Feds take over the B’nai B’rith pension plan

The U.S. government’s takeover of B’nai B’rith International’s pension plan, which is more than $25 million in debt, raises serious questions about the long-term viability of the 169-year-old, once-giant Jewish organization.

The plan, which has about 500 participants, has $55.6 million in liabilities but only $30.1 million in assets. On Sept. 11, the federal government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. said it would assume control of payments and raised questions about B’nai B’rith’s future.

“The agency stepped in because B’nai B’rith wouldn’t have been able to pay its bills or stay in business unless the plan was terminated,” it said in a posting that day on its blog…

Michael Faulkender, an associate professor of business at the University of Maryland, could not comment on the specifics of the B’nai B’rith situation, but he did say that the move “definitely creates concern about the long-term health of the agency because the PBGC would expect the company to make the pension whole if they had the ability to do so before stepping in and taking over…”

The PBGC guarantees all pension benefits up to the legal limit of $54,000 per year for a 65-year-old, according to congressional regulations…

B’nai B’rith has a vaunted history in American Jewish life, having started the Anti-Defamation League, the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and what is now Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life. All three have left the parent organization and now operate independently. The social activities of many hundreds of B’nai B’rith fraternal lodges — such as bowling leagues and community volunteer projects — were a staple of organized American Jewish life throughout much of the 20th century.

But membership, which in the 1970s was said to have stood at 500,000, has waned substantially. No current figures were available. In 2002, the organization sold its eight-story headquarters in Washington and moved into a suite of nearby offices…

In March 2011, B’nai B’rith’s then-president, Dennis Glick, resigned abruptly from his volunteer position after being indicted on five counts, including federal charges of tax fraud. Glick, a certified public accountant, was found guilty last October “of corruptly endeavoring to obstruct and impede the Internal Revenue laws and willfully preparing false tax returns.”

At the time, a B’nai B’rith spokeswoman said that Glick’s legal problems were private and had no connection to the organization.

I’ve witnessed the slow dying away of a number of old-timey ethnic and religious fraternal organizations. Nothing as abrupt or surprising as this. I always felt the B’nai B’rith would be around forever.

You know – on reflection – this also answers the claims made by conservative Jewish lobbyists that they can deliver the “Jewish Vote” as a block. Not anymore, man!

Worcestershire copper investigated “suspicious” moonlight

A police constable has risked embarrassment after launching an investigation into a “suspicious light source” which was later found to be the moon.

The constable was on duty late one evening last month when he spotted a “shining light” glowing over Clent Hills, a range of scenic peaks which rise up more than 1,000ft in Worcestershire.

He radioed his sergeant, telling him he was “off up the hills” to investigate the “suspicious bright light” from ‘over the other side of the hills’.

He warned that as he was “single-crewed” he might require back-up if he found a crime in progress.

The area is known as a hotspot for outdoor sex – and it is believed the officer thought he might catch offenders engaged in sexual activity when he mistook the bright light of the moon for car headlights.

After a 20-minute walk up the hills, however, the red-faced officer radioed his sergeant back, telling him that the ‘light source’ was in actual fact the moon.

The incident is believed to have taken place on August 31, the night of the second full moon of the month – a phenomenon known as a blue moon…

A police source said today: “The officer was a little reluctant to come back on duty the next day.

“He knew he was going to get a ribbing and he’s had pictures of werewolves put on his locker by some of the more unforgiving officers.

Har. He could always emigrate and have a job waiting for him in Murfa, Texas.

Violin-making with magic mushrooms

A few years ago Francis Schwarze noticed something unusual. Dr Schwarze, who works at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, in St Gallen, knew that sound travels faster through healthy wood, which is stiff and dense, than it does through the soft stuff left by a fungal attack. But some fungi, he found, do not slow sound. Moreover, the acoustic properties of wood so affected seem to be just what violin-makers desire. So Dr Schwarze had some violins made from the infected wood and discovered that they sounded like a Stradivarius.

