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28 October 2008

In Japan, a Robust Yen Undermines the Markets

In Japan, a Robust Yen Undermines the Markets
TOKYO — Tumbling stock markets and falling currencies are causing global concern, but the Japanese yen is generating high anxiety for rising too much. The yen surged as much as 10 percent against the dollar last week. In the last month, it has gained an astounding 34 percent against the euro.

One reason the yen is rising is investors’ flight to quality. Another reason, many economists say, is the sudden end of one of the world’s biggest easy-money schemes, the so-called yen-carry trade.

The yen’s rise helped hammer Tokyo’s beleaguered stock market Monday. Share prices hit a 26-year low and are down 50 percent this year. A strong yen makes Japanese products more expensive during a recession in Europe and North America, hurting the profits of Japanese exporters.

Finance ministers from the world’s seven wealthiest nations issued a joint statement as the Tokyo market sank, saying they were “concerned about the recent excessive volatility in the exchange rate of the yen and its possible adverse implications for economic and financial stability.” But the yen remained strong as investors signaled their doubt that governments would intervene to stop the yen’s gains.

Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, confirmed as much in an interview with Bloomberg News.
The yen’s rise is owed, in part, to its status as a safe haven — in turbulent times, investors move money into the currency because Japan is the world’s largest economy after the United States’, and its banking system has limited exposure to the subprime crisis, even though it faces recession.

But currency analysts say most of the yen’s recent gains are because of the abrupt end of the yen-carry trade.
For much of this decade, Japanese and foreigners alike borrowed money in Japan, where interest rates were very low and money was therefore cheap. They invested that money in higher yielding assets across the world, from home loans in Budapest and Seoul to equities in Mumbai.

This turned Japan, with its $15 trillion in personal savings built up by the nation’s chronic trade surpluses, into a provider of low-cost capital for the rest of the world.

No one knows for sure how large this outflow of yen was.

Much of the yen-carry trade took place beyond public scrutiny, in the form of currency options or other types of derivatives trading. Most analysts agree its size was in the hundreds of billions of dollars, with some estimating it reached well more than half a trillion dollars. As the yen-carry trade grew, currency analysts warned it was a bubble of cheap credit, which one day would burst.

Now that day has come, say currency analysts and economists. Investors have been unwinding their yen-based loans as part of a panicked flight from risky assets — like Budapest home loans and Mumbai equities — and into safer havens like the yen and the American dollar, which is also rising against the euro and British pound.

The prospect of global recession has also led central banks in many countries to cut interest rates, reducing the appeal of borrowing in Japan: South Korea cut interest rates by three-quarters of a point Monday, its biggest one-day move ever.

The result has been a huge reversal in the flow of money, back into Japan and its currency. “This is the end of the yen-carry trade, and the yen bubble,” said Tohru Sasaki, chief exchange strategist in the Tokyo office of JPMorgan Chase Bank. “The yen is coming back home.”

As this money flows back into Japan, currency analysts expect the yen to keep gaining. Mr. Sasaki says his company’s forecast is 87 yen to the dollar, but it could go as high as 80 yen.

Mr. Sasaki said the size of the yen’s rise in recent weeks suggested that at least several trillion yen, or tens of billion of dollars, had flowed back to Japan. He said the last time he had tried to calculate the size of the entire yen-carry trade was three years ago, when he estimated that it totaled 40 trillion yen, or $425 billion. He said it could have easily grown much larger than that in recent years.

All this money from Japan added to an excessive abundance of cheap capital that many economists now blame for causing the current financial crisis. Some of the biggest players in the carry trade were American and European hedge funds and banks. But Japanese individuals also fed the outflow of yen by pouring their savings into overseas investments, like emerging markets funds, in search of higher returns.

Japan’s normally conservative homemakers even got into the act by trading foreign currencies online, becoming a force in global foreign exchange markets, known collectively as the Mrs. Watanabes.

One indicator of the recent return of money to Japan has been a surge of individuals here cashing out of mutual funds that invest overseas. A survey of Japan’s 40 largest such funds showed individuals had withdrawn more than $3.5 billion since Sept. 12, Mr. Sasaki of JPMorgan said.

The end of the yen-carry trade could have serious consequences, economists say.

In Japan, the higher yen has worsened the already darkening outlook for the nation’s export-driven economy, hurting companies like Toyota and Sony. The yen, and the prospect of a recession in crucial overseas markets like the United States, have helped drive the benchmark Nikkei 225 index down some 50 percent so far this year.

Globally, the carry trade’s demise could contribute to an overall increase in borrowing costs, especially for developing countries and lesser-known companies in developed nations, by cutting off a major source of low-cost capital, economists say.

“The unwinding of the yen-carry trade is just one more way of taking excess credit out of the system,” said John Richards, head of Asia research at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Tokyo office. “Higher borrowing costs will go up disproportionately for riskier investments.”

A major reason for the end of the yen-carry trade has been a narrowing in the gap in interest rates between Japan and other developed countries. For years, Japan’s low interest rates — the benchmark overnight rate is 0.5 percent — were attractive enough to entice investors to borrow money here and invest it in countries with higher rates of return, despite the foreign exchange rate risks.

Now, investors are unwinding those loans as interest rate differences between Japan and the rest of the world shrink, making yen borrowing less lucrative. When its board meets later this week, the United States Federal Reserve is widely expected to cut its overnight rate again, from its current rate of 1.5 percent. That is already way down from 5.25 percent when the subprime problems first hit financial markets in July 2007.

Since that time, the yen has risen 24 percent against the dollar as investors have repaid their yen borrowings. Indeed, some currency analysts said this dissolution of the yen-carry trade may already be reaching its climax.
Koji Fukaya, senior currency strategist in the Tokyo office of Deutsche Bank, said he expected the yen’s gains to continue into November, before settling down at a value of about 90 yen a dollar.

“The unwinding and liquidation will continue for a few more weeks,” he said. “Most of the yen-carry trades have already been unwound.”

26 October 2008

Spending Stalls and Businesses Slash U.S. Jobs

Spending Stalls and Businesses Slash U.S. Jobs
As the financial crisis crimps demand for American goods and services, the workers who produce them are losing their jobs by the tens of thousands.

Layoffs have arrived in force, like a wrenching second act in the unfolding crisis. In just the last two weeks, the list of companies announcing their intention to cut workers has read like a Who’s Who of corporate America: Merck, Yahoo, General Electric, Xerox, Pratt & Whitney, Goldman Sachs, Whirlpool, Bank of America, Alcoa, Coca-Cola, the Detroit automakers and nearly all the airlines.

When October’s job losses are announced on Nov. 7, three days after the presidential election, many economists expect the number to exceed 200,000. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is likely to rise, perhaps significantly.

“My view is that it will be near 8 or 8.5 percent by the end of next year,” said Nigel Gault, chief domestic economist at Global Insight, offering a forecast others share. That would be the highest unemployment rate since the deep recession of the early 1980s.

Companies are laying off workers to cut production as consumers, struggling with their own finances, scale back spending. Employers had tried for months to cut expenses through hiring freezes and by cutting back hours. That has turned out not to be enough, and with earnings down sharply in the third quarter, corporate America has turned to layoffs.

