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December 31, 2008

The Obligatory New Years Post

By Bruce.

I truly wish everyone a Happy New Year.

What a strange little year 2008 turned out to be.

As emotional roller coasters for all of humanity go, 2008 has been quite the ride. I'm not sure how much effort I want to go into depth on this, but the moment we are living and the moment we will live for some time to come is the direct result of leadership decisions that have been made in the last eight years.

Even a change in government can't make up for the mistakes of the short-sighted idealistic notions of men who were so convinced they could translate their greed into a better way to run the world.

I have said this time and time again: To be politically conservative, or republican, or whatever right of center mind-frame you want to call it, it always means never, ever thinking about the consequences of the actions you choose to take in the face of the fact that that it was never done before for good reason.

We have spent the last eight years living at the clutches of people who are so egregiously self absorbed, so fooled into thinking that they have somehow managed to convince their mediocre minds that they can best the wisdom of the people who came before them, that we are now living in the greatest fiscal calamity of all time while we fight wars with no justifiable meaning.

They have brought us war on un-winnable notions like terrorism, we have wars on obesity, and we have wars on Christmas of all fucking things. It has somehow become impossibly fashionable to declare war on all things deemed unsuitable. We have trivialized war, the most desperate and brutal acts of all mankind is reduced to the needless wishes of a few with enough charisma to convince the masses to satisfy their egos.

We don't need war, the world we live in now is too complex, we need reasoned thought, thought that can see the consequences of its own experience and understanding. Thought that has the maturity to respect that good people who came before us who knew better than to second-guess the wisdom of all mankind.

I'm not convinced the current new leadership is up to the task, let's face it, the Bush administration has left an insurmountable task of repairing nothing more than the complete obliteration of basic human trust.

The biggest fear I have right now is we are all losing sight of the fact that we all have to work together to make this world work. In many ways our community has become too large to handle and finances and beliefs remind us too much of that in this current age.

But work together we must, we must trust our humanity like never before. We must trust the fact that we live in a world of differences that although it presents challenges to our fears and desires, it also offers us the chance to grow through nothing more than the most beautiful gift humanity has to offer: Our own diversity.

Ten Worst Places to Live

Urumqi, China: Pollution

Once a Silk Road hub, the western Chinese city of Urumqi has the bad luck to be downstream of sulphurous soil dust from nearby agricultural areas, as well as deadly industrial pollutants. China's environmental scientists say it now outranks Linfen, also in China, previously named as the world's most polluted city.

Somalia: Corruption

Often declared a failed state, Somalia is so violent that millions have fled their homes. But it is also at the bottom of an annual global corruption index by Transparency International, which points out that in desperately poor countries, bribery and extortion can be life and death issues if people are forced to pay extra for basic necessities.

North Korea: Dictatorship

Kim Jong-il, North Korea's ruler, was named the world's worst dictator of 2008 on Parade magazine's annual list. Kim Jong-il runs the most isolated, repressive regime in the world, where three generations of a family can be punished for one member's alleged crime. About 200,000 citizens have been jailed, many tortured. North Korea is officially still at war with the United States and South Korea, since the Korean War never technically ended.

Iraq: Sectarian War

In spite of the much-praised "surge" of American troops, and a diminished death rate in the past year, Iraq ranks lowest on the Global Peace Index's scale as a country with easy access to weapons, a high murder rate, poorly functioning government, low respect for human rights and political instability.

El Salvador: Homicide rate

Latin America has the highest murder rate in the world for young adults, 15-24. But El Salvador tops the list of the world's most dangerous countries for the young – and has one of the highest murder rates for people of all ages, according to the Latin American Technological Information Network.

Zimbabwe: Inflation & Dictatorship

When inflation in the southern African nation shot above 1 million per cent in the past year, worldwide cries went up for President Robert Mugabe's resignation. Now Zimbabweans carry sacks of newly printed cash to pay for a loaf of bread, and those with jobs choose between lunch and a bus ride to work. Mugabe is still in power.

Yemen: Gender gap

Greater equality between the sexes means better health, living standard and lifespan for women. The reverse is true in Yemen, where, the World Economic Forum says, lack of education, poor health care, lack of job opportunity and inability to press for change through the political process put women at risk.

Swaziland: AIDS/HIV

Afflicted with dire poverty and the world's highest HIV infection rate, the tiny southern African kingdom of 1 million has a shockingly low life expectancy of 32 – less than half the world's average. The royal family has a monopoly on the economy, and the majority of Swaziland's people live on about $1 a day.

Mali: Literacy

The large, landlocked West African country was, ironically, one of the world's centres of Islamic scholarship, and is believed to have founded the first university. Now, fewer than 23 per cent of men and women can read and write, according to the UN Development Program, which rates it at the bottom of the global literacy scale.

Eritrea: Censorship

Since the government banned all privately owned media in 2001, things have grown steadily worse for journalists, with crackdowns on media, arrests, reports of torture, disappearances and deaths in custody. "President Issaias Afeworki and his small clan of paranoid nationalists continue to run the country like a vast open prison," says Reporters Without Borders.

US Housing Market in Free Fall

U.S. home prices fall at record pace; 20 largest cities suffer a `free-fall month' as values plunge 18%.

POLITICS - Home values in the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the United States dropped at a record pace in October as the fallout from the US financial crisis caused a housing market collapse, according to new data released yesterday. All 20 cities reported annual price declines in October; prices in 14 of the 20 metropolitan areas surveyed fell at a record rate as the financial crisis reached a critical point.

The price of single-family homes fell 18% in October from a year earlier, according to the closely watched Standard & Poor's/Case Shiller Housing Index.

Home prices have fallen every month since January 2007, their slide accelerating as troubles in the housing market infected the broader economy and brought down financial firms. Prices are falling at their fastest pace on record, a sign the U.S. housing market is a long way from recovering from the current recession/depression.

The 10-city index dropped 19.1 per cent in October, its largest decline in its 21-year history, and the new numbers show the cities that hosted the greatest excesses of the housing boom are suffering the deepest drops.

Prices in Las Vegas and Phoenix, Ariz. fell 32% in October. Home prices fell 31% in San Francisco and 29% in Miami. Prices in New York declined 7.5% in October over the same month a year ago.

Last week, the U.S. National Association of Realtors reported that previously owned homes, which dominate the market, suffered their sharpest drop in more than 40 years.

Housing is likely to deteriorate further in 2009 as the jobs picture continues to weaken. The U.S. unemployment rate is now at 6.7 per cent, its highest point in a decade, and economists predict it will rise to 8 or 10% during 2009, to be accompanied by skyrocketing crime rates.

Canadian blogger held in Iran

POLITICS - An outspoken Canadian blogger born in Iran has been detained by Iranian authorities for almost two months, prompting worries about his well-being. According to human rights officials Hossein Derakhshan, a 33 year old pioneer of Iran's blogging scene, is being held in prison.

Hossein Derakhshan's blog has been receiving Islamic death threats during the past 5 years from a blogger called Islamic Army.

