaiting the verdict.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/11/23 07:13:19 GMT

Mobiles become target for China's firewall

Mobiles become target for China's firewall

Mobile phone users appear to have become the latest target as Chinese authorities tighten their grip on Internet browsing. In recent days owners of smartphones with the Opera Mini web browser installed have found themselves thwarted by a message appearing on their phone in both Chinese and English informing them that for a "better browsing experience" the Opera Mini China version needs to be installed. Effectively, users have no choice other than to use another web browser such as Internet Explorer.

Opera Mini is a web browser designed primarily for mobile phones, but also for smartphones and personal digital assistants. It uses the Java ME platform and consequently requires that the mobile device be capable of running Java ME applications. Opera Mini is offered free of charge, supported through a partnership between its developer, the Opera Software company, and the search engine company Google.

The browser has an advantage over some other mobile browsers in that it requests web pages through the Opera Software company's servers, which process and compress them before relaying the data back to the mobile phone. This compression process makes transfer time about two to three times faster. The pre-processing also smoothes compatibility with web pages not designed for mobile phones. Users may also find data charges reduced as a result, especially whilst roaming. The rerouting also circumvented the so-called Great Firewall of China thus enabling those with Opera Mini installed to log onto Facebook and other blocked sites.

Expats may be particularly angry at effectively being forced to download the Chinese version of Opera Mini. They may also question the safety of the software concerned, though there is as yet no indication it will track or monitor use. It will however provide a less rich browsing experience. According to reports the Chinese version does work without problems, despite the usual blocks of specific sites.

Opera for their part are the latest line of western companies to kowtow to Chinese demands in order to operate in China. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have all submitted to Chinese demands to restrict searches. Yahoo have been criticised for handing data to Chinese authorities in the past, and both Google and Microsoft's Bing have limited searches at the behest of Chinese government censors. Skype, which provides a way for Internet users around the world to communicate directly by voice, video and text chat, now has a Chinese-language version developed and marketed in China by the Chinese company TOM Online. Skype executives have publicly acknowledged that the TOM-Skype software censors sensitive words in text chats, and have justified this as in keeping with local "best practices" and Chinese law. However Skype does not inform Chinese users of the specific details of its censorship policies, and does not inform them that their software contains censorship capabilities. Other western companies have also aided in helping construct the Golden Shield Project, known more commonly as the Great Firewall of the #GFW on Twitter.

China has policed the Internet with assistance from US firms. Cisco Systems, for instance, supplied the original routers China used to monitor Internet traffic, though Cisco has said it did not tailor its equipment for the Chinese market. Juniper, an information technology and computer networking products company, is also said to have aided the Chinese in building the most sophisticated Internet censoring and monitoring infrastructure. Reporters Sans Frontieres alleges that Cisco is suspected of giving Chinese engineers training in how to use its products to censor the internet. Cisco strenuously denies the allegations, but as the US Council for Foreign Relations reported back in early 2008, "China relied on two US companies – Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks – to help carry out its network upgrade, known as CN2, in 2004. This upgrade significantly increased China's ability to monitor internet usage [although] Cisco has denied charges it adapted its equipment."

Cisco's Terry Alberstein, director of corporate affairs for the Asia Pacific region, said in 2005 that the company had never helped the Chinese government suppress free speech. "Cisco does not participate in any way in any censorship activities in the People's Republic of China," Alberstein said. "We have never custom-tailored our products for the China market, and the products that we sell in China are the same products we sell everywhere else."

In essence it may be true that Juniper, Cisco and other technology providers did not "custom-tailor" products for use in China. But it should perhaps have been clear that China and similar countries would use such equipment for Internet censorship and control. To say they have no responsibility is somewhat like weapons' dealers claiming they did not know they were arming terrorists or criminals.

Mirroring routers, on which the Great Firewall is based, were sold at a time when Chinese authorities could not easily have produced the systems on their own. The likely use of the routers was well understood, and it should be obvious why selling them to a government which intends to monitor its citizens is different from selling them to some company that wants to monitor its on-the-clock employees. But whatever the merits of the argument back then, the entire question is now moot. The Chinese authorities could now buy the necessary routers from a variety of sources – notably from the homegrown firm Huawei, the largest networking and telecommunications equipment supplier in the People's Republic of China.

