Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7785 on: Dec 23rd, 2012, 10:21am »
Alps murder: Truth about Saad al-Hilli's 'family feud'
The Iraqi family of Saad al-Hilli, the Briton murdered in the French village of Chevaline, tell Colin Freeman that their relative was not a money-launderer for Saddam Hussein.
By Colin Freeman, Baghdad 7:00AM GMT 23 Dec 2012
Hussain al-Hilli's final memories of his cousin Saad are of an anxious, desperate man, burdened with a secret that may have taken him to the grave.
Last February, six months before Saad and his family were murdered, the pair were having one of their regular Facebook chats, normally a chance to swap notes on two very different lives. While Saad would bring news from leafy Surrey, Hussain would bring talk of life – and sometimes death – in Baghdad, the war-torn Iraqi capital from which Saad's side of the family had left decades before. This time, though, Hussain noticed something odd straightaway.
"He sounded worried about something, saying he was not feeling OK, and that he wanted to come to live in Iraq," Hussain recalled last week.
"I thought: why would an Iraqi who has lived most of his life in England suddenly want to come to live here, when nearly every other Iraqi would love to come and live in England? I didn't ask him much about it at the time. I wish I had now."
Hussain, 59, never did find out what made his cousin want to leave England.
Six months later, in a crime as violent as anything on the streets of Baghdad, Saad, 50, was gunned down along with his wife Iqbal, 47, and mother-in-law Suhaila, 74, as they holidayed near Lake Annecy in the French Alps. Mr Hilli's daughter, Zainab, seven, was pistol-whipped, shot in the shoulder and left for dead, while Zeena, four, only survived by hiding under her dead mother's skirt. Also shot dead was a French cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, who may have simply stumbled on the crime scene while it was still in progress.
In the absence of any arrests since, the question of what would lie behind such savagery has produced endless speculative theories, many drawn straight from thriller novels.
One is that Mr Hilli was involved in espionage connected to his job as a satellite engineer. A second is that it was a carjacking gone wrong, or the work of a random psychopath. But a third, perhaps inevitably, is that the answers lie back on the violent streets of Iraq – possibly in a dispute over properties owned there by Mr Hilli's father, Kadhim, which Saad had been trying to recover.
Last week, The Sunday Telegraph travelled to Baghdad in a bid to shed light on the Iraqi end of the mystery, where local members of the Hilli family agreed to speak publicly about the murder for the first time. They did so in a bid to set the record straight after recent French newspaper claims that Saad's father, who fled Iraq after falling out with Saddam Hussein, was in fact a secret money launderer for the Iraqi dictator, and that his son knew the whereabouts of millions of dollars salted away in secret bank accounts.
"This is not true," said Hussain, an official with an Iraqi charitable organisation. "The Hilli family were not liked by Saddam, who forced Kadhim to flee and also jailed two other relatives. It is hurtful for us to hear people say that they were laundering money for him."
Like many others, though, Hussain is at a loss to explain what really did happen, and is haunted by Saad's cryptic email to him back in February, details of which have never been revealed until now.
"When the news of the killing broke we were absolutely shocked," said Hussain, whose own father, Ali, was the cousin of Saad's father, Kadhim.
"That kind of murder, with the wife and mother-in-law, and the French witness too, it must be a Mob or an intelligence-style killing?"
One widely-mooted theory, however, is that it was a more domestic dispute, involving Saad's father Kadhim's old home in Baghdad's Adamiyah district, a wealthy district favoured by the Iraqi elite during Saddam Hussein's rule.
Nicknamed Chelsea-on-Tigris, it became a hotbed of the anti-US insurgency after Saddam's downfall, and in the brutal sectarian war that followed, rival Sunni and Shia death squads fought savage turf battles amid its Beverly Hills-style mansions.
Today, nearly 10 years on from Saddam's fall, an uneasy calm prevails, with Iraqi army Humvees patrolling the bomb-devastated streets, and long-shuttered shops and souks reopened. But turn down one bullet-peppered alleyway near the Al Sabah bookshop, and one comes to Kadhim's former house, an unoccupied villa hidden behind palms and metal gates.
It was outside these gates, back in December 2003, that Saad had a violent argument that could easily have cost him his life.
"When Kadhim left Baghdad in 1981, the property was stolen by another family, so after Saddam's fall in 2003, Saad came back to reclaim it," recalled Hussain, who said it was the first time his cousin had returned to Iraq.
"But he went to the house alone, and there was a dispute with the people living there. A woman answered the door and started shouting at him, and then two men started kicking him and punching him. Saad came home bleeding from the head. When I saw him I told him: 'Are you crazy? You should never have gone there alone, you could have got killed.'
"But Saad was a quite a confrontational guy, and he liked to fight for his rights. Later he told me that he had got the house back. When I asked him how, he just said: 'I used some connections.'"
Quite what that meant, Hussain does not know, although in the immediate anarchy of post-Saddam Iraq, such disputes were routinely resolved with hired muscle. Could it, though, have ignited the feud that led to his death?
Certainly, it is true that while property prices in oil-rich Iraq remains high, life remains cheap; similar property disputes claimed the lives of countless of other Iraqis in the aftermath of Saddam's demise. However, with Kadhim's villa worth no more than half a million dollars at most, it seems unlikely that someone would have pursued the debt all the way to France a decade later, let alone settled it in such spectacularly violent fashion.
Besides, another of Saad's Iraqi cousins, Balsam, gives a slightly different version of events. She says that the family in the house were not illegal squatters but a lawyer and his wife, who were actually living there with the Hilli family's permission, and only left when the insurgency in Adamiyah began raging in 2004.
"They may have had an argument with Saad that day, but that was maybe just because they weren't expecting him to suddenly turn up after all these years," she says.