Iranian judiciary spokesperson Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters in Tehran that Hossein Derakhshan was being held under order of the revolutionary court and was charged with insulting religious figures. Derakhshan, a Canadian citizen who lived in Toronto before heading to London for graduate studies, was arrested by agents at his home in Tehran on Nov. 1.

In Canada, foreign affairs department officials have unsuccessfully tried to obtain details of the case from Tehran.

"I'm very concerned, actually," said Nazli Kamvari, a friend and fellow blogger who lives in Toronto. Derakhshan helped Iran's blog boom flower seven years ago by posting technical instructions on how to create sites in Farsi.

December 21, 2008

Russia sells Iran missiles

POLITICS - Russia has begun delivering S-300 air defence systems to Iran which could help repel any Israeli and United States air strikes on its nuclear sites, Iranian news reported today. Russian sources have confirmed they have a S-300 missile contract with Iran.

Right: A Russian S-300 missile launcher.

"After few years of talks with Russia ... now the S-300 system is being delivered to Iran," says Email Kosari, deputy head of parliament's Foreign Affairs and National Security committee.

The United States, its European allies and Israel claim Iran is seeking to build nuclear arms under the cover of a civilian atomic energy program. Iran denies the claims.

Israel's insistence that Iran must not be allowed to develop an atomic bomb has fueled speculation that the Jewish state, widely assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, could mount its own pre-emptive strikes on Iran and spark a religious war that would engulf all of the Middle East.

Right: A S-300 missile being launched.

Russia is not alone in its dealing with Iran. For the past 30 years China has been selling Iran missile technology, the kind of action that makes folks in Washington and Jerusalem very nervous.

Canada's troops in Afghanistan high on drugs

CANADA - An increasing number of Canadian soldiers may be using, dealing and becoming addicted to drugs, say reports from Canadian Forces officials.

Marijuana remains the most commonly used, followed by cocaine, XTC (ecstasy) and a rise in meth addiction, says three internal reports obtained by the CBC. The first report say soldiers who become addicted "pose a significant security and operational threat", noting methamphetamine addiction poses a "high" threat to Canadian military personnel.

According to the second report, called Task Force Afghanistan Criminal Intelligence Overview, Canadian troops stationed in Afghanistan continue to use drugs and are involved in drug trafficking, especially in heroin, and have developed contacts within Afghanistan poppy-heroin trade. A scary aspect of this report is that Canadian forces are believed to be transporting heroin back to Canada for a profit, and sharing some of that profit with their Afghan contacts, who in turn might be funding terrorism.

A third report, the National Criminal Intelligence Assessment is a review of Canadian troops at home and aboard, which cited 198 drug offenses in 2006, including 28 for trafficking and 170 for possession of drugs, said an "alarming number" of Canadian troops are involved in drug trafficking and that the problem is growing.

"Compared to previous years, trafficking offenses have seen a steady increase, while possession offenses demonstrated a significant spike for 2006," that report said.

In 2007 the Canadian military kept an additional 250 soldiers in Canada because they tested positive for drug use. The military started mandatory drug testing of troops headed for Afghanistan began in September 2006, which means the troops over there trafficking drugs and using them are either new to the business or they slipped through the cracks in testing (ie. faked urine samples).

Canadian politicians are now asking for a probe into more recent offenses in 2007 and 2008 to determine just how bad the drug trafficking in Canada's armed forces has become.

It has reached a point where, as a matter of military security, Canadian troops should be undergoing monthly drug screening and troops which fail mandatory drug tests should be sent to rehabs, places that provide services similar to an inpatient methamphetamine rehab center. That way we can lower the chances of our military becoming involved in drug trafficking and illicit scandals whereby drug addicted troops might be giving away military and/or government secrets.

The further up the ranks this problem goes the more at risk Canada's military is.

Chinamerica in Crisis

POLITICS - Can China saves the United States economy from recession with more loaned money? Not likely, its just delaying the inevitable.

The United States, Europe and Japan's economies have all slid into recession and are looking to China for the cash to bailout their fiscal incompetence. Even Treasury Secretary of the United States Henry Paulson thinks so. He paid a visit to Beijing recently, asking for a Christmas gift from China.

Both the host and the guest were kind to each other but China is no Santa Claus, so there's no Christmas gift. Paulson was hoping the Chinese would raise the value of the Chinese Yuan so that American products could be competitive in the Chinese market. China responded: "Sorry, I'm now having a hard time as well."

Economist Niall Ferguson has created a new term, Chinamerica, explaining that China and the USA has become very symbiotic as the two countries cannot do without each other.

Americans spend money while the Chinese make money. If Americans didn't have enough money, China would loan them money... As the US National Debt grows the Americans issued bonds and printed US dollars while Chinese purchased bonds and bought US dollars as foreign exchange reserves.

See China buys more US debt and American economy lacks manufacturing.

Americans could then go out shopping and buy Chinese products only when they had money while Chinese tried to manufacture more and export products to the United States. After all China can manufacture products significantly cheaper than the USA and make a decent profit selling it to Americans...

But what happens when a recession hits and Americans stop buying those products? Factories in China start shutting down.

Thus when the United States economy fails, China will also suffer, and the tradition has been for China to just buy up a chunk of US National Debt, allowing the US government to provide more cash to banks, and banks in turn giving loans to Americans.

But that system is flawed and unsustainable. Eventually those loans have to be paid back. With many Americans losing their jobs (and those jobs going to China) the United States isn't making enough to pay off that debt. Unemployment is the highest in decades and new businesses can't get small business loans because the banks have found their cash has dried up.

And small businesses are not the only ones to be effected. Large corporations are seeing their profits sink into the red as they now face bankruptcy while millions of people stand to lose their jobs.

In China when a company goes bankrupt the owners have a tendency to do something spectacular... trucks come in the night and load up all the valuables. The next morning employees are stunned when they see an empty factory with a for sale sign and the owners have seemingly disappeared. Not even a layoff notice or a last paycheque. The workers are basically screwed out of their last chunk of wages.

In the USA companies at least (pretend to) care about their workers, but what about governments or corporations?

The silly thing is a lot of this problem could be fixed if American legislators simply put a cap on Chinese imports, raised tariffs on products from overseas... there is no reason why the products made in China couldn't be made in the USA, Canada or Mexico. We have the robotic technology to make everything here in North America, providing jobs to North Americans and keeping the profits in North America.

Some economists argue that globalization of the markets and free trade is a good thing, but what if it happens too fast? Countries and businesses need time to adapt. America may like buying lots of cheap products from overseas, but its unnecessary. We can build those things here and create jobs.

In this case buying things labeled Made in USA is becoming a matter of economic survival.

December 20, 2008

Over 2000 car accidents as Snowmageddon hits

CANADA - There was over 300 car accidents in Toronto last night as three winter storms hit Ontario and the north eastern United States. Canadian and US police departments are estimating over 2000 accidents in the last 24 hours. Weather forecasters are referring to the three storms as Snowmageddon.

