Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ill. family thanks employees with surprise bonuses

CHICAGO – Even though employees at the Peer Bearing Co. no longer work for the Spungen family that recently sold the Waukegan-based ball bearings maker, they still received a turkey each this Thanksgiving in keeping with tradition.

But even better was the gift that came in mid-September, when the Spungens threw a party to celebrate the company's acquisition by a Swedish company.

They gave away $6.6 million in year-end bonuses to Peer's 230 employees, decided by a formula based on each worker's years of service.

"My grandfather was always charitable," said Danny Spungen, grandson of Peer founder Nathan Spungen. He said Laurence and Florence Spungen and their four children decided on a bonus formula a year before the acquisition closed.

He said the decision was "a gamble that we would come out OK as well."

Family members signed two thank-you cards to each employee, one in Spanish and one in English, expressing gratitude for "the loyalty and hard work of our employees over the years."

"They treated us like extended family," said Maria Dima, who works at the company along with her husband, Valentin. "We won the lottery."

On the day the checks were distributed, Valentin Dima watched as co-workers broke down in tears over their bonus checks. He drove home first, then opened his envelope: $33,000. His wife received a check for a smaller amount, and the two Romanian immigrants have since taken a Caribbean cruise to celebrate.

"This company gave us stability, so we dare to spend some money on such a thing," Valentin Dima said.

While neighbors and friends faced new financial strains, the bonuses have helped Peer employees breathe easier.

"I know people who work for corporate America are not going to get treated like that. And most of the family-owned businesses are not going to treat you like that," said Dave Tiderman, who received $35,000. "This is something that just really doesn't happen."

Tiderman, who started at Peer in 1985 and worked his way up from the warehouse to assistant product manager, said most of his bonus will stay in the bank because of the uncertain economy.

"I do have to put some tires on my truck," he added.

Jose Rojas, who works in Peer's customer service department, said he plans to save his $10,000 check for his son's college education.

Peer made $100 million in sales last year and was acquired for an undisclosed amount. The new owners intend to operate the company based 40 miles north of Chicago as a wholly owned subsidiary. Workers have been told that most will keep their jobs.


On the Net:

Small Arkansas earthquakes could be warning, expert says

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A series of small earthquakes that rattled central Arkansas in recent weeks could be a sign of something much bigger to come.

By this weekend, seismologists hope to install three measurement devices to gather data about future temblors in the area. That information could show whether the rumbles come from heat-related geological changes or from an undiscovered fault — which could mean a risk of substantial earthquakes in the future.

"The potential for generating a high-magnitude earthquake is real," said Haydar Al-Shukri, director of the Arkansas Earthquake Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Five earthquakes ranging in magnitude from 2.2 to 2.7 have hit central Arkansas this month. Quakes with a magnitude of 2.5 to 3 are typically the smallest felt by people.

While hundreds of earthquakes occur each year, including several in Arkansas, the location of the recent ones give Al-Shukri pause. Arkansas quakes generally occur in the state's northeast corner, part of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, where three temblors with magnitudes of around 8 struck during the winter of 1812 and smaller ones continue today.

But central Arkansas does not have any seismic history, Al-Shukri said.

"It is abnormal. It is significant," he said. "We need to carefully watch this activity."

The area does not have any permanent seismograph, so researchers asked the University of Memphis in Tennessee if they could use its portable equipment. The nearest seismographs aren't close enough to provide the detailed readings scientists need to determine what could be causing the tremors or properly locate their origin, said Scott Ausbrooks, the geohazard supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey.

"I don't know if you've looked at a map of where these events are located, but they've got a scatter on them," he said. "We're thinking this is probably the inherited error built in when you try to locate events of this small a magnitude from that far away."

Ausbrooks said officials would install the three seismographs around Magnet Cove, a Hot Spring County community near where a magnitude-2.7 earthquake hit on Nov. 1. Residents told police dispatchers they heard what sounded like an explosion.

One possible culprit could be a hydrothermal quake, caused by extremely hot fluid pushing into rocks under the surface. The hot fluid percolates into the cracks of the rocks and causes movement, Al-Shukri said.

That theory matches the geologic history of the area. Central Arkansas is home to Hot Springs, a city that grew up around its namesake spas. The springs have 143-degree waters rushing to the surface continuously.

If that's the case, the earthquakes likely wouldn't pose a drastic danger to the area, Al-Shukri said. At their strongest, such quakes reach only a magnitude of 5, the U.S. Geological Survey's threshold for "moderate."

However, if the earthquakes are caused by a previously unknown fault, that could mean a much more powerful temblor in the future. A recently discovered fault in eastern Arkansas near Marianna caused an earthquake with a magnitude of between 7.2 and 7.5 in the past 5,000 years, Al-Shukri said. That could cause widespread, heavy damage.

"Now, it's not active, but in geologist time, that's yesterday," he said.

Ausbrooks wouldn't speculate on what could be causing the earthquakes, saying he wanted to see what data the seismographs capture. However, he acknowledged an unknown fault could be running through the area.

"There are numerous faults across the state, both known and unknown," Ausbrooks said. "This area has got a lot of faults associated with it from the mountain building of the Ouachitas, but they're considered inactive."


On the Net:

Arkansas Geological Survey:

UALR Arkansas Earthquake Center:

U.S. Geological Survey:

Friday, November 28, 2008

UK govt. takes majority stake in RBS

LONDON, England - The Royal Bank of Scotland Group said Friday the British government will take majority control of the bank -- buying close to a 60 percent stake -- after its shareholders shunned a stock offering. RBS, which has indicated it could post its first ever annual loss this year.

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US Jewish, meditation groups' members die in India

NEW YORK – A New York couple who recognized the threat of terrorism in India but believed their mission of spreading Jewish pride was greater than the potential danger were slain in a series of attacks across Mumbai that have killed at least five Americans.

Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, 29, and his wife, Rivkah, 28, died in the attack on the ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement's center in Mumbai, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin said in New York.

The group said three other victims in the building apparently had been visiting there. Shmotkin said the dead included Bentzion Chroman, an Israeli with dual U.S. citizenship; Rabbi Leibish Teitlebaum, an American from Brooklyn; and an Israeli woman whose name was not released. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said the body of a fourth victim, an unidentified woman, was also found inside the five-story building.

Some of the victims had been bound.

The Holtzbergs' toddler son, Moshe, was rescued by an employee and taken to his grandparents.

More than 150 people had been killed since gunmen attacked 10 sites across India's financial capital, Mumbai, also known as Bombay, starting Wednesday night, officials said.

Also killed were a man and his teenage daughter from a Virginia community that promotes a form of meditation, a colleague said Friday. Alan Scherr, 58, and daughter Naomi, 13, died in a cafe Wednesday night, said Bobbie Garvey, a spokeswoman for the Synchronicity Foundation.

The U.S. State Department confirmed their deaths.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the deaths of the three victims from New York were "tragic losses" for the city. He said Teitelbaum, a Brooklyn native who moved to Jerusalem several years ago, was a kosher food supervisor.

"Our hearts go out to these families and to the many New Yorkers of all different religions and ethnicities who have been affected by the attacks," he said.

Members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement gathered at the group's headquarters Friday to pray for the families of the dead.

"Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg made the ultimate sacrifice," said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch.

"As emissaries to Mumbai, Gabi and Rivky gave up the comforts of the West in order to spread Jewish pride in a corner of the world that was a frequent stop for throngs of Israeli tourists," he said.

Shmotkin said at least three of the five victims at the center held U.S. citizenship: Teitlebaum was an American from Brooklyn, while the Israeli-born rabbi, who moved to the U.S. as a child, and Chroman both had dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship. Officials here were not sure whether Rivkah Holtzberg, also born in Israel, had obtained dual citizenship.

