Monday, May 12, 2008

Taxing oil profits: Proceed with caution

Politicians are dying to get at more of Big Oil's billions, but analysts are torn about what that will do to prices or future energy sources.

scissors_money_cut.jc.03.jpgPoliticans want a windfall profits oil tax, but analysts are split over the effects.

NEW YORK ( -- Politicians are eyeing oil profits like a fat juicy glazed ham.

With all the money Big Oil is making - the top five publicly traded firms pocketed over $120 billion in 2007 alone - and with an election on the horizon, it's easy to see why.

The leading Democratic presidential candidates want a windfall profits tax to do various things, and although their plans differ slightly they generally want to use the money to give Americans a break from skyrocketing energy prices and jumpstart research into renewable energy.

House Democrats have also warned of punitive measures if these massive profits continue at the expense of American consumers.

But while the politicians present their plans, analysts are far less sanguine about whether or not a windfall profits tax would actually help soothe steadily rising energy prices and spur R&D for alternative energy sources.

A consumer rights group says that windfall taxes could actually raise gas prices as oil companies might attempt to squeeze refinery production to recoup their lost profit.

"It would have a fairly easy passthrough" to motorists, said Judy Dugan, research director Consumer Watchdog.

Oil industry: Hands off our cash. The industry, of course, doesn't like the extra profit tax.

"If our profits are taxed, that means we'll have less capital to invest in new production" and it could raise gas prices, John Hofmeister, president of Shell U.S., recently told

Oil companies have been investing more in new production lately, but that argument is a little hard to swallow given the disparity between the huge amounts of money the big firms have been returning to shareholders versus the meager new oil discoveries.

Amy Myers Jaffe, a fellow in energy studies at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy just finished a two-year study looking at oil companies and how they spend their money.

The study found that for the five big international oil companies - ExxonMobil (XOM, Fortune 500), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA), BP (BP), Chevron (CVX, Fortune 500) and ConocoPhillips (COP, Fortune 500) - spending on share buybacks went from under $10 billion a year in 2003 to nearly $60 billion a year in 2006.

Spending on developing their existing oil fields, however, went from about $35 to $50 billion, while spending on finding new oil fields went from about $6 billion to $10 billion.

"These companies are spending a very small amount of their operating cash flow on exploration," she said. "They are spending the majority of their funds buying back stock."

Finding oil: No cheap feat. Recently, oil rich countries like Russia and Venezuela have begun to elbow out foreign companies in order to keep a larger portion of their own energy profits. In the meantime, a shortage of skilled workers and materials has hit the industry, making finding new oil is a challenge.

Oil analysts and the industry itself concede that this turn of events makes it hard for companies to invest profits for new exploration projects and must be redistributed to shareholders.

But it's unlikely this scenario - high oil prices and limited access to resources - will remain static forever, and it's important for oil companies to have access to cash when times change and exploration and development are more achievable, said Antoine Halff, head of energy research at Fimat in New York.

Fields in Mexico, Russia, Venezuela and other places are facing production problems, and its becoming more likely that big foreign firms will be called in to help, said Halff.

Halff said a one-time profits tax probably would have a negligible effect on worldwide production, but a permanent tax would likely hamper the hunt for oil in the future.

What about the Google windfall profits tax? Analysts with energy consultants Wood Mackenzie agree with Halff's take, and introduced a more ideological reason for holding off on a windfall profits tax.

"Do they want to take some from Microsoft too? How about hedge fund managers," asked Wood Mackenzie oil analyst Ann-Louise Hittle, somewhat rhetorically.

It's true that while the oil industry rakes in huge sums of cash in raw numbers, the profit margin for the S&P energy sector, at about 10%, is only slightly higher that the average for the S&P 500.

Google, by contrast, has a profit margin of 25%, yet no one is calling for a special tax on search engines.

Others say there's a big difference between tech and oil companies.

"Their investment decisions affect you and I," said Jaffe. "If Google doesn't make the right investments, it doesn't impact my ability to get to work."

Jaffe also countered that the lack of access and manpower is no reason Big Oil isn't finding more oil now, saying her study showed the next 20 largest oil companies were investing far more in exploration, and finding far more oil.

