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TBR News January 24, 2013

Jan 24 2014

The Voice of the White House


         Washington, D.C. January 23, 2014: “Great waves of mass madness sweep over societies from time to time. The notorious South Sea Bubble was one classic example and now we have the Social Network lunacy working its way, like a splinter, out of the skin of the public.


A frantic desire on the part of insignificant people to become noticed and, in theory at least, entertain a huge horde of new friends who will love and admire them for their brilliance, beauty and importance has produced a flood of Internet sites.


To say that no one really cares about them in not entirely true because it is well-known that American governmental snoop agencies, like the FBI, the DHS, the IRS and others, welcome Social Networks with great glee and evident pleasure.


If they have not actually founded these Loser sites, they flock to them as a cheap and effective way to gather data on potential enemies of the Administration and their own growing transgressions against public privacy. The FBI or the DHS does not really care about Maudie-Mae’s new kitties but they now have her address and a good deal of concrete information available to them without spending a dime on investigations.


In time, when this weapon against privacy is understood, empty ruins will mark the social phenomenon and then the public, in its frenzied attempt to gain recognition before the obliteration of death, will have found other palliatives.”




Facebook will lose 80% of users by 2017, say Princeton researchers


Forecast of social network’s impending doom comes from comparing its growth curve to that of an infectious disease


January 22, 2014

by Juliette Garside

The Guardian  


Facebook has spread like an infectious disease but we are slowly becoming immune to its attractions, and the platform will be largely abandoned by 2017, say researchers at Princeton University.


The forecast of Facebook’s impending doom was made by comparing the growth curve of epidemics to those of online social networks. Scientists argue that, like bubonic plague, Facebook will eventually die out.


The social network, which celebrates its 10th birthday on 4 February, has survived longer than rivals such as Myspace and Bebo, but the Princeton forecast says it will lose 80% of its peak user base within the next three years.


John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, from the US university’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, have based their prediction on the number of times Facebook is typed into Google as a search term. The charts produced by the Google Trends service show Facebook searches peaked in December 2012 and have since begun to trail off.


“Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models,” the authors claim in a paper entitled Epidemiological modelling of online social network dynamics.


“Ideas are spread through communicative contact between different people who share ideas with each other. Idea manifesters ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea, which can be thought of as the gain of ‘immunity’ to the idea.”


Facebook reported nearly 1.2 billion monthly active users in October, and is due to update investors on its traffic numbers at the end of the month. While desktop traffic to its websites has indeed been falling, this is at least in part due to the fact that many people now only access the network via their mobile phones.


For their study, Cannarella and Spechler used what is known as the SIR (susceptible, infected, recovered) model of disease, which creates equations to map the spread and recovery of epidemics.


They tested various equations against the lifespan of Myspace, before applying them to Facebook. Myspace was founded in 2003 and reached its peak in 2007 with 300 million registered users, before falling out of use by 2011. Purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for $580m, Myspace signed a $900m deal with Google in 2006 to sell its advertising space and was at one point valued at $12bn. It was eventually sold by News Corp for just $35m.


The 870 million people using Facebook via their smartphones each month could explain the drop in Google searches – those looking to log on are no longer doing so by typing the word Facebook into Google.


But Facebook’s chief financial officer David Ebersman admitted on an earnings call with analysts that during the previous three months: “We did see a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens.”


Investors do not appear to be heading for the exit just yet. Facebook’s share price reached record highs this month, valuing founder Mark Zuckerberg’s company at $142bn.


Facebook billionaire


When Facebook shares hit their peak in New York this week, it meant Sheryl Sandberg’s personal fortune ticked over $1bn (£600m), making her one of the youngest female billionaires in the world.


According to Bloomberg, the 44-year-old chief operating officer of the social network owns about 12.3m shares in the company, which closed at $58.51 (£35) on Tuesday in New York, although they fell back below $58 on Wednesday. Her stake is valued at about $750m.


Her fortune has risen rapidly since last August, when she sold $91m of shares and was estimated to be worth $400m.


Sandberg has collected more than $300m from selling shares since the company’s 2012 initial public offering, and owns about 4.7m stock options that began vesting last May.


“She was brought in to figure out how to make money,” David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, a history of the company, told Bloomberg. “It’s proving to be one of the greatest stories in business history.”


Sandberg’s rise in wealth mirrors her broadening role on the global stage. The Harvard University graduate and one-time chief of staff for former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers is a donor to President Barack Obama, sits on the board of Walt Disney Co, and wrote the book Lean In. She will be discussing gender issues with IMF boss Christine Lagarde at Davos on Saturday



Cracks in the Alliance: Finally Daylight Between Israel and US?


