Archive for the ‘Rachael Ray’ Category The Best News I’ve Heard All Week

Rachael Ray had surgery last week to remove a benign cyst from her vocal cords. Actually, the best news I could have heard all week would have been that the surgeon sneezed during a critical phase of operating and accidentally severed her vocal cords altogether. But, since she hasn’t been rendered speechless, at least she’ll stop sounding like a fisher cat in heat. Or Brooke Hogan trying to sing.

Feel better soon, Rachael!Remember when everyone got all Mia Farrow-ish and wanted to adopt babies from other countries? It really was the hippest trend until IVF twins appeared on the scene. Well now there is a new game in town: talking about how skinny Jessica Simpson is.

Stupid Rachael Ray, while attending a Food Network event, hitched her star onto the Flab-gate bandwagon and blabbed to People about the svelteness of Simpson:

“I wish I could be as thin as Jessica Simpson. I think she looks gorgeous! I have had Jessica on my show several times, and I can tell you that girl is genuine and funny with a great self-deprecating sense of humor. All of the hoopla about her weight was because of the fit of her jeans. In reality, she is a tiny, slip of a woman.”

Seriously, can we move on to some new “thing” that is totally cool to do? Because I couldn’t get my mind around Uggs, I couldn’t get my mind around $200 headbands and I can’t get my mind around praising Jessica Simpson’s ass. I just can’t. Sorry that posting has been slow/non-existent so far today. No, I didn’t decide to sleep in really, really late. Actually, I got up bright and early and met Evil T to be in the audience for a taping of the Rachael Ray show.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about the whole thing. I’ve never been a huge Rachael Ray fan, but T was so excited about it, and it was sweet of her to invite me, so I woke up earlier than I have since I moved to New York, took the F over to 42nd street and then walked like 20 blocks to the Rachael Ray studios, on 42nd and 3rd ave (I haven’t quite mastered the NYC subways yet).

To be honest, watching Rachael Ray was like the least fun part of it. Mostly because I don’t care much about her. But the comedian who kept the audience alert and laughing was fantastic, the staff was great, and, after Rachel cooked her meal of chicken and broccoli, she brought it right over to me and T!!!! So we got to sit there eating yummy home cookin’ while the rest of the audience looked on jealously. Woo hoo! Plus — the portion of the studio where the audience sits actually spins, so we can watch Rachael on all the sets. The spinning was awesome.

Anyway, I’m back home now, and we’ll get to the gossip.

Best North Korea Selection – May 2004, Day 3&4 >>>Best North Korea Selection – May 2004, Day 3&4 Following on from Day 1&2, here’s Day 3&4. Again, I’

Perhaps ‘The Grinning Leader’ would have been a better name for Kim Il-Sung instead of ‘The Great Leader’.

Me in front of the Great Leader’s birthplace at Mangyeongdae, the ‘cradle of the revolution’. Although he apparently spent his childhood here, it’s obviously a replica of the original and you might actually question its authenticity entirely bearing in mind the regularity with which the discovery of new locations relating to his life are made (presumably to add more interest to propaganda that reports the same news everyday.)

As with all ‘historically significant’ Kim Il-Sung locations the hordes descend en masse everyday to pay their respect. Here comes an army battalion.

‘All aboard!’ Our tour bus, complete with Sony Betamax video player and mini chandeliers. One day the Korean tour guides decided to play an animal fighting video showing animals being mauled and mutilated for our entertainment, but they were forced (much to their bewilderment) to switch it off after ten minutes because of strong protest from most of the tour group. Much to my disappointment, I never did find out whether that antelope beat the ten tigers that had encircled it…

Another of our tour guides, Mr Li (no relation to the other tour guide, Miss Li), was keen to show us the cutting edge technology employed in the Pyongyang subway system. Press the station button below and, hey presto, its location on the map is indicated by a light!

The magnificent Puhung Station interior.

The city’s subway trains were purchased from East Germany in the 1980s and are home to probably the only examples of graffiti to be found in the DPRK, where East Germans engraved their names all over the windows.

Marble pillars and subway train at Yonggwang Station.

The world’s deepest subway at over 100m underground, the Pyongyang Metro doubles as a massive air raid shelter network. It’s also possibly the only subway system in the world where there’s an absence of groin-damaging deterrents to stop people sliding down the escalators, which I think is a good indication of how ordered North Korean society is.

Of course no public place would be complete without some Kim Il-Sung imagery. Here the grinning workers unite for the good of the nation.

A ‘Subway Girl’ in front of the 24m x 4m ‘A Morning of Innovation’ mural at Puhung Station. If the best looking women become Tour Guides and the second-best looking become Traffic Girls, I have no idea what ranking of appearance you need to become a Subway Girl…

A nice ideological reminder outside Yonggwang Station.

Downtown Pyongyang street scene outside Yonggwang Station. The trams have star ratings on the side to indicate how many kilometres they have travelled without crashing and stars are removed after every accident. Most of them have a rating of 8-10plus but we did see one which had had all its stars removed.

Changwang Street, where our hotel was located. Known as Restaurant Street, this area takes the Communist idea of propaganda department stores (full of old items nobody can buy) to another dimension with its propaganda restaurants. There were around 10 restaurants, all brightly illuminated (though curiously lacking in patrons) until around 10pm when they closed; apparently the restaurants have no menus, only serving what they can get their hands on (though since their purpose is predominantly to show Pyongyang citizens how affluent the DPRK is, as opposed to the enjoyment of cuisine, it’s probably not such a big problem.)

This is actually one of Pyongyang’s main streets, though you wouldn’t guess from the amount of traffic on the road. This time it’s the evening ‘rush hour’.

‘It’s grim up north.’ I heard that until as late as the 1970s, North Korea had more money than the South (rivals China and the USSR provided a constant source of finance, as well as a guaranteed marketplace for the DPRKs shoddy exports, in their attempts to influence Kim Il-Sung’s loyalties); In the 1990s however, after Communism collapsed in the USSR and China embraced a more market-driven economy, the DPRK’s cash flow dried up and the nation was crippled by the floods, famine and collapse of its economy that still affect its citizens today

In stark contrast to Japan, the ultimate ‘throwaway society’ (where you never see cars more than 5 years old on the road*, and where its cheaper to buy new electronics than have old items repaired), North Korea is a ‘make do and mend’ society where nothing is upgraded, repainted, repaired or renewed until its totally deteriorated/broken and useless. Even though Pyongyang compares favourably to Beijing in terms of cleanliness and orderliness, there’s no concealing the fact that the place is falling apart.

*Japan’s cars are amongst the nations many old and unwanted exports (including bicycles, refrigerators, microwaves and TVs) that end up in North Korea, China and Russia because they are regarded as worthless by Japanese citizens.

One of a handful of billboards which recently appeared in Pyongyang, marking the debut of North Korea’s first ever commercials. Although it’s for Fiat cars, they can only be bought by work groups and not by individuals as personal car ownership contradicts Communist ideals.

The Okryu Bridge, one of the main bridges over Pyongyang’s Taedong River.

This closer shot of the Okryu Bridge is further testament to how little traffic there is around.

The first American military vessel to be captured by enemy forces since the USS Wake (PR-3) was captured by Japanese forces in 1941, the USS Pueblo was apparently the subject of an all-out assault involving Mig fighters, subs and gunships but the North Koreans claim it was captured by one gunboat. As you can probably imagine it’s quite a trophy, but probably the most interesting thing is the fact that it was captured on the east coast and transported overland to Pyongyang in the west. Check out and USS for more info.

Our guide at the USS Pueblo, one of the many girls in uniform that make the DPRK the top holiday destination for cosplay fans.

