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 veryhotthread  Author  Topic: Stuff & Nonsense  (Read 15677 times)
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« Reply #7815 on: Dec 31st, 2012, 10:56am »

Washington Post

Biden, McConnell continue ‘cliff’ talks as clock winds down

By Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane, Updated: Monday, December 31, 8:25 AM

Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continued urgent talks Monday over a deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff” after Democrats offered several significant concessions on taxes, including a proposal to raise rates only on earnings over $450,000 a year.

With a New Year’s Eve deadline hours away, Democrats abandoned their earlier demand to raise tax rates on household income over $250,000 a year. President Obama had vowed repeatedly during his reelection campaign to allow tax cuts to expire for incomes over that level.

Democrats also relented on the politically sensitive issue of the estate tax, according to a detailed account of the Democratic offer obtained by The Washington Post. They promised instead to hold a vote in the Senate that would guarantee that taxes on inherited estates remain at their current low levels, a key GOP demand.

“There are a number of issues on which the two sides are still apart, but negotiations are continuing as I speak,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a floor speech shortly after the body convened at 11 a.m. Monday. “But we really are running out of time,” he added.

Reid said there were “still some issues that need to be resolved before we can bring legislation to the floor.”

McConnell’s office reported that talks between the Republican leader and Biden took place early Monday at 12:45 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. EST. A spokesman for McConnell expressed some hope of reaching a deal.

McConnell was holding out to set the income threshold for tax increases even higher, at $550,000, according to people close to the talks in both parties. And he was protesting a Democratic proposal to raise taxes on investment profits for households with income above $250,000.

The two sides were also sharply at odds over automatic spending cuts set to decimate budgets at the Pentagon and other federal agencies next month. Democrats were seeking to delay the cuts, known as the “sequester,” until 2015, without identifying other savings to compensate. They were also pressing to extend unemployment benefits, farm subsidies and Medicare payments to doctors, again without offsetting cuts as Republicans demand.

“The Leader and the VP continued their discussion late into the evening and will continue to work toward a solution,” Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said in a statement Monday.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Monday morning that a “lot of progress” has been made in the fiscal cliff talks, but he cautioned that “there is no agreement yet,” Reuters news agency reported.

“Conversations are still ongoing,” Kyl said. “There has been a lot of progress.” Asked how long the talks could go on, Kyl said, “I guess until 11:59.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, also expressed some optimism Monday.

“I think there is some good news,” he said on CNN. “I think now there’s a better than 50-50 chance that we will avoid the fiscal cliff by midnight tonight.” He added: “It is a very open question about whether or not something put together in the Senate would be able to get enough votes in the House. But first things first. Let’s first see if they can get an agreement in the Senate.”

Van Hollen declined to get into specifics publicly about the latest tax-rate levels, but he said, “There’s been a lot of flexibility on the Democratic side on that issue, and now we’re waiting for additional flexibility on the Republican side.” He said that lawmakers still would like to “find an alternative set of deficit reduction to replace these meat-ax, across-the-board cuts. So that remains part of the conversation.”

Speaking after Reid on the Senate floor Monday morning, Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat from Iowa, said he was “disturbed” to read in The Post that Democratic negotiators had agreed to raise the threshold for the income tax rate increases to $450,000, from $250,000, and to maintain estate taxes at the same level.

“This is one Democrat that doesn’t agree with that — at all,” Harkin said. “I just think that’s grossly unfair.” He added: If you make $250,000 a year, you’re not middle class. You’re in the top 2 percent of income earners in America.... If we’re going to have some kind of deal, the deal must be one that favors the middle class — the real middle class. As I see this thing developing, quite frankly, no deal is better than a bad deal, and this is looking like a very bad deal.”

Unless the two sides can reach agreement, historic tax hikes are set to hit virtually every American on Jan. 1, potentially driving the nation back into recession. An impasse would also throw the coming tax filing season into chaos, as nearly 30 million unsuspecting taxpayers would be required to pay the costly alternative minimum tax for the first time.

As Biden and McConnell traded phone calls deep into the night, lawmakers waited anxiously for news. Though members of both parties received lengthy briefings from their respective leaders about the status of the talks, senators were just as likely to predict that the nation was on the verge of a self-inflicted economic crisis as they were to predict that salvation was at hand.

“I think we’re going over the cliff,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) wrote on Twitter in the middle of the day.

“The two parties are so close that they can’t afford to walk away,” Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) countered hours later. “I continue to be optimistic.”

Biden, a veteran dealmaker who served in the Senate for 36 years, entered the talks Sunday at McConnell’s request after the Republican leader said he had grown “frustrated” by the pace of negotiations with Reid.

Personal relations between the two Senate leaders have deteriorated after two years of draining battles over the budget. On Sunday, their antagonism produced a confusing day when talks seemed to be collapsing even as the two sides were moving closer to agreement on several fundamental issues.

