Saturday, November 29, 2014

Investor Revolt at News Corp: Will the Murdoch Dynasty be Dethroned?

by Nomad

After NewsCorp investors staged a revolt at the annual shareholders meeting last week, CEO and founder Rupert Murdoch barely managed to retain control over his company.
The source of the dissatisfaction revolves around the structure of the company, and the Murdoch family's ability to lead the company.

If reports are accurate, things apparently got hot and heavy at a recent News Corp shareholders meeting last week. According to an article in  The Sidney Morning Herald, Rupert Murdoch just barely survived a  revolt at the annual meeting of investors. At issue, was the Murdoch family control of the company, which sparked widespread displeasure among a large number of stockholders.

The company structure allows the Murdoch family to control around 40 per cent of the company's vote while actually owning 14 per cent of News Corp. In this way, they have been able to keep an iron grip on the company. That has,  as the article notes, lead "to accusations it is run more like a family fiefdom than a conventional public company." 

Furthermore, some investors charge that such a structure provides Murdoch family with significant control of News Corp while passing the risks onto the other investors. 
One investors at the meeting called it "“fundamentally undemocratic."
"This kind of governing structure may be exactly what we'd expect in Cuba or North Korea, but it is at odds with good governance practices here," Bill Dempsey, chief financial officer of the New York-based Nathan Cummings Foundation, told Mr Murdoch at Friday's meeting
Shareholders proposed that the company's controversial dual-class voting structure be reformed. They proposed scrapping the present structure and replacing it with a one share, one vote system. Although the motion was narrowly defeated, it was a sign that all is not well behind the ramparts of the News Corp fortress.

Notably, even one of the companies key investor, the Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, (worth an estimated $27 billion) also voted in favor of restructuring the company. It marked the first time in 17 years that Al-Waleed, News Corp's second largest single investor, has voted in opposition of Murdoch. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Other Side of Anger: The East St. Louis Race Riots of 1917

by Nomad

All of us were shocked by the scenes of police cars being rocked and burned and rioters on the street, of St. Louis County businesses being looted and left in smoking heaps.However, go back to the same city nearly a hundred years before and we see a very different story. Here's the full story of the East St. Louis Race Riots of 1917.

History, if nothing else, teaches us perspective. That's a failure of the modern news coverage which seems to race from one shock to the next without putting anything into any kind of context.

Images of mayhem are broadcast over and over. Experts are interviewed on an hourly basis. The Ferguson events are yet another example of this magnifying effect. That's not to say that what has gone on isn't important.
Clearly it is.

However, if we fly to the opposite side of the same city back and go back nearly a century ago, we can see the other side of the coin.

Exodus from the South

It is the summer of 1917 and the place is East St. Louis
For the black laborer, the conditions in the Deep South, with its Jim Crow laws and the prevailing atmosphere of oppression, offered very little enticement to stay. Despite federal laws which were supposed to provide equal protection and due process, the African American in the South at that time was considered a second-class citizen. 
As one source points out, all Southern states had some form of Jim Crow laws. Segregation was a way of life for black in the South, affecting every social activity, not merely schools, but also in restaurants, theaters, parks, and hospitals. All these restrictions were held in place by a justice system that favored the white race in every way. And when injustice was challenged, the KKK was on hand to provide the intimidation to keep the "coloreds" in line.

It was a time of great demographic changes. Around 1910, African Americans had constituted more than half the population of South Carolina and Mississippi, and more than 40 percent in Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana. The Black exodus had rendered the South essentially without a labor force. In the North, cities that once been virtually all white at the turn of the century now became centers of urban black culture.

Factories in the North offered great opportunities for men willing to work, especially in 1917 with America about to enter the World War. Between the years 1916 through 1918, an estimated 400,000 African Americans left the South in to take advantage of a labor shortage in the wake of the First World War.

During that spring, African Americans from the South were moving to St. Louis at the rate of  2,000 a week. And this influx presented the Northern manufacturers an ultra-cheap source of labor. That was to prove to be an excellent bargaining chip against unhappy union workers. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Musical Sanity Break: Eric Whitacre and the Virtual Choir

by Nomad

This is certainly a time that calls for a little harmony and calmness. For that reason, I wanted to take a moment to introduce you to a special person.