January 22, 2014

by Jonathan Cook

Common Dreams



Things have come to a strange state of affairs when Washington regards Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s far-right foreign minister, as the voice of moderation in the Israeli cabinet.


While Lieberman has called the soon-to-be-unveiled US peace plan the best deal Israel is ever likely to get, and has repeatedly flattered its chief author, US secretary of state John Kerry, other ministers have preferred to pull off the diplomatic gloves.



The most egregious instance came last week when Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defence minister, launched an unprecedented and personal attack on the man entrusted by President Barack Obama to oversee the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.


In a private briefing, disclosed last week by the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper, Yaalon called Kerry “obsessive and messianic”, denounced his peace plan as “not worth the paper it was written on”, and wished he would win “the Nobel prize and leave us alone”.


Yaalon could hardly claim he was caught in an unguarded moment. According to reports, he has been making equally disparaging comments for weeks. Back in November, for example, an unnamed “senior Israeli minister” dismissed Kerry’s ideas as “simply not connected to reality … He is not an honest broker.”


On this occasion, however, Washington’s response ratcheted up several notches. US officials furiously denounced the comments as “offensive” and demanded that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly slap down his minister.


But what might have been expected – a fulsome, even grovelling apology – failed to materialise. It was only on Yaalon’s third attempt, and after a long meeting with Netanyahu, that he produced a limp statement of regret “if the secretary was offended”.


Also showing no signs of remorse, Netanyahu evasively suggested that disagreements with the US were always “substantive and not personal”.


With the diplomatic crisis still simmering, Yaalon returned to the theme late last week, telling an audience in Jerusalem that the US and Europe had a “misguided understanding” of the Middle East and denouncing a “Western preoccupation with the Palestinian issue”.


Not suprisingly, the Palestinian leadership is celebrating the latest evidence of Israel’s increasingly self-destructive behaviour. Such outbursts against Kerry will make it much harder for Washington to claim the Palestinians are to blame if, or more likely when, the talks collapse.


The Israeli government is not only hurling insults; it is working visibly to thwart a peace process on which the Obama administration had staked its credibility.


Netanyahu has kept moving the talks’ goal posts. He declared for the first time this month that two small and highly provocative settlements in the West Bank, Beit El and a garrisoned community embedded in Hebron, a large Palestinian city, could not be given up because of their religious importance to the “Jewish people”.


That is on top of recent announcements of a glut of settlement building, ministerial backing for the annexation of the vast expanse of the Jordan Valley and a new demand that Palestinians stop “incitement”.


Even Obama appears finally to be losing hope, telling the New Yorker this week that the chances of a breakthrough are “less than fifty-fifty”.


While Netanyahu may act as though he is doing the White House a favour by negotiating, he should be in no doubt of his dependence on US goodwill. He received a timely reminder last week when Congress voted through a $3.1 billion aid package for Israel in 2014 – plus hundreds of millions of dollars more for missile development – despite the severe troubles facing the US economy.


In part, Netanyahu’s arrogance appears to reflect his personality – and a culture of impractical isolationism he has long nurtured on the Israeli right.


With Washington pushing firmly for engagement with the Palestinians, this has started to rebound on him. Israeli analysts have noted his growing insecurity, fearful that any concessions he makes will weaken him in the eyes of the right and encourage challengers to the throne. That explains some of his indulgence of Yaalon.


But his ideological worldview also accords with his defence minister’s.


It is hardly the first time Netanyahu has picked a fight over the peace process. In Obama’s first term, he waged a war of attrition over US demands for a settlement freeze – and won. He even dared publicly to back the president’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 elections.


In unusually frank references to Netanyahu in his new memoir, Robert Gates, Obama’s defence secretary until 2011, recalls only disdain for the Israeli prime minister, even admitting that at one point he tried to get him barred from the White House. He writes: “I was offended by his glibness and his criticism of US policy – not to mention his arrogance and outlandish ambition.” He also calls Netanyahu an “ungrateful” ally and a “danger to Israel”.


But the problem runs deeper still. Just too much bad blood has built up between these two allies during Netanyahu’s term. The feud is not only over Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians but on the related matter of US handling of what Israel considers its strategic environment in the wake of the Arab Spring.