In Toronto the storms dumped 30 to 40 cm of snow, shutting down airports, highways, roads, streets and public transportation. Those highways that were open had slowed to a crawl with jack-knifed tractor-trailers.

Downtown, the real anarchy was indoors, as thousands of last-minute shoppers took advantage of work days cut short by the storm, but ended up stranded in the city with no way to get home to the suburbs.

Snow removal crews have been active the entire time, but the snow is falling so fast by the time they're done clearing one side of the highway the other side is covered so much its like there's been no progress made at all.

Environment Canada is predicting another 15 to 30 centimetres in the next two days.

Canadian troops in Afghanistan buy 30 donkeys

CANADA - It has come down to this... Canadian troops in Afghanistan are currently looking to buy 30 donkeys to carry their water/supplies around with them. The Canadian Forces already have tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters at their command in their battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan... so why not add donkeys to the list?

The terrain is one of the major challenges facing Canadian and coalition troops in Afghanistan. There are mountains, irrigation canals, grape fields, mud walls around compounds, and wadis - a dry riverbed that contains water only during times of heavy rain.

Roadways can be limited and narrow, meaning the Taliban can easily place improvised explosive devices that can prove deadly to vehicles carrying Canadian and Afghan soldiers.

The other problem is the heat during the summer months. The temperature can hit the 50s, even 60s, causing vehicles to overheat and become useless.

Hence the Donkey Corps. The Americans studied the use of camels, dogs and mules - but the donkey came out on top of the ratings, being best suited for the climate and the physical requirements.

The Donkey Corps program will involve the purchase of up to 30 "specially trained" donkeys, which will be used as pack animals to deliver critical supplies like water and ammo in places where you can't easily get to by any mechanized or aviation means.

A unit of Afghan soldiers, along with Canadian mentors will be in charge of deploying the donkeys in the Summer of 2009.

Canadian troops have used donkeys before, but not since northern Sicily in the Second World War.

December 19, 2008

Bollywood movies about Mumbai attacks

POLITICS/ENTERTAINMENT - Filmmakers in India are already exploring over 25 movies about the deadly three-day siege of Mumbai that killed 164 people last month to the big screen, an industry official said today. One of them might even star famed Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif.

Over 25 titles including "Taj to Oberoi" and "Mission Taj" have already been registered with the Indian Motion Picture Producers' Association since the attacks. Many registered titles centre around the luxury Oberoi hotel and the Taj Mahal, whose burning dome became of the symbol of the attacks, including "Taj 26", "The Taj Encounter", "11/26 Operation Taj" and "Mission Oberoi".

Another proposed project is called "Nariman House" after the Jewish centre where the attackers killed a rabbi and his wife. The Taj, the Oberoi, Nariman House and Mumbai's main train station were among 10 sites in the commercial capital targeted by 10 suspected terrorists.

Critics are crying foul, saying Bollywood, as India's Hindi-language film industry is known, is capitalizing on a national tragedy.

Bollywood stars, including Katrina Kaif, have responded cautiously to the Mumbai attacks and haven't said whether they've signed on to any such films yet. Bollywood filmmakers are eager to draw audiences back to the theatres at a time when the industry is already getting hit by a global recession.

"At a time like this, it'll be insensitive of me to perform and celebrate. My spirit is very low." - Katrina Kaif.

December 18, 2008

Shoe-thrower asks for pardon

POLITICS - A spokesman for Iraq's prime minister claims the journalist who threw his shoes at United States President George W. Bush is asking for a pardon.

Spokesman Yassin Majid says that in a letter sent today to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi asked to be pardoned. In the letter Muntadhar al-Zeidi recalls the kindness prime minister al-Maliki once showed him during an interview in 2005 and asked for al-Maliki to show him kindness once again.

Al-Zeidi has been horribly beaten to near death by Iraqi security and faces two years imprisonment for insulting a foreign leader. Iraqi protestors say throwing your shoes at a leader is a democratic right, a traditional insult and should not be punished. Many Iraqi politicians can't agree whether to punish Al-Zeidi or not.

See also: The Shoe Thrown Around the World


CANADA - Not one but two large snowstorms are going to hit Ontario, Eastern Canada and the North East United States this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The amount is estimated at 30 to 50 cm (approx. 1.5 - 2 feet) of snow over a 3 day period.

Weather watchers and forecasters are referring to it as Snowmageddon, and they're not joking about it. They're calling it because they're expecting a lot of traffic accidents and shut down of several cities as the result of heavy snowfall.

"Environment Canada is generally not prone to exaggeration unless there is deemed to be a real threat," the agency said in an understated special weather statement issued yesterday, which is predicting snow, snow and more snow. Perhaps in record amounts for December.

The OPP is basically urging drivers to SLOWDAFUCKDOWN. "People are just in too much of a hurry, sometimes impatient, not slowing down and keeping that distance between other vehicles," said OPP Sgt. Dave Woodford. Over 90% of winter driving accidents happen because drivers are traveling too fast and lose control on an icy patch.

Environmentalists are keen to point out the number of storms is due to more moisture in the atmosphere due to climate change. More heat in one part of Canada means more evaporation, which in turn creates larger/thicker clouds that can unleash larger amounts of precipitation in the form of rain, hail or snow.

Oil prices drop rapidly

POLITICS - The price of oil continued to fall today, falling below $40 US for the first time in 4.5 years despite OPEC's cut yesterday of 2.2 million barrels per day. The 13-nation Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries accounts for about 40% of global oil supply and tries to regulate the prices by cutting/increasing output, but to little effect during the current American recession.

Earlier today oil prices fell as low as $39.19, a level not seen since at least July 2004. Overnight the contract fell $3.54 to settle at $40.06 a barrel, after touching $39.88. Yesterday prices also slid nearly 5%, or $2.07 to $41.53 US. If prices continue to slide rapidly it could be hovering around $30/barrel by Christmas Eve.

This would coincide with what some economists are predicting that the price of oil will continue its rapid decline, perhaps reaching $30/barrel by January 2009 and might fall as low as $20/barrel by March.

The TD Bank is predicting oil prices will go back up to $75/barrel by Fall 2009.

Weather patterns will also cut gasoline consumption in North America. More snow equals less driving, and therefore less need for gasoline. Right now weather watchers are predicting a Snowmageddon for parts of Canada and the United States.

December 17, 2008

Iraqi Politicians can't agree about Shoe Thrower

POLITICS - Outside of Iraq's parliament in Baghdad tens of thousands of people are protesting, demanding the release of the shoe-throwing journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi. Inside, politicians are arguing over whether to release him.

In Arab culture, throwing shoes at someone is a sign of deep contempt, and his actions have drawn huge demonstrations of support among many in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, including numerous politicians who say throwing your shoes isn't just an insult, its a democratic right.

See also "The Shoe Thrown Around the World".

Iraq's parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, announced his resignation today after a parliamentary session descended into chaos as legislators argued about whether to free a journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush.

