Articles on this Page
- 12/11/14--03:29: _The US Navy Success...
- 12/11/14--07:56: _Scientists Create I...
- 12/12/14--00:30: _France Is 'Sliding ...
- 12/13/14--08:34: _Richard Branson Qui...
- 12/13/14--13:39: _JK Rowling Says Thi...
- 12/13/14--14:17: _The Man Arrested Fo...
- 12/14/14--14:24: _Here's What Will Ha...
- 12/18/14--04:56: _Ancient Egyptian Bu...
- 12/19/14--03:26: _Tim Cook Speaks Out...
- 12/19/14--04:27: _A New York Lawyer P...
- 12/20/14--12:29: _This Man Is In Char...
- 12/21/14--07:53: _Old Cuban Exiles In...
- 12/21/14--10:04: _A Currency Trader A...
- 12/23/14--03:54: _'The Interview' Is ...
- 12/23/14--04:29: _Russia Sold A Bunch...
- 12/24/14--04:55: _Chinese Forgers Are...
- 12/24/14--15:45: _Extremists Are Floc...
- 12/24/14--16:39: _Demand For Christma...
- 12/27/14--14:04: _The Secret Dead Of ...
- 12/30/14--05:03: _A North Korean Stud...
- 12/12/14--00:30: France Is 'Sliding Into A Deflationary Vortex'
- 12/14/14--14:24: Here's What Will Happen If Russia's Economy Keeps Tanking
- 12/18/14--04:56: Ancient Egyptian Burial Site May Contain 1 Million Bodies
- 12/21/14--07:53: Old Cuban Exiles In The US Are Filled With Rage
- 12/23/14--04:29: Russia Sold A Bunch Of Foreign Cash Reserves To Boost The Ruble
- 12/24/14--04:55: Chinese Forgers Are Perfecting The Art Of Fake Coins
- 12/24/14--15:45: Extremists Are Flocking To The 'Dark Web'
- 12/24/14--16:39: Demand For Christmas Wreaths Has Triggered A Crime Wave In Maine
- 12/27/14--14:04: The Secret Dead Of Russia's Undeclared War
The 30 kilowatt Laser Weapon System (LaWS) was installed aboard USS Ponce this summer as part of a $40 million research and development project.
The video, released by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), shows the LaWS system detonating a rocket propelled grenade and burning out the engine of a rigid hull inflatable boat.
This is what the laser system operator views when selecting the target:
In addition to its offensive power, the LaWS can work as a surveillance tool due to its powerful optics that can detect objects at “tactically significant ranges”, said ONR spokesman Matthew Klunder.
The Navy plans to keep LaWS onboard Ponce for a year and is examining deployments on other ships.
ONR’s next step for laser weapons will be a 100 to 150 kilowatt version it plans to test in 2016 or 2017.
Here is the video from the training:
The cells from a human foetus have been injected into baby mice to create animals which have brains that are half human.
Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical said it was like ‘ramping up the power’ of the mouse brain, because human cells are so much more advanced.
They found that mice with the human brain cells had memories that were four times better than their siblings who did not have the injections.
“We can say they were significantly smarter than control mice,” said lead researcher Professor Steve Goldman told New Scientist magazine.
“These were whopping effects.”
The goal was not to create a new species of ‘supermouse’ but rather to make the brains of mice more humanlike so that scientists can advance their understanding of brain disease.
The team created the hybrid mice by injecting ‘glial’ cells from donated human foetuses – left over from IVF – into mouse pups.
Glial cells provide support and protection for neurons and develop into astrocytes, star-shaped cells with long tendrils. Astrocytes are vital for thought processes because they help co-ordinate the transmission of electrical impulses between neurons.
Human astrocytes are 20 times the size of those in mice and have 100 times the number of tendrils.
Scientists found that within a year of the injections the human cells had taken over with the mouse cells ‘fleeing to the margins.’
“It’s like ramping up the power of your computer,” added Prof Goldman.
Although Professor Goldman said that the cells did not make the mice ‘more human’ he admitted that the team had stopped short at injecting the cells into monkeys.
“We briefly considered it buy decided not to because of all the potential ethical issues,” added Prof Goldman.
Other experts said it was astonishing that such a huge effect could be seen with just a simple injection of human cells.
“That the cells work at all in a different species is amazing and poses the question of which properties are being driven by the cell itself and which is by the new environment,” said Prof Wolfgang Enard, of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
But he added: “If you make animals more human-like where do you stop?”
France is sliding into a deflationary vortex as manufacturers slash prices to keep market share, intensifying pressure on the European Central Bank to take drastic action before it is too late.
The French statistics agency INSEE said core inflation fell to -0.2pc in November from a year earlier, the first time it has turned negative since modern data began.
The measure strips out energy costs and is designed to “observe deeper trends” in the economy. The price goes far beyond falling oil costs and is the clearest evidence to date that the eurozone’s second biggest economy is succumbing to powerful deflationary forces.
Headline inflation is still 0.3pc but is expected to plummet over the next three months. French broker Natixis said all key measures were likely to be negative by early next year.
Eurostat data show prices have fallen since April in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Greece and the Baltic states, as well as in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria outside the EMU bloc. Marchel Alexandrovich, from Jefferies, said the number of goods in the eurozone’s price basket now falling has reached a record 34pc.
“Eurozone deflation is now inevitable. There is no way around it,” said Andrew Roberts, at RBS. “We think yields on German 10-year Bunds will fall to 0.42pc next year.”
“The ECB is presiding over a deflationary disaster. They need to act fast and aggressively or else markets will start to attack Italian debt. Italy’s nominal GDP is falling faster than their borrowing costs and that is pushing them towards a debt spiral,” he added.
The Bank of Italy’s governor, Ignazio Visco, said any further falls in prices at this stage could have “extremely grave consequences for economies with very high public debt levels, such as Italy”.
The trade-weighted exchange rate of the euro has risen by 2pc over the past two months as the rouble plummets and currencies buckle across the emerging market nexus, despite the ECB's efforts to talk it down. This is a form of monetary tightening.
The German-led hawks at the ECB are running out of excuses for opposing quantitative easing after demand for the ECB’s second auction of cheap four-year loans (TLTROs) fell short of expectations. “The TLTRO is a peashooter rather than a bazooka,” said Nick Kounis, at ABN Amro.
Lenders took up just €129.8bn of fresh credit, far less than €270bn of old loans due to be repaid. This means that the ECB’s balance will continue to contract – rather than expanding by €1 trillion as intended - unless it embraces full-blown QE. Alasdair Cavalla, at the Centre for Economics and Business Research, said QE was “all but inevitable” at this stage.
Mario Draghi, the ECB’s president, vowed to pull out all the stops to head off deflation. “Let me be absolutely clear. We won’t tolerate prolonged deviation from price stability,” he said last week.
Yet the ECB council continues to insist that it will expand its asset purchases only “if needed”, without explaining what the threshold is. Critics say it should already be obvious that full QE is needed immediately.
Mr Draghi faces stiff opposition from Germany’s members, Jens Weidmann and Sabine Lautenschlager. He has to navigate a legal minefield involving one case at the European Court, and another likely case at Germany’s top court against any QE.
Yet the hawks are becoming isolated. Their suggestions that QE will not work because rates are already low are hard to square with orthodox monetary theory. “The interest rate is totally irrelevant. What matters is the quantity of money,” said Tim Congdon, at International Monetary Research. “Large scale money creation is a very powerful weapon and can always create inflation.”
The tide is clearly moving in favour of sovereign bond purchases. Several ECB governors have given hints of strong action over recent days. Peter Praet, the ECB’s chief economist, suggested this week that the latest oil price shock is a further reason for stimulus.
“Normally, any central bank would prefer to look through a positive supply shock. After all, lower oil prices boost real incomes. But we may not have that luxury at present. Shocks can change: in certain circumstances supply shocks can morph into demand shocks via second-round effects,” he said
France’s price slide is comes at a delicate juncture - as many firms have been going bankrupt over recent months as occurred during the Lehman crisis. The jobless rate has remained stuck at 10.4pc with a record 3.4m workers in “category A” unemployment. This spells political disaster for President Francois Holland, who asked voters to judge him on creating jobs.
The biggest price falls in France were in photographic, audio and information equipment (-7.3pc), medical goods (-3pc), household appliances (-2.5pc) and toys (-2.2pc). Even services fell slightly. “The struggle against deflation must be our absolute priority; at a national and a European level,” said Karine Berger, a French economist and Socialist MP.
Mathieu Plane, at the French Observatoire, said a “dangerous dynamic” is setting in where high unemployment is sapping demand, causing companies to cut prices to hold on to market share. This in turn leads to further pay cuts in a vicious cycle. It is exactly what happened in Japan.
Sir Richard Branson has quietly shelved his latest adventure: an ambitious plan to pilot a submarine to the deepest points of the world’s five oceans.
