Monday, March 2, 2015

Debt buyers bury hard-hit consumers in lies

Posted by Jim Hightower

Whenever a corporation issues a statement declaring that it is committed to "treating consumers fairly and with respect," chances are it's not.

After all, if the outfit was actually doing it, there would be no need for a statement. Indeed, this particular claim came from Encore Capital, one of our country's largest buyers of bad consumer debt – and it definitely has not been playing nice with the people it browbeats to collect overdue credit card bills, car loans, etc.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found that Encore, based in San Diego, filed nearly 240,000 lawsuits against debtors in a recent four-year period, using our courts as its private collection arm. Problem is, Encore's bulk filing of lawsuits are rife with errors, out-of-date payment data, fabricated credit card statements, etc. Tons of them are missing original loan documents, payment histories, and other proof of debt.

Debt predators, however, scoot around this lack of facts by simply having their employees sign affidavits asserting that the level of money owed is accurate. Judges, overwhelmed by the unending flood of lawsuits filed by Encore et al, have accepted those affidavits as true, thus ruling in favor of the corporations. But Schneiderman found that – Surprise! – affidavits were simply being rubber-stamped by company employees, who didn't have time to check for accuracy. An employee of one large debt-buyer testified that he was having to sign about 2,000 affidavits a day!

This is no minor scam – one in seven adults in the U.S. is under pursuit by debt collectors. It's hard enough for struggling families to claw their way out from under the economic crash without having lying, cheating, predator corporations twist the court system to pick their pockets and shut off their hope of recovery.

"Debt Buyer Faces Fine In Doubtful Lawsuits," The New York Times, January 9, 2015.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Shadow of Mordor, Arkham Knight highlight this week’s best game trailers


Every week, a landslide of video game trailers hit the Internet, hyping up the games that have just been released, the games that are about to be released and even the games that don’t have release dates. It can be a bit overwhelming to keep up with all of them, which is why we’ve decided to collect our favorites into a single post.

A Batman game with a mature ESRB rating? Count me in. Arkham City didn’t blow me away like it did many others, but with the Batmobile in tow and the darker tone of Arkham Knight, I’m ready for it to be June already.

This isn’t Final Fantasy XV, but it’s the next best thing. Final Fantasy Type-0 HD pleasantly surprised me when I had a chance to go hands-on with it last year. The game has supposedly received a few major tweaks since then as well, so I’m hoping for a polished port when this game hits PS4 and Xbox One in March.

The final DLC for Shadow of Mordor brings Celebrimbor face-to-face with the Dark Lord himself. The DLC for Shadow of Mordor has been surprisingly competent up to this point, but even if you’ve missed out on everything before it, The Bright Lord DLC looks like it will be the one to pick up.

I have no idea why this exists, but it’s free to download and you don’t even need to own Forza Horizon 2 to play it. Still no word on whether Vin Diesel did any voice over work for the game.

OlliOlli was a hit in 2014, and just over a year later, the sequel is nearly ready to launch on PS4 and PS Vita. It looks like more of the same, so if you enjoyed the first one, OlliOlli2 shouldn’t disappoint.

5 Right-Wing Lunacies This Week: The Nonstop Comedy Show of CPAC

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Walker unscripted falls flat

Gov. Scott Walker proudly touts his ability to survive a recall election and his union busting ways, but a poorly planned analogy at CPAC fails to impress. Ed Schultz, John Nichols, and Jean Ross discuss.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Erased: ISIS and the Destruction of Ancient Artifacts

The smashing of priceless sculptures is part of a tradition of iconoclasm that goes back to Abraham.

AP/The Atlantic
New videos released on Thursday apparently show ISIS militants destroying Assyrian and Akkadian artifacts in Mosul—smashing statues and scraping through a winged bull from the 7th century B.C.

This is only the latest episode in a spree of iconoclasm ISIS has unleashed across the areas under its control in Iraq and Syria. In May 2014, there were reports of separate Assyrian artifacts being excavated and destroyed. In July 2014, fighters destroyed the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Nineveh.

Earlier this week, reports said the group had burned 100,000 books and manuscripts from the Mosul library.