The journalist Al-Zeidi's family went to the Central Criminal Court expecting to attend a court hearing for him, said his brother, Dhargham. They were told the investigative judge went to see Muntadhar al-Zeidi in jail and that they should return in eight days because he was beaten so badly he was near death.

Iraqi officials have denied that the journalist suffered severe injuries after he was wrestled to the floor after throwing the shoes at Bush during a new conference by the U.S. president on Sunday, but the judge said that Muntadhar al-Zeidi's injuries were so severe that he would not be able to sit in trial.

Al-Zeidi was held for allegedly insulting a foreign leader, a charge that carries a maximum of two years in prison. Under the Iraqi legal system, the case is given to a judge who investigates the allegation, weighs the evidence and recommends whether to order a trial.

Throwing your shoes at a leader you despise is a democratic right. Food Shoes for thought.

Ontario gets 21 more seats in the House of Commons

CANADA - Ontario will be getting 21 additional seats in the House of Commons, 11 more than were promised last year.

Ontario has been getting ripped off in recent elections, having over one third of Canada's population (13 million Canadians live in Ontario, out of a total Canadian population of 33.5 million). Less than 31% of House of Commons seats are in Ontario. By population Ontario should have 38.8% of the seats in the House of Commons.

Currently there is 308 seats in the House of Commons. The 21 new seats will bring that total to 329. 95 seats out of 308 are in Ontario. The new total of 116 out of 329 will still only bring Ontario to 35%, meaning Ontario is still getting ripped off in terms of Canadian democracy, but at least its not as bad as it was.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been refusing to increase Ontario's share of the House of Commons for several years now, but recently had his arm twisted by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty who says he and the Prime Minister have resolved their disagreement.

Ontario didn't have to give up anything in return either.

Internet Explorer Flawed, says Microsoft

TECHNOLOGY - Microsoft Corp. is taking the unusual step of issuing an emergency fix for a security hole in its Internet Explorer software that has exposed millions of users to having their computers taken over by hackers.

The "zero-day" vulnerability, which came to light last week, would allow criminals to take over victims' machines simply by steering them to infected Web sites; users don't have to download anything for their computers to get infected, which makes the flaw in Internet Explorer's programming code so dangerous. Internet Explorer is the world's most widely used internet browser, ahead of Firefox.

Microsoft said it plans to ship a security update, rated "critical" for the browser today. People with the Windows Update feature activated on their computers will get the patch automatically.

Thousands of websites already have been compromised by criminals looking to exploit the flaw. The load malicious code onto those sites that automatically infect a visitor's computer if they're using Internet Explorer.

Microsoft recommends in the meantime that users download and use Firefox, Opera or even older browsers like Netscape Navigator to avoid the security hole.

OPEC makes record cuts, oil prices tumble due to deep recession

POLITICS - OPEC oil ministers agreed upon their deepest oil cut ever today, slashing 2.2 million barrels per day from oil markets in a race to balance supply with rapidly crumbling demand for oil and gas. Demand for gasoline in the United States over the four weeks ending Dec. 12 was 2.7% lower than a year earlier.

The 12 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries were also aiming to build a floor under prices that have dropped more than $100 from a July 2008 peak of $147 a barrel.

But despite that, oil prices today still fell nearly 5%, or $2.07, to $41.53 on the New York Mercantile Exchange amid a growing recession and whispers of a depression.

The recession will be long and deep, with the global economy seeing "only gradual and in some cases disappointing economic recovery" in 2010, Bank of Nova Scotia economists predict.

Most developed countries will see "virtually no economic gain" until 2011 or 2012, and even then the rebound will be slow, Scotiabank chief economist Warren Jestin announced today.

So what is the difference between a deep recession and a depression?

A recession is 6 or more months of GDP (gross domestic product, based on manufacturing) decline. A deep recession means a more severe decline in manufacturing GDP, likely the result of millions of laid off workers.

A depression is a severe or prolonged recession which lasts years.

There is no widely agreed upon definition for a depression, but the current recession the United States is in started in August 2007 with the collapse of the housing market and the American dollar losing 17% of its value (effectively the American economy shrunk 15% compared to the global market in 2007) and looks like it will last until the middle of 2009. So does two years qualify as a depression. Possibly.

Aliens, Ghostbusters and Sigourney Weaver

ENTERTAINMENT - Rumours of a fifth Aliens movie and a third Ghostbusters movie won't die, and Sigourney Weaver says she's ready to reprise her role in both.

The 1979 sci-fi thriller Alien made Sigourney Weaver a star and her character Ripley an action hero. Then there's her role as the hot femme in Ghostbusters (1984) and mother in Ghostbusters II (1989), both of which garnered rave reviews.

Weaver is currently part of James Cameron's sci-fi epic "Avatar", one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2009 – and to which she's sworn to secrecy about, but there's also serious talk of Ghostbusters 3 and Alien 5. Other actors (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson) from Ghostbusters all say they are interested in coming back for more foray as ghost exterminators.

"I love science fiction. I love the character of Ripley," says Weaver. "I miss Ripley. She was really interesting, and I'd love to play her as an older Ripley."

And with respect to playing Bill Murray's love interest in Ghostbusters: "I heard he was going to do it and the last time I talked to him he hadn't found out about it. I'm actually supposed to give him a script next week. For a different movie, a love story with me called Something Old, Something New, and that would be fun. I'll find out if he's doing [Ghostbusters]."

Canadian Idol canceled

CANADA/ENTERTAINMENT - With Canada's economy in recession and ratings diving, CTV's Canadian Idol has been canceled. Or at very least put on hiatus.

On behalf of all the grateful Canadians who are sickened by reality TV shows, especially shows that focus on wannabe singers, thank you. Thank you for canceling that horrible, horrible show. Canadian Idol Rest in Peace. May the hiatus be permanent.

Apparently there was a huge lack of advertisers willing to fill time slots during the show, meaning advertising companies have noted Canadian Idol's lack of popularity and CTV executives realized the show wasn't destined to be a moneymaker.

Maybe now that can put that money towards making something quality (and hopefully not another horribly crappy reality TV show)...

For now CTV says its considering reruns of The Simpsons, Family Guy or Futurama during the time slot, but is also looking at the possibility of a new show with Canadian content. Chilly Beach or reruns of Corner Gas might work.

December 16, 2008

US Federal Reserve cuts Interest Rate to ZERO

POLITICS - The United States Federal Reserve, buckling under a recession and economists even whispering depression, has cut its interest rates to 0% to 0.25%, the lowest rate ever recorded in North America.

The move is not only controversial and considered an act of desperation but signals that the Federal Reserve has run out of ideas to stimulate the economy.

The Fed's move sent the US dollar tumbling to a 10-week low against the Euro, and the US dollar is expected to weaken further.

Politicians continue to scramble, hoping for better times in 2009 after George W. Bush leaves office. The Bush Administration has largely been blamed for being asleep at the economic wheel and failing to halt the economic decline the USA is currently going through.