The entrepreneur had a grand scheme to explore both space and sea. But his plan for the first rocket ship charging passengers for trips to the edge of space is in jeopardy after the craft crashed during a test flight, killing a pilot.
Now Sir Richard’s dream of exploring the lowest points on Earth is also on hold.
Virgin Oceanic’s DeepFlight Challenger submarine was unveiled in a blaze of publicity in April 2011, with Sir Richard describing its mission as “the last great challenge for humans”.
He had hoped the 18ft-long submarine, designed to “fly” along the ocean floor, would make its maiden voyage to the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench – at a depth of 36,000ft, the lowest known point on Earth – by the end of 2011, or failing that, by 2012.
It would then move on to the Puerto Rico trench at 28,000ft in the Atlantic, followed by dives in the Arctic, Indian and Southern oceans. The plan was for alternating pilots in the single-seater craft, with Chris Welsh, a sailor and explorer, taking the first dive and Sir Richard the second.
Three years on, the DeepFlight Challenger has been mothballed, never having reached the bottom of any of the oceans. The Virgin Oceanic website – which had promised “five dives, five oceans, two years, one epic adventure” – no longer exists, apparently taken down earlier this year.
Virgin Oceanic had planned to charge a future generation of “aquanauts” up to $500,000, according to one source, to pilot submarines to the ocean floor.
But the company that built DeepFlight Challenger has told The Telegraph it refused to back the project, insisting the submarine was suitable for only one dive and could not be reused because of the pressure on its structure at such depths.
In a little-noticed statement three months ago on the Virgin group website, Sir Richard alluded to the project being scrapped but stopped short of admitting defeat. He said: “Starting new ventures takes a 'screw it, let’s do it’ attitude and finding the right partners to help us achieve the unthinkable… However, business is also about knowing when to change tack.
“We are still highly passionate about exploring the bottom of the ocean. However, we are now widening the focus of the project and looking for new technology to help us explore the ocean and democratise access at reduced cost and increased safety.”
Last week, Virgin confirmed the original plan for five ocean dives using DeepFlight Challenger had been scrapped. A spokesman said there were concerns about making the dives safely, adding: “We were not sure it [DeepFlight Challenger] would make it down. That project has been put on ice while we look at other technology that works.”
The spokesman said Sir Richard still had ambitions to explore the ocean trenches, but there was no rush. “The name [Virgin Oceanic] remains our name, so no doubt we will revive it.”
DeepFlight Challenger was the invention of Steve Fossett, the multi-millionaire adventurer, who commissioned its construction in 2005. He planned to pilot the submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in a one-off trip, then donate the craft to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
But in tests simulating the pressure at 38,000ft below the sea, the vessel’s domed glass cockpit showed signs of cracking, meaning that a replacement would need to be made from stronger material. That appears to be as far as the DeepFlight Challenger ever got.
When Fossett, a close friend of Sir Richard, died in a plane crash in 2007, the ownership of the submarine passed to his estate.
Four years later, Mr Welsh, who is also a Californian property magnate, bought the craft and a huge catamaran from which to launch it from Fossett’s estate for less than $1 million. He approached Sir Richard for further investment and the pair set up Virgin Oceanic in 2011.
At the company’s launch in California, Sir Richard admitted the dives might be dangerous but appeared aware of future commercial possibilities, saying: “We believe there are thousands of people who’d like to explore the oceans and become aquanauts.”
But DeepFlight, the company that designed and built the submarine, said it expressed concerns about its suitability for repeated dives.
Adam Wright, the firm’s president, said last week: “The Challenger was built for a very specialised contract with Steve Fossett. It was designed for one dive down to the Mariana Trench. The idea was to set the record for the deepest dive and then give it to the Smithsonian to put on display.
“Once Virgin took over the project, the importance of the one-off record dive shifted and they wanted to repurpose the craft. They wanted to do five dives. The problem is the strength of the vessel does decrease after each dive. It is strongest on the first dive.”
Mr Wright said DeepFlight had talks with Virgin about providing a consulting and engineering service, but pulled out. “As soon as we heard about the five dives and that they wanted to repurpose it [the submarine] and sell tickets, we didn’t want to be associated with that.
"They were trying to sell tickets; they wanted to charge half a million dollars. We were extremely concerned about it… We didn’t want the liability of being the manufacturer of that vessel.
“Had the focus of the project been maintained to the initial purpose, it would have been totally different. The problem was not the technology or the lack of knowhow.”
DeepFlight was beaten to the record dive by another submarine, piloted by James Cameron, the Oscar-winning film director, who took his submersible on a solo voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2012.
Although JK Rowling's Harry Potter series is adored by children worldwide, the novels are not without their unjust and tragic plot lines as characters die from the effects of dark magic.
However, in a new short essay uploaded onto Pottermore, Rowling has revealed that she only feels guilty about writing in the death of one character: the little-known Florean Fortescue.
The character ran an ice cream parlour and meets Harry in the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when he gives the Boy Wizard free ice creams.
He is then mentioned in the sixth book, The Order of the Phoenix, when Bill Weasley, the brother of Harry's best friend Ron, explains that Florean was "dragged off" after upsetting the dangerous and draconian Death Eaters, servants of Voldemort.
On the Harry Potter publishing site, Rowling writes: "I seemed to have him kidnapped and killed for no good reason. He is not the first wizard whom Voldemort murdered because he knew too much (or too little), but he is the only one I feel guilty about, because it was all my fault."
Rowling explains that she had originally imagined Florean to help Potter in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, but his role became redundant when other characters became more helpful.
In another piece of writing, Rowling tells the humorous history of the wizarding pub, The Leaky Cauldron, which allows witches and wizards to enter the Oxford Street of the wizarding world, Diagon Alley.
The author explains that she chose to locate the tavern on Charing Cross Road because the street is famous for its bookshops: "This is why I wanted it to be the place where those in the know go to enter a different world."
The updates are part of the Pottermore Christmas experience, in which 12 new surprises and pieces of writing are being uploaded onto the site between 12th and 23rd of December.
The best-known follower of ISIS jihadists on social media has been arrested in India after being unmasked by Channel 4.
"ShamiWitness" was followed by 17,000 people on Twitter after his commentaries and insights into jihadist behaviour drew a worldwide audience.
Fluent in Arabic and English, he frequently spotted trends in jihadist discourse as well as developments in the war in Syria, and was happy to discuss them with academics, journalists and activists.
At first, they assumed he was Syrian, because of his detailed knowledge of the conflict. At that time, though anti-regime, his allegiance to militant Islam was not clear.
However, he gradually became more assertive in his support for Isil, and promoted their videos showing beheadings and other atrocities. He also gave advice to English-speaking foreign would-be jihadists on travelling to Syria to fight.
Thursday's Channel 4 News claimed to have discovered his carefully hidden true identity. The programme did not name him but said he was an Muslim worker at an Indian conglomerate in Bangalore, called Mehdi.
His Twitter account was closed shortly after, and on Saturday morning Indian police said they had arrested a man called Mehdi Masroor Biswas, 24.
Whether he will be charged with a crime is another matter. He said he was not a member of Isil, and had committed no crimes by promoting the group, which is not banned in India.
Bangalore police said they had no evidence he had any direct links to militants outside the "virtual world", or that he had recruited Indians to fight.
"ShamiWitness" wrote in stylish, often slang British English, but despite previous suggestions that he was based in the United Kingdom police said he appeared never to have travelled outside India.
Oil arguably brought an end to the old Soviet Union and once again the price of crude is proving to be a curse for the Kremlin.
The precipitous drop in oil prices recently has left Vladimir Putin’s Russia on the edge of economic ruin. The Kremlin has warned of a severe slowdown next year, with the economy entering a technical recession in the first quarter.
The year started badly for Russia after the Ukraine crisis boiled over and triggered capital flight and tough economic sanctions.
Now a collapse in oil prices – down 45% since June – has become primary cause of Russian pain. “This just looks ugly, period,” said Jonathan Anderson, of Emerging Advisors, in a recent note to clients.
Jacob Nell, of Morgan Stanley, said: “Since oil and gas account for 67% of Russia’s exports and 50% of federal budget revenues, oil prices drive the country’s economic cycle.”
The country was recently thought to be losing around $40bn [£25bn] per year due to sanctions and up to $100bn per year due to oil prices, according to the finance minister .
Russia’s rouble has also slumped, hitting many Russian consumers by pushing up inflation at a time when any hopes for growth are distant.
Some wealthier Russians have found ways to get around a combination of a tumbling currency and rising inflation, which the country’s central bank believes will reach 10% by the end of the year.
While overall car sales fell by 1.1% in November compared with the same month last year, demand for luxury vehicles rocketed, according to Association of European Businesses figures.
Sales of Porsche and Lexus cars rose by 55% and 63% respectively, as elites made bets on the automobiles as a way to maintain their wealth.
For others, the economy has become a joke, as much of Russia’s middle class has refused to lose its sense of humour – despite being unable to maintain a basic standard of living.
