Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Trial to Offer Look at World of Information Trading

Steven J. Rosen, left, with his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, is charged with violating the World War I-era Espionage Act.

WASHINGTON — From its headquarters near the Capitol, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, has for decades played an important though informal role in the formation of the United States government’s Middle East policy.

As part of Aipac’s mission to lobby the government on behalf of Israel, its officials assiduously maintain contact with senior policymakers, lawmakers, diplomats and journalists. Those conversations are typical of the unseen world of information trading in Washington, where people customarily and insistently ask each other, “So, what are you hearing?”

But a trial scheduled for late April in federal court in Alexandria, Va., threatens to expose and upend that system. Moreover, the case comes with issues of enormous sensitivity and emotion, notably the nature and extent of the ways American Jewish supporters of Israel try to influence the United States government.

Two former senior analysts for Aipac, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, are charged with violating the World War I-era Espionage Act when they told colleagues, journalists and Israeli Embassy officials information about Iran and Iraq they had learned from talking to high-level United States policymakers.

Unless the government suddenly backs down, the courtroom will become the stage for an extraordinary parade of top officials being forced to testify about some of the unseen ways American foreign policy is made.

Over the strong objections of the Justice Department, the judge in the case ruled that the defense may call as witnesses Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state; Stephen J. Hadley, the White House national security adviser; Elliot Abrams, a deputy national security adviser; Richard L. Armitage, former deputy secretary of state; Paul D. Wolfowitz, former deputy defense secretary; and a dozen other Bush administration foreign policy officials.

The defense’s goal is to demonstrate that the kind of conversations in the indictment are an accepted, if not routine, way that American policy on Israel and the Middle East has been formulated for years.

Mr. Rosen’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said the case raised “strange and troubling issues, notably the decision to target Aipac for common and proper behavior that goes on in Washington every day.”

Mr. Lowell and John Nassikas III, who represents Mr. Weissman, plan to confront Ms. Rice and the other witnesses with explicit examples of exchanges in which they provided similar sensitive information to Aipac staff members as part of the regular back-channel world of diplomacy.

Although Aipac has not been charged in the case, the trial, to be heard by Judge T. S. Ellis III, will revolve around how the group, renowned for its effectiveness in presenting Israel’s case, exerts its influence in Congress and, especially in recent years, on the executive branch.

For Aipac and to some extent the larger pro-Israel community in the United States, the charges against Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman could raise what they regard as an unfair, even toxic question about whether some American Jews hold a loyalty to Israel that matches or exceeds their loyalty to the United States.

The trial will also take place only months after the eruption of an intense public debate about the American Jewish supporters of Israel that was occasioned by the publication of an article and book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” The authors, John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University, argue that the pro-Israel lobby successfully suppresses legitimate criticism of Israel and uses its influence to distort the public debate about Middle East policy.

Their views produced a ferocious counterattack in magazines and scholarly journals in which both their facts and conclusions were challenged.

The trial will as well be shadowed by the case of Jonathan Pollard, a civilian analyst for the Navy who was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 for spying on behalf of Israel. There is no question that the charges against Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman are vastly different than the actions of Mr. Pollard, who knowingly acted as a spy by stealing sensitive documents and passing them covertly to Israeli agents.

The emotional resonance of his case continues, however, because it directly raised the notion of dual loyalty and because his supporters think he has been denied parole to satisfy a national security community that was deeply angered over Israel’s spying on the United States.

Avi Beker, who teaches what he calls “Jewish diplomacy” at the University of Tel Aviv and Georgetown University, said that while the two cases are greatly different, “they evoke a parallel psychological effect” both among American Jews who have an enduring anxiety about the dual loyalty charge and those who are suspicious of the Israel lobby.

Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman each face one charge of conspiracy to communicate national defense information, and Mr. Rosen faces an additional charge of aiding and abetting the conspiracy.

Justice Department officials would not discuss the case. But at the time of the indictment in 2005, Paul J. McNulty, then the chief prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, said, “Those not authorized to receive classified information must resist the temptation to acquire it, no matter what their motivation may be.”

