Friday, May 9, 2008

The Nightowl Newswrap

The week ends with bad economic news: Wall Street ended the week with a big decline as investors grappled with two of the biggest threats to the economy: fallout from turmoil in the credit market and surging energy prices. All three major indexes suffered losses for the week. Insurer American International Group Inc. helped send the Dow Jones industrial average down about 120 points after posting a wider-than-expected first-quarter loss that rekindled anxiety about the strained state of the global financial system. AIG reported it lost $7.81 billion — its second straight quarterly loss — and revealed plans to raise $12.5 billion in the coming months. The world’s largest insurer, like many of its peers in the financial services sector, has seen its investments in the credit markets plunge in value.

Data recovered from Shuttle Columbia hard drive: Jon Edwards often manages what appears impossible. He has recovered precious data from computers wrecked in floods and fires and dumped in lakes. Now Edwards may have set a new standard: He found information on a melted disk drive that fell from the sky when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003. "When we got it, it was two hunks of metal stuck together. We couldn't even tell it was a hard drive. It was burned and the edges were melted," said Edwards, an engineer at Kroll Ontrack Inc., outside Minneapolis. "It looked pretty bad at first glance, but we always give it a shot." During Columbia's fateful mission, the drive had been used to store data from a scientific experiment on the properties of liquid xenon. Most of the information was radioed to Earth during Columbia's voyage. Edwards was able to recover the remainder, allowing researchers to publish the experiment in the April issue of a science journal, Physical Review E.

Fighting rages in Sadr City: Iraqi security forces, after more than of 40 days of intense fighting, on Thursday told residents to evacuate their homes in the northeast Shiite slum of Sadr City and to move to temporary shelters on two soccer fields. The military's call indicated the possibility of stepped-up military operations and came as Iraqi security forces raided a radio station run by backers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. In the southern port city of Basra, militants launched rockets that struck a coalition base, killing two contractors and injuring four civilians and four coalition soldiers. Sadr City has been a battleground since late March, enduring U.S. airstrikes, militia snipers and gunbattles between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Sadr. Already some 8,500 people have been displaced from the sprawling slum of some 2.5 million people, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent. For weeks, food, water and medical shortages have affected about 150,000 people, aid agencies said.

Jack Chang on Brazil's "green" policies: ...according to the National Geographic Society and the polling firm GlobeScan in findings released this week, Brazilians, tied with Indians, live the greenest lifestyles of 14 major countries surveyed. Oh yeah, and guess who came in last? That's right, Americans. Brazilians won the sustainable-consumption crown, National Geographic News says, because they typically live in smaller houses, use less air conditioning or heating and heat their water with tankless systems, which in many cases means precarious-looking electric shower heads that have naked wires sticking out of them. I would add the factors I mentioned above, the widespread use of ethanol (about half of vehicle fuel used here is ethanol) and heavy dependence on hydroelectricity (it made up 83 percent of electricity supplies in 2004). And the fact is Brazil is still a largely poor country, which means people have less money to buy all that stuff that eats up resources. The finding was backed up by another study released yesterday by a Brazilian government research institute, which found sugar cane-based biofuels last year made up Brazil's second most-used energy source. Petroleum products still made up the biggest part, at 36.7 percent of the matrix, but ethanol beat out hydroelectric sources for second at 16 percent. In all, renewable energy made up 46.4 percent of Brazil's energy matrix.

Domestic terror suspect sentenced: Eric McDavid, who went on the road to learn what was beyond his middle-class, suburban Sacramento upbringing and returned a prisoner, was sentenced Thursday to 19 years and seven months in prison after a federal judge rejected his arguments that McDavid had been entrapped by an FBI informant assigned to infiltrate the anti-war movement. At the conclusion of a lengthy hearing before a crowded courtroom, U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. found McDavid's plan to "disrupt government and commercial installations" overrides his lack of a criminal history and a reputation among family and friends as "a peaceful individual." McDavid, 30, was found guilty by a jury in September of conspiring with two others to burn or blow up a federal facility, and prosecutors argued that the judge should apply a federal "terrorism enhancement" statute. he indictment. McDavid's attorney said that if a conspiracy existed to bomb a U.S. Forest Service genetics lab in Placerville and the Nimbus Dam and neighboring fish hatchery in Rancho Cordova, it was between McDavid and "Anna," an undercover FBI operative with whom McDavid was infatuated. The two had met at various anti-war demonstrations, including the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.

Hepatitus C outbreak in Las Vegas: Seventy-seven more people who were treated at a Las Vegas outpatient clinic have been diagnosed with hepatitis C, health officials said. Authorities can't say for sure how the 77 people were infected, said Brian Labus, senior epidemiologist with the Southern Nevada Health District. But they know each was treated from March 2004 to Jan. 11 this year at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. "We know they didn't have a positive test before they went to the clinic, and now they're positive," Labus said. The reports bring the number of cases linked to clinics run by the same group of doctors to 85. In the eight cases identified earlier, seven were linked to the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. The other case was traced to a sister clinic, Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center. While 300 other patients also tested positive and were interviewed, officials determined they could have contracted the virus through other means, including intravenous drug use, blood transfusions, organ transplants and kidney dialysis.