The list of companies complicit in helping support China's restrictive Internet policy grows year by year. Many say they are just protecting business interests and that they would lose an otherwise lucrative market. That may be so, but there is a moral as well as a financial factor that should not be ignored. Back in 2005 Cisco fought a shareholder action that urged the company to adopt a comprehensive human rights policy for its dealings with the Chinese government. At the time it was acknowledged that the resolution would not be binding on Cisco's executives. But Dawn Wolfe, a social research and advocacy analyst at the firm, which prides itself on its socially responsible investments, said the action sent "a strong message to management, and it gets across the sentiment of shareholders in a way that writing a letter can't do." Opera, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and others should take note.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Elected by Alice Cooper - Billion Dollar Babies album, 1972-3


Elected by Alice Cooper - I had some of my favorite pinball games played while that song played on the jukebox in a Chinese restaurant.

California budget's going to be dreadful

California budget's going to be dreadful

Until long-term structural issues are fixed, there is no way legislators can produce an honest spending plan so the state lives within its means.

From Sacramento
The Capitol's budget oracle projects $20.7 billion in new red ink for the next 19 months. Here's my projection: More punting, "kicking the can down the alley" and numbers-rigging.

Hope we're both wrong. Hope there's an economic miracle or political heroism, which would require sacrifice to the demagogues. But, based on history and facts, that's too much to hope for.

Here's how nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor gently put it last week in calculating the latest general fund deficit: "Addressing this large shortfall will require painful choices, on top of the difficult choices the Legislature made earlier this year."

But, he added, "It is unlikely that the Legislature can address all of the state's massive, ongoing budget problems with permanent, ongoing solutions in the next year."

I don't have to be so diplomatic. I'll just say that there's no way these people can produce an honest budget that forces Sacramento "to live within its means," as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger persistently preaches, while consistently being one of the first to sin.

But there's no use getting upset about it. Spare yourselves. You'll hear a lot of talk-show wailing and pundit whining. Columnists will scold, myself probably included. But these people in the Capitol can't help themselves.

This is not being derogatory. It's being realistic in the current climate of political and public polarization, and a system structured for paralysis. It's in the cards and the cards are stacked.

Budgets for the foreseeable future, as they increasingly have been, will be painful patch jobs stitched with gimmickry.

Be thankful if the politicians can just keep the kids learning in school and out of their parents' hair.

Be grateful if California can avoid defaulting on its state bonds for the first time ever. It currently is making payments on about $67 billion in general obligation bonds and is holding onto another $53 billion worth that have been approved by voters but are unsold. Default would be an economic disaster.

School financing and bond payments are the No. 1 and No. 2 spending priorities, respectively, listed in the California Constitution.

All other things -- universities, healthcare, welfare, prisons, payrolls, parks -- are fish in a barrel.

Everybody knows the long-term problems if they're not in denial.

Proposition 13, which hasn't been updated in 31 years, greatly reduced local control and funding of schools, and installed Sacramento as the main principal and benefactor. The state also became head banker for the local property tax.

There's a long litany of ailments: California's unique requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote for virtually all money bills, term limits, gerrymandering (reform's on the way), ballot-box budgeting, lack of a meaningful spending cap and rainy-day fund for good times and a volatile tax structure that chokes off revenue in bad times. Plus influence of all the special interests -- labor unions on Democrats, big business on Republicans (along with broadcast talk showmen).

None of that is going to change before the next budget is due July 1.

Complicating those plagues are some short-term conundrums.

The governor and Legislature already have cut into the bone of state services -- $31 billion during the current calendar year, or so they thought. The cuts have fallen about $5 billion short.

A court has blocked reductions in home care for the disabled. Prisons are spending $1.4 billion more than budgeted, largely because of a federal court edict. Medi-Cal spending is up $900 million because the state struck out reaching for federal funds. A court also ruled that the state couldn't grab $800 million in gas tax money and shift it from the transportation fund to the general fund.

Turns out, kindergartens through community colleges were legally owed $1 billion more than they got. What's more, the state can't cut schools much more because it accepted federal stimulus money and that came with a requirement to maintain a certain spending level.

There's a suit challenging the governor's ability to furlough employees, which saves 14% on their pay but shuts down many state offices three Fridays a month. Bad idea. Shortchanges the taxpayers. Put the employees back to work full time and cut their pay, say, 5%.

The state also could save big bucks by obeying an expected federal court's order to release inmates to relieve prison overcrowding. Not just Republicans, but some skittish Assembly Democrats running for higher office object to letting felons loose.

It's a painful time.

The legislative analyst suggests closing business tax loopholes that really don't benefit the economy.

I'd suggest, again, that Schwarzenegger correct the biggest fiscal error of his regime by raising the vehicle license fee back to its historical level, 2% of a car's value. He lowered it to 0.65%. That has cost the state roughly $4.5 billion annually. The Legislature in February temporarily raised the fee to 1.15%, where it's still costing the general fund $2.8 billion.