According to the indictment, the defendants received sensitive information from at least three government sources that was passed on to journalists and Israeli officials. One of the sources was Lawrence A. Franklin, a Pentagon analyst who has pleaded guilty to passing on sensitive information to a journalist and an Israeli diplomat. Mr. Franklin has been sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.

After Mr. Franklin was arrested in 2004, he became a cooperating witness for the government and, while wearing a wire, met with Mr. Weissman and told him that Iran had learned that Israeli agents were in northern Iraq. Mr. Weissman, according to the indictment, told Mr. Rosen, and they both relayed that information to an Israeli diplomat and intelligence officer and an unnamed Washington Post reporter later identified as Glenn Kessler.

The other two sources of information received by Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman are identified in the indictment only as Government Official-1 and Government Official-2. Kenneth Pollack, who was the National Security Council specialist on the Persian Gulf, said in an interview that he thought he was Government Official-1 because on Dec. 12, 2000, he had had lunch with Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman.

Mr. Pollack, who is no longer with the government, said that he told government investigators, “I never revealed any classified information to Rosen and Weissman, and I never revealed any information that would be harmful to the security or interests of the United States.”

The indictment also charges that Mr. Rosen received information in January 2002 from Government Official-2, who has been identified by people involved in the case as David M. Satterfield, who has since been promoted to the post of the State Department’s senior adviser on Iraq. A spokesman for Mr. Satterfield would not comment.

Mr. Lowell, the defense lawyer, said there had been no explanation as to why neither Mr. Pollack nor Mr. Satterfield seemed to be in any legal jeopardy for imparting information to Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman that became part of the charges against them when they passed that information on to others.

Aipac, which spends nearly $2 million annually in lobbying, according to public filings, has worked to distance itself from the defendants.

Aipac dismissed them in early 2004 after federal prosecutors in Virginia played part of surreptitiously recorded conversations for Nathan Lewin, a veteran Washington lawyer representing Aipac. The tapes were of conversations in which Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman passed on information about the Middle East they had received from government officials to Mr. Kessler at The Washington Post.

Mr. Lewin, who has had a long history as a trusted counsel for various Jewish organizations, traveled back to Aipac’s headquarters near Capitol Hill from Alexandria that day and advised the group to fire the men.

The Aipac spokesman on the Rosen-Weissman matter, Patrick Dorton, said at the time that the two men were dismissed because their behavior “did not comport with standards that Aipac expects of its employees.” He said recently that Aipac still held that view of their behavior.

Mr. Lewin would not discuss what he heard that day. But others familiar with the case said the defendants’ boastful tone, which may have been used to suggest that their knowledge reflected their great influence within the administration, made the conversations potentially embarrassing.

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More FBI Privacy Violations Confirmed

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The FBI acknowledged Wednesday it improperly accessed Americans' telephone records, credit reports and Internet traffic in 2006, the fourth straight year of privacy abuses resulting from investigations aimed at tracking terrorists and spies.

The breach occurred before the FBI enacted broad new reforms in March 2007 to prevent future lapses, FBI Director Robert Mueller said. And it was caused, in part, by banks, telecommunication companies and other private businesses giving the FBI more personal client data than was requested.

Testifying at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Mueller raised the issue of the FBI's controversial use of so-called national security letters in reference to an upcoming report on the topic by the Justice Department's inspector general.

An audit by the inspector general last year found the FBI demanded personal records without official authorization or otherwise collected more data than allowed in dozens of cases between 2003 and 2005. Additionally, last year's audit found that the FBI had underreported to Congress how many national security letters were requested by more than 4,600.

The new audit, which examines use of national security letters issued in 2006, ''will identify issues similar to those in the report issued last March,'' Mueller told senators. The privacy abuse ''predates the reforms we now have in place,'' he said.

''We are committed to ensuring that we not only get this right, but maintain the vital trust of the American people,'' Mueller said. He offered no additional details about the upcoming audit.

National security letters, as outlined in the USA Patriot Act, are administrative subpoenas used in suspected terrorism and espionage cases. They allow the FBI to require telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus and other businesses to produce highly personal records about their customers or subscribers without a judge's approval.

Last year's audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, issued March 9, 2007, blamed agent error and shoddy record-keeping for the bulk of the problems and did not find any indication of criminal misconduct. Fine's latest report is expected to be released as early as next week.