One way to think about this is as part of a concerted attack on civilization itself. "I'm totally shocked," a professor at the University of Mosul's college of archeology told the AP. "It's a catastrophe. With the destruction of these artifacts, we can no longer be proud of Mosul's civilization."

But another way to think about it is as squarely in a tradition of iconoclasm. Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, himself destroyed idols, according to tradition. There's a strong tradition of icon-destruction in Christianity. And in pre-Islamic Mecca, the Kaaba was the site of multiple idols, which Muhammad cleared out before rededicating the site to God. This is certainly the tradition to which ISIS wishes to claim a connection. The Taliban, another group that claimed fidelity to the principles of early Islam, also spent a great deal of time destroying images of people—most notably the massive Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The tomb of Muhammad in Mecca was itself destroyed by Ibn Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia, early in the 20th century.

In reality, the relationship with icons in all three Abrahamic religions is rather more elaborate than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would want us to believe—but the tradition is there. Destroying traces of forebears, and even robbing and destroying tombs, has perhaps a longer tradition in civilization than preservation.

ISIS can't claim total purity on the matter itself, either. The group has widely been reported to be profiting by selling plundered artifacts on the black market. In fact, there's speculation among archeologists that some of the destruction in the new videos is a sham. While the winged-bull sculpture was most likely original, the other statues appear to be replicas. Some of the artifacts have been removed to Baghdad, while others may have been sold off. "You can see iron bars inside," Mark Altaweel of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London told Channel 4. "The originals don't have iron bars." Other reports, such as the AP's, quoted experts familiar with the museum saying most of the pieces are genuine.

The Daily News has a video of the event:

Even in the scope of the destruction wrought by ISIS and the Syrian civil war, the damage to irreplaceable pieces of history is enormous. That's especially true since the region's archaeological history is so rich—stretching from the beginnings to civilization through the biblical period and on into the history of Islam—and because it follows on the American invasion of Iraq, which was itself a huge blow to museums and preservation. Not all of the damage results from religious zealotry or plain malice; in many cases, civilians dig for artifacts to sell simply for subsistence in the midst of war. Even when items aren't destroyed, they may be scattered to private collections through the black market and never recovered.

In September, Secretary of State John Kerry and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova spoke at an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about preserving heritage. "How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization," Kerry said. "So many different traditions trace their roots back to this part of the world, as we all know. Our heritage is literally in peril in this moment, and we believe it is imperative that we act now."

Those are strong words. But as the fighting drags on and the U.S. and its allies struggle to find effective ways to reckon with ISIS, the futility of the words becomes clearer, and priceless objects disappear into dust.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

3D Printer Shop 'Pixelwizard' Recreates Missing Retro Computer Covers & Parts

By Cauterize

When you lose the cover for your Amiga 1200's expansion port, or even worse damage the front door to your Commodore 1702 monitor's control panel, what do you do? Similar to the Nintendo Game Boy's battery cover, replacing these individual parts is a difficult task requiring you to rely on eBay users to lists spares, as and when they find them. That's all about to change though as a 3D printing enthusiast has set up shop selling those easily lost parts from retro computers and consoles.

Starting out with a selection of Commodore based replacements, online shop Pixelwizard has begun providing retro gamers with the all important parts needed to fix up their kit. All printed from scratch using accurate 3D models of the originals as reference, all sales come in white nylon plastic with a matte finish and slight grainy feel. Looking through each product's page, you'll soon notice how each and every one of these newly printed pieces fits into place perfectly, at what also appears to be a reasonable price too.

As of speaking here's what's currently available thanks to the wonders of 3D printing:
While all of these products may be for Commodore systems, Pixelwizard does leave things open for consoles and handhelds too. Although there are no products currently in the category, there is a section marked for Nintendo hardware - one we can only assume will soon be flooded with Game Boy battery covers and Nintendo 64 expansion port flaps. That said, should you be looking for a specific part, this might be the one shop you want to drop a line.

Purina sued over claims it killed 4,000 dogs with 'toxic' food


A class action lawsuit alleges a mold byproduct used in kibble is leading pets to agonizing deaths.