After being taken round the boat, the tour of the USS Pueblo was concluded with the viewing of an unintentionally hysterical propaganda video condemning the ‘American Impurialists’ (the narrator’s poor English pronunciation coupled with his bizarre Lord Haw-haw-esque English aristocratic accent provided ample mirth.)

The video’s credibility was unfortunately further blown by its heavy-handed assertions about the US’s role in the Korean War and the dubbing of the captured crew members’ English-language testimony into pro-DPRK English (with English accents) which was blatantly phoney – the video’s claims that the crewmen happily repudiated the US government are disproved by this great pic I found on the Net which shows the crewmen discreetly giving their captors ‘the bird.’

Following the capture of the USS Pueblo in January 1968, the North Korean authorities forced false confessions out of the crew and insisted that the US government apologise for their espionage activities, as you can see here.

North Korean tourists wait to board the USS Pueblo to hear about crimes committed by the American infidel. Out of shot to the right of the group was a big pile of this group’s belongings where they’d been told to leave handbags and possessions unattended, further illustrating how ordered North Korean society is (I’m sure life imprisonment or execution is sufficient incentive for good behaviour.) In stark contrast to the average group of Japanese tourists, note the total absence of cameras.

Our guide for the visit to the Museum of the Korean Revolution in front of…guess who?

The Museum of the Korean Revolution was another chance to force a cack-handed account of Korean history down our throats. The first day of the tour was relatively propaganda-free (instead focusing on the almost hedonistic participation in May Day celebrations, largely fuelled by soju rice liquor), while the daytrip to Panmunjeom on the second day was surprisingly lacking in the kind of political rhetoric that dominates tours of Panmunjeom from the South Korean side of the DMZ. On the third day though, we were hit with an all-out bullsh*t blitz.

Kim Il-Sung giving ‘on-the-spot guidance’ to North Korean generals during the Korean War. During the tour group’s frequent perusal of propaganda (i.e. all) literature in the DPRK, we were amused to find excessive reference to the Kims’ ability to provide so-called ‘on-the-spot guidance’, also known as ‘field guidance’. These references to their almost superhuman feats included the ability to advise complete revisions in practice/strategy/attitude etc in everything from ballet to heavy industry which resulted in vast improvements – only to be expected though, from the two men credited with writing the majority of the books in the library of the Grand People’s Study House! I guess it’s one of those ‘you had to be there’ jokes, as it’s probably impossible for people to imagine the earnestness and absurdity of such statements without seeing them in context.

‘Aw, shucks Dad’. The International Kim Il-Sung prize goes to (surprise, surprise) his son, Kim Jong-Il. Not that I’m suggesting any bias on behalf of the judges of course. Perhaps winner of the World’s Cheesiest Grin award would have been a more appropriate accolade however.

The stamp shop on Restaurant Street, fascinating even for non-philatelists on account of its selection of stamps bearing propaganda messages.

Every possible opportunity is taken by the government to reinforce the dominant ideology by ‘unobtrusively’ exposing people to it in their everyday lives. In addition to government-controlled media such as TV, radio and newspapers, stamps are an ideal way to convey messages such as anti-US/Japanese sentiments, as these examples illustrate. Unfortunately you can’t see it clearly enough here but the middle right stamp depicts Richard Nixon (upside down) but the likeness is actually the spitting image of George W Bush (although it has the issue date of 1969 on it).

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in 2002. I wanted both of these stamps, but the top one was cheaper and better so I decided to buy only that one. When I handed over a 2 Euro coin to cover the 1.2 Euro price tag however, there was no small change in the cash register so I was offered the bottom stamp to cover the 80 Cent change, despite the stamp’s 1.6 Euro price tag.

This exchange was fairly typical of purchases made within the framework of this fledgling Communist tourist industry, which appeared to be ill-equipped to take money from foreigners desperate to offload cash at every given opportunity. At a very basic level, this inadequacy (of course only to be expected from a country yet to embrace Capitalism like neighbouring China) manifested itself in the form of absence of opportunities to buy soft drinks/snacks at tourist locations where our tour group (as well as the scores of Chinese tourists) was visiting. However, the best example of this was in the hotel bar, where change was often given not in the form of coins but in the form packets of Wrigley’s Double Mint gum!

Propaganda posters make great souvenirs.

View of Pyongyang from the Children’s Palace, with Pyongyang Grand Theatre in foreground. Only North Korean films are shown here, and like the other media I suspect there’s endless repetition of the same old themes, such as workers uniting for the good of the nation, the threat of evil American ‘Impurialists’, and the greatness of Kim Il-Sung.

Note the cranes dotted along the skyline; I saw quite a lot of cranes in Pyongyang, but from a distance so I couldn’t tell whether new buildings were being constructed or whether they’d just run out of cash and couldn’t take them down, as is the case with the aforementioned Ryugyong Hotel

Statue of Kim Il-Sung posing with schoolkids outside the Children’s Palace. Perhaps as a result of Japanese colonialism, there’s a big emphasis on after-school club activities in North Korea (as there is in Japan and former colonies South Korea and Taiwan) and the country’s most talented and promising school kids are selected to join the Children’s Palace, a kind of elite academy which assists the propaganda machine. Most foreign tourists visiting Pyongyang are brought here, and we were shown talented child musicians, artists, writers and the next generation of computer hackers before being treated to an amazingly choreographed music, dance and acrobatics performance.

Duck bulgogi 'food porn'. Bulgogi translates as ‘fire meat’ and is known in Japan as yaki niku, or barbecued meat to the English-speaking world. Wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped in sauce containing sesame, garlic, chilli and/or bean paste, bulgogi is a popular dish served throughout the Korean peninsular (and all over Japan, though minus the lettuce). This duck bulgogi was well nice, and was accompanied by an alcoholic blur involving the majority of the group snorting soju (rice spirits) and a bout of impromptu sumo wrestling between Iain of Canada and Lars of Sweden which involved them knocking into meal tables as the restaurant staff grinned nervously. As with the tour group, I’m sure the evening left a lasting impression with the staff as it can’t be too often that they have the ‘opportunity’ to watch two half-naked foreigners attacking each other with their beer guts.

Double trouble. Posing with nasty beer and vile soju.

Two bottles of filthy Chinese beer left over from the first leg of the train journey to Pyongyang, Five Star All Malt Beer and Bull Beer. One of my lasting impressions of my first (albeit brief and limited) trip to China was that the beer and rice were served at the same temperature. The rice was cold by Japanese standards and the beer was warm (even by English standards), though even chilling these two bad boys did little to disguise the rank flavour resulting from the excessive amount of rice used to brew them.

Despite the rancid nature of the remaining Chinese tipple, the beers were nevertheless consumed before heading down to the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel’s basement karaoke bar for a last night leaving bash.

The interior of the karaoke bar. There were actually about 40 people in the bar when I took this photo, but unsurprisingly the dance floor was empty.

A few last-minute snaps to try and document just how kitsch and outdated the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel actually is, although I don’t think photography does it justice. Here’s the lounge area in the bedroom suite, with the type of carpet you only find in grandparents’ houses these days. For all the North Koreans’ hatred of Japan, interestingly the hotel was replete with Japanese products and fittings: lights by National, elevators and TVs by Hitachi, toilet/bathroom facilities by Toto etc.

The delightful dining room, noteworthy for its intriguing light fittings and flower paintings depicting the Great Leader and Dear Leader’s very own flowers, the kimilsungia and kimjongilia varieties of orchid. An interesting account of the history of North Korean petal propaganda can be found at

A shot of part of the hotel lobby, where I appear to have unwittingly snapped Kim Jong-Il strolling in to survey this small part of his Communist utopia.