Both Balsam and Hussain also dismiss the theory that the house in Adamiyah was instead part of an inheritance feud between Saad and his older brother Zaid, 53. Saad reportedly put a block on his father's will after he died in Spain last year, halting his brother Zaid's claim to any inheritance.
But Zaid, who also lives in Surrey, has strongly denied any suggestion of a blood feud, and French police have said he is not a suspect. Nor is it known publicly whether the will, which is still sealed, even mentioned the Adamiyah house – Balsam believes it did not.
"I dismiss the family dispute theory because I know that Zaid is a very gentle, peaceful sort of man," added Hussain, who played with the older brother as a child. "If anything, it was Saad who was the tough one."
Likewise, the Iraqi side of the family denies any suggestion that Kadhim was laundering money for Saddam, and that his claim to have fled to England because of persecution was simply a cover-story. They insist that like many other successful Iraqi businessmen, Kadhim, who ran a string of enterprises ranging from a poultry farm to Iraq's first Kleenex factory, left mainly because Saddam and his Ba'athist cronies were extorting much of their profits.
"Saddam wanted to nationalise everything and didn't like private businessmen doing anything," said Hussain.
He added that the wider Hilli family were also distrusted by Saddam because they had held senior positions in Iraq's monarchical regime, which the Iraqi despot's Ba'ath party had opposed. Balsam's own father, Hashim, who served as as diplomat, was brutally tortured in jail in 1969, turning him into "a completely different person, terrified of everyone and everything," according to his daughter. Another Hill relative was imprisoned by Saddam's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, who seized shares in his businesses.
"This tells you that the family were not in a good relationship with the regime," said Hussein. "The theory that this was all to with Saddam's money was baseless."
On that question, it would seem Hussein is right. Officials involved in tracking Saddam's hidden millions over the years have told The Sunday Telegraph that Kadhim al-Hilli's name has never come up on lists of known money-launderers, while French prosecutors have also said that the theory is "baseless".
So what do the Iraqi side of Saad's family think really did happen?
Hussain believes the real clues lie not in Iraq, but back in England, where Saad was employed by Guilldford-based Surrey Satellites Technology Limited, a firm involved in map-making technology.
Saad was reportedly working a project linked to European Aeronautic Defence and Space, a pan-European defence giant which has contracts with Russia, China and the Foreign Office.
French and British police have made inquiries at the firm, and while the exact nature of his work for them is not known, the absence of any comment from colleagues – even to point of posting no condolences on a Facebook page set up in Saad's memory – has led many to draw significance from the silence.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7787 on: Dec 24th, 2012, 10:18am »
4 firefighters shot, 2 fatally, while responding to house fire near Rochester, NY
By Associated Press Updated: Monday, December 24, 8:09 AM
WEBSTER, N.Y. — Four volunteer firefighters responding to a pre-dawn house fire were shot Monday morning, two fatally, leading to a shootout in suburban Rochester, N.Y., police said.
“One or more shooters” fired at the firefighters after they arrived shortly after 5:30 a.m. at the blaze near the Lake Ontario shore, just east of Rochester, Town of Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering said.
There was no active shooter at the scene later Monday morning, according to Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn. The first Webster police officer who arrived on the scene exchanged gunfire with the shooter, Flynn said, but he had no other information on the shootout.
The West Webster Fire District received a report of a car and house on fire on Lake Road, on a narrow peninsula where Irondequoit Bay meets Lake Ontario, Flynn said.
“When they got there, they stated to take on rounds and the initial responders were struck,” the sheriff said.
The fire started in one home and spread to two others and a car, officials said.
The two wounded firefighters were in critical condition at a Rochester hospital, Flynn said.
Webster, a middle-class, lakeside suburb, now is the scene of violence linked to house fires for two Decembers in a row.
Last Dec. 7, authorities say, a 15-year-old boy doused his home with gasoline and set it ablaze, killing his father and two brothers, 16 and 12. His mother and 13-year-old sister escaped with injuries. He is being prosecuted as an adult.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7788 on: Dec 24th, 2012, 10:20am »
Confessed serial killer hid in plain sight, then broke own rules
By Yereth Rosen Mon Dec 24, 2012 8:57am EST
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A confessed serial killer from Alaska who hid in plain sight and whose crimes went undetected for more than a decade, was ultimately caught after he gave in to his compulsions and struck close to home.
Israel Keyes, in jail since March for the kidnapping and murder of 18-year-old coffee stand server Samantha Koenig in Anchorage, Alaska, confessed to that and other violent crimes. Then guards found him dead on December 2 after he committed suicide by cutting his wrists and choking himself with a bed sheet. He was 34.
Keyes, a U.S. Army veteran, lived a quiet life in one of Anchorage's best neighborhoods, doing well-regarded handyman work for unsuspecting customers. He had been due to go on trial in March for Koenig's death, and investigators believe he killed eight to 11 people, if not more.
A picture of Keyes' double-life emerged from his own words -- authorities released excerpts from 40 hours of interviews with investigators to reporters -- and from interviews and news conferences given by investigators, who said they believed his confessions were sincere.
"Everything that he told them has been borne out," Lieutenant Dave Parker of the Anchorage Police Department said on Sunday.
Keyes admitted that he committed numerous killings, bank robberies and other crimes across the country. He admitted to plans for more killings. He admitted to several unreported crimes and acts of cruelty committed before he started killing people, including the rape of a teenager in Oregon in the late 1990s and torture of animals when he was a child.
His suicide ended the revelations and made him a rarity -- a confessed serial killer who was never convicted of murder.
"It gives us no pleasure to dismiss the charges against Mr. Keyes, but that's what the law requires," said Kevin Feldis, the assistant U.S. attorney leading the prosecution.
The criminal investigation will continue indefinitely, even if there is no prosecution, "because there will inevitably be many, many unknowns," Feldis said.
