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Why Europe’s debt crisis is a storm warning for Wall Street October 10, 2011

The fire alarm goes off as Michael Lewis descends in the lift from his hotel room. As a security guard warns nervous-looking guests that the screaming sound was not a drill, it seemed the perfect introduction for a man whose new book about Europe’s debt crisis is flying off American shelves.

“The world does seem to be falling apart,” Lewis says. Even the briefest glance at the headlines would seem to confirm that opinion. As civil unrest flares in a near-bankrupt Greece and European leaders struggle to avert “contagion”, it is hard not to worry that the Great Recession caused by the collapse of debt-laden banks might – horribly – be just a prelude to the even greater disaster of debt-laden countries toppling like dominoes.

That cheerful scenario is precisely the subject of Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Lewis’s jaunty yet scary account of his travels in four countries at the heart of the crisis. He visits Iceland to investigate just how a tiny island nation in the middle of the North Atlantic could go through one of the most spectacular banking boom-and-busts in history. He trawls through the sorry tale of the Irish real estate bubble and the epic tragedy that is Greece before examining Germany: Europe’s reluctant rescuer. But finally, and harrowingly, he ends his journey back in the US, warning that Americans have little reason to feel safe from the danger. Instead, they are simply last in line.

To put it mildly, Lewis – whose position as a former bond trader gives him more than just journalistic insight – sees big trouble ahead. “There is going to be a change in the idea that each generation of Americans is going to live a lot better than the one before it,” he says. “Imagine an America where you have got a long recession. It does not become a Great Depression, but you get negative growth or low growth or no growth for a long time and high unemployment. What does that generate? It generates anger.”

Indeed it does. Just a 20-minute taxi ride south from the fancy New York hotel where Lewis is tucking into high quality Japanese food, the Occupy Wall Street movement has now camped out in a downtown Manhattan park for more than three weeks.

From small beginnings, the protests have spread to dozens of American cities. There have been hundreds of arrests and speculation that a new political movement – a sort of Tea Party of the left – is being born. Lewis welcomed the phenomenon. “If you ask the average Wall Street boss what he thought of those people, he’d say it was a joke,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a joke. I think there is actually an incredible frustration and legitimate anger in the country that arises from the unfairness of the treatment of the financial sector.”

That treatment, Lewis says, is the real joke. He points out how Wall Street banks, having helped cause the Great Recession and then been bailed out to the tune of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, have now set about gutting attempts to reform their industry. “It is outrageous. It is totally outrageous and it is so obvious that you can say it until you are blue in the face and you think there’s no hope for change in the world. But now this protest in lower Manhattan happens and it seems to me there are a lot of people who share the sentiment.”

Of course, one person who is not suffering is Lewis himself. Boomerang is one of the most spectacularly well-timed books in recent publishing history, and Lewis is rapidly becoming one of America’s most successful modern writers. His first work, Liar’s Poker, was an account of his disillusioning time as a bond trader in the late 1980s. It was intended as a cautionary tale of foolish excess, though, perhaps presciently, Lewis was shocked when some young graduates saw it more as a sort of handbook to working in the finance industry. But Lewis, who now covers business issues for Vanity Fair, has never restricted himself to just finance. His book about baseball, called Moneyball, has just been turned into a film starring Brad Pitt.

Another tome, about American football, featured material that eventually became the Oscar-nominated movie The Blind Side. He is currently working on a potential TV show for HBO. Such is Lewis’s success that New York magazine ran a profile of him this week under the headline: “It’s good to be Michael Lewis.”

Not that it goes to his head. He speaks in the chatty, friendly style of a professional journalist, with an accent hinting at his southern roots in New Orleans. He exudes a charm and affability that is present throughout the pages of Boomerang. It allowed him to travel to the destinations on his “economic disaster tour” and meet everyone – from the prime minister of Iceland, to sneaking into the Greek monastery where the monks’ dodgy financial shenanigans inadvertently helped bring the Greek crisis into being. Yet, far from kicking him out, the monks ended up happily showing him around. He is good company throughout the book, though he has received a lot of flak for indulging in national stereotypes – both expected and unexpected – as a sort of explanation for why different countries made the mistakes they did. In particular, he has been slammed for a lengthy examination of why German attitudes towards money and human excrement mirror each other (a public sense of order masking a secret fascination with the dark side, since you ask).

But such sideshows are merely that: a distraction from the main theme of the book, which is simply that the European crisis now unfolding is eventually heading for America’s shores. To illustrate the point, Lewis opens the book with an introduction to one of the most unnerving characters in modern American finance: Texan hedge fund manager Kyle Bass. Lewis found Bass while working on his previous book on the banking crisis, The Big Short. He interviewed Bass in 2008 after realising he had made a fortune predicting the bursting of the American real estate bubble. While everyone else had piled in to the boom, Bass had bet against it, and it had earned him a fortune. But Bass by then had moved on and would only talk about the coming debt crisis that would, he predicted, eventually overwhelm Europe, probably starting in Greece.

