Friday, February 4, 2011


January 5, 2011

The Republicans are back in charge in the House of Representatives this week, and not a moment too soon!

Forget "stimulus" bills and "shovel-ready" bailouts (for public school teachers, who need shovels for what they're teaching), the current financial crisis, which is the second Great Depression, was created slowly and methodically by Democrat hacks running Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over the past 18 years.

As even Obama's treasury secretary admitted in congressional hearings, "Fannie and Freddie were a core part of what went wrong in our system." And if it's something Tim Geithner noticed, it's probably something that's fairly obvious.

Goo-goo liberals with federal titles pressured banks into making absurd loans to high-risk borrowers -- demanding, for example, that the banks accept unemployment benefits as collateral. Then Fannie repackaged the bad loans as "prime mortgages" and sold them to banks, thus poisoning the entire financial market with hidden bad loans.

Believe it or not, the loans went belly up, banks went under, and the Democrats used taxpayer money to bail out their friends on Wall Street.

So far, Fannie and Freddie's default on loans that should never have been made has cost the taxpayer tens of billions of dollars. Some estimates say the final cost to the taxpayer will be more than $1 trillion. To put that number in perspective, for a trillion dollars, President Obama could pass another stupid, useless stimulus package that doesn't create a single real job.

Obama's own Federal Housing Finance Agency reported recently that by 2014, Freddie and Fannie will cost taxpayers between $221 billion to $363 billion.

Over and over again, Republicans tried to rein in the politically correct policies being foisted on mortgage lenders by Fannie Mae, only to be met by a Praetorian Guard of Democrats howling that Republicans hated the poor.

In 2003, Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee wrote a bill to tighten the lending regulation of Fannie and Freddie. Every single Democrat on the committee voted against it.

In the House, Barney Frank angrily proclaimed that Fannie Mae was "just fine."

Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., accused Republicans of going on a "witch hunt" against Fannie Mae and attempting a "political lynching of Franklin Raines" (which, in a game of "bad metaphor Scrabble" would have been a double word score).

Fannie was pressuring banks to write mortgages with no money down and no proof of income. What could go wrong?

In 2004, Bush's White House Chief Economist Gregory Mankiw warned that Fannie was creating "systemic risk for our financial system." In response, Barney Frank went to a champagne brunch with his partner "just because."

Democrats saw nothing of concern in the Fannie debacle. Bad mortgages don't contain sodium, do they? They don't engage in "hate speech." And they don't emit carbon dioxide. There was nothing to catch a Democrat's eye.

In 2005, when the housing bubble burst, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced a bill allowing Fannie Mae to buy up even more schlock mortgages, apparently reasoning that if owning some toxic mortgages is bad, owning lots of them must be better!

He accused Republican opponents of his suicidal bill of being against affordable housing. (And that is a specific example of how liberals love the poor so much, they promoted policies to create millions more of them.)

As late as 2008, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who had received more than $133,000 in political contributions from Fannie Mae, called Fannie "fundamentally strong" and "in good shape" -- which is the kind of thing the Politburo used to say about Yuri Andropov right after he died.

(Amazingly, Dodd was only the second most embarrassing Democrat to run for president in 2008, but only because John Edwards was also running that year.)

As the titanic losses were racking up, Fannie Mae's operators, Franklin Raines and Jamie Gorelick, disguised the catastrophe by orchestrating a $5 billion accounting fraud -- all the while continuing to pressure banks to make absurd, politically correct loans and denouncing Republicans as enemies of the poor.

In Gorelick's defense, at least when she was wrecking the economy, she wasn't able to wreck national security by building any more walls between the FBI and the CIA.

Have you ever noticed that whenever there's a major calamity in this country, the name "Jamie Gorelick" always pops up? I think I'll pull some articles about the Great Chicago Fire from Nexis to see if there was a "Gorelick" living on Catherine O'Leary's block.

As Peter Schweizer points out in his magnificent book "Architects of Ruin," which everyone should read, Enron's accounting fraud was a paltry $567 million -- and it didn't bring down the entire financial system. Those involved in the Enron manipulations went to prison. Raines and Gorelick not only didn't go to jail, they walked away with multimillion-dollar payouts, courtesy of the taxpayer.

(Here's more fascinating Jamie Gorelick trivia: That giant wall she built between the FBI and the CIA, making 9/11 possible? It was financed with a risky loan from Fannie Mae.)

Under the Democrats' 2010 "Financial Reform" bill (written by Chris Dodd, Barney Frank and Goldman Sachs), Raines keeps his $90 million, Jamie Gorelick keeps her $26.4 million, and Goldman keeps its $12 billion from the AIG bailout.

Let's get it back. Twelve billion, one hundred and sixteen point four million dollars might not sound like a lot to you, but it starts to add up.