Keyes was caught in Texas in March with a debit card stolen from Koenig, whom he abducted from her coffee stand in February. Keyes admitted to kidnapping, raping and killing her, then dismembering her body and dumping her remains in an icy lake before traveling out of Alaska.
Once in custody, he also confessed to the 2011 killings of Bill and Lorraine Currier of Essex, Vermont, and the disposal of four bodies in Washington state and one in New York state.
Only three homicides have been definitively pinned to him -- those of Koenig and the Curriers -- in large part because Keyes could not identify victims by name.
His motivation was enjoyment, said Monique Doll, an Anchorage homicide detective who worked on the investigation. Throughout his months of jail interviews, Keyes was utterly unapologetic and remorseless, she said.
"Israel Keyes didn't kidnap and kill people because he was crazy. He didn't kidnap and kill people because his deity told him to or because he had a bad childhood. Israel Keyes did this because he got an immense amount of enjoyment out of it, much like an addict gets an immense amount of enjoyment out of drugs," Doll told a news conference.
He also enjoyed staying under the radar, officials said. He targeted total strangers, avoiding anyone with any possible connection, traveling hundreds of miles to target random victims at secluded parks, trail heads and other remote locations.
He broke some of his own rules when he killed Koenig, abducting her at her workplace on a busy Anchorage street, where security cameras caught some of his actions, and killing her at his own house, officials said. Keyes admitted he considered merely robbing Koenig -- whom he did not know -- and instead gave in to his compulsions, Doll said.
"In prior cases, he had enough self-control to walk away from it," Doll said. "But with Samantha, he didn't."
Koenig's case dominated local news, and supporters raised a reward fund, held candlelight vigils and gave self-defense lessons to coffee stand servers.
Keyes got a thrill from following the news coverage, so long as his name was not linked to the case, investigators said. When he was identified by a Vermont television station in the summer as the suspect in the murder of the Curriers, he became so angry he stopped speaking to investigators for two months.
WHITE SUPREMACIST BACKGROUND
Keyes grew up in Washington state in a fundamentalist Christian family that, in the past, attended a white-supremacist, anti-Semitic church but later moved out of the region and became affiliated with other congregations, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights group.
Keyes served in the U.S. Army for three years, including a brief stint in Egypt, and was discharged from Fort Lewis Army Base in Washington state in 2001. In his interviews, he said he was anxious for his military service to end so that he could start murdering people, Feldis said.
He moved to Alaska in 2007 and lived with his daughter and a girlfriend in Anchorage's Turnagain neighborhood, near many of the city's most prominent citizens, top attorneys and law-enforcement officials, operating a one-man contracting business.
"He was well-known in Anchorage as a really good handyman," said state Senator Hollis French, who lived around the corner from Keyes.
All the while, Keyes said in his interviews, he was "two different people."
"There's no one who knows me or who has ever known me, who knows anything about me, really," Keyes said in one of the interviews.
Keyes told authorities he almost killed a young couple and an Anchorage police officer at a beach overlook, about a month before killing the Curriers in Vermont.
Keyes said he was hiding in the park with a gun and a silencer and ready to ambush his victims; he wanted to test the silencer that he would later bring to the East Coast on his trip to kill the Curriers. He stopped when a second police officer arrived on the scene.
"It could have got ugly, but fortunately for the cop guy, his backup showed up," a chuckling Keyes said one interview. "I almost got myself into a lot of trouble on that one."
The silencer wound up in a stockpile of murder supplies that Keyes stashed in upstate New York, near a home he owned there. Keyes admitted to placing several such caches around the country, investigators said.
Officials have found two so far -- the New York stockpile and one in the Anchorage suburb of Eagle River that contained a shovel and bottles of liquid clog remover, material for concealing a body and speeding decomposition.
Until he was arrested, Keyes' plan was to leave Alaska this year and work as an itinerant contractor making repairs in hurricane-struck areas of the United States, Feldis said.
"That would allow him to move from place to place and commit murders," Feldis said.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Grant McCool)
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7789 on: Dec 24th, 2012, 10:28am »
Army Goes Goth With ‘Super-Black’ Materials
By Robert Beckhusen 12.24.12, 6:30 AM
Get ready to break out the eyeliner and the candelabras, because the Army is going goth.
In its latest round of solicitations for small businesses, the Army is asking for proposals for super-black material. That is, material so black that it absorbs 99 percent of all light. But it isn’t really black paint, exactly. The plan is to use either an “antireflective coating or surface treatment process for metals” to absorb stray light “in the ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and far-infrared regions.” This, the Army hopes, will boost the quality of high-resolution cameras, while also cooling down sensitive electronics. Or to put it another way: The Army needs the color black to reflect its icy-cold heart.
Another curious thing is that the program is being run out of the Army’s Program Executive Office Ammunition at the Picatinny Arsenal, a main center for the Pentagon’s experiments in all sorts of weapons: from rifles and tank cannons to directed-energy weapons. But the purpose of the solicitation isn’t much more specific than described. “Simply put, it’s too early yet to speculate on where the technology(s) will go,” Frank Misurelli, an Army spokesman at Picatinny said in a statement provided to Danger Room. ”Possibly in a few months, after an contract has been awarded, more information may become available.”
But for whatever the Army wants to fade to black, it seems that regular black isn’t good enough. This is because most black paint will absorb only around 90-95 percent of light, with the other 5-10 percent reflected back outwards. For a high-resolution camera, that stray light can bounce back into the lens and interfere with the quality of an image. It’s even a problem for NASA’s ultra-deep-space sensors. In the extreme coldness of space, black paint turns a silver-y color, which increases heat and can interfere with infrared-detecting instruments.
