Nine Circles of Hell!: Monday, February 20, 2012 Nine Circles of Hell!

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Today’s Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – the nine most hellish news stories for Monday, February 20, 2012, are:

NYPD’s latest scandal focused on Muslim students in Buffalo

Occupy takes direct aim at ALEC on February 29

US, UK tell Israel not to attack Iran

Greeks go homeless as economic crisis worsens

Mubarak protected from justice by “conspiracy of silence”

Saudi Arabia about to unleash “iron fist” within own borders

Bahrain breaks up another rally, arrests activists

How marketing departments constantly track you

Is inflation the economy’s next challenge?

NYPD’s latest scandal focused on Muslim students in Buffalo
WIVB
(2/20/12)

NYPD watches UB students after email

Has the New York City Police Department gone too far, investigating Muslim students at colleges in the northeast, including at UB?

There is more insight Monday afternoon on why the NYPD may have began taking a closer look at some Muslim students at UB. According to published reports, it all may have started with an email.

Less than a day after it went public that the NYPD had been keeping tabs on some local Muslim students and professors at UB, new information is surfacing about why they began their surveillance. According to the Associated Press, back in 2006 Adeela Khan, a student at UB forwarded a message to other Muslims at the school about an Islamic conference in Toronto. It was this act of forwarding information that caught the attention of the NYPD, who would then place Kahn’s name in a file marked ‘Secret.’

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne was quoted by the Associated Press as saying the department “felt it prudent” to monitor the activities of Muslim student associations. UB says they were never told what the police were doing or why.

Dr. Khalid Qazi of the Muslim Affairs Council of WNY said,”[University Police] Chief [Gerald] Schoenle said that, as far he’s concerned, UB Police have never singled out MSA for any special monitoring.”

Part of an intelligence report by the NYPD prepared for New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly also includes the detailing of student posts on the the UB Muslim student association web page. Something Dr. Qazi says is concerning.

“It puts sort of a cold water on our efforts to work with law enforcement. And of course, it really is of great concern, as to what it does to our civil rights and civil liberties,” said Qazi

Occupy takes direct aim at ALEC on February 29
The Guardian
(2/20/12)

Occupy movement targets corporate interest group with ties to legislators

Co-ordinated protests are planned in some 60 cities later this month against a right wing group which activists say has an unfair hand in writing state legislation that favours corporate interests.

Working under the banner Shut Down the Corporations, activists plan to target corporate members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec) with nationwide protests on 29 February.

Organisers say Alec, a nonprofit free-market policy group whose membership includes some 2,000 state legislators, wields undue influence by drafting legislation beneficial to its corporate members, which in some cases is then used as a model for legislation in states across America.

The nationwide protest is being co-ordinated by Occupy Portland, with activists across the country due to take part – including from Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland.

“We call on people to target corporations that are part of the American Legislative Exchange Council which is a prime example of the way corporations buy off legislators and craft legislation that serves the interests of corporations and not people,” reads a statement on Shut Down the Corporations’ website.

David Osborn, from Occupy Portland, said “non-violent direct action” was being encouraged, including protests, rallies and sit-ins.

“In different places it’s going to look really different,” he said. “In some places it’s going to be more of a rally, or a protest outside a corporation that’s involved with Alec, whether that’s Bank of America, or Pfizer, Altria, or whatever. In other places, and certainly here in Portland, it’s going to take more of the form of civil disobedience or direct action, where people will be doing a sit-in or other creative things to disrupt business as usual.”

Alec was founded in September 1973 as a “nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers”. The organisation, which counts the conservative billionaire Koch brothers among its financial backers, has a membership some of the largest companies in America.

One of the better known examples of Alec’s influence can be found in Arizona’s SB 1070 bill. The legislation, seen as one of the strictest anti-illegal immigrant laws in America’s history and criticised by Barack Obama, was modelled on Alec’s “No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act”, which had been approved by an Alec task force made up, in part, of prison companies that stood to benefit from the act being passed.