Twelve hours after gunmen stormed the center Wednesday, Sandra Samuel, a cook at the center, heard little Moshe's cries outside the room in which she had barricaded herself. She opened the door, grabbed the toddler and ran outside with another center worker. The little boy's pants were soaked with blood, and Samuel said she saw four people lying on the floor as she fled.

Kotlarsky said Holtzberg's last known call was to the Israeli consulate. He said that "the situation is not good" before the phone went dead, according to Kotlarsky.

The Holtzbergs arrived in Mumbai in 2003 to run a synagogue, provide religious instruction and help people dealing with drug addiction and poverty, Kotlarsky said.

Hillary Lewin, a New Yorker met the Holtzbergs last summer at the center in India, said both the rabbi and his wife were aware of possible terrorism, but believed their mission was greater than the potential danger.

Their attitude was "If I don't do it, who's going to do it?", Lewin said.

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky said Moshe will turn 2 on Saturday. "Today, he became an orphan," he said. A second son, who has been ailing, was with relatives in Israel when the attack happened. A third child died earlier this year of a genetic disease, the group said.

The Scherrs were among 25 foundation participants in a spiritual program in Mumbai. Four others on the mission were injured in the cafe attack in the luxury Oberoi hotel, Garvey said, including two women from Tennessee.

"I would call them bright stars," Garvey said of the Scherrs. "Extraordinary, bright, very positive — examples to the world."

Scherr was a former college professor who lived at the Synchronicity sanctuary about 15 miles southwest of Charlottesville. His wife, Kia, and her two sons did not travel with them to India.

According to the foundation's Web site, the community is led by Master Charles, a former leading disciple of Swami Paramahansa Muktananda. He is described as "one of the most popular spiritual teachers from India to build a following the West in the 1970s." He taught a form of yoga.

Garvey identified the Synchronicity injured as Helen Connolly of Toronto, who was grazed by a bullet; Rudrani Devi and Linda Ragsdale, both of Nashville, who both underwent surgery for bullet wounds; and Michael Rudder of Montreal, who remains in intensive care after being shot three times. Other members of the mission narrowly escaped the attack.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Malls, hotels next victims in new mortgage crisis

WASHINGTON – The full scope of the housing meltdown isn't clear and already there are ominous signs of a new crisis — one that could turn out the lights on malls, hotels and storefronts nationwide.

Even as the holiday shopping season begins in full swing, the same events poisoning the housing market are now at work on commercial properties, and the bad news is trickling in. Malls from Michigan to Georgia are entering foreclosure.

Hotels in Tucson, Ariz., and Hilton Head, S.C., also are about to default on their mortgages.

That pace is expected to quicken. The number of late payments and defaults will double, if not triple, by the end of next year, according to analysts from Fitch Ratings Ltd., which evaluates companies' credit.

"We're probably in the first inning of the commercial mortgage problem," said Scott Tross, a real estate lawyer with Herrick Feinstein in New Jersey.

That's bad news for more than just property owners. When businesses go dark, employees lose jobs. Towns lose tax revenue. School budgets and social services feel the pinch.

Companies have survived plenty of downturns, but economists see this one playing out like never before. In the past, when businesses hit rough patches, owners negotiated with banks or refinanced their loans.

But many banks no longer hold the loans they made. Over the past decade, banks have increasingly bundled mortgages and sold them to investors. Pension funds, insurance companies, and hedge funds bought the seemingly safe securities and are now bracing for losses that could ripple through the financial system.

"It's a toxic drug and nobody knows how bad it's going to be," said Paul Miller, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, who was among the first to sound alarm bells in the residential market.

Unlike home mortgages, businesses don't pay their loans over 30 years. Commercial mortgages are usually written for five, seven or 10 years with big payments due at the end. About $20 billion will be due next year, covering everything from office and condo complexes to hotels and malls.

The retail outlook is particularly bad. Circuit City and Linens 'n Things have sought bankruptcy protection. Home Depot, Sears, Ann Taylor and Foot Locker are closing stores.

Those retailers typically were paying rent that was expected to cover mortgage payments. When those $20 billion in mortgages come due next year — 2010 and 2011 totals are projected to be even higher — many property owners won't have the money.

Some will survive, but those property owners whose loans required little money up front will have less incentive to weather the storm.

Refinancing formerly was an option, but many properties are worth less than when they were purchased. And since investors no longer want to buy commercial mortgages, banks are reluctant to write new loans to refinance those facing foreclosure.

California, New York, Texas and Florida — states with a high concentration of mortgages in the securities market, according to Fitch — are particularly vulnerable. Texas and Florida are already seeing increased delinquencies and defaults, as are Michigan, Tennessee and Georgia.

The worst-case scenario goes something like this: With banks unwilling to refinance, a shopping center goes into foreclosure. Nobody can buy the mall because banks won't write mortgages as long as investors won't purchase them.

"Credit markets have seized up," corporate securities lawyer Michael Gambro said. "People are not willing to take risks. They're not buying anything."

That drives down investments already on the books. Insurance companies are seeing their stock prices fall on fears they are too invested in commercial mortgages.

"The system has never been tested for a deep recession," said Ken Rosen, a real estate hedge fund manager and University of California at Berkeley professor of real estate economics.

One hope was that the U.S. would use some of the $700 billion financial bailout to buy shaky investments from banks and insurance companies. That was the original plan. But Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has issued a stunning turnabout, saying the U.S. no longer planned to buy troubled securities. For those watching the wave of commercial defaults about to crest, the announcement was poorly received.

"He's created havoc in the marketplace by changing the rules," Rosen said. "It was the stupidest statement on Earth."

The Securities and Exchange Commission is considering another option that might ease the crisis, one that would change accounting rules so banks don't have to declare huge losses whenever the market declines.

But the only surefire remedy is for the economy to stabilize, for businesses to start expanding and for investors to trust the market again. Until then, Tross said, "There's going to be a lot of pain going forward."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Russia test-fires intercontinental missile: military

MOSCOW – Russia on Wednesday test-fired for the third time its new RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at overcoming air defence systems, the military said.

"The test-firing of the RS-24 was carried out on Wednesday from the Plesetsk cosmodrome" in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia, the Interfax news agency reported.

Military spokesman Alexei Zolotukhin told the agency that "the missile... was launched from a mobile launcher. This is the third test firing of the RS-24 in the last two years."

Russia in May 2007 first test-fired the RS-24, which the military has said is designed to overcome air-defence systems such as the controversial US missile shield planned for deployment in eastern Europe.

Russian mayor shot and killed in restive region

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia – The mayor of a major city in Russia's troubled North Caucasus was shot and killed Wednesday in the latest violence to hit a region roiled by years of insurgency and war, officials said.

Vladikavkaz Mayor Vitaly Karayev was shot as he got into his car to go to work, said Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia's top investigative body. He died shortly afterward in hospital.

Ekho Moskvy radio cited unnamed law enforcement officials as saying that Karayev was shot once in the heart, most likely by a sniper.

Karayev had been mayor for less than a year. His deputy was wounded earlier this year when a bomb went off in his car, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Regional President Teimuraz Mamsurov said he was unaware of a motive for the killing, the Interfax news agency reported. There has been turmoil in city politics in recent weeks, with several deputies quitting the city legislature after failing to elect a chairman.

Vladikavkaz is the capital of North Ossetia, which neighbors Chechnya in Russia's long-troubled North Caucasus.

The region is home to the town of Beslan, where more than 330 people died after a nearly three-day hostage standoff at a school. Earlier this month, 12 people died when a bomb detonated at a Vladikavkaz bus stop.

North Ossetia borders Georgia, which fought a short war with Russia in August. It also borders the Russian region of Ingushetia, and tension persists after ethnic Ossetians and Ingush fought a 1992 war over territorial claims.