A gag website has been set up to display a dashboard of economic data - the rouble’s strength against the dollar and euro, and the price of oil - against a choice of soothing backdrops, accompanied with tranquil music.
Visitors are encouraged to “meditate indefinitely” in the hopes that their predicament will pass. The website's developer told one outlet that the page attracted more than 1.2 million visitors in its first week.
The sanctions crippling Russia are expected to persist, and possibly intensify, unless the political situation in Ukraine is resolved.
When the first rounds of sanctions were discussed, oil prices stood at around $110 per barrel. The high cost of energy gave European countries little room to manoeuvre, as strong measures against Russia could have provoked the Kremlin into turning off supplies.
In recent days, however, oil has traded closer to $60, and a fall to as low as $50 would lead the rouble lower still.
Under such a scenario, Morgan Stanley estimates that inflation would increase by six to eight percentage points. Russia’s GDP would contract at an annual rate of 6% – a harsh slowdown following on from years of near stagnation.
The Russian deficit may rise by five percentage points of GDP, but the prospect of a default remains remote.
Key corporates may be more vulnerable. The spread between financials and sovereign debt widened to record highs last week, suggesting that investors believe they are at greater risk of failing.
Economy watchers are now worried about what comes next.
Last week, Russia’s central bank raised its rates by another percentage point – to 10.5% – in an attempt to stem outflows. Yet it appears to lack an arsenal capable of dealing with both soaring inflation and plunging growth.
Mr Putin has already promised to take “harsh” measures to fight currency traders, who he holds responsible for the rouble’s decline.
Speaking from the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, he said: “The authorities know who these speculators are and the instruments we can use to influence them… the time has come to use these instruments”.
At the same time, he unveiled a tax amnesty on repatriation of capital, and a four-year freeze on corporate tax rates. Analysts do not expect either measure to have much of an impact.
To some, capital controls now seem an inevitable next step to try to halt outflows, which the Bank of Russia expects to hit $128bn this year, and $120bn in 2015.
Lars Christensen, of Danske Bank, said: "The central bank seems to be against such controls at the moment, but there are Kremlin advisors who are known to favour such draconian actions".
Once implemented, such controls can be hard to unwind – Iceland, for instance, has been unable to lift the ones it introduced during the financial crisis.
If Mr Putin’s hand is eventually forced in that direction, it will be a move of last resort.
Around 1,700 bodies have so far been uncovered at the Fag el-Gamous (Way of the Water Buffalo) site, around 60 miles south of Cairo. But experts believe that countless more are contained in the burial ground.
“We are fairly certain we have over a million burials within this cemetery. It's large, and it's dense," said project director Kerry Muhlestein, an associate professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University (BYU), which has been examining the site for around 30 years.
They were placed there between the 1st and the 7th centuries AD, but the scale of the site has left many baffled.
A nearby village has been deemed too small to warrant such a large cemetery, while the closest major settlements had their own burial grounds.
"It's hard to know where all these people were coming from," Professor Muhlestein told Live Science.
Another interesting find was that the corpses appeared to be grouped together by hair colour, with one section containing the remains of those with blonde hair and another for those with red hair.
The bodies, which included a man of more than seven feet in height, are thought to be of ordinary citizens, rather than the royalty found at many famous Egyptian sites. They were not buried in coffins, according to Muhlestein, and were in fact mummified not by design but by the arid natural environment.
“The burials are not in tombs, but rather in a field of sand,” he told RT.com
“The people in the cemetery represent the common man. They are the average people who are usually hard to learn about because they are not very visible in written sources. A lot of their wealth, or the little that they had, was poured into these burials."
His team discovered objects including glassware, jewellery and linen. The findings were presented to the Scholars Colloquim at the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities in Toronto last month.
Tim Cook is "deeply offended" by the BBC's allegations that Apple mistreats workers in its Chinese factories where the company's iPhones and iPads are assembled.
The BBC's "Panorama" program sent undercover reporters to Pegatron factories on the outskirts of Shanghai, where it says it has uncovered poor treatment of workers and a breach of standards on workers' hours.
In an email to about 5,000 staff members across the UK, Apple senior vice president of operations Jeff Williams said both he and the chief executive were "deeply offended by the suggestion that Apple would break a promise to the workers in our supply chain or mislead our customers in any way.
"Panorama's report implied that Apple isn't improving working conditions," he continued. "Let me tell you: nothing could be further from the truth."
Williams said Apple had shared "facts and perspective" on the company's commitments to human rights with the BBC in advance but that they were "clearly missing from their program."
The BBC report alleged that workers fell asleep during 12-hour shifts on the iPhone 6 production line and were made to work 18 days in a row after repeatedly being denied requests for a day off.
Williams countered that Apple had tracked the weekly hours of over one million workers within its supply chain and that its suppliers had achieved an average of 93% compliance with the 60-hour workweek limit this year.
"We can still do better. And we will."
Apple employs about 1,400 manufacturing workers in China, who Williams said were "talented engineers and managers who are also compassionate people, trained to speak up when they see safety risks or mistreatment."
"We know of no other company doing as much as Apple does to ensure fair and safe working conditions, to discover and investigate problems, to fix and follow through when issues arise, and to provide transparency into the operations of our suppliers," he said.
Panorama also claimed to find children working in dangerous conditions on the Indonesian island of Bangka, where it said tin from illegal mines could be entering Apple's supply chain.
"Apple has publicly stated that tin from Indonesia ends up in our products, and some of that tin likely comes from illegal mines," Williams countered.
"Tens of thousands of artisanal miners are selling tin through many middlemen to the smelters who supply to component suppliers who sell to the world. The government is not addressing the issue, and there is widespread corruption in the undeveloped supply chain. Our team visited the same parts of Indonesia visited by the BBC, and of course we are appalled by what’s going on there.
"Apple has two choices: We could make sure all of our suppliers buy tin from smelters outside of Indonesia, which would probably be the easiest thing for us to do and would certainly shield us from criticism. But it would be the lazy and cowardly path, because it would do nothing to improve the situation for Indonesian workers or the environment since Apple consumes a tiny fraction of the tin mined there. We chose the second path, which is to stay engaged and try to drive a collective solution."
The company spearheaded the creation of an Indonesian Tin Working Group with other technology companies and was seeking to implement a system to hold tin smelters accountable, he added.
Williams, who has worked for the company since 1998, assured Apple's staff that the company was taking the allegations seriously and would investigate every claim made.
"We know there are a lot of issues out there, and our work is never done," he concluded. "We will not rest until every person in our supply chain is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve."
Pegatron said they were carefully investigating the BBC's claims and would take "all necessary actions."
Apple told the BBC it worked with suppliers to "prevent excessive overtime and that no other company is doing as much to ensure fair and safe working conditions."
Williams' letter to UK staff in full:
As you know, Apple is dedicated to the advancement of human rights and equality around the world. We are honest about the challenges we face and we work hard to make sure that people who make our products are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Last night, the BBC’s Panorama program called those values into question. Like many of you, Tim and I were deeply offended by the suggestion that Apple would break a promise to the workers in our supply chain or mislead our customers in any way.
I’d like to give you facts and perspective, all of which we shared with the BBC in advance, but were clearly missing from their program.
Panorama showed some of the shocking conditions around tin mining in Indonesia. Apple has publicly stated that tin from Indonesia ends up in our products, and some of that tin likely comes from illegal mines. Here are the facts:
Tens of thousands of artisanal miners are selling tin through many middlemen to the smelters who supply to component suppliers who sell to the world. The government is not addressing the issue, and there is widespread corruption in the undeveloped supply chain. Our team visited the same parts of Indonesia visited by the BBC, and of course we are appalled by what’s going on there.
Apple has two choices: We could make sure all of our suppliers buy tin from smelters outside of Indonesia, which would probably be the easiest thing for us to do and would certainly shield us from criticism. But it would be the lazy and cowardly path, because it would do nothing to improve the situation for Indonesian workers or the environment since Apple consumes a tiny fraction of the tin mined there. We chose the second path, which is to stay engaged and try to drive a collective solution.
We spearheaded the creation of an Indonesian Tin Working Group with other technology companies. Apple is pushing to find and implement a system that holds smelters accountable so we can influence artisanal mining in Indonesia. It could be an approach such as “bagging and tagging” legally mined material, which has been successful over time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We are looking to drive similar results in Indonesia, which is the right thing to do.
Panorama also made claims about our commitment to working conditions in our factories. We know of no other company doing as much as Apple does to ensure fair and safe working conditions, to discover and investigate problems, to fix and follow through when issues arise, and to provide transparency into the operations of our suppliers.
I want you to know that more than 1400 of your Apple coworkers are stationed in China to manage our manufacturing operations. They are in the factories constantly — talented engineers and managers who are also compassionate people, trained to speak up when they see safety risks or mistreatment. We also have a team of experts dedicated solely to driving compliance with our Supplier Code of Conduct across our vast supply chain.