Meet Grammy-winning American composer and conductor, Eric Whitacre. Although you might not have heard of him before, The Daily Telegraph has called Whitacre a "rare thing, a modern composer who is both popular and original."

He has won numerous awards for his work, including awards from the Barlow international composition competition, American Choral Directors Association, American Composers' Forum
But that's only half of the story.

By combining his choral, orchestral and wind ensemble music, the power of the Internet and thousands of talented strangers- as well as Whitacre's determination- his Virtual Choir projects have  pushed the boundaries and inspired the world. 

I will let him explain the concept in this 2011 TED lecture the rest of the details.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How the Facts about Benghazi Bring an End to the Republican Lying Game

by Nomad

After two long years of investigating the Benghazi incident, the Republicans were forced to admit that all of the slanderous claims made against Obama and his administration were, in fact, untrue.
Nobody wants to talk about holding anybody to account now.

This week the last chapter in the pathetic Benghazi attack saga was finally written.
After years of constant (some said faked) outrage about the tragic events in September 2012, the final report by the Republican Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was very quietly released. It should have been big news. The mainstream media however barely reported it. 
That's not a surprise perhaps since this report- direct from the Committee itself- absolutely vindicated the Obama administration's version of events.

The investigations really started on that night with presidential candidate Mitt Romney's famous smirk. For a president seeking re-election, the timing of the Libyan event couldn't have been worse. The tragedy allowed the Republicans to paint the entire administration as incompetent, careless, and able to react to an unfolding crisis. Weak leadership, in a word.

Unfortunately, Romney overplayed his hand and his opportunism backfired miserably, leading one commentator to call the candidate's press conference   "one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign." 
Fox News however called Romney's remarks about the Benghazi attack a demonstration of his "Reaganesque commitment to American resolve in our might."
On that night, the battle lines were drawn.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why an Oil Company Plans to Sue County for $1.2 Billion After Voter-Approved Fracking Ban

by Nomad

Following a vote against fracking and other enhanced oil extraction processes, voters and local officials in one California county are learning what happens when you cross an ambitious corporation.

Local government officials in central California's San Benito County have every reason to feel bullied and bruised by recent events in the area. 

Measure J
In a November ballot, a referendum known as Measure J was put before its citizens. That initiative was a proposed ban on all "enhanced petroleum extraction such as fracking, cyclic steaming and well acidizing along with all petroleum activities in rural residential zones."

Supporters argued a so-called fracking ban was necessary to prevent possible environmental impacts. According to Measure J supporters, the toxic chemicals used in the extraction process had the potential to cause cancer and other illnesses through groundwater and watershed contamination. The impact to endangered species in a nearby national park was also cited as a cause for worry. 

The Washington-D.C.-based Center for Biological Diversity pointed out 
“These enhanced recovery methods include steam extraction, acid extraction, and hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"). Although all of these methods involve chemistry not used in traditional oil and natural gas extraction, in California none of them is regulated or tracked any differently than are the traditional methods. Statewide, there is no requirement that companies declare the chemicals used in their extraction operations, or even that they are using enhanced extraction methods. Any regulation on these activities therefore (need to be) enacted at the county level.”
Finally, Measure J supported also noted  in quake-prone California,  the possible impact of fracking  on fault-lines should be matter of grave concern. Even in areas where there is little seismic activity, where fracking has been used, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of tremors. San Benito County already has its risks. The notorious San Andreas Fault runs through the region. 

Opposing the ballot initiative was in Newport Beach- based, Citadel Exploration. The oil company, founded in 2006, was set to begin its Project Indian in the Bitterwater area near Pinnacles National Park. In 2013, the company had received approval from county supervisors, over the objections of environmental groups, for a this limited pilot project.