Several Justice Department and FBI officials familiar with the upcoming 2006 findings have said privately the new audit will show national security letters were used incorrectly at a similar rate as during the previous three years.

The number of national security letters issued by the FBI skyrocketed in the years after the Patriot Act became law in 2001, according to last year's report. Fine's annual review is required by Congress, over the objections of the Bush administration.

In 2005, for example, Fine's office found more than 1,000 violations within 19,000 FBI requests to obtain 47,000 records. Each letter issued may contain several requests.

In contrast to the strong concerns expressed by Congress and civil liberties groups after last year's inspector general's report was issued, Mueller's disclosure drew no criticism from senators during just over two hours of testimony Wednesday.

Speaking before the FBI chief, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., urged Mueller to be more vigilant in correcting what he called ''widespread illegal and improper use of national security letters.''

''Everybody wants to stop terrorists. But we also, though, as Americans, we believe in our privacy rights and we want those protected,'' Leahy said. ''There has to be a better chain of command for this. You cannot just have an FBI agent who decides he'd like to obtain Americans' records, bank records or anything else and do it just because they want to.''

Following last year's audit, the Justice Department enacted guidelines that sternly reminded FBI agents to carefully follow the rules governing national security letters. The new rules caution agents to review all data before it is transferred into FBI databases to make sure that only the information specifically requested is used.

Fine's upcoming report also credits the FBI with putting the additional checks in place to make sure privacy rights aren't violated, according to a Justice official familiar with its findings.

Critics seized on Mueller's testimony as proof that a judge should sign off on the national security letters before they are issued.

''The credibility factor shows there needs to be outside oversight,'' said former FBI agent Michael German, now a national security adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union. He also cast doubt on the FBI's reforms.

''There were guidelines before, and there were laws before, and the FBI violated those laws,'' German said. ''And the idea that new guidelines would make a difference, I think cuts against rationality.''

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Green light for TTC's 11,000 cameras

$21 million network of video 'eyes' justified for safety of riders, privacy czar rules

Queen's Park Bureau

Surveillance cameras make TTC riders feel safer and the plan to dramatically expand their numbers is okay with Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's privacy commissioner.

Installing 11,000 cameras on buses, streetcars, subway cars and in stations complies with privacy standards, Cavoukian said yesterday when she released the results of her investigation.

But the TTC must make some changes to ensure the network of seeing eyes is used only for legitimate purposes and never for voyeurism, as has happened in other cities, she said.

Cavoukian urged that the TTC:

  • Delete video data after three days unless it's needed for a police investigation.
  • Conduct annual audits to make sure privacy rules are followed.
  • Test a privacy-enhancing technology, under development at University of Toronto, that automatically encrypts people's images.

The recommendations are meant to balance the legitimate needs for transit system safety and passenger privacy, Cavoukian stated.

TTC chair Adam Giambrone endorsed her findings and said his staff will be coming back with a plan for implementing them.

Privacy International, the London-based organization whose complaint trigged Cavoukian's investigation, was less pleased.

"It is clear ... the Commissioner has given up the ghost of privacy and become resigned to the inevitability of video surveillance technology," the group said on its website.

The group argues there is no public-interest justification for the $21 million security system.

The TTC now has cameras operating in all stations and 300 buses. By 2011, there will be more than 11,000 blanketing the system.

Privacy International should worry less about Toronto and more about the 4.2 million cameras in its own backyard, Cavoukian said.

In London, as in New York and Washington, the video feed is monitored live by an operator who can move the camera as needed.

The TTC's cameras are fixed in one position, and while ticket-takers have monitors in their booths, there is no one dedicated to watching the screen full-time, Giambrone said.

U.K. camera operators "have entertained themselves by zooming in on certain physical attributes of young women," Cavoukian noted.

She is backing the U of T research into a video surveillance system that would automatically encrypt, or blur, the faces of individuals unless a crime is committed and the visual details are needed.

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How Retailers Trick You in to Buying Stuff You Don’t Need (and How to Fight Back)

Consumers shopping habits have been put under a microscope and analyzed by the retail industry in order to maximize sales.