Mmmm, mirrors… The second floor of the lobby, home to a book shop, bars and a lot of mirrors.

Another mural depicting Mt Paektu, the ‘spiritual birthplace of the revolution.’

Entertainment for foreign tourists. In Japan pachinko is a hugely popular variant of pinball as it’s the only ‘legal’ form of gambling apart from lotteries and horse racing (as it conveniently exploits several loopholes in the law.) I bet these Western Hero pachinko machines were ‘all the rage’ when the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel was opened in 1985. However, it doesn’t look like anybody’s played them since (if ever at all).

Some more cobweb-gathering entertainment.

The hotel souvenir shop – the closest thing to a supermarket that we experienced in North Korea, though ‘inconvenience store’ would be a more appropriate moniker. In a typical example of the Communist ideal of creating jobs for everyone, making a purchase involves 3 staff: First you select what you want to buy from the shelves (prices are shown in Euros) and take them to the counter, where Girl 1 writes a ticket for every item. Take the tickets to Girl 2 in another part of the shop and she takes your Euro, coverts them into North Korean Won, gives you change in whatever currency they have some coins for (usually Yen, Dollars or Euro though sometimes a mixture of more than one currency) and writes another set of tickets for your goods. Find Girl 3 and exchange Won and tickets for another set of handwritten tickets for each item. Finally, return to Girl 1 with these tickets and exchange them for the items you purchased. Total transaction time, 5-15mins depending on the number of other customers in the store!

The ‘latest’ consumer goods available to those with hard currency, in what basically amounts to a classic example of the Communist propaganda department store. Unfortunately we were told by our Korean guides that there wasn’t enough time to visit Pyongyang’s finest (propaganda) department store, although from what I’ve read, this souvenir shop illustrates the same sentiments – outdated merchandise that nobody wants or needs made to look like it represents some kind of consumer paradise.

Amazing! Quite why anybody staying in a 4-star luxury hotel would need a 6lb,70z/2.920kg tin of tomato sauce is beyond me. As with the sizeable array of Russian medicine for sale, I suspect it was probably taken from an aid package.

Day Four

The Pyongyang Airport Duty Free Shop, another place apparently frozen in time.

After failing to bribe customs officials with packs of Marlboro Red, persistent nagging paid off and we finally managed to get our passports stamped. North Korean customs are notoriously reluctant to stamp passports, apparently because of prejudice faced by those in possession of a North Korean stamp in their passport at US airports though probably simply just in keeping with the low profile the DPRK seems to favour with all international relations. My stamp earned me an extra thorough once-over from Japanese customs officials at KIX (in a private room, though thankfully not involving rubber gloves) whose attitude noticeably changed upon learning I’d come from Pyongyang, going from suspecting me of drug smuggling (as usual, since I’m a foreign male travelling on my own and must be up to no good) to thinking I was a shoe bomber/biological weapons smuggler.

Air Koryo’s finest, a 30-year old Soviet Ilyushin Il-62M. In dire need of a refit (TV monitors or headphones would be nice), it has endearing features such as the seats (which fall forward when touched from behind) and the overhead luggage stowage (actually just a rack, like on a bus or train) which allows luggage to fall down whenever the plane encounters turbulence. Needless to say, I was elated when we touched down safely at Beijing Capital Airport. Any plane spotters out there can check out Air Koryo’s full fleet at

Fortunately I didn’t have to spoil this quaint reminder of my ‘thrilling’ experience with Air Koryo by depositing my ‘refuses’ in it, despite having a spot of food poisoning from the undercooked duck bulgogi which derailed my Beijing sightseeing plans. Still, after the intensity of the North Korean tour (out of the hotel 10-12 hours a day and covering a lot of ground) a day in bed was actually welcomed.
A man's gotta know his limitations

Only Good News, Every Day As the countdown begins to the "Bright Side", we'll be posting about something "bright" or good that's happening in the worl

As the countdown begins to the "Bright Side", we'll be posting about something "bright" or good that's happening in the world everyday until the launch. To get started, I jumped online and began searching news, pictures, blogs...anywhere I might find a story about something positive happening in the world. I wasn't having any luck at all. It seems to me that the media focuses on the bad and sad things happening more often than not, am I right?

As I was just about to give up... I found it! There is a site out there that is dedicated to reporting ONLY GOOD NEWS, EVERY DAY. Glee Report. What a great concept! How many of you, like me, refuse to watch the nightly news because its so depressing at the end of the day? Well, not anymore. Now I can follow the good news. I love it - it is the best news I've had all day. A place we can all go to hear about good things happening in the world. Go check it out. I know you'll enjoy it as much as I did.. you'll even leave there looking on the bright side!

Protesters call for end to Iranian rights abuses

LONDON – Protesters across the world on Saturday called on Iran to end its clampdown on opposition activists, demanding the release of hundreds rounded up during demonstrations against the country's disputed election.

Groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are backing a global day of action, with protests planned in more than 80 cities.

The protesters want Iranian authorities to release what they say are hundreds, or even thousands, of people detained during protests that followed the presidential election last month that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

Protesters waved placards and banners outside the Iranian embassy in London, one of a series of events in cities across Europe. In Brussels, Belgium, protesters held placards carrying images of the detained or dead, including Neda Agha Soltan, the 27-year-old whose death — beamed around the world on the Internet — became a rallying cry for opponents of the regime.

In Amsterdam, Iranian Nobel Peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi urged the international community to reject the outcome of the Iranian election and called for a new vote monitored by the United Nations.

Addressing several hundred people, she said Iran should not be allowed to become another Zimbabwe, apparently referring to the violence surrounding that African country's disputed presidential election.

Hecklers in the crowd, some of them supporters of the monarchy ousted in 1979, shouted slogans of "Death to the Islamic regime."

But the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist urged restraint, saying the protesters should be chanting for life and democracy rather than death to their opponents.

About 80 people wearing headbands, wristbands or bandanas in green — the color of Iran's protest movement — demonstrated in front of the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva.

"The young people have had enough," said protester Jacky Carel, a member of a Swiss-Iranian cultural organization. "It cannot go on like this."

In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, some 20 Iranians — among them refugees, students and others — gathered outside the local press club to protest the Iranian crackdown, yelling "Death to the dictator!"

"Innocent Iranians are being killed," said Hessam Moghimi, 27, who has lived in Pakistan for about eight years. "We want justice for the blood that's been spilled."

In Australia, there were small protests in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and the capital, Canberra.

About 50 people waved flags and banners reading "Stop torture" and "Iran election was a fraud" on the steps of the parliament of Victoria state in Melbourne.

In Canberra, Ardeshir Gholipour, a 41-year-old refugee from Iran who arrived in Australia in 2000 after spending two years in an Iranian prison for political protests, said Western governments should take a tougher stand against the Ahmadinejad regime.

"The Australian government should reject the Iranian ambassador — send a big signal," he said.

About 80 people gathered in Tokyo, draping green scarves around their necks and lighting candles.

The crowd watched recent news footage of Iran and a slideshow on a screen set up in Miyashita Park in downtown Tokyo to the backdrop of rock music, and applauded speeches calling for "a free Iran" and fair elections.

In Seoul, South Korea, where about 30 people rallied, Amnesty's Park Jin-ok said the group was calling for "immediate and unconditional release" of detainees.

The demonstrators also want the U.N. to investigate alleged rights abuses and say Tehran must allow freedom of expression and assembly.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians held protests denouncing the election as fraudulent until security forces launched a heavy crackdown, arresting hundreds and killing at least 20.


