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Defiance as Pound Crashes: Brits Own Up to Euro-Phobia

Thursday, January 08, 2009

For the British, skiing in the Alps has suddenly become unaffordable and those summer vacations on the Costa Brava are under grave threat. The pound, formerly one of the world's most expensive currencies, is only worth a bit more than the euro. Brits, however, are still insistent in their refusal to adopt Europe's common currency.

By Carsten Volkery
Spiegel Online

Sterling-shock, pound zero, the one-pound euro. For weeks now, Britain's tabloids have been painting a dark picture of an approaching national trauma. There were moments when it seemed like everything was over: The proud sterling, outflanked by the euro, was ridiculed as a "toilet paper currency." In recent days, the wobbling pound has recovered slightly, but the P-word is still on everybody's lips: Parity.

Reports trickled in of British tourists receiving less than one euro in exchange for the pound. The Sun even calculated that so-called "booze cruises" across the English Channel to buy beer and wine at once bargain prices were no longer worth it, since alcohol in France has become much more expensive. Even the left-leaning Guardian lamented: "Mamma mia! Has the financial crisis really made us poorer than the Italians?"

In the past year, the pound has lost around one-fourth of its value. At the start of this week, the currency's precipitous fall was halted, for the time being, by markets expecting the European Central Bank to reduce interest rates and speculating against the euro. Still, with Britain especially hard hit by the financial crisis, the pound remains under pressure....(Click for remainder).


Red Cross Reports Grisly Find in Gaza

Israel Accused of Blocking Aid to Wounded

By Craig Whitlock
The Washington Post

JERUSALEM, Jan. 8 -- The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that it had found at least 15 bodies and several children -- emaciated but alive -- in a row of shattered houses in the Gaza Strip and accused the Israeli military of preventing ambulances from reaching the site for four days.

Red Cross officials said rescue crews had received specific reports of casualties in the houses and had been trying since Saturday to send ambulances to the area, located in Zaytoun, a neighborhood south of Gaza City. They said the Israeli military did not grant permission until Wednesday afternoon.

In an unusual public statement issued by its Geneva headquarters, the Red Cross called the episode "unacceptable" and said the Israeli military had "failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded."

When rescue workers from the Red Cross and the Palestinian Red Crescent arrived at the site, they found 12 corpses lying on mattresses in one home, along with four young children lying next to their dead mothers, the Red Cross said. The children were too weak to stand and were rushed to a hospital, the agency said.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment early Thursday on the specific allegations made by the Red Cross but said in a statement that the military "has demonstrated its willingness to abort operations to save civilian lives and to risk injury in order to assist innocent civilians." ...(Click for remainder).


Attack on Israel from Lebanon threatens 2nd front

By Ibrahim Barzak and Steve Weizman
Associated Press

JERUSALEM – Lebanese militants fired at least three rockets into Israel early Thursday, threatening to open a new front for the Jewish state as it pushed forward with a bloody offensive in the Gaza Strip that has killed nearly 700 people. Israel responded with mortar shells.

Tthe rockets that exploded in Israel's north raised the specter of renewed hostilities with Hezbollah, just 2 1/2 years after Israel battled the guerrilla group to a 34-day stalemate. Hezbollah started the 2006 war as Israel was battling Palestinian militants in Gaza.

No group claimed responsibility and Lebanon's government, wary of conflict, quickly condemned the rocket fire, which lightly injured two Israelis.

For a second straight day, Israel said it suspended is Gaza military operation for three hours to allow in humanitarian supplies. Shortly before the pause took effect, however, the U.N. said one of its aid trucks came under Israeli fire, killing the driver.

U.N. spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said the U.N. coordinated the delivery with Israel, and the vehicle was marked with a U.N. flag and insignia when it was shot in northern Gaza. The Israeli army said it was investigating.