FDA finds melamine traces in top-selling U.S. baby formula

Traces of the industrial chemical melamine have been detected in samples of top-selling U.S. infant formula, but federal regulators insist the products are safe. The Food and Drug Administration said last month it was unable to identify any melamine exposure level as safe for infants, but a top official said it would be a "dangerous overreaction" for parents to stop feeding infant formula to babies who depend on it.

"The levels that we are detecting are extremely low," said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "They should not be changing the diet. If they've been feeding a particular product, they should continue to feed that product. That's in the best interest of the baby."

Melamine is the chemical found in Chinese infant formula — in far larger concentrations — that has been blamed for killing at least three babies and making at least 50,000 others ill.

Previously undisclosed tests, obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the FDA has detected melamine in a sample of one popular formula and the presence of cyanuric acid, a chemical relative of melamine, in the formula of a second manufacturer.

Separately, a third major formula maker told AP that in-house tests had detected trace levels of melamine in its infant formula.

The three firms — Abbott Laboratories, Nestle and Mead Johnson — manufacture more than 90 percent of all infant formula produced in the United States.

The FDA and other experts said the melamine contamination in U.S.-made formula had occurred during the manufacturing process, rather than intentionally.

The U.S. government quietly began testing domestically produced infant formula in September, soon after problems with melamine-spiked formula surfaced in China.

Sundlof said there have been no reports of human illness in the United States from melamine, which can bind with other chemicals in urine, potentially causing damaging stones in the kidney or bladder and, in extreme cases, kidney failure.

Melamine is used in some U.S. plastic food packaging and can rub off onto what we eat; it's also contained in a cleaning solution used on some food processing equipment and can leach into the products being prepared.

Sundlof told the AP the positive test results "so far are in the trace range, and from a public health or infant health perspective, we consider those to be perfectly fine."

That's different from the impression of zero tolerance the agency left on Oct. 3, when it stated: "FDA is currently unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns."

FDA scientists said then that they couldn't set an acceptable level of melamine exposure in infant formula because science hadn't had enough time to understand the chemical's effects on infants' underdeveloped kidneys. Plus, there is the complicating factor that infant formula often constitutes a newborn's entire diet.

The agency added, however, that its position did not mean that any exposure to a detectable level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula would result in harm to infants.

Still, the announcement was widely interpreted by manufacturers, the news media and Congress to mean that infant formula that tested positive at any level could not be sold in the United States.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, for example, told its members: "FDA could not identify a safe level for melamine and related compounds in infant formula; thus it can be concluded they will not accept any detectable melamine in infant formula."

It was not until the AP inquired about tests on domestic formula that the FDA articulated that while it couldn't set a safe exposure for infants, it would accept some melamine in formula — raising the question of whether the decision to accept very low concentrations was made only after traces were detected.

On Sunday, Sundlof said the agency had never said, nor implied, that domestic infant formula was going to be entirely free of melamine. He said he didn't know if the agency's statements on infant formula had been misinterpreted.

In China, melamine was intentionally dumped into watered-down milk to trick food quality tests into showing higher protein levels than actually existed. Byproducts of the milk ended up in infant formula, coffee creamers, even biscuits.

The concentrations of melamine there were extraordinarily high, as much as 2,500 parts per million. The concentrations detected in the FDA samples were 10,000 times smaller — the equivalent of a drop in a 64-gallon trash bin.

There would be no economic advantage to spiking U.S.-made formula at the extremely low levels found in the FDA testing. It neither raises the protein count nor saves valuable protein, said University of California, Davis chemist Michael Filigenzi, a melamine detection expert.

According to FDA data for tests of 77 infant formula samples, a trace concentration of melamine was detected in one product — Mead Johnson's Infant Formula Powder, Enfamil LIPIL with Iron. An FDA spreadsheet shows two tests were conducted on the Enfamil, with readings of 0.137 and 0.14 parts per million.

Three tests of Nestle's Good Start Supreme Infant Formula with Iron detected an average of 0.247 parts per million of cyanuric acid, a melamine byproduct.

The FDA said last month that the toxicity of cyanuric acid is under study, but that meanwhile it is "prudent" to assume that its potency is equal to that of melamine.

And while the FDA said tests of 18 samples of formula made by Abbott Laboratories, including its Similac brand, did not detect melamine, spokesman Colin McBean said some company tests did find the chemical. He did not identify the specific product or the number of positive tests.

McBean did say the detections were at levels far below the health limits set by all countries in the world, including Taiwan, where the limit is 0.05 parts per million.

"We're talking about trace amounts right here, and you know there's a lot of scientific bodies out there that say low levels of melamine are always present in certain types of foods," said McBean.

Mead Johnson spokeswoman Gail Wood said her company's in-house tests had not detected any melamine, and that the company had not been informed of the FDA test results, even during a confidential agency conference call Monday with infant formula makers about melamine contamination.

The FDA tests also detected melamine in two samples of nutritional supplements for very sick children who have trouble digesting regular food. Nestle's Peptamen Junior medical food showed 0.201 and 0.206 parts per million of melamine while Nestle's Nutren Junior-Fiber showed 0.16 and 0.184 parts per million.

The agency said that while there are no established exposure levels for infant formula, pediatric medical food — often used in feeding tubes for very sick, young children — can have 2.5 parts per million of melamine, just like food products other than infant formula.

The head of manufacturing for Nestle Nutrition in North America, Walter Huber, said in an interview that the company took samples alongside FDA officials who visited a manufacturing plant, and that those samples showed similar results to what FDA found for the two pediatric medical foods. Huber added that Nestle didn't fund cyanuric acid in any of the samples.

The FDA shared its results with Nestle a few weeks ago, Huber said. He said he wasn't sure whether Nestle had tested other of its products beyond what it did related to the FDA.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who heads a panel that oversees the FDA budget, said the agency was taking a "marketplace first, science last" approach.

"The FDA should be insisting on a zero-tolerance policy for melamine in domestic infant formula until it is able to determine conclusively based on sound independent science that the trace levels would not pose a health risk to infants," DeLauro said.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., a frequent critic of the FDA, said: "If no safe level of melamine has been established for consumption by children, then the FDA should immediately recall any formula that has tested positive for even trace amounts of the contaminant."

Several medical experts said trace concentrations would be diluted even in an infant, and are highly unlikely to be harmful.

"It's just a tiny amount, it's very unlikely to cause stones," said Stanford University Medical School pediatrics professor Dr. Paul Grimm.

Dr. Jerome Paulson, an associate professor of pediatrics at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said he didn't think the FDA's decision was unreasonable. He added, however, that the agency should research the impacts of long-term, low-dose exposure, "and not just assume it's safe, and then 15 years from now find out that it's not."


On the Net:

The FDA's melamine guidance:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Russian Scholar Predicts Economic Crisis Will Rip America Apart

A Russian scholar is predicting that the United States' current financial crisis will lead to the breakup of the country.

Igor Panarin, a professor at the diplomatic academy of Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the newspaper Izvestia on Monday that America will break apart into six regions following the crisis.

"Dissatisfaction is growing, and it is only being held back at the moment by the elections, and the hope that [President-elect] Obama can work miracles," according to a translation by Bloomberg. "But when spring comes, it will be clear that there are no miracles."

Panarin predicts the U.S. will split into: the Pacific, the South, Texas, the Atlantic coast, the central states and the northern states, and hinted that Alaska could be Russia's for the taking.

The professor said China and Russia will become the world's great regulators.

Britain begins national identity card plan

LONDON – Britain has begun a national identity card plan for some foreign nationals in an attempt to combat terrorism and identity fraud.

Opponents say it represents a costly erosion of civil liberties. The program has been debated heatedly for several years.

The cards are expected to store biometric data and information about the cardholder's nationality and work eligibility.

The first group to receive the new cards will be foreign students and permanent residents' spouses who apply for visa renewals.

Officials expect more than 50,000 cards to be issued in the next four months and that the program will be expanded in coming years.