Associated Press Writers Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo, Nahal Toosi in Islamabad, Arthur Max in Amsterdam and Bradley Klapper in Geneva contributed to this report.
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Report: Bush mulled sending troops into Buffalo

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration in 2002 considered sending U.S. troops into a Buffalo, N.Y., suburb to arrest a group of terror suspects in what would have been a nearly unprecedented use of military power, The New York Times reported.

Vice President Dick Cheney and several other Bush advisers at the time strongly urged that the military be used to apprehend men who were suspected of plotting with al Qaida, who later became known as the Lackawanna Six, the Times reported on its Web site Friday night. It cited former administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The proposal advanced to at least one-high level administration meeting, before President George W. Bush decided against it.

Dispatching troops into the streets is virtually unheard of. The Constitution and various laws restrict the military from being used to conduct domestic raids and seize property.

According to the Times, Cheney and other Bush aides said an Oct. 23, 2001, Justice Department memo gave broad presidential authority that allowed Bush to use the domestic use of the military against al-Qaida if it was justified on the grounds of national security, rather than law enforcement.

Among those arguing for the military use besides Cheney were his legal adviser David S. Addington and some senior Defense Department officials, the Times reported.

Opposing the idea were Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser; John B. Bellinger III, the top lawyer at the National Security Council; FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III; and Michael Chertoff, then the head of the Justice Department's criminal division.

Bush ultimately nixed the proposal and ordered the FBI to make the arrests in Lackawanna. The men were subsequently arrested and pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges.

Scott L. Silliman, a Duke University law professor specializing in national security law, told the Times that a U.S. president had not deployed the active-duty military on domestic soil in a law enforcement capacity, without specific statutory authority, since the Civil War.

Obama hawks health care overhaul, citing study

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, citing a new White House study suggesting that small businesses pay far more per employee for health insurance than big companies, said Saturday the disparity is "unsustainable — it's unacceptable."

"And it's going to change when I sign health insurance reform into law," the president said in his weekly Internet and radio address.

A new study by the White House Council of Economic Advisers said small businesses pay up to 18 percent more to provide health insurance for their employees. As a result, fewer of them do so and the number has been shrinking further in these hard economic times.

It was released Saturday as part of the administration's aggressive campaign to build public and congressional support for Obama's health care efforts

Obama had called for Congress to vote on health legislation by the August recess, but when it became clear this week lawmakers would miss that deadline, he said he expects a bill by year-end.

The White House study said only 49 percent of businesses with three to nine workers and 78 percent of companies with 10 to 24 workers offered any type of health insurance to their employees in 2008. In contrast, 99 percent of companies with more than 200 workers offered health insurance.

Small companies pay proportionately more than big ones because they lack bargaining power and face higher administrative costs, the study found. It said that effectively levied a "heavy tax" on small businesses and their employees.

"Right now, they are getting crushed by skyrocketing health care costs," Obama said, citing the report.

Republicans dismissed the new report as more political propaganda by the administration as it struggles to win approval of its centerpiece domestic priority.

"There's a reason why almost every employer and small business group is opposed to the Democrats' government takeover of health care, and that's because it would impose new job-killing taxes during a recession," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "No report can change that."

And in the weekly GOP address, Rep. Cathy McMorris of Washington state, vice chair of the House Republican Conference, said, "America's small businesses will pay a high price." Citing a study by the National Federation of Independent Business, she said Democratic-written proposals would destroy a million more jobs than the economy has already lost.

She called the Democratic efforts "a prescription for disaster — one that will put Washington bureaucrats in charge of your family's personal medical decision."

A proposal in the House calls for employers with a total payroll above $250,000 to offer health insurance to their workers or face a surtax of as much as 8 percent. A Senate committee version would require all businesses, except those with fewer than 25 employees, to provide health coverage or pay a $750 fine per year for each worker.

Congress is weighing plans to bring small businesses into the program that would exempt them from such stiff penalties.

Among the provisions in draft legislation viewed favorably by the administration are: an "insurance exchange" allowing small businesses that meet certain criteria to be able to purchase health insurance from a multitude of plans; and tax credits to help small businesses pay for the coverage.

Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, said such provisions would enable small businesses to be "more able to compete with the big boys" in selling their goods and services and "able to compete fairly on a level playing field with big businesses to attract the best workers,"

"The vast majority of small businesses, they'll see their burdens absolutely lessened by the expansion of coverage," Romer said in a conference call with reporters. "So they are absolutely going to be more competitive."

Obama decried what he said were tactics by opponents to block health care overhaul "as a way to inflict political damage on my administration. I'll leave it to them to explain that to the American people."

"Today, after a lot of hard work in Congress, we are closer than ever before to finally passing reform that will reduce costs, expand coverage and provide more choices for our families and businesses," Obama said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, invited small business owners from across the country to a round-table discussion with senior GOP officials on Tuesday to discuss the struggles facing small business. Among those invited, said Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring, are those with businesses in the congressional district of conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, who have raised questions about the cost of the health care efforts.



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Putin urges Obama to scrap shield

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has urged the US to move relations forward by shelving plans for a missile defence shield in Europe.

His comments come ahead of a summit between US President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Dimitry Medvedev.

They serve, correspondents say, as a clear sign that the powerful former president will have to be taken into account during the negotiations.

Mr Obama is preparing to visit Moscow between 6 and 8 July.

Reducing both countries' nuclear stockpiles, as well as Iran and North Korea, will be on the agenda when he meets Mr Medvedev.

'Two feet'

Mr Obama said on Thursday that the US was developing a "very good relationship" with the Russian president. But, says the BBC's Richard Galpin in Moscow, Mr Putin has persistently made it clear that it is he - not his successor - who takes all the key decisions.

Mr Putin said the US needed to change its policy on siting a missile defence shield in Europe and on expanding military blocs - a reference to Nato expansion into Eastern Europe.

"If we see [that] our American partners refrain from deploying new missile complexes, anti-missile defence systems, or for example review their approach to widening military-political blocs... this would be a big movement forward," Interfax news agency quoted Mr Putin as saying.

Russian officials earlier told the BBC that they were optimistic of a major step forward in negotiating further cuts to nuclear arsenals at the summit.

But, our correspondent says, Moscow's long-held objections to America's missile shield plans have always been a potential obstacle to an agreement on disarmament.

On Tuesday, Mr Obama urged Russia to end "old Cold War approaches" to ties - and described Mr Putin as having one foot in the past.

Mr Putin hit back. Russians, he said, "stand solidly on their own two feet and always look to the future".

Read more!

Rogue trades cost oil broker $10m

-A rogue trader at a London oil broker caused his employer to lose $10m (£6m) after making unauthorised trades.

PVM Oil Futures said it was a "victim of unauthorised trading" on Tuesday, 30 June, and said it was now conducting a full investigation.

The rogue trader, believed to be Steve Perkins, has been suspended.

PVM said it had informed the Financial Services Authority and the InterContinental Exchange (ICE), the location for much European oil trade.

The trades are thought to have caused a jump in the price of Brent crude oil on Tuesday. PVM said it was now conducting business as normal.

"As a result of a series of unauthorised trades, substantial volumes of futures contracts were held by PVM. When this was discovered, the positions were closed in an orderly fashion. PVM suffered a loss totalling a little under $10m," the company said in a statement.

"There are a range of procedures that are followed to look at trading patterns, price movement and levels of activity," explained David Peniket, the president of ICE Futures Europe, which trades futures and energy and commodity contracts.

"It will investigate and follow up, and where appropriate, action will be taken," he added.

Rogue trade

On Tuesday morning, the price of Brent crude rose about $2 a barrel in the space of an hour, hitting $73.50 a barrel before reversing sharply in volatile trade.