Bee populations continue to decline: A survey of bee health released Tuesday revealed a grim picture, with 36.1 percent of the nation's commercially managed hives lost since last year. Last year's survey commissioned by the Apiary Inspectors of America found losses of about 32 percent. As beekeepers travel with their hives this spring to pollinate crops around the country, it's clear the insects are buckling under the weight of new diseases, pesticide drift and old enemies like the parasitic varroa mite, said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, president of the group. This is the second year the association has measured colony deaths across the country. This means there aren't enough numbers to show a trend, but clearly bees are dying at unsustainable levels and the situation is not improving, said vanEngelsdorp, also a bee expert with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Third bank shut down by Federal regulators: Federal regulators says they've closed ANB Financial National Association banks after discovering "unsafe and unsound" business practices there. David Barr, a spokesman for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. says many customers served by the bank's nine locations had accounts under $100,000, which will be fully insured by the government. Barr says customers can continue to write checks and draw money from ATMs through the weekend...It was the third closure this year of an FDIC-insured bank. Douglass National Bank, a Missouri bank with $58.5 million in assets, was shut in January; another Missouri institution with assets of $18.7 million, Hume Bank, was shut down in March. Both were dwarfed in size of ANB Financial, where regulators found lax lending standards, mostly for construction and development loans for projects in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, as well as Arkansas. Observers have been watching for signs of bank distress resulting from the mortgage crisis. Profits at federally insured U.S. banks and thrifts plunged to a 16-year low in the fourth quarter as institutions set aside a record-high amount to cover losses from sour mortgages. The FDIC is planning to beef up its staff, including temporarily hiring up to 25 retired FDIC employees who worked in the agency's more than 200-person division that handles failed banks. They will handle an anticipated increase in bank failures.

Man performs self-tracheotomy procedure: The 55-year-old Omaha man who performed a tracheotomy on himself with a steak knife says he did the same thing to himself two years ago. Steve Wilder said Friday that his throat is shrunken because of radiation treatments for cancer. Those treatments ended four years ago, but scar tissue remains. He said seasonal allergies may have caused his struggle to breathe overnight April 30. "I didn't feel no pain. I was just trying to survive," Wilder said in his high-pitched, gravelly voice. "I got relief right away. There was a big gush of blood, and I was able to start sucking in air." Wilder said he fell asleep watching television in his basement but awakened when he felt himself suffocating. His wife, Cora, called an ambulance. "I thought they might get here fast enough that I wouldn't have to do that," he said. "But I couldn't breathe no more." He bolted for the kitchen and picked up a steak knife and made a quarter-inch incision. "I knew that would chop it open pretty good," he said. After medics took him to a hospital, he was given antibiotics to prevent a possible infection. The next day his physician inserted a tube in his throat.

Olmert finished? The overwhelming view in Israel on Friday, just hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared his innocence in a bribery investigation involving a Long Island businessman, was that the post-Olmert political era had already begun. Calls for his resignation came from left, right and center although all acknowledged that by vowing, as he did Thursday night, to resign if charged, Olmert had won himself time. The investigation will probably take another month or two. "The public doesn't have too much more patience," Colette Avital, a member of Parliament from the Labor Party, a partner in the governing coalition with Olmert's Kadima party, asserted in a typical comment. "He is simply discredited. It may take some more weeks or even months, but he won't be able to go on." Since Olmert has been investigated several times before and proved himself to be a highly skilled political survivor - a "Houdini," in the words of a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity - his political obituary may yet again prove premature.

Nevada Judge with job performance issues: Elizabeth Halverson is a judge. But the way courthouse staffers see it, she expects to be treated like a queen. Her former bailiff, for example, says Halverson made him feel like a "houseboy." He says the judge -- who is obese and uses a motorized scooter to get around -- made him put her shoes on her feet, massage her back, cover her with a blanket for naps and make sure her oxygen tank was filled. He says she asked him, "Do you want to worship me from near or afar?" Halverson also surrounded herself with her own hired guards, saying she did not trust the courthouse security force to protect her. Another time, she allegedly had her husband sworn in so that she could ask him under oath whether he had completed chores at home. Since then, the 50-year-old Nevada district judge has been locked out of her Las Vegas courtroom, suspended from the bench and brought up on judicial-misconduct charges that include not only misusing her position and treating her staff like personal valets but also tainting juries and falling asleep on the bench. Nevada's judicial discipline commission is preparing for a week of open hearings next month that could put an end to Halverson's career.


Blue Girl is attending the State Convention for the Missouri Democratic Party. More about that throughout the weekend...

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