Officials say the application process opened Tuesday morning .

Monday, November 24, 2008

Furor over Proposed Ban of Circumcision in Denmark

This is how the Nazis first went after the Jews. They outlawed kosher food as barbaric and went after Jewish customs. This is eerie like going back 70 years.

Jews and Muslims in Denmark are in an uproar about a bill to ban circumcision for boys under the age of 15, according to Yediot Ahronot. The country's National Council for Children and Ethics Council have both endorsed the proposal and only the parliament's medical committee can prevent it from being heard.

The National Council for Children argued that, "Circumcision is the irreversible damage to a child's body before he is given the chance to object." It also said the ban was a matter of equality, in the wake of a five-year-old ban on female circumscion.

Denmark's Chief Rabbi Bent Lexner – who is also a certified mohel (circumciser) in the community – told Yediot Ahronot, "The comparison between circumcision and the intentional mutilation of the female sex organ in certain societies is simply complete nonsense." He added, "If the law forbidding circumcision is ever passed in Denmark, Jews will have to leave the place they have been living in for hundreds of years."

Judaism specifies circumcsion when a boy is eight days old, unless medically dictated otherwise. Islam does not specify a date, but allows it through puberty.

GM ends 9-year endorsement deal with Tiger Woods

DETROIT – General Motors Corp. said Monday it is ending its nine-year endorsement deal with golf superstar Tiger Woods as the automaker continues to cut expenses and hoard cash while trying to survive the worst sales downturn in a quarter-century.

The cash-strapped company said in a statement that it is looking to reduce costs, and that the world's No. 1 golfer also wants more personal time as he expects his second child.

Woods has endorsed GM products around the world and mainly has been seen in Buick commercials as the company tried to give the nameplate a more youthful image. He has carried the Buick brand on his golf bag since 2000, and his most recent promotion was to caddie for a contest winner for nine holes at Torrey Pines, where Woods won the U.S. Open this summer for his 14th career major.

The endorsement deal, believed to be worth at least $7 million a year, was to end in 2009. Woods' agent at IMG, Mark Steinberg, said the decision to end the relationship one year early was "absolutely mutual."

"It was a combination of things," Steinberg said. "Tiger was looking to gain some more time, and certainly it was an opportunity for GM to reduce its spending with everything going on."

GM has been making dramatic cuts in advertising as it tries to conserve cash. The nation's largest automaker spent nearly $7 billion more than it took in last quarter and has warned that, without federal help, it may reach the minimum amount of cash required to run the company by the end of the year.

Mark LaNeve, GM's vice president for North American marketing, said GM and Woods started discussing an end to the deal earlier this year, and it had nothing to do with the Detroit Three automakers' quest for $25 billion in federal loans.

But GM's statement said the decision was made as part of "the search for budget efficiencies during a difficult economy for General Motors."

Buick said last week that it would be cutting back on its deal providing courtesy cars at PGA Tour events.

GM is so concerned about costs that it cut advertising during the 2009 Super Bowl, although it still plans to sponsor the National Football League and likely air ads before and after the game. GM also has pulled out of the Oscars and Emmy Awards in 2009 — the first time in over a decade that it is not running ads right before, during or after the two events.

U.S. automakers, the single largest category of advertisers, cut their ad spending 18 percent to $1.37 billion in the second quarter compared with the same period in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence in New York.

Foreign automakers also are trimming their spending on advertising in U.S. markets, with a 5.4 percent cut in the second quarter, for an overall 11 percent drop in U.S. auto ad spending to $3.27 billion, the 12th quarterly dip in a row.

Woods has carried only two logos on his bag since he turned pro in August 1996. He was with Titleist through 1999 until Buick won a bidding war for its brand on a bag that gets more television time at tournaments than any other golfer.

Woods has not played since season-ending knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open, and he is not expected to return until next year, most likely in early March depending on his recovery.

Steinberg said he would "expect there to be some exposure on the bag" when Woods next plays.

"I've got a few ideas, and we're in the process of working through that," he said.

Government unveils bold plan to rescue Citigroup 2008

WASHINGTON – The government unveiled a bold plan Sunday to rescue Citigroup, injecting a fresh $20 billion into the troubled firm as well as guaranteeing hundreds of billions of dollars in risky assets.

The action, announced jointly by the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is aimed at shoring up a huge financial institution whose collapse would wreak havoc on the already crippled financial system and the U.S. economy.

The sweeping plan is geared to stemming a crisis of confidence in the company, whose stock has been hammered in the past week on worries about its financial health.

"With these transactions, the U.S. government is taking the actions necessary to strengthen the financial system and protect U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. economy," the three agencies said in a statement issued late Sunday night. "We will continue to use all of our resources to preserve the strength of our banking institutions, and promote the process of repair and recovery and to manage risks."

The move is the latest in a string of high-profile government bailout efforts. The Fed in March provided financial backing to JPMorgan Chase's buyout of ailing Bear Stearns. Six months later, the government was forced to take over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and throw a financial lifeline — which was recently rejiggered — to insurer American International Group.

Critics worry the actions could put billions of taxpayers' dollars in jeopardy and encourage financial companies to take excessive risk on the belief that the government will bail them out of their messes.

The Citigroup rescue came after a weekend of marathon discussions led by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who is being tapped by President-elect Barack Obama as his Treasury chief also participated.

Investors reacted cautiously to the plan. Most Asian stock markets retreated when they opened Monday, weighed down by worries about Citigroup. However, losses were pared after the government announcement.

Vikram S. Pandit, Citi's chief executive officer, welcomed the action. "We appreciate the tremendous effort by the government to assure market stability," he said in a statement.

The $20 billion cash injection by the Treasury Department will come from the $700 billion financial bailout package. The capital infusion follows an earlier one — of $25 billion — in Citigroup in which the government also received an ownership stake.

As part of the plan, Treasury and the FDIC will guarantee against the "possibility of unusually large losses" on up to $306 billion of risky loans and securities backed by commercial and residential mortgages.

Under the loss-sharing arrangement, Citigroup Inc. will assume the first $29 billion in losses on the risky pool of assets. Beyond that amount, the government would absorb 90 percent of the remaining losses, and Citigroup 10 percent. Money from the $700 billion bailout and funds from the FDIC would cover the government's portion of potential losses. The Federal Reserve would finance the remaining assets with a loan to Citigroup.

In exchange for the guarantees, the government will get $7 billion in preferred shares of Citigroup.

As a condition of the rescue, Citigroup is barred from paying quarterly dividends to shareholders of more than 1 cent a share for three years unless the company obtains consent from the three federal agencies. The bank is currently paying a dividend of 16 cents, halved from a 32-cent payout in the previous quarter. The agreement also places restrictions on executive compensation, including bonuses.

Importantly, the agreement calls on Citigroup to take steps to help distressed homeowners.

Specifically, Citigroup will modify mortgages to help people avoid foreclosure along the lines of an FDIC plan that was put into effect at IndyMac Bank, a major failed savings and loan based in Pasadena, Calif.

Under the IndyMac plan, struggling home borrowers pay interest rates of about three percent for five years. Rates are reduced so that borrowers aren't paying more than 38 percent of their pretax income on housing.

The IndyMac plan also was used as a model for a new program by mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and for two other failed thrifts taken over by the government on Friday. FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair has been pressing Treasury to use $24 billion from the $700 billion bailout program to put the mortgage modification program on national footing, but Paulson is opposed to that idea.

The once mighty Citigroup, which had at one time been the largest U.S. bank by assets, has seen its shares lose 60 percent of their value in the past week, reflecting a crisis of confidence among skittish investors. They are worried all the risky debt on Citigroup's balance sheet will turn into losses as the economy worsens and the markets stay turbulent — losses that could be nearly impossible to reverse.