Government vs. the free market. While the debate about whether or not to tax Big Oil's profit rages on, there's also the debate as to who is best suited to bet on our future energy choices.

The oil companies have been criticized for being shortsighted and not investing enough in renewable resources. Indeed, some want to use a windfall profits tax to fund renewable energy projects.

The counter argument to government sponsored R&D is that when it comes to new technologies, the market picks them best.

"Can [the government] take this capital and do a better job investing it than shareholders can," asked David Kreutzer, an energy economist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. 'I'd say no on that one."

Dave Hamilton, director for global warming and energy projects at the Sierra Club dismissed the notion that free markets are the best way to solve the nation's energy challenge, saying capital gravitates towards what's profitable, not what's best for the nation.

"The oil companies are skimming the cream off the nation's economy," he said. "Look where's it gotten us so far. I don't think we've been successful in the last seven years in solving our energy problem." To top of page

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Your boss declares martial law on Facebook

Suck it up pal — that's what our founding fathers would've done!

Where would this nation be if the first Continental Congress convened to jot down a petition to King George but never got around to it because they got too distracted poking Betsey Ross and checking out Thomas Jefferson’s Twitter feed?
A. Tholey / Wm. Finley & Co. via

This just in: Your employer doesn’t want you social networking on company time.

Your employer probably doesn’t want you hanging out on porn sites either, like that poor civil servant in Japan who was demoted recently for logging more than 780,000 hits on porn sites on his office computer in a remarkable nine months.

To be fair, one of those sites may’ve been his home page. And anyway, the truly amazing fact is that this fellow was only demoted. Demoted!

And they say the Japanese corporate world is tough. As an American, you’d probably get canned for such libidinous 9-to-5 behavior. Of course, there’s no way of knowing for sure as the information isn’t immediately available to Netiquette at this particular moment in time.

One thing Netiquette does know is that according to a recent study, employers are fed up with Facebook — at least in England. The survey from U.K.-based IT security firm Global Secure Systems found that workers spend at least 30 minutes on either Facebook or MySpace during a typical work day. Two of the 700 hundred respondents admitted to spending as much as three hours a day on the sites. (No doubt, they’re also the only participants whose pants aren't currently on fire.)

Global Secure Systems estimates that Facebook frolicking and other like online dallying cost employers several billion dollars a year in lost productivity. And that’s in England! Here in the U.S., with our notorious “take stuff from work” entitlement, you could triple that number and still come up a couple of sawbucks short. So don’t be surprised when your employer makes like 43 percent of companies in England and blocks your access to the online poke-a-thon.

If the very idea of your paycheck provider cutting off your Internet makes you hot in the face and inspires the urge to start blathering about Freedom of Speech and censorship and “What is this, China?” and “I’m not a child!” blah blah blah … just shut up. Seriously. How weird is it that we’ve even formed the concept that we have a right to hang out with our friends — albeit in cyberspace — on the company’s dime?

Think about it. Before e-mail got so darn trendy, Ol’ Bob Cratchit would never think of pushing away his spreadsheet or whatever it was he did, so that he could put quill to parchment and jot down a quick missive to Tiny Tim.

Even now, you wouldn’t dream of ignoring institutional rules just so you could write snail mail missives to all your BFFs. Well, you might if you were, say, in middle school math class and needed to know immediately if Jennifer will go with you, yes or no (check one).

In that case, you’re 12 and the impulse control portion of your brain is still maturing (at least according to Dr. George Huang, as portrayed by B.D. Wong on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”). But you are not 12. You’re a grown-up. And unless you’re also some kind of sales associate or work at Gawker, you really have no business tagging iPhone party pics and updating your profile on company time.

Now you listen here. Where would these United States be if the first Continental Congress convened to efficiently jot down a petition to King George delineating the colony rights and grievances, but never got around to it because they got too distracted poking Betsey Ross and checking out Thomas Jefferson’s Twitter feed?