Obama's Fantasy Land

Obama's Fantasy Land

By David Asman
Published February 03, 2011
| FOXBusiness
President Hosni Mubarak sent a message by camel to President Barack Obama this week. 
In those bizarre scenes of pro-Mubarak forces charging their camels into the anti Mubarak crowd, Mubarak was telling President Obama to mind his own business, that he'll leave on his own terms, not on terms or timetables dictated by the White House
We're not sure whether the Mubarak government actually planned the pro-government attacks or just allowed them to happen. Either way, he's rebutting President Obama's call for a peaceful transition to democracy that must begin right now.
Mubarak's desperate stand may or may not succeed, but the administration's inability to have any sway over events there is what happens when you suddenly desert your allies and try to apply Roberts Rules of Order to the raw power plays of the Middle East.
We saw the same thing happen with the Carter administration's mishandling of Iran. And we're shocked that this administration thinks the same kind of lofty ideals will have better luck in Egypt.
It's a fairyland, academic view of the world, which frankly tracks perfectly with this administration's views about the economy. 
Take health care: Sure we can insure an extra 30 million people for free. In fact, more health care will end up saving money! As for unemployment, we just print up a trillion dollars, and we'll keep unemployment down. The height of this fantasy world was when Nancy Pelosi called unemployment checks "an economic stimulus" - as if getting us more in debt by paying folks to stay unemployed is good for the economy. This is the "free lunch" times ten.
Many of us had these kinds of ideal notions when we were younger. But most of us outgrew them when our ideals butted up against reality. But President Obama still seems stuck on the notion of the free lunch. As for foreign policy, we hope and pray that the president is not quite as naïve as some of the reporters who’ve been lavishing praise on the Muslim Brotherhood, as if the MB could provide a peaceful solution to problems there. 
That attitude shows a level of naivety that's scary. We do believe that Secretary of State Clinton is much more hardened in her understanding of power plays than this. But given the administration's track record, and the president's call for more of the same economic fantasy talk in his state of the union address last week, there are reasons to be concerned. Very concerned.

Read more:

Intel Releases 2nd Generation Core Processors

Intel Releases 2nd Generation Core Processors

The Sandy Bridge CPUs -- i3, i5, and i7 -- include video-related technologies, such as Intel Insider, Quick Sync Video, and a new version of Wireless Display.

Intel has officially released its second-generation Core processor line, which includes a number of technologies that reflect the chipmaker's belief that video is the future of consumer computing.
Intel launched the latest Core i3, i5, and i7 processors Monday in advance of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nev., which opens on Thursday. Formerly code-named Sandy Bridge, the new Core chips include a number of video-related technologies, such as Intel Insider, Quick Sync Video, and a new version of Wireless Display.

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Intel made the announcement in a press release set for Wednesday, but obtained by news organizations a couple of days early. The Engadget tech blogposted the release.
Intel is initially launching 20 new Sandy Bridge processors, along with 6 Series chipsets and Centrino Wi-Fi and WiMax wireless adapters. The processors will each have four CPU cores and will be integrated with a graphics processor on the same die. The new products, built with a 32-nanometer manufacturing process, are scheduled to be available next week. Intel plans to release dual-core models in February. Computer makers are expected to release throughout the year more than 500 laptop and desktop models using the new Core processors.
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Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices is expected it release its new combo graphics-CPU processors at CES this week. AMD calls its new products accelerated processing units, or APUs. The designs are new for both chipmakers and open up a new front in their long rivalry.
Combining graphics and CPU on a single die produces significantly better graphics performance than having a separate graphics chip embedded in the motherboard, the typical design in the past. The new design makes possible smaller and more powerful mainstream laptops or desktops used for high-definition video playback and light video editing. A separate graphics card is still needed for handling intensive graphic applications, such as high-end video games or professional video editing.
Intel's new Wireless Display 2.0 in Sandy Bridge makes it possible for hardware manufacturers to tap the chipmaker's technology in products that can wirelessly stream 1080p high-definition video to digital TVs. The company's Quick Sync Video is built-in hardware acceleration technology for faster editing and sharing of video. Intel Insider provides movie studios with hardware-based content protection that can be used in streaming or downloading video from the Web. CinemaNow, Warner Bros., and other content distributors say they will use the technology.
Intel Reveals Sandy Bridge Processor Details
AMD, Intel In Market Share Stalemate

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EU should follow Germany's lead on reforms - Rehn

EU should follow Germany's lead on reforms - Rehn

BERLIN | Fri Feb 4, 2011 7:28am EST
BERLIN (Reuters) - European countries must implement the structural reforms that Germany has already carried out over the last couple of decades to ramp up competitiveness, the European Union's top economic official said on Friday.
Economics and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said  Germany's economy entered the crisis on a stronger footing than others within the EU because it had adjusted to the new world order by carrying out broad structural reforms since the 1990s.
"It is important for everyone that other countries now manage to do what Germany and a few other member states have already managed in past years," Rehn wrote in a guest column in German daily Handelsblatt.
"Several member states, for example Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, have already entered on an ambitious course of reform and are making progress," he added.
Germany sees its economy recovering fast from the worst crisis in decades, while peripheral European economies, such as Greece or Spain, continue to be dogged by the debt crisis, financial woes or growing unemployment.
Economists and policymakers have mostly come to the consensus that other EU states should also boost their competitiveness by wage restraint, an overhaul of their labour markets and more structural reforms.
To the dismay of some, German reforms look set to become the boilerplate for the rest of the EU under a new regime of closer economic coordination.
"There is indeed no doubt that the EU's entire economy benefits from the strength and resilience of the Germany economy," Rehn said. "Therefore the continuation of structural reforms in Germany that promote growth is important for the whole of Europe."
Last year, however, Berlin was often criticised for exacerbating economic imbalances within the EU and urged to do more to reduce its big trade surplus with other member states, for example, by spending more.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Ron Askew)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Egypt: Between Dictatorships and Revolutions

Egypt: Between Dictatorships and Revolutions

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The choice in Egypt is not between good and bad, it is between bad and worse. Many in the Muslim world lack the understanding of what is hindering them as well as a lack of a moral and legal foundation for forming a stable democratic political system. I fear that my brothers and sisters in Egypt will embrace extremism...