Despite years of online allegations that one of the most popular dog food brands has been poisoning pets, it wasn’t until just weeks ago that the cat was let out of the bag in a court filing. A class action lawsuit was filed that blames the deaths of thousands of dogs on one of Purina’s most popular brands of chow.

Googling Nestle Purina Petcare’s Beneful brand will get you the pet food manufacturer’s website, a Facebook page with over a million likes, and, in stark contrast, a Consumer Affairs page with 708 one-star ratings supported with page after grim page detailing dogs suffering slow, agonizing deaths from mysterious causes.

Internal bleeding. Diarrhea. Seizures. Liver malfunction. It reads like something from a horror movie or a plague documentary, but a suit brought in California federal court by plaintiff Frank Lucido alleges that this is all too real—and too frequent to be a coincidence.

But it all relies upon finding a chemical that may be in the food—and has been a staple in dog food recalls in the past—with an experiment that neither Lucido, his lawyers, or even independent scientists have even begun to conduct.

Lucido said it began last month when his beloved German shepherd began losing an alarming amount of hair, smelled strange, and wound up at the vet with symptoms “consistent with poisoning.” A week later, his wife found one of their other dogs, an English Bulldog, dead. An autopsy showed signs of internal bleeding in the stomach and lesions on the liver, symptoms eerily similar to the shepherd’s, according to the complaint. Then their third dog also became ill.

“All these dogs are eating Beneful,” explained Jeff Cereghino, one of the attorneys representing Lucido in the action. “And the dogs are all, for a variety of reasons, not in the same house. So you take away the automatic assumption that the neighbor didn’t like the dogs or whatever. He was feeding them Beneful at the start of this, and one got sick and died, the other two were very ill. And then he started doing a little research, and he realized the causal link, at least in his mind, was the food.”

It doesn’t take much digging to uncover what appears to be a pattern of allegations, Cereghino said. Lots and lots of allegations. After hearing Lucido’s story, Cereghino checked it out for himself.

“We found a significant number of folks who were trying to draw exactly the same causal link.

Thousands,” he said.

The sheer volume is what made the seasoned lawyer—one who said “a good part of our business is class action work”—realize something may be fishy.
“But when I look at 4,000? Holy hell, there’s a lot of people out here.”
“If it’s a hundred or so, it’s like, ‘Okay, a lot of dogs eat Beneful; things happen.’ But when you start getting into the thousands… The long and short of it is the complaint pyramid is such that even with the Internet–easy access to complain about things– there’s still a very large percentage of folks who simply don’t complain, or whose vet tells ‘em, ‘We don’t know what happened,’ and they’re not drawing conclusions or leaping to assumptions, “ he said.

“But when I look at 4,000? Holy hell, there’s a lot of people out here.”

So Cereghino and his partners started talking to those people, comparing more and more of the stories of heartbreak.

“There seems to be somewhat of a singular event. [The dogs] are vomiting. They’re having liver problems, failures,” he said. “I’m not a vet, but you look at some of this stuff and say, ‘OK, we’re starting to have similar symptoms across the board, and we’re starting to have causation.’”

When these dire accusations first started appearing online years ago, the initial accusation was that one of the additives in the food, propylene glycol, was the culprit.

Purina maintains the type of propylene it uses is perfectly safe for consumption, saying on its website: “Propylene glycol is an FDA-approved food additive that’s also in human foods like salad dressing and cake mix.”

It’s also the same substance that caused the spiced whiskey Fireball to be recalled in Europe, which found excessive amounts of the chemical, also used in antifreeze, in the cinnamon swill last fall. The tainted liquor was from the North American batch because, in the U.S., much higher volumes of antifreeze additives are OK for human—or canine—consumption.

“It’s horrible. That is something that you don’t want in dog food,” noted veterinarian and author Karen "Doc" Halligan when reached by phone. “It’s controversial. Why do you want to take a risk if there’s any kind of chance that that could be bad for them?”

But whether it’s good for dogs or not, food grade propylene glycol has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It also hasn’t been linked to toxicity, especially the type being alleged against Beneful.