How else would this self-absorbed lack of responsibility have damaged American history? How (even more) tedious would Ken Burn’s “Civil War” be if instead of reading from a heartfelt, thoughtful letter to a military wife, actor Chris Murney gave voice to Pvt. Elisha Hunt Rhodes’s wallpaper post: “OMG! Totally just pwned the south!!1! :)”

Then there’s Annie Sullivan's joy the first time Helen Keller utilized Facebook’s IM function to text “water.” Of course, she spelled it, “WTR.” But still, there was no emoticon for what Ms. Sullivan felt! It’s just a good thing Helen couldn’t see Facebook’s Beacon function, alerting her to the Mr. Bento lunch pail Teacher just bought her on Amazon.

Okay, so perhaps I’m being a little tough on you Facebook fanatics ... maybe even a tiny wee bit hypocritical. Fact is, before looking at the Internet became this avatar’s full-time job, you couldn’t keep me off it. Everything I own, have an opinion on or date came off the Web. What’s more, there’s no social network software filter I can’t proxify my way around. (Try and keep me off the Howard Stern Fan Network, will ya!)

These days, however, I’m afraid the once-obsessive friendship may be fading faster than that of Derek Jeter and A-Rod. Word to your mother: If you find yourself unable to quit your on-the-clock Facebook frenzy, try getting someone to pay you to profile. You won’t be able to log off fast enough.

This brings me to another random survey fact often bandied about in reports on us poor, overworked Americans. Maybe most of us now are spending up to 16 hours at work a day. But how much of that time is on Facebook?

Do you think it’s OK to hang out on Facebook or MySpace during work hours? Should businesses block social networking sites from their employees? Got any funny stories about surfing on the company dime? Drop me a line. Selected responses will be published.

© 2008 MSNBC Interactive
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Map of misery

America may well be only halfway through the house-price bust

SOUNDING more like a cartographer than a central banker, Ben Bernanke this week showed off the Federal Reserve's latest gizmo for tracking America's property bust: a series of maps that colour-code price declines, foreclosures and other gauges of housing distress for every county in the country. The Fed chairman's goal was to show graphically that falling prices meant more foreclosures, and he went on to urge lenders to write down the principal on troubled loans where the house is worth less than the value of the mortgage. But the jazzy design of his maps—where hotter colours imply more trouble—also makes a starker point. The pain of America's housing bust varies enormously by region. Hardest hit have been the “bubble states”—California, Nevada and Florida, as well as parts of the industrial Midwest. The biggest uncertainty hanging over the economy is how red will things get.

The answer is not simple. For a start, it is hard to be sure just how much house prices have fallen. America has several house-price indices and they tell different stories. Widely cited, but least useful, are monthly figures showing median home prices produced by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). These indicate that median prices are down some 13% from their peak, but since these averages do not adjust for the mix of homes changing hands, which fluctuates from month to month, they are inevitably distorted.

Mr Bernanke's maps use figures from the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO). Its statistics have broad geographic reach and track repeat sales of the same house. The monthly national index suggests average prices have fallen only 3% from a peak in April 2007, and the quarterly figures are still positive (see left-hand chart). But OFHEO's figures include only houses financed by mortgages backed by the government-sponsored giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. By excluding subprime and jumbo loans, they leave out the top and bottom of the market—where prices rose fastest during the bubble and where the mortgage mess was most severe. Thus OFHEO's figures probably understate the scale of the housing mess, particularly in states such as California and Florida. Another set of indices, developed by Robert Shiller and Karl Case and produced by Standard & Poor's (S&P), a rating agency, includes all types of houses and, not surprisingly, show house prices rising faster during the boom and falling faster now. As of the fourth quarter of 2007, the S&P/Case-Shiller national index was down 10% from its peak, and an index of ten large cities had fallen by almost 16% by February. Although the Case-Shiller figures are not perfect—they miss many rural areas—they are a better gauge of price declines in big cities.

Assessing how much further house prices are likely to fall gets even trickier. One route is to look at market expectations: investors expect a further 20% drop, judging by the prices of futures contracts linked to the Case-Shiller 10 city index. But the futures market is small and illiquid and may overstate the possible declines.