The allegation was sure to raise tensions with the United Nations, which has already demanded an investigation into Israel's shelling of a U.N. school in Gaza that killed nearly 40 people. At the time, Israel said it opened fire after militants hiding in the crowd shot mortar shells at Israeli troops....(Click for remainder).


Venezuela reinstates free home heating oil for poor in U.S.

By Tyler Bridges
McClatchy Newspaper

CARACAS, Venezuela — The Venezuelan government reversed course Wednesday, announcing that its U.S. oil subsidiary would continue to provide free home heating oil to poor Americans two days after the government announced that the program had been suspended.

Critics of President Hugo Chavez had pummeled him since Monday for suspending a program that he had milked for its maximum publicity as a champion of the poor, even in the U.S.

In the wake of Monday's announced halt, analysts had predicted this was only the first of Chavez's ambitious foreign assistance programs that would disappear, given the sharp drop in oil prices and the Venezuelan government’s dependence on oil export income.

Venezuelan government officials wasted no time in reinstating the program, which saved about 180,000 U.S. households around $260 apiece in 2008. That covered about one month's heating bill.

Among the beneficiaries of the 100 gallons of heating oil were 65 Indian tribes, including those in Alaska, Montana and South Dakota.

Alejandro Granado, the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Citgo Petroleum, the Venezuelan government's Houston-based oil subsidiary, said he discussed the plan to renew the program with Chavez on Wednesday morning.

The decision "is the result of a strong commitment and a big effort on the part of Citgo and our shareholders in light of the current global financial crisis and its impact on the oil industry in general," Granado said in a press statement.

Venezuelan oil, which is a lower grade than conventional crude and trades at a lower price, peaked at $126 a barrel in July and now sells for about $40 a barrel. About 93 percent of Venezuela's export revenue comes from oil sales, mostly to the U.S....(Click for remainder).


New Delhi weighs up US missile shield

Isn't this really nothing more than poking the Bear with another stick like we did in Poland and the Czech Republic?

By Amy Kazmin and Farhan Bokhari
Financial Times

The US is in preliminary talks with India over the sale of missile shield systems to help New Delhi guard against nuclear threats.

India’s need for greater protection against threats emanating from Pakistan and other volatile countries in the region was highlighted by an escalation in tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours following the Mumbai terror attacks in November last year. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the last 61 years.

Officials at the US embassy in New Delhi told the Financial Times that talks had taken place over the last two years, mainly at the technical level. They said US defence officials had conducted computer simulations with their Indian counterparts to demonstrate the capabilities of such technology.

Experts from India’s Defence Research Development Organisation have also watched two live launches of missiles used in the shield system.

The development highlights the fast-changing nature of the strategic engagement between Washington and New Delhi, after decades of frosty relations.

“India is a partner of ours, and we want to provide it with whatever it needs to protect itself,” one US embassy official said. “This fits into the overall strategic partnership we are building.”...(Click for remainder).


Rick Warren's Africa Problem

Team Obama likes to cite Warren’s work on AIDS in Africa to combat criticism about the controversial pastor. But how does burning condoms in the name of Jesus save lives?

By Max Blumenthal
The Daily Beast

Once hailed by Time magazine as “America’s Pastor,” California mega-church leader and bestselling author of The Purpose Driven Life Rick Warren now finds himself on the defensive. President-elect Barack Obama’s selection of Warren to deliver the inaugural prayer has generated intense scrutiny of the pastor’s beliefs on social issues, from his vocal support for Prop 8, a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage in California, to his comparison of homosexuality to pedophilia, incest and bestiality. Many of Obama’s supporters have demanded that he withdraw the invitation.

Warren’s defense against charges of intolerance ultimately depends upon his ace card: his heavily publicized crusade against AIDS in Africa. Obama senior advisor David Axelrod cited Warren’s work in Africa as one of “the things on which [Obama and Warren] agree” on the December 28 episode of Meet the Press. Warren may be opposed to gay rights and abortion, the thinking goes, but he tells evangelicals it is their God-given duty to battle one of the greatest pandemics in history. What could be wrong with that?