But wait, doesn’t black get really hot when hit with light, like wearing black clothes during the summer? The answer is: sorta. Black is really good at absorbing heat, but is also really good at radiating heat away. This is why cooling fins, radiators and engines for cars and trucks are often painted black. In 2011, NASA developed a carbon-nanotube coating that absorbed between 98-99.5 percent of light, depending on the wavelength. Nor do the coating’s thin layers of nanotubes change color in extreme cold. They absorb more light, and help radiate heat away from instruments, keeping them cold.
The Army could go another route. A second option uncovered by Britain’s National Physical Laboratory involves immersing an object in a solution of nickel and sodium for several hours, which blackens the color, and then taking it out and dunking it in nitric acid for a few seconds. According to New Scientist, this creates an alloy pock-marked with tiny microscopic craters that prevent light from bouncing away.
Finally, the Army also hopes to expand the materials to “optical glass surfaces” — camera lenses, in other words — while testing to see whether “it will be able to survive in a military environment.” The material should also come in “multiple surface colors” and be able to “selectively exhibit earth color instead of broadband absorption.” And another hope is to use the materials to absorb water to cool down equipment. See, it’s tough out there being goth, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it in comfort.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7794 on: Dec 26th, 2012, 09:24am »
Retail sales creep higher in weak holiday season: early data
Wed Dec 26, 2012 10:03am EST
(Reuters) - As the U.S. holiday season winds down, retailers are left to hope that post-Christmas sales can help salvage their worst performance since 2008, preliminary data showed.
Holiday-related sales rose 0.7 percent from October 28 through December 24, compared with a 2 percent increase last year, according to data from MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse.
The preliminary estimate from SpendingPulse is in line with other estimates showing weak growth during the holiday season, when retailers can book about 30 percent of annual sales and in many cases half of their profits.
Research firm ShopperTrak said last week it expected an increase of 2.5 percent, rather than 3.3 percent. And on Tuesday, the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Store Sales Index said sales rose only 0.7 percent in the week ended Saturday.
The latest holiday season sales would be the worst performance since 2008, during the last recession.
"The broad brush was Christmas wasn't all that merry for retailers, and you have to ask what those margins look like if the top line didn't meet their expectations. So it could be a very unmerry Christmas for retailers," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.
The Mid-Atlantic showed the worst performance, with a 3.9 percent decline, as sales in early November were disrupted by Superstorm Sandy, which hit the densely populated region in late October.
Sales recovered in the second part of November, with early hours and promotions helping drive traffic during the Black Friday weekend, analysts said.
But there was a deep lull in early December as a winter storm in parts of the United States may have limited sales, said Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis at MasterCard SpendingPulse.
SpendingPulse estimated the 0.7 percent increase in sales covered apparel, electronics, luxury goods, online and furnishings across all payment types, including credit cards, cash and checks.
Aside from the weather, some analysts also said shoppers may have curbed spending due to concerns about whether Washington will reach an agreement to avert the "fiscal cliff" of tax hikes and spending cuts that take effect in the new year.
"Who wants credit card debt in January when there will be 2 percent less in the check plus a year of higher tax rates on stale incomes," Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at NBG Productions, said in a note to clients.
(This story corrects 7th paragraph to show Mid-Atlantic had worst performance, not Northeast)
(Reporting by Brad Dorfman; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7795 on: Dec 26th, 2012, 09:29am »
Originally published December 25, 2012 at 8:01 PM Page modified December 25, 2012 at 8:55 PM
Program to help homeless living in cars off to slow, steady start
In the year since Seattle launched the Safe Parking pilot project for homeless people living in their cars, just two churches have opened their parking lots, providing a total of seven spaces. But the city is expanding the project and hopes to provide more services.
By Lynn Thompson Seattle Times staff reporter
A 59-year old man who goes by the nickname "Wavy" knows what it's like to live in a van and try to find a place to park for the night. He's been awakened by police telling him to move along. A homeowner called 911 when he parked in a West Seattle neighborhood.
"Wavy" — he didn't want his full name used — once owned a business with three employees but said the economic collapse wiped out his investments and his customers.
Since April, he has parked his van overnight in a church parking lot in Ballard, part of the city's Safe Parking pilot program designed to help one of the biggest segments of the homeless population — those living in their cars — find a way off the streets.
But in the year since the city launched the pilot project, just two churches have opened their parking lots, providing a total of seven spaces.
City leaders and homeless advocates say they'd like the city to do more, but limited funding, zoning issues and fears of disproportionately affecting one neighborhood have so far kept the program from reaching more of the estimated 500 to 1,500 people living in their vehicles across the city, a number that has grown along with home foreclosures, unemployment and the slow economic recovery.
"Adding two spots every six months is not going to make a dent in the problem," said City Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who sponsored the Safe Parking program.
The experience has been positive for the churches that provide the parking and for the social-service agency, Compass Housing Alliance, that provides case-management services to the campers. Eighteen of the 28 people helped by the program, and all of the families with children, have moved into some type of housing and off the street, said Jennifer Pargas, Safe Parking program manager for Compass Housing.
"A large portion of the people we've seen are the working poor. They've been laid off from a job, have gone through their savings and lost their house," Pargas said.
The 2013 city budget increases the Safe Parking program funding from $30,000 to $65,000, which will allow for a full-time caseworker to assist the people who park at the church lots. The current caseworker was able to dedicate only 13 hours a week to the program.
But even a best-case scenario of seven to 10 churches each providing two to five parking spaces by the end of 2013 "still isn't nearly enough to accommodate the people living in their vehicles, just in Ballard," said Elizabeth Maupin, the Safe Parking Outreach Coordinator who works with faith communities interested in participating.
Maupin envisions safe-parking zones in several locations on city or private property with access to restrooms, showers, a phone and computers so car campers can look for work and have a place to be indoors. As in the current program, participants would be screened and anyone with a criminal history excluded.
"We need more places for people where they can be near their work and their communities. Most of the people living in their vehicles are working, just not enough to pay for stable housing," she said.