Netanyahu is angry that the US has not taken a more decisive hand in shoring up Israeli interests in Egypt and Syria, and near-apoplectic at what he sees as a cave-in on Iran and what Israel claims is its ambition to build a nuclear weapon.


He appears ready to repay the White House in kind, rousing pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington to retaliate on almost-home turf, in Congress, through initiatives such as a bill threatening to step up sanctions against Iran, subverting Obama’s diplomatic efforts.


Aaron David Miller, a veteran US Middle East peace negotiator, recently described the Israeli-US relationship as “too big to fail”. For the moment that is undoubtedly true.


But in his New Yorker interview, Obama warned: “The old order, the old equilibrium, is no longer tenable. The question then becomes, What’s next?”


That warning is a double-edged sword. It is doubtless directed chiefly against those, like Iran and Syria, that are seen as threatening western interests in the Middle East. But Israel is no less a part of the “old order”, and if it continues to cramp US efforts to respond effectively in a changing region it will severely test the alliance.


It looks as if the cracks between Israel and the US are only going to grow deeper and wider.

Recognizing Israel as a Jewish State is like saying the US is a White State


January 6, 2014

by Juan Cole


Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is adding a fifth demand to his negotiations with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas: That the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.”


For Netanyahu’s demand to make any sense, he first has to define “Jewish.” “Jewish” has a number of possible meanings. It can mean “those recognized by Talmudic law as members of the Jewish ‘race’ via maternal descent.” The latter is the legal definition of Jewishness in Israeli law itself, and for this reason we must presume that it is what Netanyahu has in mind. It can also mean “adherents of the Judaic religion,” and we can explore those implications, as well.


Of the some 6 million self-identified Jews in Israel, about 300,000 are not recognized as “Jewish” by the Chief Rabbi and there is no prospect of them being recognized as Jewish any time soon. They were allowed to immigrate to Israel because they had at least one Jewish grandparent, but if their mother was not Jewish neither are they.


So if Israel is a “Jewish” state, is it a state for these (largely Russian and Ukrainian) “non-Jewish” Jews? Many of them are Jewish by religion, but not all are. None of them are Jewish by the Talmud.


It is worse. Genetic testing of European Jews (Ashkenazim) shows that most women in that community are descended from European Christians who converted to Judaism when they married into the Jewish merchant community, which was likely established at Rome and then points east from about 800 CE (A.D.) If the Grand Rabbi took haplotypes seriously, most Ashkenazi Jews would have to be declared “not Jewish” by the Talmudic criterion, since their mothers do not have the distinctive patterns in their mitochondrial DNA showing descent from the inhabitants of the ancient Levant.


So is Israel as a “Jewish state” actually only for Eastern Jews or Mizrahim, with Ashkenazis second-class citizens?


Then, if instead “Jewish” means “observant adherent of Judaism” then that definition would exclude a lot of Israeli Jews. Only 66% or so of Israelis in polling assert that that “I know God exists and have no doubt about it.” While only 6% are outright atheists, another 28% appear to be agnostics. Since Palestinian-Israeli Muslims are mostly believers, it is likely that the percentage of Jewish agnostics and atheists is even higher than the nationwide estimate suggests. There is no legal requirement that Israeli Jews be observant believers. Would recognizing Israel as a “Jewish” state impose such a requirement?


So either way Netanyahu defines Jewishness, it disenfranchises substantial numbers of self-identifying Israeli Jews. If it is a matter of maternal descent, it leaves 300,000 or so out in the cold. If it is a matter of belief and observance, it leaves nearly 2 million Israeli Jews out of the club.


In addition, of course, 1.7 million Israelis, about a fifth of the population, are Palestinian-Israelis, mostly Muslim but some Christians. They are, in other words, a somewhat greater proportion of the Israeli citizen population than Latinos are of the US population (Latinos are about 17% of Americans). If current demographic trends continue, Palestinian-Israelis could be as much as 1/3 of the population by 2030.


Saying Israel is a “Jewish” state in the sense of race would be analogous to insisting that the US is a “white” state and defining Latinos as “brown.”


And saying Israel is a Jewish state in the sense of observant believers would be like asserting that the United States is a Christian state even though about 22% of the population does not identify as Christian (roughly the same proportion as non-Jews in Israel). The point of the US first amendment is to forbid the state to to “establish” a religion, i.e. to recognize it as a state religion with privileges (the colonists had had bad experiences with Anglicanism in this regard). While we can’t stop other countries from establishing state religions, we Americans don’t approve of it and won’t give our blessing to it, as Netanyahu seems to want. In fact our annual State Department human rights report downgrades countries that don’t separate religion and state.