In that time, contracts for 16 million barrels of oil changed hands - 32 times the normal level - equivalent to double the daily production of Saudi Arabia. By the time PVM sold the futures contracts the trader had bought, the price had fallen, which is why PVM booked losses of $10m, Nick McGregor at Redmayne Bentley told the BBC.

"In the very small hours, while volumes are relatively low during Asian trading because most of London is asleep, an awful lot of business went through and as it turns out it all came from the same source," Mr McGregor said.

"This all happened within an hour at about two o'clock in the morning, and of course in a thin market at that sort of time, it doesn't take an awful lot to move the price."

With volume so thin, the trade stood out, which is why the "rogue trade" has emerged so quickly, he added.

"Firms have systems to pick up oddities and anomalies, but of course at two o'clock in the morning, I am sure it rang a little bell. The question is how fast were they able to get on top of it and deal with it," he said.

Oil is the world's most heavily traded commodity, with trading centred on the ICE in London and the New York Mercantile Exchange or Nymex.

Brokerages like PVM place orders on behalf of large banks and hedge funds.

On Friday morning, Brent crude oil hovered above $66 a barrel in light holiday trading.

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Labels: World News

District police stymie mall protest at Hun Sen'shouse

AROUND 200 Sovanna Shopping Centre vendors were threatened by district police and prevented from boarding buses set to take them to Prime Minister Hun Sen's Kandal province residence on Thursday, where they had planned to protest high rents at the mall.

"This morning we rented two buses, but district police came to warn the drivers that if they took us to the prime minister's house they would have a problem," said Thea Neapy, a shoe seller at Sovanna.

"A lot of district police with guns banned us from getting into the bus ... and said we have no right to go to the PM's house."

Thea Neapy accused the police of having been paid off by the market owner, who "knows that if we go to Hun Sen's house he will help us".

Driver Thy Na said police told him not to allow market vendors into his vehicle and told him to "go back home" if he didn't want "problems".Yem Dany, a cloth vendor at the market, said she was kicked by police outside the mall as the buses left the scene.

"They have no right to kick me like this. If they are so strong, they should go to Preah Vihear and fight with the Thais instead," she said.

Vendors from the mall, located in Chamkarmon district, managed to meet with representatives of the prime minister after making their way to Takhmao in tuk-tuks and private cars.

Two tuk-tuks full of protesters were stopped and detained by police near Takhmao Bridge, one vendor said, but were released after the police received a phone call from Hun Sen's staff.

They were then invited to speak with Nouv Ra, the prime minister's Cabinet chief, who said he would forward their concerns to City Hall.

"We told him we would like to reduce the price by 30 percent because of the economic crisis," said the vendor, who declined to be named.

"We will close our shops until we get a resolution."

Chesda Metrey, the head of Sovanna Shopping Centre, said the mall had "a lot of problems", and that he would not reduce the rental price for vendors.

"The vendors should already know our policy. We reduce the price by 13 percent for vendors who are under a 10-year lease, and 10 percent for a two-year lease," he said.

Chamkarmon district police Chief Ouch Sokhon declined to comment when contacted Thursday.
Read more!


The Defence Ministry will not discuss the withdrawal of Thai troops from the disputed area near the Preah Vihear temple ruins during the Thai delegation's visit to Phnom Penh today.

Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon made clear the stance yesterday in response to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's condition that he would discuss the temple issue only if it concerned the withdrawal of Thai soldiers.

The Thai delegation of about 15 officials, including Gen Prawit and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, is set to arrive in Phnom Penh today for talks after Thailand protested against the Unesco's World Heritage Committee's decision to register the Hindu temple ruins unilaterally on behalf of Cambodia last year.

Mr Suthep said yesterday he would go to Cambodia as planned on a mission to clarify with Hun Sen Thailand's objections to the listing of the Preah Vihear temple ruins.

He said his trip was aimed at strengthening bilateral ties.

Gen Prawit told reporters that Thai troops had to remain in the 4.6-square-kilometre area around Preah Vihear because it belonged to Thailand and both nations had reached an agreement that the land dispute would be handled by the Joint Boundary Committee (JBC).

About 3,000 Thai soldiers entered the disputed area on July 15 last year after Unesco listed the Preah Vihear temple on behalf of Cambodia.

"The Thai cabinet considers Unesco as a peace-oriented organisation. The rules and regulations that govern the World Heritage listing must be recognised by both countries.

"We believe that Unesco failed to observe the rules and regulations, so we must protest against Unesco and demand it respond," Gen Prawit said.

In response to reports of Cambodia's military reinforcements in the area, army chief Gen Anupong Paojinda said yesterday that Thailand would not start any violent actions and would not be reckless.

Lt Gen Wibulsak Neepal, commander of the 2nd Army, said Cambodia had deployed a number of soldiers and heavy weaponry and its forces in the area were nearly double those of Thailand's.

However, he confirmed that Thai soldiers there were prepared for any eventuality
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Labels: khmer hot news

Obama Appeals to Crucial Train Swing Vote

We are already familiar with Senator Barack Obama's appeal to the crucial bicycle swing vote (between the three remaining candidates, his platform is the only one that even mentions cycling). Now, with the all-important Pennsylvania primary fast approaching (like a train, perhaps?) Senator Obama scrambled for votes on Saturday by taking an all-day, 100 mile trip by train "along the Philadelphia area's Main Line and on west to the capital in Harrisburg."

Certainly, Obama is not the first to campaign by train. Harry Truman is famous for his 1948 whistle-stop tour that covered 22,000 miles, and even the car in which Obama rode--a Georgia 300 Lounge Car--has in the past "carried Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton." But as the presidential campaigns have become more hectic and demanding, the carbon footprint of campaigning--done usually by SUV or private jet--has skyrocketed. Trains, as we've seen, are less carbon intensive than either SUV or private jet. And millions of Americans rely on trains to get to work, especially in busy corridors such as New England. So perhaps Obama was pandering to the train swing vote? Is there even such a thing?

Well, probably not. According to the LA Times, this train ride was more about helping "Obama deliver his closing argument to a state that is viewed as a must-win for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton" than it was about demonstrating his low-carbon transportation bona fides. Riding along in a "patriotically decorated antique rail car" Obama spread his message of change by asking people to "get on board the change train."

Okay, so this was a somewhat hokey, made-for-tv campaign move. Still, Amtrak has been seeing record ridership, and hitching its star to Obama's rising star can't hurt. Whether or not Obama would, if elected, increase funding for public transportation remains to be seen, but it's worth repeating that millions of Americans rely on public transportation to get where they need to go. Seen in that light the voters that use public transportation may rightly be considered a swing vote.

More important than his stance on public transportation will be his stance on coal, and specifically, coal-to-liquid diesel fuel technology. In other words, let's hope Obama does not pander to the coal vote. That would be a serious blow to climate change, clean air and renewable energy advocates. . .

Via: ::LA Times

See Also: ::CBS: Forget Flying, Amtrak is In, ::Summer Train Travel: In Your Future?, ::The TH Interview: Andy Kunz, New Urbanist, ::Obama Calls for Cap-and-Trade, and ::Obama Steps it Up on Climate Change

Follow @TreeHugger on Twitter & get our headlines with @TH_rss!
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I'd love to take the train, but the timetable sucks I typically compare driving, airline-travel, and trains before making a long trip.