TD Bank economists predict $30 oil

CANADA/POLITICS - TD Bank economists predict the global economic slump will pull down oil prices faster than previously forecast, with crude oil now expected to fall to $30 US/barrel next year.

That would be barely one-fifth of the July peak of over $147 a barrel, and down from TD's forecast a month ago that oil would bottom out at $45 a barrel during 2009. TD is predicting a 60% decline in its index of commodity prices.

If oil prices do slip to $30 per barrel it would be similar to similar predictions that oil prices will reach $25/barrel in 2009 and that the Canadian petro-dollar will slide to 65 cents US.

TD also predicts oil prices will double to about $75 a barrel by the end of 2010 if the world economy revives.

The Shoe Thrown around the World

POLITICS - Note: It is not illegal to throw your shoes at someone in Iraq. Indeed its quite traditional to throw your shoes at someone you despise.

The journalist who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush was handed over to the Iraqi judiciary, an Iraqi official said today, a move that ordinarily signals the start of criminal proceedings. However... what are they charging him with?

After all its not illegal to throw your shoes at someone. It might be considered rude, but its certainly not against the law in a country where its considered a tradition.

Hundreds of shoe-throwing supporters took to the streets today for a second day to demand the release of shoe-throwing journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi, who gained folk hero status when he hurled both his shoes at Bush during a news conference Sunday in Baghdad.

Al-Zeidi was initially held by the prime minister's guards and later turned over to the Iraqi army's Baghdad command. The command, in turn, handed him over to the judiciary. Cases referred to the judiciary are given to a judge who reviews the evidence and recommends whether to hold a trial or release the defendant.

Another panel then sets a trial date and appoints judges to hear the case. The process can take months, but there's still the first obvious question of what to charge him with... assassination attempt? Hardly. The shoes posed no threat to the American president.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said al-Zeidi could face charges of insulting a foreign leader and the Iraqi prime minister, who was standing next to Bush when the shoes were thrown. The offense carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail.

Okay, now that's censorship for you. Insulting a politician is illegal in Iraq... funny. People around the world insult George W. Bush constantly and yet don't face a sentence of 2 years in prison.

Many Iraqis believe al-Zeidi is a hero for insulting an American president widely blamed for the chaos that has engulfed their country since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

In Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, located north of Baghdad, thousands of protesters carried banners and chanted slogans demanding al-Zeidi's release. More protests continued today in Nasiriyah, Baghdad and Fallujah.

"Muntadhar al-Zeidi has expressed the feelings and ambitions of the Iraqi people toward the symbol of tyranny," said Nassar Afrawi, a protester in Nasiriyah.

In Baghdad, Noureddin al-Hiyali, a lawmaker of the main Sunni bloc in parliament, defended al-Zeidi's actions and said he believed the reporter was likely motivated by the invasion of Iraq, the "dismantling of the Iraqi government, destroying the infrastructure," – all events he blamed on the Bush administration.

"International law approves peoples' right to resist occupation using all means and Mr. Muntadhar al-Zeidi endeavoured to resist occupation in his own manner," al-Hiyali said. He urged the Iraqi government to take that into consideration when deciding what to do with al-Zeidi.

The head of the Iraqi Union of Journalists described al-Zeidi's action as "strange and unprofessional" but urged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to give him clemency. "Even if he has committed a mistake, the government and the judiciary are broad-minded, and we hope they consider his release because he has a family, and he is still young," Mouyyad al-Lami. "We hope this case ends before going to court."

The perception of al-Zeidi as a hero reflects Arab disgust towards Bush for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and dissatisfaction with Bush's foreign policy in the Middle East.

Greeks continue to riot, demand end to police corruption

POLITICS - General anarchy continues to rule in Greece as masked youths attacked the Greek riot police headquarters in Athens and protesters clashed with police in a northern city Tuesday, in a revival of violence sparked by a teenager's shooting.

Police said a group of 30 youths threw petrol bombs and stones at the building, causing extensive damage to seven cars and a police bus parked outside. The central Athens building is also used by traffic police.

After a two-day lull, violence flared across Athens on Tuesday. School children blocked streets and dozens of teenagers gathered outside the capital's main court complex and a maximum-security prison – where some threw stones at police. Similar protests were planned in other parts of town later in the day.

Protesters also briefly occupied a state NET television studio, and interrupted a news bulletin holding banners calling for mass participation in the demonstrations. Footage of a speech by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was suddenly replaced by some 10 youths in the studio.

For more than a minute, they displayed banners reading: "Stop watching, get out onto the streets," and "Free everyone who has been arrested." NET offered no comment.

Protesters have called for riot officers to be pulled off the streets, for police to be disarmed and for growing social inequality to be resolved.

The focus of the protests is now shifting to high school students, who were shocked by the death of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in a police shooting and have also voiced concerns at government economic, social and education policies. Lessons have stopped at more than 100 secondary schools that are under occupation by students, according to Greece's Education Ministry.

Scores of university buildings across Greece are also under occupation.

After the Dec. 6 shooting, furious youths smashed and burnt hundreds of shops in Athens' main shopping area, and attacked riot police who responded with massive use of tear gas.

Dozens of people were injured in the rioting, while more than 300 people were arrested. The police officer accused of killing the teenager has been charged with murder and is being held pending trial.

In the northern port of Thessaloniki, riot police fired tear gas Tuesday to disperse some 300 youths throwing fruit and stones outside the city's main court complex. The disturbance followed a court decision that found eight police officers guilty of abusing a student following riots two years ago.

The policemen received suspended sentences ranging from three years and three months for grievous bodily harm to 15 months for being an accessory to the abuse.

Overnight, unknown arsonists attacked three Athens banks with petrol bombs, causing extensive damage. There were no injuries or arrests.

517,000 auto-sector jobs in Ontario at stake

CANADA/CARS - Ontario would lose 517,000 auto-sector jobs within five years if the Big Three automakers went out of business, according to a new provincial report. The collapse of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler would send lasting shock waves through the Canadian economy.

Alternatively if auto output by United States-based manufacturers in Canada were cut in half, at least 157,400 jobs would be lost right away, 141,000 of them in Ontario. By 2014, job losses would rise to 296,000 nationally, including 269,000 here.

If production were to cease completely, 323,000 jobs would be lost immediately in Canada, including 281,800 in this province, rising to 582,000 nationally and 517,000 in Ontario by 2014.

The review by the Ministry of Economic Development was released today.

December 15, 2008

Wall Street duped in $50 billion fraud scam

UNITED STATES - As if the US economy doesn't have enough problems with the $700 billion investment bank bailout and the $34 billion automotive industry bailout... now Wall Street's biggest investors have been conned out of approx. $50 billion in whats known as a Ponzi scheme.

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that involves paying abnormally high returns to investors out of the money paid in by subsequent investors, rather than from the profit from any real business. It is named after scam artist Charles Ponzi who between 1918 and 1920 scammed over 17,000 people out of tens of millions.