While some countries have a state or official religion, that is different from what Netanyahu is demanding. Argentina’s constitution says Roman Catholicism is the state religion. But Argentina is not a “Catholic state” either in the sense of being mainly for people of Catholic religious faith (only 20% of Argentines are observant) or for being for persons descended from traditionally Catholic populations. Indeed, Argentina has about half a million Muslims, who are not discriminated against in Argentine law the way Palestinian-Israelis are discriminated against (their villages not ‘recognized’) in Israel. Anyway, as I said, in the U.S. we don’t approve of that part of the Argentine constitution. If all Netanyahu wanted was that Judaism be the ‘state religion’ of Israel, that could surely be achieved by a simple vote of the Knesset. He wants something much more, something that requires that outsiders assent to it.


Netanyahu’s demand is either racist or fundamentalist and is objectionable from an American point of view on human rights grounds either way (and I’m not just talking about the human rights of Palestinian-Israelis).


More ominously, the demand has to be seen in the context of his partnership with extreme nationalist Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman wants to strip Palestinian-Israelis of their citizenship and make them stateless. Making people stateless was a policy of the vicious states of Europe in the 1930s, a policy from which Jews suffered mightily along with some other populations, and it is shameful for Jews to make or keep human beings stateless. You have a sinking feeling that the real reason Netanyahu wants Palestinians to assent to the Jewishness of the Israeli state (whatever that might mean) is that he has malicious plans for the 20% of the population that is not Jewish.


In any case, Sec. Kerry should simply slap Netanyahu down over this new demand, which is illogical and unreasonable and above all sinister. if Netanyahu won’t accept a two-state solution, then he or his children or grandchildren will likely have to accept a one-state solution. Kerry is trying to do him a favor, and if someone doesn’t want your favor, you don’t humiliate yourself to deliver it.




Japan tells China: cut military spending

Shinzo Abe hails new dawn for his country at Davos but compares rivalry with Beijing to situation before first world war


January 22, 2014

by Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor in Davos

The Guardian  


Japan’s prime minister has called on China to scale back its military spending on a day when he compared the mounting tension between Asia’s two biggest economies with the rivalry between Britain and Germany before the first world war.


Shinzo Abe used a keynote address to the World Economic Forum in Davos to hail a new dawn for his country and said the fruits of growth in Asia should be used for innovation and investment in human capital rather than weapons.


Earlier, Abe said the frayed relationship between Tokyo and Beijing was similar to the situation in Europe pre-1914. He said a conflict between the two countries would be disastrous, but refused to rule it out. “Trust, not tension, is crucial for peace and prosperity in Asia, and in the rest of the world,” he said. “This can only be achieved through dialogue and the rule of law, and not through force or coercion.


“We must restrain military expansion in Asia, which could otherwise go unchecked. We should create a mechanism for crisis management as well as a communication channel between our armed forces.”


Relations have soured between Japan and China since Abe became prime minister in 2012, with Beijing irked by what its leaders have seen as a more nationalistic approach to foreign and defence policy. But A flashpoint has been the disputed ownership of islands in the East China Sea but Abe insisted that Japan had no military ambitions. “Japan has sworn an oath never again to wage a war. We have never stopped and will continue to be wishing for the world to be at peace.”


Abe’s willingness to take a tougher line with China has accompanied signs that Japan is at last emerging from a 20-year period of sluggish growth. He insisted that a radical new approach to monetary and fiscal policy would be followed by supply-side reforms including a big increase in the number of women working. “Japan’s economy is just about to break free from chronic deflation. This spring, wages will increase. Higher wages, long overdue, will lead to greater consumption.


“Pundits used to say Japan was at dusk, or the land of the setting sun. They said that for a country as mature as Japan, growth would be impossible. These arguments were made to sound almost legitimate.


“It is not twilight, but a new dawn that is breaking over Japan.”


Abe’s critics have said that he was quick to fire the first two “arrows” of Abenomics – a quantitative easing programme to raise inflation to 2% and increases in public spending to boost growth, followed by tax increases – but slow to let loose the third arrow of supply-side reform.


But Abe said he was taking measures to cut corporate taxes, attract inward investment and increase female participation. He pledged that by 2020 he would ensure that 30% of leading positions in business were occupied by women, a far higher percentage than in either Britain or the US.


“Japan is becoming a super-ageing society, even as the number of children is falling. You might find yourself asking, ‘In such a country, where will you find those innovative and creative human resources?'” Noting that Japan’s GDP could be boosted by 16% if women’s participation in the labour market was raised to the level of men’s, he added that it was time to break the male stranglehold.