But since the Warren inauguration controversy erupted, the nature of work against AIDS in Africa has gone unexamined. Warren has not been particularly forthcoming to those who have attempted to look into it. His website contains scant information about the results of his program. However, an investigation into Warren’s involvement in Africa reveals a web of alliances with right-wing clergymen who have sidelined science-based approaches to combating AIDS in favor of abstinence-only education. More disturbingly, Warren’s allies have rolled back key elements of one of the continent’s most successful initiative, the so-called ABC program in Uganda. Stephen Lewis, the United Nations’ special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, told the New York Times their activism is “resulting in great damage and undoubtedly will cause significant numbers of infections which should never have occurred.”...(Click for remainder).


Keep your word, gay group warns Congress

By 365 Gay News

(Washington) The nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group is calling on Congress to act swiftly to pass a wide number of bills expanding gay rights - many of which were promised by Democrats during the election campaign.

The Human Rights Campaign notes the 111th Congress includes more allies of the LGBT community than ever before. During the 2008 election cycle, HRC endorsed 212 Members elected to the U.S. House and 16 Members elected in the U.S. Senate.

President Joe Solmonese said in a statement that gays, lesbians, bis and the transgendered and their allies should call their new Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and tell them to act on pro-equality legislation.

“With increased ranks of pro-equality lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, new possibilities are open to us,” Solmonese said in a statement. “But we can’t stop now; it’s our job to keep the momentum going by contacting our Members of Congress and urging them to support pro-equality legislation.”

Three of the bills - the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Act, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell - died when the the last session of Congress ended and will need to be reintroduced.

HRC and other LGBT rights groups also are calling for repeal of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act which bars the government from any form of recognition of same-sex relationships....(Click for remainder).


Ex-astronaut may be Obama's pick to lead NASA

By Mark Carreau
The Houston Chronicle

A former astronaut who has made four trips into space is reportedly a leading candidate for the top job at NASA.

If selected by President-elect Barack Obama, Charles Bolden Jr., 62, a retired Marine Corps general who makes his home in Houston's Bay Area, would be the first black American to head the space agency.

The former test pilot left NASA in 1994 after 14 years of service to return to the Marine Corps, where he rose to the rank of major general. He retired in 2003.

But Bolden has remained familiar with NASA's workings and personnel. He serves on NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, one of nine experts who advises the administrator. He is also an adviser to the four high-ranking NASA officials who are overseeing the upcoming space shuttle reconditioning flight to the 18-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. Bolden piloted the shuttle Discovery in 1990 that flew the observatory into space.

Bolden said Tuesday night that while he has discussed the space agency and its future with friends at NASA, he has not been contacted by Obama's transition team.

"I'm as surprised as anyone," he said about the reports circulating in Washington and at the Johnson Space Center about his name surfacing as a leading candidate.

NBC News and the Orlando Sentinel published the reports Tuesday afternoon.

Asked if he would discuss the job if contacted, Bolden said, "Yes," adding, "You never say never."

Bolden stressed that it would be difficult for any candidate for the job to know how to respond until he or she knew what the president-elect has in mind.

In Washington, a spokesman for the Obama transition team declined to comment on the reports that Bolden had emerged as a leading contender for NASA administrator. During his campaign, Obama advocated greater funding for the $17.3-billion-a-year space agency. He favored a plan to close a five-year gap between the shuttle's scheduled 2010 retirement and the first manned trials of a replacement spacecraft....(Click for remainder).


RICIN: Seattle Gay Bars Receive Threatening Letters

THIS is the problem I have with the likes of Rick Warren. These are the kinds of people that this "reverend" appeals to. Mr. Obama, is that really the message you're trying to send?

By Dan Savage
The Stranger

Eleven gay bars in Seattle received letters today addressed to the "Owner/Manager" from someone claiming to be in the possession of ricin, a deadly poison. "Your establishment has been targeted," the letter begins. "I have in my possession approximately 67 grams of ricin with which I will indiscriminately target at least five of your clients."

