September 30, 2010
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will urge 90 nations to heighten their aviation security measures today to include screening devices that could prevent terrorist from bringing plastic- or powder-based explosives onto the plane, according to USA Today.
Citing the inability of metal detectors to recognize unconventional explosives, Napolitano will emphasize the need to use advanced innovations such as body scanners to step up security processes at a Montreal meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
“We need to move to the next stage of screening,” Napolitano told USA Today, adding that terrorists “have kind of figured out the magnetometer business.”
ICAO Secretary General Raymond Benjamin told the newspaper that his organization – a United Nations arm responsible for determining international aviation standards – considered the matter “of the utmost significance.”
The hope is that improved security measures would prevent scenarios such as the December 2009 incident in which suspected terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab smuggled powder explosives aboard an international flight by hiding them in his underwear.
Similar attempts have been made repeatedly with plastic: In 2004, Chechen rebels blew up two commercial airlines using explosives made of the material, and in 2001, al-Qaeda member Richard Reid ignited plastic explosives he had hidden in his shoes aboard a flight from Paris to Miami, though fellow passengers were successful in stopping him.
Benjamin said that under the terms of the ICAO’s heightened measures, airline passengers will be patted down or checked with a body scanner for non-metallic weapons.
September 30, 2010
The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year to its widest amount on record as young adults and children in particular struggled to stay afloat in the recession.
The top-earning 20 percent of Americans – those making more than $100,000 each year – received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.
A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.
At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, census data show. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower.
“Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. “More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy.”
Lower-skilled adults ages 18 to 34 had the largest jumps in poverty last year as employers kept or hired older workers for the dwindling jobs available, Smeeding said. The declining economic fortunes have caused many unemployed young Americans to double-up in housing with parents, friends and loved ones, with potential problems for the labor market if they don’t get needed training for future jobs, he said.
Rea Hederman Jr., a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, agreed that census data show families of all income levels had tepid earnings in 2009, with poorer Americans taking a larger hit. “It’s certainly going to take a while for people to recover,” he said.
The findings are part of a broad array of U.S. census data being released this month that highlight the far-reaching impact of the recent economic meltdown. The effects have ranged from near-historic declines in U.S. mobility and birth rates to delayed marriage and the first drop in the number of illegal immigrants in two decades.
The census figures also come amid heated political debate in the run-up to the Nov. 2 elections over whether Congress should extend expiring Bush-era tax cuts. President Barack Obama wants to extend the tax cuts for individuals making less than $200,000 and joint filers making less than $250,000; Republicans are pushing for tax cuts for everyone, including wealthy Americans.
The 2009 census tabulations, which are based on pre-tax income and exclude capital gains, are adjusted for household size where data are available. Prior analyses of after-tax income made by the wealthiest 1 percent compared to middle- and low-income Americans have also pointed to a widening inequality gap, but only reflect U.S. data as of 2007.
Among the 2009 findings:
-The poorest poor are at record highs. The share of Americans below half the poverty line – $10,977 for a family of four – rose from 5.7 percent in 2008 to 6.3 percent. It was the highest level since the government began tracking that group in 1975.
-The poverty gap between young and old has doubled since 2000, due partly to the strength of Social Security in helping buoy Americans 65 and over. Child poverty is now 21 percent compared with 9 percent for older Americans. In 2000, when child poverty was at 16 percent, elderly poverty stood at 10 percent.
-Safety nets are helping fill health gaps. The percentage of children covered by government-sponsored health insurance such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program jumped to 37 percent, or 27.6 million, from 24 percent in 2000. That helped offset steady losses in employer-sponsored insurance.
The 2009 poverty level was set at $21,954 for a family of four, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income. It excludes noncash aid such as food stamps.
Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted the effects of expanded government programs in cushioning the impact of skyrocketing unemployment. For example, the Census Bureau estimates that 3.6 million people would have been lifted above the poverty line if food stamps were counted – a number that would have reduced the 2009 poverty rate from the official 14.3 percent to 13.2 percent.
Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor, said while the U.S. has developed policies to combat poverty, it has trouble addressing ever-widening income inequality – even with a growing federal deficit and previous warnings by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan about soaring executive pay.
An Associated Press-GfK Poll this month found that by 54 percent to 44 percent, most Americans support raising taxes on the highest U.S. earners. Still, many congressional Democrats have expressed wariness about provoking the 44 percent minority so close to Election Day.
“We’re pretty good about not talking about income inequality,” Danziger said.