Citigroup is such a large, interconnected player in the financial system that it is seen by Washington policymakers as too big to fail. The company has operations stretching around the globe in more than 100 countries.

Analysts consider Citigroup the most vulnerable among the major U.S. banks — especially after it failed to nab Wachovia Corp., which was bought instead by Wells Fargo & Co. That was a missed opportunity for Citi to gets its hands on much-needed U.S. deposits that would bolster its cash position.

Citigroup was especially hard hit by the meltdown in risky, subprime mortgages made to people with tarnished credit or low incomes. Foreclosures on those mortgages spiked, leaving Citi and other financial companies wracking up huge losses on the soured investments. The company has failed to turn a profit during the past four quarters and has announced plans to slash thousands of jobs.

U.S. Govt pays for deadly, unapproved drugs

WASHINGTON – Dozens of deaths have been linked to medications that have never been reviewed by the government for safety and effectiveness but are still covered under Medicaid, an Associated Press analysis of federal data has found.

Taxpayers have shelled out at least $200 million since 2004 for such drugs, and millions of private patients are taking them as well.

The AP analysis found that Medicaid paid nearly $198 million from 2004 to 2007 for more than 100 unapproved drugs, mostly for common conditions such as colds and pain. Data for 2008 were not available but unapproved drugs still are being sold. The AP checked the medications against FDA databases, using agency guidelines to determine if they were unapproved. The FDA says there may be thousands of such drugs on the market.

The medications date back decades, before the Food and Drug Administration tightened its review of drugs in the early 1960s. The FDA says it is trying to squeeze them from the market, but conflicting federal laws allow the Medicaid health program for low-income people to pay for them.

Medicaid officials acknowledge the problem, but say they need help from Congress to fix it. The FDA and Medicaid are part of the Health and Human Services Department, but the FDA has yet to compile a master list of unapproved drugs, and Medicaid — which may be the biggest purchaser — keeps paying.

"I think this is something we ought to look at very hard, and we ought to fix it," said Medicaid chief Herb Kuhn. "It raises a whole set of questions, not only in terms of safety, but in the efficiency of the program — to make sure we are getting the right set of services for beneficiaries."

At a time when families, businesses and government are struggling with health care costs and 46 million people are uninsured, payments for questionable medications amount to an unplugged leak in the system.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has asked the HHS inspector general to investigate.

That unapproved prescription drugs can be sold in the United States surprises even doctors and pharmacists. But the FDA estimates they account for 2 percent of all prescriptions filled by U.S. pharmacies, about 72 million scripts a year. Private insurance plans also cover them.

The roots of the problem go back in time, tangled in layers of legalese.

It wasn't until 1962 that Congress ordered the FDA to review all new medications for effectiveness. Thousands of drugs already on the market were also supposed to be evaluated. But some manufacturers claimed their medications were grandfathered under earlier laws, and even under the 1962 bill.

Then, in the early 1980s, a safety scandal erupted over one of those medications. E-Ferol, a high potency vitamin E injection, was linked to serious reactions in some 100 premature babies, 40 of whom died.

In response, the FDA started a program to weed out drugs it had never reviewed scientifically. Yet some medications continued to escape scrutiny.

Sometimes, the medications do not help patients. In other cases, the FDA says, they have made people sicker, maybe even killed them. This year, for example, the FDA banned injectable versions of a gout drug called colchicine after receiving reports of 23 deaths. Investigators found the unapproved drug had a very narrow margin of safety, and patients easily could receive a toxic dose leading to complications such as organ failure.

Critics say the FDA's case-by-case enforcement approach is not working.

"The FDA does not appear to have a systematic mechanism to report these drugs out," said Jon Glaudemans, senior vice president of Avalere Health, a health care industry information company, "and there doesn't seem to be a systematic process by which health insurance programs can validate their status. And everyone is pointing the finger at someone else as to why we can't get there."

In most cases, doctors, pharmacists and patients are not aware the drugs are unapproved.

"Over the years, they have become fully entrenched in the system," said Patti Manolakis, a Charlotte, N.C., pharmacist who has studied the issue. Only a few unapproved drugs are truly essential and should remain on the market, she added.

Tackling the problem is made harder by confusing — and sometimes conflicting — laws, regulations and responsibilities that pertain to different government agencies.

Medicaid officials said their program, which serves the poor and disabled, is allowed to pay for unapproved drugs until the FDA orders a specific medication off the market. But that can take years.

Compare that with Medicare, the health care program for older people.

Medicare's prescription program is not supposed to cover unapproved drugs. Medicare has purged hundreds of such medications from its coverage lists, but continues to find others.

It might be easier to sort things out if the FDA compiled a master list of unapproved drugs, but the agency hasn't. FDA officials say that would be difficult because many manufacturers do not list unapproved products with the agency. Yet, the AP found many that were listed — a possible starting point for a list.

Among the drugs the AP's research identified were Carbofed, for colds and flu; Hylira, a dry skin ointment; Andehist, a decongestant, and ICAR Prenatal, a vitamin tablet. Medicaid data show the program paid $7.3 million for Carbofed products from 2004 to 2007; $146,000 for Hylira; $4.8 million for Andehist products, and $900,000 for ICAR.

Grassley said the system is failing taxpayers and consumers.

"The problem I see is bureaucrats don't want to make a decision," Grassley said. "There is no reason why this should be such a house of mirrors when so much public money is being spent." Grassley is considering introducing legislation to ensure that consumers are told when a medication is unapproved.

FDA officials say they tell Medicaid and Medicare when the agency moves to ban an unapproved drug, so the programs can stop paying.

"The situation is complicated by the fact that Medicaid and Medicare have a different regulatory regime than FDA does," said FDA compliance lawyer Michael Levy. "There are products that we may consider to be illegally marketed that could be legally reimbursed under their law."

The FDA began its latest crackdown on unapproved drugs two years ago and has taken action against nine types of medications and dozens of companies. Typically, the agency orders manufacturers to stop making and shipping drugs, and it also has seized millions of dollars' worth of medications. But federal law does not provide fines for selling unapproved drugs, and criminal prosecutions are rare.

Some manufacturers of unapproved drugs say their products predate FDA regulation and are "grandfathered in."

"These are drugs that don't require an FDA approval," said Bill Peters, chief financial officer of Hi-Tech Pharmacal in Amityville, N.Y. "These are products with active ingredients that have been on the market for a long time." The company is moving away from older products, Peters said, and its new market offerings are FDA-approved.

Levy said the FDA is skeptical that any drugs now being sold are entitled to "grandfather" status. To qualify, they would have to be identical to medications sold decades ago in formulation and other important aspects.

The agency is targeting drugs linked to fraud, ones that do not work and, above all, those with safety risks. While the crackdown has helped, it does not appear to have solved the problem.

The gout drug banned by the FDA this February is not the only recent case involving safety problems.

Last year, the FDA banned unapproved cough medicines containing hydrocodone, a potent narcotic. Some had directions for medicating children as young as age 2, although no hydrocodone cough products have been shown to be safe and effective for children under 6.

In a 2006 case, the agency received 21 reports of children younger than 2 who died after taking unapproved cold and allergy medications containing carbinoxamine, an allergy drug that also acts as a powerful sedative. Regulators banned all products that contained carbinoxamine in combination with other cold medicines.

"We as Americans have a belief that all the prescription drugs that are available to us have been reviewed and approved by the FDA," said Manolakis, the pharmacist. "I think the presence of these drugs shows we have a false sense of security."


On the Net:

FDA's unapproved drugs page:

Friday, November 21, 2008

U.S. military developing flying robots as small as bees

If only we could be a fly on the wall when our enemies are plotting to attack us. Better yet, what if that fly could record voices, transmit video and even fire tiny weapons?

That kind of James Bond-style fantasy is actually on the drawing board. U.S. military engineers are trying to design flying robots disguised as insects that could one day spy on enemies and conduct dangerous missions without risking lives.