Today the growing list of investors (including some celebrities and banks) who say they were duped into investing in Bernard Madoff, a veteran Wall Street money manager, include:
Real estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman.
The foundation of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
Movie director Steven Spielberg.
HSBC Holdings PLC.
Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC and Man Group PLC.
Spain's Grupo Santander SA.
France's BNP Paribas.
Japan's Nomura Holdings.
Bramdean Alternatives.
Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation.
New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg.
Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman.
New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon.
J. Ezra Merkin, the chairman of GMAC Financial Services.
Banco Santander, the largest European bank.
The 70-year-old Bernard Madoff, previously well respected in the investment community after serving as chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market, was arrested last Thursday in what prosecutors say was a $50 billion scheme to defraud investors. Some investors claim they've been completely wiped out, while others are still likely to come forward.

The extent of the potential damage prompted fund managers and investors around the world to lash out at U.S. regulators for failing to detect the fraud earlier, especially during a recession and a time of increasing doubt in the USA's financial reliability due to corporate crime.

"I think now it is very difficult for people to invest in things that are meant to be regulated in America, because they haven fallen down in the job," Nicola Horlick, the manager of Britain's Bramdean Alternatives, which had 9% of its funds invested in Madoff's scheme.

Other investors around the world are starting to agree. The lack of financial regulation in the USA makes it an unworthy place to invest.

Banco Santander, the largest European bank has lost 2.33 billion euros ($3.07 billion) in exposure with Madoff's Ponzi scheme. HSBC, Britain's largest bank, says its institutions have lost approx. $1 billion US and the Royal Bank of Scotland, Britain's second-largest bank, which is now 58% owned by the British government, says it could lose around $600 million.

The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, a charity that finances trips for Jewish youth to Israel has fired all of its staff after revealing that all the money for its operations was invested with Madoff. The charity is now apparently bankrupt.

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, one of the wealthiest members of the US Senate, entrusted the bulk of his family's charitable foundation to Madoff. So far it looks like they've lost almost everything.

Ordinary investors from all over the United States and overseas gave Madoff their money. Some had been friends with him for decades, others were able to invest because they were a friend of a friend. Some have lost their life's savings of $40,000 to giant nest eggs worth over $1 million.

Numerous other financial institutions are refusing to comment right now whether they had investments with Madoff: Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and Merrill Lynch & Co., Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo & Co., Comerica Inc. and U.S. Bancorp.

Some estimates suggest the $50 billion in announced losses could balloon to $100 billion or more by the time the full extent of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Questions about where the money went will also have to be answered and how much of it remains.

Iraqi Man throws shoes at George W. Bush

POLITICS - Yesterday an Iraqi reporter called U.S. President George W. Bush a "dog" and threw his shoes at him, during Bush's farewell visit to Baghdad.

Throwing shoes at a person is considered the greatest insult in the Middle East. Iraqis whacked a statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes after U.S. Marines toppled it to the ground following the 2003 invasion by the United States.

Bush was in Iraq seeking to push his idea of improved security in Iraq by landing in daylight and venturing out beyond the city's heavily fortified international Green Zone, where he declared the War on Terror and the Iraq War was "not over" despite any gains in security.
"I consider it an important step on the road toward an Iraq that can sustain itself, govern itself and defend itself. There's still more work to be done. The war is not over." - George W. Bush.
While in a press conference briefing with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at Bush and shouted in Arabic "this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog!"

The journalist was Muntadar al-Zeidi, a correspondent for Al-Baghdadia television, an Iraqi-owned station based in Cairo Egypt. He was jumped on by Iraqi security officials and U.S. Secret Service agents and dragged from the room kicking and screaming.

Bush had to duck twice to avoid getting hit by the shoes and later joked "It was a size 10." and then went on to insult the Arab tradition of throwing shoes.
"So what if a guy threw his shoe at me? It's like going to a political rally and have people yell at you. It's a way for people to draw attention. I don't know what the guy's cause was. I didn't feel the least bit threatened by it." - George W. Bush.
Bush is in Afghanistan today to look at the deteriorating situation in the seven-year-old Afghanistan war and to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. His surprise stop marked his first visit in over 2 1/2 years and is only the second time he has visited the country.

December 12, 2008

Stephen Harper seeks to rig Senate

CANADA - Constitutional experts and opposition parties are furious today and condemned Prime Minister Stephen Harper's plan to fill every empty Senate seat in advance of his government's possible defeat in January, a blatant attempt to rig the Senate in his favour. Harper wants to name the new senators before Christmas – likely all of them in one fell swoop.

Constitutional scholar Desmond Morton called the move a scandal in view of the precarious position of Harper's minority government. "He has the power to do it, but he shouldn't have the gall," said Morton, a professor emeritus at McGill University.

"I think it's more in keeping with the principles of parliamentary democracy that a potentially lame-duck administration should not make appointments," said constitutional scholar Ned Franks and Queen's University professor emeritus. Harper should have waited to appoint Senators and do so before the Commons, he says. "There's no problem with him doing it. It's according to the past tradition of the prime minister using his personal discretion to choose appointments. There's no problem there, but the timing is a bit suspect."

A senior government official, briefing reporters on background, said "part of the reason" for rushing to name Senate appointments now "is clearly related" to the NDP-Liberal coalition, which the Conservative government believes would put its own partisans into the current 18 vacancies and block Senate reform if it ever got into power. Another 11 vacancies in the 105-seat chamber are expected to open up next year, which would allow Harper to stack 29 more Senate seats in his favour.

Even if Harper does not succeed in securing an outright majority in the Senate, he could get what an official called a "functioning majority," because "not all members of the Senate are terribly active." Some of the Senators are elderly and occasionally have health problems.

Harper is also planning to name people clearly committed and willing to abide by the Conservative party's goal of limiting Senate terms to eight years, and to standing for election. Normally Senators are appointed for life (or until they reach age 75 or step down) and paid $130,400 a year.

The purpose of the Senate is to follow the will of Canadians, fine tune and improve new legislation and overturn corruption in the House of Commons. Stacking the Senate in one political party's favour would ruin its purpose.

Negligent RCMP won't face charges in Taser death

CANADA/TECHNOLOGY - The Mounties involved in Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski's death at Vancouver's airport last year will not face any criminal charges.

The Crown concluded there was not enough evidence to warrant criminal charges, according to announcement this morning by the criminal justice branch of the B.C. Attorney General's Ministry.

Robert Dziekanski, 40, died Oct. 14, 2007, after he got off a flight from Germany at the Vancouver International Airport. He spoke only Polish and became lost, wandering for hours, unable to understand how to move through security and immigration barriers that prevented him from connecting with his mother, who waited hours for him at the airport.

When RCMP responded to a disturbance call about Dziekanski, four officers confronted the unarmed Polish man and less than a minute into the encounter, a Taser gun was used, jolting Dziekanski, who fell screaming to the ground. Video, captured by a bystander, shows officers piling onto Dziekanski and electrocuting him with multiple tasers at the same time. He died within minutes.