September 30, 2010
“This is a pivotal milestone as we deliver on our long-standing promise to repay taxpayers, and we thank the American people for their support,” said AIG President and CEO Robert H. Benmosche.
During the financial crisis, AIG’s bets on mortgage-backed securities and other assets went sour and threatened to topple the giant insurance and finance company. Since its near-collapse in September 2008, AIG has received a total of $182.3 billion in bailout funds. But recently, AIG has been selling off assets to strengthen its financial position, repay the government and regain its independence.
The agreement lays out how AIG will repay the New York Fed in full, “and sets in motion the steps for the U.S. Treasury to exit its ownership of AIG over time,” Benmosche says. “With this plan, we remain on track to emerge with one of the largest, most diversified property and casualty companies in the world, a leading U.S. life insurance and retirement savings operation, and other businesses that enhance this nucleus.”
First, though, AIG expects to repay the entire $20 billion it borrowed from the New York Fed under the senior secured credit facility. It plans to do so with its own resources, as well as with funds raised through the sale of assets, including the initial public offering of its Asian life insurance business, American International Assurance Company, and the pending sale of its foreign life insurance company, American Life Insurance Company, to MetLife (MET).
To finish repaying the New York Fed, AIG will also draw more money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to purchase the reserve bank’s interest in the insurer’s assets. AIG will then immediately transfer these preferred interests to the U.S. Treasury. AIG will then apply proceeds from future asset sales as well as from Thursday’s announced sales of its Japanese units to retire the government’s stake in these assets.
AIG expects all this to happen before the end of the first quarter of 2011, subject to regulatory approvals and other closing conditions.
September 30, 2010
Haya El Nasser
The Grundy family seemed to be headed down the conventional path followed by American families: Daughter goes to college, graduates, gets a job and her own apartment. Then something happened.
“She lost her job,” Vel Grundy says about daughter Monika, 25. “She kept looking and got very, very discouraged. She moved back home.”
Grown children returning home. Brothers and sisters moving in together. Families taking in grandparents. Friends living in the basement.
Fueled by the dismal economy and high unemployment, more Americans — friends and families — are doubling up.
From 2005 to 2009, family households added about 3.8 million extended family members, from adult siblings and in-laws to cousins and nephews. Extended family members now make up 8.2% of family households, up from 6.9% in 2005, according to Census data out this week.
“Clearly, a big part of that is the economic recession and housing costs,” says Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-profit research association. “We’re seeing a shift away from the 1950s and 1960s mentality against extended families,” when “modern” women did not take in aging parents for fear of hurting their marriage.
There are also signs of a shift from family households. For the first time in more than a century, more than half of people aged 25 to 34 have never been married.
The number of people in non-family households — those whose members are not related — grew 4.4% from 2005 to 2009, faster than the 3.4% growth for family households.
“It’s a realistic recognition that while a good, healthy nuclear family is a valuable thing to have, it’s not the only family form people are going to live in all their lives,” Coontz says.
September 30, 2010
The US supremacy as the top world economy will end sooner than many people believe, so gold is a better investment than the dollar despite it hitting a new record, Tom Winnifrith, CEO at financial services firm Rivington Street Holdings, told CNBC.com Monday.
Gold hit a new record high Monday and silver rose to another 30-year peak as investors were worried about the dollar weakening further after the Federal Reserve hinted at more quantitative easing last week.
The US trade deficit and debt continue to grow and the authorities are reluctant to address the problem, preferring to print money, Winnifrith said.
“America is practically owned by China,” he said.
He reminded of the fact that in 1900, sterling was the world’s reserve currency but by 1948, that was no longer the case as the British Empire collapsed.
“America is doing what Britain did,” Winnifrith said. “America spends much more than it can afford and it’s not addressing the issue.”
In 1832, China and India were the world’s two largest economies and by 2032, they will regain that status, he predicted.
“The 200 years when Britain and the US were the top two economies were an aberration and that will change,” Winnifrith said.
“The decline of empires has happened much faster than folks think. I believe that gold will be a far better bet in 20 years than the dollar,” he added.
September 30, 2010
About four in 10 Canadians rolled up their sleeves for the H1N1 shot last flu season, Statistics Canada says.
Based on self-reported data, nearly six out of 10 Canadians, or 16.5 million people aged 12 and over, did not get vaccinated against the H1N1 virus, the agency said Thursday.
The new influenza strain emerged in April 2009 and most people had no natural immunity to it. Vaccination clinics across Canada started offering the vaccine in the fall of 2009.
Of those who did not get the shot, the most common reason, given by 74 per cent, was that they “did not think it was necessary.”