I'm planning a trip next week, traveling from rural Southwest Virginia to rural southern Illinois. Airlines were prohibitively expensive, unpredictable (due to the corruption at the FAA) -- and I despise being searched at any time for any reason. The train looked like a good option, since Amtrak has a hub in Chicago and I can get a train to Chicago from my local Amtrak station (90 minutes away) -- however, the only trains that I could find took 20 hours (overnight), with an 8 hour stopover in Chicago. Oh, and the only overnight trips that were available were 2-3 days away from the date I needed to be in southern Illinois, so I wouldn't have been able to be in town for my appointment without taking off a week of work -- which is unacceptable. That leaves driving -- the price is reasonable, and the schedule is flexible.

If the timetable were at all useful, I'd absolutely love taking the train -- being able to sit in a car and work with my cell-phone and laptop instead of fighting with traffic would be wonderful. Failing that, I'd love to be in the dining-car drinking possibly-alcoholic beverages that are not compatible with operating an automobile. And all of this without having to be treated like a criminal and an inconvenience at every turn (as is the case with airlines)... But, alas, I will spend 10 hours each way (20 hours round-trip) driving all by my lonesome, trying to avoid being run-over or pulled-over -- and those fine beverages that could be available in the dining-car will have to wait until I get home from my trip.

So, I say to the passenger-rail companies of America: I'd love to use your service, but I'm a busy man and I can't plan my life around train schedules. As soon as there is a train that goes where I want to take it when I want to go, I'll be aboard. I'd love to be fiscally and environmentally efficient, and I'd love to travel in a relaxed atmosphere. But, first and foremost, I need to travel.
April 20, 2008 9:02 PM | click here to report abuse flag a problem
jump to top Anonymous says:

I'd love to take the train, but the timetable sucks I typically compare driving, airline-travel, and trains before making a long trip.

I'm planning a trip next week, traveling from rural Southwest Virginia to rural southern Illinois. Airlines were prohibitively expensive, unpredictable (due to the corruption at the FAA) -- and I despise being searched at any time for any reason. The train looked like a good option, since Amtrak has a hub in Chicago and I can get a train to Chicago from my local Amtrak station (90 minutes away) -- however, the only trains that I could find took 20 hours (overnight), with an 8 hour stopover in Chicago. Oh, and the only overnight trips that were available were 2-3 days away from the date I needed to be in southern Illinois, so I wouldn't have been able to be in town for my appointment without taking off a week of work -- which is unacceptable. That leaves driving -- the price is reasonable, and the schedule is flexible.

If the timetable were at all useful, I'd absolutely love taking the train -- being able to sit in a car and work with my cell-phone and laptop instead of fighting with traffic would be wonderful. Failing that, I'd love to be in the dining-car drinking possibly-alcoholic beverages that are not compatible with operating an automobile. And all of this without having to be treated like a criminal and an inconvenience at every turn (as is the case with airlines)... But, alas, I will spend 10 hours each way (20 hours round-trip) driving all by my lonesome, trying to avoid being run-over or pulled-over -- and those fine beverages that could be available in the dining-car will have to wait until I get home from my trip.

So, I say to the passenger-rail companies of America: I'd love to use your service, but I'm a busy man and I can't plan my life around train schedules. As soon as there is a train that goes where I want to take it when I want to go, I'll be aboard. I'd love to be fiscally and environmentally efficient, and I'd love to travel in a relaxed atmosphere. But, first and foremost, I need to travel.

In an Effort to be Taken Seriously Thursday October 16, 2008

It's been brought to my attention that I've talked far too much about Sarah Palin's hair lately. So, let's talk about the left side of political hair, and specifically the strategy behind a woman's hair in politics. The current political climate has more women playing pivotal roles than any other time in history. Hilary Clinton, with her short, conservative haircut graced our media during her run for the democratic nomination for President; Sarah Palin, and her now famous updo, is on the GOP ticket for vice president. It's a historic time for women, for politics, and apparently for hair! So, what's the big deal about female politician hairstyles? I haven't heard Barack Obama's haircut or John McCain's haircolor making headline news!

As women, our hair makes up a significant portion of our appearance, and we notice and judge other women based on their hairstyles. The way you wear your hair could mean the difference between being noticed being notorious (as evidenced by famous people everywhere). Tina Turner, Victoria Beckham, and Dolly Parton all are famous or infamous for their outside-the-box hairstyles. So, why don't we see female politicians sporting a Tina Turner spike, an edgy Posh Spice bob, or massive Dolly curls?

The name of the game in politics is wear your hair in such a manner that is looks polished, professional, and conservative enough to not make hair headlines. After all, we're supposed to be paying attention to the issues, not the way our politicians look, right?

I think Hilary Clinton's hairstyle is a perfect combination for politics. Her short haircut is styled off her face, giving her a very open and unhidden look. Her highlights are subtle and very natural looking. I must say, I've never noticed regrowth on Hilary's head (and for this particular blog post, I looked through months and months of photos of Hilary), and not that I know if Senator Clinton even colors her hair, but it brings up the important point that regular maintenance is key. One gray hair on film or some dark regrowth could mean weeks of bad press for a female politician.

I don't think we'd take many politicians seriously if they wore their hair like Tina, Victoria, or Dolly, do you?

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

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President Medvedev said the government supports efforts by the MP to foster brotherly ties with countries of the near abroad. The president made this statement as he spoke at the formal installation of Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev of Moscow and all Russia. The archbishops attending the ceremony in the Kremlin took part in the recent Church Council which elected the new patriarch. The canonical reunification act signed by the MP and the ROCOR in May 2007 put an end to years of division and gave fresh impetus to consolidation within Russian communities across the globe. Mr Medvedev said the church had become strong, consolidated, and canonically united through the election of the patriarch. He emphasised that the state would not interfere in church affairs.

Church-state relations in the new Russia are based on the constitutional principles of freedom of conscience and religion, and non-interference in each other’s affairs, President Medvedev said. They also proceed from the acknowledgment on the part of the state of the great contribution made by the church to Russian statehood, national culture, and moral values in society. On his part, Patriarch Kirill called for harmony in church-state relations and for cooperation between the Church and the state for the good of humanity. When lay and clerical philosophers worked out a model of church-state relations they described it as symfonia, Patriarch Kirill said. Symfonia provides for a harmonious combination of interests and distribution of duties. The basics of symfonia are engraved in Church Tradition, and even though the model never saw light in its ideal version for many reasons, it has always served as a good example to follow.

249 church dignitaries from Russia and abroad attended the ceremony in the St Andrew Hall of the Kremlin. Patriarch Kirill, who ascended to the patriarchal throne in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour yesterday, served a solemn liturgy in the Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral today. The patriarch asked for the assistance and protection of all his predecessors buried in the Cathedral, starting from Metropolitan Pyotr, who headed the Church in the early 14th century.

2 February 2009

Voice of Russia World Service (in English)

Editor’s Note:

One should not confuse the terms Synergeia and Symfonia. The former refers to the cooperation between God and man in an individual’s salvation, whilst the latter refers to the interaction of the Church and state on earth. There are longer-winded definitions, but, these give the vital essence of the terms. The distinction is NOT fine.
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Moscow-Washington: New Ideas and Old Wire-Pullers
Filed under: Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Russian, Sergei Lavrov, USA, Vladimir Putin, contemporary, diplomacy, politics — 01varvara @ 21:01


Hillary Rodham Clinton taking the oath of office as US Secretary of State on 21 January 2009 after being confirmed in that office by a 94-2 vote in the US Senate

In all likelihood, it will take Barack Obama years rather than months to shape a new foreign policy, but, so many are impatient to part with old US policy that one can only sympathise with Hillary Clinton, who has just taken the oath to assume her new position as US Secretary of State. North Korea is bringing components of its intercontinental missiles to the testing grounds and rupturing all ties with South Korea. With rare unanimity, analysts perceive this as a signal to America; remember us and the pointless crisis that was triggered by the Bush administration on our peninsula as soon as possible.