“Japan’s corporate culture is still one of pinstripes and button-downs. After all, the female labour force in Japan is the most underutilised resource. Japan must become a place where women shine.”


He added that Japan would also import foreign workers to help with “housework, care for the elderly, and the like”.



Can you live without credit cards?


January 15, 2014

by Mitch Lipka



            – As more cyber thieves steal personal and financial information, can you insulate yourself from the risk of having your money and identity stolen by giving up credit and debit cards?


Many consumers are rethinking their use of plastic after a massive cyber attack on retailers such as Target Corp and Neiman Marcus. For most Americans, living without credit and debit cards seems inconceivable. But Brie Hoffman has tried it, and mostly succeeded over the past six years.


Hoffman, 52, says an occasional online purchase and buying an airline ticket are the only uses for her sole debit card, which sometimes serves as a second form of ID. It’s a relief not having a credit card, says the California resident, who has worked as a schoolteacher and as a companion to an elderly man.


“I don’t even miss it,” she says. “There’s a freedom in not having bills.”


A side benefit, Hoffman says, is not getting junk mail. As much as she has enjoyed living mostly off the plastic grid, she doesn’t see herself getting rid of the debit card entirely.




The move away from cards can be done, says Tim Rohrbaugh, chief information security officer at Virginia-based identity theft prevention and remediation firm Intersections Inc.


The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation estimates 17 million Americans have no bank accounts – so plenty of people do it. Most don’t end up in a card-free situation by choice. According to the FDIC, most of those people are lower income and overwhelmingly don’t feel as though they have enough money to maintain a bank account.


Even for the middle class, switching to an all-cash lifestyle isn’t completely radical.


“You can live with just cash and live more locally,” Rohrbaugh says. It’s done regularly in rural areas. That means shopping at a local merchant rather than going online. But, Rohrbaugh notes, “there are little difficulties that will just drive you nuts, like renting a car.”


That has been the experience for Kim Tracy Prince, 42, a Los Angeles area blogger for Mint.com, who went credit card-free on November 1 and is working hard to curtail debit card use (www.mint.com/blog/). Prince admits it was a great relief to know she shopped at Target using cash and is unburdened by what’s hanging over the heads of tens of millions of others who paid using plastic.


She says she has shifted some online purchases to local stores and finds that being in her community makes it easier to keep to a cash-based spending plan. “I can just stay here,” Prince says. “I go to the grocery store. I go to the gas station. I take my kids to school.”


Traveling, on the other hand, will be an issue, she says. “How would you even go about purchasing a plane ticket with cash?” Prince wonders.


One tactic for buying online without a credit or debit card involves using the online service PayPal – although consumers must provide that company with bank account information. Another means of spending without connecting your identity to your transactions is to use prepaid cards branded by a major credit card issuer such as Visa or MasterCard.


“Most car rental and hotel companies do accept prepaid cards,” says Brenda Gilpatrick, an Atlanta-based marketing and prepaid card expert. The catch, she says, is they typically tack on an extra 15 percent as security, then return it to the card later if there are no problems.




For some personal finance experts, making the move away from traditional plastic just doesn’t make sense. “Sure it can (be done). But why would you?” asks Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com. “Consumers are not liable for unauthorized transactions on credit or debit cards as long as it’s reported to your financial institution. However, no one has your back if cash is lost or stolen.”


Federal law protects consumers from being responsible for fraudulent transactions on their credit card accounts.


Some other things sacrificed without a card include not being to pay for something in an emergency and losing out on rewards – something only of value to those who pay off their credit card balances each month and avoid interest charges.


While Hoffman says her decision to ditch credit cards and mostly avoid using a debit card was right for her, “it’s not for everybody.”


(The author is a Reuters’ contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)


(Follow us @ReutersMoney or finance/personal-finance”>here; Editing by Lauren Young and Nick Zieminski)



Gates’ Memoir Illustrates How Militaristic US Society Has Become


January 22, 2014

by Ivan Eland,



All the hoopla in the media over Bob Gates’ scathing criticism of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in his new memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, has missed the mark. Obama can be criticized legitimately for his deplorable policy of piling up even more bodies of U.S. soldiers in an escalation of the Afghan War that he evidently didn’t believe would work, yet this tidbit is not really news. In his 2010 book, Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward, after interviewing Obama administration participants in the decision-making surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, alludes to this same troubling fact.