"I felt sick when I read it," said Carla, the owner/manager of Re-bar. "It's so vile. It's just hatred. It made me worry for all the other bars, and for my bartenders, and our clientele."

According to the CDC's website, someone who has ingested "a significant amount" will develop vomiting and diarrhea within the first 6-12 hours; other symptoms of ricin poisoning include hallucinations, seizures, and blood in the urine. There is no antidote for ricin but ricin exposure is not invariably fatal.

"I just had the police come pick [the letter] up," said Keith Christensen, the manager of the Eagle, when reached by phone. Christensen had already heard about the letter from other bar owners and managers, and so he didn't open it. "It's probably nothing," Christensen added, "but the economy is really screwing all the bars right now, and the last thing we need is something ramping up the not-go-out mode people seem to be in right now. It's really freaky that someone would do something like this at a time like this."

eagle1-6-09.jpgChristensen says he's posted signs at the Eagle advising patrons not to leave their drinks unattended.

"The police have already come and gone," said Roland, the manager at Madison Pub. "They collected the letter and that's about it. I don't think it's anything to worry about it." Roland admitted to being unnerved by the letter at first....(Click for remainder).


The trouble with Sanjay Gupta

By Paul Krugman

So apparently Obama plans to appoint CNN’s Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General. I don’t have a problem with Gupta’s qualifications. But I do remember his mugging of Michael Moore over Sicko. You don’t have to like Moore or his film; but Gupta specifically claimed that Moore “fudged his facts”, when the truth was that on every one of the allegedly fudged facts, Moore was actually right and CNN was wrong.

What bothered me about the incident was that it was what Digby would call Village behavior: Moore is an outsider, he’s uncouth, so he gets smeared as unreliable even though he actually got it right. It’s sort of a minor-league version of the way people who pointed out in real time that Bush was misleading us into war are to this day considered less “serious” than people who waited until it was fashionable to reach that conclusion. And appointing Gupta now, although it’s a small thing, is just another example of the lack of accountability that always seems to be the rule when you get things wrong in a socially acceptable way....(Click for remainder).


Obama Digs In for His BlackBerry

By Jeff Zeleny

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama has yet to relent, but he conceded that he might be losing the battle to keep his independent lifeline to the outside world.

“I’m still clinging to my BlackBerry,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday. “They’re going to pry it out of my hands.”

Of all the fights facing Mr. Obama as he prepares for the White House, one of the most maddening for him is the prospect of losing the BlackBerry that has been attached to his belt for years. It is, he has vigorously argued, an essential link to keeping him apprised of events outside his ever-tightening cocoon.

“This is a concern, I should add, not just of Secret Service, but also lawyers,” Mr. Obama said, speaking in an interview with CNBC and The New York Times. “You know, this town’s full of lawyers. I don’t know if you’ve noticed.”

Mr. Obama shared his agitation at the prospect of losing his last form of direct communication with friends and other advisers who sent him e-mail throughout the presidential campaign. But he, like President Bush before him, is being advised for security reasons and his own legal protection to refrain from sending e-mail during his presidency....(Click for remainder).


Tweety sez "No" to Senate run

By Bill Carter

Chris Matthews, the host of the MSNBC program “Hardball,” told his staff on Wednesday night that he would not run for the Senate in 2010 from Pennsylvania.

For much of the last year, Mr. Matthews had been considering entering the Senate race as a Democrat in his home state at the same time he was renegotiating his contract with NBC News. He had attended several meetings that had included Pennsylvania representatives as well as some major fund-raisers in the Democratic Party.

But Mr. Matthews, who was once a top aide to the House speaker, Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, and ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1974, never formally declared himself a candidate, a decision which would have forced him out of his position at MSNBC.

In an interview in October, Mr. Matthews said, “People have asked me about it. I’ve never told anyone that I’m running.”