Shoppers have been as thoroughly studied as lab rats and the research has resulted in scientifically proven approaches to influence shopper’s emotions, to heighten their insecurities and to trick them in to buying things they don’t need or want.Joe Consumer has put together 10 of the most common retail tricks, along with tips for how to avoid being taken in. While some of these things may seem like common sense, each is a reaction to a specific tactic retailers use to get you to buy just one more thing.

My, that’s a big basket you’ve got there

retail-tricks-shopping-carts.pngStores have hundreds of enormous shopping carts parked conveniently at the entrance. Once you have selected something, you’re more likely to “find” additional items - after all, that empty space in the cart is just begging to be filled, you must have something else you can buy, right?

Tip: If you can skip the cart and make do with a basket, you’ll reduce the temptation to over buy. If you can get by without the basket, even better!

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

Vanity mirrors slow you down and keep you looking, but there is more than meets the eye. Most people can’t help but check themselves out, and who’s 100% satisfied with what they see? Making you more self-conscious helps you see new items as a solution. You are more likely to buy, when you’ve walked out of the house in something less flattering than what’s on the rack in front of you.

Tip: Wear something that looks good on you while you shop, and avoid mirrors unless you’re already trying something on. Not only will you feel more confident and buy less, you’ll generally get better service too.

Buy in bulk and save?

retail-ticks-buy-in-bulk.pngMisleading bulk sales are another retail favorite. There’s no difference between $5 each and the four for $20 on sale, except that you just might end up with three more than you wanted. Also, products sold in different volumes and weights often have prices that are chosen to confuse you. Shoppers tend to look at $10.49 for 48 ounces and think it’s the equivalent of $4.99 for 24 ounces even though it’s not -you’re paying more for less! Most grocery stores and pharmacies are required to provide per unit pricing signage, but these often don’t reflect sale prices.

Even when it is actually cheaper per unit to buy in bulk, it doesn’t mean you should! Do you really need a gallon of mayonnaise, or 1000 clothes hangers?

Tip: Compare unit prices, use that calculator on your cell phone, and don’t buy more than you can use, no matter the “savings”.

How did they stack all those boxes like that?

Those towering displays of intricately stacked boxes are called power displays, and they are meant to be speed bumps to slow you down and distract you from finding what you came for. Stores like Ikea have taken this to a whole new level. Their layout is specifically designed to require every shopper at least momentary exposure to every major showroom and floor, which increases the chance that you’ll come out with more than what you came in for.

Tip: Look for shortcut signs to areas of choice & beeline to the checkout.

To get to the cheese, you have to get through the maze

retail-ticks-hide-the-essentials.pngMilk, bread, restrooms — all the essentials — are all in the back of the store, because they’re staples that everyone needs, and relatively low margin. Putting them there forces you to check out other merchandise along the way. Getting them first can help you stick to your list.

Tip: Beeline to the back and work your way forward.

Bargain bins and going-out-of business sales

We all love feeling like we got a good deal, but don’t be fooled! While some stores pay their clerks to be obsessive about precisely-folded sweaters on display, others actually pay them to make sure the displays are just a bit little messy, because shoppers interpret that (often unconsciously) as a cue that other people thought it was a deal too. Others retailers are known to have annual moving sales, year end sales and re-opening sales that just amount to taking their leftovers off hangers and dumping them into clearance bins.

Tip: Evaluate the value of a “bargain” objectively, not by how wrinkled it is.

Oooh, something smells amazing!

retail-tricks-something-smells-amazing.pngStores and restaurants love to stimulate your appetite with provocative sights and smells. Grocery stores capitalize on hungry consumers by offering free samples, but this isn’t charity any more than the smell of freshly baked bread is an accident. These are signals to excite you and tempt you into buying foods that are likely no better for your financial health than your physical health.

Tip: Eat before you shop, or if you’re out shopping for the day, pack a water bottle and a snack!

Save even more with our charge card!

There’s a reason why department stores so cheerfully help you afford that overpriced indulgence with a discount on with a store charge card - they make the money later. You’re much more likely to buy big impulse items if you don’t have to count the dollars out the wallet you are holding.