“People have grown very nervous,” said Harry Holzer, a labor economist at Georgetown University and the Urban Institute, tracing cause and effect. “They have seen a lot of their wealth wiped out and as they cut back their spending, companies are responding with layoffs, which hurts consumption even more.”
The unemployment is widespread, with Rhode Island the hardest hit.

For Dwight and Rochelle Stokes of Phenix City, Ala., the layoffs are a family event. He lost his job two weeks ago as an aviation mechanic at the Pratt & Whitney jet engine facility near his home — a few days after his wife lost hers as a cosmetologist at Great Clips, a family-owned barbershop and beauty salon.
“It got really slow in July and August,” Ms. Stokes said. “I would sit there for two hours, and some days we had only 10 clients, four of us for 10 clients.”

The broadening layoffs are most pronounced on Wall Street, in the auto industry, in construction, in the airlines and in retailing. The steel mills, big suppliers to many sectors of the economy, are shutting 17 of the nation’s 29 blast furnaces — a startling indicator of how quickly output is declining as corporate America struggles to adjust to the spreading crisis.

“We have seen a softening order book in the most dramatic ways in the last week,” said Tom Conway, a vice president of the United Steelworkers of America, adding that layoffs in the industry “are just starting now.”
In September alone, 2,269 employers each laid off 50 people or more, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, up sharply from the spring and summer months, and the highest number since September 2001, when the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks coincided with a recession to spook employers. A spike in 2005 was related to Hurricane Katrina.

The financial services industry has been cutting jobs since last summer, when the credit crisis took hold. By some estimates, 300,000 jobs will disappear from banks, mutual fund groups, hedge funds and other financial services companies before the crisis subsides — 35,000 of them in New York.

Goldman Sachs alone, among the best performers on Wall Street, has announced plans to cut 10 percent of its work force, which stood at 32,594 at the end of last month.

The current unemployment rate, 6.1 percent — up more than a percentage point since April — is still relatively mild by post-World War II standards. The highest level since the Great Depression, 10.8 percent, came in November and December of 1982 as the economy was shaking off a severe recession.

The unemployment rate hit 9 percent during the mid-1970s recession, and 7.8 percent in the 1990-1991 downturn. The next peak, 6.3 percent, occurred in June 2003, during a long jobless recovery in the aftermath of the 2001 recession.

Dwight and Rochelle Stokes, both in their late 20s, have just joined the layoff rolls. So has Mr. Stokes’s father, Warren, 48, who lost a $30-an-hour job this month on the assembly line of the Chrysler truck plant in Fenton, Mo., near St. Louis., where the father had worked for 12 years. “They just cut back,” the son said.
Just a year ago, he and Rochelle, and their two very young children, moved to Phenix City from Fenton so he could take the mechanic job at the Pratt & Whitney plant in nearby Columbus, Ga. Airlines send engines there for periodic overhauls, and when Mr. Stokes arrived 400 workers were tearing down and rebuilding 15 engines a month.

But as the airlines reduced their flights — and announced 36,000 job cuts, nearly all of them taking place in the current fourth quarter — that number fell to three engines this month and “it was going to be worse for November, just one or two,” Mr. Stokes said.

“We came in on Monday morning and our supervisor told us not to touch an engine, and we knew there would be layoffs,” he said. By lunchtime, Mr. Stokes and 100 others had been escorted out of the building, with four weeks’ pay as severance, along with four weeks of health insurance and a $1,000 departure check.
As a starting mechanic, Mr. Stokes’s pay, $11.50 an hour, was just over half of what he had earned as the manager of a chain of pawn shops in Missouri. But he took the job anyway, moving with his family, because Pratt & Whitney offered full college tuition. Mr. Stokes immediately enrolled in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in management and a minor in engineering sciences.

Using all his spare time, he had earned half the necessary credits when the layoff came. The severance included extended tuition, and Mr. Stokes, piling on course work, hopes to earn his degree by early summer. But he will do so by correspondence course; the family is returning to Missouri, moving in rent free with Mr. Stokes’s sister in Fenton.

“I am going to take seven or eight courses and hurry up and get my degree, and my wife will go back to cutting hair,” Mr. Stokes said, “and when I have my degree in June, I’ll apply for a management position. Even though things are bad, I hear there are openings in St. Louis requiring a bachelor’s degree.”

Thanks to Nytimes

25 October 2008

Think Firefox 3 is fast? Try Firefox Minefield

Think Firefox 3 is fast? Try Firefox Minefield

A colleague today showed me a cool, new browser that he's been using to browse the web at blisteringly fast speeds. The browser? Minefield. The author of the code?
Yes, that same Mozilla that makes the Firefox browser. Minefield is, in fact, a way to glimpse into the future of Firefox, as it's a pre-release/alpha version of the Firefox browser.
After spending some time with Minefield, one thing is clear: the future of Firefox is fast. Lightning fast.
How fast? Some claim that it has the fastest javascript engine on the planet, which means it leaves Google's Chrome browser in the dust. In my own unscientific tests, I'd say that this assertion is correct. Ars Technica pegs Minefield as 10 percent faster than Chrome.
You can download the latest nightly build for Mac OS X, Linux, or Windows, but be warned: it's alpha code. While a quick scan of the Web shows few complaints as to stability, Minefield may not be for you. It doesn't support some of my favorite Firefox extensions (like Adblock Plus), but it actually has surprisingly good support for extensions, given that it's a fast-moving project.
Feeling brave? Or simply feeling like your browser is too slow? Give Minefield a try. It's a separate install so it won't affect an existing Firefox install. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Dollar and Yen Soar as Other Currencies Fall and Stocks Slip

Dollar and Yen Soar as Other Currencies Fall and Stocks Slip

WASHINGTON — Fear that the financial crisis is infecting once-healthy economies created another white-knuckle day for investors Friday, causing stocks to tumble from Tokyo to New York.

Uncertainty also roiled currency markets as investors continued to turn to the security of the United States dollar and the Japanese yen and drove down currencies of developing countries like Brazil, Ukraine and South Korea and even of developed countries like Britain.

In the United States, where the crisis began, investors were less alarmed than elsewhere. A rout in Asian and European stock markets sent the Dow Jones industrial average swooning by more than 500 points in early trading in New York, but trading recovered enough ground through the day to leave the Dow down 312.30 points, or 3.6 percent.

Just a year ago, a drop of that size would have been considered a black day in the markets, but in these days of routine triple-digit declines, it offered a modicum of relief to traumatized investors.

Still, there were chilling new developments that attested to the wide scope of the crisis, despite efforts by heads of state, central bankers and corporate leaders to stop the bleeding. Cash flowed into the dollar and the Japanese yen, the two most sought-after safe havens in a storm-tossed world, as it fled from emerging markets.

Hedge funds and other investors are pulling money out of these countries on an immense scale, analysts said, and putting it into dollars and yen. There were few safe harbors, as commodities also tumbled. Fears of a spreading global recession caused oil prices to fall 5 percent, to $64.15, even after OPEC, the oil cartel, announced it was cutting output. Government-backed mortgage bonds and debt issued by top-rated corporations were also dragged down in the undertow.

“This is a panic in the way of the fine 19th-century panics, where we all run around like headless chickens,” said R. Jeremy Grantham, chairman of the Boston-based investment firm GMO, who had predicted stocks would tumble. “I have been in the business for 40 years, and I have never seen anything like this.”