There has been speculation that Mr. Matthews, 63, was flirting with a Senate run as a way to give him some leverage in his contract talks. According to at least one earlier report, NBC was planning to ask Mr. Matthews to return but wanted him to take a drastic pay cut — from $5 million a year to an amount closer to $1 million.

Since that report, “Hardball” has bounced back in the ratings, especially during the presidential election season, and NBC News executives have expressed much more interest in retaining Mr. Matthews....(Click for remainder).


Neoconservatism dies in Gaza

The recent Israeli offensive has put the final nail in the coffin of the Bush administration's Middle East fantasy.

By Juan Cole

Jan. 8, 2009 | The Gaza War of 2009 is a final and eloquent testimony to the complete failure of the neoconservative movement in United States foreign policy. For over a decade, the leading figures in this school of thought saw the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the institution of a parliamentary regime in Iraq as the magic solution to all the problems in the Middle East. They envisioned, in the wake of the fall of Baghdad, the moderation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the overthrow of the Baath Party in Syria and the Khomeinist regime in Iran, the deepening of the alliance with Turkey, the marginalization of Saudi Arabia, a new era of cheap petroleum, and a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on terms favorable to Israel. After eight years in which they strode the globe like colossi, they have left behind a devastated moonscape reminiscent of some post-apocalyptic B movie. As their chief enabler prepares to exit the White House, the only nation they have strengthened is Iran; the only alliance they have deepened is that between Iran and two militant Islamist entities to Israel's north and south, Hezbollah and Hamas.

The neoconservatives first laid out their manifesto in a 1996 paper, "A Clean Break," written for an obscure think tank in Jerusalem and intended for the eyes of far right-wing Israeli politician Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party, who had just been elected prime minister. They advised Israel to renounce the Oslo peace process and reject the principle of trading land for peace, instead dealing with the Palestinians with an iron fist. They urged Israel to uphold the right of hot pursuit of Palestinian guerrillas and to find alternatives to Yasser Arafat's Fatah for the Palestinian leadership. They called forth Israeli airstrikes on targets in Syria and rejection of negotiations with Damascus. They foresaw strengthened ties between Israel and its two regional friends, Turkey and Jordan.

They advocated "removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq," in part as a way of "rolling back" Syria. In place of the secular, republican tyrant, they fantasized about the restoration of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, and thought that a Sunni king might help moderate the Shiite Hezbollah in south Lebanon. (Yes.) They barely mentioned Iran, though it appears that their program of expelling Syria from Lebanon and weakening its regime was in part aimed at depriving Iran of its main Arab ally. In a 1999 book called "Tyranny's Ally: America's Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein," David Wurmser argued that it was false to fear that installing the Iraqi Shiites in power in Baghdad would strengthen Iran regionally....(Click for remainder).


Mississippi, A Hotbed of Abstinence Education, Now Boasts Highest Teen Pregnancy Rate in America

By Ryan Powers
Think Progress

The Centers for Disease Control released a new report today that found that Mississippi “now has the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rate, displacing Texas and New Mexico for that lamentable title.” The report found that in 2006, the Mississippi teen pregnancy rate was over 60 percent higher than the national average and increased 13 percent since the year before.

While the new report does not explain why the state’s teen pregnancy rate is increasing, one reason may be the poor quality of its sex ed programs. As the Sexuality Information and Education Center explains, Mississippi focuses heavily on abstinence education and teachers are prohibited from demonstrating how to use contraceptives:

Mississippi schools are not required to teach sexuality education or sexually transmitted disease (STD)/HIV education. If schools choose to teach either or both forms of education, they must stress abstinence-until-marriage, including “the likely negative psychological and physical effects of not abstaining.” […]

If the school board authorizes the teaching of contraception, state law dictates that the failure rates and risks of each contraceptive method must be included and “in no case shall the instruction or program include any demonstration of how condoms or other contraceptives are applied.



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