Egypt’s rebellion has been lingering in the horizon for a very long time. The brutal life of the ordinary Egyptian was waiting for the right moment to explode. But instead of understanding what was surely coming, the 82-year-old Mubarak has wasted every opportunity to transfer power to another administration peacefully. He could have gone down in history as the first Arab leader to conduct a fair election and transfer power peacefully. But he kept ignoring the inevitable and, following the many sad examples in the region, kept re-electing himself for 30 years, grooming his son to take over. Now he will go down in history as just another tyrant in the long line of known and unknown ones in the dysfunctional history of the Muslim world.
Is this just a coincidence or is there something in Muslim culture that all too often perpetuates this vicious cycle? I believe the latter is true. Having been born and raised myself in the Muslim faith during the generation of the 1952 Nasser Egyptian revolution, which promised freedom, democracy, Arab Nationalism, socialism and self rule. My father held a prominent role in the Nasser revolutionary government of that time. A revolution that promised that the era of oppressive colonial rule was over. But what the revolution gave Egypt was more of the same and even worse conditions than the era before it; more poverty, illiteracy, tyrannical dictatorships and a police state.
Westerners often describe the current Egyptian government as secular when in reality it is not. It is true that Mubarak comes from a military background and neither he nor his wife wears Islamic clothes. But no Muslim leader can get away with or even survive one day in office if he is secular in the true sense of the word. It was during Mubarak’s rule in 1991that Egypt signed the Cairo Declaration for Human Rights stating that Sharia Law supersedes any other law. So even though Sharia is not 100% applied in Egypt, it is officially the law of the land. Mubarak, like all Muslim leaders, must appease the Islamists to avoid their wrath. According to Sharia itself, a Muslim head of state must rule by Islamic law and preserve Islam in its original form or he must be removed from office. That law leaves no choice for any Muslim leader. Because of that law Muslim leaders must play a game of appearing Islamic and anti-West while trying to get along with the rest of the world. It’s a game with life-and-death consequences.
I am not optimistic that the current uprising in the Middle East will bring democracy. Many Egyptians believe they can combine democracy with Sharia Islamic law; that is the first unrealistic expectation. 60% of Egyptians want to live under Sharia law but do not understand the ramifications. Many chant “Allahu Akbar” and “Islam is the solution.” But the truth is, Islam or more accurately, Sharia, is the problem.
Perhaps the most dangerous law in Sharia that stands in the way of democracy is the one that states that “A Muslim head of State can hold office through seizure of power, meaning through force.” That law is the reason every Muslim leader must turn into a despotic tyrant to survive, literally. When a Muslim leader is removed from office by force, we often see the Islamic media and masses accept it and even cheer for the new leader who has just ousted or killed the former leader, who is often called a traitor to the Islamic cause. That was what happened to the Egyptian King Farouk in 1952. Sadat’s assassination followed many fatwas of death against him for having violated his Islamic obligations to make Israel an eternal enemy. He became an apostate in the eyes of the hard-liners and had to be killed or removed from office. This probably sounds incredible to the Western mind, but this is the reality of what Sharia has done and is still doing to the political chaos in the Muslim world.
The choice in Egypt is not between good and bad, it is between bad and worse. Many in the Muslim world lack the understanding of what is hindering them as well as a lack of a moral and legal foundation for forming a stable democratic political system. I fear that my brothers and sisters in Egypt will embrace extremism instead of true democracy and thus will continue to rise and fall, stumble from one revolution to another and living under one tyrant to another looking for the ideal Islamic state that never was. The 1400year-old Islamic history of tyranny will continue unless Sharia Law is rejected as the basis of the legal and political systems in Muslim countries.
Nonie Darwish is the author “Cruel and usual Punishment” and the President

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Debt or alive: Obama 'pushing panic button'

Debt or alive: Obama 'pushing panic button'

Heritage Foundation gets tough with Dems looking to raise limit

Posted: February 01, 2011
8:22 pm Eastern
By Bob Unruh
© 2011 WorldNetDaily

Timothy Geithner

Members of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party urgently have been warning Congress, especially GOP members of the House, that the U.S. debt limit must be raised – and raised soon – to avoid default, the dollar's collapse and various other catastrophies.
"Failure to raise the limit would precipitate a default by the United States," threatened Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a recent letter to Congress. "Default would effectively impose a significant and long-lasting tax on all Americans and all American businesses and could lead to the loss of millions of American jobs."
Express your opinion on the debt ceiling by signing a petition encouraging the U.S. House to leave it alone
"If we didn't renew the debt ceiling, our soldiers and veterans wouldn't be paid, Social Security checks wouldn't go out," warned Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We might permanently threaten confidence of the credit markets in the dollar, which would create a recession worse than the one we have now, or even a depression."
But a new analysis from J.D. Foster, the Norman B. Ture senior fellow in the economics of fiscal policy at the Heritage Foundation, calls that warning alarmism.
(Story continues below)