Reid blamed McConnell for the impasse, saying Republicans were insisting on a change in the way inflation is measured that would serve to reduce Social Security benefits — a red flag for Democrats. Early in the day, Democratic aides described McConnell’s continued insistence on the change, known as “chained CPI,” as a “major setback.”

“At some point in the negotiating process, it becomes obvious when the other side is intentionally demanding concessions they know the other side’s not willing to make,” Reid said in a speech on the Senate floor.

McConnell countered by accusing Reid of “political gamesmanship” and announcing that he had telephoned Biden, opening up his own line of communication with the White House.

“I’m interested in a result here. And I’m willing to work with whomever can help,” McConnell said. “There is no single issue that remains an impossible sticking point. The sticking point appears to be a willingness, an interest, or courage to close the deal.”

Later, after consulting with fellow Republicans, McConnell agreed to take Social Security off the table.

The decision cheered Democrats. Obama had offered to include chained CPI in the big deficit-reduction package he had been negotiating with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) earlier this month. Obama endorsed the idea again Sunday, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” calling it a tough decision he was willing to make “in pursuit of strengthening Social Security for the long term.”

But many Democrats say they would go along with the idea only as part of a far-reaching deal that also included at least $1.2 trillion in new tax revenue over the next decade. The deal under discussion Sunday would raise far less than that, somewhere between $600 billion and $800 billion.

“Chained CPI should be part of the larger discussion about the future of Social Security,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), “not just a casual bargaining chip here at the last minute.”

Still, McConnell’s decision to drop the proposal served only to complicate the negotiations. By removing one of the few ideas on the table that would actually reduce spending, negotiators were left with a long list of new spending and only new taxes to cover the cost.

That infuriated many Republicans, who were already troubled by a deal that would require them to vote for a significant tax increase for the first time in more than 20 years. Republicans would be more open to the tax hike if it were used to reduce the federal budget deficit, but they remained resistant to raising taxes to expand government spending.

“You’re going to have to find some real spending cuts,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “You can’t just take this new tax revenue and say, ‘Well, we’ve got X number of dollars of new tax revenue, and that means we can spend that amount of money with no consequences.’ ”

In addition to delaying the sequester for two years — at a cost of roughly $200 billion — Democrats are seeking to protect doctors from a 27 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements set to hit in January, extend emergency benefits for the long-term unemployed for another year and approve a one-year extension of federal farm subsidies.

Democrats countered that Republicans, too, are in favor of much of the new spending. And in return, Democrats had made several concessions on taxes.

more after the jump:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/fiscal-cliff/biden-mcconnell-continue-cliff-talks-as-clock-winds-down/2012/12/31/66c044e2-534d-11e2-8b9e-dd8773594efc_story.html?hpid=z1

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« Reply #7816 on: Dec 31st, 2012, 10:59am »

Wired

Pentagon Looks to Fix ‘Pervasive Vulnerability’ in Drones
By Noah Shachtman
12.31.12, 6:30 AM

Drones may be at the center of the U.S. campaign to take out extremists around the globe. But there’s a “pervasive vulnerability” in the robotic aircraft, according to the Pentagon’s premier science and technology division — a weakness the drones share with just about every car, medical device and power plant on the planet.

The control algorithms for these crucial machines are written in a fundamentally insecure manner, says Dr. Kathleen Fisher, a Tufts University computer scientist and a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. There’s simply no systematic way for programmers to check for vulnerabilities as they put together the software that runs our drones, our trucks or our pacemakers.

In our homes and our offices, this weakness is only a medium-sized deal: developers can release a patched version of Safari or Microsoft Word whenever they find a hole; anti-virus and intrusion-detection systems can handle many other threats. But updating the control software on a drone means practically re-certifying the entire aircraft. And those security programs often introduce all sorts of new vulnerabilities. “The traditional approaches to security won’t work,” Fisher tells Danger Room.

Fisher is spearheading a far-flung, $60 million, four-year effort to try to develop a new, secure way of coding — and then run that software on a series of drones and ground robots. It’s called High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems, or HACMS.

Drones and other important systems were once considered relatively safe from hack attacks. (They weren’t directly connected to the internet, after all.) But that was before viruses started infecting drone cockpits; before the robotic planes began leaking their classified video streams; before malware ordered nuclear centrifuges to self-destruct; before hackers figured out how to remotely access pacemakers and insulin pumps; and before academics figured out how to hijack a car without ever touching the vehicle.

“Many of these systems share a common structure: They have an insecure cyber perimeter, constructed from standard software components, surrounding control systems designed for safety but not for security,” Fisher told a group of researchers earlier this year.

It’d be great if someone could simply write some sort of universal software checker that sniffs out any program’s potential flaws. One small problem: Such a checker can’t exist. As the computer science pioneer Alan Turing showed in 1936, it’s impossible to write a program that can tell if another will run forever, given a particular input. That’s asking the checker to make a logical contradiction: Stop if you’re supposed to run for eternity.