"The way we envision it is, there would be a bunch of these sent out in a swarm," said Greg Parker, who helps lead the research project at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. "If we know there's a possibility of bad guys in a certain building, how do we find out? We think this would fill that void."

In essence, the research seeks to miniaturize the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The next generation of drones, called Micro Aerial Vehicles, or MAVs, could be as tiny as bumblebees and capable of flying undetected into buildings, where they could photograph, record, and even attack insurgents and terrorists.

By identifying and assaulting adversaries more precisely, the robots would also help reduce or avoid civilian casualties, the military says.

Parker and his colleagues plan to start by developing a bird-sized robot as soon as 2015, followed by the insect-sized models by 2030.

The vehicles could be useful on battlefields where the biggest challenge is collecting reliable intelligence about enemies.

"If we could get inside the buildings and inside the rooms where their activities are unfolding, we would be able to get the kind of intelligence we need to shut them down," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

Philip Coyle, senior adviser with the Center for Defense Information in Washington D.C., said a major hurdle would be enabling the vehicles to carry the weight of cameras and microphones.

"If you make the robot so small that it's like a bumblebee and then you ask the bumblebee to carry a video camera and everything else, it may not be able to get off the ground," Coyle said.

Parker envisions the bird-sized vehicles as being able to spy on adversaries by flying into cities and perching on building ledges or power lines. The vehicles would have flappable wings as a disguise but use a separate propulsion system to fly.

"We think the flapping is more so people don't notice it," he said. "They think it's a bird."

Unlike the bird-sized vehicles, the insect-sized ones would actually use flappable wings to fly, Parker said.

He said engineers want to build a vehicle with a 1-inch wingspan, possibly made of an elastic material. The vehicle would have sensors to help avoid slamming into buildings or other objects.

Existing airborne robots are flown by a ground-based pilot, but the smaller versions would fly independently, relying on preprogrammed instructions.

Parker said the tiny vehicles should also be able to withstand bumps.

"If you look at insects, they can bounce off of walls and keep flying," he said. "You can't do that with a big airplane, but I don't see any reason we can't do that with a small one."

An Air Force video describing the vehicles said they could possibly carry chemicals or explosives for use in attacks.

Once prototypes are developed, they will be flight-tested in a new building at Wright-Patterson dubbed the "micro aviary" for Micro Air Vehicle Integration Application Research Institute.

"This type of technology is really the wave of the future," Thompson said. "More and more military research is going into things that are small, that are precise and that are extremely focused on particular types of missions or activities."

Military sets date for first execution since 1961

Former Army cook, convicted of multiple rapes, murders, set to die Dec. 10

TOPEKA, Kan. - A former Army cook convicted of multiple rapes and murders is set to die next month in what would be the U.S. military's first execution in nearly 50 years.

The military said Thursday that former North Carolina soldier Ronald A. Gray is to be executed Dec. 10 at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind.

Gray was arrested in connection with four slayings and eight rapes in the Fayetteville, N.C., area between April 1986 and January 1987, while he was stationed at Fort Bragg. He was convicted of murdering two women.

Execution approved in July
President Bush approved Gray's execution in July, and a month later Army Secretary Pete Geren set the execution date and ordered that Gray be put to death by injection. The date was publicly released Thursday.

"The Army is moving forward with plans to fulfill the court-martial sentence," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. George Wright.

Gray has appealed his case through military courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in 2001. Wright said Gray had two legal options remaining: filing a petition with a federal appellate court to stay the execution, or request that the president reconsider approval of the execution.

Army personnel will be responsible for conducting the execution in Indiana based on an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Only 10 members of the military have been executed since 1951, when the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military's modern-day legal system, was enacted.

Eisenhower approved last military execution
President Eisenhower was the last president to approve a military execution. That was for John Bennett, who was hanged in 1961 for raping and attempting to kill an 11-year-old Austrian girl.

On Feb. 12, 1962, President Kennedy commuted the death sentence of Jimmy Henderson, a Navy seaman, to confinement for life.

Gray, 43, is being confined at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. He was convicted by a six-member court-martial panel for:

  • Raping and killing Army Pvt. Laura Lee Vickery-Clay of Fayetteville on Dec. 15, 1986. She was shot four times with a .22-caliber pistol that Gray confessed to stealing. She also suffered blunt force trauma over much of her body.
  • Raping and killing Kimberly Ann Ruggles, a civilian cab driver in Fayetteville. She was bound, gagged, stabbed repeatedly and had bruises and lacerations on her face. Her body was found on the base.
  • Raping, robbing and attempting to kill an Army private in her barracks at Fort Bragg on Jan. 3, 1987. The victim testified against Gray and identified him as her assailant. Gray raped her and stabbed her several times in the neck and side.
  • Wright said there are four other members of the military — two soldiers, a Marine and one Air Force airman — under sentence of death.

    Mukasey Collapses (Video)

    Attorney General Michael Mukasey is rushed to the hospital after collapsing during a late-night speech in Washington; a diagnosis is unclear.

    read more | digg story

    Thursday, November 20, 2008

    China says 19,000 students died in May earthquake

    BEIJING – China acknowledged Friday for the first time that more than 19,000 schoolchildren were among the dead in the massive earthquake that struck Sichuan province in May.

    The earthquake left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing, but the government had never said how many of the casualties were students. Most died when their shoddily built elementary and secondary schools collapsed.

    Their deaths become a sensitive political issue for the government, with parents of dead children staging protests demanding investigations. Many of the parents have also been subjected to intimidation and financial inducements to silence them.

    The student death toll of 19,065 was given at a news conference on preparations for the winter by Wei Hong, executive vice governor of Sichuan.

    Wei said that millions of those displaced in the earthquake still need quilts and repairs to their homes if they are to survive the coming winter, expected to be unusually cold.

    The earthquake, which was centered in the southwestern province of Sichuan, displaced millions and left China struggling to carry out reconstruction work.

    Wei said relief work was important because experts were predicting temperatures would be slightly lower this winter in the area compared to previous years.

    "During the post-disaster period of relocations, we have placed at the core the work of making sure that thousands of affected people, especially those living in extremely cold and remote rural areas, will live safely and warmly through this wintertime," Wei said.

    He said that although millions of cotton quilts and clothing had been donated already, more was still needed.

    Wei said that as of Nov. 12, nearly 200,000 homes had been rebuilt, 685,000 homes were under reconstruction, but that nearly two million households still needed to be rebuilt or repaired.

    More than 1,300 schools have been reconstructed or are currently being worked on, and site selection had started for relocating 25 townships, including Beichuan and Wenchuan, two of the most devastated areas.

    Attorney General Michael Mukasey collapses during speech

    WASHINGTON – Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the no-nonsense former federal judge who took over the Justice Department after Alberto Gonzales resigned in disgrace, collapsed during a speech Thursday night and lost consciousness.

    The 67-year-old Mukasey was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where his condition was not immediately known.

    Mukasey was delivering a speech to the Federalist Society at a Washington hotel when "he just started shaking and he collapsed," said Associate Attorney General Kevin O'Connor. "They're very concerned."

    Later, a senior law enforcement official said Mukasey appeared to be talking when he was taken away. He was conscious during part of the ambulance ride to hospital, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation.

    Mukasey, the nation's top law enforcement official, was 15 to 20 minutes into his speech about the Bush administration's successes in combatting terrorism when he began slurring his words. He collapsed and lost consciousness, said O'Connor, the department's No. 3 official, who was traveling at the time and was alerted to what had occurred.

    Mukasey's was noticeably shaking during his speech before he collapsed shortly before 10:20 p.m. EST. His security detail called 911.

    Mukasey was on the stage for 10 minutes being attended to by his FBI detail before medics arrived, according to a Justice Department official who was there. Mukasey was still breathing at the time, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the media.