The discrepancy between supply and demand suggests that prices could fall a lot more. By historical standards there is a huge glut of unsold homes on the market. The homeowner-vacancy rate—which includes all vacant homes for sale—has soared to a record level of 2.9%, which means that there are some 1.1m “excess” houses for sale compared with the average between 1985 and 2005. Although the inventory of new homes is falling as builders have slashed their production, the supply of homes for sale is being pushed up by foreclosures even as demand from new homeowners remains weak.

By most measures, prices are still above the levels implied by the fundamentals. Using a model that ties house prices to disposable incomes and long-term interest rates, analysts at Goldman Sachs reckon that the correction in national house prices is only halfway through. They expect an 18-20% correction overall, or another 11-13% decline from today's levels. But their models suggest that six states—Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, California and New Jersey, could see further price declines of 25% or more.

Optimists dispute this gloomy assessment, pointing out that some measures of housing affordability have dramatically improved. According to NAR figures, monthly payments on a typical house with a 30-year mortgage and 20% downpayment were 18.5% of the median family's income in February, down from almost 26% at the peak—and close to the historical average. But this measure of affordability is misleading, not least because credit standards have tightened so much. The latest survey of loan officers conducted by the Fed suggested on May 5th that 60% of banks tightened their lending standards for prime mortgages in the first three months of 2007. And, as Michael Feroli of JPMorgan points out, the affordability gauge depends on what measure of home prices you look at. Use the Case-Shiller index, where the affordability of housing worsened sharply during the boom, and mortgage payments are still high in relation to incomes.

The right-hand chart shows a better measure of housing fundamentals—the relationship between house prices and rents. This is a sort of price/earnings ratio for the housing market: the price of a house reflects the discounted value of future ownership, either as rental income or as rent saved by an owner who lives in the house.

A recent analysis by Morris Davis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Andreas Lehnert and Robert Martin of the Fed, shows that the rent/price yield in America ranged between 5% and 5.5% from 1960 to 1995, but fell rapidly thereafter to reach a historic low of 3.5% at the height of the boom. Given the typical pace of rental growth, Mr Feroli reckons house prices (as measured by the Case-Shiller index) need to fall by 10-15% over the next year and a half for the rent/price yield to return to its historical average. Again, that suggests the national housing bust is only halfway through. And, given the scale of excess supply, house prices—particularly in hard hit areas—are likely to overshoot. All told, Mr Bernanke's maps are going to get a lot redder—and the pressure on policymakers to help struggling homeowners is bound to increase.

Original here

Video and Photos: Israeli Army Raid and Loot Hebron Orphanage home to 110 girls

This is an update to Kawther Salam’s story about the Palestinian Orphanage in Hebron.

At 1.00 in the morning on the 30th of April, the Israeli Army raids orphanage in Hebron, home to 110 girls, seizing all equipment from community sewing workshop.

The Hebron Orphanage for girls is run by the Charitable Islamic Society,(I.C.S) and houses 110 children.

Witnesses said that approximately 40 Israeli soldiers raided the sewing workshop, which is located on the first floor of a girls’ orphanage operated by the Islamic Society, at 1am on Wednesday. In the course of a two hour raid, the Israeli troops ransacked the workshop after breaking down its main gates and doors.

Israeli soldiers confiscated all the sewing machines, furniture, and clothes which were to be given to orphans.

International human rights workers with the organization Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) said: “soldiers looted the workshop of all its sewing and processing machines, office equipment, rolls of cloth, finished clothing and supplies.” Members of CPT documented the raid, and the contents of the workshop being loaded into two forty foot tucks. (Source)

Thanks to Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), they created a blog ( where you can find updateds on the story.

Following are some pictures from different sources as well a video that document this terrorist crime by the Israeli Occupation Forces:

Video also available at:

Seth Freedman, a member of the CPT wrote:

Supporters of the Israeli authorities love to blame the country’s poor reputation as being a result of woeful PR, believing that all that is required to redress the balance is a slick hasbara campaign. However, given the harsh reality of the occupation, to suggest that a superficial gloss job would do the trick is to totally miss the wood for the trees.