And the media seemed to describe this criticism as light compared to what Gates doled out to Vice President Biden. Gates criticized Biden for “poisoning the well” with the military and being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”


If Biden was wrong about advocating a rapid US withdrawal from Afghanistan (and Iraq) and Obama was wrong in adopting the Afghan escalation without believing it, then the only viable option left, according to Gates’ line of reasoning, was evidently escalating and being excited about it. When Obama took office, more than seven years of intractable war in Afghanistan already made this hard to do for anyone except the most gung ho in the military. Seven years after the escalation of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon was winding it down and in the last stages of achieving a peace deal with the communists. The Afghan War is by far America’s longest conflict, and the military has had ample time to “win” it.


The media has portrayed Gates’ impression of Obama’s escalation of the Afghan War as “cynical.” It might be better termed, “fearful.” In Woodward’s book, he portrays the escalation as a new liberal Democratic president’s bow to the powerful interest group that is the military.


And powerful they are. Accusations after the Vietnam War that soldiers were unfairly vilified after returning home from the war have had a long-lasting effect on American society. Now even people who opposed the Afghan war – most Americans – take great pains to slather accolades on the returning forces. For example, even though the recent wars haven’t gone so well, returning soldiers and veterans are often hailed at sporting events as if they were conquering heroes. Although to the extent that some portions of American society disparaged the shanghaied draftees during Vietnam upon return, it was very unfair, because many probably did not want to participate in the Vietnam conflict in the first place. However, because of that war, the US military is now voluntary and has done extremely well compensation-wise compared to similar occupations in the civilian sector. In addition, can Americans criticize bad policy while at the same time praising those who carry it out?


One can make a convincing argument that the American armed forces really haven’t defended the country since World War II. Since then, the military has been a neo-imperial power projection force used by American politicians to maintain a globe-spanning informal empire, which has little to do with US security and merely generates retaliatory blowback terrorism against US targets – some inside US territory. If doubters about this logic exist, they should read Osama bin Laden’s writings.


And what of the claim that the American military “defends our freedom”? Given the fact that overseas interventionism leads to blowback terrorism, which then often leads to the constriction of American civil liberties (what the abstract term “freedom” really means), maybe not so much.


But even if such criticism of the rank-in-file troops is overblown, why does the adulation of the military grunt seem to overflow onto the military brass, which have been grossly incompetent in the last two major wars? In Iraq and Afghanistan, the generals had to relearn all of the lessons of counterinsurgency warfare the hard way that they forgot after the debacle in Vietnam.


Yet after all this buffoonery, Gates criticizes any policymaker, such as Biden, who is skeptical of the military brass’s bureaucratic gamesmanship and often disrespect for their political bosses – for example, Afghan commander David Petraeus’ public criticism of Obama’s plan for eventual withdraw from Afghanistan and his predecessor Stanley McChrystal’s blatant insubordination.


And by the way, wasn’t Gates supposed to be Obama’s political overseer of the military services, not a co-opted mouthpiece for generals resentful of “disrespect” from their bosses? Who’s running the show here? In a republic, the civilians are supposed to be in charge, and the military is supposed to modestly defend the country, not be an exalted imperial strike force similar to Roman legions. Worshipping the military and its leaders smack of German or Russian-style martial patriotism, not the republican (small r) patriotism of America’s founders, who were deeply suspicious of standing armies and who would roll over in their graves at the current adoration of the military.


Such militarism is dangerous for the country and is even bad for the military. After all, one suspects that Americans lavish praise on the military largely out of guilt from standing by and letting their politicians send the armed forces to pointless wars in foreign hellholes. If Americans want to show true respect for their military, then they should demand the restoration of the American republic and the dismantling of the overseas empire that undermines it. Otherwise, the United States will go the way of the Roman Republic – being snuffed out by empire.



Icahn wants eBay to spin off Paypal; eBay balks


January 22, 2014

by Phil Wahba




Carl Icahn has taken a stake in Ebay Inc and is proposing a spin-off of the company’s fast-growing PayPal division, but the e-commerce giant rebuffed the overture, setting the stage for a potential battle with the activist investor.


EBay, which bought PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002 and has considered hiving off the multibillion-dollar payments service, argued on Wednesday that the business would lose synergies with the overall e-commerce business as an independent unit.


Some analysts, however, said that operating as a separate entity would encourage other online retailers to adopt the service and help retain key executives, with a spinoff that could unlock the value of a service that grew 19 percent during the holiday quarter.


