Venezuela’s housing mission on track to complete a million new homes by year-end

Venezuela’s housing mission has now constructed nearly 860,000 homes, according to new figures released Thursday.

“This is popular power,” said President Nicolas Maduro during a visit to a newly built housing complex in the state of Miranda…The president said the government is firmly on track to reach its goal of building 1 million homes by the end of the year…

Over 80,000 new homes have been completed in the past month alone, after the government announced plans to accelerate construction…

One of the Venezuelan government’s most popular social initiatives, the housing mission was first launched to provide shelter for people who lost their homes in devastating floods that hit the country in 2010. However, since then the mission has expanded to provide low-cost housing to the wider population, with poor families receiving priority. Units are generally provided fully furnished. The houses are offered either for free or at a low cost, depending on the means of the prospective owners.

In 2011, then-President Hugo Chavez explained that the mission would address the “social debt” left behind by former governments that failed to provide quality housing to all Venezuelans.

The current Maduro administration has vowed to expand the mission, aiming to provide low-cost housing to 40 percent of Venezuelans by the end of the decade.

The Ayn Rand flavor of libertarian conservatives have to harbor a particular hatred for this kind of social contract. Especially if it results in votes for the folks implementing the program.

Darwin Award candidate

A suspected burglar who attempted to enter a home in California through the chimney has died after the homeowner lit a fire without realising the intruder was inside…

The man appeared to have climbed into the chimney on Friday night while the owner was away and then became stuck, according to the Fresno county sheriff’s office.

The owner of the home in Huron, a small town in Fresno county, lit a fire in his fireplace on Saturday afternoon but then heard a man yelling inside the chimney as the house filled with smoke…

The homeowner tried to extinguish the flames but firefighters who dismantled the chimney with drills and chisels during a rescue effort found the suspect dead inside, the sheriff’s office said.

The deceased man was identified by the coroner’s office as Cody Caldwell, aged 19. The cause of death was determined to be smoke inhalation and burns.

Should’ve checked the weather forecast before he set off chimney-burgling.

Clicks ahead of bricks

Online shoppers outnumbered their brick-and-mortar counterparts during U.S. retailers’ pivotal Black Friday weekend, underscoring the challenges facing American malls this holiday season.

More than 103 million people shopped online over the four-day weekend, which started Thursday on Thanksgiving, according to an annual survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation. That compares with fewer than 102 million who ventured into traditional stores, the trade group said.

The growth of e-commerce — including people using their smartphones to buy gifts — helped boost the total number of U.S. shoppers to more than 151 million over the weekend. That figure, which accounts for the overlap between online and offline buyers, topped the 136 million that the trade group had predicted. Other factors, including an earlier rollout of holiday promotions, also are changing consumers’ behavior…

The ritual of Black Friday — the post-Thanksgiving day that has long marked the beginning of the holiday season — also has changed. Frenzied consumers still line up in front of stores to take advantage of deals on toys and televisions, but crowds were smaller at many U.S. malls Friday. The event is also seen as an opportunity for window shopping, rather than spending…

Actual sales reporting at this point part-way through the weekend shows brick-and-mortar sales down 1.2 to 1.4% and online sales up about 18%. Looks like a tipping point to me.

Howard Davidowitz was on Bloomberg Surveillance with Tom Keene, Friday morning. Among other topic he feels that two-thirds of the 1200 major shopping malls in the United States should go bankrupt and disappear. Only 400 are worth keeping!

Plus — Davidowitz is a hoot.

Years of waste and fraud in Afghan – and ready to waste more

With Washington set to send billions of dollars in fresh aid to Afghanistan despite the military drawdown, the U.S. official in charge of auditing assistance programs says “it’s not too late” to address the fraud and mismanagement that has bedeviled the 14-year effort to rebuild the country.

The military intervention launched after the Sept. 11 attacks has cost the United States $1 trillion, including some $110 billion in aid aimed at rebuilding one of the poorest, most violent and most corrupt countries on earth. To this day Afghanistan relies on foreign aid as it battles an increasingly potent Taliban insurgency.

But John Sopko, who has spent more than three years probing U.S.-funded projects as the special investigator general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said the U.S. government is partly to blame for the misused funds.

“What I’m identifying are not just Afghan or Afghan-related problems, they are problems with the way the United States government operates,” he said.

He said the Pentagon and the U.S. Agency for International Development suffer from corruption as well as poor planning, oversight and accountability. He said they often fail to coordinate with one another or measure programs’ effectiveness…

Since it was created in 2008, SIGAR has identified more than $1 billion in potential savings to U.S. taxpayers and published hundreds of reports, including 50 audits of reconstruction projects.

“The money that’s been wasted has been wasted,” Sopko said. “But we have still got $10 billion that has been authorized, appropriated but not yet spent. And we’re probably going to put in $6 billion to $10 billion a year, for years to come — because if we don’t, the Afghan government will collapse.”…

Sopko said it’s time to “hit the reset button and take a look at what worked and what didn’t work.”

The biggest failure of the reconstruction effort, he said, was the outlay of nearly $8 billion since 2001 to eradicate poppies, the main ingredient in heroin and Afghanistan’s chief export. The crop is worth some $3 billion a year and is a key source of income for the Taliban…

SIGAR found last year that the U.S. had spent $7.6 billion on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2001. Opium production has dropped by 50 percent this year, not because of eradication efforts, but because of drought, pests and other environmental factors, Sopko said.

“Any metrics you give — price, purity, addiction rates, production — the only improvements we have seen have been caused by Mother Nature,” he said.