So great are the concerns among policy makers about the turmoil in currency markets that it has prompted talk of a coordinated intervention by the leading industrial countries in coming days, to quell the soaring dollar and put a floor under emerging-market currencies.

Such a move — in which the Federal Reserve and other central banks would sell dollars and yen and buy other currencies — has been used extremely sparingly by the United States in recent years.

“The risk is huge, but it is appropriate at this point, because if the emerging markets go into default, the consequences would be catastrophic,” said Kenneth S. Rogoff, an economist at Harvard.

When a developing country’s currency loses value rapidly, it impedes the ability to pay back loans from Western banks. That could cause a rash of corporate or even government defaults — a feature of previous financial crises in Asia and Latin America.

In the United States, the rescue effort may also grow. The Treasury Department, officials said, is weighing whether to expand its program of capital injections to encompass insurance companies, many of which own savings and loans, and is under pressure to include the financing arms of the auto companies. The government injections are currently reserved for banks.

The Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., appears to be drawing the line at investing in hedge funds, which, officials note, do not supply credit to the economy and are in the business of taking on large risks.

Indeed, hedge funds accounted for some of the turmoil on Friday. They are being forced to sell their stocks, bonds and other instruments to pay off their investors and lenders. Beyond that, investors are increasingly convinced that the global economy is headed for a long, painful recession.

“There has been tremendous activity in the currency markets, the commodity market and the stock market that reveal the fingerprints of forced selling,” said Marc D. Stern, chief investment officer of Bessemer Trust, an investment firm based in New York.

The flight to safety is hurting once-mighty currencies like Britain’s pound. On Friday, worries about how the financial crisis would affect Britain’s economy caused the pound to lose 8 cents against the dollar, falling to $1.53.

While a strong dollar might be a boon for American tourists abroad, it creates a host of problems for economies.

And the downdraft of the pound and the euro — which fell to $1.26 against the dollar on Friday, its lowest level in two years — is less serious for the economic well-being of Britain and Europe than the deterioration of currencies like the Mexican peso or the Russian ruble.

Even if the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan and other central banks intervened in the foreign-exchange markets, it was not clear that it would reverse the pressure on these currencies.

“I don’t see this as a crisis breaker,” said Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. “But it would help emerging-market companies, and give everyone a chance to catch their breath.”

The last time the Federal Reserve intervened in currency markets was in September 2000, when it teamed up with the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan to shore up the faltering euro. Before that, the United States and Japan teamed up to buy yen during the Asian crisis in June 1998.

With President Bush convening a meeting of the Group of 20 nations in Washington on Nov. 15, analysts said there would be pressure on the United States and other Western countries to show they were trying to cushion the blow of the crisis on developing countries.

The International Monetary Fund is trying to arrange a large credit line to help developing countries desperate for dollars. On Friday, Iceland announced it had reached a tentative deal for a $2 billion emergency loan from the fund — making it the first country to seek aid from the fund during this crisis, and the first Western country to do so since 1976.

The bad news started early Friday in Tokyo and Seoul, where big companies like Toyota, Sony and Samsung disappointed investors with their earnings. It continued as trading opened in Europe, with Britain reporting that its economy shrank in the third quarter.

By the time investors awoke in New York, stock futures had fallen so far that trading in them had been halted. Investors were on notice that the market could fall at least 6 percent, perhaps much more.

As trading started, the Dow dropped 450 points, or about 5 percent, and the floor appeared calm. Some traders said they took solace in the fact that the decline had not been greater — and far from the 1,100-point drop that would force a trading halt on the Big Board.

“It was frightening, absolutely frightening,” Warren Meyers, a floor trader for Walter J. Dowd Inc., said early on Friday. “Every day we are walking on shaking ground.”

Stocks seesawed for much of the rest of the day. A report that existing home sales jumped 5.5 percent in September as banks unloaded foreclosed homes did little to help the market.

But at about 2 p.m., stocks started rallying, and by 3 p.m., the Dow was down by just 100 points for the day. It was unclear what was fueling the rally, though investors seemed cheered by reports that the Treasury was weighing investments in insurance companies.

The Dow, however, was not able to build on those gains and fell sharply at the end of trading, dropping 183 points in 10 minutes.

The Treasury’s benchmark 10-year note fell 3/32, to 102 18/32, and the yield, which moves in the opposite direction from the price, was at 3.69 percent, up from 3.67 percent late Thursday.

As is often the case when stocks fall steeply, the market is starting to entice some investors, many of whom say they have never seen prices so low, to buy. Among them is Mr. Grantham, the GMO chairman.

After years of warning that stocks were unreasonably overpriced, he said he now believed they were below their fair value and had been slowly acquiring holdings in blue-chip companies.

“It’s a very nerve-racking time to be a value investor,” Mr. Grantham said. “You put a little bit into the market, and the next day you think, ‘What an idiot, what an idiot.’ ”

Thanks to Newyark times



21 October 2008

Size is bigger !

Size is bigger

20 October 2008

Who's to Blame for the Mortgage Crisis?

Who's to Blame for the Mortgage Crisis?

While the mortgage crisis undermines the entire economy, nobody is taking responsibility or accepting accountability.  But plenty of people are playing the mortgage meltdown blame game. Lots of fingers point to rating agencies that gave high marks to grossly underperforming assets.

In the run-up to the mortgage crisis, companies in the business of buying securitized mortgage products leveraged themselves to the hilt, routinely buying as much as 30 times the value of their pledged collateral. Is it any wonder that we're in the mess we're in?  By itself, that practice is a recipe for a credit catastrophe. But now we know that the so-called collateral was also hyped, leveraged, and not worth nearly as much as its stated value. Trusted credit rating agencies may be to blame.

Mortgage meltdown

In the absence of official government regulation, and the transparency of bookkeeping that goes hand in hand with prudent oversight, investors rely on private rating agencies to appraise assets. Had the agencies been vigilant, they would have noticed that the assets based on mortgages were losing value in a dangerously precipitous fashion. They might have surmised that housing prices don't continue to rise forever, and that, as the real estate bubble expanded, the underlying potential for further asset appreciation shrank. The catastrophic impact of the mortgage crisis could have been drastically lessened if the credit of many ailing financial institutions had been appropriately lowered by credit rating agencies.

But there's an apparent conflict of interest for the rating agencies, because the companies getting rated are the same ones that pay the rating agencies in the first place. It's like paying an appraiser to tell you how much your home is worth-which is why mortgage companies don't accept appraisals ordered by homeowners, but insist upon hiring their own appraisers. Government officials started cracking down on rating agencies this year, but it was too late to avert the mortgage crisis.

Conflicts of interest

A few months ago, three of the most influential agencies-Standard & Poor's, Moody's, and Fitch-reached a deal with the New York state attorney general's office to change how they do business. The agreement seeks to end the practice by having the issuers pay the credit-rating agencies in four installments during the rating process, not just at the end when the rating is awarded. Agencies also agreed to change how they rate mortgage lenders and their mortgage-underwriting processes, and to post ratings online for consumers to view before taking out a mortgage.

"The mortgage crisis currently facing this nation was caused, in part, by misrepresentations and misunderstanding of the true value of mortgage securities," New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said in an article in the Washington Post. But critics argue that changing the pay structure doesn't address the more fundamental problem of a conflict of interest between agencies and the companies they rate. They also complain that, even when agencies downgrade companies, they do it too late-by then, the problem has already exacerbated the mortgage crisis.