The Taser is only designed to be used once on a target, sending 50,000 volts into them (or 2.1 milliamps). Using multiple tasers at the same time creates a circuit which amplifies the amount of electricity going through the victim's body. The four "trigger happy" RCMP officers ignored the manufacturer's warnings about shooting the target multiple times and/or at the same time, resulting in approx. 200,000 volts (or 8.4 milliamps).

NOTE: Its important to keep track of the amps. Voltage doesn't necessarily kill a person, amps do. 50 to 200 milliamps can kill a person instantly. A lesser amount can still kill, although it may take longer to do it. The level of electricity literally melts a person's insides.

The precise amount of volts or amps required to kill a person varies, depending on weight, level of health/fitness and whether they have any heart conditions and the duration of the shock. Robert Dziekanski had a pre-existing heart condition, but the amount he was shocked with could have easily killed a child or an elderly person.

IRONICALLY the RCMP might have tried to save Robert Dziekanski's life when he went into cardiac arrest by shocking him again, using the Taser as a crude defibrillator.

Since Dziekanski's death, the RCMP has come under fire for its lengthy investigation of its own members and the force's continued use of the Taser weapon.

CBC/Radio Canada commissioned its own tests of the weapon and found some older models discharged electrical currents above the accepted limits.

Since the CBC report, other jurisdictions have pulled the older Tasers from use. Yesterday, Alberta became the latest province to announce it is testing all its Tasers purchased before 2006.

More than 20 Canadians have died after receiving an electric jolt from a Taser gun. Amnesty International and other groups have called for a moratorium on the weapon's use.

European Union pushes $264B economic stimulus

POLITICS - EU leaders today supported a 200 billion Euro ($264.3 billion) economic stimulus package to ward off recession in the region's 27 nations as new statistics highlighted just how deep a slowdown they are facing. 15 European nations have slid into a recession during the past 9 months and more may follow without an economic stimulus.

The EU had agreed unanimously to spend "1.5% of gross domestic product or around 200 billion Euros" to brake shrinking growth that will shed jobs across the region. The final three months of the year aren't looking any better, according to figures the EU statistics agency Eurostat published Friday. The entire 27-nation EU saw a 5% tumble in industrial production compared to last year due to falling demand.

This adds urgency to the recovery plan that EU governments are backing, which gives each nation some leeway in how to fuel growth. They singled out automakers and home builders as most in need of help as shoppers avoid major purchases such as new cars and homes. Countries would be free to choose how they would help out troubled industries, picking between more public spending, tax or social security cuts, aid for specific industries or financial support for cash-strapped households.

A draft EU statement also set limits on what each country could do, saying massive state subsidies had to be short-term and targeted to limit competition problems that would favor one industry or one part of the 27-nation bloc over rivals elsewhere in Europe. "Measures to support demand must aim to produce immediate effects, be of limited duration and be targeted at the sectors most affected and the most important as regards the structure of the economy, e.g. the automotive industry and the construction sector," the draft text said.

The EU stimulus also aims to make more money available to banks to lend on to companies. The EU government-funded European Investment Bank will release 30 billion Euros ($39.65 billion) in small businesses loans during next year and 2010 and for projects that support renewable energy and cleaner transport, including 4 billion Euros ($5.3 billion) in soft loans for the car industry to help them make more hybrid, hydrogen or electric cars.

This won't be very good for the American car industry, which has a significant lack of eco-friendly cars and will see European cars become even more eco-friendly and competitive.

December 11, 2008

U.S. jobless claims at 26-year high

UNITED STATES - New claims for unemployment benefits reached their highest level in 26 years last week, as companies slash workers at a rapid pace.

The Labour Department reported today that initial applications for jobless benefits in the week ending Dec. 6 rose to a seasonally adjusted 573,000 from an upwardly revised figure of 515,000 in the previous week. The Labour Department said last week that employers cut a net total of 533,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate reached 6.7 per cent, a 15-year high.

It is also the highest reading since November 1982, though the labor force has grown by about 49% since then. Economists consider jobless claims a timely, if volatile, indicator of the health of the labor markets and broader economy. Last year, initial claims were 337,000.

The economy has been hit hard by the ongoing housing slump and credit crisis, which have sharply reduced household wealth as stock prices and home values have declined. Consumers and businesses have dramatically cut back their spending. The National Bureau of Economic Research said this month that the economy fell into a recession in December 2007.

High hopes are pinned on Barack Obama's plan for infrastructure spending in 2009 to boost the lagging economy.

Canadian builds robot daughter Aiko

By Ai Lung Nguyen - December 2008.

TECHNOLOGY - A Canadian man from Brampton has become an Internet celebrity in the last two days after his "robot daughter" was featured on the websites of two British tabloids. The tabloids initially reported that she was his girlfriend, but creator Trung Le has since corrected that. The internet buzz is so much that the website is currently not available.

"She's not really my girlfriend. I have friends – I don't need to create friends," say Trung Le, explaining he is more like her father and teacher. "Aiko's a robot who can do a lot of things, and hopefully more soon."

Aiko is a 5-foot-tall robot with an hourglass figure, shiny real hair (from Japan), delicate Asian features and silicone breasts. Aiko – which means love child in Japanese – can speak about 13,000 sentences in Japanese and English (and learns new things to say every day), do algebra, trigonometry and geometry, and tell the weather in foreign cities by accessing the internet.

Aiko still needs to learn how to walk but she can move her hands, nod her head and can do push-ups, and sit-ups just like a human. She can also mimic pain and shout indignantly if touched roughly. When lightly slapped she cries out: "It's not nice to touch a girl's head. Touch your own head." Trung Le is now trying to teach her to make tea and coffee, and do simple household chores, but its difficult to fine tune the things he teaches her but she does learn given time. Walking and eventually running and jumping is on his list of things to do.
"I know it is still far out of reach to make a true android like human, but one step at a time." - Trung Le.

Inventor Trung built his first robot when he was 8, says Aiko is the result of his years of planning, calculations and hard work. He began her assembly in August of 2007 and was done two months later after costing him about $25,000. Trung Le, now 33, was born in Vietnam and grew up partly in Japan, where robots are extremely popular both in real life and in fiction/animation, including notable examples like Astro Boy.

Trung is marketing the software used to create Aiko, BRAINS (Biometric Robot Artificial Intelligence Neural System) which took years to create and is improving the software daily. The BRAINS software is a unique software which was created to control AI, speech, reading, math, vision, colors, hearing, automation, sensors, temperature, face and object recognition. Trung also hopes to create life-like mechanical limbs for disabled people that can register sensations.

This is not the first time people have built a functioning android. "Actroid" for example was built by Osaka University in Japan and features some similar functions.

Skeptics have also heckled the robot girl during public showings, with people calling her a fake and suggesting there is someone controlling her movements and voice. One elderly woman even got hostile, yelling and throwing rocks, saying Trung Le was "trying to be God and it isn't right."