Democratic lawmakers in Arizona and Wisconsin are seeking to introduce the Alec Accountability Act in their states, which would require Alec to register as a lobbying organisation and subsequently disclose its financiers.

US, UK tell Israel not to attack Iran
Agence France Presse
(2/19/12)

Strike on Iran would be ‘premature’ and ‘destabilizing,’ top U.S. general warns

Both the U.S. and England urged Israel on Sunday to hold off from any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, warned that such a move would be “premature” and “destabilizing,” while British Foreign Secretary William Hague said an attack on Iran would not be “a wise thing.”

In an interview with CNN, Dempsey cautioned that even a successful strike would only delay the Islamic state’s aim of producing an atomic weapon for a few years.

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.

Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said the United States was urging Israel not to attack Iran because it could spark retaliatory action in the region, possibly in Afghanistan or Iraq.

“That’s the question with which we all wrestle. And the reason that we think that it’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran,” Dempsey said, referring to a possible Iranian response against U.S. interests.

“That’s been our counsel to our allies, the Israelis. And we also know or believe we know that the Iranian regime has not decided that they will embark on the capability — or the effort to weaponize their nuclear capability.

“I’m confident that they (Israel) understand our concerns, that a strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve their long-term objectives,” he said.

Greeks go homeless as economic crisis worsens
Agence France Presse
(2/20/12)

New faces of poor among Athens homeless

Here, immigrants push supermarket carts full of metal scraps, while in garages only old cars are being repaired.

In this little red house, alongside the railway line, the homeless come to find warmth and shelter, clothing, food or at least psychological support.

Klimaka, a non-governmental group formed in 2000 and backed financially by the health, foreign affairs and labour ministries, aims to help those who have lost the most.

In Athens, the profile of a homeless person has changed with the economic crisis, said Effie Stamatogiannopoulou of Klimaka.

“Before, the categories of people on the streets were immigrants, alcoholics and drug addicts,” said Stamatogiannopoulou, a professional nurse.

In the past two years however “our data show a 25 percent increase of homeless people who have no such problems but are simply unemployed,” she added.

The latest figures confirm this trend: 20 percent of the active population is unemployed and almost half of those — 48 percent — are younger than 25 …

According to the statistics bureau ELSTAT, more than three million of Greece’s population of 11 million — or 27.7 percent — were close to poverty or social exclusion in 2010, at the very start of the crisis.

Things have become much worse since.

Papatheodorou noted that EU statistics agency Eurostat and national statistics offices base their figures on a typical household, that is, on those having a roof above their heads.”

“Therefore, the increase of extreme poverty among homeless people does not appear in the statistics,” he said.

Klimaka estimates that 20,000 people live in the streets of Athens nowadays.

George Kaminis, the capital’s mayor, told Ethnos daily last December that the number of homeless has increased by 20 percent compared to the previous year.

Papatheodorou worries about the future.

“Worsening pay, all these cuts, notably in public services and social security system, risk increasing poverty even more,” he warned.

Mubarak protected from justice by “conspiracy of silence”
Reuters
(2/20/12)

Lawyer sees “conspiracy of silence” in Mubarak trial

A lawyer acting for the families of those killed in Egypt’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak Monday told the court trying him that there had been a “conspiracy of silence” by those seeking to shield the former president.

The prosecution and lawyers for the plaintiffs were speaking ahead the final hearing of the case Wednesday, when Judge Ahmed Refaat is due to set a date to deliver his verdict in the trial that began on August 3.

The prosecution is seeking the death sentence for Mubarak over the charge that he was involved in killing some 850 protesters but says the Interior Ministry and its police force have not cooperated to help them build the case.

“There is no doubt that there has been a conspiracy against the court, a conspiracy that started from the first day, a conspiracy of silence,” plaintiff lawyer Sameh Ashour said.

“It is a conspiracy for all those videos to be recorded over, for an officer to be allowed to wipe all recordings from the police force’s operation room,” he said, accusing police of tampering with potential evidence.