In 2014 alone, our Supplier Responsibility team completed 630 comprehensive, in-person audits deep into our supply chain. These audits include face-to-face interviews with workers, away from their managers, in their native language. Sometimes critics point to the discovery of problems as evidence that the process isn’t working. The reality is that we find violations in every audit we have ever performed, no matter how sophisticated the company we're auditing. We find problems, we drive improvement, and then we raise the bar.
Panorama’s report implied that Apple isn’t improving working conditions. Let me tell you, nothing could be further from the truth. Here are just a few examples:
Several years ago, the vast majority of workers in our supply chain worked in excess of 60 hours, and 70+ hour workweeks were typical. After years of slow progress and industry excuses, Apple decided to attack the problem by tracking the weekly hours of over one million workers, driving corrective actions with our suppliers and publishing the results on our website monthly — something no other company had ever done. It takes substantial effort, and we have to weed out false reporting, but it's working. This year, our suppliers have achieved an average of 93% compliance with our 60-hour limit. We can still do better. And we will.
Our auditors were the first to identify and crack down on a ring of unscrupulous labor brokers who were holding workers’ passports and forcing them to pay exorbitant fees. To date, we have helped workers recoup $20 million in excessive payments like these.
We’ve gone far beyond auditing and corrective actions by creating educational programs for workers in the same facilities where they make our products. More than 750,000 people have taken advantage of these college-level courses and enrichment programs, and the feedback we get from students is inspiring.
I will not dive into every issue raised by Panorama in this note, but you can rest assured that we take all allegations seriously, and we investigate every claim. We know there are a lot of issues out there, and our work is never done. We will not rest until every person in our supply chain is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
If you’d like to learn more about our Supplier Responsibility program, I encourage you and our customers to visit our website at apple.com/supplier responsibility .
Thanks for your time and your support.
Abu Qatada, the radical Islamic preacher deported from Britain, was involved in secret negotiations to save the life of an American hostage later beheaded by militants from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), it has been reported.
The Guardian said Qatada, 53, and another extremist cleric were persuaded by a US lawyer to initiate talks with the jihadist group in an attempt to secure the release of Peter Kassig, a US aid worker.
The initiative was backed by counterterrorism officials at the FBI. However an official denied that the US agency offered either of the clerics immunity from possible reprisals after making contact with ISIS.
Talks held by Qatada, once branded by a judge as Al Qaeda's "spiritual ambassador" in Europe, and Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, a convicted terrorist, reportedly began in mid-October and ran for several weeks with the knowledge of the FBI. Their aim was said to have been to persuade ISIS to permanently stop taking and murdering civilian hostages.
However, Kassig, 26, was killed in November. US President Barack Obama said at the time that the killing was "an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity."
Qatada has previously denounced the beheading of hostages by ISIS, saying the militants' gruesome actions are against Islamic teachings.
His involvement in attempts to negotiate Kassig's release from captivity in Syria would not be the first time he had launched a bid for the release of a Western hostage in the Middle East. In 2005 he recorded a video message from prison calling for the release of Norman Kember, the British peace activist who was kidnapped in Iraq before being freed by multinational special forces.
Qatada's involvement in the latest initiative came weeks after he was declared a free man in Jordan after a court ruled there was "insufficient evidence" against him. He was charged with supporting the targeting of Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats in 2000 in the so-called "millennium plot."
The Guardian said the unsuccessful initiative to save Kassig was the work of a New York lawyer, Stanley Cohen, who has represented Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and members of Hamas in US courts.
Mr Cohen persuaded Qatada and al-Maqdisi to approach ISIS to help secure Kassig's release, the newspaper said. FBI staff confirmed that senior officials at its headquarters were kept abreast of his actions.
The bureau confirmed it would pay $24,000 (£15,000) of expenses incurred by Cohen, the newspaper said.
The FBI's chief spokesman Paul Bresson said: "The FBI’s top priority in international kidnapping investigations is the safe return of our citizens. Because the circumstances are different in each case, the FBI works closely with the rest of the US government to consider all viable and legally permissible options to secure their release. To preserve these options, and out of respect for their loved ones, we rarely discuss these details publicly."
The Guardian provided the Kassig family with the details of the negotiation effort before publication but said the family declined to respond.
Few oilmen attract as much interest when they visit the UK as Ashti Hawrami. As minister of natural resources for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) he is in charge of opening up one of the world’s last great onshore frontiers for major exploration.
Kurdistan - the semi-autonomous enclave of northern Iraq - excites international oil companies such as Chevron and Tony Hayward’s Genel Energy, because of its vast untapped resources and the attractive contractual terms the authorities are willing to offer to bring in vital foreign investment.
“We actually have a contractual model similar to most of the world, it’s just different from the one used in Iraq,” Mr Hawrami told The Sunday Telegraph. “Iraq has a type of oil contract that you only find in Iran and Venezuela, whereas our model is similar to that for the North Sea, for example, based on a shared risk and reward structure. For the newer projects involving exploration and for fields not yet in production, I have no doubt in my mind that the model we have is far better suited to attracting investment.”
Mr Hawrami met the UK energy minister Matthew Hancock briefly last week and sees Britain as a key partner for Kurdistan’s burgeoning oil industry. However, his close links with the UK, where he worked as an oil engineer in the North Sea in the 1970s, have also come with some controversy. In 2013 he was cited in evidence used in an insider trading case brought against the high profile City banker Ian Hannam in relation to shares Mr Hawrami bought in Heritage Oil - a client of Mr Hannam at the time. However, Mr Hawrami denied wrongdoing and the then Financial Services Authority found he had broken no rules.
In a decade, Kurdistan has gone from being a very high-risk bet to a potential powerhouse with reserves estimated at 45bn barrels and an industry close to producing 1m barrels per day (bpd) of crude in a few years.
Such is the success of Kurdistan’s efforts to lock in foreign investment that Mr Hawrami expects the federal government in Baghdad to soon follow its example and reform its own oil contract terms.
Mr Hawrami believes that Iraq’s oil ministry, unlike the KRG, doesn’t currently provide terms that allow international oil companies to significantly benefit from increasing production and efficiency and instead ties operators to fixed fee structures.
“The contracts they (Baghdad) have signed need some amendments in a positive way between the contractors and the government,” says Mr Hawrami.
Recently, KRG ended a long-running dispute with Baghdad over the sale of crude from its fields and the distribution of federal budget revenues. The legal battle had forced KRG to borrow billions of dollars to cover the shortfall in its domestic budget and delay payments to international oil operators.
But a new deal reached earlier this month will see the KRG send 250,000 bpd to Baghdad to sell, and export a further 300,000 bpd from its northern pipeline, in return for a share of the federal budget. The KRG will also be allowed to sell any additional barrels it pumps via its main export route to Ceyhan in Turkey. According to Mr Hawrami, the agreement will enable Kurdistan to reach 1m bpd of production by 2016 and raise Iraq’s overall export levels to the second highest in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), behind Saudi Arabia.
“We hope that with the right policies and the right coordination throughout the country we will get Iraq to that number two position in the shortest period of time,” says Mr Hawrami. “In the medium term, we expect to reach 1m bpd. A small amount of that we will consume but the rest will be available for export from 2015. In the longer term we do have more difficult oil, which is heavier and requires better technology, such as horizontal drilling and different pipeline structures. We’re looking at 2019 when production can be enhanced substantially above the level of 1m barrels.”
Up to this point, most of the investment in Kurdistan has gone into the search for oil, but this is soon expected to change. The agreement with the federal government will also enable Erbil to begin repaying the $7bn (£4.48bn) that it was forced to borrow to cover its own budget shortfalls during its dispute with Baghdad and catch up with payments owed to international oil companies.
“So far we have been just in the exploration phase, so the money going into finding the oil and gas is approaching $20bn now.
“Exploration is just a small part of the expense, when you find oil you have got to develop the wells, facilities and pipelines, so the expenditure increases substantially. We are now at that phase when we need infrastructure and facilities to handle the oil. More money will be needed to realise our full export potential,” says Mr Hawrami.
Of course, the big uncertainties hanging over the oil industry’s further development in Kurdistan at present are the falling price of crude on world markets and the threat posed by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil, also known as Islamic State and Isis) on the region’s borders. However, Mr Hawrami believes that the current situation with oil trading at around $60 per barrel is ultimately unsustainable and more about “politics” than the fundamental principles of supply and demand.
“Separating oil from politics is always difficult,” he says. “The oil price is not sustainable because the world has too many expensive projects and once you take them off the design stage it is difficult to come back to those schemes quickly. It will cause permanent damage to delay certain projects, in which case the oil price goes back up. It is not in anybody’s interest to play this game, but part of it is also supply and demand. But it does have some politics attached to it.”
Much of the political intrigue Mr Hawrami hints at is being played out between Saudi Arabia and its rivals, led by Iran, with Opec the cartel that controls about a third of global oil supply.