And what was Bass’s investment advice to prepare for this? It was to buy guns and gold; and on a second visit in 2011, Lewis found Bass had not changed his mind. Indeed, he had purchased 20m nickels, solely for the value of their metal. It is scary stuff, especially as each day brings fears of a Greek default another step closer. Though even Lewis shies away from saying that Bass is going to be right about everything. His vision of an almost literal doomsday scenario is not one Lewis shares. “It does not necessarily mean sitting on top of your pile of gold and shooting people who get near your broccoli patch,” Lewis says. He believes the US government will act to stem the crisis heading its way. It may mean tough times, even a fundamental realigning of what Americans expect out of life, but it will not be a Greek-style imminent collapse.

“Americans are pretty self-preservatory,” he says. “The crisis will create pressures here that will arrest the crisis before it causes the US treasury to stop paying its bills.” But then Lewis pauses: “I think. I don’t know.” By then the hotel fire alarm that had greeted Lewis’s arrival had long been turned off. There had been no real fire. Hopefully, the same will be true for some of the direst warnings in his book.

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Cable TV Boxes Are Huge Energy Hogs June 27, 2011

OK, so maybe the television antennas littering the housetops across urban and suburban landscapes were downright ugly — and perilous to install on steep roofs — not to mention that windstorms could leave them twisting in the wind like pretzels.

And sure, the rabbit ears atop the TV were maddeningly stubborn about pulling in your favorite show without Dad’s having to fiddle around to adjust the metal spines repeatedly until they were just so. Some people even added aluminum foil to boost the signal-capturing ability.

But at least those contraptions weren’t the energy hogs that cable and satellite TV boxes are these days.

Those ubiquitous boxes of the digital age drain as much as a full-sized, but energy efficient, refrigerator and even some air-conditioning systems, according to a report in The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/us/26cable.html

That staggering fact brings to mind the exclamations that exploded on TV sets during “Batman” in the old black-and-white TV era: POW! BAM! And ZAP to your energy bill!

The 160 million boxes in the United States that funnel cable signals and digital recording ability into televisions are the single largest electricity drain in many American homes, the Times reports. Many homes have one or more basic cable boxes, as well as add-on digital video recorders, which use 40 percent more power than the set-top box.

One high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, the Times quotes a recent study from the Natural Resources Defense Council as saying.

The boxes consume $3 billion in electricity a year in the United States — and 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded, the study found.

“People in the energy efficiency community worry a lot about these boxes, since they will make it more difficult to lower home energy use,” said John Wilson, a former member of the California Energy Commission who is now with the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation.

“Companies say it can’t be done or it’s too expensive. But in my experience, neither one is true. It can be done, and it often doesn’t cost much, if anything,” Wilson told the Times.

Alternatives to the perpetually “powered-on” state are available, but they are not being required or deployed in the United States, critics say.

Similar devices in some European countries go automatically into standby mode when not in use, cutting power drawn by half, the Times reports. They also have an optional “deep sleep” option that can reduce energy consumption by about 95 percent.

Alan Meier, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, offered this of the industry in the United States to the Times: “I don’t want to use the word ‘lazy,’ but they have had different priorities, and saving energy is not one of them.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has established Energy Star standards for set-top boxes and has plans to tighten them significantly by 2013, Ann Bailey, director of Energy Star product labeling, said in an email to the Times.

Back in the day, the biggest energy demand was climbing up on the roof to monkey around adjusting the antenna.

© Newsmax. All rights reserved.

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Accused Boston Crime Boss ‘Whitey’ Bulger Arrested June 24, 2011

Former mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, captured near his coastal California hideout after 16 years on the run, was ordered held without bond Thursday for transfer back to Boston to face charges of murder, extortion and conspiracy.

Bulger, 81, one of America’s most wanted fugitives, was lured from his Santa Monica, California, apartment just blocks from the Pacific Wednesday evening by federal agents and police acting on a tip from the public.

The man who inspired the gangster character played by Jack Nicholson in the 2006 film “The Departed” put up no resistance when he and his longtime companion, Catherine Greig, 60, were arrested, federal officials said at a Boston news conference. Greig had been with him in hiding since 1995.

An employee for the company that manages the apartment building, Joshua Bond, told Reuters the couple had lived there for 15 years and went by the names Charles and Carol Gasko. Neighbors said had frequently seen pair out walking together.

The pair appeared Thursday afternoon before a U.S. magistrate judge in Los Angeles, who ordered both of them to remain in federal custody without bail.

Handcuffed but looking calm and fit, Bulger gave short answers to procedural questions posed by the judge. He was mostly bald and wore a neatly trimmed white beard and wire-rimmed glasses.