Tip: Pay in cash. Going to the ATM and physically seeing your bank balance gives you that extra time to consider.

Retailers love to put children to work “helping” you find things

retail-tricks-kids-help-you.pngManufacturers advertise to children aggressively, so kids are primed to seek out products they have been exposed too. Stores know that catching a kid’s attention is a great way to get distracted parents to fork over cash for an impulse buy, and they purposefully put colorful, fun, shiny items within their reach.

Tip: Try to leave the kids at home, or have someone watch them. People tend to shop more efficiently without partners and friends, too.

Checking out? One last thing…

Drinks, candy, gum, media – all right by the checkout counter. This section is convenient in part because it is compact and limited, but it also means you can’t compare prices, and may not get your favorite brand.

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Buffett: US Essentially in Recession

Buffett Says US Economy Essentially in a Recession, Expects Rough Ride for Insurers in 2008 OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- Billionaire Warren Buffett said Monday that the U.S. economy is essentially in a recession even if it hasn't met the technical definition of one yet.

Buffett said in an interview with cable network CNBC the reports he gets from the retail businesses his holding company owns show a significant slowdown in purchases.

The chairman and CEO of Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. said millions of people have also lost equity in their homes because home prices have dropped.

"I would say, by any commonsense definition, we are in a recession," Buffett said on CNBC.

But Buffett said it's not clear how far the recession will go because that is difficult to predict.

The technical definition of a recession most economists use is two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the nation's gross domestic product.

On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that the gross domestic product increased at a low 0.6 percent pace in the quarter that ended Dec. 31.

In the July-September quarter, the economy grew at a brisk 4.9 percent.

Gross domestic product measures the value of all goods and services produced in the United States and is the best barometer of the country's economic health.

A survey released last week by the National Association for Business Economics showed that 45 percent of economists are predicting a recession in 2008.

But Buffett said the U.S. economy will be fine in the long run.

"Over time, my children are going to live better than I do, although they don't believe it," Buffett said.

Buffett's appearance on television came on the heels of his annual letter to shareholders, which he released Friday along with Berkshire's 2007 financial report.

In the letter, Buffett predicted that the insurance industry will see lower underwriting profit margins in 2008 because premium prices are down, and the industry's luck will certainly change.

"It's a certainty that insurance-industry profit margins, including ours, will fall significantly in 2008," he said. "Prices are down, and exposures inexorably rise. Even if the U.S. has its third consecutive catastrophe-light year, industry profit margins will probably shrink by 4 percentage points or so.

"If the winds roar or the earth trembles, results could be far worse."

Buffett said Berkshire's insurance group, which includes GEICO, reinsurance giant General Re and several other firms, generated $2.2 billion net income from insurance underwriting in 2007. That's down from the previous year when it posted a $2.5 billion underwriting profit.

When Berkshire's shareholders aren't worrying about insurance profits, they're likely fretting about who will run Berkshire after Buffett is gone. The 77-year-old Buffett offered a few new clues in his annual letter and during the CNBC interview.

To replace Buffett, Berkshire plans to split his job into three parts -- chief investment officer, chief executive officer and chairman.

Buffett wrote in his letter that over the past year he identified four investment managers outside Berkshire who could take over managing the company's $75 billion stock portfolio and investing its $44.3 billion cash.

Buffett said on CNBC that none of the four CIO candidates is a woman and that very few women applied for the job.

Buffett has previously said that Berkshire's board had three outstanding internal candidates for chief executive. And Buffett's son, Howard, who already serves on Berkshire's board, will become chairman after Warren Buffett's death.

Buffett also said on CNBC:

-- That he doesn't agree on everything with his favorite presidential candidates, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and he wouldn't want either one to succeed him as Berkshire's chief capital allocater. "I would certainly appoint either one of them to run a business, but running a business is a little different than my job."

-- On why the U.S. trade deficit is a long-term problem. "Over time, it's like eating an extra 100 calories at every meal. You don't sit down at the table and get up and everybody says 'My God, you're fat.' But if you keep doing it over time, pretty soon they'll say, 'My God, he's gotten fat.'"

-- On stock bargains now: "Certainly, I find more things to look at now than I did six months or a year ago. But I would say it's changed more dramatically in the fixed-income market than it has in the equity market."