O'Brien said he'd like to find a way to scale up the Safe Parking program and serve more people. But he also thinks neighborhoods will be resistant to what sounds like "another Nickelsville" — the tent city named for former Mayor Greg Nickels — with RVs and vans parking in their midst.
"Opening a city lot with lots of cars raises concerns with neighbors. There are advantages to a dispersed model where no one neighborhood is overwhelmed," he said.
Invisibility as a strategy
On a recent cold and rainy night, Graham Pruss, a project coordinator for the Project on Family Homelessness at Seattle University, knocked on the doors of RVs parked along industrial streets in Ballard.
Complaints from neighbors about people living in their vehicles, as well as public urination, defecation and littering, led city parking-enforcement officers to post many of the neighborhood streets to ban overnight parking.
That's left just a few streets where oversized vehicles such as RVs can legally park, Pruss said. He's led Seattle University's efforts to document the number of people living in vehicles in Ballard and North Seattle.
Pruss, who also is chairman of the Ballard Community Task Force on Homelessness and Hunger, estimates that the One Night Count of the Homeless in January 2012, which identified 519 people living in a vehicle, was "just the tip of the iceberg." He thinks the actual number is two to three times larger.
"A primary survival strategy of people living in their vehicle is to be invisible. It's difficult to document them, difficult to do outreach, difficult to provide the services to which they are entitled," Pruss said.
He'd like to see the city use park-and-ride lots to provide more safe parking spots. He said that with screening and case management, people now living in their vehicles can more easily focus on finding work and permanent housing.
"The Safe Parking program shows it works. We just need 50 times as many places," Pruss said.
Although the number of people served by Safe Parking has been small, the churches that are participating say they've had few problems.
"It's been such a positive experience for us," said Kathy Olson, chairwoman of the Missions and Social Justice Team for Woodland Park United Methodist Church, which provides two parking spaces for car campers.
The church took on the parking program in addition to a nightly shelter for 20 homeless men in partnership with the nonprofit SHARE.
Before agreeing to participate, the church had to work with neighbors concerned about safety and noise. Others who use the church had concerns about access.
"We've been able to dispel a lot of stereotypes about who these people are," Olson said.
The church supports the car campers in other ways. It pays for the portable toilet, for phone and gas cards, for blankets and toiletries.
What it hears from those who park there, she said, is that they can focus on getting a job and not worry every evening about where they'll stay and whether they'll be safe.
At Our Redeemer's Lutheran Church, "Wavy"came in from his van and sat in the fellowship hall out of the pounding rain. He's working two jobs, doing building maintenance and cleaning, but he said neither is steady enough to cover the rent for an apartment.
Over the past few months, as his name has moved up the list for subsidized housing, the parishioners have given him a waterproof parka, another new jacket that he wears under the first, and new work boots and socks.
And a safe place each night to park.
"They really walk the walk," he said. "This has been a blessing."
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7796 on: Dec 26th, 2012, 09:34am »
This Scientist Wants Tomorrow’s Troops to Be Mutant-Powered
By David Axe 12.26.12, 6:30 AM
Greater strength and endurance. Enhanced thinking. Better teamwork. New classes of genetic weaponry, able to subvert DNA. Not long from now, the technology could exist to routinely enhance — and undermine — people’s minds and bodies using a wide range of chemical, neurological, genetic and behavioral techniques.
It’s warfare waged at the evolutionary level. And it’s coming sooner than many people think. According to the futurists at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, by 2030, “neuro-enhancements could provide superior memory recall or speed of thought. Brain-machine interfaces could provide ‘superhuman‘ abilities, enhancing strength and speed, as well as providing functions not previously available.”
Qualities that today must be honed by years of training and education could be installed in a relative instant by, say, an injection or a targeted burst of electricity to the brain. Rapid advancements in neurology, pharmacology and genetics could soon make such installations fairly easy.
These modifications could give rise to new breeds of biologically enhanced troops possessing what one expert in the field calls “mutant powers.” But those troops may not American. So far, the U.S. military has been extremely reluctant to embrace human biological modification, or “biomods.” And that could result in a veritable mutant gap. In this new form of biological warfare, the U.S. could find itself outgunned.
But not if Andrew Herr can help it.
A 29-year-old Georgetown-trained researcher with degrees in microbiology, health physics and national security, Herr is one a handful of specialists in the defense community preaching greater U.S. investment in biomods. First as a consultant with the Scitor Corporation, a Virginia-based firm whose clients include top military and intelligence agencies, and later as the head of his own research organization, Herr’s job has been to think about biological modifications whose effects he says are “more than evolutionary.”
Another word for that: revolutionary.
Whether positive or negative, the impact of routine biomods could be huge. “The best-case scenario is extraordinary increases in quality of life in the First World and beyond,” Herr says. The worst-case scenario, he adds, is people being biologically modified “without them knowing it.” That is, an evolutionary sneak attack.
But it’s not clear how closely the government is listening.
The Once-and-Future Mutant Age
Ten years ago, there were all sorts of biomods enthusiasts roaming the halls of the Pentagon’s premiere science division. In 2002 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched an ambitious effort aimed at tweaking troops’ physiology to reduce their susceptibility to stress, sleep deprivation, fatigue, pain and blood loss while enhancing their memory and learning. The idea was to help soldiers “perform at their peak, stay at their peak,” one former Darpa official told Wired.
The program was called Metabolic Dominance. It promised to produce America’s first mutant warriors.
Progress was slow — understandably so considering the scope and scale of the effort. In 2007 Tony Tether, then Darpa director, downplayed Metabolic Dominance, signaling the beginning of the end of the program. “We’re making it possible for people to be all that they can be, not making them be better than they can be,” Tether told Wired.
By 2008 the science agency had all but abandoned Metabolic Dominance. Herr began his work the next year, studying and advocating biomods for an alphabet soup of military and intelligence clients. In effect, Herr helped pick up the pieces from Darpa’s initial, failed effort.