He smiled and chuckled to himself while staring at reporters in the courtroom before the proceedings began.

When the judge asked if he had read the indictment against him, Bulger held up a sheaf of white papers and replied, “I got ‘em all right here. It will take me quite a while to finish these.” He said “thank you” to the judge at the end.

Greig, with close-cropped white hair, appeared frailer and older than Bulger. She scowled through much of her hearing.

Bulger and Greig waived rights to challenge their removal from California to Boston. The judge said both would be “sent forthwith” back to Massachusetts.

Steven Martinez, assistant director of the FBI Los Angeles office, later said the pair were spending the night locked up in Los Angeles, and that U.S. marshals would escort them across the country as early as Friday.

Bulger, a onetime underworld informant and former leader of the Irish-American criminal group the Winter Hill Gang, was wanted on 19 counts of murder committed in the 1970s and 1980s, and on charges of drug dealing, extortion, money laundering and conspiracy.

Greig was charged in 1997 with harboring a fugitive.

Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said Bulger faced life in prison if convicted.

Bulger fled Boston in late 1994 and was joined by Greig a few months later. Before their arrest, the last credible sighting of the pair was in London in 2002. Bulger was thought to have traveled extensively in the United States, Europe, Canada and Latin America after slipping away.

His story inspired Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film “The Departed” about double-dealing gangsters and corrupt cops in Boston.

 

BEACHSIDE HIDEOUT

Inside Bulger’s Santa Monica hideout, agents said they found $800,000, more than 30 firearms, knives and pieces of false identification. They declined to give details of the ploy that led to Bulger leaving his apartment.

A new series of televised public service announcements aimed at female viewers who might have seen Greig was launched just Tuesday, airing in 14 cities during daytime TV programs — though not in Los Angeles. The FBI also placed billboards in New York’s Times Square and elsewhere.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers said the media campaign paid off with an anonymous tip that directly led the critical break in the case.

Agents from the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department staked out the three-story apartment building Wednesday afternoon before making the arrests.

Bulger is the older brother of William “Billy” Bulger, a former president of the Massachusetts State Senate. William Bulger had no comment about his brother’s arrest.

He was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1999, and a $2 million reward was offered for information leading to Bulger’s arrest. The FBI doubled the reward offered for Greig’s whereabouts this week, to $100,000.

Bulger, said to be an avid reader and history buff who likes to take long walks on beaches, has been featured on the television show “America’s Most Wanted” more than a dozen times from 1995 to 2010. (Additional reporting by Lauren Keiper in Boston, Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington and R.T. Watson and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)

© 2011 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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Anti-terror law clears hurdle, faces objections May 24, 2011

A tight deadline looming, the Senate on Monday advanced a four-year extension of the Patriot Act, the controversial law that governs the search for terrorists on American soil.

Lawmakers voted 74-8 to debate and vote the legislation this week, before key provisions expire on Friday. President Barack Obama was in Europe, so any extension must pass the House and Senate, then be flown overseas and signed into law before the three provisions expire.

That would require uncommon speed for the deliberative Senate, where one member can delay or block legislation. And there were opponents: Senators of both parties said the law, designed after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, would give the government too much power.

The White House urged them to work it out — quickly.

“It is essential to avoid any hiatus” in the law’s powers, the Obama administration said in a statement.

The legislation would extend three expiring provisions until June 1, 2015, officials said.

The provisions at issue allow the government to use roving wiretaps on multiple electronic devices and across multiple carriers and get court-approved access to business records relevant to terrorist investigations. The third, a “lone wolf” provision that was part of a 2004 law, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. individuals without having to show a connection between the target and a specific terrorist group.

From its inception, the law has been dogged by concerns that it represented a government power grab that could violate Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. The opposition came from an unlikely alliance of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats seeking to limit the law’s power.

Some Patriot Act opponents have suggested that Osama bin Laden’s death earlier this month should prompt Congress to reconsider the Patriot Act, written when the terrorist leader was at the peak of his power.

“We were so frightened after 9/11 that we readily gave up these freedoms,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “We really should sunset the entire Patriot Act and protect our liberties the way it was intended by our Founding Fathers.”

But the act’s supporters warn that al-Qaida splinter groups, scattered from Pakistan to the United States and beyond, may try to retaliate.

“We are not out of harm’s way and no one should believe that,” said the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Monday’s tally cleared the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to move forward with debate. Senate leaders huddled into the evening to get an agreement on which amendments would be considered, and for how long, in the shadow of the deadline. Officials said the bill would have to pass the Senate by Wednesday and be approved quickly by the House if were to be shuttled to Obama and signed before the provisions at issue expire.

Even before the test vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., proposed an amendment that closely tracked a bill his committee passed earlier this year with bipartisan support. Co-sponsored by Paul, the amendment would require that the use of national security letters — documents that allow the government to collect financial and other records — expire on Dec. 31, 2013, if not renewed by Congress.