-- On the cause of the credit crisis: "The mistake was in lending unwisely. There were a lot of dumb lending practices."

Berkshire owns more than 60 subsidiaries including insurance, clothing, furniture, natural gas, corporate jet and candy companies. Berkshire also has major investments in such companies as Coca-Cola Co. and Wells Fargo & Co.

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16 Ways to Save $100

As the government and Federal Reserve campaign to head off a recession, many families are working hard to save money and reduce debt. Credit-card debts and other loans hang over us like a sword. By saving modest amounts, however, you can reap big rewards over time. And that doesn't require clipping coupons and washing out used coffee filters. Here are easy ways you can save $100 or more this year:

1. Plug into bargain electricity.
Mickey Greenblatt was spending nearly $250 a month on electricity for his home in Potomac, Md. When the retired executive called his utility company to find out why his bills were so high, the company offered to do a free home-energy audit. Greenblatt learned that simple things such as running his dishwasher at night rather than during the day could cut his bill by 40 percent. Taking advantage of such options as off-peak rates can save most consumers $100 a year.

Savings are also possible under "load management" programs. You get discounts for allowing your utility company to put a device on your water heater and air conditioner that switches them off briefly during periods of high demand.

2. Hit the brakes on automobile-insurance rates.
You can save substantially by increasing the deductibles on the comprehensive and collision portions of your policy. According to the Insurance Information Institute, raising collision deductibles from $200 to $500 could reduce your collision and comprehensive coverage by 15-30 percent. Squeeze out additional savings by asking about every possible discount, such as for carpooling, air bags, annual mileage below 10,000 miles -- even for teenage drivers with grade averages above a B.

3. Challenge your property tax.
Ruth Rejnis, author of Squeeze Your Home for Cash, recommends going to your local assessor's office and finding out what property taxes your neighbors are paying. If your house is similar but your taxes are higher, you may want to challenge your bill. Also, read the description of your home. Errors in square footage or the number of bathrooms could mean an overcharge. The assessor's office or local board of tax review can tell you how to file an appeal.

4. Shop for a bargain bank.
Look for free checking and no ATM fees. Also, if you have direct deposit of your paycheck, your bank might waive its monthly fee.

5. Remedy pricey prescriptions.
Cut your bills in half by buying generic drugs instead of name brands. Also, buy your prescriptions via mail order through a drugstore chain or your company health plan.

6. Pay off your plastic.
If you carry a credit-card balance from month to month, pay it back pronto. A $1000 balance at 18 percent blows nearly $200 a year in interest. If you can't pay it off in full, transfer your debt to a lower-rate card.

7. Say no to car extras.
Your car dealer may sell rustproofing and fabric protection at $100 a pop, and paint protection for as much as $250. "Usually these extras are the dealer's way to squeeze more money out of you," says Bob Elliston, author of What Car Dealers Won't Tell You. Do-it-yourself fabric protector costs about $10 a bottle. Paint protection is unnecessary, since most cars have many layers of paint. And skip rustproofing: cars come already treated so that they won't need it.

8. Take a longer waiting period for disability insurance.
If you can't work, disability insurance pays your living expenses. Many employers offer this. But if you must buy your own, accept the longest waiting period before benefits kick in -- as long as you can cover those expenses, suggests Shelly Branch, author of Dollar Pinching: A Consumer's Guide to Smart Spending. A healthy male carpenter earning $40,000 annually could pay up to $1800 a year for a policy with a 30-day wait. With a 90-day wait it could cost $800 to $1100.

9. Cancel mortgage insurance.
When you buy a house with less than 20 percent down, your lender may insist you buy private mortgage insurance (PMI) to protect against default. The average cost of this insurance is $45 a month, or $540 a year. However, once you have 20-percent equity (either because you've paid down your mortgage or because area property values have risen), you may be allowed to cancel the PMI.

10. Explore DRIPs.
If you buy stock, you can save on brokerage commissions by enrolling in a dividend reinvestment plan (DRIP). Offered by more than 900 companies, DRIPs allow shareholders to buy stock directly. You may have to be a shareholder of record, however, so find out if you'll need to use a broker to buy your first few shares. Then enroll in the DRIP.