BTW, Lindsay Graham and John McCain, two of our most backwards Republican warhawks have just proposed that everything we did in Afghanistan and Iraq – should now be done in Syria. Starting with sending in 20,000 American soldiers.

These stupid little minds who bear a significant portion of responsibility for helping an ignoranus like George W. Bush get us into this mess – would perpetuate the same bureaucratic farce, the same incompetence that eight years of Obama hasn’t turned around – all in the name of protecting the United States.

The nation where self-proclaimed good Christians with guns have killed more people than any foreign terrorist cabal.

Pic of the day


Click to enlargeDaniele Boffelli

Auroras usually occur high above the clouds. The auroral glow is created when fast-moving particles ejected from the Sun impact the Earth’s magnetosphere, from which charged particles spiral along the Earth’s magnetic field to strike atoms and molecules high in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The lowest part of an aurora will typically occur at 100 kilometers up, while most clouds usually exist only below about 10 kilometers. The relative heights of clouds and auroras are shown clearly in the featured picture from Dyrholaey, Iceland. There, a determined astrophotographer withstood high winds and initially overcast skies in an attempt to capture aurora over a picturesque lighthouse, only to take, by chance, the featured picture along the way.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

America’s most famous statue started out as Muslim

Current debates over the resettlement of Syrian refugees have prompted repeated invocations of the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The lines, written by poet Emma Lazarus in the late 1880s, were inspired by the hardships endured by Jewish refugees who arrived in New York after fleeing Eastern Europe’s pogroms. They’re made even more relevant to the present moment, however, when considering the origins of the Lady Liberty statue.

The first draft for what would become the nation’s symbol of welcome to the “huddled masses” was conceived by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi not for the Statue of Liberty but for an entirely different project: a lighthouse that would stand at the entrance to the Suez Canal.

According to historian Michael B. Oren, in his book “Power, Faith, and Fantasy,” Bartholdi would carve the likeness of an Egyptian peasant woman holding aloft a torch of freedom. The monument, twice as high as the Sphinx, would guard the waterway’s entrance and perhaps double as a lighthouse. Its name would be Egypt (or Progress) Bringing Light to Asia.”

…The nation’s symbol of all-American freedom and charity was in fact originally conceived as an Egyptian — and by default in those times, a Muslim.

For the next two years, Bartholdi worked on sketches and tried to persuade Ismail Pasha, the then-khedive (viceroy) of Egypt, to finance his project. But the viceroy was bankrupt by 1871 and in no condition to support a monument as large as two sphinxes.

This compelled a “distraught” Bartholdi to take solace in a cruise to America. As he sailed into New York harbor, he saw the “egg-shaped” Bedloe’s Island and started considering a new location for his majestic vision, imbued with new meaning.

Not long before, Bartholdi had a conversation with the French abolitionist and fervent supporter of the the North in the Civil War, Édouard René de Laboulaye, who proposed that France offer the United States a gift in recognition of the end of that conflict.

The Muslim peasant had been replaced by an idealized Western woman and the name of the piece changed from Bringing Light to Asia to Liberty Enlightening the World. Only the torch remained, unextinguished.

Over the next forty years, ‘Lady Liberty’ would provide millions of immigrants with their first glimpse of America, kindling their hopes for better lives and beckoning them with the possibility of freedom…

So when politicians such as Ted Cruz suggest that only Christian Syrian refugees should be allowed to enter America, and critics respond with the ideals that the Statue of Liberty stands for, their statements have a particular historical resonance.

Had Egypt come by better financial fortunes, Bartholdi may have built a grand tribute to a Muslim peasant. But instead she was reincarnated as Libertas, a Roman goddess symbolizing personal freedom in America.

Not that this history means anything to hatemongers like Cruz – or the bigots that support his ideology.

“Wisdom” – world’s oldest seabird is back at Midway Atoll

Wisdom Dec 2014
Click to enlargeDaniel W. Clark/USFWS

Wisdom incubating her egg in December, 2014

Federal wildlife officials say the world’s oldest known seabird has returned to Midway Atoll…the Laysan Albatross named Wisdom was spotted at the remote island on Nov. 19.

An ornithologist first put an identification band on Wisdom in 1956. She’s estimated to be at least 64 years old, but she could be older.

Laysan albatrosses typically mate for life, but Wisdom has likely had more than one mate. She has raised as many as 36 chicks.

Breeding albatrosses and their mates will often spend about six months rearing and feeding their young. They forage hundreds of miles out at sea for squid or flying fish eggs.

My kind of bird, eh?

Bernie Sanders at George Mason University

Sanders’ stump speech is heavy on facts – about wealth inequality, marijuana arrest rates, young-voter turnout – and short on rhetorical lift. But amid the fierce statistical urgency of his pitch, a moment of raw emotional power emerges. A Sudanese-American student who wears a blue hijab, pinned with a Bernie 2016 button, asks Sanders how he can counter Trump and Ben Carson “bashing Muslims.”

Sanders motions the student, Remaz Abdelgader, up to the stage, pulling her into a hug. “Let me be very personal,” he says. “My father’s family died in concentration camps.” The tableau of a bald white Jew from Vermont embracing a young black Muslim woman to denounce America’s “ugly stain of racism” has the audience fighting back tears.

After the rally, Abdelgader, an aspiring human rights lawyer, is euphoric, declaring without a trace of irony, “I feel like he’s my Jewish dad.”

Keep on rocking in the Free World. We need more people to get on board the Freedom Train.

Pic of the day


Click to enlargeGetty/AFP/Robert Atanasovski

A migrant kneels in front of Macedonian police officers standing guard, after attempts to cross the Greek-Macedonian border near Idomeni on November 26…

Thanks, @GettyImagesNews