    An FBI official said Mukasey got stuck on a word during his speech to the conservative legal group, repeated it several times and then "went down hard."

    White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said President George W. Bush was informed about Mukasey's collapse.

    "The president has him in his thoughts and will be kept apprised and hopes that he will be back up and at 'em again soon."

    O'Connor said about hour after Mukasey collapsed that the last information he had was that the attorney general was alert and conscious and speaking.

    Einstein's formula proven 103 years later, scientists figure out that the famous E=MC(2) theorem is correct

    PARIS – It's taken more than a century, but Einstein's celebrated formula e=mc2 has finally been corroborated, thanks to a heroic computational effort by French, German and Hungarian physicists.

    A brainpower consortium led by Laurent Lellouch of France's Centre for Theoretical Physics, using some of the world's mightiest supercomputers, have set down the calculations for estimating the mass of protons and neutrons, the particles at the nucleus of atoms.

    According to the conventional model of particle physics, protons and neutrons comprise smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons.

    The odd thing is this: the mass of gluons is zero and the mass of quarks is only five percent. Where, therefore, is the missing 95 percent?

    The answer, according to the study published in the US journal Science on Thursday, comes from the energy from the movements and interactions of quarks and gluons.

    In other words, energy and mass are equivalent, as Einstein proposed in his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905.

    The e=mc2 formula shows that mass can be converted into energy, and energy can be converted into mass.

    By showing how much energy would be released if a certain amount of mass were to be converted into energy, the equation has been used many times, most famously as the inspirational basis for building atomic weapons.

    But resolving e=mc2 at the scale of sub-atomic particles -- in equations called quantum chromodynamics -- has been fiendishly difficult.

    "Until now, this has been a hypothesis," France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) said proudly in a press release.

    "It has now been corroborated for the first time."

    For those keen to know more: the computations involve "envisioning space and time as part of a four-dimensional crystal lattice, with discrete points spaced along columns and rows."

    Government warns of "catastrophic" U.S. quake

    KANSAS CITY, Missouri – People in a vast seismic zone in the southern and midwestern United States would face catastrophic damage if a major earthquake struck there and should ensure that builders keep that risk in mind, a government report said on Thursday.

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency said if earthquakes strike in what geologists define as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, they would cause "the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States."

    FEMA predicted a large earthquake would cause "widespread and catastrophic physical damage" across Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee -- home to some 44 million people.

    Tennessee is likely to be hardest hit, according to the study that sought to gauge the impact of a 7.7 magnitude earthquake in order to guide the government's response.

    In Tennessee alone, it forecast hundreds of collapsed bridges, tens of thousands of severely damaged buildings and a half a million households without water.

    Transportation systems and hospitals would be wrecked, and police and fire departments impaired, the study said.

    The zone, named for the town of New Madrid in Missouri's southeast corner, is subject to frequent mild earthquakes.

    Experts have long tried to predict the likelihood of a major quake like those that struck in 1811 and 1812. These shifted the course of the Mississippi River and rang church bells on the East Coast but caused few deaths amid a sparse population.

    "People who live in these areas and the people who build in these areas certainly need to take into better account that at some time there is ... expected to be a catastrophic earthquake in that area, and they'd better be prepared for it," said FEMA spokesperson Mary Margaret Walker.

    GM shares hit 70-year low

    DETROIT (Reuters) – Shares of General Motors Corp (GM.N) tumbled as much as 39 percent to hit a 70-year low on Thursday as prospects dimmed that lawmakers would reach a compromise on a proposed $25 billion bailout for U.S. automakers before Congress adjourns this week.

    Shares of Ford Motor Co (F.N) hit their lowest level in more than 26 years, and auto parts supplier stocks declined across the board amid concerns a failure by one of the U.S. automakers would touch off a cascade of failures in the struggling industry.

    "We're still analyzing the situation, but the feeling is that without a loan package, the probability of GM or Chrysler going bankrupt in early 2009 is extremely high, at about 75 percent," said George Magliano, a forecasting director at influential auto industry tracking firm Global Insight.

    Even with a government bailout, Magliano said he saw a 25 percent change of bankruptcy for either automaker amid the credit crisis that has pushed U.S. auto sales to 25-year lows.

    Shares of GM were down 19 percent, or 53 cents, to $2.26 on the New York Stock Exchange, after falling earlier in the session to $1.70, their lowest level since 1938.

    Shares of Ford fell 9 percent, or 10 cents to $1.16. The stock fell as low as $1.02.

    Without a deal this week, any bailout would likely have to wait until the next administration takes over in January. By that time, GM has warned, it would run desperately short of its minimum cash needs.

    Failure to craft a deal carries the risk that one or more of the U.S. automakers -- GM, Ford or Chrysler LLC -- could be forced into bankruptcy, analysts have warned.

    Citigroup analyst Itay Michaeli said little progress appears to have been made to break the stalemate in the Senate over the mechanics of sourcing a $25 billion loan package. Any government actions to provide bridge loans are not expected to entirely solve GM's liquidity outlook through 2009, he added.

    "We remain concerned that failure to obtain liquidity through this session may contribute to stakeholder perceptions that Detroit's liquidity options are dwindling, which in itself could increase the risk of a working capital driven liquidity crunch," Michaeli said in a research note.

    Chances dimmed that a last-minute plan being crafted by Republican U.S. Senators, with White House support, to provide $25 billion to bail out U.S. automakers would receive enough backing from Democrats to pass before the end of this week.

    The White House repeated Thursday it favors using $25 billion in loans already authorized and appropriated to help the industry retool plants and meet new fuel economy mandates versus a proposal by Democrats to provide automakers with another $25 billion out of the $700 billion financial rescue package.

    Suppliers took a hit from the automakers' woes, with TRW Automotive Holdings Corp (TRW.N) tumbling 21 percent to $2.11 and Lear Corp (LEA.N) shedding 24 percent to 87 cents.

    Separately, GM's long bonds fell to 14 cents on the dollar after hitting a record low of 12 cents earlier Thursday.

    Waxman topples Dingell for key panel chair

    WASHINGTON – Rep. Henry Waxman — a liberal ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi — has wrested the chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee from veteran Rep. John Dingell when the new Congress convenes in January.

    Waxman, a California liberal and avid environmentalist and booster of health care programs, toppled Dingell Thursday on a vote of 137-122 in the Democratic Party caucus, capping a bitter fight within party ranks.

    Dingell has been the top Democrat on the panel for 28 years and is an old-school supporter of the auto industry. Waxman has complained that the committee has been too slow to address environmental issues like global warming.

    "The argument we made was that we needed a change for the committee to have the leadership that will work with this administration and members in both the House and the Senate in order to get important issues passed in health care, environmental protection, in energy policy," Waxman said after the vote.

    "The next two years are critical," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who spoke on Waxman's behalf in the closed-door caucus. "It's not personal. It's about the American people demanding that we embrace change and work with the president on critical issues of climate change and energy and health care."

    Waxman, 69, is an accomplished legislator. He had chaired the Energy and Commerce health and environment subcommittee for 16 years and won a series of piecemeal expansions of the Medicaid health care program for the poor that added many children to the program. He's also taken on the tobacco companies.

    The Energy and Commerce panel is one of the most important House committees, with sweeping jurisdiction over energy, the environment, consumer protection, telecommunications and health care programs such as Medicaid and the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program.

    Waxman has been the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee for the last 12 years. Since Waxman became chairman of that panel two years ago, it has taken the Bush administration to task over global warming and allegations that it muzzled government scientists. It also has investigated the White House's political operation, the use of steroids in sports and, most recently, abuses behind the financial collapse.

    Dingell, 82, has been the committee's top Democrat for 28 years and is an important ally of automakers and electric utilities. He's considered one of the House's premier legislators, with a lengthy track record on health, consumer issues and the environment, among other things.