Cereghino thinks there’s another culprit in the mix, and he’s named it in the lawsuit. They’re called mycotoxins.

Translated directly from the Greek words for “fungus poison,” mycotoxins are, essentially, a toxic byproduct of mold. When it comes to ducking discovery, they’re an especially crafty brand mold byproduct, and one found in all types of grains.

If you read the ingredients label of Beneful, it sounds an awful lot like breakfast cereal: ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, rice flour, soy flour. Sure, there’s some “chicken byproduct meal” and “animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols,” but the food is certainly more grain than meat.

“In the channels of trade, grain is quite a lot like hamburger these days. As in ‘There’s multiple cows in a hamburger,’ if you will,” explained Dr. Gregory Möller, professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at the University of Idaho and Washington State University joint School of Food Science. “It’s a mixed and blended commodity. So one farmer, one granary, or one mill, may have not stored their product well, which allowed for mold growth in storage.”

Even if a scientist were to stumble upon a load of grain rife with mycotoxins, Möller added, he or she could test it and still miss them.

“You can go into a sample that is known contaminated,” Möller noted. “But the particular sub sample you pull may not have enough on it to actually see. There is that challenge.”

This can be exacerbated when the host grain is earmarked for non-human use.

“Commodities that are targeted towards pet foods are managed a little bit differently, in terms of the regulatory criteria they have to pass,” he continued. “It is a very large industry. There is attention and concern about quality, but there is a difference in how the concern is managed.”

In layman’s terms?

“I think what’s put forth here is a plausible scenario,” Möller said.

When asked about the alleged symptoms described in the class action suit and online, especially the repeated liver failure, Halligan was clear in her potential diagnosis, especially as it pertained to animals of a variety of ages.

“Toxins would be real high on my list. If an animal ingests some type of toxin, that can lead to liver disease because the liver has to process it,” said Halligan.

But there have not yet been any tests to determine if mycotoxins are in Beneful at all—or any other dog food, for that matter.

Cereghino said he’s determined to find that out.

“As soon as we are able to, and the federal courts move at a fairly rapid rate, we will get discovery,” said Cereghino.

That’s when Cereghino will get to find out where Beneful’s products come from, how they’re stored, whether there’s a “connecting piece in the storage or the grain, the sourcing of it all, that sort of make sense.” He plans on running tests on the food both he and other members of the class action suit have saved to send over to a lab in the next few weeks.

That’s when they’ll know if those potentially dangerous chemicals are in the formula. And, if they are, they’ll still have to fight to prove that the mycotoxins are dangerous enough to make thousands of dogs sick.

As for Purina, when approached for comment, Keith Schopp, vice president of corporate public relations, read this statement to The Daily Beast:

“We believe the lawsuit is without merit and we intend to vigorously defend ourselves. Beneful is a high-quality nutritious food enjoyed by millions of dogs each year and there are no product quality issues with Beneful.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

MSNBC Not All In with Chris Hayes Anymore

When reporting on a TV personality possibly getting the boot from their network, it’s par for the course to request for official comment on the matter. When you do this long enough, you begin to notice some patterns as it pertains to certain networks. In the case of MSNBC (and NBC News in general), I think I’ve found — as they say in poker — their tell.

A tell, of course, is that trait or sign in regard to the poker hand they hold. Is that person bluffing? Doesn’t he have a straight flush? A tell — as seen in the classic Rounders with Matt Damon and John Malkovich as the great Teddy KGB — can make or break who wins the pot. With MSNBC, I first noticed its tell following my original exclusive about the demise of Ronan Farrow’s daytime show.

To review, when asking if the network was planning on cancelling the ill-fated program for the 26 year old Cronkite Award Winner, the answer was the following: “No. We’re fully committed to Ronan.”

So, I took that as a standard denial without reading between the lines too much. But in retrospect, the tell is obvious: Being fully committed to Ronan is one thing, being fully committed to his program is quite another. Network spokespeople are meticulously trained in this stuff and, in this case, thought of that response very carefully before replying. The language specifically engineered so that if I went back to them now and called them out, they can always say, “Hey, we never said we were committed to the show, just committed to the host staying on at the network in a different capacity,” or something to that effect.