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28 August 2008

Clinton Rally Party

Obama Wins Nomination; Biden and Bill Clinton Rally Party

DENVER — Barack Hussein Obama, a freshman senator who defeated the first family of Democratic Party politics with a call for a fundamentally new course in politics, was nominated by his party on Wednesday to be the 44th president of the United States.

The unanimous vote made Mr. Obama the first African-American to become a major party nominee for president. It brought to an end an often-bitter two-year political struggle for the nomination with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who, standing on a packed convention floor electric with anticipation, moved to halt the roll call in progress so that the convention could nominate Mr. Obama by acclamation. That it did with a succession of loud roars, followed by a swirl of dancing, embracing, high-fiving and chants of “Yes, we can.”

In an effort to fully ease the lingering animosity from the primary season, former President Bill Clinton, in a speech that had been anxiously awaited by Mr. Obama’s aides given the uncomfortable relations between the two men, offered an enthusiastic and unstinting endorsement of Mr. Obama’s credentials to be president. Mr. Clinton’s message, like the messenger, was greeted rapturously in the hall.

“Last night Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she is going to do everything she can to elect Barack Obama,” Mr. Clinton said. “That makes two of us.”

Mr. Clinton proceeded to do precisely what Mr. Obama’s campaign was looking for him to do: attest to Mr. Obama’s readiness to be president, after a campaign largely based on Mrs. Clinton’s contention that he was not.

“I say to you: Barack Obama is ready to lead America and restore American leadership in the world,” Mr. Clinton said. “Barack Obama is ready to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States.”
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Mr. Obama’s choice for vice president, accepted the nomination with a speech in which he spoke frequently, and earnestly, of his blue-collar background, in effect offering himself as a validator for Mr. Obama among some voters who have been reluctant to embrace the Democratic presidential nominee.

He then turned to Senator John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, signaling how he would go after him in the campaign ahead. He referred to Mr. McCain as a friend — “I know you hear that phrase a lot in politics; I mean it,” he said — and then proceeded to offer a long and systematic case about why Mr. McCain should not be president.

“The choice in this election is clear,” Mr. Biden said. “These times require more than a good soldier. They require a wise leader,” he said, a leader who can deliver “the change that everybody knows we need.”

His 21-minute address completed, Mr. Biden was joined on stage by his wife, Jill, who told the crowd they were about to be joined by an unscheduled guest. The crowd exploded as Mr. Obama walked around the corner.

“If I’m not mistaken, Hillary Clinton rocked the house last night,” he said, gazing up at where Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were watching the proceedings and leading the crowd in applause. “And President Clinton reminded us of what it’s like when you have a president who actually puts people first. Thank you.”

The historic nature of the moment quickly gave way to the political imperatives confronting Mr. Obama, who arrived here on Wednesday afternoon and is to accept the nomination Thursday night before a crowd of 75,000 people in a football stadium. After days in which the convention often seemed less about Mr. Obama than about the two families that have dominated Democratic politics for nearly a half-century, the Kennedys and the Clintons, he needed to convince voters that he has solutions to their economic anxieties and to rally his party against the reinvigorated candidacy of Mr. McCain.

The roll-call vote took place in the late afternoon Wednesday — the first time in at least 50 years that Democrats have not scheduled their roll call on prime-time television — as Democrats sought to avoid drawing attention to the lingering resentments between Clinton and Obama delegates. Yet the significance of the vote escaped no one, and sent a charge through the Pepsi Center as a procession of state delegations cast their votes and the hall, slightly empty at the beginning of the vote, became shoulder-to-shoulder with Democrats eager to witness this moment.

As planned, it fell to Mrs. Clinton to put Mr. Obama over the top. He was declared the party’s nominee at 4:47 p.m. Mountain time after Mrs. Clinton, in a light blue suit standing out in a crowd that included almost every elected New York official, moved that the roll call be suspended and that Mr. Obama be declared the party’s nominee by acclamation. The vote was timed to conclude during the network evening news broadcasts.

“With eyes firmly fixed on the future in the spirit of unity, with the goal of victory, with faith in our party and country, let’s declare together in one voice, right here and right now, that Barack Obama is our candidate and he will be our president,” Mrs. Clinton said.

“I move that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois be selected by this convention by acclamation as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States,” she said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, standing at the lectern, asked for a second and was greeted by a roar of voices. A louder roar came from the crowd when she asked for support of the motion.

When the voting was cut off, Mr. Obama had received 1,549 votes, compared with 231 for Mrs. Clinton.

The hall pulsed when Mr. Clinton strode onto the stage for a performance that became a reminder of why Democrats had considered him a politician with once-in-a-generation skills — and suggested that for Democrats in this hall at least, Mr. Clinton may have survived a primary in which he was repeatedly criticized for the sharp tone he often used against Mr. Obama. Again and again, Mr. Clinton tried to quiet the crowd. Again and again, they ignored him.
“You all sit down, we have to get on with the show,” he said.

Mr. Clinton arguably did a better job than Mrs. Clinton the night before in making the case for Mr. Obama, and pumped up a crowd at a convention that has often seemed listless. He even managed, amid all his praise, to slip in a reference to the reservations he voiced about Mr. Obama back when he was campaigning against him, suggesting that Mr. Biden was just what Mr. Obama needed.

“With Joe Biden’s experience and wisdom, supporting Barack Obama’s proven understanding, instincts and insight, America will have the national security leadership we need,” he said.

And without mentioning Mr. McCain by name, he offered a sharp denunciation of him and the Republicans.

“The Republicans will nominate a good man who served our country heroically and suffered terribly in Vietnam,” he said. “He loves our country every bit as much as we all do. As a senator, he has shown his independence on several issues. But on the two great questions of this election, how to rebuild the American Dream and how to restore America’s leadership in the world, he still embraces the extreme philosophy which has defined his party for more than 25 years.”

“They actually want us to reward them for the last eight years by giving them four more,” he said. “Let’s send them a message that will echo from the Rockies all across America: Thanks, but no thanks.”

For all the good Mr. Clinton might have done for Mr. Obama on Wednesday night it marked the second night in a row that the Clintons had been the face of what was supposed to be Mr. Obama’s convention. But when Mr. Obama walked out from backstage at the end of the night — “Hello, Democrats!” — he left little doubt about who was now the face of the Democratic party.

For Mr. Obama, the nomination — seized from Mrs. Clinton, who just one year ago was viewed as the obvious favorite to win the nomination especially against an opponent with a scant political résumé — was a remarkable achievement in what has been a remarkable ascendance. It was less than four years ago that Mr. Obama, coming off of serving seven years as an Illinois state senator, became a member of the United States Senate. He is 47 years old, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya.

Mr. Obama’s nomination came 120 years after Frederick Douglass became the first African-American to have his name entered in nomination at a major party convention. Douglass received one vote at the Republican convention in Chicago in 1888.

Making the moment even more striking was the historical nature of Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy. She was the third woman whose name has been entered as a candidate for president at a major party convention. As she moved to end the roll-call vote, some women in the hall could be seen wiping tears from their eyes.

Kitty Bennett, John M. Broder and Janet Elder contributed reporting.

19 July 2008

Saif, Kareena Live it Up

We all know about how Saif Ali Khan just cannot live without Kareena Kapoor, the love of his life. In fact, these days, Saif is more busy following Kareena around the globe, at her various shootings, so that they can spend some quality time together.