"If the federal government runs up against the debt limit, then the Treasury has tools to manage cash flow for a time before severe measures will be necessary to align the federal spending set in law with the receipts available to the Treasury," Foster wrote in his report, released just days ago.
"Treasury almost certainly will not default on its publicly issued debt. Nor will Congress imperil the standing of U.S. government debt in the credit markets, risking America's 'full faith and credit,' as the president's chief economic adviser has said," he said.
At issue is the skyrocketing budget deficit under Barack Obama's leadership, which is expected to be $1.5 trillion this year. Meanwhile, the national debt is expected to reach its legally allowed maximum of about $14 trillion over the next few months.
The Foster report said that's because federal spending has increased from $2.3 trillion in 2001 to $3.6 trillion last year, with forecasts for federal spending to be $4.7 trillion by 2020.
The impact on the national debt, the report said, is that "by the end of the decade, it will be nearly 90 percent of our national economy and by 2035, it will be an unsustainable 180 percent."
"If Congress ultimately inclines toward raising the debt limit, then it could, in the same legislation, impose immediate, substantial spending reductions along with strong new rules such as hard spending caps to require continued, sharp spending reduction in future years," Foster wrote. "The outcome should reflect a clear, quick path to a sound fiscal policy. Congress should also consider carefully both the size of any increase in the debt limit in light of the other opportunities it will have over the course of the year to reduce spending and the importance of having yet another forcing opportunity if further spending reductions are not forthcoming. The responsibility for driving down spending and borrowing rests – under our Constitution – squarely with the Congress and the president of the United States.
He said if Congress decides against increasing the debt ceiling, there will be "a massive restructuring of federal spending.
That is the goal of a separate campaign that has been launched to encourage majority GOP members of the U.S. House to force the government to live within its income by leaving the debt limit alone.
Joseph Farah, editor and chief executive officer of WND, is the force behind the "No More Red Ink" campaign.
This week, the campaign will ship the first 125,000 "red ink" letters to House Republicans urging them to oppose raising the debt limit when it comes to a vote in the coming weeks.
Shock the Washington establishment by participating in the "No More Red Ink" campaign and shut down all new plans for bailouts, "stimulus" spending and even the funding for Obamacare.
"Unfortunately, if the House Republicans do not hear from the American people in strength, they will vote for business-as-usual deficit spending for the next two years and surrender the power they have to force fiscal responsibility on Barack Obama and the Democrats in the Senate," says Farah. "House Speaker John Boehner says he wants to use the debt limit to wrangle concessions out of the Democrats, but when he signals, as he did last weekend, that Congress must raise the debt limit to keep the government solvent, he has already waved the white flag of surrender on the most important vote to be cast in Congress over the next two years."
The only hope, Farah says, is a major outpouring of protest from tea party activists and true conservatives who recognize that government is way too big and is in desperate need of major cuts just to bring it in line with the Constitution.
That's where the "No More Red Ink" campaign comes in. Farah launched the "No More Red Ink" campaign to persuade the House Republican majority to say no to raising the debt limit – the only action, he says, that will force Washington to stop unsustainable spending in the short term.
For his part, Farah has made it easy for the public to make their voices heard in Washington in a powerful way.
The "No More Red Ink" campaign has two facets:

Foster's report says the "out-of-control" federal spending is the reason for the deficit and debt problems.
"Congress has options, and it has time to consider them carefully. If Congress chooses not to raise the debt ceiling, then it could act swiftly to indicate that net interest is the highest priority to allay any remaining concerns about the possibility of defaulting on the debt. Congress could also declare exactly where spending should be cut to align total spending with receipts, not leaving this to a president acting without statutory guidance," he said.
"If Congress inclines toward raising the debt limit, then it should also impose immediate, substantial spending reductions along with strong new rules such as hard spending caps to require continued, sharp spending reduction in future years."
The deliberations, he suggested, "should not be tainted with misplaced concerns over whether the United States government might default on its debt. Contrary to the clear implications of a letter from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Congress dated January 6, 2011, refusing to raise the debt limit would not, in and of itself, cause the United States to default on its public debt."
He continued, "Both immediately and long after it reaches the debt limit, the government would have far more than enough revenue coming in that the Secretary of the Treasury could use to pay interest on the debt. Nor would preserving the current debt limit put at risk the full faith and credit of the United States government, as the president's chief economic adviser has claimed. The government would continue to pay net interest as it comes due."
He noted the "federal debt held by the public" was $3.4 trillion in 2001, $4.8 trillion in 2008 and "leapt to $9 trillion by 2010."
Geithner warned earlier that should Congress not give him what he wants, "Payments on a broad range of benefits and other U.S. obligations would be discontinued, limited, or adversely affected, including: U.S. military salaries and retirement benefits; Social Security and Medicare benefits; veterans' benefits; federal civil service salaries and retirement benefits; individual and corporate tax refunds; unemployment benefits to states; defense vendor payments; interest and principal payments on Treasury bonds and other securities; student loan payments; Medicaid payments to states; and payments necessary to keep government facilities open."
But Foster suggested it could be the impetus for improvement.
"A change of course in federal spending is inevitable. ... Reaching the debt limit provides the critical moment to force the necessary action to reduce spending and borrowing," he said.
"The legal prohibition on government's selling additional debt because government borrowing has reached the statutory limit does not translate into an inability to spend (because tax money is still coming in). Thus, the consequences of reaching the debt limit are quite different from the consequences of a 'government shutdown' as a result of the inability of Congress and the president to agree on spending levels for government agencies," he explained.
"Very simply, reaching the debt limit means that spending is limited by revenue arriving at the Treasury and is guided by prioritization among the government's obligations. How the government would decide to meet these obligations under the circumstances is a matter of some conjecture. Certainly, vast inflows of federal tax receipts – inflows that are far more than needed to pay monthly interest costs on debt – would continue. Thus, the government has never defaulted on its debt. Whether Treasury is required as a matter of law to prioritize incoming receipts to pay interest costs first is an open question, but there appears to be little doubt Treasury would do so. There is, therefore, no real question that Treasury would take the actions necessary to preserve the full faith and credit of the U.S. government and avoid defaulting on debts due," the report said.
Foster suggested credit markets may react unfavorably for a short time, but the actual impacts would not be severe.
"If the federal government were forced to operate indefinitely at the current debt limit, the early reaction in credit markets could be unfavorable. Credit markets value certainty and carefully evaluate and price uncertainty. Despite the recent run-up in federal debt and the tremendous difficulties the federal government faces due to promises made in major entitlement programs, U.S. government debt is still the global benchmark for safety. The uncertainty surrounding how the federal government would operate if it were unable to issue debt would likely rattle markets initially, leading to adverse movements in interest rates and the dollar exchange rate," he wrote.
But, "The news would not be all grim … as the passage of time probably would make clear. As noted, the Treasury Department would surely affirm that all interest payments on government debt would be made, thus reassuring bond holders. While spending cuts required to align total spending with revenues would be deep, triggering a huge political brouhaha, from the credit markets' perspective the overarching consideration would be that a government previously bent on issuing destabilizing amounts of debt would be running an enforced balanced budget."

If you'd like to sound off on this issue, please take part in the WND poll.