Shares of Ebay, which also reported earnings per share a penny above Wall Street expectations, jumped as much as 12 percent. The stock was up 7 percent at $54.41 after hours.


Ebay Chief Executive John Donahoe said he had heard Icahn out but rejected his proposal. He added that the company intended to step up investments to safeguard the market position of the thriving payments service, which may exert pressure on margins.


“First, eBay accelerates PayPal’s success. Second, eBay data makes PayPal smarter. And third, eBay funds PayPal’s growth,” he told analysts on a post-results conference call.


Icahn’s proposal comes as the billionaire investor is urging Apple Inc to share more of its $146 billion cash pile with shareholders. The activist is demanding Apple do an additional $50 billion in share buybacks, which the company is advising shareholders to reject.


Icahn did not respond to requests for comment.


“I expect it to be a battle,” BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis said, citing eBay’s longstanding opposition to a PayPal spinoff. “One of the reasons for that is because for commerce and payments, you need to remove as much friction from those two systems as possible. If you separate it out, you put more friction between” them.


PayPal started life as an independent company, founded in the late 1990s by technology entrepreneurs including venture capital investor Peter Thiel.




It battled with eBay for supremacy in the then-emerging online payments market. But soon after it went public in 2002, eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5 billion. Today, its growth outpaces the rest of the company and it accounts for a large chunk of eBay’s overall stock market value.


The unit has been a key driver of eBay’s share value, as the company struggles to compete with larger rival Amazon.com Inc.


Icahn is known for decades of strong-arm tactics including proxy fights against major corporations. This month, he bought shares and derivatives giving him a 0.8 percent economic interest in eBay, and also nominated two of his employees to the eBay board. Those employees were not identified.


“Let me remind you that we have an exceptionally strong board, with a diverse group of highly qualified directors. In fact, we have a world class board,” Donahoe said on the call.


“Our directors have deep experience in the technology and financial services sectors, and a track record of value creation. This is the standard by which all future candidates will be assessed.”


Revenue at eBay’s PayPal division rose 19 percent during the holiday quarter, fueled by the growing use of mobile phones to shop. PayPal’s total payments volume, a gauge of how much it is used to complete a transaction, rose 25 percent to $180 billion worth of transactions.


Companywide, revenue rose 13.5 percent to $4.53 billion for the quarter ended December 31.


For 2014, eBay forecast revenue of between $18 billion and $18.5 billion, while analysts expected a forecast of $18.5 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.


Net income for the fourth quarter was $850 million, or 65 cents a share, up from $751 million, or 57 cents a share, a year earlier. Excluding some items, eBay earned 81 cents per share, a penny better than expected.


On Wednesday, the company also said it had authorized an additional $5 billion in stock buybacks.


(Additional reporting by Dhanya Skariachan in New York, writing by Edwin Chan, editing by Bernard Orr)


Final: The Rapture – the horror movie ‘winning people to Christ’

Low-budget horror film Final: The Rapture, about the end times foretold in the Bible, is aiming to convert cinemagoers to God – through terrible dialogue and cheap effects


January 23, 2014

by Ben Beaumont-Thomas



The Ten Commandments, The Passion of the Christ, the forthcoming Russell Crowe epic Noah – the Bible has long been a wellspring for filmmakers, who have also used a struggle between Christian good and evil in horror films from The Exorcist to Stigmata. But now Christianity and horror are being blended with pure evangelism in Final: The Rapture, a low-budget thriller that is – very slowly – sweeping the US.


“We’re trying to share this so their eyes will be opened … so people go home with hope,” producer Susan Chey told the Orlando Sentinel, comparing it to a “Trojan horse” that would introduce people to faith. “The Christian community loves the film because they believe in the Book of Revelation, when Christ returns,” says her husband, writer-director Tim Chey. “Atheists love the film from a horror standpoint.”


The film is adapted from Tim’s book Final, which follows the events of the Rapture, believed by fundamentalist Christians to be the moment when those of faith are drawn up to heaven, leaving unbelievers behind (an occasion recently played to comic effect in This Is the End). Final stars Mary Grace as a Christian taken to heaven in the Rapture, leaving her football player husband stranded, and features three other central storylines following the global chaos in the wake of the Rapture.


“Final is not fluff, it’s not a cheesy Christian movie,” said Grace. “It’s raw. This is life, blood, shootings, murder. It’s a thriller. Final gives a message of hope and redemption with that action.”