Recently, Kareena was in London and thankfully, so was Saif, shooting for his maiden home production. But now the couple seems to have moved to the US. It seems that the next schedule of Saif's film, which is being directed by Imtiaz Ali, is in the US. Luckily for Saif, Kareena too has to shoot in the US for Sajid Nadiadwala's Kambakht Ishq. She will be in Los Angeles while he will be in San Francisco. Just an hour's distance separates them from each other.

After all the distances that he has been traveling to catch up with Kareena, the one hour travel, will seem like a cakewalk for Saif. He went from London to Bangkok, because Kareena was performing at the IIFA awards. Then he flew to Frankfurt where she was performing at Shah Rukh Khan's Temptation Reloaded concert.

After all that buzzing around the globe, at least he can rest in peace in the US for a while, knowing that Kareena is close by.

24 June 2008

What’s Obscene? Google Could Have an Answer

What’s Obscene? Google Could Have an Answer

Judges and jurors who must decide whether sexually explicit material is obscene are asked to use a local yardstick: does the material violate community standards?

That is often a tricky question because there is no simple, concrete way to gauge a community’s tastes and values.

The Internet may be changing that. In a novel approach, the defense in an obscenity trial in Florida plans to use publicly accessible Google search data to try to persuade jurors that their neighbors have broader interests than they might have thought.

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. But the defense lawyer, Lawrence Walters, is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.

It is not clear that the approach will succeed. The Florida state prosecutor in the case, which is scheduled for trial July 1, said the search data may not be relevant because the volume of Internet searches is not necessarily an indication of, or proxy for, a community’s values.

But the tactic is another example of the value of data collected by Internet companies like Google, both from a commercial standpoint and as a window into the thoughts, interests and desires of their users.

“Time and time again you’ll have jurors sitting on a jury panel who will condemn material that they routinely consume in private,” said Mr. Walters, the defense lawyer. Using the Internet data, “we can show how people really think and feel and act in their own homes, which, parenthetically, is where this material was intended to be viewed,” he added.

Mr. Walters last week also served Google with a subpoena seeking more specific search data, including the number of searches for certain sexual topics done by local residents. A Google spokesman said the company was reviewing the subpoena.

Mr. Walters is defending Clinton Raymond McCowen, who is facing charges that he created and distributed obscene material through a Web site based in Florida. The charges include racketeering and prostitution, but Mr. Walters said the prosecution’s case fundamentally relies on proving that the material on the site is obscene.

Such cases are a relative rarity this decade. In the last eight years, the Justice Department has brought roughly 15 obscenity cases that have not involved child pornography, compared with 75 during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, according to Jeffrey J. Douglas, chairman emeritus of the First Amendment Lawyers Association. (There have been hundreds involving child pornography.) Prosecutions at the state level have followed a similar arc.

The question of what constitutes obscenity relies on a three-part test established in a 1973 decision by the Supreme Court. Essential to the test has been whether the material in question is patently offensive or appeals to a prurient interest in sex — definitions that are based on “contemporary community standards.”

Lawyers in obscenity cases have tried to demonstrate community standards by, for example, showing the range of sexually explicit magazines and movies available locally. A better barometer, Mr. Douglas said, would be mail-order statistics, because they show what people consume in private. But that information is hard to obtain.

“All you had to go on is what was available for public consumption, and that was a very crude tool,” Mr. Douglas said. “The prospect of having measurement of Internet traffic brings a more objective component than we’ve ever seen before.”

In a federal obscenity case heard this month, Mr. Douglas defended another Florida pornographer. In the trial, Mr. Douglas set up a computer in the courtroom and did Internet searches for sexually explicit terms to show the jury that there were millions of Web pages discussing such material. He then searched for other topics, like the University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, to demonstrate that there were not nearly as many related Web sites.

The jury was evidently not swayed, as his client was convicted on all counts.

The case Mr. Walters is defending takes the tactic to another level. Rather than showing broad availability of sex-related Web sites, he is trying to show both accessibility and interest in the material within the jurisdiction of the First Circuit Court for Santa Rosa County, where the trial is taking place.

The search data he is using is available through a service called Google Trends ( It allows users to compare search trends in a given area, showing, for instance, that residents of Pensacola are more likely to search for sexual terms than some more wholesome ones.

Mr. Walters chose Pensacola because it is the only city in the court’s jurisdiction that is large enough to be singled out in the service’s data.

“We tried to come up with comparison search terms that would embody typical American values,” Mr. Walters said. “What is more American than apple pie?” But according to the search service, he said, “people are at least as interested in group sex and orgies as they are in apple pie.”

The Google service does, however, show the relative strength of many mainstream queries in Pensacola: “Nascar,” “surfing” and “Nintendo” all beat “orgy.”

Chris Hansen, a staff lawyer for the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the tactic clever and novel, but said it underscored the power of the Internet to reveal personal preferences — something that raises concerns about the collection of personal information.

“That’s why a lot of people are nervous about Google or Yahoo having all this data,” he said.

One question is whether the judge in the case will admit the data as evidence; it was given only in a deposition this month. Mr. Walters said he was confident the information would be allowable given that there has been a growing reliance on such data.

Russ Edgar, the Florida state prosecutor, said he was still assessing whether he would try to block the search data’s use in court. He declined to discuss the case’s specifics, but said that the popularity of sex-related Web sites had no bearing on whether Mr. Edgar was in violation of community standards.

“How many times you do something doesn’t necessarily speak to standards and values,” he said.

American Envoy Is Linked to Arms Deal Cover-Up

An American ambassador helped cover up the illegal Chinese origins of ammunition that a Pentagon contractor bought to supply Afghan security forces, according to testimony gathered by Congressional investigators.

A military attaché has told the investigators that the United States ambassador to Albania endorsed a plan by the Albanian defense minister to hide several boxes of Chinese ammunition from a visiting reporter. The ammunition was being repackaged to disguise its origins and shipped from Albania to Afghanistan by a Miami Beach arms-dealing company.

The ambassador, John L. Withers II, met with the defense minister, Fatmir Mediu, hours before a reporter for The New York Times was to visit the American contractor’s operations in Tirana, the Albanian capital, according to the testimony. The company, under an Army contract, bought the ammunition to supply Afghan security forces although American law prohibits trading in Chinese arms.

The attaché, Maj. Larry D. Harrison II of the Army, was one of the aides attending the late-night meeting, on Nov. 19, 2007. He told House investigators that Mr. Mediu asked Ambassador Withers for help, saying he was concerned that the reporter would reveal that he had been accused of profiting from selling arms. The minister said that because he had gone out of his way to help the United States, a close ally, “the U.S. owed him something,” according to Major Harrison.

Mr. Mediu ordered the commanding general of Albania’s armed forces to remove all boxes of Chinese ammunition from a site the reporter was to visit, and “the ambassador agreed that this would alleviate the suspicion of wrongdoing,” Major Harrison said, according to his testimony.

Investigators interviewed Major Harrison by telephone on June 9, and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee made excerpts of the transcript public on Monday.

At the time of the meeting, the company, AEY Inc., was under investigation for illegal arms trafficking involving Chinese ammunition.

On Friday, the president of the company, Efraim E. Diveroli, 22, and three others were charged with selling prohibited Chinese ammunition to the Pentagon that they said was made in Albania.