I found as much on Sunday, when I went to Hebron as a guest of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), who are desperate to highlight the plight of a Palestinian orphanage threatened with closure by the IDF. For nearly a month, the scores of children have been living with a sword of Damocles over their heads, after the army issued an eviction order, claiming that the Islamic Charitable Society (ICS) - which runs the orphanage - is a front for Hamas.

According to an army spokesman, ICS “masquerades as a charity organisation in order to cover its activities of increasing support of the Hamas terror network”, and as such any property connected to the charity must be seized in order to maintain the “general order … and security of the area”. To that end, the IDF ordered several facilities on the site to be evacuated, setting April 28 as the final deadline before they would begin the closure.

Despite a legal challenge in the Israeli high court, “our chances of stopping the eviction are nil”, said Rasheed Rasheed, who teaches English at the ICS boys’ orphanage up the road. Since the case is terror-related in the eyes of the IDF, the army lawyers aren’t required to let the defence see their classified “evidence”. Thus there is no way for the ICS legal team to defend themselves against the charges.

He noted that this was the first time an entire organisation had been targeted in such a way by the IDF: “It’s a new trend - they used to arrest individuals; now they’re taking on the institutions themselves,” he said, surmising that “maybe it’s their way of trying to break the bones of Hamas”.

As we toured the orphanage, we were mobbed by dozens of bright-eyed students, all eager to greet their visitors and beaming as they ran excitedly round the playground. They are all local children, who either lost their parents or, due to financial crises, can’t live at home, and the ICS has stepped into the breach to rebuild their lives and offer them a better future by way of education and employment.

To support the orphanage’s vital work in the community, the ICS runs several small businesses to raise funds, such as a bakery, sewing workshop and a warehouse where goods from foreign donors are stored. I was taken to see the results of the army’s heavy-handed treatment of these facilities, and the results weren’t pretty, to say the least.

The bakery looked as though it had been on the receiving end of a D9 - huge chunks missing from the masonry, debris everywhere, and the coup de grace being the torched skeleton of the industrial-sized oven, which the soldiers poured petrol over and set alight in order to totally destroy the bakery’s ability to function. Similar treatment was meted out to the warehouse, where around $300,000 worth of donations were commandeered and confiscated by the army, who smashed up the storeroom’s interior and left it utterly ruined.

Next up was the sewing workshop, which was still in operation when I visited it, with several local women hunched over their machines turning out intricately-embroidered dresses. The army had warned that the workshop would suffer the same fate as the bakery and warehouse and ordered that every piece of equipment and fabric be left in place so that it could be sequestered by their troops when they decided to pounce. [UPDATE - two days after our visit, the army came in the dead of night and made good its threat, confiscating everything within the workshop's four walls, despite the staff's plaintive appeals]

Ghassan Mohammed, one of the orphanage’s supervisors, told me in desperate tones that “the organisation [ICS] has no connection whatsoever with Hamas”, and that the army clearly knew that, “otherwise they’d have brought the world’s media to see the evidence they’d uncovered”. As far as Mary Anne, one of the CPT team, was concerned, the IDF’s motivation was simply “sociocide - they want to chip away at the Palestinian infrastructure in order to take over the whole area”.

She said that any time the Palestinians find a way to stand on their own two feet - such as supporting the weaker elements of their society, such as the orphans, or educating their children and building up their economy - the Israeli authorities sought to find a way to crush their efforts. “This area is meant to be under Palestinian control according to the Oslo Accords,” she said, “but the Israelis are still here; still asserting their authority.”

Rasheed agreed: “Most of us have got over what happened in 1948,” he remarked, “and we are ready for a state based on the 1967 borders. The question is, do the Israelis even want to give us that? I don’t think so.”

Just as he is resigned to justice not being done by the Israeli courts, similarly he has little hope in the Israeli government standing by its promises to give the Palestinians independence.

And his scepticism is now being recreated among the next generation, namely the orphans whose lives are being turned upside down by the army’s actions. “Our kids are terrified when the soldiers come,” said Rasheed, “and all they ask is ‘why?’.” One 13-year-old student in the boys’ orphanage told us: “This is my home - if they come to shut us down, I won’t leave.” His predicament, as well as his youthful defiance, should serve as a warning to the Israeli authorities as to what really causes animosity towards Israel from the Palestinian population.