Before taking her oath of office, Ms Clinton called her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. Both said that the two countries are interested in positive development of bilateral relations under the new US administration, but, old policy, and those who shaped and implemented it, will continue operating until Washington proclaims its new policy. “Has he not yet been dismissed?” This is a typical Moscow reaction to a statement made by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza at the Heritage Foundation. He said that if Russia opens military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the United States will establish bases in Georgia.

No, Mr Bryza has not been dismissed. Although the names of his successors are already being mentioned in US political circles, there is always a chance that he will stay. He illustrates how much an individual can hurt American interests for no reason. Mr Bryza is primarily known as the architect of Washington’s Georgian experiment. Moreover, he is in charge of US policy in Georgia. No higher-ranking officials drafted this policy, but, rather simply signed on wherever necessary.

Russia under Vladimir Putin started the new century with good relations with the United States. Moscow did not object to American bases in Central Asia. Things started getting worse when anti-Russian regimes were established in Tbilisi and Kiev with US aid. As a result, the United States quarrelled with Russia and Europe to a certain extent, because the war launched by Mikhail Saakashvili last August created problems primarily for Europe. Besides, the United States found itself in a ridiculous position; it did not want to help Georgia, which started the war hoping for US support.

The Georgian opposition Labour Party demands that Mr Bryza should not be allowed to direct policy on Georgia. One of its leaders, Nestan Kirtadze, said, “This fatal personality harmed not only Georgia, but, also, American values in Georgia”. The leader of another opposition movement, Georgia’s Way, and Georgia’s former Foreign Minister, Salome Zurabishvili, said, “Georgia needs new, normal relations not only with Russians, but, also, with Americans. The days of Matthew Bryza coming in and influencing everyone are over”.

Those days may be over, but, the consequences are still there. Everything is still in anticipation of a new US policy toward Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus… In any case, it is clear that North Korea will be subject to a new US policy quicker, since it is in such a hurry.

4 February 2009
Dmitri Kosyrev

RIA-Novosti (in English)

Editor’s Note:

Bryza… that smells like he is from one of the anti-Russian North American diasporas. That is how these people harm the USA by bringing their own hate-filled agendas to the fore. God willing, this neocon poseur shall be dismissed in short order. He was the architect of the failed Georgian policy and probably egged on Saakashvili to attack South Ossetia in his blind hatred of all things Russian. Do dig about to see the roots of the Russophobia of the neocons. Usually, there is a tie-in with those who supported the Nazis in World War II (and were brought to the US and Canada because they were anti-communist… alas, truthfully, some of them were Great Russians as well).

In any case, Moscow wants Bryza gone, and that shall be that. None of the anti-Russian diasporas supported Mr Obama (they were solidly behind McCain), so, there is no political reason for this hater to stay. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say.
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Groundhog Saw Shadow of Unemployment
Filed under: Barack Obama, EU/European integration, Russian, USA, Vladimir Putin, animals, business, contemporary, economy, international organisations, politics, popular life and customs — 01varvara @ 20:18


A statue of the Canadian “groundhog”, Wiarton Willie, in Wiarton ON. It started as a spoof in the 50s by a bunch of partying Canucks anxious to help a journalist with a story, and it just GREW. Alas, the original Willie died at the ripe old age of 22 in 1999, but, Wee Willie is carrying on the tradition.

In the last few years, Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog has made one wrong forecast after another. The American tradition, which marked its 122nd anniversary on 2 February, states that if on that day, if the groundhog leaves the burrow where he was hibernating and he sees his shadow, which happens if the sun is shining, spring is still a long way away.

Regardless of the groundhog, the weather in Russia is still colder than in the United States, even in Pennsylvania, a state in the north-east that is the home locale of all the Punxsutawney Phil groundhogs over the years. However, now, the two countries share a problem. The second stage of the economic crisis has set in, when unemployment requires more urgent attention than the banking system. The unemployment rate in the United States is the same as in other countries. In early 2008, it was 4.9 percent in the United States as compared to 7.2 percent today. In the European Union (EU), the figures are 6.8 percent and 7.4 percent, respectively. In the estimate of the Ministry of Health and Social Development, Russia also has up to 7 percent unemployed, just like in Europe and America.

The US administration’s measures are becoming increasingly “socialist”. For the time being, everything is concentrated around “Obama’s package”, which is worth almost 900 billion USD (32.641 trillion roubles. 701.46 billion euros. 623.43 billion UK pounds). The package was approved by the House last week, and should be endorsed by the Senate this week. It contains simple, but, smart measures, such as a long-term loan of 1,500 USD (54,454 roubles. 1,170 euros. 1,039 UK pounds) per capita for the purchase of a truck or car. Washington is hoping that even such a small sum will help restore the sales of US cars, which have fallen one-third as compared with these in 2007. Needless to say, this is somewhat different from the prohibitive car import duties that have been introduced in Russia. In effect, this is a reverse action aimed at supporting domestic car-makers, but, it will produce the same effect.

We will see the positive results of Obama’s package at the end of the year or later. However, analysts are already talking about the failure of the previous package by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. At the Davos World Economic Forum It was described as a “failure” by Joseph E. Stiglitz, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics. His assessments of unexpected crises have been uncannily accurate. He said that the first 700 billion USD (25.412 trillion roubles. 546.21 billion euros. 484.89 billion UK pounds) given over to the banks was wasted, for they did not resume any loans. Professor Stiglitz likes the idea of setting up a special bank for problematic assets by buying them from the banks even less. As a result, they will simply run bankrupt, because banks are kept afloat by the problematic assets for which they may still get something in the future. Once again, we can draw unpleasant parallels with the EU and Russia, where banks are reluctant to issue loans, and nobody knows what to do with bad assets. Should they be written off as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested in Davos? What will happen with the banks in this case? That should be thoroughly analysed.

Professor Stiglitz doesn’t like Obama’s plan either. He explained that it would lead the United States to the third stage of the crisis, an unacceptable internal debt up to 10 trillion USD (363.029 trillion roubles. 7.803 trillion euros. 6.927 trillion UK pounds) and a budget deficit of 1.4 trillion USD (50.824 billion roubles. 1.092 billion euros. 970 million UK pounds). These figures are unprecedented since the end of World War II. Interest rates on this debt that will have to be paid to American creditors are a third problem (in addition to finances and unemployment). In this case, many nations, not only the Americans, will wish they could hibernate together with Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog for a long time to come, because the ideas of how to extricate themselves out of the crisis have been very similar everywhere so far.

2 February 2009
Dmitri Kosyrev

RIA-Novosti (in English)
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There Is No Plan Original Thinking From An Underachiever Clinton and Obama on Iran – Diplomacy 101 leave a comment »

To say that the Obama administration is all over the place on Iran is an understatement.

During the campaign, President Obama assured us that he would work hard to start a dialogue with Iran. His view remains, apparently at least, that engagement is the best way to deal with Tehran, their sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas, and most importantly the thorny issue of their nuclear ambitions.

Take today’s diplomatic shuffle on Iran. During her flight from Ramallah to Brussels after meeting Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made the mistake of holding court with the press during which she gave Tehran a piece of her mind with rhetoric that was straight from W’s dusty old “axis of evil” playbook. HRC suggested that Iran seeks to “intimidate as far as they think their voice can reach.” She went on to say “It is clear that Iran intends to interfere with the internal affairs of all of these people and try to continue their efforts to fund terrorism, whether it’s Hezbollah or Hamas or other proxies.” Yeah, Hil, we’ve heard this about fifty thousand times before.