On March 27, The New York Times published an article that said Albanian documents showed that the Miami company had bought more than 100 million Chinese cartridges that were stored for decades in former cold war stockpiles.

Mr. Diveroli arranged to have them repacked in cardboard boxes, many of which split or decomposed after shipment to the war zones, according to the article. Different lots or types of ammunition were mixed. In some cases the ammunition was dirty, corroded or covered with a film.

The repackaging operation, carried out by an AEY subcontractor at the Rinas Airport in Tirana, has become the focus of the Congressional investigation.

According to the transcript excerpts released by the committee, Major Harrison told investigators that he did not agree with the decision to hide the boxes from the reporter, and said that he felt “very uncomfortable” during the meeting.

Major Harrison, who as the chief of the embassy’s office of defense cooperation was responsible for helping American efforts to train, equip and modernize Albania’s military, said that his suggestion to bar the reporter from visiting the Albania base was rejected.

In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the committee’s chairman, Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said Monday that there were signs that embassy officials in Tirana tried to cover up the November meeting once Mr. Waxman’s staff began an investigation into the arms company. The letter said the committee would seek to interview Mr. Withers and other embassy personnel.

Attempts to reach Mr. Withers through the United States Embassy in Tirana were met with a request to refer all questions to Washington.

But a senior State Department offic

22 June 2008

India’s Growth Outstrips Crops

JALANDHAR, India — With the right technology and policies, India could help feed the world. Instead, it can barely feed itself.

India’s supply of arable land is second only to that of the United States, its economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, and its industrial innovation is legendary. But when it comes to agriculture, its output lags far behind potential. For some staples, India must turn to already stretched international markets, exacerbating a global food crisis.

It was not supposed to be this way.

Forty years ago, a giant development effort known as the Green Revolution drove hunger from an India synonymous with famine and want. Now, after a decade of neglect, this country is growing faster than its ability to produce more rice and wheat.

The problem has grown so dire that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for a Second Green Revolution “so that the specter of food shortages is banished from the horizon once again.”

And while Mr. Singh worries about feeding the poor, India’s growing affluent population demands not only more food but also a greater variety.

Today Indian agriculture is a double tragedy. “Both in rice and wheat, India has a large untapped reservoir. It can make a major contribution to the world food crisis,” said M. S. Swaminathan, a plant geneticist who helped bring the Green Revolution to India.

India’s own people are paying as well. Farmers, most subsisting on small, rain-fed plots, are disproportionately poor, and inflation has soared past 11 percent, the highest in 13 years.

Experts blame the agriculture slowdown on a variety of factors.

The Green Revolution introduced high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, expanded the use of irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers, and transformed the northwestern plains into India’s breadbasket. Between 1968 and 1998, the production of cereals in India more than doubled.

But since the 1980s, the government has not expanded irrigation and access to loans for farmers, or to advance agricultural research. Groundwater has been depleted at alarming rates.

The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington says changes in temperature and rain patterns could diminish India’s agricultural output by 30 percent by the 2080s.

Family farms have shrunk in size and quantity, and a few years ago mounting debt began to drive some farmers to suicide. Now many find it more profitable to sell their land to developers of industrial buildings.

Among farmers who stay on their land, many are experimenting with growing high-value fruits and vegetables that prosperous Indians are craving, but there are few refrigerated trucks to transport their produce to modern supermarkets.

A long and inefficient supply chain means that the average farmer receives less than a fifth of the price the consumer pays, a World Bank study found, far less than farmers in, say, Thailand or the United States.

Surinder Singh Chawla knows the system is broken. Mr. Chawla, 62, bore witness to the Green Revolution — and its demise.

Once, his family grew wheat and potatoes on 20 acres. They looked to the sky for rains. They used cow manure for fertilizer. Then came the Mexican semi-dwarf wheat seedlings that the revolution helped introduce to India. Mr. Chawla’s wheat yields soared. A few years later, the same happened with new high-yield rice seeds.

Increasingly prosperous, Mr. Chawla finally bought his first tractor in 1980.

But he has since witnessed with horror the ills the revolution wrought: in a common occurrence here, the water table under his land has sunk by 100 feet over three decades as he and other farmers irrigated their fields.

By the 1980s, government investment in canals fed by rivers had tapered off, and wells became the principal source of irrigation, helped by a shortsighted government policy of free electricity to pump water.

Here in Punjab, more than three-fourths of the districts extract more groundwater than is replenished by nature.

Between 1980 and 2002, the government continued to heavily subsidize fertilizers and food grains for the poor, but reduced its total investment in agriculture. Public spending on farming shrank by roughly a third, according to an analysis of government data by the Center for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi.

Today only 40 percent of Indian farms are irrigated. “When there is no water, there is nothing,” Mr. Chawla said.

And he sees more trouble on the way. The summers are hotter than he remembers. The rains are more fickle. Last summer, he wanted to ease out of growing rice, a water-intensive crop.

The gains of the Green Revolution have begun to ebb in other countries, too, like Indonesia and the Philippines, agriculture experts say. But the implications in India are greater because of its sheer size.

India raised a red flag two years ago about how heavily the appetites of its 1.1 billion people would weigh on world food prices. For the first time in many years, India had to import wheat for its grain stockpile. In two years it bought about 7 million tons.

Today, two staples of the Indian diet are imported in ever-increasing quantities because farmers cannot keep up with growing demand — pulses, like lentils and peas, and vegetable oils, the main sources of protein and calories, respectively, for most Indians.

“India could be a big actor in supplying food to the rest of the world if the existing agricultural productivity gap could be closed,” said Adolfo Brizzi, manager of the South Asia agriculture program at the World Bank in Washington. “When it goes to the market to import, it typically puts pressure on international market prices, and every time India goes for export, it increases the supply and therefore mitigates the price levels.”

In April, in a village called Udhopur, not far from here, Harmail Singh, 60, wondered aloud how farmers could possibly be expected to grow more grain.

“The cultivable land is shrinking and government policies are not farmer friendly,” he said as he supervised his wheat harvest. “Our next generation is not willing to work in agriculture. They say it is a losing proposition.”

The luckiest farmers make more money selling out to land-hungry mall developers.

Gurmeet Singh Bassi, 33, blessed with a farm on the edges of a booming Punjabi city called Ludhiana, sold off most of his ancestral land. Its value had grown more than fivefold in two years. He made enough to buy land in a more remote part of the state and hire laborers to till it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chawla’s neighbors migrated to North America. They were happy to lease their land to him, if he was foolish enough to stay and work it, he said. Today, he cultivates more than 100 acres.

Last year, on a small patch of that land, he planted what no one in his village could imagine putting on their plate: baby corn, which he learned was being lapped up by upscale urban Indian restaurants and even sold abroad.

At the time, baby corn brought a better profit than the government’s price for his wheat crop.

This had been the Green Revolution’s other pillar — a fixed government price for grain. A farmer could sell his crop to a private trader, but for many small tillers, it was far easier to approach the nearest government granary, and accept their rate.

For years, those prices remained miserably low, farmers and their advocates complained, and there was little incentive for farmers to invest in their crop. “For farmers,” said Mr. Swaminathan, the plant geneticist, “a remunerative price is the best fertilizer.”