The second most common reason, reported by 13 per cent, was that they “had not gotten around to it yet.” The third most common reason, reported by seven per cent, was fear, but the nature of the fear was not given.
Rates of vaccination were higher for specific risk populations, especially among groups given priority for early immunization.
For example, 66 per cent of health-care workers said they had an H1N1 shot, compared with 35 per cent of the rest of the population.
Similarly, 55 per cent of Canadians with chronic conditions, which placed them at increased risk for complications, received the vaccine. The chronic conditions included in the report were heart disease, diabetes, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and obesity.
In comparison, 38 per cent of those without chronic conditions were vaccinated.
Newfoundland and Labrador had the highest vaccination rate at 69 per cent and Ontario had the lowest at 32 per cent. The territories were excluded.
The percentage of Canadians vaccinated for H1N1 exceeded the percentage who typically get a seasonal flu shot: 32 per cent.
In the U.S., adults were more likely to have been vaccinated against seasonal flu (39 per cent) than H1N1 flu (20 per cent) during last year’s flu season, Statistics Canada said.
About 76 per cent of Canadians who had received the seasonal flu shot within the last year also opted for the H1N1 vaccine, compared with 28 per cent who had never received a seasonal flu shot.
In Canada, 428 people died from H1N1, and thousands were infected, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The World Health Organization declared the pandemic over in August.
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September 29, 2010
By: Leslie Horn
Google recently added a predictive feature to its search engine called Google Instant, which is intended to display desired search results as you type.
“It’s search at the speed of thought,” Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products and user experience, said at a press conference in San Francisco earlier this month.
But what if those thoughts aren’t entirely appropriate? What words are not included in Google Instant?
The tool omits certain terms that it deems offensive. When you type in one of these words, the instant feature disappears. Google’s Joanna Wright told CNN that the constraints are in place to protect children. Although Google hasn’t released the list of terms itself, 2600.com has compiled a list from user input.
It reveals stark inconsistencies in the words with which Google Instant takes issue. For example, the word “lesbian” is blocked, but “gay” is not. “Cocaine” doesn’t make the cut, but words like “crack” and “heroin” are passable. Many seemingly innocuous words are blocked, too. “Scat,” as in the type of vocal improvisation often used by jazz musicians, is one of the strange excluded words, most likely because of its NSFW double meaning. The word “hate” is also blocked as is “Lolita,” the name of the classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov.
Hacker Web site 4chan is also not a Google Instant favorite. It blacklists if a user types “B” or “Y” after the name, 2600.com said.
If you notice a word blocked by Google Instant that is not on 2600.com’s list, they ask that you e-mail them with submissions. Of course, you can still search these terms, but they won’t be predicted when you’re typing them.
A Google spokesman said the company has a narrow set of removal policies for pornography, violence, and hate speech, but the issue is complex.
“It’s important to note that removing queries from autocomplete is a hard problem, and not as simple as blacklisting particular terms and phrases,” he said in a statement. “In search, we get more than one billion searches each day. Because of this, we take an algorithmic approach to removals, and just like our search algorithms, these are imperfect.”
Those algorithms look not only at specific words, but phrases – in multiple languages.
“So, for example, if there’s a bad word in Russian, we may remove a compound word including the transliteration of the Russian word into English,” he said. “We also look at the search results themselves for given queries. So, for example, if the results for a particular query seem pornographic, our algorithms may remove that query from Autocomplete, even if the query itself wouldn’t otherwise violate our policies.”
He acknowledged that the system is “neither perfect nor instantaneous,” and said Google continues to “work to make it better.”
September 28, 2010
By: Bill Hendrick
The FDA has warned Walgreen Co., Johnson & Johnson, and CVS Corp. to stop making unproven claims that their mouth rinse products can reduce plaque above the gum line, promote gum health, and prevent gum disease.
The companies claim their mouthwashes are effective in preventing gum disease, but no such benefit has been demonstrated, the FDA says in a news release.
The FDA says it sent warning letters notifying the three companies of its objections to their claims and ordering them to comply with existing federal regulations.
The mouth rinse products contain the active ingredient sodium fluoride, but the agency says it has determined that the substance, while effective in preventing cavities, has not been shown to remove plaque or prevent gum disease.
Claims by Mouthwash Companies
The products contain misleading labeling statements, the FDA says. “It is important for the FDA to take appropriate enforcement action when companies make false or unproven product claims to ensure that consumers are not misinformed or misled,” Deborah Autor, director of the Office of Compliance in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, says in a news release.