In 2009 Herr was assigned to a Pentagon-funded project aimed at understanding “unit cohesion.” That is, what makes one group of soldiers keep fighting through hunger, thirst, exhaustion, confusion, and the deaths of comrades. Unit cohesion has won and lost conflicts since the beginning of warfare, but it was still poorly understood.
For his unit cohesion study, Herr interviewed Army infantrymen, Navy submariners and Air Force drone operators. Partway into the two-year study Herr had an epiphany. “The ‘aha’ moment,” Herr tells Danger Room, “was seeing a link between an objective physiological phenomenon — knowing the effects on the body and brain of stress hormones — and how that matched with all the literature on unit cohesion.”
In other words, Herr had a vision of the stress hormones that our glands pump into our bloodstreams in life-or-death situations, and, in turn, impact the behavior of trained combat units. Tracing this physiological blueprint for combat effectiveness, Herr realized it could be altered biologically. “All of sudden the Matrix made sense,” Herr says, referencing the secret world of the eponymous 1999 sci-fi film.
The military could select troops and their officers for their unique, inborn ability to cope with stress. Or it could directly tweak a soldier’s body functions — re-balancing the normal hormonal cocktail so the soldier doesn’t panic, doesn’t retreat and keeps on fighting, even when the odds are against him and any normal person would just give up.
Specific enhancement methods Herr studied include: focused diet and exercise regimens; injections of the stress-inhibiting brain molecule neuropeptide Y; electroshock-style Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation to boost thinking; and gene therapy for enhancing a whole host of body functions by literally altering a person’s DNA with viruses or chemicals.
Following the unit-cohesion study, Herr began teaching individual self-enhancement techniques in Washington, D.C. and Indiana. His students were officers and civilians slated to deploy to Afghanistan under a Pentagon program that embeds American mentors in the Afghan government. Among other tricks, Herr instructed them to minimize brain-stimulating blue light in order to protect their sleep cycles; eat small, frequent, protein-rich meals to maintain steady cognition; and exercise in order to biochemically neutralize the steady stream of stress hormones that advisers experience in their year-long, sometimes dangerous deployments.
Herr says the curriculum fed into his other projects, many of which are classified. “I can’t really talk about those,” he says. Clearly, the techniques Herr taught to the advisers could also be applied to pilots, sub and carrier crews and frontline infantry, for whom the stress is even greater and the work even more critical to U.S. national defense.
But for these combatants, the Pentagon wants to go beyond merely encouraging self-enhancement. Patrick Lin, a professor at California Polytechnic State, notes the military’s “ongoing interest in using pharmaceuticals, such as modafinil (a cognitive enhancer), dietary supplements, as well as gene therapy to boost the performance of warfighters.”
And in February the British Royal Society identified four small-scale DARPA biomodification efforts focusing on stress-reduction and neurological enhancement, plus an obscure Air Force program aimed at the “exploitation of external stimulant technology” to enable airmen “to receive and process greater amounts of operationally relevant information.” That’s generally understood to mean drugs.
Herr says defense planners are discussing a comprehensive strategy to unite these programs and coordinate growing military investment in modification technologies. “What I’ve been working on is trying to support and guide that discussion.” To that end, he has briefed the Defense Science Board, a panel of the Pentagon’s top technology advisers.
A comprehensive biomods strategy would get the Pentagon back to the same conceptual point it was at a decade ago at the launch of Metabolic Dominance — and prove that U.S. military leaders are serious about preparing for the coming era of mutant warfare.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7797 on: Dec 26th, 2012, 09:41am »
Can a 'UFO Hotel' save struggling town of Baker?
December 24, 2012 | 8:54am
Once a shimmering beacon of light to Las Vegas-bound drivers heading up Interstate 15 with fat wallets and paper-thin dreams, Baker's 13-story "World's Tallest Thermometer" marks California's last-stop oasis of bathrooms and burger joints before the Nevada state line.
Now it's an eyesore. The pinkish roadside oddity has been on the blink for years. The string of ovals that lighted up in 10-degree increments, the top one also giving the exact temperature, are black and lifeless. The gift shop below is padlocked, its shelves stripped bare.
"It's totally disappointing,'' said Brad Roach, 27, of Los Alamos, N.M., who pulled off the highway on an L.A.-to-Vegas road trip with friends to get a closer look. "It's kind of like the biggest ball of twine," he said, referring to another storied American roadside attraction. "If you're diving by, you have to stop and see it. But there's nothing here.''
The thermometer's demise now serves as a billboard for a town on the brink. A chain-link fence surrounds Baker's prized Starbucks — which closed its doors four years ago. Two of the town's three motels are shut. The Royal Hawaiian, which in the best of times aspired to two stars, peeks sadly out onto Baker Boulevard with smashed windows and graffiti-splattered walls.
Part of the blame belongs to the merciless Mojave Desert, where bleached 2-by-4s and cinder blocks are all that remains of gas stations, diners and other ventures that turned to dust along the highways. Part of the decline can be blamed on the recession, which depleted the conga line of vehicle traffic that sustains life in this tiny town of 735 on the edge of Death Valley.
Tough times are nothing new in this desert town, born more than century ago as a railroad station serving the borax mines in Death Valley. It was wiped off the map by floods in the 1930s and saw its rails pulled up and shipped overseas during World War II. There still isn't a single stoplight in town. But some hold out hope for the town, and, not surprisingly in these parts, it could come from an unusual place: a spaceship.
The owner of Alien Fresh Jerky, one of the more popular stops on Baker's main drag, has plans to build a three-story, disc-shaped "UFO Hotel." Still in the permitting process, it would tower over the tiny markets, gas stations and restaurants on Baker's main drag. Plans call for a gift shop, cafe and 30-plus rooms. Outside, there would be a pool in the shape of an alien's noggin for guests to take a dip in on hot summer days.