As I wrote in Occupation Breeds Terror, punitive measures such as the orphanage eviction will never win the hearts and minds of the Palestinians, and will only serve to strengthen the extremists, who will point to such actions as proof that the Israelis couldn’t care less about the wellbeing of the Palestinian people. Similarly, when Israel’s supporters think it’s all about PR, they should look behind the headlines and see whether the source of all the smoke is actually the ever-smouldering fire in the West Bank and Gaza.

Until they do, the Israeli authorities will continue to get away with their sadistic treatment, and the pressure will be ratcheted up another notch on the Palestinian street. Which will only bring more death, more misery, and more retaliation on both sides - leaving the likes of CPT to wonder how they can ever achieve their goal of bringing peace to a region that so desperately cries out for it.

Original here

900 students buried in China earthquake

children dead: quake rocks china
CHAOS ... People stand along a street after feeling an earthquake in Wuhan, Hubei province. An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 struck China's Sichuan province on Monday, less than 100 km from the provincial capital of Chengdu.

CHINA is bracing itself for a huge human tragedy: a powerful quake measuring 7.8 has struck some of its most densely populated areas and officials have revealed many children are among the dead.

The earthquake has caused havoc in southwestern China today, toppling buildings and rattling cities across a large swathe of the country and southeast Asia.

Xinhua has reported the quake has buried nearly 900 students in Sichuan.

And at least four children were killed when the quake toppled two primary schools in the city of Chongqing near the epicentre, with another 100 injured.

The state-run agency reported that buildings had collapsed in neighbouring Yunnan province, and President Hu Jintao urged an "all-out" effort to rescue victims.

Military troops were ordered to help with the disaster relief work and the international airport at Chengdu, closer to the epicentre, was closed.

Xinhua said Premier Wen Jiabao was on his way to the region.

The quake struck 93km from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province and a major population centre with more than 12 million people, and about 260km from Chongqing and its 30 million.

The State Seismological Bureau located its epicentre as in Wenchuan County, which is home to the Wolong Nature Reserve, the nation's leading research and breeding base for endangered giant pandas.

Buildings shook in Beijing and Shanghai, residents in the cities reported, with many people evacuating tower blocks and rushing onto the street, although there were no immediate reports of damage there.

Tremors were also felt in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Hanoi and Taipei, residents there said.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported the quake 7.8 on the Richter scale. The US Geological Survey, which uses a difference scale, also measured it at 7.8 after earlier revisions.

Xinhua said the quake made buildings collapse in the neighbouring province of Yunnan, adding there were no reports yet of casualties.

A reporter for CCTV news in Chengdu said residents had poured out onto the streets but public transport and electricity supplies remained operational.

However, the tremor appeared to have disrupted cellular telecommunications in the city, he added.

State television also said there appeared to be no infrastructure problems in Chongqing.

The phone network in Chengdu and elsewhere around the country appeared to suffer a meltdown as people throughout China tried to find out what happened, making it extremely difficult to contact residents.

The quake struck shortly before 2.30pm (1630 AEST), according to the USGS, at a depth of just 10km.

Two residents near downtown Chengdu that AFP contacted by phone said they felt a violent shaking that threw glassware to the floor and toppled street lights.

However, they were not sure whether the quake had caused significant damage in the city as they had not yet ventured far from their own home.

Further information could not be obtained as the connection was cut.

The quake was felt in the Taiwanese capital Taipei, where buildings swayed for half a minute, and in the southern Chinese territory of Hong Kong.

In Hanoi, residents said some high buildings shook for around five minutes but there were no reports of damage.

The last powerful quake to hit China was on March 21, a 7.2 magnitude quake which struck near the northwestern city of Hotan in Xinjiang province.

A reporter for Hong Kong-based Cable News based in Kunming, the capital of southwestern Yunnan province which borders Sichuan, said he saw many people running onto the streets to find out what had happened.

The USGS estimate of the depth makes it a so-called "shallow" earthquake - a category generally known to cause greater damage than deeper ones.

One of the biggest quakes ever recorded was in China in 1976, which killed 242,000 people.