    Dingell's defenders said he had done nothing to deserve being dumped, pointing to the panel's busy workload over the last two years, including successfully enacting an energy bill that raised automobile fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2010.

    "I think it was highly inappropriate," said Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va. "There was no obvious reason for it other than the desire for another person to chair the committee.

    "Seniority is important," Waxman told reporters. "But it should not grant the priority rights to hold a chairmanship for three decades."

    Driving Waxman's bid was the issue of global warming. Waxman is expected to more aggressively attack this problem and is expected to move legislation with tougher emissions standards than Dingell would have.

    Environmentalists say Dingell has acted too slowly on global warming, despite releasing a bill last month. The measure was a poke in the eye to Waxman and Pelosi, D-Calif., since it would prevent states like California from setting tougher auto emissions standards than the federal government.

    "Waxman's victory is a breath of fresh air — of clean air. It was a stunning defeat for the corporate lobbyists on K Street," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "It shows that a majority of the House Democrats are ready to work with the incoming administration on effective global warming legislation."

    In a statement congratulating Waxman, Dingell acknowledged that it is a "year of change." He renewed his commitment "to protecting and creating jobs, to providing health care for all Americans, to working to getting our state and nation's economy back on track."

    Pelosi is a home state ally of Waxman and has tangled with Dingell in the past, but she has not publicly taken sides in the battle and did not pressure members privately to back Waxman. But her support of Waxman was well known and played a role in the strong tally.

    World stocks tumble; Tokyo and Seoul lose almost 7% each

    HONG KONG – World stock markets tumbled Thursday, with benchmarks in Tokyo and Seoul losing almost 7 percent each, after recession fears sent Wall Street plunging and Japan suffered its biggest drop in exports in seven years.

    The slide in Asian and European shares extended a global sell-off that accelerated overnight amid lowered projections for U.S. economic activity next year from the Federal Reserve and worries over the fate of America's Big Three automakers, which are pleading for emergency loans from Washington.

    The uncertainty facing companies around the world was evident after U.S. consumer prices fell 1 percent last month, the largest amount in the past 61 years. While beneficial to consumers, lower prices hurt corporate profits and raise the threat of deflation.

    The rout continued as trading opened in Europe, where Britain's FTSE 100, Germany's DAX and France's CAC-40 all fell more than 2 percent early in the session. Oil and other commodities were also down.

    "We've gone past the poor sentiment stage," said Miles Remington, head of Asian sales trading at BNP Paribas Securities in Hong Kong.

    "People are looking for any kind of positive and there are just no positives out there. Everyone seems to be united in the depressed global outlook," he said. "Whether it's commodities or equities, everything seems to be on a downturn."

    Tokyo's benchmark Nikkei 225 average slid 570.18 points, or 6.9 percent, to 7,703.04. Japan said exports in October sank 7.7 percent, the biggest decline since 2001, causing the country — an export powerhouse — to report a rare trade deficit.

    Earlier this week, figures showed Japan had slid into a recession in the third quarter, joining Hong Kong and the 15 nation euro-zone in two straight quarters of economic contraction. With demand shrinking abroad and a surging yen further undercutting company earnings, Japanese exporter shares took a hit.

    Isuzu Motors Ltd. fell 17 percent after the truck maker said it will cut 1,400 contract workers as it scales back production for this fiscal year. Isuzu is the latest automaker to announce production cuts, joining domestic rivals such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.

    Trade was similarly grim across the Asia.

    In South Korea, the main index fell for its eighth straight session, losing 6.7 percent to 948.69, as the country's currency, the won, fell to its lowest level in more than a decade. Hong Kong's Hang Seng benchmark sank 517.24 points, or 4 percent, to 12,298.56.

    In Australia, the main stock measure retreated 4.2 percent as weakening commodity prices dragged down the country's resource giants — BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto were both down 9 percent or more.

    Compared to the rest of Asia, mainland China's bourses suffered modest losses, after speculation over a possible deal by Disney to build a long-awaited theme park in Shanghai boosted property shares. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index fell 1.7 percent.

    In New York Wednesday, the Dow Jones industrial average tumbled 427.47 points, or 5.07 percent, to 7,997.28, while the S&P 500 slid 6.12 percent to 806.58. Both closed at their lowest levels since March 2003, and are rapidly approaching the lows of the 2000 to 2002 bear market.

    Wall Street appeared poised for another bout of selling. Dow futures were down 92 points, or 1.1 percent, to 7,935, while S&P futures were down 12.6 points, or 1.6 percent, to 799.9.

    Oil prices were at their lowest in nearly two years. Light, sweet crude for December delivery lost 84 cents to $52.78 a barrel in Asian trade. Overnight, the contract retreated 77 cents to settle at $53.62 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the lowest since January 2007.

    In currencies, the dollar weakened to 95.25 yen from 95.88 yen Wednesday. The euro edged up to $1.2522 from $1.2487.

    Jewish settlers ignore evacuation order

    Jewish settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron ignored a court-ordered deadline to evacuate a building in the divided city Wednesday, setting themselves up for a possible confrontation with the Israeli military.

    read more | digg story

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008

    How a camera can 'steal' your keys

    Algorithm creates a physical key based solely on a picture of one

    Hide those keys. A quick camera phone picture could unlock your doors.

    Scientists in California have developed a software algorithm that automatically creates a physical key based solely on a picture of one, regardless of angle or distance. The project, called Sneakey, was meant to warn people about the dangers of haphazardly placing keys in the open or posting images of them online.

    "People will post pictures with their credit cards but with the name and number greyed out," said Stefan Savage, a professor at the University of California, San Diego who helped develop the software. "They should have the same sensitivity with their keys."

    When Savage and his students searched online photo sharing Web sites, like Flickr, they easily found thousands of photos of keys with enough definition to replicate. A more social person could simply use their cell phone camera to snap a quick picture of stray keys on a table top.

    For a more dramatic demonstration, the researchers set up a camera with a zoom lens 200 feet away. Using those photos, they created a working key 80 percent on their first try. Within three attempts they opened every lock.

    Three attempts could take less than five minutes. The replication process is very easy. Once the researchers have the image it takes the software roughly 30 seconds to decode the ridges and grooves on the key. If the angle is off or the lighting is tricky it takes the computer take a little longer.

    The longest part of the process, about one whole minute, is cutting the key.

    "I think that this work would be really easy for someone else to reproduce," said Savage of his work. "Someone familiar with signal processing, mat lab, and image transformation could do it in two days if they are good."

    Keys, as the researchers demonstrated, are actually fairly easy to decode. A majority of keys marketed to consumers are basically just four to six different numbers. Each number corresponds to a ridge or valley in the key. When inserted into a lock, the ridges and valleys lines up a series of small pins that lets the lock turn.

    "The premise is that a key holds some kind of secret that lets you unlock something," said Savage. "But it's a very funny secret, its a secret that can easily be seen."

    Creating a new key is easy enough that some locksmiths and security experts do it by sight alone. The locks the UCSD team broke were some of the most common in the country.

    Marc Weber Tobias, an attorney and security expert who has been picking locks since he was a boy, says the UCSD project does a good job of underscoring the insecurity of conventional cylinder locks. But the idea of someone standing up to a mile away with high resolution camera and stealing keys with a shutter is small compared to the next generation of video cameras being installed.

    "The real issue is the new digital video cameras shooting at 30 frames a second," said Tobias. "There are millions and millions of these cameras everywhere." If someone got their hands on sensitive parts of the video they could easily duplicate key sets.

    Locksmiths, and the UCSD scientists won't use their talents or technology for ill-gotten gains. But not everyone is so ethical, and experts urge people to take physical security more seriously.

    "This isn't the biggest security threat that you might face," said Savage. "But you should only take your keys out when you are going to use them."