Dr Schwarze is now trying to standardise this fungal treatment in order to make what he calls “mycowood”. His hope is that it will endow modern instruments with the warm and mellow tones found in those made during the late 17th and early 18th centuries by Antonio Stradivari.

Exactly what makes a Strad so magical is contentious. Besides excellent craftsmanship, the master and members of his workshop in Cremona used different types of wood and, possibly, different chemical treatments. The period when they were active does, though, coincide with a cold spell in Europe’s climate that occurred between 1645 and 1715. In the long winters and cool summers wood would have grown slowly and evenly, creating a lot of stiffness. Which is exactly what a good violin needs.

Treating wood with certain fungi endows it with similar properties. The species Dr Schwarze lit upon are Physisporinus vitreus, a type of white rot, and Xylaria longipes, commonly known as Dead Moll’s Fingers. He applies them to Norway spruce (used for an instrument’s body) and sycamore (for the back, ribs and neck)…

And it works. A blind trial conducted in 2009 by Matthew Trusler, a British violinist, for example, compared modern violins made with treated and untreated wood from the same trees with a Stradivarius made in 1711. A jury of experts, and also most of the audience, thought that the mycowood violin was the Strad.

I admit the headlines threw me. Back in the day, I knew a few folks whose dedication to certain mushrooms convinced them of skills that ranged from writing the next great symphony to astral projection. If the mushrooms are only working on the wood, I may be convinced.

Thanks, Corn

Mitt and the half of America he calls moochers

The Republican Party has some potentially winning themes for America’s presidential and congressional elections in November. Americans have long been skeptical of government, with a tradition of resistance to perceived government overreach that extends back to their country’s founding years. This tradition has bequeathed to today’s Americans a related rejection of public subsidies and a cultural aversion to “dependence” on state support.

But Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other leading members of his party have played these cards completely wrong in this election cycle. Romney is apparently taken with the idea that many Americans, the so-called 47%, do not pay federal income tax. He believes that they view themselves as “victims” and have become “dependent” on the government.

But this misses two obvious points. First, most of the 47% pay a great deal of tax on their earnings, property, and goods purchased. They also work hard to make a living in a country where median household income has declined to a level last seen in the mid-1990’s.

Second, the really big subsidies in modern America flow to a part of its financial elite – the privileged few who are in charge of the biggest firms on Wall Street…

No one has succeeded in the modern American political game like the biggest banks on Wall Street, which lobbied for deregulation during the three decades prior to the crisis of 2008, and then pushed back effectively against almost all dimensions of financial reform.

Their success has paid off handsomely. The top executives at 14 leading financial firms received cash compensation (as salary, bonus, and/or stock options exercised) totaling roughly $2.5 billion in 2000-2008 – with five individuals alone receiving $2 billion.

But these masters of the universe did not earn that money without massive government assistance. By being perceived as “too big to fail,” their banks benefit from a government backstop or downside guarantee. They can take on more risk – running a more highly leveraged business with less shareholder capital. They get bigger returns when things go well and receive state support when fortune turns against them: heads they win, tails we lose

RTFA for the history and analysis behind Simon Johnson’s conclusion. Project Syndicate once again rolls out a solid article on complex political economy.

A single line of HTML can reset – or wipe – Samsung smartphones

Be careful what links you click: A single line of HTML code can wipe the data on certain Samsung smartphones running Google’s Android software. The issue is specific to Samsung phones that also use the company’s TouchWiz software, says SlashGear, which actually means most of the current Samsung smartphones. Google’s Galaxy Nexus, also made by Samsung, is not affected by the exploit, which was demonstrated by Ravi Borganokar at the Ekoparty security conference…

The short line of HTML code, Borganokar says, can also be executed through an embedded QR code or NFC wireless transfer. Even worse than an unintended factory restore or data wipe, this exploit can render the phone’s SIM card useless.