"Forty percent of Americans believe in UFOs. Those are my customers," Luis Ramallo said. "No one has ever seen anything like it.''
A wacky dream? Perhaps. But Ramallo, an electrician who emigrated from Argentina in 1988, has parlayed on those before with great success. His beef jerky store started as a tiny, roadside stand outside of Nevada's Area 51, the top-secret U.S. Air Force base that has morphed into the Bethlehem of UFO theology. After Ramallo's oddball enterprise became a hit, he relocated to Baker.
Now his beef jerky store, on good days, has a line snaking out the door, Ramallo said. He expects even more business once the spaceship hotel opens, which he hopes will be in the next year or two.
"This will be the new big attraction in Baker,'' Ramallo said. "I don't want them to fix the thermometer. I want them to tear it down. It's gone from good to bad to ugly.''
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7798 on: Dec 27th, 2012, 10:28am »
CIA’s Global Response Staff emerging from shadows after incidents in Libya and Pakistan
By Greg Miller and Julie Tate, Published: December 26
The rapid collapse of a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya exposed the vulnerabilities of State Department facilities overseas. But the CIA’s ability to fend off a second attack that same night provided a glimpse of a key element in the agency’s defensive arsenal: a secret security force created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Two of the Americans killed in Benghazi were members of the CIA’s Global Response Staff, an innocuously named organization that has recruited hundreds of former U.S. Special Forces operatives to serve as armed guards for the agency’s spies.
The GRS, as it is known, is designed to stay in the shadows, training teams to work undercover and provide an unobtrusive layer of security for CIA officers in high-risk outposts.
But a series of deadly scrapes over the past four years has illuminated the GRS’s expanding role, as well as its emerging status as one of the CIA’s most dangerous assignments.
Of the 14 CIA employees killed since 2009, five worked for the GRS, all as contractors. They include two killed at Benghazi, as well as three others who were within the blast radius on Dec. 31, 2009, when a Jordanian double agent detonated a suicide bomb at a CIA compound in Khost, Afghanistan.
GRS contractors have also been involved in shootouts in which only foreign nationals were killed, including one that triggered a diplomatic crisis. While working for the CIA, Raymond Davis was jailed for weeks in Pakistan last year after killing two men in what he said was an armed robbery attempt in Lahore.
The increasingly conspicuous role of the GRS is part of a broader expansion of the CIA’s paramilitary capabilities over the past 10 years. Beyond hiring former U.S. military commandos, the agency has collaborated with U.S. Special Operations teams on missions including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and has killed thousands of Islamist militants and civilians with its fleet of armed drones.
CIA veterans said that GRS teams have become a critical component of conventional espionage, providing protection for case officers whose counterterrorism assignments carry a level of risk that rarely accompanied the cloak-and-dagger encounters of the Cold War.
Spywork used to require slipping solo through cities in Eastern Europe. Now, “clandestine human intelligence involves showing up in a Land Cruiser with some [former] Deltas or SEALs, picking up an asset and then dumping him back there when you are through,” said a former CIA officer who worked closely with the security group overseas.
Bodyguard details have become so essential to espionage that the CIA has overhauled its training program at the Farm — its case officer academy in southern Virginia — to teach spies the basics of working with GRS teams.
The security apparatus relies heavily on contractors who are drawn by relatively high pay and flexible schedules that give them several months off each year. In turn, they agree to high-risk assignments in places such as Benghazi and are largely left on their own to take basic precautions, such as finding health and life insurance.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the GRS has about 125 employees working abroad at any given time, with at least that many rotating through cycles of training and off-time in the United States.
At least half are contractors, who often earn $140,000 or more a year and typically serve 90- or 120-day assignments abroad. Full-time GRS staff officers — those who are permanent CIA employees — earn slightly less but collect benefits and are typically put in supervisory roles.
The work is lucrative enough that recruiting is done largely by word of mouth, said one former U.S. intelligence official. Candidates tend to be members of U.S. Special Forces units who have recently retired, or veterans of police department SWAT teams.
Most GRS recruits arrive with skills in handling the weapons they will carry, including Glock handguns and M4 rifles. But they undergo additional training so they do not call attention to the presence or movements of the CIA officers they are in position to protect.
Although the agency created the GRS to protect officers in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been expanded to protect secret drone bases as well as CIA facilities and officers in locations including Yemen, Lebanon and Djibouti.
In some cases, elite GRS units provide security for personnel from other agencies, including National Security Agency teams deploying sensors or eavesdropping equipment in conflict zones, a former special operator said. The most skilled security operators are informally known as “scorpions.”
“They don’t learn languages, they’re not meeting foreign nationals and they’re not writing up intelligence reports,” a former U.S. intelligence official said. Their main tasks are to map escape routes from meeting places, pat down informants and provide an “envelope” of security, the former official said, all while knowing that “if push comes to shove, you’re going to have to shoot.”
The consequences in such cases can be severe. Former CIA officials who worked with the GRS still wince at the fallout from Davis’s inability to avoid capture as well as his decision to open fire in the middle of a busy street in Pakistan. The former security contractor, who did not respond to requests for comment, said he was doing basic “area familiarization” work, meaning learning his surroundings and possibly mapping routes of escape, when he was confronted by two Pakistanis traveling by motorcycle.
Davis became trapped at the scene, and his arrest provoked a diplomatic standoff between two tense allies in the fight against terrorism.
The CIA took heavy criticism for the clumsiness of the Davis episode, temporarily suspending the drone campaign in Pakistan before U.S. payments to the families of the men Davis had killed helped secure his release.
By contrast, the CIA and its security units were praised — albeit indirectly — in a report released last week that was otherwise sharply critical of the State Department security failures that contributed to the deaths of four Americans in Libya three months ago.