During the same in-flight interview, probably after a whisper from an advisor, she remembered that she was working for Obama, not still campaigning against him, and went on to reassure the press corps that the President was in fact still seeking to engage Iran in a dialogue, “but wanted to make sure it’s constructive”.

First Hilary lambasts the Iranians then she wants our negotiations with them to be constructive. Uhh. Okay, what’s the best way to put this?

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of the word “diplomacy”.

According to Merriam-Webster diplomacy is defined as…

1 : the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations
2 : skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility (my italics)

Hilary Clinton’s a giant of an American in many, many ways, but as a diplomat, she’s still got those training wheels very firmly on. If you’re looking to change the way you deal with a hostile nation, you don’t trot out the combative and misguided spiel the last guys used, because that’s guaranteed to make your negotiating partner, the Iranians in this case, very mad. Maybe it’s too much to ask of America’s chief diplomat, but could a little diplomacy be in order? Sadly, it seems to be a lost art in Washington. Here’s why.

Firstly, we seem to have have developed a tendency (learned over the past few Republican administrations) that diplomacy is the same thing as policy. It isn’t. Diplomacy is a means of achieving policy.

Secondly, we’ve forgotten the art of the back-channel. Remember the days when the Presidents of the US and ye olde Soviet Union would take long walks through the winter woods to talk about nukes with just a couple of frigid translators to keep them company? Well, we need to get those days back, because far too much diplomacy is played out in public, and not enough behind closed doors. Public diplomacy has too much baggage. Diplomats from democratic states become accountable at home for what they say around the table, leaving one hand tied behind their backs when they’re in negotiations with autocratic countries where democracy, a free press and public accountability are not things on the worry list. More communiques, less chit-chat.

Thirdly, for years now, thanks partly to the Neo-cons, we’ve confused diplomacy with honesty. They’re actually two sides of the same coin. Honesty is something you employ with your friends, whereas diplomacy is something that’s more useful with your enemies. In short, Hilary Clinton would be great dealing with the Israelis or Europeans, who need a little straight talk. But the Iranians? Not so good.

Fourthly, we seem to have forgotten that golden rule. Don’t arouse hostility. Negotiations don’t tend to go very far when you begin them by slapping the other guy’s face with a Neo-conservative gauntlet. But that’s exactly what Hilary just did. She aroused hostility. A whole darn planeload of it. To Tehran, her rhetoric is an outrageous affront that naturally must be trumped by even more outlandish rhetoric, for example, Israel is a “cancerous tumor”, and Obama is just a Bush retread, etc etc. This stuff is just posturing that’s not worth the hot air it rode in on. And so the confusing standoff goes on, and all that engagement talk? More hot air. Iran likes it that way. They don’t want to talk, at least not until after they get their nukes, when the price for their compliance rises by at least two orders of magnitude.

Fifthly, we stopped doing our homework. The art and practice of conducting negotiations means knowing who you’re dealing with. Iranians are very hospitable and polite, and respond to hospitality and politeness with even more hospitality and politeness. It’s just who they are. We’ve tried the axis of evil concept and that got us nowhere. So why not go with something different. Let them think they’ve ground us down. Why not gush endlessly about how much we’re looking forward to opening up trade with the great nation of Iran, how much we admire its people, and marvel at its ancient civilization. Why not thank the Iranians profusely for their help in stopping cross-border arms supplies to the Sadrists in Iraq (even though they did diddly squat), or for the gracious way they worked so closely with humanitarian teams from the West when overcoming this or that earthquake. Iranians love a compliment or ten. If we hold out the hand of friendship, they simply won’t be able to help being nice back. Why? Because a vast swathe of the Iranian public doesn’t hate America, because they want the world to think they’re just fabulous, and because their trading partners in Europe, who have been asking us to play nice for years, will expect Tehran to respond in kind.

Sure they might still blab on about Israel being a carbuncle on the face on an ancient babylonian whore, but it’s a sure thing that the insults against President and the US would come to a swift halt.

And then we could actually make some progress towards actually engaging with Tehran, and dealing with the very real dangers that they pose to world peace.

Clinton urges NATO allies to keep door open for Georgia, Ukraine

During her first official visit to Europe last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned “a fresh start” with Russia but also pushed for holding NATO’s door open to “European countries such as Georgia and Ukraine.”

Attending the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on March 5, she said the alliance must “find ways to manage the differences with Russia where they persist” and “stand up for our principles when our security or interests are at stake.”

At the same time she underlined that NATO must never recognize the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or “accept Russia’s assertions of spheres of influence over unwilling nations.”

Following NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s recommendation to resume high-level meetings of the NATO-Russia Council, foreign ministers of the 26 member countries engaged in a tense discussion over the issue ending up in a decision in Russia’s favor.

NATO suspended official cooperation with Russia last year in protest over Russia’s August incursion into Georgia. Now the alliance thinks the cooperation must be restored after the NATO anniversary summit, scheduled in April.

Analysts note that rapprochement with Russia is imminent with the new US administration desperately seeking broader collaboration with Moscow on Iran, Afghanistan and mutual security issues.

“I don’t think you (alliance) punish Russia by stopping conversations with them about matters, whether it be the misuse of energy supplies or the failure to comply with the requirements set forth by the OSCE and others concerning their actions in Georgia,” Clinton said.

Yet, not all the attendees were enthusiastic to see a thaw between Brussels and Moscow. Vygaudas Usackas of Lithuania, an ex-Soviet state which along with other Baltic countries is a staunch supporter of Georgia’s NATO bid, described the attempts to restart a dialogue with Russia as “premature.”

Britain’s position sounded more reserved and diplomatic as PM David Miliband said: “We distinctly and very severely declared that we support Georgia’s territorial integrity. We don’t want to isolate Russia, but Russia may isolate itself because of it’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.”

The alliance went back to Georgia again at the extraordinary NATO-Georgia Commission session, which was held at the request of Tbilisi. The session focused on Georgia’s Annual National Programme, as well as the ongoing reform process, continuation of dialogue on the regional security situation, and ways to further enhance NATO-Georgia ties.

Before heading for Brussels, in response to reporters’ questions as to why Georgia asked for the extraordinary session, Grigol Vashadze, the Georgian foreign minister, only said it was “simple” to guess, apparently referring to recent warnings in Tbilisi of Russia’s possible military intervention.

According to the Georgian Foreign Ministry, Vashadze met with Hillary Clinton after the NATO-Georgia Commission meeting. The ministry said on its web page that “one of the main reasons for reaching the agreement among the allies on resuming formal relations with Russia through the NATO-Russia Council is to hold discussions on the issues of fundamental disagreement on Georgia.”

Set up after the August war, the NATO-Georgia Commission (NGC) is the institution where the alliance and Georgian sides are permanently gathered to discuss the security situation in the Euro-Atlantic region, the ongoing process of reforms in Georgia as well as NATO’s role in those reforms, and the further development of the NATO-Georgia partnership.

The last meeting of NGC was organized on February 20 in Krakow, which discussed ways to keep alive the membership hopes of Ukraine and Georgia, and Georgia’s defense priorities for 2009, including a review of national security strategy.

In contrast with Tbilisi official’s optimism of the March 5 meetings at the NATO headquarters, European commentators seemed far skeptical.

“Since Georgia’s de facto dismemberment at the hands of Russia last August, and since Ukraine’s descent into almost complete political paralysis and economic meltdown, NATO membership for both countries has, to put it mildly, not been one of the alliance’s top priorities,” Tony Barber, the Financial Times’ Brussels bureau chief, wrote on his blog. “Therefore, what Clinton has just said is a mere formula, not any kind of new initiative. It certainly tells us nothing about where the Obama administration will put the emphasis in its foreign policy.”