Fast forward to last week and the announcement around the aforementioned Farrow and Joy Reid‘s respective 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. ET programs being cancelled. Not a big surprise given the anemic numbers — even by MSNBC standards. But the bigger story to emerge was that the network is eying Chris Hayes as well, who isn’t exactly killing it at 8 p.m. (the most important time slot out there), falling to third and sometimes fourth place behind HLN’s Forensic Files repeats.

Any objective media critic or fan will tell you Hayes isn’t a prime-time host (he was great on weekend mornings in his old Up spot, where his style, pace and topic selection was and would be a better fit) — and that reportedly includes Griffin, who made the big bet (at the reported behest of Rachel Maddow) on Hayes and is seeing very little return on investment.

All of that said, when asked if the network planned to cancel Hayes following the report in The Daily Beast, here was the response below from an MSNBC spokesperson: “Contrary to the rumors from unnamed sources, we have no plans take Chris Hayes’ show off the air or move Rachel Maddow’s show.”

Given the Farrow example, you see the tell, right? No plans to take Chris Hayes’ show off the air will likely mean not taking it off entirely, but instead moving it to a different home out of prime time. Or no plans could be flackese for no finalized plans at this exact moment in time.

This isn’t the first time NBC has gone this route either. Just think back to the time the network denied that Ed Schultz was being removed from weekday primetime to a weekend slot (Hint: It happened, despite denials). Or the times NBC News repeatedly denied the ousting of David Gregory from his moderator spot on Meet the Press (Hint: He did). Or Ann Curry being safe on the Today Show (Yeah, you get the idea).

Of course, this just doesn’t pertain to MSNBC, but all networks trying to hang on and control the narrative after word is leaked of a program’s or personality’s impending doom.

But given his network’s track record, if I’m Chris Hayes, I see the tell and start looking forward to getting my weekday dinner time back with the wife and kid again soon.

>> Follow Joe Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV

Rahm Emanuel's Moment of Fucking Truth

The Chicago mayor hopes voters will allow him to avoid an April runoff despite school closures and outbreaks of violent crime.

Larry Downing/Reuters
Too often, candidates run for office promising one thing and deliver another, alienating or simply disaffecting voters, and ultimately losing their offices. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces a different sort of challenge: For the most part, he's given voters what he said he would. Now, do they want to keep it?

He'll find out Tuesday, when Windy City voters go to the polls in a mayoral election. Emanuel has mounted an extremely expensive, high-powered push to get past 50 percent of the vote—the threshold he needs to win reelection outright and avoid an April 7 runoff. The X-factor in the race seems to be black voters, so Emanuel has rolled out endorsements from high-profile African American politicians, including his former boss President Obama and Representative Bobby Rush, the only man to ever beat Obama in an election.

A Chicago Tribune poll last week showed that Emanuel was within striking distance of an outright majority, with 45 percent of voters backing him, and nearly 20 percent undecided. Emanuel's top opponent is Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia; other challengers include Alderman Bob Fioretti and businessman Willie Wilson.
It's been a rambunctious four years for Emanuel. After an election campaign in which he was nearly disqualified under residency requirements, the former U.S. representative and White House chief of staff cruised to victory. Since then, Emanuel has closed almost 50 schools; dealt with a strike by public-school teachers; passed an austerity budget for the city; and faced a significant murder rate.

The bruising term has turned some voters off, especially after 22 years in which the city was led by the same man, Richard Daley. But in many ways, Emanuel has done just what he said he would, bringing his brusque, no-nonsense approach to the mayorship.

Long a pragmatic moderate who reveled in muscling his preferred strategies through—often with the aid of a generous helping of profanity—that's just what he's done, on issues ranging from the budget to education. Emanuel has exercised a control over the levers of power that exceeds even his long-tenured predecessor, bending the City Council and even the state legislature to his will. But that focus seems to have come at a cost: retaining support among voters themselves, who have grown chilly on Emanuel after giving him 55 percent of the vote four years ago.