So far Trung Le has taken her to a Brampton park three times and also to the Toronto International Center Exhibition in 2007. Women, in particular, have been fascinated. Some touched her breasts to feel the silicone, he said. "Most people have been very curious about her and want to know what all she can do," he said.

Trung Le's mother Kim is happy to have Aiko at home, even though she makes an unusual granddaughter. "She's like a family member now."

December 10, 2008

Solar taxi completes round-the-world trip

CARS - The first solar car to drive around the Earth completed its journey today. Swiss adventurer Louis Palmer drove the car 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers) around the globe without using a drop of oil, and picked up people along the way like a taxi.

Palmer has given a ride to approximately 1,000 people so far, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer.

Palmer rolled into the U.N. climate conference in his solar car as a man with a mission: To prove that the world can continue its love affair with the car without burning any polluting fossil fuels and still enjoy a smooth ride.

While some 11,000 delegates sought an ambitious new climate change deal to slash emissions of heat-trapping gases, Palmer was convinced that whatever they agreed upon won't be enough to avert environmental disaster. Delegates are seeking a new climate change treaty that would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012 and has required that 37 countries slash emissions of heat-trapping gases by an average 5 percent from 1990 levels. The goal is for the new treaty to be finalized at the next U.N. climate meeting in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

"Here at the conference, we are talking about reducing emissions by 10 or 20 percent," Palmer said. "I want to show that we can reduce emissions by 100 percent€” and that's what we need for the future."

Palmer drove the fully solar-powered car built with the help of Swiss scientists through 38 countries. The two-seater travels up to 55 mph (90 kph).

The aluminum and fiberglass car is still a prototype, and is designed to be light and efficient, is powered by solar cells that it hauls on a trailer. It has plastic windows, three wheels instead of four and ironically, no climate control.

Designed like a race car, it can hold two people comfortably and has a radio. It meets all safety standards in Switzerland and has headlights, brakes, blinkers and other standard safety features. Before his world trip, Palmer, 36, used it for a year to commute to the school in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he taught.

Although he tried to avoid what he called "dinosaur technology," his steering wheel was from a Renault, his windshield wipers from a Fiat and his wheels were from a Smart car, the Daimler AG two-seater that is ubiquitous in many European cities.

After a summer that saw oil prices rise uncontrollably, many automakers — from the U.S. to Japan — are investing in research with the aim of producing alternatively powered cars using electricity, biofuel and even hydrogen. Environmental advocates hope these efforts will continue even as oil prices have dropped substantially.

Greece under siege due to mass riots and general strike

POLITICS - Riot police in Greece fired tear gas at youths throwing Molotov cocktails outside Greek Parliament on today as a general strike paralyzed Greece and raised pressure on a fragile government already reeling from four days of riots sparked by the police shooting of a teenager.

The explosion of anger was sparked by the fatal police shooting Saturday of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. Two police officers are to appear before a prosecutor later Wednesday, one charged with murder and the other as an accomplice. Greece's police force and Conservative government are rife with widespread corruption and Greek citizens have become growingly upset at the lack of government and police integrity.

The rioting and demonstrations were set off by anger at the shooting but were fed by months of widespread discontent with the corruption and poor economic policies of Greece's conservative government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose party holds a majority of a single seat in the 300-member parliament.

The clashes escalated into running battles through the city centre, with riot police firing volleys of tear gas at masked youths pelting them with rocks, bottles and blocks of marble smashed from the Athens metro station entrance.

More than 10,000 people had been marching through central Athens to protest the conservative government's poor economic policies in a general strike that has shut down schools, public services and hospitals and has grounded flights.

Although the strike and demonstrations had been scheduled long before the riots broke out, they have taken on the added form of protest against the government's handling of the riots.

Clashes also broke out during demonstrations in the northern cities of Thessaloniki and Kavala.

Prime Minister Karamanlis has faced growing opposition over changes to the country's pension system, privatization and the loosening of state control of higher education, which many students oppose because they feel it will undermine their degrees.

For four days now the government's support has dropped lower as gangs of youths maraud through cities across the country, torching businesses, looting shops and setting up burning barricades across streets.

Store owners accuse riot police of leaving their businesses unprotected as rioters smashed and burned their way through popular shopping districts. Although police have defended themselves by firing volley after volley of tear gas when attacked by rock and Molotov cocktail-throwing protesters, they have held back when youths turned against buildings and cars.

Local media reported early Wednesday that groups of civilians had begun taking matters into their own hands, confronting looters in the western city of Patras and the central city of Larissa.

Global Warming killing Coral Reefs

ENVIRONMENT - The world has lost nearly one-fifth of its coral reefs and much of the rest could be destroyed by increasingly acidic seas if climate change continues unchecked. Increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which fuels global warming, is raising the temperature of the oceans, according to Olof Linden of the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden who spoke at a global conference today.

Acidic water destroys reef-building coral which relies on calcification to build their shells.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature says global warming and the rising temperature of the oceans are the latest and most serious threats to coral, already damaged by destructive fishing methods and pollution. "The world has lost about 19 per cent of its coral reefs during the last 20 years," said IUCN's director general, Julia Marton-Lefevre, on the sidelines of the 190-country UN talks on a new climate change treaty.

"If current trends in carbon dioxide emission continue, many of the remaining reefs will be lost in the next 20 to 40 years," she told reporters. "Climate change must be limited to the absolute minimum if we want to save coral reefs. We need to move forward and substantially cut emissions."

A report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network says all the world's coral reefs could be considered threatened if current forecasts from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and coral reef experts prove accurate.

United States agrees to bailout auto industry

CARS/POLITICS - The United States Congress and the White House, backed by President-elect Barack Obama, have apparently reached a deal to spend $15 billion US on emergency loans for struggling U.S. automakers. The measure could see a House of Representatives vote later today and be enacted by Friday.

It would create a government "car czar" to dole out the loans, with the power to force the automakers into bankruptcy if they didn't cut quick deals with labour unions, creditors and others to restructure their businesses and become viable. The Bush administration would work with President-elect Barack Obama's team on choosing the so-called "car czar," acknowledging that Bush's tenure ends in 41 days and the automakers' woes will continue well into 2009.

Congressional Republicans, left out of negotiations on the package, are seeking to block the action, not wanting to cooperate with the new White House agenda and disappointed outgoing President George W. Bush did not lobby Republicans to vote for the package.

Republican Senator David Vitter promised to filibuster the measure, which could delay a final vote for days. Democratic leaders say they are confident that the bill could advance that they set a procedural vote for the House floor later today.

The White House breakthrough came when Democrats agreed to scrap a section that would have forced the carmakers to drop lawsuits challenging tough emissions limits in California and other states, said congressional aides.

Environmentalists are livid that the measure draws the emergency loans from an existing loan program to help carmakers retool their factories to make greener cars.

Past Posts:
Ford, General Motors & Chrysler running out of time
US Treasury rejects GM/Chrysler Merger Aid

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