That quake, centred in the northern city of Tangshan, lasted for 15 seconds and flattened 90 per cent of buildings. The death toll, out of a population of one million, made it one of the deadliest in the world in the 20th century.

In 1920 and again in 1927, separate quakes in northwest China each left some 200,000 dead.

Original here

'This regime is good at killing people, not helping them'

There were still mathematical equations chalked on the blackboards of the classrooms of the number eight middle school in Hlaing Tha Yar today, but the only lesson being given was one of survival.

Since the cyclone hit, the school, situated in a large village an hour's drive west of Rangoon, has been turned into an impromptu refugee centre, with some 2040 of the displaced now crammed into the white-washed building.

Around 17 families were camped out in each classroom, including many nappy-less babies and several grim-faced grandmothers lain out on the desks.

Mai Paw and her husband and six children had sought refuge in the school as soon as the high winds flattened her bamboo shack and ruined everything the family owned. They have been there in the same clothes ever since.

Today, they and their 50 or so noisy roommates batted away swarms of flies away from their faces as they ate the scoop of rice handed out to each by the charity World Concern. Although rice is still available to buy in the village, the price has almost doubled, putting it well out of reach of the homeless locals.

"We have lost everything. We have no house and no jobs," said Mai, as she joggled her youngest child, a seven-month-old son, to stop him crying. Her husband, clad in just a longyi, a traditional sarong, said nothing. His devastated face and sunken cheeks said everything.

They planned to stay in the school for as long as it took for the government to help rebuild their battered neighbourhood. But a visit from a government officer today showed where the ruling elite's real priorities lie: rather than reassure the refugees that help was at hand, they were told to expect an eviction. The government wants to use the school as a polling station in two weeks. That's the date for the referendum which the government reluctantly postponed after the disaster.

In Hlaing Tha Yar today there were no government lorries and no soldiers helping with the reconstruction effort. It was a different story in downtown Rangoon, where most streets yesterday were lined with army trucks. But rather than attending to the most pressing concerns - such as mending the roof which had completely blown off one city centre hospital - soldiers could be spotted throughout the day sweeping up leaves and piling up twigs in a rather ill-placed show of civic pride.

Why, asked some charity workers, weren't the soldiers where they were really needed, down in the delta? One Indian aid worker had just returned from a trip down the Pyapon river, where he had seen families in dire need. He was one of the very few foreigners who managed to breach the newly strengthened checkpoints which have popped up all over the south of the country - anyone with too fair skin was being turned back, and sometimes deported.

"We spoke to one woman who told us how, when the wave hit, she was with three of her young children. She had the baby in her arms and the toddlers by her side, but as the water reached her chin she had to make the terrible decision which of her children to hold out of the water and save," said the aid worker, who did not want to be named for fear it jeopardise his charity's mission. His organisation is having to work under the radar because of what he described as the government's "paranoid, knee-jerk response."

He added: "They have totally failed. This government is very good at controlling people and killing people, but it has no experience of humanitarian relief."

The correspondent has not been named for reasons of security

Original here

Photos of Watchkeeper UAV released

(Credit: Thales UK)

Thales UK released photos of the new Watchkeeper UAV maiden flight in Northern Israel after permission to publish the pictures had been blocked for three weeks because of political considerations, according to industry press reports.

The Watchkeeper, a "fully autonomous" (including automatic takeoff and landing) unmanned aerial vehicle, is expected to assume reconnaissance and target acquisition duties for the British military by 2010, according to Thales.

The robo-platform comes equipped with day/night electro-optic sensors, laser-target designators, and advanced synthetic aperture radar. Information and images collected are transmitted to a network of mobile ground control stations and remote viewing terminals where operators can control missions. It's unarmed but does include a "de-icing capabilit."

Permission to publish the pictures had been blocked by the U.K. Defence Equipment & Support organization since the April 16 maiden flight, according to, "due to sensitivities linked to local elections held across the U.K. on 1 May."

The 450-kilogram Watchkeeper, based on the Elbit Hermes 450, will be built jointly by the Israeli company Elbit Systems and the French-owned Thales UK. Starting price was 15 million pounds (more than $29 million) but has reportedly risen to 17 million pounds a pop (more than $33 million), and despite 2,100 lucrative jobs, a good portion of that money will be flying away offshore. There's one reason to be sensitive.