Mr. Swaminathan’s adage proved true this year. After two years of having to import wheat, the government offered farmers a substantially higher price for their grain: farmers not only planted slightly more wheat but also sold much more of their harvest to the state. As a result, by May, the country’s buffer stocks were at record levels.

Nanda Kumar, India’s most senior bureaucrat for food, said the country would not need to buy wheat on the world market this year. That is good news, for India and the world, but how long it will remain the case is unclear.

Will greater demand for food and higher market prices enrich farmers, eventually, encouraging them to stay on their land? There is potential, but other conditions, like India’s inefficient transportation and supply chains, would have to improve too.

How to address these challenges is a matter of debate.

From one quarter comes pressure to introduce genetically modified crops with greater yields; from another come lawsuits to stop it. And from yet another come pleas to mount a greener Green Revolution.

Alexander Evans, author of a recent paper on food prices published by Chatham House, a British research institution, said: “This time around, it needs to be more efficient in its use of water, in its use of energy, in its use of fertilizer and land.”

Mr. Swaminathan wants to dedicate villages to sowing lentils and oilseeds, to meet demand. The World Bank, meanwhile, favors high-value crops, like Mr. Chawla’s baby corn, because they allow farmers to maximize their income from small holdings.

The market may yet help India. Mr. Chawla, for instance, has replaced baby corn with sunflowers, prompted by the high price of sunflower oil. For the same reason, he is also considering planting more wheat.

20 June 2008

US should avoid making Osama a martyr: Obama

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama says if Osama bin Laden is captured alive, the United States should bring him to justice but in a way that avoids turning the al Qaeda leader into a martyr.

After meeting with a team of top foreign policy advisers including some seasoned diplomats he has newly recruited, Obama hit back at efforts by his Republican rival John McCain to paint him as weak on fighting terrorism.

McCain allies, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have accused Obama of having a "pre-9/11 mindset" that focuses on law enforcement in fighting the war on terror.

But Obama linked McCain's national security approach to that of President George W Bush, calling it "disastrous" and citing the failure to capture bin Laden as evidence of the failure.

"The record shows that George Bush and John McCain have been weak on terrorism," Obama told reporters. "Their approach has failed. Because of their policies, we are less safe, less respected, and less able to lead the world."

Asked by a reporter how he would proceed if bin Laden were caught during his presidency, Obama said "we may not be able to capture him alive."

"It does not make sense for me to speculate in terms of what the best approach would be in trying him and bringing him to justice," Obama said.

"I think what would be important would be for us to deal with him in a way that allows the entire world to understand the murderous acts that he's engaged in and not to make him into a martyr," he added. "And to assure that the United States government is abiding by basic conventions that would strengthen our hand in the broader battle against terrorism."

Obama, who has sharply criticized the use of the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba to hold suspected terrorists, talked of the Nuremberg trials set up after World War II to prosecute Nazi war criminals as an example of how justice could be administered in keeping with a "universal set of principles."

In a series of exchanges reminiscent of the 2004 campaign, McCain's advisers have pounced on Obama for saying terrorism suspects could be treated as criminals "within the constraints of the Constitution."


In an ABC News interview on Monday night, the Illinois senator contrasted the indefinite detention of Guantanamo Bay detainees with the criminal prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.

Giuliani and other McCain allies countered that the fight against terrorism was mishandled prior to September 11.

"The approach that was taken before September 11 of 2001, which I have said many, many times, I believe was a critical mistake -- much more easily recognized in retrospect than at the time, was to not deal with terrorism realistically," Guiliani told reporters in a conference call.

He said that approach amounted to dealing with terrorism "as a defensive matter."

"When the 1993 attack took place at the World Trade Center the response to it was a criminal prosecution but nothing beyond that," he said.

Obama, in response, has accused the McCain campaign of using the September 11 attacks as a "political bludgeon" and said it was an effort to distract from the failed policy of pursuing the Iraq war, which the Democratic candidate said had made America less safe by shifting resources away from the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, fight the Taliban and pursue al Qaeda militants. He noted bin Laden still has not been caught.

"I refuse to be lectured on national security by people who are responsible for the most disastrous set of foreign policy decisions in the recent history of the United States," Obama said.

"The people who were responsible for murdering 3,000 Americans on 9/11 have not been brought to justice," he said. "They are Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and their sponsors -- the Taliban."

Obama spoke about security after meeting with a newly configured panel on national security that includes several seasoned hands from the administration of former President Bill Clinton, including former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher.

The panel also includes members of Obama's existing inner circle, such as Susan Rice, one of his top foreign policy advisers, and former national security adviser Anthony Lake. Some of these advisers could fill Cabinet posts or other senior jobs if Obama becomes president.

18 June 2008

Biometric passports from next year: Pranab

Biometric passports from next year: Pranab

Express news serviceWed, Jun 18 02:48 AM

The Government will launch electronic passports and simplify their issuance procedure from next year, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said on Tuesday. He was inaugurating the first passport office of Uttarakhand here along with Chief Minister B C Khanduri.

E-passports will carry the prescribed biological features and facial imprints of a holder and will be at par with international standards. Mukherjee said the Government plans to make use of service providers for the issuing of passports, adding that 68 centres have already been set up across India. "The process of selection of the service providers is in its final stage. The police verification will also be expedited through electronic devices," he added.

The Passport Seva Project is expected to be completed in 19 months. Under this project, passports will be issued within three days and those applying for a Tatkal passport will get it within a day of submission of forms.

17 June 2008

'Super-Earths' spotted in distant solar systems

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - European researchers said on Monday they discovered a batch of three "super-Earths" orbiting a nearby star, and two other solar systems with small planets as well.

They said their findings, presented at a conference in France, suggest that Earth-like planets may be very common.

"Does every single star harbor planets and, if yes, how many?" asked Michel Mayor of Switzerland's Geneva Observatory. "We may not yet know the answer but we are making huge progress towards it," Mayor said in a statement.

The trio of planets orbit a star slightly less massive than our Sun, 42 light-years away towards the southern Doradus and Pictor constellations. A light-year is the distance light can travel in one year at a speed of 186,000 miles a second, or about 6 trillion miles.

The planets are bigger than Earth -- one is 4.2 times the mass, one is 6.7 times and the third is 9.4 times.

They orbit their star at extremely rapid speeds -- one whizzing around in just four days, compared with Earth's 365 days, one taking 10 days and the slowest taking 20 days.

Mayor and colleagues used the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher or HARPS, a telescope at La Silla observatory in Chile, to find the planets.

More than 270 so-called exoplanets have been found. Most are giants, resembling Jupiter or Saturn. Smaller planets closer to the size of Earth are far more difficult to spot.

None can be imaged directly at such distances but can be spotted indirectly using radio waves or, in the case of HARPS, spectrographic measurements. As a planet orbits, it makes the star wobble very slightly and this can be measured.

"With the advent of much more precise instruments such as the HARPS spectrograph ... we can now discover smaller planets, with masses between 2 and 10 times the Earth's mass," said Stephane Udry, who also worked on the study.

The team also said they found a planet 7.5 times the mass of Earth orbiting the star HD 181433 in 9.5 days. This star also has a Jupiter-like planet that orbits every three years.

Another solar system has a planet 22 times the mass of Earth, orbiting every four days, and a Saturn-like planet with a 3-year period.