Related Offers:
Express your opinion on the debt ceiling by signing a petition encouraging the U.S. House to leave it alone
You also can send "red ink" letters by guaranteed Fed Ex delivery to all 242 House Republicans to encourage them not to fritter away the leverage they have to bring spending under control this year/

Previous reports:
Republicans about to betray the November shellacking?
Secret weapon unveiled to slay dragon of Obama's scheming
Remember 'pink slips'? Now it's red ink slips
How Republican House can dry up red ink with 1 vote
'House Republicans alone can downsize Washington' Don't raise the debt limit!
The Republicans' nuclear option
Oxymoron: 'Fiscal conservative'

Bob Unruh is a news editor for

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Palestinian court forcibly divorces 'apostates'

Palestinian court forcibly divorces 'apostates'

Palestinian couple Mohammed, left, and Samah Alawneh talk to the Associated Press in their house in the West Bank town of Tulkarem, Sunday Jan. 16, 2011. For more than a year, the Palestinian couple belonging to a Islamic sect rejected by many mainstream Muslims endured insults from some their neighbors and even death threats while struggling to maintain a quiet existence in this West Bank town. Palestinian couple Mohammed, left, and Samah Alawneh talk to the Associated Press in their house in the West Bank town of Tulkarem, Sunday Jan. 16, 2011. For more than a year, the Palestinian couple belonging to a Islamic sect rejected by many mainstream Muslims endured insults from some their neighbors and even death threats while struggling to maintain a quiet existence in this West Bank town. (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh)
By Mohammed Daraghmeh and Diaa Hadid Associated Press / January 20, 2011
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TULKAREM, West Bank—For more than a year, a Palestinian couple belonging to an Islamic sect rejected by many mainstream Muslims endured insults from some of their neighbors and even death threats while struggling to maintain a quiet existence in this West Bank town.
As word spread about them, things got worse. A local Islamic court branded them apostates and dissolved their marriage. The couple, Mohammed and Samah Alawneh, now live in legal limbo.
Their plight demonstrates the tensions between a still largely conservative Palestinian society and a Western-backed government expected by the international community to ensure democratic freedoms.
The government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is dominated by secular elites and frequently cracks down on hard-line Muslims connected to its militant Islamic rival, Hamas. The seat of Abbas' government, the vibrant West Bank city of Ramallah, is dotted with bars, liquor stores and night clubs frequented by secular Muslims, although consuming alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority -- trying to build toward a state that would include the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip -- has shown there are limits to its religious tolerance.
Late last year, Palestinian police arrested a self-proclaimed atheist blogger for insulting Islam in his posts, and the man is still in custody. The Alawnehs are members of the Ahmadi sect, an Islamic offshoot whose members are often branded traitors and face persecution in the Muslim world. Another couple -- the husband is Ahmadi, the wife is not -- is facing the same proceedings.
"It's like we are still living in the Middle Ages," said Mohammed Alawneh, 35. "They are deciding whether you are a believer or not. Whether you'll go to heaven or hell -- and whether you are an apostate."
Followers of the Islamic Ahmadi Community are shunned by many mainstream Muslims because they recognize a 19th-century cleric as their prophet. A central tenet of Islam is that the Muhammad was the last prophet sent by God.
There are believed to be more than 4 million Ahmadis worldwide, most of them in South Asia but also with large communities in Africa and Europe. They frequently face isolation and persecution, particularly in Pakistan, where last year two of their mosques were bombed and 97 people were killed.
A few dozen Ahmadi converts live in the West Bank, whose 2.5 million-strong Palestinian population is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, said the local Ahmadi leader, Sheik Mohammed Sharif.
Cases involving Ahmadis, who have lived in the West Bank in small numbers for decades, have rarely been pursued -- until now, lawyers said.
The Alawnehs converted to the Ahmadi sect separately six years ago, marrying in 2009. Both faced insults and death threats from Muslim preachers when news of their conversions filtered out, they said. Mohammed's family renounced them. Some of Samah's colleagues at the university where she works shun her, though others do not.
Then last year, a prosecutor in the local Islamic court, which regulates Muslim marriages, filed a complaint against them, accusing them of apostasy. They were found guilty in August, according to documents the couple showed The Associated Press.
The court forcibly divorced the couple by canceling their marriage registration, because they were no longer considered Muslims.
The Alawnehs say the complaint against them was initiated by Mohammed Alawneh's first wife, who was upset by his decision to take another wife. Islamic law permits a man to have up to four wives.
The Palestinian Authority does not authorize civil marriage. All marriages must be registered with the government-funded Islamic courts or a Christian church.
That means that the couple have no chance of ever legalizing their marriage in the West Bank, said their lawyer, Gandi Rabai. The couple may go abroad to marry, but so far, they have chosen to try to battle the issue in Palestinian courts, believing it is their right to marry freely in the West Bank, Rabai said.
Expecting their first child later this year, they will not be able to register the baby with the Palestinian Interior Ministry -- meaning the child cannot go to public school or qualify for medical care. The child will be scorned as illegitimate if they remain unmarried.
The Islamic courts are also pursuing a case against Maher Salahat, a 34-year-old married father of five who belongs to the Ahmadi sect. They accuse him of apostasy and seek to divorce him from his wife, who is a Sunni Muslim. The case is still being investigated, Salahat said.
Reem Shanti, the prosecutor who pressed charges against the Alawnehs, and other Islamic courts officials refused to comment.
Mahmoud Habbash, the Palestinian Authority's Religious Affairs Minister, who oversees the courts, said he could not interfere in judicial affairs. Habbash said he had no solution to the couple's legal dead-end over registering their marriage in the West Bank.
An appeals court canceled the initial decision on procedural grounds and sent it back to the lower Islamic court for a retrial that is to start later this month, said Sumud Damir, the chief prosecutor in the West Bank.
Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said the Palestinian basic law, a forerunner to a constitution, guarantees freedom of expression and religious belief, but that the Islamic courts rule over civil issues such as marriage and divorce. There is no criminal punishment for being declared an apostate, he said.
In neighboring Israel, personal status issues like marriage and divorce also remain largely under the control of religious authorities.
The Alawneh's lawyer, Rabai, said he has observed increasing Islamic conservatism among lower-tier civil servants. He said senior officials appear reluctant to openly challenge their decisions.
The Alawnehs said they would take their case all the way to the Palestinian Supreme Court. They said they feared a dangerous precedent has been set that could engulf not only people with unconventional religious views, but also the many non-practicing Muslims in the West Bank.
"If they open the door to declaring people apostates, anybody could accuse anybody," said the young woman, her hair covered with a Muslim headscarf, her eyes widening in fear. "But I believe I follow the real Islam. They can't break open my heart to see if I believe or not."
Hadid reported from Ramallah, West Bank.