Many Egyptians had hoped the trial would help turn a page on the past, but are now worried the prosecution has weaker evidence which could lead to a light sentence. They also say Mubarak received preferential treatment.

Mubarak, 83, who has denied the charges that also include abuse of power and corruption, was again in court on a stretcher and in the same cage as his two sons, the former interior minister and other top police officers.

Saudi Arabia about to unleash “iron fist” within own borders
Reuters
(2/20/12)

Saudi Arabia vows to end violence with “iron fist”

Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry said on Monday its security forces would use “an iron fist” to end violence in a Shi’ite Muslim area of the country and defended its tactics against what it called foreign-backed troublemakers.

Sunni Muslim kingdom Saudi Arabia has blamed an unnamed foreign power, widely understood to mean Shi’ite Iran, for backing attacks on its security forces in its Eastern Province.

But members of the Shi’ite minority in the area have accused the kingdom’s own security force of using violence against protesters.

“It is the state’s right to confront those that confront it first … and the Saudi Arabian security forces will confront such situations … with determination and force and with an iron first,” the ministry said in a statement.

The statement came in response to a sermon preached in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province last week that criticized the government’s handling of the situation, in which at least six people have been killed, a ministry spokesman said.

Shi’ite activists in Qatif said the clashes first began at the height of the Arab uprisings last year and were provoked by the detention without charge of political campaigners.

Four people were killed in November, one in January and one earlier this month, the interior ministry has said in past statements.

Bahrain breaks up another rally, arrests activists
Reuters
(2/20/12)

Bahrain police disperse march with water cannon

Bahraini police used water cannon and tear gas to break up a march chanting anti-government slogans after a funeral Monday, while protesters were arrested for approaching a roundabout at the center of an uprising last year.

Bahrain, a U.S. ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since protests erupted on February 14 last year, inspired by demonstrations sweeping the Arab world.

The country has a Shi’ite Muslim majority, but is ruled by a Sunni ruling family. The government imposed martial law last year and crushed demonstrations after inviting troops from other Gulf states, led by Sunni power Saudi Arabia, to help restore order.

The anniversary of last year’s protests has seen an increase in demonstrations, mainly by Shi’ites who say they seek more democracy. The past week has seen police use water cannon to disperse protests for the first time in 11 months.

Monday’s clash took place in Jidhafs, an area just outside the capital Manama, after the funeral of Hussein al-Baqali, 19, whose family says he died this week from burns sustained last month during a tire-burning at anti-government protests.

His family says he was unable to go to state hospitals for fear of arrest. The Interior Ministry said he set himself alight with intent to commit suicide.

“After the burial of Hussain al-Baqali in Jidhafs, groups of vandals rioted. Police legally dispersed them,” the Interior Ministry said in its Twitter feed.

Police moved in on a group of over 500 people who marched down to a traffic junction inside the town, using two water cannon lorries backed up by helicopters and dozens of riot police in armored vehicles and on foot firing tear gas.

The ministry also said “vandals” were later arrested for trying to block traffic on the highway near the former Pearl Roundabout, a traffic junction occupied by anti-government protesters for a month last year until the movement was crushed.

How marketing departments constantly track you
The New York Times Magazine
(2/19/12)

How Companies Learn Your Secrets

Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that? ”

Pole has a master’s degree in statistics and another in economics, and has been obsessed with the intersection of data and human behavior most of his life. His parents were teachers in North Dakota, and while other kids were going to 4-H, Pole was doing algebra and writing computer programs. “The stereotype of a math nerd is true,” he told me when I spoke with him last year. “I kind of like going out and evangelizing analytics.”

As the marketers explained to Pole — and as Pole later explained to me, back when we were still speaking and before Target told him to stop — new parents are a retailer’s holy grail. Most shoppers don’t buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy groceries at the grocery store and toys at the toy store, and they visit Target only when they need certain items they associate with Target — cleaning supplies, say, or new socks or a six-month supply of toilet paper. But Target sells everything from milk to stuffed animals to lawn furniture to electronics, so one of the company’s primary goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.