“Iraq is very concerned. We all agree that we want to see higher prices. Iraq still needs to rebuild security and its own infrastructure. For the last 20 years, or maybe longer, Iraq has never realised its full potential to sell oil on to international markets because wars, whether internal or external, have always held it back and it’s unfortunate that we might have to cut oil along with other producers who have possibly benefited through these times,” says Mr Hawrami.
Although, he argues that the oil industry generally needs to be depoliticised, he also suggests that energy can provide positive outcomes, which bring former rivals closer together.
“Politics is always associated with big economic decisions involving natural resources, which is a problem,” he says. “But it also has some positives. For example, if you look at Kurdistan’s relationship with Turkey, five years ago it was a completely different thing. We had hostility – almost threats, both ways. But when our oil was found we ended up talking and the politics was put aside and the economy took over.
“Our biggest partner in Kurdistan is now Turkey, with $10bn of trade, which is not insignificant. Now they are also helping us to fight terrorism as well as exporting our oil. If someone had said this five years ago we would not have believed it. The economic benefits for both countries overcame the prejudices.”
Earlier this year, authorities in Erbil were shaken by the dramatic rise of Isil, which captured Mosul and at one stage looked to be preparing to push deeper into Kurdistan.
They have since been checked by Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga, supported by British and US air strikes.
“We highly appreciate the role of the UK and other allies who came in with logistical support and later with training and military support,” says Mr Hawrami. “I think we need more, but it has helped us to get organised to deal with the threat of Isis [Isil]. They have been pushed back, but we still have unfinished business with respect to the threat to the rest of Iraq and the region overall. It is in everyone’s interest to beat them, otherwise they are a disease that will affect not just stability in the region but also the free world.”
Mr Hawrami also warns terrorists fighting under the banner of Isil returning to the UK and Europe.
“They are completely brainwashed and they carry with them danger, whether they come back home to Britain, or stay in the region. They need to be beaten and there needs to be security coordination and cooperation to do this.”
Miami's southwest 8th street, known locally as "Calle Ocho", is like no other street in America.
Elderly Cuban men hunch over domino tiles in Máximo Gómez Park, grunting at each other in Spanish through cigars clenched between their teeth.
Rumba music blares from the corner cafes, and on the corner of 13th Avenue is a shrine where a statue of the Virgin Mary stands a few yards from a sculpture of a soldier with a machine gun. A plaque reads in Spanish: "To the martyrs who have shed blood for the freedom of Cuba".
For more than fifty years, Miami's Little Havana neighbourhood has been the exile capital for hundreds of thousands of Cubans who fled their homeland after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
Many of the first wave arrived as near-destitute refugees, but over the decades the exiles have risen to become a potent force in American political life. Even as their wealth expanded and their children grew up as Americans, they stayed focused on one goal: toppling the communist dictator who drove them from their homes.
Such is the exiles' clout in the key swing state of Florida that American presidents of both parties have stuck rigidly to a 1960s policy of isolating Cuba economically with a trade embargo and refusing to deal with it diplomatically.
Even as the US normalised diplomatic relations with China, a far more powerful rival, and Vietnam, a country where half a million Americans died fighting communism, its policy towards Cuba remained frozen in time.
That decades-long consensus came crashing down on Wednesday morning when Barack Obama announced he was reopening the US embassy in Havana and bringing Cuba in from the cold. "Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future," he said.
The sense of anger and betrayal felt by older Cuban exiles is written across Miriam de la Peña's face.
Her firstborn son, Mario, was a volunteer pilot with Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami activist group that used to fly sorties over the 90 miles of sea separating Florida from Cuba, looking for the makeshift rafts of Cubans trying to flee to the US.
On February 24, 1996, Cuban military jets darted into international airspace and shot down two of the Brothers' Cessna aircraft, killing Mario and three other pilots.
The FBI later concluded that the Brothers had been infiltrated by "the Cuban Five", a group of Cuban spies in Miami who helped the regime's air force track and destroy Mario's aircraft.
One of the spies was convicted of conspiracy to murder and sentenced to life in a US federal prison - where he remained until Mr Obama freed him on Wednesday as part of the diplomatic deal.
"The Obama administration has trampled on the only little bit of justice we had," Mrs de la Peña told The Sunday Telegraph.
Mr Obama's decision to risk the Cuban exiles' wrath is partly a sign of an unbound second-term president, who will never face re-election and is on a streak of policy radicalism in his last two years in office.
In just the last six weeks, he has enraged Republicans by announcing a major climate deal with China, an extension of nuclear negotiations with Iran and a promise to allow millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the US.
But the White House has also calculated that the Cuban-American community is changing over time and that its younger members do no not share their parents' hardline views.
Cubans who arrived in the US more recently - and so actually lived part of their lives under the American trade embargo - are generally less supportive than those who fled in the 1960s before the isolation policies were imposed.
A poll from Florida International University this year found that for the first time, a slight majority of Cubans in Miami supported an end to the embargo. That number leapt to 62 per cent among the young.
A full 90 per cent of younger people wanted diplomatic relations restored, compared to 68 per cent of Cubans overall.
"There are differences in the generations," said Carlos Giménez, the Cuban-American mayor of Miami-Dade County. "My views are a little different from my parents and my kids' are a little different from mine." Like many others in Miami, Mr Gimenez said he believed the embargo should be lifted, but that Mr Obama had failed to extract any significant concessions from the Castro regime in return for easing US policy. Mr Obama has said he hopes for improvements on the human rights front, but this is a request rather than a demand.
"I asked the White House is there anything in writing? There appears to be a lot of 'we wish, we hope, we expect' and nothing that's ironclad," Mr Gimenez said.
Bryan Medina, a 19-year-old student, became an unwitting symbol of the generation gap when he went to an anti-Obama protest in Little Havana last week holding a sign showing the Cuban flag and the words "Goodbye embargo, Hello America".
Mr Medina is essentially apolitical and said the sign was meant to promote his band, Quantum Waves. But it provoked a furious reaction from older Cubans, some of whom tried to tear it from his hands.
"People were calling Obama an assassin and a communist," Mr Medina said. "I think they're ignorant to say those things".
Afterwards, he reflected on the incident and decided he felt that the President "basically did the right thing" by restoring ties.
While many older Cubans refuse to go back to the island, believing that tourist money helps prop up the Castro regime, Mr Medina said he would interested to visit his parents' birthplace.
As the sun went down over Little Havana on Thursday night, locals gathered for drinks outside in the still-balmy December weather.
Among them was Oscar Rivera, 78, who was sitting next to a memorial to those killed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, the disastrous Kennedy-era attempt to send CIA-trained exiles to overthrow the Castro regime.
Using the few words of English he had picked up in his 44 years in the US, he described his generation's frustration that president after president had not done more to end communism in Cuba.
"Kennedy: no good. Clinton: no good." As he reached the current occupant of the Oval Office, his scowl deepened and he waved a rolled-up newspaper in his frustration.
"Obama: no, no, no, no good."
A currency trader has vanished along with £130 million in investors’ cash in an alleged fraud that could be one of the biggest in recent British history.
Joe Lewis, 59, is being investigated by police over almost $200 million which he claimed was in clients’ accounts but now no longer exists. It is rumoured that professional footballers and golfers have lost money in his investment scheme.
In an email sent to clients a fortnight ago, Mr Lewis admitted that his company, JL Trading, had stopped operating in 2009 after suffering heavy losses on disastrous foreign exchange deals.
He confessed in the email that he had continued taking people’s money for the next five years in an attempt to turn his fortunes around, but that all those attempts had failed.
In an email sent a month earlier – in response to growing concern from investors trying to get their money out – he claimed that his company was having “a stressful time” releasing $197 million (£126 million) from American brokers because of US red tape.
Whatever the truth, the reality for investors – many of them British – is that they have each lost a small fortune. Police have taken statements from a number of victims and begun an investigation into Mr Lewis.
A civil action to freeze his accounts and seize any assets has also been started. The businessman, who traded from a smart residential address in Istanbul with views over the Bosporus, is understood to have left Turkey some weeks ago. His adult son said he had no idea where his father was. One report suggested he had briefly visited relations near Hull and may now be in the Far East.
In the email sent on Dec 3, Mr Lewis wrote: “Dear investor, I am writing to inform you that JL Trading is ceasing to carry on business. Contrary to the impression that I have hitherto given, the business has lost almost all of its assets, and there appears no prospect of those assets being recouped.
“JL Trading ceased foreign exchange trading in 2009 following substantial losses and since that time the business has suffered further losses, which I have tried to make good through investments in a number of commercial projects. However, it is now clear that the business will not be able to recover its losses and must cease trading. This means that, contrary to what was reported to you previously, you cannot expect any payments in the future.
“I can only apologise unreservedly for any losses or unfulfilled expectations of profit. I have tried to recover the position for a considerable period of time, but it is now clear that I will be unable to do so. I sincerely regret that I have not been able to do better on your behalf.”
Mr Lewis, a father of two, started his company about a decade ago, employing at its peak about 30 staff over two storeys of the residential block. He lived in a penthouse apartment with his Turkish wife.