Some will surely condemn Android as a whole for this issue, but since it’s specific to Samsung’s TouchWiz software — likely as a feature to quickly dial phone numbers by way of links, QR codes or NFC data — the problem is limited to Samsung devices. I’d expect that Samsung releases a patch to disable the automatic phone dialing soon.

Samsung has a patch for the S3 available via OTA update.

As a long-time Android user, however, these security — or insecurity issues, rather — are getting old in general. I mainly use Android devices because they fit my mantra of “use the best tool for the task at hand.” As someone embedded deeply in Google’s world of apps and data, Android simply works better. Even my limits are getting tested though: An open platform that can be endlessly tweaked is great until the wrong folks are tweaking it.

So says Kevin Tofel at GigaOm.

Top-Two election system threatens politics-as-usual in California

Better vote. The Party-formerly-known-as-Republican may make it your last.

Running against the Vietnam War, Representative Pete Stark entered Congress the year Richard M. Nixon was re-elected president. Since then, ensconced in Democratic strongholds here in the Bay Area, Mr. Stark was easily re-elected 19 times.

But Mr. Stark, 80, the dean of California’s Congressional delegation, is facing a serious challenge for the first time. That is because Eric Swalwell, a fellow Democrat who became a city councilman less than two years ago in Dublin, his hometown near here, came just a few points behind Mr. Stark in the primary Now Mr. Swalwell gets to carry the fight into November — thanks to a new primary system in California under which the top two vote getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation…

The new primary system, coupled with California’s adoption of nonpartisan redistricting, is causing upheaval in the nation’s largest and most influential Congressional delegation…

Democracy surely is difficult for Americans to understand. Especially journalists, I guess.

Though polls indicate that President Obama has the state locked up, some of the most competitive House races are taking place across this state, often in nontraditional form. They are pitting two members of the same party against each other in seven other districts…

After voters approved electoral changes in 2010, an independent commission redrew the electoral map, making some districts more evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans. In other, more homogeneous districts, the new top-two primary system has also made races more competitive by allowing the two most popular candidates from the same party to compete in the fall…

Analysts said the number of competitive races this year would make them the most expensive ever, with “super PACs” likely to pour in money. The average amount spent in the primary was $333,509, compared with $234,287 in 2010, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The National Republican Congressional Committee has already budgeted nearly $8 million for television ads, compared with less than $1 million in 2010; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved $8.05 million, compared with $1.6 million two years ago.

I wonder if the Supreme Court or Congress will ever consider letting elections get back to being about issues and platforms – instead of advertising budgets?

Boats from Taiwan join China confronting Japan at sea

Japanese Coast Guard vessels fired water cannon to turn away about 40 Taiwan fishing boats and eight Taiwan Coast Guard vessels from waters Japan considers its own on Tuesday in the latest twist to a row between Tokyo and Beijing.

Japan protested to Taiwan, a day after it lodged a complaint with China over what it said was a similar intrusion by Chinese boats.

Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated sharply this month after Japan bought disputed East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, from their private owner, sparking anti-Japan protests across China.

Taiwan has friendly ties with Japan, but the two sides have long squabbled over fishing rights in the area. China and Taiwan both argue they have inherited China’s historic sovereignty over the islands…

Japanese public broadcaster NHK showed footage of a Japanese Coast Guard ship shooting water at a Taiwan fishing boat, while a Taiwan patrol vessel blasted water at the Coast Guard ship in reply.

While few experts expect a military confrontation, an unintended clash at sea would increase tension, although all sides are expected to try to manage the row before it spirals out of control.

Japan’s top diplomat, Vice Foreign Minister Chikao Kawai, was in Beijing for a meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun in a bid to ease tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies.

Anyone with an acceptable knowledge of history of the region through the last 150 years or so would have no reason to support Japan other than political opportunism, deliberate pandering to Japan’s imperial past – instead of the victims of that imperialism.

Which means, yes, of course, I expect the United States and President Obama to back the Japanese.