Death sentences feared for Afghan converts


Death sentences feared for Afghan converts

U.S., 4 other nations appealing to Karzai to save ex-Muslims

Posted: January 13, 2011
10:35 pm Eastern
By Michael Carl
© 2011 WorldNetDaily

Former President Bush with Afghan chief Hamid Karzai
Five countries are appealing to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to prevent two Afghan men who converted to Christianity from being sentenced to death for "apostasy" -- their decisions to abandon Islam.
Representatives from the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Italy have been in contact with Karzai to ask for release and safe passage for Shoiad Assadullah and Sayed Musa.
Assadullah has been in jail since Oct. 21 after his arrest in Mazar-e-Sharif, and Musa has been detained since his arrest last May.
International Christian Concern's Middle East Specialist Aidan Clay said Assadullah's case is urgent.
"The case that concerns us most now is Shoiad Assadullah. He was brought to court in late December and was told he would have one week to recant his faith in Christianity and return to Islam. Otherwise he would be given the death penalty," Clay explained.
Clay said Assadullah has been denied the right of legal representation and has been charged with apostasy, a crime that Clay points out isn't in the Afghanistan criminal code.
"The second court date was Jan. 4, but fortunately the attorney general in Afghanistan intervened. We can only assume that was because of foreign pressure in the country," Clay said.
(Story continues below)


Clay reports that confidential sources in the U.S. State Department say that Assadullah's case is "on the radar."
Clay said that outside pressure was responsible for Musa being moved to a safer prison.
"In the first prison where he was held, he was abused, actually sexually abused by the other inmates because he was a Christian," Clay reported.
Clay said that even with the outside pressure, the fate of the two men is in doubt.
"We aren't sure of what's going to happen, but we do know that the Afghan legal system is determined to give them the very harsh penalty of the death sentence for apostasy," Clay stated.
"The only reason that hasn't happened yet is because of international intervention," he added.

Listen to an interview with Clay:

Italy is one of the other countries pressing for release of the two Christian men in Afghanistan. 
Speaking on behalf of the Italian government, Italian Sen. Lucio Malan said in a statement that Italy stands with the men.
"At this particular moment of awareness and commitment to religious freedom, Italy cannot remain indifferent to the case of Shoaib Assadullah, an Afghan who risks the death penalty or 20 years in prison for having converted to Christianity, according to apostasy law in force in Afghanistan," the senator stated.
The senator said he will ask the Italian ministers of foreign affairs and defense to intervene.
"Italy has done and is doing much for Afghanistan, and it is very difficult to think that those who receive our help implement a law in such a flagrant violation of basic human rights," he said.
Clay said he believes the only reason that both Assadullah and Musa haven't been given the death sentence yet is because of the interest from other nations.
"After an almost 10-year presence in their country fighting for democracy and fighting for human rights, the fact that Afghan judges still have the mindset that they did under the days of the Taliban shows us that there's been very little progress in Afghanistan's judicial system," Clay observed.
Still, Clay said that any publicity about the men's case is a positive step.
"We need to ensure that whatever happens to Shoiad Assadullah and Sayed Musa, we need to make it public so we can expose and condemn it very loudly," he said.
"The last thing we want is for these guys to be executed in secret where the Afghan people don't hear about it. With exposure comes awareness," Clay added. "Also something comes that is like tolerance, eventually. That's the hope at least. So we need to publicly condemn it and expose it so these lives will not have been in vain."
Afghan authorities have increased their anti-Christian actions after a television program showed Afghan Christian converts being baptized.
"The crackdown also led to the arrests of four Christians in Heart on Aug. 9, including a South African and a Korean-American. All four have been released as a result of outside pressure. None of those arrested was offered due process of law," Clay said.
"The overall mindset towards non-Muslims and the overall mindset towards democracy are like the days of the Taliban. There has been a progression of the Taliban taking over and Islamic fundamentalism coming into the country," he said. "The only way we're going to see change is if the Afghan people can see beyond their own cultural norms, which are rooted in the philosophy of the Taliban. To see change, we need to encourage education."
Clay believes that education will expose the people to a wider range of ideas.
"Until there is a broader worldview in the Afghan mindset; until they're able to think outside this very narrow-minded box the Taliban have put them in; and see that there are other religions, ideas and ideologies, and see that there is a broader world, we're not going to see any change," Clay said.

Did Vikings navigate with 'sunstone'?

Did Vikings navigate with 'sunstone'?

Reuters file
A Viking warship replica, Havhingsten af Glendalough (the Sea Stallion of Glendalough), makes its way into Dublin's port in 2007. New research suggests the Vikings used sunstones to navigate in cloudy and foggy conditions.