Fisher became fascinated by this so-called “Halting Problem” as soon as she heard about it, in an introduction to programming class at Stanford. “The fact that you can prove something is impossible is such an amazing thing that I wanted to learn more about that domain. That’s actually why I became a computer scientist,” she says. The instructor for the class was a guy named Steve Fisher. She was interested enough in him that she wound up marrying him after school, and taking his last name.

But while a universal checker is impossible, verifying that a particular program will always work as promised is merely an exceedingly-freakin’-difficult task. One group of researchers in Australia, for example, checked the core of their “microkernel” — the heart of an operating system. It took about 11 person-years to verify the 8,000 lines of code. Fisher is funding researchers at MIT and Yale who hope to speed that process up, as part of one of HACMS’ five research pushes.

Once the software is proven to work as advertised, it’ll be loaded onto a number of vehicles: Rockwell Collins will supply the drones – namely, small, robotic Arducopters; Boeing will provide a helicopter; Black-I-Robotics will supply a robotic ground vehicle; another firm will provide an SUV.

In another phase of the program, Fisher is bankrolling research into software that can write near-flawless code on its own. The idea is to give the software synthesizer a set of instructions about what a particular program is supposed to do, and then let it come up with the best code for that purpose. Software that writes more software may sound crazy, Fisher says. But Darpa actually has some history of doing it.

“There was a project led here at Darpa a few years ago [to write software for] synthetic aperture radar. They had a non-expert specify [what should go into a synthetic aperture] radar program,” Fisher adds. “It took the system about 24 hours to produce an implementation…instead of three months [for the traditional version] and it ran twice as fast. So — better, faster and a lower level of expertise. We hope to see things like that.”

You couldn’t ask a program to write the equivalent of PowerPoint — it does too many different things. “By the time you’ve finished the specifications, you might as well have written the implementation,” Fisher says. But the software that controls drones and the like? Ironically, that’s way more straight-forward. ”The control theory about how you do things with brakes and steering wheels, how you take sensor input and convert it to actions is described by very concise laws of mathematics.” So synthesized (and secure) software should be possible to produce.

The goal at the end of HACMS is to have the robotic Arducopter running only fully verified or synthesized software. (The other vehicles will have some, but not all, of their “security-critical code” produced this way, Fisher promises.) And if the project works out as Fisher hopes, it could not only help secure today’s largely remote-controlled drones. It could make tomorrow’s drones fly on their own — without being hacked.

In the remaining component of HACMS, researchers from Galois, Inc. will work on a fully-verified, hack-proof software monitor that can watch a drone’s autonomous systems. If those systems operate the robotic aircraft in a normal fashion, the monitor will sit back and do nothing. But if the drone suddenly starts flying itself in some weird way, the monitor will take over, perhaps passing control back to a flesh-and-blood operator.

In other words, a drone won’t just be protected from an outside attacker. It’ll be protected from itself.


http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/12/darpa-drones/

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« Reply #7817 on: Dec 31st, 2012, 11:08am »

Reuters

Senate report faults State Department, intelligence on Benghazi

By Tabassum Zakaria
Mon Dec 31, 2012 11:08am EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The State Department's decision to keep the U.S. mission in Benghazi open despite inadequate security and increasingly dangerous threat assessments before it was attacked in September was a "grievous mistake," a Senate report said on Monday.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee's report about the September 11 attacks on the U.S. mission and a nearby annex, which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, faulted intelligence agencies for not having enough focus on Libyan extremists. It also faulted the State Department for waiting for specific warnings instead of acting on security.

The assessment follows a scathing report by an independent State Department accountability review board that resulted in a top security official and three others at the department stepping down.

The attack, in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens died, has put diplomatic security practices at posts in insecure areas under scrutiny and raised questions about whether intelligence on terrorism in the region was adequate.

The Senate report said the lack of specific intelligence of an imminent threat in Benghazi "may reflect a failure" in the intelligence community's focus on terrorist groups that have weak or no operational ties to al Qaeda and its affiliates.

"With Osama bin Laden dead and core al Qaeda weakened, a new collection of violent Islamist extremist organizations and cells have emerged in the last two to three years," the report said. That trend has been seen in the "Arab Spring" countries undergoing political transition or military conflict, it said.

The report recommended that U.S. intelligence agencies "broaden and deepen their focus in Libya and beyond, on nascent violent Islamist extremist groups in the region that lack strong operational ties to core al Qaeda or its main affiliate groups."

Neither the Senate report nor the unclassified accountability review board report pinned blame for the Benghazi attack on a specific group. The FBI is investigating who was behind the assaults.

President Barack Obama, in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, said the United States had some "very good leads" about who carried out the attacks. He did not provide any details.

The Senate committee report said the State Department should not have waited for specific warnings before acting on improving security in Benghazi.

It also said that it was widely known that the post-revolution Libyan government was "incapable of performing its duty to protect U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel," but the State Department failed to take adequate steps to fill the security gap.