There are other things to tax, such as oil extraction. But in a recession? In an election year?

I asked Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) whether there's any Democratic interest in pushing for tax increases.

"It's always a dangerous thing for a Democratic leader to lead on taxes," he said. "But if the choice is an oil depletion tax or cutting K-12 or higher education further, it's a no-brainer.

"I have a little different mind-set, having gone around the track one time. My first question is not going to be, 'How do we cut across the board?' My first question is how do we deal with this problem in a way that does not eliminate economic opportunity for hundreds of thousands if not millions of people?"

He's especially talking about young people being educated to compete in the 21st century workforce.

In the end, the budget's going to be very ugly -- in form and in impact. The Legislature and governor should just get it over with quickly, without the usual scapegoating, spatting and stubbornness that sicken voters.

Although many things could be forgiven, another dillydallying summer would not be.

California's budget woes will continue for years, report says

Tax receipts have leveled off, but revenue won't bounce back until the 2014-15 budget year, according to the chief budget analyst. Near term, the state faces a nearly $21-billion deficit.

Reporting from Sacramento - Despite an economy on the mend, California's budget woes will drag deep into the next decade, according to a report released Wednesday by the state's chief budget analyst.

Tax collections have leveled off after one of the most precipitous drops since the Great Depression. But revenue is not expected to fully bounce back until the 2014-15 budget year.

State government faces a nearly $21-billion deficit over the next year and half, according to the report by nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor. Sacramento will be forced to muddle along, he says, unable to reverse the deep cuts that officials have made to K-12, universities, healthcare and social services.

A major reason the recovery will take so long, say many experts, is California's place at the epicenter of the real estate slide and the resulting foreclosure wave. Moreover, "the mess in Sacramento is going to affect the California economy," said Jerry Nickelsburg, senior economist at UCLA Anderson Forecast, "and not in a good way."

Californians must get used to a state that offers fewer services -- and has higher taxes -- than before the real estate boom, Taylor's report suggests. But it remains to be seen how much residents will accept.

On Wednesday, at least 14 people were arrested in a raucous protest as a University of California regents panel approved a 32% student fee hike. A day earlier, the president of the California Teachers Assn. had likened further K-12 cuts to "amputation."

"We cannot afford now what we're spending," said Taylor, whom both Democrats and Republicans look to for fiscal advice. More cuts and more taxes will be necessary to balance the books, he said, calling all the options "painful choices."

Budget shortfalls have reemerged less than four months after lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger struck a summer deal, which contained accounting gimmicks and rosy assumptions that have failed to pan out.

"The thing about smoke and mirrors is they are usually short-term solutions, and they come back to bite you the next year," said John Ellwood, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley.

Schwarzenegger, who last week predicted more across-the-board budget cuts, must unveil his plan to address the projected $20.7-billion deficit in January. Taylor urged that officials begin tackling the red ink "as soon as possible."

The deficit is expected to be worse in the years beyond 2011, as temporary taxes expire and raids on local government funds must be repaid by Sacramento. Taylor projected a $21.3-billion deficit in fiscal 2011-12 and a $23-billion shortfall in fiscal 2012-13.

Even those numbers could be conservative. They assume no raises for state workers and no cost-of-living adjustments for government programs. They also assume that California will win all pending court cases in which billions of dollars in service cuts are being challenged.

Republican lawmakers have vowed to block new taxes, which many Democrats advocate to balance California's books. Assembly GOP leader Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) issued a statement Wednesday calling on the Democratic-dominated Legislature to instead change the state's "punitive regulatory and tax climate that is driving jobs away."

The bleak numbers have also spurred calls to Washington, D.C., for help, as much of the federal stimulus package that somewhat blunted this year's state cuts is set to expire. Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, which advocates for low-income residents, said the state "needs a second round of federal aid as we face record unemployment and continuing economic weakness."

That may be a hard sell in the nation's capital, where conservatives have questioned the success of the first package.

"California clearly has mismanaged its fiscal house," Nickelsburg said. "It seems to me it would be very difficult to convince states that have not mismanaged their own fiscal house to come to the aid of California."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mental health cases tax police, emergency workers

Mental health cases tax police, emergency workers

BURLINGTON, Vt. – Police found him sitting on the floor of his old apartment near a bucket of urine, still dressed in his hospital gown.