Vikings could have navigated the oceans in inclement weather with the aid of a crystal that pinpointed the sun's location behind banks of clouds and fog, a new study suggests.
Such a tool, known as a sunstone, is known from legend, but until now experimental evidence that it could actually work as hypothesized was lacking.
Researchers led by Gábor Horváth of Hungary's Eötvös University decided to see if the legend has real world legs. Their results were published online on Monday in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
The theory
The Vikings were Scandinavian seafarers who traveled widely in the North Atlantic, roughly between the year 900 and 1200. Under clear and partly cloudy skies, archaeological evidence indicates that they used sundials to find their way around.
But a sundial is only useful when the sun is shining, raising the question of how the Vikings navigated in cloudy and foggy conditions, which can last for days along their known sailing routes.
In the 1960s, Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou suggested that the Vikings used a sunstone to filter the sunlight so that it all had the same polarization, or direction. By rotating the crystal to and fro, the light would appear brighter or darker, depending on how the crystal was oriented. The brightest point would be toward the direction of the sun.
Two sunstone readings from different points in the sky would allow navigators to pinpoint the sun's location. They could then hold up a torch in that direction to mimic the sun's location, allowing its light to cast a shadow on the sundial.
A widely cited reference to this method of navigation appears in the Sigurd legend, a Viking saga. Horvath and his colleagues refer to the passage in their paper:
"The weather was very cloudy. It was snowing. Holy Olaf the king sent out somebody to look around, but there was no clear point in the sky. Then he asked Sigurd to tell him where the sun was. After Sigurd complied, he grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible sun. It turned out that Sigurd was right."
The tests
Critics have questioned whether this technique was actually needed, since experienced navigators could likely estimate the position of the sun even in cloudy weather. They also questioned whether the method would actually work under cloudy and foggy skies.
To answer the critics, the researchers made photographs of cloudy skies with a fisheye lens and asked subjects in the lab to find the sun. The experimental subjects had errors as great as 99 percent, leading the researchers to report that "Viking navigators might have needed some aid to navigate on open seas during cloudy or foggy weather conditions."
So they tested out the sunstone idea under a range of weather conditions on expeditions to Tunisia, a sail across the Arctic Ocean, and at home in Hungary. For a "sunstone" they used a polarimeter, a device that measures polarization.
Their results showed that the method worked in cloudy and foggy weather, though the method wasn't as reliable under completely overcast skies. Further research will test whether the actual crystals from Scandinavia and Iceland work as well as the sensitive polarimeter.
Christian Keller, a specialist in North Atlantic archaeology at the University of Oslo, told Nature News that he is open to the idea that the Vikings used sunstones to help navigate. However, he said the available evidence suggests that they used the sun's position on clear days as a guide, combined with knowledge about the flight patterns of birds and the migration paths of whales, among other cues.
"You don't need to be a wizard," he said. "But you do need to combine a lot of different sorts of observations."
Navigation in nature
Using polarized light for navigation is common in nature, as highlighted in the other papers published this week in Philosophical Transactions B. In one study, for example, Australian researchers conclusively demonstrate that honeybees steer with the aid of a built-in polarization compass.
Another study shows that when dung beetles navigate using the polarization patterns of the moon, they're as accurate in celestial navigation under a crescent moon as they are under a full moon, and that their skill equals that measured for species that orient themselves using the sun, which is up to 100 million times brighter.
But researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia found that other navigating species such as loggerhead sea turtles, which are known to orient via a magnetic compass, appear unable to use polarized light for navigation, at least when they're juveniles.
All of these studies, and several more, are available for free from the journal. To navigate there, simply click here.
More about navigation:
More about the Vikings:

John Roach is a contributing writer for Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Using Spam Blockers To Target HIV, Too

OCTOBER 1, 2007


Using Spam Blockers To Target HIV, Too
A Microsoft researcher and his team make a surprising new assault on the AIDS epidemic

Cut-rate painkillers! Unclaimed riches in Nigeria!! Most of us quickly identify such e-mail messages as spam. But how would you teach that skill to a machine? David Heckerman needed to know. Early this decade, Heckerman was leading a spam-blocking team at Microsoft Research. To build their tool, team members meticulously mapped out thousands of signals that a message might be junk. An e-mail featuring "Viagra," for example, was a good bet to be spam--but things got complicated in a hurry.

If spammers saw that "Viagra" messages were getting zapped, they switched to V1agra, or Vi agra. It was almost as if spam, like a living thing, were mutating.

This parallel between spam and biology resonated for Heckerman, a physician as well as a PhD in computer science. It didn't take him long to realize that his spam-blocking tool could extend far beyond junk e-mail, into the realm of life science. In 2003, he surprised colleagues in Redmond, Wash., by refocusing the spam-blocking technology on one of the world's deadliest, fastest- mutating conundrums: HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.

Heckerman was plunging into medicine--and carrying Microsoft (MSFT ) with him. When he brought his plan to Bill Gates, the company chairman "got really excited," Heckerman says. Well versed on HIV from his philanthropy work, Gates lined up Heckerman with AIDS researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Washington, and elsewhere.

Since then, the 50-year-old Heckerman and two colleagues have created their own biology niche at Microsoft, where they build HIV-detecting software. These are research tools to spot infected cells and correlate the viral mutations with the individual's genetic profile. Heckerman's team runs mountains of data through enormous clusters of 320 computers, operating in parallel. Thanks to smarter algorithms and more powerful machines, they're sifting through the data 480 times faster than a year ago. In June, the team released its first batch of tools for free on the Internet.