Investors had been attracted through word of mouth with the promise of monthly returns on his currency trades of between one and three per cent. They were also enticed through golf days in exotic locations such as Thailand.
Since about 2011, only investors with a minimum of $25,000 (£16,000) could join his investment “club”. One client had invested about £500,000 in the past 12 months and is unlikely to get his money back; another is said to have put in £1.2 million.
Don Wall, 77, a retired businessman from Cambridgeshire, is owed about £100,000 by JL Trading. “These are my life savings,” he said, “This money was supposed to be savings for my children and grandchildren. I have never met the bloke and I don’t think I have ever spoken to him.”
His son-in-law and daughter, who live abroad, also invested, as did a family friend. Mr Wall signed up in 2009 with an original investment of £10,000. He was able to withdraw about £7,000 and encouraged by the decent rates of return – the Bank of England interest rate had fallen to 0.5 per cent – he invested a further £100,000. Problems began in September last year.
“I was asking could I draw some money out,” recalled Mr Wall, “And they started giving me excuses why they couldn’t do it.” Then the first of a series of email bombshells dropped.
On Sept 10 this year, Mr Lewis sent an email to clients that explained that he was “not able to give an exact date when we can send monies out” due to ongoing problems with American regulators. Lawyers, he said, were working on it and “they have everything in hand”.
On Nov 14, Mr Lewis sent another email. “We are going through a stressful time having our funds returned from our brokers; this has led to many doubts and concerns about the security of funds being held,” he wrote.
His business was being wound up, but investors would all get their money back, he said. “So you can realise the extent of our business, our current values are: Due to clients, $197,000,000 in 893 accounts, worldwide. Due from Broker, $260,000,000 in 1 account, US,” he wrote, adding: “As we are no longer trading, these amounts should not change.”
Then came the email of Dec 3, in which he admitted he had not traded currency for five years.
Two days later, Mr Lewis sent out another email – the last anyone has received – changing his story again and in which he blamed the previous email on his legal team. “You have been sent an update this week which was worded by my lawyers, but I wanted everyone to know, I am not running away from things,” he wrote, “Whilst I regret some of the things I have done, I will do my best to remedy this situation.
“Please note, I have covered up my mistakes from everyone including my staff, no one else knew what was happening.”
Investors are not sure what to believe. Mr Wall has given a statement to Cambridgeshire Police.
Mark Bavin, who introduced Mr Wall and others to the scheme and who helped to organise JL Trading’s golf days, has reported Mr Lewis to the authorities.
Mr Bavin, who also invested heavily and has lost his money, said: “I am sure this is a massive fraud; almost certainly it’s a pyramid scheme. I have reported it to the fraud squad. We have all put money in and he has run off with all our money and that is as much as we know. I am owed significant sums.”
Neil Rodrigues, a British engineer working in the oil industry, invested £26,000 in 2013, four years after Mr Lewis has admitted his company stopped operating. Mr Rodrigues said: “Most of my colleagues with spare cash invested in JL Trading. We have never got any money back.”
One investment broker, who did not wish to be named, said he had 25 clients involved who had invested a total of £3.2 million and not had a penny back. The broker had begun legal proceedings to have Mr Lewis’s accounts and assets frozen worldwide. On Facebook and on other internet sites, alleged victims have been urged to join the class action.
Mr Lewis was unavailable for comment last week. He failed to answer emails and phone calls, and at his Istanbul apartment a doorman said he had not been seen for a few weeks.
Mr Lewis’s son James said: “He [Joe Lewis] didn’t live extravagantly. I don’t know where the money’s gone. I am happy to share information with the legal entities.
“Everything he had is ruined. There are no assets at all that I am aware of.”
While the US and North Korean governments continue to thrash out diplomatic negotiations over the implications of the Sony hack, film fans have taken matters into their own hands following the pulling of The Interview from cinemas.
The film, which stars Seth Rogan and James Franco in a comedic plot to assassinate North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un, has been given a perfect score on movie websites IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, despite the fact it wasn't due for release until Christmas Day.
32,376 IMDB users have given the film 10/10, while 96 per cent of the 28,833 users on Rotten Tomatoes have said they "want to see" the film and have given it an average score of 4.3 out of five.
These are impressive scores within the critical online arena. Of the top 100 films on Rotten Tomatoes, only three in the top 10 have a comparable audience score: 1949 film The Third Man and Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film, Modern Times have both scored 4.3 out of five from thousands of user reviews. The average score of 722,917 users rating The Godfather is 4.4.
Meanwhile, so many people have been buying copies of Team America: World Police that the DVD has sold out on Amazon. The 2004 film has had a resurgence in popularity after a cinema in Texas, the Alamo Drafthouse, planned to screen the film on December 27 in place of The Interview after Sony pulled distribution.
Team America: World Police follows a similar spoof political plot to The Interview, in which a team of marionettes attempt to save the world from a violent terrorist plot by former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
According to The Daily Caller, Team America: World Police is now the fifth best selling comedy on Amazon, and the 53rd best-selling DVD. A few days ago it was ranked 1,389th.
The rouble has rebounded to its strongest level in more than two-weeks, propelled by soft government controls of the currency.
Large state-controlled exporters have been forced to intervene in foreign exchange markets to the tune of $1bn (£640m) a day, according to anonymous sources cited by Russian daily Kommersant.
The newspaper reported that Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, signed an order to this effect on December 17. The five companies involved - spanning oil and gas and diamond exporters - received the order at the end of last week, it reported.
A form of soft capital controls, these measures are thought to explain the rouble’s strength in recent days. Having rallied for three straight sessions, a dollar now buys just 52 roubles, down from the 79 it would have purchased on December 16.
The rouble has been hampered by a series of sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, and the falling value of oil, on which the Russian economy has become reliant.
Neil Shearing, chief emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, has warned that if the government turned to stringent capital controls, these “would eliminate any remaining credibility that Russia has in international markets”.
The news came as a Bloomberg survey of economists judged the risk of recession next year at a record high.
More than nine in every ten respondents said that they expect the Russian economy to fall into a technical recession within the next 12 months, up from three-quarters of economists polled a month ago.
The gloomy prognosis mirrors comments made by Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister, who warned on Monday that Russia is now facing a “full-blown economic crisis”.
Whereas oil was trading at around $110 per barrel in June, a barrel of Brent crude now costs around $60.
As the price of oil has fallen, the room for further sanctions against Russia has risen, as the consequences of Mr Putin turning off oil exports in response would be more muted.
The proportion of economists polled by Bloomberg that expect the US to implement direct economic sanctions against Russia, as opposed to those targeted at companies and individuals, rose from 29pc to 35pc.
The £2 coin could come under attack by Chinese forgers, it has been warned.
The coins which are bi-metallic, containing gold and silver components, were thought to be more difficult to forge than simpler designs such as the £1 coin.
But now a major seizure of €500,000 of euro coins has raised fears that Britain's £2 - with it's relatively higher value - could be in the forger's sights.
Italian detectives stumbled across the treasure trove of contraband currency while inspecting a consignment of metal pipes in the port of Naples.
The seizure was one of the most significant haul of fake coins in European history.
The quality of the coins suggested that the gang is producing imitations of such high quality that they would even be accepted in vending machines, potentially costing businesses thousands in lost revenue.
Fake coins do not usually exercise authorities as much as the production of illicit banknotes because of their relatively low value and the overheads associated with their production.
One forgery investigator told The Times: “Counterfeit coins are not of great interest to most jurisdictions, and certainly not on any list of priorities.”
“Many types of counterfeit goods follow this route, China to Italy for further distribution, and it seems an entirely feasible enterprise.”
A spokesman for the Royal Mint stressed that forgeries of £2 coins are not yet though to be commonplace.
"A bi-colour coin is much harder to counterfeit because replicating the two metal components, the inner and outer, is significantly more difficult than a single component coin. Forgers would also require a highly sophisticated press to produce bi-colour coins," said the spokesman.
"The coin detector mechanism of vending machines and self-service check-outs can detect the two different metal components, in addition to the conductivity, thickness and diameter of the coin."
"The addition of edge lettering is also very hard to counterfeit, and some circulating £2 coin designs also include a latent feature in their elements which is difficult to replicate."
Attempts to block extremist material online will always fail despite a British counter-terrorism unit taking down more than 100 web pages a day, a think tank has warned.
The terrorist material reappears on the Internet as quickly as it is banished and the policy risks driving fanatics on to the “dark web” where they are even harder to track, according to the Quilliam Foundation.
It warned that censorship and filtering tactics are ineffective and that openly challenging the material is likely to have a greater impact.
The report said despite concerns over fanatics radicalising themselves online, most vulnerable people are still targeted offline first and the Internet is only a “secondary socialiser”.
Greater efforts are needed to combat radicalisation in schools, universities and prisons, it concluded.