"Despite the inability of the Libyan government to fulfill its duties to secure the facility, the increasingly dangerous threat assessments, and a particularly vulnerable facility, the Department of State officials did not conclude the facility in Benghazi should be closed or temporarily shut down," the report said. "That was a grievous mistake."

(Editing by Warren Strobel and David Brunnstrom)

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/31/us-usa-benghazi-report-senate-idUSBRE8BU07L20121231

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« Reply #7818 on: Dec 31st, 2012, 11:15am »

Telegraph

Witchcraft is thriving in the Welsh countryside, a church minister has said, as he described stumbling upon an increasing number of effigies, users of the evil eye and exorcisms.

9:14AM GMT 31 Dec 2012

Rev Felix Aubel claims occult practices in rural Wales have been increasing during the two decades he has been working in the area.

The minister spoke out after latest figures in the 2011 census has revealed 83 witches and 93 satanists are living in Wales.

He said there was an "unusual connection" between Christianity and witchcraft in some chapel circles in Wales.

Rev Aubel, who is the minister of five Congregational chapels in rural Carmarthenshire, said he has called out an exorcist after a witch placed a curse on one of his parishioners.

He said: "This is not a joke and I would warn people not to get involved in the occult.

"I have been told that a coven of witches still meet locally. There is also a witch living in a nearby village who advertises her services in the local paper."

He revealed in his autobiography that a curse on a parishioner had to be lifted by an exorcist.

He said: "In folk-magic and witchcraft, a poppet is a doll made to represent a person, for casting spells on that person.

"A poppet or effigy would be used with very sharp needles stuck into its 'heart' as a way of doing evil to an enemy.

"It was this 'evil' type of poppet that was used on a chapel member of mine in the Aberaeron area in 1994.

"It took an experienced Anglican exorcist to 'raise' this curse, which had been placed by a witch on the instruction of another former church member.

"The motivation behind this 'evil' was envy that had turned into jealousy."

The Carmarthenshire church minister, who has preached in West Wales for over 20 years, said witches and curses weren't simply the stuff of fairy stories.

He said he had also battled a case of the "evil eye" during his ministerial career.

Rev Aubel said: "This is an ancient belief in the existence of a malevolent power in the glance of some people, which is almost invariably provoked by envy or jealousy.

"In this instance, a lady who had given birth to a baby boy was apparently wished bad luck by the "evil glance" in the eye of a childless spinster neighbour.

"Both mother and child were subsequently taken ill due to acute breathlessness for no apparent medical reason and had to be hospitalised.

"The spinster even visited the mother and child in hospital while I was speaking to them.

"It became obvious to me that the spinster was praising the baby to its mother in a very false and patronising way.

"This is one of the most noticeable characteristics of the utilisation of the "evil eye".

"Realising this, I asked the spinster to say "God bless you" to the baby, having just said what a beautiful child the mother had.

"After that the spinster immediately walked away without uttering another word.

"As a precautionary measure, the mother later placed a horse shoe amulet in the porch of her home in order to protect her baby son and herself from the malevolent effects of the spinster's "evil eye"."

He added: "A witch who lived in the Pennant area of Ceredigion in the early 1990s would occasionally attend the local chapel.

Rev Aubel said he hoped his autobiography, called A Rebel's Story, acted as a warning to people not to get entangled in the occult.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9772379/Witchcraft-thriving-in-the-Welsh-countryside.html

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« Reply #7819 on: Dec 31st, 2012, 11:17am »





Happy 2013!

May we all have a wonderful year.

Crystal




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« Reply #7820 on: Dec 31st, 2012, 4:54pm »

Happy New Year, Crystal!!
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« Reply #7821 on: Jan 1st, 2013, 07:22am »

Happy New Year crystal you missed a good party in Edinburgh last night. Let’s hope that the world can accept each others differences and find peace.
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« Reply #7822 on: Jan 1st, 2013, 09:39am »

on Dec 31st, 2012, 4:54pm, Swamprat wrote:
Happy New Year, Crystal!!


Thank you Swamprat!

May we all have a great year!

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« Reply #7823 on: Jan 1st, 2013, 09:41am »

on Jan 1st, 2013, 07:22am, hyundisonata wrote:
Happy New Year crystal you missed a good party in Edinburgh last night. Let’s hope that the world can accept each others differences and find peace.


Happy New Year Hyundisonata!

We were in Edinburgh waaaaaaaaay back in 1990. I LOVE SCOTLAND!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Edinburgh is such a fantastic city. Yes, may we accept one another and stop screaming at one another in 2013. Peace, peace, peace.

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« Reply #7824 on: Jan 1st, 2013, 09:44am »

Reuters

Iran warns off foreign planes during naval drill: report

Tue Jan 1, 2013 10:23am EST

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran has warned off foreign surveillance planes that have tried to approach its forces during naval drills in the Strait of Hormuz, an Iranian military spokesman said on Tuesday.

The drills, which began on Friday, are aimed at showcasing Iran's military capability in the shipping route through which 40 percent of the world's sea-borne oil exports pass.