"Clearly these planets are only the tip of the iceberg," said Mayor.

"The analysis of all the stars studied with HARPS shows that about one third of all solar-like stars have either super-Earth or Neptune-like planets with orbital periods shorter than 50 days."

(Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by John O'Callaghan)

02 June 2008

Winning Again, Clinton Weighs Her Options

Winning Again, Clinton Weighs Her Options

WASHINGTON — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton won another overwhelming victory over Senator Barack Obama on Sunday — this time in Puerto Rico — even as many Democrats, including some of her supporters, suggested it would be best if she dropped her threat to battle on past the end of the primary voting on Tuesday.

“There’s nobody taking Hillary’s side but Hillary people,” said Donald Fowler of South Carolina, a former national party chairman and one of Mrs. Clinton’s most prominent supporters, referring to her campaign’s suggestions that she might seek to challenge the way the party resolved the fight this weekend over seating the Michigan and Florida delegations. “It’s too bad. She deserves better than this.”

In a telephone interview Sunday from San Juan, P.R., Mrs. Clinton still raised the possibility that she would challenge the party’s decision on seating those delegates. “Well, we are going to look at that and make a determination at some point,” she said. “But I haven’t made any decision at this time.”

Heading toward what is shaping up as something less than a triumphant moment of victory as the voting draws to a close, Mr. Obama spent Sunday in South Dakota for a last-minute schedule of campaigning. He was in the state, which will vote along with Montana on Tuesday to complete the primary season, trying to thwart a last-minute effort by Mrs. Clinton to pull out a victory there and build her case that she would be the stronger candidate in the general election.

Still, Mr. Obama showed little doubt that he considered the primary phase of his march to the White House over. His stop in Mitchell, a town of 15,500 where he drew more than 2,200, was to be his last campaign stop in a primary state. From there, he headed to Michigan and Minnesota.

Mr. Obama himself remarked on the moment, calling the rally in Mitchell “a good way to end my campaign in the primary phase,” and dusting off an old campaign story that had been part of his repertory in New Hampshire and Iowa and was the genesis of his “Fired Up: Ready to Go” campaign call-and-response. And Mr. Obama told voters that he had called Mrs. Clinton to congratulate her on her victory in Puerto Rico and said that she would be a “great asset” in the fall. The dimensions of Mrs. Clinton’s challenge were underlined as two more superdelegates signed on to Mr. Obama.

Mrs. Clinton won by 2 to 1 in Puerto Rico, where she seemed to revel in a weekend of campaigning even as her surrogates fought in Washington to keep her campaign alive.

The victory — coming among Hispanic voters, who are a key constituency in the fall election — underscored a constant source of frustration among Mrs. Clinton and her supporters: that her strong finish over the past months, with big victories among blue-collar voters, have shown no signs of pushing uncommitted superdelegates into her camp.

“Most Clinton supporters are filled with bewilderment that this is happening,” said Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania. “We are willing to go on, and we understand the inevitability of this, but we are filled with disappointment and amazement: Why haven’t these results caused the superdelegates to come around?”

Mrs. Clinton, in the interview, in a new television advertisement and in her victory speech in San Juan, laid out why superdelegates should rally around her. She argued that by the time the final vote is counted, she will have more popular votes than Mr. Obama, an assertion that has been disputed.

“I think it will be most likely the case in a few days,” Mrs. Clinton said from San Juan. “I will have won the most votes — more than anyone in the history of the primary process.”

She added: “Senator Obama has a narrow lead in delegates. And we’re going to have to make our case to the automatic so-called superdelegates. And I think my case is clear — more than 17 million people voted for me.

“In recent primary history, we have never nominated someone who has not won the popular vote.”

Mrs. Clinton’s count includes Michigan, where Mr. Obama’s name was not on the ballot, and it does not include some caucus states won by Mr. Obama and where the popular vote was not reported. Mr. Obama’s campaign gently pushed back at her assertions that she had won the popular vote.

“Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have gotten more votes than any presidential campaign in primary history,” said Bill Burton, Mr. Obama’s spokesman. “We are, however, ahead in the popular vote now and suspect will be ahead when all of the votes are counted Tuesday. That’s not taking anything away from what she’s accomplished. It’s just a fact.”

In the interview, Mrs. Clinton resisted the push of some Democratic leaders — among them, Howard Dean, the party chairman, and Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker — for superdelegates to quickly chose sides as soon as the voting is over Tuesday. “I know that people are hopeful that we get a nominee, and we will,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s as important to do it fast as it is to do it well.”

Mrs. Clinton stopped short of going as far as one of her chief lieutenants, Harold Ickes, did on Saturday night when he threatened to appeal the party’s decision over the seating of the Florida and Michigan delegates to the party’s credentials committee, which will meet before the convention in August. The two states held their primaries early, in defiance of party rules; after initially unseating the delegations, the party on Saturday agreed to seat the delegates but cut their voting power in half.

In the process, it awarded Mr. Obama a share of the Michigan vote, based on the number of uncommitted votes counted, even though his name did not appear on the ballot, and it took four Michigan delegates away from Mrs. Clinton.

Yet in a sign of the difficulties she would face if she chooses to appeal, some of her strongest supporters said in interviews that they thought it would be a mistake to keep the fight going, noting, for example, that the battle was really over the four delegates her campaign argued were improperly taken from her in Michigan.

“Unless something happens that I don’t expect to happen in the next, say, by the end of June, my answer to that is not only no but, hell no,” Mr. Fowler, the former party chairman, said. “What good does it do? What good does it do anybody?” Mr. Rendell said that if the nominating contest were closer, it might make sense to take the fight to the convention. “I think it’s outrageous they took four delegates away from her,” he said. “But I think with 170 delegates separating them, it’s not worth making the case.”

And there were signs that continuing the fight, should Mr. Obama collect enough superdelegates to declare victory this week, could alienate many Democratic leaders who have stepped back as the fight went on.

Art Torres, the California Democratic chairman who has not endorsed a candidate in the race, said it was urgent for the party to avoid divisive battles. “Everyone is paying respects to her — as we would for Obama if he were in a similar situation,” Mr. Torres said. “But it now becomes a matter of commitment to the nation and the party. We cannot allow this election to slip through our fingers.”

A practical effect of the rules committee decision was that Mr. Obama had to win over about 30 new superdelegates to meet the revised political calculation. With the tally of uncommitted superdelegates dwindling to fewer than 150, Mr. Obama and his supporters reached out Sunday to those party officials.

“Now is a natural time for them to make decisions,” David Plouffe, the manager of the Obama campaign, said. “We’d like them to come out publicly as soon as we can get them.”

It remained unclear, Mr. Plouffe said, if Mr. Obama could secure enough of the endorsements before Tuesday evening. If not, Mr. Obama’s advisers — as well as Mrs. Clinton’s — still think it is likely that he will pass the threshold and be able to claim the nomination this week.

Mrs. Clinton demurred when asked what she would do if that happened. “I just don’t think about it,” she said. “I’m just committed to making my case.”

“I’ve been closing very strongly since Feb. 20,” she said, referring to the day after Mr. Obama won Hawaii and Wisconsin. “I have won more votes and won more states than Senator Obama. All the independent analyses break in my direction. A lot of the key states that we have to win, I win those states.”

Mark Leibovich contributed reporting from San Juan, P.R., and Jeff Zeleny from Washington.