Reaching the 45 percent mark is an accomplishment in its own right. Not long ago, Emanuel's polling was in the tank, and his reelection seemed in doubt. His rebound has been helped by two big factors: good luck, and piles and piles of money. First, two of his most formidable potential opponents bowed out. Two black candidates decided not to run—Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board, passed, and Karen Lewis, a major Emanuel antagonist as head of the teachers' union, opted against running when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Meanwhile, Emanuel has raised $15 million in the race, pouring much of it into television ads. His enormous war chest has allowed him to far outspend Garcia on the airwaves, who was unable to get TV time until the final two-week stretch of the race. In moving early to get on TV and bury his opponent, Emanuel is taking a page out of Obama's playbook in the 2012 presidential election, when he and allies spent early to "define" Mitt Romney for voters.

Still, black voters—who came out in force for Emanuel four years ago, in part because of Obama's backing—remain cool. In the Tribune poll, only 42 percent backed him this time around, with a quarter still undecided. That's in large part because minority neighborhoods have borne the brunt of Chicago's recent troubles. Most of the schools that closed are in those neighborhoods. Emanuel says that was actually for the better: The schools that were shuttered were underused and under-performing, and the closures should lead to students getting better educations. He also boasts of improvements like longer school days and more extensive pre-K programs. Horrific violence is also a major factor. Even as other cities saw big drops, there were 500 murders in Chicago in 2013, many of them concentrated in minority neighborhoods. (The number was down to 407 in 2014, a 40-year record low.)

If Emanuel has ridden Obama's coattails, his challengers have tried to emulate New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's example. As a technocratic, moderate Democrat who used a top-down style and has won plaudits from neoliberal pundits on issues like education, he seems to invite just the sort of left-wing campaign de Blasio used in his come-from-behind victory in 2013. They've even co-opted de Blasio's leitmotif, accusing Emanuel of overseeing a city divided into "two Chicagos."

Emanuel essentially admitted that was true in an interview with The New York Times. “‘The city that works’ has to work for everybody,” he said, alluding to a nickname for Chicago. “Have we made progress in areas that had developed for years? Yes. Is our work done? Absolutely not.” (Skeptics might note that he's been saying the same since his term started, and apparently hasn't finished the job yet. In a profile in The Atlantic in 2012, Emanuel told Jonathan Alter almost exactly the same thing: "We are known as ‘the city that works.’ You gotta make sure it works for everybody and not just a few.”)

The irony is that even as Emanuel risks losing voters, his hold on the city has been extremely strong—stronger even than Daley, by some measures. The mayor has managed to turn the city council into a "rubber stamp" for his policies, with aldermen backing him more than they did Daley or his father, who was mayor for 21 years.

If Emanuel can win on Tuesday, it might set him up for a tenure comparable to Daley pere or fils, perhaps even with more power. But most analysts are calling the contest too close to predict at this point, and if Emanuel wins only a strong plurality matters get murkier. Emanuel would retain the advantage of incumbency, fundraising, and backing from the national Democratic establishment. Yet Dick Simpson, an oft-quoted political scientist and former alderman, thinks Emanuel would be in trouble in a runoff: He'd suddenly look far more vulnerable, and national liberals would flock in to aid Garcia. (For the record, Simpson has contributed to Garcia's campaign.)

Hence the race to the finish for the mayor, as he spent aggressively and shook as many hands as possible in the last few days before balloting. Not that glad-handing is a pleasant task right now—as of writing, it feels like -14º F in Chicago. Tuesday won't be great either, with the high barely reaching freezing and a forecast of gusty winds that should live up to Chicago's nickname. Bad weather tends to be a boon to incumbents. For a candidate who's already gotten very lucky, the forecast is one last stroke of fortune.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Final Judgment: MSNBC Moving Away From "Left-Wing TV"

Cenk Uygur host of The Young Turks addresses the recent programming shift at MSNBC. A source at MSNBC said the goal of the changes was to "move away from left wing TV". Cenk has a unique opinion as someone who was once inside the MSNBC bubble.