Iran has threatened to block the strait if it comes under military attack over its disputed nuclear program. The United States has said it would not tolerate any obstruction of commercial traffic through the strait.

"So far about 30 warnings have been given to reconnaissance and surveillance planes of extra-regional forces that wanted to approach the area where the drills are taking place," Commander Amir Rastegari told the semi-official Mehr news agency.

He said the planes had been warned to keep out of Iranian air space and away from the site of the exercises.

The official IRNA news agency quoted Rastegari as saying the foreign planes kept away after Iran issued warnings because they were "afraid of being destroyed" by Iranian forces.

Six days of drills are taking place in an area of about 1 million sq km in the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman and northern parts of the Indian Ocean.

State television reported that naval forces had successfully test fired Qader (Capable) coast-to-sea and Nour (Light) surface-to-surface missiles.

Rastegari was quoted as saying by Iran's English-language Press TV that the Qader cruise missile with a range of 200 km had "successfully and precisely hit and destroyed its mock enemy target".

On Sunday, Iran said its special forces and diving units had drilled defending ports and the coastline against attack.

Iran held a similar 10-day drill last December and sent a submarine and a destroyer into the Gulf four months ago just as U.S. and allied navies were conducting exercises in the same waters to practice keeping oil shipping lanes open.

Israel has threatened to launch military strikes against Iran's nuclear program which many in the West fear is aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran says it is only interested in generating electricity and other peaceful projects.

Iran holds military exercises several times a year and regularly unveils advances in domestically-produced military hardware. Defense analysts say Iran often exaggerates its military strength.

(Reporting by Zahra Hosseinian; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/01/us-iran-military-drill-idUSBRE90004O20130101

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« Reply #7825 on: Jan 1st, 2013, 09:49am »




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Fireworks shoot from Seattle's Space Needle at midnight to ring in 2013.
In the foreground at right is "Pacific Sun," an art installation on the grounds of the Chihuly Garden and Glass.
photo: KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES





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« Reply #7826 on: Jan 1st, 2013, 09:53am »

Wired

Tech’s Hot New Market: The Poor
By Marcus Wohlsen
01.01.13, 6:30 AM

Douglas Merrill’s sister-in-law Vicki needed new snow tires. Without them, the single mother of three, who was going to school while also working full-time, couldn’t get to work. She’d lose her job.

But Vicki was in a bind. She couldn’t pull the money together to cover the unexpected expense. So she called Merrill, who gave her his credit card number. As the former chief information officer at Google, he could afford to foot the bill. But he was curious: What would Vicki have done if she didn’t have a well-off family member to turn to?

“‘I’d have taken out another payday loan,’” Merrill says she told him. “I thought it was unfair that she could call me and other people couldn’t.”

This is the origin story Merrill tells when asked how someone with his high-end tech credentials wound up starting a company, ZestFinance, to lower the cost of credit for so-called “subprime” borrowers like Vicki. What kind of loans? Payday loans. Kind of. Not really. But really.

Welcome to a complicated new world of smart, well-funded entrepreneurs doing what smart capitalists have always done: ferreting out an underserved market and serving it. But the market these startups have chosen stands out because of how starkly it contrasts with the privileged techie class seeking to profit off it: an industry awash in money deliberately targeting people who decidedly aren’t.

But don’t expect any apologies. Merrill and other startup founders like him see the reinvention of the payday loan as more than a good business opportunity. By shining a Silicon Valley-powered light into the dark corners of the financial services industry, they believe they can lift people like Vicki out of a cycle of predatory debt.

In theory, the high cost of a traditional payday loan stems from the greater risk a lender takes advancing cash to someone who can’t qualify for other forms of credit. Some critics contend payday lenders charge usurious rates to trap borrowers in a cycle of debt they can’t escape. But even lenders acting in good faith can’t offer the low rates made possible by ZestFinance’s algorithms, Merrill says.

Using data-crunching skills polished at Google, Merrill says ZestFinance analyzes 70,000 variables to create a finely tuned risk profile of every borrower that goes far beyond the bounds of traditional credit scoring. The more accurately a lender can assess a borrower’s risk of default, the more accurately a lender can price a loan. Just going by a person’s income minus expenses, the calculus most often used to determine credit-worthiness, is hardly enough to predict whether a person will pay back a loan, he says.

“Our finding, much like in Google search quality, is that there’s actually hundreds of small signals, if you know where to find them,” Merrill says.

For instance, he says, many subprime borrowers also use prepaid cellphones. If they let the account lapse, they lose their phone number. Would-be borrowers who don’t make keeping a consistent phone number a priority send a “huge negative signal.” It’s not about ability to pay, he says. It’s about willingness to pay. By examining factors that don’t play into standard credit scoring — and are therefore ignored by traditional banks — Merrill says ZestFinance can help bring the “underbanked” back into the financial mainstream.