Original here

Gang of girls 'blew up house with home-made bomb over row about boy'

A gang of teenage girls may have blown up a house with a home-made liquid bomb, which killed a man in a neighbouring property, after arguing with another girl about a love rival.

Purple liquid was poured through the letterbox of the Victorian house before the an explosion destroyed three houses.

Their intended victim, Charlotte Anderson, was caught in the blast and was rushed to intensive care suffering with severe burns.

Ten hours earlier Miss Anderson had phoned police to say a gang of girls aged 16 and 17 was causing trouble outside her home, in Harrow. They were directing abuse, about a boy, at Miss Anderson's ground floor flat.

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Devastation: Three houses weer destroyed in the blast, and one man was killed

Witnesses said they saw someone pouring a "purple, smelly liquid" through the letterbox of the house.

Experts say the liquid could have vaporized and caused the explosion, which killed Emad Qureshi, 26, who was at home with his parents in a neighbouring house at the time of the blast.

He was crushed to death by falling rubble.

Miss Anderson was pulled from her wrecked flat by a neighbour and she was rushed to hospital, where her condition was described as "non life-threatening".

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Explosion: The massive blast destroyed three houses

Scotland Yard launched a murder investigation and is hunting the girl gang.

A police source said the liquid could have been made using a "recipe" found on the internet

DCI Colin Sutton said: "Our major line of inquiry is that this liquid caused the explosion and that the explosion was an attempt to murder this young woman."

Police originally thought the devastating explosion had been caused by a gas leak, a theory which has now been played down.

DCI Sutton said: "We still haven't ruled out a gas explosion but experts say it is unlikely to be the cause. What we can say is that we are happy there is no link to any terrorist organisation or acts here.

"A strong line of inquiry for us at the moment is the dispute, this call at the address and of course the substance that was put through the letterbox."

Investigators initially believed the explosion was caused by a gas leak but now say it could have been started deliberately

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Inhaled Cannabis Reduces Central And Peripheral Neuropathic Pain, Study Says

Davis, CA: Cannabis significantly reduces neuropathic pain compared to placebo and is well tolerated by patients with chronic pain conditions, according to clinical trial data to be published in The Journal of Pain.

Investigators at the University of California at Davis, in conjunction with the University of California Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR), assessed the efficacy of inhaled cannabis on pain intensity among 38 patients with central and/or peripheral neuropathic pain in a randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover trial.

Researchers reported that smoking low-grade (3.5 percent THC) and mid-grade (7 percent THC) equally reduced patients’ perception of spontaneous pain.

“[A] significant … reduction in [a 100-point visual analog scale of] pain intensity per minute was noted from both 3.5 percent and 7 percent cannabis compared to placebo,” authors wrote. “Separate appraisals using the patient global score and multidimensional [eleven-point neuropathic pain scale also] revealed that both active agents alleviated pain compared with placebo.”

Investigators added: “[N]o participant withdrew because of tolerability issues. Subjects receiving active agent endorsed a ‘good drug effect’ more than a ‘bad drug effect.’”

They concluded: “In the present experiment, cannabis reduced pain intensity and unpleasantness equally. Thus, as with opioids, cannabis does not rely on a relaxing or tranquilizing effect, but rather reduces both the core component of nociception (nerve pain) and the emotional aspect of the pain experience to an equal degree.”

The study is the second clinical trial conducted by CMCR investigators to conclude that inhaled cannabis significantly reduces chronic neuropathy, a condition that is typically unresponsive to both opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.

Commenting on the study’s the findings, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: “With the results of each published study it becomes increasingly apparent why the US government has tried consistently to stonewall clinical research on the therapeutic effects of inhaled cannabis. Each new trial the Feds approve provides additional evidence undermining the government’s ‘flat Earth’ position that cannabis is without medical value.”

For more information, please contact Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director, at:

Full text of the study, “A randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover trial of cannabis cigarettes in neuropathic pain,” will appear in the Journal of Pain.

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