While still in the testing and initial production stage, the oil drilling project was expected to recover an estimated millions of barrels of heavy (11-14 gravity API) oil. Alongside the oil companies were local farmers ready to sign lucrative real estate deals. The company pointed out that strictly speaking the technique to be used was not fracking

It turned out to be a showdown between environmental groups and powerful corporations which reportedly spent $2 million in advertising to defeat the initiative. That's not surprising. Armen V. Nahabedian, President and CEO of Citadel Exploration. has talked up the project
"Having worked on this project for over seven years, I can't overstate the importance and magnitude of our discovery at Project Indian."
When the measure passed by a strong majority (57.36%) in this month, citizens might have thought that would have been the end of the matter. As of Jan 1 next year, because of the vote, all enhanced extraction practices are to be banned and existing projects would have up to three years to comply with the provisions. 
End of story? 
Not quite.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Extinction of Compassion: A Tale of Empires and Elephants 2/2

by Nomad

Here's the conclusion of the historical tale of the last days of the Roman Republic and the revenge of the slaughtered elephants. We will also compare those brutal times to our own.

In the first of this two-part series we recounted how the ambitious masters of Rome were step by step destroying the Republic. In public spectacle in 55 BC, the audience, so used to bloodshed, were suddenly unexpectedly repulsed by the cruel slaughter of 18 elephants, who had begged in vain for mercy. Instead of applauding Pompey, the sponsor of the celebrations, the disgusted citizens of Rome denounced and cursed him.  
Let's watch the rest of this classic tragedy play out.

Destinies Fulfilled
It didn't take long for the Gods to answer the calls of revenge from the dying elephants and the curses of the Roman public. Within two years, the First Triumvirate tottered and collapsed.
The intermarriage ties between Caesar and Pompey- Pompey was married to Caesar's daughter Julia- dissolved upon her tragic death in childbirth.

First to die was Marcus Crassus, one third of the three-way alliance. After a military disaster in the East against the Parthians, his troops mutinied in Syria, and was later murdered while trying to arrange a humiliating peace negotiation. According to accounts from one Roman historian, his particularly gruesome death at the hands of his enemy was meant to be a testament to his greed. Molten gold was supposedly poured down his throat while he still alive.

A showdown between Caesar and Pompey now seemed all but inevitable.

For five more years, Pompey managed to hold onto Rome. That all quickly unraveled when Caesar returned from successfully conquering of Gaul (modern day France) with his sizable armies and considerably more wealth. Certainly enough to bribe whomever stood in his way.
In open defiance of Senate orders to bring his troops into Rome and to come alone and unprotected, Caesar and his armies continued a march south, crossing the Rubicon. That act was a declaration that he would no longer take orders from the Senate.

The political crisis had now become an all-out civil war. After losing battles in Spain and Greece, Pompey's hold on power became less and less convincing. With the Roman people' and the city armies' allegiance unreliable, Pompey had little choice but to flee (along with much of the Senate) to Egypt, with hopes of later re-establishing control. From there, he presumably planned to cut all grain shipments to Rome and force Caesar into negotiations.
It was not to be.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Extinction of Compassion: A Story of Empires and Elephants 1/2

by Nomad

In this first of a two-part post, I want to go back to one of the most important moments of Western history, when the Roman Republican was beginning to unravel  and the small but surprising part that elephants had to play in the story.

History has all kinds of hidden treasures. One thing that I find exciting is discovering some forgotten tale with a nice mix of drama and effect.

The one I am about to tell takes place in the last years of the Roman Republic. It involves the cruel and arrogant politicians, a desensitized public that suddenly awoke and the lamenting tears of elephants preparing to die. First of all, we need to set the stage. 
Literally, in this case.

Roman Politics and the Theater
Politics in ancient Rome down through the centuries was rarely very stable, the situation at Rome In the spring of 55 BC, was  particularly strained. The Roman Republic was in disarray and many worried, (rightly so, as it turned out) that it could not be restored.