The apartment had been condemned for the squalor — food on the floor, flies — and his smoking in bed. But the mentally ill man, just released from the hospital, had managed to get back in. For the second time in four days, he was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Three firefighters, a battalion chief, the police chief, two police officers, a code enforcement person and a housing official responded, and finally, an ambulance crew — at a cost of thousands of dollars, Police Chief Michael Schirling said.

Police and emergency responders around the nation have long struggled to deal with people who have mental illness, and some say the situation is only getting worse. A poor economy and cuts to institutional programs threaten to overwhelm personnel trained to deal with crime and vehicle accidents, not mental crises.

"The problem seems to be accelerating in scope and severity of late," the police chief said. "More folks in need of mental health services, more significant issues occurring on the street as a result, and fewer available services for folks in acute crisis or those who are service-resistant."

On the same day they removed the mental patient from the condemned apartment, police searched the other end of Burlington for a homeless man who'd been yelling at kids in a residential neighborhood. Parents wouldn't let their children out alone. Some called 911.

The man has paranoid schizophrenia and other mental illnesses but has refused treatment, so police charged him with disorderly conduct. The chief called it a "workaround," designed to get him into the mental health system by judicial order.

"It's a perversion of the system," he said.
And a clear sign that the mental health system has been gutted, he said.

The Burlington Police Department recently hired a mental health specialist with federal stimulus funding to handle some of these calls, in hopes of reducing the number of people with mental illness who are shuttled unnecessarily into the justice system, Schirling said.

Around the country, as many as 1,300 departments have set up crisis intervention teams, modeled after a pioneering Memphis, Tenn., program created in 1988 after police shot a man with mental illness. The teams get specialized mental health training and work with the community on the responses.
The Memphis Police Department now has 225 crisis intervention team members who volunteered for the training.

After the move nationally to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill 50 years ago, resources were not adequately invested in community services, officials said. Many communities don't have enough beds in inpatient hospitals or community mental health programs — where people are monitored to make sure they take medication — to respond to people in crisis. The problem is likely to worsen as states slash budgets.

"Cuts to inpatient hospitals and community services are particularly devastating because they increase burdens on law enforcement and leave police officers and other first responders with few options when they respond to people with serious mental illness who are in crisis," said Ron Honberg, director of legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

By the end of 2011, state mental health budgets are expected to be slashed by 21.8 percent, on top of what has already been trimmed, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.
In June, the association initially forecast reductions of 10 percent to 30 percent in 10 states this year, 10 percent in 18 other states, and undetermined cuts in 13 more. Those cuts are likely to be more severe, the association now says.

Burlington's Schirling doesn't track how much time his department spends on mental health-related calls but says it's certainly daily. National police organizations contacted by The Associated Press don't keep a tally, either. One gauge is that 4.2 million emergency room visits nationally in 2006 were for mental disorders, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Of the top 20 people who are getting service from us on a day-to-day basis, the majority of those people have an underlying thread of a mental health problem," Schirling said.

The HowardCenter, a nonprofit organization that serves 837 adults with serious and persistent mental illness in Vermont's Chittenden County, does a good job with its clients, Schirling said, but its community homes are often full and many people resist treatment.

Case managers have an average of 50 clients. "It's hard to do a lot of preventive work with those caseloads," said Todd Centybear, the HowardCenter's executive director.

It's not clear-cut that more community programs would reduce the number of emergency-room visits because some people refuse treatment, said Michael Hartman, Vermont's mental health commissioner. Medication also doesn't work on everyone and substance abuse is often intertwined with mental illness. And some people who are perceived as strange, talking or yelling to themselves aren't necessarily dangerous, he said.

The best approach, Hartman says, sometimes is having police work with mental health agencies and local hospitals.

In Des Moines, Iowa, police have dramatically reduced the number of mental-health related arrests by relying on a team of nurses and social workers to assist with crisis calls.

Of the average of 2,000 mental health crisis calls that come in a year, only 3 percent end up in arrests, compared with the majority of them that did before, said Kelly Drain, a senior police officer with the Des Moines Mobile Crisis Response Team.

The team tries to get them services or needed medical help.

"So it's helped as far as people going to jail. It's helped with unnecessary hospitalization. It's helped with saving police time on these calls," she said.

In Burlington, the man whose apartment was condemned was released twice from the hospital. After his third emergency-room visit, he was sent to the state's psychiatric hospital.

Burlington police hope the newly hired "outreach interventionist" will be able to handle some of the calls and develop a relationship with those who are frequently called about. By checking in and referring them to services, the specialist should be able to mitigate problems and help the subjects avoid the criminal justice system, Schirling said.

"Because they're completely falling through the cracks," he said. "They're not cracks, they're chasms."

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