11. Buy straight from the Treasury.
Another way to bypass brokers and save money on fees is to buy Treasury notes, bills or bonds directly. The minimum investment is $1000 for bonds and for notes with maturities between five and ten years, $5000 for notes with shorter maturities and $10,000 for bills. Ask the nearest branch of the Federal Reserve Bank for an application for a Treasury Direct account.

12. Clean out your closet.
When you deduct charitable donations of clothing at tax time, do you just guess $100? William Lewis, author of Cash for Your Used Clothing, says most people underestimate the worth of such items.

Before you donate, price each item against similar ones sold at the store where you drop them off. If you're in a 28-percent tax bracket, a donation worth $400 will earn you a tax deduction of at least $112.

13. Skip the service contract.
Extended warranties on electronics are rarely a good deal. According to Tom Garman, a Virginia Tech professor of consumer affairs, most product breakdowns occur in the first year and are covered by the manufacturer's warranty.

14. Flex your company's flexible spending account.
These accounts allow you to set aside part of your pretax salary for dependent-care costs and unreimbursed medical expenses. You decide at the beginning of the year how much money you want to set aside in the account. The downside is that if you don't use all the money, you lose it. However, if you're in the 28-percent tax bracket and allocate $500 to cover your health-insurance deductible, you'll cut taxes by $140.

15. Buy in bulk.
Items you may use a lot, such as paper towels and diapers, are often far cheaper when you buy in quantity. For example, Alan and Denise Fields, co-authors of Baby Bargains, say new parents buy an average of 2400 disposable diapers in their baby's first year alone. Diapers that cost 20 cents apiece in the packages sold at grocery shops and drugstores might go for 15 cents when bought in bulk at a discount store or warehouse club. Just a nickel a diaper could add up to an annual savings of $120.

16. Rethink your vacations.
"Homestay" programs offer free lodging all over the world to travelers who are themselves willing to host other members in their homes. Some groups charge an annual membership fee, but your savings can easily be worth more than a hundred dollars a day.

Original here
High on Mount Sinai, Moses was on psychedelic drugs when he heard God deliver the Ten Commandments, an Israeli researcher claimed in a study published this week.

Such mind-altering substances formed an integral part of the religious rites of Israelites in biblical times, Benny Shanon, a professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in the Time and Mind journal of philosophy.

"As far Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don't believe, or a legend, which I don't believe either, or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effect of narcotics," Shanon told Israeli public radio on Tuesday.

Moses was probably also on drugs when he saw the "burning bush," suggested Shanon, who said he himself has dabbled with such substances.

"The Bible says people see sounds, and that is a clasic phenomenon," he said citing the example of religious ceremonies in the Amazon in which drugs are used that induce people to "see music."

He mentioned his own experience when he used ayahuasca, a powerful psychotropic plant, during a religious ceremony in Brazil's Amazon forest in 1991. "I experienced visions that had spiritual-religious connotations," Shanon said.

He said the psychedelic effects of ayahuasca were comparable to those produced by concoctions based on bark of the acacia tree, that is frequently mentioned in the Bible.

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Jamaica considers legalising cannabis

Jamaica is considering the legalisation of marijuana, a drug revered by members of the island's large Rastafarian population who say smoking it is part of their religion.

A seven-member government commission has been researching possible changes to the Caribbean nation's anti-drug laws, which some police complain are clogging courts and jails with marijuana-related cases, a government official said.

"We have discussed it, and we are preparing a report to present to the prime minister," said Deputy Prime Minister Kenneth Baugh.

In 2003, a government commission recommended legalising marijuana in small amounts for personal use.

But lawmakers never acted, saying legalisation might entail loss of their country's US anti-drug certification. Countries that lose it face economic sanctions.

A US State Department report on Friday said Jamaica is the largest producer of marijuana in the Caribbean and a major hub for drugs bound for the US.

Members of the Rastafarian movement, which emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s out of anger over the oppression of blacks, have long lobbied for the legalisation of the drug that they say brings them closer to the divine.

There are an estimated 700,000 Rastafarians in the world, most of them among Jamaica's 2.6 million people.

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