In Benghazi, a GRS team rushed to a burning State Department compound in an attempt to rescue U.S. diplomats, then evacuated survivors to a nearby CIA site that also came under attack. Two GRS contractors who had taken positions on the roof of the site were killed by mortar strikes.
Among those killed was Glen Doherty, a GRS contractor on his second CIA assignment in Libya who had served in about 10 other places, including Mexico City, according to his sister, Kathleen Quigley.
“Was he aware of the risks? Absolutely,” Quigley said in an interview, although she noted that “he wasn’t there to protect an embassy. He was there to recover RPGs,” meaning he was providing security for CIA teams tracking Libyan stockpiles of rocket-propelled grenades.
Doherty took the CIA job for the pay and abundant time off, as well as the chance to continue serving the U.S. government abroad, Quigley said.
When Doherty died, he left debts that included loans on two houses in California, Quigley said. He had no life insurance. CIA officials told Doherty’s family that they had recommended companies willing to underwrite such policies, but that agency coverage was not available for contractors.
Quigley did not criticize the agency, but added: “It’s so sad for a guy like that to go out and have nothing to show for it, except, frankly, a lot of debt.”
The CIA declined to comment.
Quigley said her family has started a foundation in Doherty’s name to help other families of current and former U.S. Special Operations troops who have been killed. A separate organization performs a similar function for families of slain CIA officers.
The CIA Memorial Foundation pays college costs for children of CIA officers who were killed and recently began providing payments of about $5,000 to families to help pay for funeral-related costs.
The organization is paying tuition and other costs for 28 dependents of slain agency employees, and an additional 77 will be eligible when they reach college age, said Jerry Komisar, a CIA veteran who is president of the foundation.
The organization’s obligations have grown in recent months, a stretch that ranks as among the deadliest for the CIA since the attack on Khost. After Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed in Benghazi, three other CIA officers — all staff employees — were killed in Afghanistan.
The foundation covers contractors who work for the GRS. “I often wonder why people take those kinds of risks,” Komisar said. “It’s got to be an opportunity for them to bring in more cash. But the downside is, you put yourself at great risk. My heart goes out to them.”
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #7799 on: Dec 27th, 2012, 10:31am »
Consumer sentiment weakens as fiscal crisis looms
By Jason Lange
Thu Dec 27, 2012 10:40am EST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Consumer confidence fell more than expected in December, hitting a four-month low as a looming fiscal crisis sapped what had been a growing sense of optimism about the economy.
Other data on Thursday showed the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment aid fell last week to nearly its lowest level in 4 1/2 years, while new home sales last month hit their highest level since April 2010.
The Conference Board, an industry group, said its index of consumer attitudes fell to 65.1 from 71.5 in November.
Gauges of business sentiment have weakened recently on worries about $600 billion in tax hikes and government spending cuts scheduled for early January. Now consumers also appear apprehensive, a sign worries about the so-called "fiscal cliff" could bite into household spending.
"People are hearing about (the cliff) and it negatively impacts confidence and investor sentiment and even holiday sales," said Todd Schoenberger, managing partner at Landcolt Capital in New York.
Also, with business sentiment weakening in recent months as the fiscal cliff has approached, many economists think hiring may remain sluggish even as the pace of layoffs ease.
The Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 350,000, the Labor Department said. That was lower than analysts' forecasts for 360,000 new claims last week.
"This recent improvement in the claims data is potentially a favorable signal for the labor market," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.
After spiking in the wake of a mammoth storm that ravaged the East Coast in late October, the weekly levels of new claims have now dropped to their lowest levels since the early days of the 2007-09 recession. The four-week moving average fell 11,250 last week to 356,750, the lowest since March 2008.
The claims data for last week has no direct relation to the Labor Department's monthly employment report, but suggests the surge in layoffs since the recession has at least run its course.
Companies in recent months have been adding to their payrolls at a lackluster pace, and analysts expect the monthly employment report due on January 4 will show 143,000 jobs created in December, down from 146,000 in November.
Analysts said the holiday season can make it more difficult to seasonally adjust the claims data, another reason to be cautious.
"There is usually a high margin of error in predicting the monthly payroll number," said Michelle Meyer, senior economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch at New York. "That's even more the case this month from the residual effects of the hurricane and year-end seasonal adjustments," she said.
U.S. stocks opened flat, while longer-dated U.S. Treasuries rose after the data and after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it was unlikely a budget deal would be reached before year end.
Following a truncated holiday break in Hawaii, U.S. President Barack Obama has returned to Washington to restart negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff, which if not averted would likely put the U.S. economy back into recession.
The signs of progress in the claims data also included a caveat, at least for the latest week.
Obama declared Monday a holiday for federal workers and many state offices followed suit and were unable to provide complete data for last week's jobless claims. Data for 19 states was estimated, a Labor Department official said.
Fourteen of those states, including Texas and California, submitted their own estimates, which tend to be fairly accurate because the state officials work with a significant amount of data, the Labor Department official said.
Analysts said the holiday season was another reason to be cautious about the report's positive tenor. Also, with business sentiment weakening in recent months as the fiscal cliff has approached, many economists think businesses are holding back on hiring.
"A significant improvement in labor market conditions ahead of any resolution to the fiscal cliff is unlikely," said Michael Gapen, an economist at Barclays in New York.
Separately, the Commerce Department said new U.S. single-family home sales accelerated in November to a 377,000-unit annual rate while the median sales price jumped 14.9 percent from the same month in 2011, signs that the U.S. housing recovery is gaining some steam.
In a fourth report, the Chicago Federal Reserve said its index of factory activity in the U.S. Midwest increased in November to 93.7 from a revised 92.2 in October.
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Additional reporting by Richard Leong and Ryan Vlastelica in New York; Editing by Neil Stempleman)