The Roman general and consul Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better know as Pompey) was preparing the dedication of his great theater project the first stone theater in Rome. 
To prevent Rome falling into tyrannical monarchy- something that patriotic Romans feared above all else- a joint rule was established between the generals. It was called by later historians as the First Triumvirate. It was made up of Pompey, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was also the wealthiest man in Roman history, and Gaius Julius Caesar

That arrangement was never official approved by. the Senate. Out of necessity, the three-way leadership  was for some time kept secret from both the people and the Senate.
Actually, that alliance was much more like modern day gangsters agreeing on territories. than a military overthrow. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cooking the Books: How the Conservative Best Seller Scam is a Free Market Hypocrisy

by Nomad

When is a bestseller not a bestseller? A lot of bestselling conservative authors have found a way to turn horse manure into gold. It's a testament to their actual commitment to the free market system.  

Ever wonder who buys all those books written by people like Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin? Somebody has to be purchasing them, right? How else can their books be making it on the best sellers lists so often?

John Iadarola, known for his work on The Young Turks, offers this insight into what can only be called a publishing scam.

It's a credible theory. In 2010, a reporter for Salon suggested the same thing:
The sales of books by awful right-wing authors like Jonah Goldberg are boosted by an entire industry dedicated to … boosting the sales of books by awful right-wing authors. Conservative book clubs purchase tens of thousands of copies and right-wing think tanks order right-wing books in bulk.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bush's Unending Lies: Why Deceptions about Iraq May Be His Only Legacy

by Nomad

Former president George W. Bush's recent comments about Iraq demonstrated that his skill at deception and self-deception is undiminished by time. 
It will probably be the only thing he will be remembered for.

The other day former president George W. Bush was on NPR plugging his book on his father, 41: A Portrait of My Father. While presumably whitewashing his father's career, Bush took a moment to whitewash his own. 

In that interview Bush was asked whether he thought Iraq was safer now compared with when Saddam Hussein was in power. What would Iraq be like today if we hadn't invaded?  
"One could envision a nuclear arms race between Iran and Iraq. The man, Saddam Hussein, would have a lot of revenue as a result of high prices of oil."
Actually this is an outright lie. 
Since 1991, sanctions on exports and imports administrated by the UN had made all exports of oil tightly controlled. Admittedly it wasn't perfect and Saddam was able to find some loopholes. (This is the Middle-East where no rule is entirely fixed and black markets can be found everywhere.)

However, to claim that Iraq could have found the financing for a atomic weapons program is absolute nonsense. In fact, The government of Iraq declined UN offers to ease sanctions which would have enabled Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil to meet its people's needs. Saddam refused in order to effectively hold his own people hostages and to have all sanctions removed. 

The UN did not let up the pressure on the Iraqi government and set up the much-criticized Oil for Food Program in 1995.  Corruption might have been rife in that program but there was never any evidence that money was diverted for any atomic weapons project. 

In fact, 25% Iraqi oil export proceeds allowed under the sanctions were used to the Compensation Fund for war reparation payments, 2.2% went to United Nations administrative and operational costs and 0.8% for the weapons inspection program. The rest (72%) went to humanitarian purposes.
That doesn't leave very much to spend on a clandestine nuclear weapons research program.

Breaking it Down
Immediately after this statement, to preempt reality from wrecking his myth- he added
"And even though there wasn't, you know, a -- we found a dirty bomb, for example -- he had the capacity to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And so there's -- you know, it's all very hypothetical."
The statement is typical of his fumbling oratorical style but there's more to it than mere incoherence. Bush tries to cram so much misrepresentation in one remark, it's hard to know how to break it down.
Let's give it a shot.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dog Owners in Iran To Receive Lashing for Walking their Pets

by Nomad

If Iranian lawmakers have their way, dog owners could face harsh penalties for taking Spot or Fido for a walk to the park. 

The French News Agency, AFP, recently had this odd and rather unhappy news item for all animal lovers

If the conservative parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran has its way, dog owners may have to pay a heavy price for their pets. Hardliners have proposed a draft bill, that would keep at dogs at home and forbid owners from walking dogs in public. 