Currently ZestFinance licenses its technology to SpotLoan, an online lender that offers loans of $300 to $800 at rates it advertises as about 50 percent less than those of standard payday loans. On a recent visit to the site, the standard annual percentage rate (APR) for a loan issued to a California resident was 330 percent — $471 for a $300 loan paid back over three months, the smallest, shortest-term loan the site offered.

By comparison, standard payday loans available online offered APRs of about 460 percent, though the term was just 14 days. The rates on 30-day loans ran a little less than half that. Either way, a $200 loan ends up costing about $235 in financing if paid back on time via the old-school payday lenders.

Merrill acknowledges that ZestFinance-powered loans still aren’t cheap.

“We are an expensive loan compared to credit cards or what you can get from your family,” he says. “The problem is not everyone can get credit cards, or can borrow money from their family.”

Unlike the several traditional payday loan companies’ websites I visited, SpotLoan stood out by prominently displaying the payback amount and APR from the outset of the loan application process.

Transparent by Design
LendUp, a San Francisco startup, has made transparency its key selling point. Its website puts sliders front-and-center that let would-be borrowers pick their loan amount and term. A large display recalculates the final payback amount as the sliders move.

Sasha Orloff, LendUp’s founder and CEO, speaks Silicon Valley’s language of user-centric design. He says walking into a storefront where the borrower is separated from the lender by bulletproof glass doesn’t set the stage for a dignified or transparent transaction. From what I saw, neither does a clunky website riddled with PDFs and clumsy forms, which seems standard for many payday loan companies.

“We spend a lot of time designing the experience so (borrowers) know what they’re getting into,” he says.

Unlike traditional payday lenders, LendUp also takes a big data approach to determining who’s at greatest risk for defaulting. While LendUp doesn’t dig quite as deeply as ZestFinance, it’s still relying on non-traditional signals, from a loan applicant’s Facebook profile to whether they pay their utility bills on time.

more after the jump:
http://www.wired.com/business/2013/01/techs-hot-new-market-the-poor/all/

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« Reply #7827 on: Jan 1st, 2013, 09:58am »

Der Spiegel

12/31/2012

Increasing Barbarity
Gaining a Clearer View of the Syrian Civil War

By Christoph Reuter

After spending months reporting on the conflict, a SPIEGEL journalist has pieced together a realistic view of the situation on the ground, and reports that dictator Bashar Assad's fall seems inevitable. But as the fighting grows more barbarous on both sides, he worries what the ultimate price will be.



It was August 2012 and we were sitting in front of the TV. The Syrian state-run channel was reporting that the country's army was fighting bravely in the streets of Maraa, and was close to defeating the terrorists there. At this very moment, the program continued, Syrian army troops were storming the cultural center where the last terrorists had holed up. The screen showed soldiers running past three-story apartment buildings.

We watched the TV, fascinated.

We had been in Maraa for days, waiting for a driver who would take us further into the interior of the country. Not a single government soldier had been seen in this small city north of Aleppo in quite a while. Not even the artillery cannons in Aleppo were capable of reaching the town. Someone called an acquaintance living near the cultural center, and learned that everything was quiet there too. And the multi-story apartment buildings? There aren't any in Maraa.

The entire report, several minutes long and related in a breathless tone, was fiction. This time we ourselves were witnesses and knew the truth.

When the Syrian state-run television channel or the private channel al-Dunya, which is owned by the Assad family, expose a Satanic conspiracy against Syria under the direction of United States President Barack Obama, or reveal that the movements of FC Barcelona's soccer players are actually secret commands directed at Syrian rebels, no one in the West pays much attention. These reports are all too clearly grotesque propaganda.

But when the events reported are ones that seem plausible at first glance -- for example the flood of foreign al-Qaida fighters supposedly organizing the Syrian rebellion, the presence of a huge number of CIA agents or the expulsion of Christians from Syrian cities -- these claims elicit a response in the West. It's often difficult for us journalists to determine whether or not they are true, because the Syrian civil war is far less accessible than the war in Libya was. In Libya, the eastern part of the country around Benghazi was liberated in a week, making it possible for journalists to travel there.

There is no Benghazi in Syria. Any corner of the country's embattled regions can be hit by an air strike at any time. At the same time, the regime's Orwellian PR machine not only presents journalists with its official view of the situation, but also provides us with supposed eyewitnesses to atrocities and al-Qaida fighters it has allegedly captured.

And no other war has been so ubiquitously captured on video. Whether these videos are real or falsified is difficult to determine. Any cliché, any falsehood can be illustrated with a video.

Dangerous Protests

During one of my first trips to Syria, I traveled by bus from Damascus to Homs and found myself at an evening protest in the Hamra district of the city. The protestors, perhaps 300 of them at that point, walked along pitch-black streets toward a large intersection. For 26 minutes, the growing crowd chanted in the street, the sound reverberating off the surrounding buildings. Here and there, the power was on and streetlights bathed the demonstrators in yellowish light. Ahead of us, about 150 to 200 meters (500 to 650 feet) away, was the T-junction where the troops would appear.