Figures show the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit has removed 65,000 items rom the Internet that "encouraged or glorified acts of terrorism", including 46,000 since December last year.
Some 70 per cent of that content related to Isil, Syria and Iraq.
Separate figures suggest terrorists involved in at least seven of the ten major plots foiled in the UK since 2010 had access to Inspire – the banned online terror magazine published by al-Qaeda.
But the Quilliam report, which examined the effectiveness of the Government’s counter-radicalisation Prevent programme, found efforts to tackle online fanatics are unlikely to succeed.
“Negative measures, including Government-backed censorship and filtering initiatives, are ineffective in tackling online extremism, tackling the symptoms rather than the causes of radicalisation,” it said.
“Motivated extremists and terrorist affiliates can evade such measures easily through the dark net and virtual private networks.
“Blocked materials consistently reappear online and there is no effective way for ISPs (Internet service providers) or social media companies to filter extremist content.”
It comes amid a growing row over the responsibilities of Internet companies to help curb extremism online and those who exploit their platforms to radicalise and spread hatred.
In November, Robert Hannigan, the new director of GCHQ, warned that some Internet services had become "the command and control networks of choice" for terrorists and criminals but that the companies were "in denial".
Later that month, Facebook came under attack after a report in to the murder of soldier Lee Rigby by Islamist fanatics.
It emerged the company failed to pass on information that could have prevented the murder after one of the killers, Michael Adebowale, used the social networking site to express his "intent to murder a soldier in the most graphic and emotive manner" five months before the 2013 Woolwich attack.
The report found that Facebook had not been aware of that specific exchange.
However, Parliament's intelligence and security committee discovered that Facebook had previously shut down Adebowale's accounts on the site because he had discussed terrorism, but failed to relay concerns to the security services.
But the report concluded: “Counterspeech and positive measures are critical in challenging the sources of extremism and terrorism-related material online.”
It added: “Expanding negative measures to include unwanted extremist content that does not breach defined legal terms would push users that feel targeted into the dark web where monitoring Is no longer possible.
“This increases security risks if counter-terrorism and counter-extremism practitioners are impeded from monitoring and surveillance.”
Jonathan Russell, political liaison officer for Quilliam, said: “Recognising that censorship alone is ineffective and counterproductive in efforts to counter online extremism, the government should consider building an online dimension into Prevent.
“This would enable positive counterspeech to come from civil society to challenge the ideologies and narratives that underpin extremism of all kinds".
Demand for Christmas wreaths has triggered a crime wave in the New England state of Maine.
Forest rangers are trying to tackle an epidemic of “tipping”, cutting off branches from evergreen fir trees and selling them to wreath makers.
During the festive season the overwhelming majority of houses in Maine will sport a wreath on the front door.
Such is the demand that selling branches has become a source of income in the poorest part of the state.
Vast swathes of Maine are turned over to evergreen forest, largely inhabited by moose and bear.
Tippers swap hints on social media, making the most of one of the state’s most abundant natural resources to provide much needed cash.
While some tippers operate with the permission of the landowner, others do not bother and are committing a crime.
A tipper can make 50 cents (32 pence) a pound selling the branches to wreath manufacturers.
One legal tipper, Dennis Figueroa, told the New York Times, that they can earn several hundred dollars a day from the branches.
Everett Kennedy, another legal tipper, has even used a drone to find a fresh source of supply.
Others are not so scrupulous with the branch rustlers start working in late November, lopping off branches from balsam fir trees.
Somebody with two prior theft convictions can face jail time if caught engaged in illegal tipping.
Last year forest rangers were able to seize 1,400 pounds of illegally rustled branches.
"Over 1,400 pounds in one seizure," Courtney Hammond, a Maine Forest ranger, said: "Many of our seizures run from 400 to 600 to 700 pounds, but at 40 or 45 cents a pound, people can make very good money at it."
Anton Tumanov gave up his life for his country - but his country won’t say where, and it won’t say how.
His mother knows. She knows that Mr Tumanov, a 20 year-old junior sergeant in the Russian army, was killed in eastern Ukraine, torn apart in a rocket attack on August 13.
Yelena Tumanova, 41, learned these bare facts about her son’s death from one of his comrades, who saw him get hit and scooped up his body.
“What I don’t understand is what he died for,” she says. “Why couldn’t we let people in Ukraine sort things out for themselves? And seeing as our powers sent Anton there, why can’t they admit it and tell us exactly what happened to him.”
As the year draws to a close, the Kremlin continues to insist that not a single Russian soldier has entered Ukraine to join pro-Moscow separatist militia who have been fighting government forces there since April. During his annual press conference earlier this month, Vladimir Putin, the president, said that all Russian combatants in Ukraine’s Donbas region were volunteers answering “a call of the heart”.
The story of Mr Tumanov and the shadowy deaths of scores of other Russian servicemen since this summer belie that claim.
Rights activists have recorded cases of at least 40 serving soldiers suspected of dying in the conflict – many believe the figure is in the hundreds - but prosecutors refuse to open criminal investigations into their deaths, a requirement by law.
Denied of status by the lies and obfuscation that muffle their stories, these men and their families are casualties of an undeclared war.
Cause of injuries “not established”
Officially, Mr Tumanov died while “carrying out responsibilities of military service” at “a point of temporary deployment of military unit 27777” – part of the army’s 18th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, whose permanent base is in Kalinovskaya, Chechnya.
His death certificate, signed at a defence ministry forensic-medicine centre in Rostov-on-Don in southwest Russia on August 18, records that he died from an “explosion injury”, receiving “multiple shrapnel wounds to the lower limbs” that resulted in “acute, massive blood loss”. The certificate leaves unticked a box saying the cause of his injuries was “military hostilities”, preferring instead “origin not established”.
Mrs Tumanova, 41, waited five days for her son’s body to be brought home after she received notice of his death. “Five agonising days,” she says.
A sanitary inspector, she lives with her husband and Mr Tumanov’s two younger brothers on the second floor of a wooden house in Kozmodemyansk, a small, crumpled town by a bend in the Volga, 400 miles east of Moscow.
The sealed zinc coffin containing her son arrived on a Wednesday.
“There was a little window in the top so you could look at his face,” she recalls. ‘I didn’t know then what his injuries were but something in my soul told me he'd lost his legs.”
The funeral went ahead the same day. An army band and a few officials from the local military commissariat attended. No one came from Mr Tumanov’s unit. His mother spoke to a major in Chechnya by telephone who confirmed the young man had perished in Ukraine, but refused to give any details. The order to go there, “came from above in verbal form only”, said the major.
A search for work leads to war
Mr Tumanov’s biography is not unusual for a provincial lad from a modest family. He was called up to the army as a conscript after school and served eight months in South Ossetia, the pro-Russian breakaway republic in Georgia. When he came home to Kozmodemyansk in spring last year he struggled to find a job. After short stints as a barman and on a building site in Moscow, he decided to return to the forces as a career soldier. In June he was dispatched to Chechnya.
“I tried to persuade him not go to because of what was happening in Ukraine,” says Mrs Tumanova. “But our president said that none of our soldiers would be sent there, it’s just Ukrainians fighting each other, and I believed that. So in the end I didn’t argue.”
Mr Tumanov was put on a three month probation but he hadn’t been in Chechnya ten days before he and other soldiers at the base were approached and asked if they would go to Donbas to fight as volunteers.
He and his friends refused, he told his mother by telephone. “Who wants to die?” she says. “That was their thinking. Nobody was attacking Russia; if they had been Anton would have been first in the queue.”
By the middle of July, things had changed. Now 27777, his regular army unit, was dispatched to a temporary camp in Rostov region, near the border with Ukraine, officially “for exercises”.
Soon he was telling Nastya Chernova, his fiancée back in Kozmodemyansk, that he was going on short trips into Ukraine to accompany deliveries of arms and military vehicles to the rebels.
This was the moment when pro-Moscow militia in eastern Ukraine were on the brink of caving in to government forces, who had almost surrounded the separatist capital, Donetsk. Over the next month, Russia would stage a major intervention – sending tanks and troops across the border to help push back Ukrainian forces and reclaim rebel territory.
On August 10 Mr Tumanov called his mother and said: “Tomorrow they are sending us to Donetsk” - the rebel capital. “We’re going to help the militia.”
The next day he told her: “We’re handing in our documents and our phones. They’ve given us two grenades and 150 rounds of ammunition each.” A few hours later came his final message, via VKontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook: “Gave in phone. Gone to Ukraine.”
Miss Chernova, a slender 17-year old high school student, says her boyfriend went against his will. “The last time we spoke he told me he and some friends discussed running away but they were a long way from home, they didn’t have food,” she says. “It was impossible.”
Mrs Tumanova knows what happened next from one of her son’s comrades, who served in the same unit and went with him. The soldier gave her a handwritten description.