That proposal has already been signed by 32 members of the parliament. Violations to the law would see dog owners face up to 72 lashes and heavy fines ranging from 10 million rials to 100 million rials ($370 to $3,700 at official rates).
The law states that:
"Anyone who walks or plays with animals such as dogs or monkeys in public places will damage Islamic culture, as well as the hygiene and peace of others, especially women and children."
Dogs (and monkeys) would, the laws states, be confiscated and held in zoos, or left in forests or other wilderness areas. Even before this law, Iran's morality police were stopping dog owners and warning or confiscating the animals.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Criminalizing Charity: The Shame and Hypocrisy of a Christian Nation

by Nomad

Do city ordinances which forbid the feeding of the homeless violate the religious liberty of Christians? Why has there been so much more outcry about gay wedding cakes and yet barely a whisper when it comes to outlawing a core commandment of the Christian faith?

There's no denying that, from the time of the struggling Puritan settlers until this day, Judaic-Christian values have had a profound influence on American culture. Certainly more than any other religious teaching. This is true not merely in the so-called Bible Belt but in other regions and other aspects of American social life.

Of course, no fair minded person would say that America has no room for diversity of religious thought or that Christianity should be forced upon any citizen. Simply because a religion has an influence doesn't mean it has any more right to become the only faith or the national governmentally-endorsed religion. Yet, it is true that much of American morality has roots in this particular faith.

Despite what Justice Scalia has recently said, the government is constitutionally mandated to remain wholly neutral, neither supporting nor rejecting any religion. At the same time, according to past Supreme Court rulings, the government must also steer clear of interference with degrees of religious faith: from the devout to the unbeliever, all must be respected.

Even with the equally-strong belief in secularism (when it comes to religion and government), on a person level, the humanitarian principles found in Judaic-Christian teachings are generally considered the bedrock of American philosophy. 

Among those Christian unchallengables is the call to charity, a command to help those in need, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked. This idea, of course, is not unique to Christianity but it is generally where Americans draw their inspiration for doing good works.  

After loving the Lord with the second uppermost command is that we "love our neighbors as we love ourselves." And the two points cannot be separate in the Christian theology as the Book of John observes:
If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion--how can God's love be in that person?
The Book of James one can find:
If one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
In the Old Testament too one can find similar thoughts. Proverbs 14:31 for example:
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
And in the same book:
Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.
With regular outraged anguish about "religious liberty" the Far Right Christians seem strangely silence and disinterested when it comes to criminalizing one of Christianity's most noble articles of faith.

*   *   *
Only last month we featured a post about laws against feeding the homeless. Here's what it looked like in action when a 90-year-old man was arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida last weekend. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Megalodon Deception: Why Fictionalizing Science is More Deadly that a Monster Shark

by Nomad

A Shark Week hoax about long extinct monsters of the deep says a lot about our diminishing ability to discern fact from opinion and science from fantasy. 

So there I am watching the Discovery Channel, and there's a program about a prehistoric shark, much much larger than even the Great White Shark. We are talking eighteen wheeler size big. 
This species used to roam the seas millions of years ago and then went extinct long before man came along. Thank Goodness for that, because it is quite possible that humanity would never have been able to cross the oceans with a monster like that, ready to gulp us down like a slices of pizza at a frat party.

Shark Week has always been a big draw for the Discovery Channel. The problem is after spending years talking about a particular animal, inevitably there comes a time when you run out of new things to say. It's big. It swims. It's fast. And it will eat you. That's really all you need to know. People can only remained scared for so long before they get bored. Then it's "Shark, shmark." 
But after racking their brains, the executives came up with a new angle.  

Megalodon Fraud 
According to experts on the show (aptly named “Megalodon: The Monster That Lives”), there is strong evidence that Megalodon is not extinct at all. The show spent quite some time reviewing photos, videos and eyewitness accounts showing that this monster was actually still out there. Waiting on me to pluck up the courage to dip my big toe into the high seas. 

Gradually, however, it dawned on me that there was something wrong here. There was something unnatural about the interviews. The lighting too perfect. the words too precisely chosen and descriptive for an average person. The rhythm of the speech was more like the delivery of a stage actor. The shark expert was a little too photogenic and well-spoken. In addition, the camera work for the video evidence was a little too polished.
That's when it hit me.
The whole show and all of the evidence were a well-orchestrated hoax. Ten minutes of being made a fool was my limit before I continued my search for something to watch.