It took a great deal of courage to walk in the middle of that street. With few exceptions, only the youngest of the protestors ventured there, everyone else keeping to the semidarkness along the building walls. At the edge of the crowd, a father walked with his perhaps 11-year-old son, holding tight to the boy's hand and talking to him in a quiet voice. Those who were even more afraid stuck to the side streets, peering out into the main street.

My own experiment with going to the middle of the street was a peculiar experience that took several minutes to accomplish. It felt as if I had glue on the soles of my shoes, and I could barely set one foot in front of the other. The shots could come at any moment, generally with about 10 or 20 seconds' warning. The dictatorship wanted to be sure that anyone who dared to defy it would experience the consequences.

A few of the demonstrators were standing closer to the intersection, and I heard them shout, just as I later heard the shouts in Aleppo as the regime's troops approached, and within seconds everyone had dived for cover. If the feeling wasn't complete insanity, it was something so close to it that our feet didn't know the difference.

That evening in Homs, no one knew what would happen from one minute to the next. Then we found out why things had remained so calm. New reports came in every minute, revealing that in the neighboring district of Bab Sabaa, state security force units had stormed the Fatima Mosque and shot into the crowd of people praying there. Other troops had opened fire on the nearby Rauda Mosque.

That particular night, we returned unharmed to the place where we were staying in Homs.

Traveling the Old-Fashioned Way

Journalists' trips to Syria since the beginning of the revolution have generally been weeks-long expeditions into a country under extreme conditions, making our way forward the way our ancestors traveled centuries ago, when no one knew what the world looked like beyond the next hill. We make our way from village to village, district to district, traveling by car, truck, motorcycle or on foot, with a rotating cast of companions.

Just knowing the way is no longer enough, not since the army and the regime's security forces started setting up "flying checkpoints," which spring up suddenly and arrest or simply shoot members of the opposition, or even just those who come from a town controlled by the rebels.

more after the jump:
http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/gaining-a-clearer-view-of-the-increasing-barbarity-in-syrian-civil-war-a-874027.html

Crystal

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« Reply #7828 on: Jan 2nd, 2013, 10:14am »

New York Times

January 1, 2013

Divided House Passes Tax Deal in End to Latest Fiscal Standoff

By JENNIFER STEINHAUER

WASHINGTON — Ending a climactic fiscal showdown in the final hours of the 112th Congress, the House late Tuesday passed and sent to President Obama legislation to avert big income tax increases on most Americans and prevent large cuts in spending for the Pentagon and other government programs.

The measure, brought to the House floor less than 24 hours after its passage in the Senate, was approved 257 to 167, with 85 Republicans joining 172 Democrats in voting to allow income taxes to rise for the first time in two decades, in this case for the highest-earning Americans. Voting no were 151 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

The bill was expected to be signed quickly by Mr. Obama, who won re-election on a promise to increase taxes on the wealthy.

Mr. Obama strode into the White House briefing room shortly after the vote, less to hail the end of the fiscal crisis than to lay out a marker for the next one. “The one thing that I think, hopefully, the new year will focus on,” he said, “is seeing if we can put a package like this together with a little bit less drama, a little less brinkmanship, and not scare the heck out of folks quite as much.”

In approving the measure after days of legislative intrigue, Congress concluded its final and most pitched fight over fiscal policy, the culmination of two years of battles over taxes, the federal debt, spending and what to do to slow the growth in popular social programs like Medicare.

The decision by Republican leaders to allow the vote came despite widespread scorn among House Republicans for the bill, passed overwhelmingly by the Senate in the early hours of New Year’s Day. They were unhappy that it did not include significant spending cuts in health and other social programs, which they say are essential to any long-term solution to the nation’s debt.

Democrats, while hardly placated by the compromise, celebrated Mr. Obama’s nominal victory in his final showdown with House Republicans in the 112th Congress, who began their term emboldened by scores of new, conservative members whose reach to the right ultimately tipped them over.

“The American people are the real winners tonight,” Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said on the House floor, “not anyone who navigates these halls.”

Not a single leader among House Republicans came to the floor to speak in favor of the bill, though Speaker John A. Boehner, who rarely takes part in roll calls, voted in favor. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 3 Republican, voted no. Representative Paul D. Ryan, the budget chairman who was the Republican vice-presidential candidate, supported the bill.

Despite the party divisions, many Republicans in their remarks characterized the measure, which allows taxes to go up on household income over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples but makes permanent tax cuts for income below that level, as a victory of sorts, even as so many of them declined to vote for it.

“After more than a decade of criticizing these tax cuts,” said Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, “Democrats are finally joining Republicans in making them permanent. Republicans and the American people are getting something really important, permanent tax relief.”

The dynamic with the House was a near replay of a fight at the end of 2011 over a payroll tax break extension. In that showdown, Senate Democrats and Republicans passed legislation, and while House Republicans fulminated, they were eventually forced to swallow it.