The amendment also would require more public disclosure and oversight on the government’s use of the letters, and it would cancel the one-year waiting period before a recipient of a letter can challenge a government order to keep it secret.

The Democrats who voted to block the Patriot Act extension were Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana as well as Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Jeff Merkley of Oregon. The Republicans who voted with them were Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Paul. Also voting no was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

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IMF Chief Resigns Amid Sexual Assault Allegations May 19, 2011

NEW YORK — Dominique Strauss-Kahn will try to get out of one of America’s most notorious jails Thursday, hours after he resigned as chief of the International Monetary Fund to focus his energy on fighting sexual assault charges.

Behind bars on New York’s Rikers Island since Monday, the beleaguered former IMF chief is returning to a Manhattan court Thursday afternoon to again ask for bail on charges he sexually assaulted a hotel maid — a move seemed certain to face vigorous opposition by prosecutors.

Late Wednesday, Strauss-Kahn resigned as managing director of the International Monetary Fund, according to a letter released by its executive board.

In the letter, Strauss-Kahn denied the allegations but said he felt compelled to resign with “great sadness” because he was thinking of his family and also wanted to protect the IMF.

Click here to read the full text of Strauss-Kahn’s resignation letter.

In court papers filed by his defense team Wednesday, Strauss-Kahn said he had surrendered his passport and wouldn’t flee the country. His attorneys proposed posting $1 million cash bail and confining him to the home of his daughter, Camille, a Columbia University graduate student in New York, 24 hours a day with electronic monitoring.

Strauss-Kahn, 62, “is a loving husband and father, and a highly regarded diplomat, politician, lawyer, politician, economist and professor, with no criminal record,” his attorneys wrote.

They had proposed similar conditions at an earlier bail hearing but added house arrest on Wednesday. A judge denied him bail Monday.

Investigators have revisited to the penthouse hotel room to cut out a piece of carpet in a painstaking search for DNA evidence, law enforcement officials said Wednesday. New York detectives and prosecutors believe the carpet in the hotel room may contain Strauss-Kahn’s semen, spat out after an episode of forced oral sex, the officials told The Associated Press.

One of the officials said that the DNA testing was being “fast-tracked” but that the results could still be a few days away.

The two officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because neither was authorized to speak about the case publicly and because it has gone to a grand jury.

The maid, a 32-year-old immigrant from the West African nation of Guinea, told police that Strauss-Kahn came out of the bathroom naked, chased her down, forced her to perform oral sex on him and tried to remove her underwear before she broke free and fled the room.

The AP does not identify alleged victims of sex crimes unless they agree to it.

Strauss-Kahn went from his luxurious hotel suite to an isolated cell block at Rikers normally reserved for patients with contagious diseases. Kept in protective custody and on a suicide watch, authorities said he ate his meals alone in a single cell and was escorted everywhere by prison guards.

Defense lawyers can raise the issue of bail as many times as they like, and it’s common to make new proposals and try again after a client gets high or no bail, said Stuart P. Slotnick, a New York defense lawyer not involved in the case.

Living elsewhere is often seen as as a risk, but it’s not insurmountable, Slotnick said.

In a case like Strauss-Kahn’s, bail “is not going to be a slam dunk, but if they can convince the judge that he’s not a risk of flight, that he’s going to come back, then he’ll get bail,” Slotnick said.

Another hearing had been scheduled for Friday, the deadline for prosecutors to bring an indictment, agree to a preliminary hearing or release him.

In addition to examining the Sofitel Hotel suite for further potential DNA evidence, investigators were looking at the maid’s keycard to determine whether she used it to enter the room, and how long she was there, officials said.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly declined to comment Wednesday on the details of the evidence-gathering but said results of any DNA and other testing have not yet come back. He said the detectives investigating the case found the maid’s story believable.

“Obviously, the credibility of the complainant is a factor in cases of this nature,” Kelly said. “One of the things they’re trained to look for, and what was reported to me early on, was that the complainant was credible.”

One of Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys, Benjamin Brafman, said at his client’s arraignment this week that the forensic evidence “will not be consistent with a forcible encounter.” That led to speculation the defense would argue it was consensual sex.

The woman’s lawyer, Jeffrey Shapiro, has dismissed suggestions from some of Strauss-Kahn’s defenders that she made up the charges or tried to cover up a consensual encounter.

Strauss-Kahn is one of France’s highest-profile politicians and was seen as a potential candidate for president in next year’s elections. His arrest shocked France.

The scandal comes at a critical moment for the International Monetary Fund, which is trying to shore up teetering economies in Europe. The IMF is an immensely powerful agency that loans money to countries to stabilize the world economy. In exchange it often imposes strict austerity measures.

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