A new industry for the behemoth to conquer? Not exactly. Heckerman's nook in Redmond represents just one small node in a global AIDS research effort marked largely by cooperation. "The Microsoft group has a different perspective and a good statistical background," says Bette Korber, an HIV researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratories. The key quarry they all face is the virus itself, which is proving wilier than any of Microsoft's corporate foes. While Heckerman has high hopes that his tools will lead to vaccines that can be tested on humans within three years, his research sits outside of Microsoft's business plan. "It has nothing to do with Microsoft," he says, "except that we can help." From the company's perspective, the sums invested in HIV research amount to a rounding error--only a couple million dollars per year in a research and development budget of $7 billion. The potential payoff would be to contribute to the holy grail of AIDS research, successful vaccines. In the optimal scenario, drug companies would distill such research into targeted varieties of vaccines, which would help defend millions around the world from the scourge. The business payoff? Well, if helping to conquer a plague doesn't justify the effort--and burnish Microsoft's image--it might just be that a virus-sniffing tool could perhaps drive spam into submission.

If it seems strange that spam-blockers would end up studying nucleic acids, it shouldn't. Research is growing increasingly quantitative. Nearly everything these days, from atoms and cells on up, is described in data. When the work involves finding statistical relationships in mountains of bits, two things happen: First, mathematicians and computer scientists gain sway, which means an expanding role in research for powerhouses such as Microsoft and IBM (IBM ). Second, as researchers find common patterns, they start jumping from one discipline to the next.

The battle against HIV draws loads of such jumpers. Several scientists at Los Alamos, for example, were teaching machines to recognize patterns in satellite imagery. This led them to HIV, where they're building tools along the lines of Microsoft's. And many of the 800 researchers at Microsoft cross disciplines every which way. One of them, Michael Cohen, started out building software to stitch photos into a panorama. Now he's piecing thousands of brain scans into 3D models for scientists.

For Heckerman, the connections between spam and HIV boil down to mathematics. He analyzes both scourges by studying statistical relationships among their ever-changing features. Consider the word "Viagra." Sometimes it shows up in legitimate e-mails. Often it appears in spam. If researchers study thousands of e-mails, they can calculate the percentage of e-mails with that word that are spam. That's one clue. But the spam-filtering machine needs to know more than that. What other features in an e-mail signal that it's spam? Are certain fonts particularly spammy? What about e-mail addresses or types of punctuation? The trick is to figure out which combinations of these features identify an e-mail as spam. Each decision can involve thousands of variables and millions of different calculations.

From Heckerman's perspective, HIV is like a cagey spammer. After attacking a cell, it injects its own genetic material and proceeds (much like a spam jockey who has commandeered an unprotected computer) to manufacture thousands of copies of the virus. It's a notoriously sloppy copier, but that adds to its vigor. Each mistake launches mutant viruses into the system. Many fail. Some, though, survive--and resist the drugs.

One challenge for HIV researchers is to find the variables that point to an infected cell. Ordinarily, the first clues--the cellular equivalent of the variations in fonts and words that Heckerman has discovered in his spam research--are bits of protein that sit atop each cell. These communicate to passersby, including armies of antibodies, what's going on inside the cell. For years, researchers have been striving to single out the combinations of protein that point to an HIV-infected cell. Once they do, the next step is to package those bits of protein into a vaccine. In theory, this would introduce a person's immune system to an entire gang of undesirables, so that it could recognize and attack those cells.

The trouble? Complexity and mutations. HIV-infected cells often wear mutated nameplates that immune systems haven't learned to read. In this sense, vaccines have been like faulty spam filters, the ones that block e-mails promoting "Viagra" while letting ads for "V1agra" scoot through. This leads some researchers to throw up their hands. "We've thrown billions down the black hole of AIDS vaccines," laments Leroy Hood, co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.

But Heckerman is upbeat. He argues that by revving up the computing power and blending thousands of new variables--including dizzying genetic differences in each patient--researchers are making progress. One key, he says, is to map the patterns of mutation and incorporate them into medicine. These mutations, he says, appear to vary according to a person's immune system. If researchers can find the patterns, they'll be closer to making effective vaccines. Yet if they conclude that the mutations are utterly random, then "we're in big trouble," says Heckerman.

The hunt goes on. No one is betting on miracles from Microsoft. But in a research community desperate for answers, the hum of those computers churning in Redmond is a welcome sound.

New Handheld Melanoma Scanner Instantly Identifies Skin Cancers With Laser Light

New Handheld Melanoma Scanner Instantly Identifies Skin Cancers With Laser Light

Holy Mole-y The Verisante Aura uses Raman spectroscopy to analyze moles and other skin growths for the presence of malignant cells nearly instantaneously, taking some of the guesswork out of melanoma diagnosis. Verisante Technology
Yeah, you’ve been thinking about getting that thing checked out, but it’s just a mole right? Such is the problem with melanoma; it’s tough to know which spots on the skin are benign and which could be the hallmark of early-stage skin cancer. Most dermatologists still decide which moles require a biopsy by good old fashioned eye-balling, but a new device developed by researchers at British Colombia Cancer Agency (BCCA) could remove that guesswork, using a handheld laser to quickly identify problem spots that require closer examination.
Called the Verisante Aura, the device employs Raman spectroscopy to identify the molecular makeup of moles by changing the vibrational state of the molecular bonds in a skin growth. Shining a particular laser light on those bonds causes a shift in the kind of light that is reflected back to a sensor, and that shift belies exactly what kinds of molecules are there and in what concentration they exist.
The device then checks the spectral signature against a database containing examples of melanoma and other skin diseases. By simply shining some laser light on the skin, a doctor can get a near-instantaneous red or green light regarding whether a growth requires further diagnosis via biopsy. It’s not a magic wand for diagnosis, and regulatory agencies could take issue with the fact that clinicians might rely too heavily on such a technology, which could produce false negatives or otherwise discourage doctors from requesting a biopsy when one might be advisable. But it could also greatly inform the process by which dermatologists identify potential problem areas and reduce the number of needless biopsies which—aside form causing a certain degree of physical pain—tie up laboratories and pile onto overall health care costs.
[Technology Review]


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