On Tuesday, as they got a detailed look at the Senate’s fiscal legislation, House Republicans ranging from Midwest pragmatists to Tea Party-blessed conservatives voiced serious reservations about the measure, emerging from a lunchtime New Year’s Day meeting with their leaders, eyes flashing and faces grim, insisting they would not accept a bill without substantial savings from cuts.

The unrest reached to the highest levels as Mr. Cantor told members in a closed-door meeting in the basement of the Capitol that he could not support the legislation in its current form.

Mr. Boehner, who faces a re-election vote on his post on Thursday when the 113th Congress convenes, had grave concerns as well, but he had pledged to allow the House to consider any legislation that cleared the Senate. And he was not eager to have such a major piece of legislation pass with mainly opposition votes, and the outcome could be seen as undermining his authority.

Adding to the pressure on the House, the fiscal agreement was reached by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, and had deep Republican support in the Senate, isolating the House Republicans in their opposition. Some of the Senate Republicans who backed the bill are staunch conservatives, like Senators Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, with deep credibility among House Republicans.

The options before the House Republicans were fraught with risks. Senate Democrats said they would not brook any serious amendments to their bill — one that was hard fought and passed in the dark of night with many clenched teeth on either side of the aisle. Senate Democratic leaders planned no more votes before the new Congress convenes Thursday afternoon.

An up-or-down House vote on the Senate measure presented many Republicans with a nearly impossible choice: to prolong the standoff that most Americans wished to see cease, or to vote to allow taxes to go up on wealthy Americans without any of the changes to spending and benefit programs they had fought for vigorously for the better part of two years.

“I have read the bill and can’t find the spending cuts — even with an electron magnifying glass,” said Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. “It’s part medicinal, part placebo, and part treating the symptoms but not the underlying pathology.”

But with their options shrinking just two days before the beginning of a new Congress, the House leadership made one of the biggest concessions of their rebellious two years and let the measure move forward to avoid being seen as the chief obstacle to legislation that Mr. Obama and a bipartisan Senate majority said was necessary to prevent the nation from slipping back into a recession.

The measure, while less reflective of Mr. Obama’s fiscal agenda than Senate Democrats had wished, still provided fewer concessions than the president initially offered in a, tentative agreement with Mr. Boehner last month, and it was a far cry from what was on the table in 2011 when negotiators tried to reach a so-called grand bargain. “I thank all of you who will vote for it,” said Representative Darrell Issa of California. “I cannot bring myself to vote for it.”

Still, many Republicans, in light of the broad party support for the bill in the Senate and the unwavering, rare discipline they faced from Democrats, concluded that they had little room to maneuver. They decided they would save their fire for the coming rounds — the effort to increase the nation’s debt ceiling again in another month or two and an expiring governmentwide spending bill.

“We can and will pursue comprehensive tax reform,” Representative Camp said.

Republicans hope to fight for more spending cuts in the debt-ceiling vote, but Mr. Obama warned against that tactic.

“While I will negotiate over many things,” he said, “I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up through the laws they have passed. Let me repeat: we can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred.”

The last time the House voted on New Year’s Day, according to Congressional staff members on the Rules Committee, was in 1951, on a measure concerning money for the Korean War.

Robert Pear and Peter Baker contributed reporting.


http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/02/us/politics/house-takes-on-fiscal-cliff.html?hp&_r=0

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« Reply #7829 on: Jan 2nd, 2013, 10:17am »

Reuters

Kidnapped U.S. journalist missing in Syria for six weeks

Wed Jan 2, 2013 11:03am EST

BEIRUT (Reuters) - An American journalist is missing after being kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in northwest Syria six weeks ago, his family said on Wednesday.

The family of freelance journalist James Foley, 39, launched a public campaign to bring him home after requesting a news blackout since Foley was taken on 22 November in Idlib province.

According to GlobalPost, a news website he had previously reported for, Foley had been driving towards the Syrian border with Turkey when he was intercepted by a car. He was forced out of his vehicle by two armed men and has not been seen or heard from since, the website said.

No group has publicly claimed responsibility. Several journalists have been abducted in Syria during the 21-month-old uprising. Last year the country was by far the most dangerous for journalists with 28 killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog.

Rebel groups fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad have detained journalists suspected of supporting the government. Pro-Assad militia have also seized journalists, including an NBC News team who were held for five days in December.

Foley is an experienced foreign correspondent who has reported from Syria, Afghanistan and Libya. In April 2011, he was captured in eastern Libya by government forces and held for 44 days before being released. He later returned to the country to cover Muammar Gaddafi's fall.

The Syrian government tightly restricts media access. Foley entered the country through rebel-held areas.

French news agency Agence France-Presse, which also used Foley's work, quoted its chairman Emmanuel Hoog as saying it was striving to secure his freedom.

"He is a professional journalist who is absolutely neutral in this conflict," Hoog said. "His kidnappers, whoever they may be, should free him immediately."

(Reporting by Sara Elizabeth Williams; Editing by Peter Graff and Alistair Lyon)

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/02/us-syria-crisis-journalist-idUSBRE9010EA20130102

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