It is being released city by city, starting in Houston and now transferring to Florida. “We’ll never match American Hustle,” admitted Tim. “For us success is winning people to Christ.”


The film cost less than $10m (£6.2m), and frankly looks it: the badly recorded sound, hammy acting, and a thoroughly unconvincing plane crash sequence all look set to turn it into a so-bad-it’s-good cult hit in the vein of Sharknado, Birdemic or The Room.



But Tim hopes it will be the first in a seven-film series, and Susan says that in the Bible they have a great depository of plotlines: “In Hollywood, they’re running out of stories. They recycle. But we’ll have stories until Jesus comes.”


Rick Santorum’s Christmas movie proves flop

The Christmas Candle, which was produced by the Christian-themed studio that Santorum heads, fails to fly


November 25, 2013

by Andrew Pulver



The power of prayer has failed to save The Christmas Candle, the new release from Rick Santorum’s faith based film studio, EchoLight.


The Christmas Candle, set in the fictional English village of Gladbury and billed as “a timeless holiday film for the entire family”, attracted widespread critical scorn as well as dismal box-office results, having grossed just over $1.6m (£988,000) after two weeks on release.


The bad reviews were perhaps predictable, with the New York Daily News saying: “This odd Dickens-meets-Sunday-school movie is as artless as the setup is muddled”, while the New York Post judged: “This throwback, made-for-TV-style film takes the easy way out in a cheesy climax, but its resolute quaintness may appeal to the kind of viewers who regard electricity as disturbingly newfangled.” The Arizona Republic called it “resolutely stiff and hollow”.


Former presidential candidate Santorum, who took to the media shortly before the film’s release to lambast Hollywood as “the devil’s playground” will presumably find it easy to shrug off critical brickbats; less easy to swallow will be the ignominious box office results. Its opening weekend, on a small “platform” release on just 5 screens, took a respectable $68,000; but in its second week, when it expanded to over 390, it took less than $1m. The crucial screen average was an extremely moderate $2,500, putting it below the likes of The Best Man Holiday, Narco Cultura, and bodybuilding doco Generation Iron – and far beneath Catching Fire and Philomena.


The Christmas Candle, which stars Clash of the Titans’ Hans Matheson and gives singer Susan Boyle her film debut in a small role – the inn-keeper’s wife – is released in the UK on 13 December.



Northern Ireland Christians force cancellation of comedy based on Bible 

Play is pulled from schedule of Newtownabbey theatre after calls for ban from DUP politicians


January 23, 2014

by Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent



             Christians have forced the cancellation of play at a Northern Ireland theatre because it supposedly mocks the Bible, it has emerged.


            The irreverent comedy The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) has been pulled from the schedule of the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey on the northern outskirts of Belfast.


             Evangelical Christian politicians from the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) called for the play to be banned from the theatre, which is run by unionist-dominated Newtownabbey borough council.


            The Reduced Shakespeare Company was due to start its latest UK tour by presenting the show at the venue in Co Antrim on 29 and 30 January.


            But the Theatre at the Mill confirmed on Thursday that the two planned performances had been cancelled and said refunds would be available from its box office.


            The Democratic Unionist councillor Billy Ball had called for the play to be banned because it would cause offence to Christians.


            “For Christians, the Bible is the infallible word of God and it’s not something to be made fun of. These people are treating something sacred with irreverence and disrespect,” he said.


            But the theatre group behind the production pointed out that they had taken the show to Jerusalem recently and had had no problems staging it, nor were there any protests from the Israeli authorities.


            Before the cancellation on Thursday, Dave Naylor, the play’s producer, had said: “Maybe Councillor Ball should come and see our show before denouncing it as unholy. But he’d better be quick as all his comments have done is increase ticket sales.”


            The drama company’s production poses questions in the play such as: “Did Adam and Eve have navels? Did Moses really look like Charlton Heston?”


In its promotion for the play, the company adds: “Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, atheist or Jedi, you will be tickled by the RSC’s romp through old-time religion.”


The evangelical Christian wing of the DUP has a long history of trying to ban works of art, films, exhibitions and dramas that it regards as blasphemous or offensive. DUP-controlled councils have banned Monty Python’s Life of Brian and even barred the Electric Light Orchestra from playing a concert in a Ballymena-council-controlled leisure centre because the band were staging the gig on a Sunday.


            The DUP also pioneered protests against the first sex shops to open in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. Outside one sex shop that had opened in the future first minister Peter Robinson’s East Belfast constituency, DUP activists held up placards calling on passing motorists to “bump your horn for decency”.



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