“On August 11 we were given an order to remove the identification plates from our military vehicles, change into camouflage suits and tie white rags on our arms and legs,” the soldier wrote. “At the border we received supplies of ammunition. On the 11th and 12th we crossed onto Ukrainian territory. On August 13th at lunchtime our column was hit by a rocket strike, during which Anton Tumanov died. At that moment we were in Ukraine, in Snezhnoye (a town not far from Donetsk).”
Scores, hundreds of dead
Sergei Krivenko, head of Citizen and Army, a civil group in Moscow which helps soldiers and their families protect their rights, says activists are sure of at least 40 deaths of Russian servicemen this summer and autumn but suspect the total may be in the hundreds.
A senior officer admitted at a recent meeting with Mr Krivenko and other rights activists that there had been deaths in the military but was vague about where they happened and how.
“He told us a shell flew over the border from Ukraine and hit a tank or something blew up by accident as people sat round a fire on a target range,” says Mr Krivenko, who is also a member of Mr Putin’s presidential human rights commission.
“Russia is officially not at war so there should be a criminal investigation into every death, but the authorities refuse our requests to open them,” he adds.
A handful of soldiers have described to Citizen and Army how they were sent on trips into Ukraine to deliver weapons and later had their contracts torn up when they refused to return there, or when units were downsized.
Comrades of Mr Tumanov corroborated the account given to his mother, telling Mr Krivenko that the young sergeant died when a volley of Ukrainian Grad missiles hit their ammunition trucks on the territory of a factory in Snezhnoye (known as Snizhne in Ukrainian). They estimated 120 men had died in that attack alone.
Probing the deaths can be a risky business. Lyudmila Bogatenkova, a 73-year old representative of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee in Stavropol, suddenly found herself charged with fraud after she investigated deaths in Snizhne.
The St Petersburg chapter of the same group was added to Russia’s list of Foreign Agents – a blacklist of NGOs with foreign funding – after its head publicised reports of scores of injured being brought to a hospital in the city.
A few relatvies appear to accept their loved ones’ fates. In an interview with a Moscow radio station, the father of Nikolai Kozlov, a 21-year-old paratrooper from a unit in Ulyanovsk who lost his leg, said he was proud of his son. “He gave his vow and carried out his orders,” he said. A state television report on Mr Kozlov’s progress in hospital was cut with footage of street fighting and tanks flying Ukrainian flags. The report presented him as “the man who was until recently in hell’s corner and who at last returned home to Russia”. It did not say where from.
Lev Shlosberg, a local MP in Pskov in western Russia, says there is an atmosphere of secrecy and fear around the casualties. He is campaigning to find out how twelve paratroopers based in the town met their deaths in the summer. After he first wrote about it in a blog post, unknown assailants pounced from behind as he walked near his home, knocking him down and beating him unconscious. Thugs also threatened reporters who visited graves of the paratroopers with “never being seen again” and slashed their car tires.
“A great many Russian servicemen have died in Ukraine and their families are outraged but they don’t speak out because they are afraid for their lives,” says Mr Shlosberg, who recovered after hospital treatment. He says he has spoken to relatives of the dead and to soldiers who fought in Ukraine against their will but they are desperate to remain anonymous. “People in Russia today live in terror of the authorities.”
‘Our children are nameless’
In Kozmodemyansk, Miss Chernova picks her way her way home through the snow after school. She can’t forget her boyfriend. She posts poems about Mr Tumanov on her VKontakte page and remembers the moment she woke up abruptly with a bad feeling inside on the day he died.
“Anton was not a volunteer,” she says forcefully. “He didn’t want to go to Ukraine to fight and kill people. He didn’t have that aggression inside him. He joined up to defend his country.”
At home in her living room, Yelena Tumanova is still waiting for an explanation about her son’s death. His peaked army cap lies on a folded Russian tricolor on top of the television. On the wall is a small portrait of him in uniform with a black ribbon across the corner.
Mrs Tumanova asked state prosecutors via a civil rights group to investigate her son’s last days. There has been no reply.
At the town’s military commissariat, employees told The Telegraph they had no information about Mr Tumanov. A senior official at the medical centre in Rostov where his death was recorded also refused to comment.
“For me, what’s important is that our government doesn’t hide what happened,” says Mrs Tumanova. “On television they say our (Russian) war correspondents who died in Ukraine were heroes. We know their names, they were awarded the Order of Courage. But this isn’t about medals. It’s that our children are nameless. Like homeless tramps.
“If they sent our soldiers there, let them admit it. That’s the most bitter thing for a mother like me. It’s too late to bring Anton back but this is just inhuman.”
“There was an attempt to force him to go back, but it is thought he escaped and is somewhere in France. There is an attempt to locate him but he hasn’t been found yet,” said the diplomatic source.
The architecture student, referred to only by his surname Han, went missing last month, raising concerns for his safety. He is believed to be the son of a close confidant of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jon-un’s once powerful uncle who was executed in December last year on treason charges. Han's father is known to have been killed recently as part of a Kim regime purge of Jang allies.
Park Sung-jin, Paris correspondent for Yonhap, South Korea’s biggest news agency which broke the story, said: “Since the 1980s, when the regime changes and someone is executed and his relatives and friends and family are studying abroad, they are brought home.
“If Han returned he would likely be kept in a political prison or executed. That has happened many times. He knew what was awaiting him, so he escaped.”
Han’s curious disappearance, which comes amid heightened tensions between North Korea and America over the Sony Entertainment Pictures hacking scandal, has lifted the lid on the murky ties France keeps with the Communist regime.
Despite having no official diplomatic relations with the dictatorship, France has been behind a discreet student programme in place since 2002 in which North Korean students from privileged backgrounds study architecture in Paris. The stated aim is for them to return to Pyongyang and launch grandiose architectural projects to the glory of the dictatorship.
Han was studying at Paris’ prestigious Ecole Nationale Superieure d'Architecture de Paris-La Villette. He had left North Korea for Paris in 2012, along with nine other North Koreans, five of whom are posted at another architecture school in Belleville. They are in their third year of a five-year course.
"We didn’t decide out of the blue to take on students from North Korea, the decision was made by the French culture ministry to whom we answer. This is over our heads,” said a head teacher at the La Villette school, who recalled her surprise when the first batch of students turned up wearing badges with the effigy of their “Dear Leader”.
The students are kept under close surveillance, she told The Telegraph.
“There is often an Asian man in a three-piece suit waiting in the courtyard, checking up on attendance and if they get good results,” she said.
“When one failed part of his exam and was sent home, a representative from the North Korean delegation in Paris wanted to take it in his place. We had to explain that wasn’t possible,” she added.
After long denying its existence, the French foreign ministry confirmed to The Telegraph that a “cooperation programme” involving “students from North Korea trained in architecture in Paris” has been in place for the past decade.
It had no further comment.
The programme was set up by Jean-Noël Juttet, a former French ambassador to Japan, who said he was asked by the French foreign ministry to find ways of “maintaining contact between the two countries”.
Homing in on education, he said the French suggested courses in “priority sectors, like medicine, food or construction” but that the North Koreans were only interested in one field: architecture.
“That was a request that came all the way from the top. They insisted so much that we ended up agreeing,” he told Street Press, an online news site that first uncovered the student programme.
Trained in France, the land of star architects like Jean Nouvel, the students are supposed to help transform Pyongyang’s skyline with new, cutting-edge architectural designs, such as the Ryugyong hotel, a 330-metre high edifice completed in 2012. They have reportedly been behind designs for a new ice skating rink, dolphinarium and sports centre opened last year to help North Korea become a “new society of leisure”.
Architecture is not Kim Jong-un’s only area of interest in France. In April, it also emerged that the Emmental-loving despot had ordered three officials to attend a crash course in cheese-making at a dairy school in eastern France - reportedly because he was dissatisfied with his country’s attempts at dairy production. The school politely declined.
France has historically kept relatively warm ties with Communist nations, including China. In 2011, it emerged that a French neurosurgeon, Francois-Xavier Roux, had secretly treated Kim Jong-il, the former North Korean leader, in 2008 after he had a stroke.
Describing Kim as apparently "profoundly Francophile”, Dr Roux said: "He wanted to establish political ties with France. He was not hiding that.
"He also knew French cinema very well. I was pretty surprised. He knew French wines pretty well. We were talking about the differences between Bourgogne and Bordeaux, etc."
Last month, it was reported that Pyongyang flew in a French surgeon to operate on Kim Jong-un’s feet after state media pictured him walking with a cane.
Behind the university exchange lies a complex game of parallel diplomacy, according to North Korea expert Pierre Rigoulot.
“For North Korea, the exchanges are a way of legitimising the Pyongyang regime and receiving recognition. The aim for which they will sacrifice anything is to open an embassy in Paris. It would be a small victory for the country,” he told Street Press.
As for France, he said it was a way of keeping channels of communication open: “You can’t send information to North Korea, so welcoming these young students is a rare opportunity to communicate with the country. In the long term, it could be a way of moving things forward.”
An abduction attempt, however, if confirmed, would “definitively scupper any North Korean request for diplomatic recognition from France," he said.
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