The companies, under federal law, are not allowed to say products are effective in treating a disease unless those claims have been shown to be true and recognized by the FDA as being safe and effective over-the-counter products.
No Adverse Effects Reported
So far, the FDA says it is unaware of any injuries or adverse health effects related to use of the mouth rinse products, but says the companies’ claims their products are beneficial to gum health lack proof.
It says consumers who are using the rinses may continue to do so for cavity prevention without injury risk, but should know that the FDA has no data that show the products can prevent gum disease.
The FDA says the three companies must take steps with 15 days to correct the violations, and that failure to do so may result in seizure of products or other civil or criminal penalties.
The FDA’s letter to Johnson & Johnson notes that the company claims its “Listerine Total Care Anticavity Mouthwash” strengthens teeth, restores minerals, fights plaque above the gum line and kills bad breath germs, among other things. But the letter notes that the statements are equivalent to claims that would be made for a drug, as defined by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and are therefore in violation of the act.
Bonnie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson, tells WebMD that the company has received the FDA letter and “will respond to the agency in an appropriate and timely manner.”
The agency says CVS claims that its CVS Complete Care Anticavity Mouthwash not only prevents cavities and kills germs that cause bad breath, but “promotes healthy gums,” thus mitigating disease. The agency notes that the CVS claims, like those of the other two companies, violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and, without FDA approval, their mouth rinses cannot be marketed as preventive products for gum disease.
Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS, says in an email the company will “fully comply with all FDA labeling requirements.”
Similarly, a letter to Walgreen Company refers to the Walgreen Mouth Rinse Full Action. The labeling says that it “helps prevent cavities” and “helps fight visible plaque above the gum line” — claims that would classify it as a drug, violating the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, according the FDA.
Robert Elfinger, a Walgreen spokesman, says in an email that the company is “committed to working with the FDA on this matter and will be responding to their letter accordingly.”
September 28, 2010
By: Amanda Chan
If the H1N1 virus is to continue its contagious ways this coming flu season, it will have to adapt to a highly immune population, according to a new study.
Epidemiologists estimate that 183 million Americans — 59 percent of the U.S. population — are already immune to the pandemic H1N1 strain of the influenza virus, also known as swine flu.
People have become immune because they’ve been either exposed to the virus or vaccinated, the researchers say. Immune people have built up antibodies to defend against the outside invader.
“Every person who is vaccinated is one fewer the virus can find,” said study researcher Dr. David Morens, senior adviser to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
More likely a whimper than a bang
Though there’s no percentage that predicts with certainty how forcefully the flu will strike, epidemiologists consider a 59 percent rate high enough for H1N1 to have a great impact unless the virus mutates, Morens said.
Such mutation is unlikely though not impossible, researchers say.
“Influenza viruses are mutating all the time,” Morens told MyHealthNewsDaily. But this particular H1N1 strain is likely to “do it in small sequential steps that will be nothing dramatic, won’t cause a big epidemic and, we hope, won’t cause a lot of deaths.”
Because the H1N1 strain is being included in this year’s flu vaccine, the portion of the population that has immunity is likely to grow, Morens added. The injected vaccine contains a dead form of the H1N1 virus.
Have immunity, will travel
The traditional flu season runs from October through March or April.
Having immunity doesn’t necessarily protect a person from getting the flu. Some people with antibodies may still get it, and some who don’t have antibodies never will.
But in general, having a high percentage of the population that is immune serves to protect those who aren’t, because the virus is less easily passed on from person to person, Morens said. This type of protection is called herd immunity.
In the upcoming season, H1N1 will behave similarly to the 1968 pandemic virus, which caused few deaths, according to the study.
Nineteen percent of the U.S. population was already immune to the H1N1 virus when it came on the scene in March 2009, Morens said. This was probably due to exposure to the 1918 Spanish flu, the ancestor to the modern-day H1N1 strain, he said.
Older adults may have had immunity because of vaccinations they received in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s for similar H1N1 viruses.
About a fifth of the U.S. population is now likely to be immune because of vaccinations received in the past year, and another fifth is immune because they were infected with the flu strain, according to the study.
The pandemic H1N1 virus generated a lot of attention last year because it was an unfamiliar virus — with origins in the 1918 Spanish flu — and people hadn’t developed immunity to it. However, the virus proved to be not nearly as deadly as feared – it wasn’t even as fatal as the typical seasonal flu, Morens said.
Even though health experts say pandemic H1N1 isn’t likely to be a big problem this coming season, they urge people to err on the side of caution and vaccinate everyone older than 6 months.