There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.

“We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years,” Pole told me. “As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.”

The desire to collect information on customers is not new for Target or any other large retailer, of course. For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” Pole said. “We want to know everything we can.”

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.) All that information is meaningless, however, without someone to analyze and make sense of it. That’s where Andrew Pole and the dozens of other members of Target’s Guest Marketing Analytics department come in.

Is inflation the economy’s next challenge?
TIME
(2/20/12)

Is It Time to Start Worrying About Inflation Again?

People tend to forget about inflation during a recession, because it typically abates until a recovery gets under way. But now inflation appears to be coming back. Ignore the monthly numbers — they’re too volatile to be reliable. But Friday’s inflation report showed that consumer prices have risen 2.9% over the 12 months through the end of January. Moreover, there’s an even more worrying pattern if you look at the same measure at half-year intervals since the start of 2009. The series goes: minus 0.6%, minus 0.1%, 2.1%, 1.2%, 2.8%, 3.5%. With only one interruption, that trend shows inflation on the rise.

Some commentators argue that inflation isn’t a problem yet for several reasons: First, the consumer price index typically gives higher inflation readings than some other measures. Second, the economy is still relatively weak and unemployment remains high. That means any short-term price increases are likely to die out rather than fueling a self-sustaining inflation spiral. And third, policymakers have to balance the risks of inflation against the need to keep the economic recovery going and reduce unemployment. As long as unemployment is above 7%, inflation is a lesser risk than slipping back into recession.

Those arguments are perfectly reasonable if you believe that government technocrats are generally able to fine-tune the economy and are also uninfluenced by political considerations. Unfortunately, neither of those things is true. The political problem is obvious: It’s easy to announce that you are going to cut interest rates or take other steps to stimulate the economy. But it’s much harder to raise interest rates or otherwise cause short-term economic pain for the sake of a healthier economy at some point in the future. The temptation for policymakers will inevitably be to wait and be sure unpleasant measures are absolutely unavoidable.

The other problem, though, is actually more serious — and a bit more complicated. Basically, it’s hard to know how much inflationary pressure has been created in an economy as long as it remains latent. Inflation can flare up, however, suddenly and with surprising strength. And at that point, it’s hard to reverse. Here’s the reason:

Inflation is the long-term rise in the overall level of prices. A one- or two-month blip does not qualify. Neither does a rise in, say, the price of oil, if it is offset by declines in other prices. A general increase in prices can only be sustained over the long term if the amount of money in circulation is growing. And that depends not only on the amount of money in the banking system, but also on the speed with which people spend it (known as velocity).

In a recession, people spend less, so velocity slows and so does the economy. To offset that, the Federal Reserve pumps money into the banking system. Because the recent recession has been the worst since the Great Depression, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has injected an enormous amount of money into the system over the past four years. The only trouble is that as growth picks up, so does velocity. Sometimes velocity accelerates quite quickly — and that can cause a sudden and surprising jump in inflation.

Policymakers always risk erring in one direction or the other coming out of a recession — either prolonging high unemployment unnecessarily or creating inflation pressures that will do damage several years in the future. Political considerations argue for favoring the short run and erring on the side of stimulus. In an election year, that goes double. In addition, a little inflation might seem beneficial right now, since it would bolster home prices, helping both homeowners with excessively large mortgages and banks with bad real estate loans.

You can hope that the Fed and other policymakers get everything right. But there’s honestly no way for anyone to know the right policy mix. Prudence suggests that you should assume any warning signs of inflation you see are for real, especially since oil prices are rising right now (while high energy prices don’t cause inflation, they do help it along). In fact, gasoline prices are the highest ever for this time of year, and some experts think that gas could go as high as $5 a gallon this summer.

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Nine Circles of Hell!: Monday, February 20, 2012
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