Headlines: Labor, wealth, pols, porn, more


Belated postuing today, thanks to a visit from grandbaby Sadie Rose and parents.

First up, form McClatchy Washington Bureau, consolidating the wealth:

Report: large employers could shift nearly all workers’ health coverage to marketplace by 2020

A new investor report predicts that Standard & Poor’s 500 companies could shift 90 percent of their workforce from job-based health coverage to individual insurance sold on the nation’s marketplaces by 2020.

If all U.S. companies with 50 or more employees followed suit, they could collectively save $3.25 trillion through 2025, according to the report by S&P Capital IQ, a division of McGraw Hill Financial.

Standard & Poor’s 500 companies could save $689 billion over the same period if they did likewise, the report found. Savings for S&P 500 companies could top $800 billion if health care inflation remains at the traditional 7.5 percent rate over the next decade, the report estimates.

From Wall Street On Parade, that’s classified:

Suspicious Deaths of Bankers Are Now Classified as “Trade Secrets” by Federal Regulator

It doesn’t get any more Orwellian than this: Wall Street mega banks crash the U.S. financial system in 2008. Hundreds of thousands of financial industry workers lose their jobs. Then, beginning late last year, a rash of suspicious deaths start to occur among current and former bank employees.  Next we learn that four of the Wall Street mega banks likely hold over $680 billion face amount of life insurance on their workers, payable to the banks, not the families. We ask their Federal regulator for the details of this life insurance under a Freedom of Information Act request and we’re told the information constitutes “trade secrets.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the life expectancy of a 25 year old male with a Bachelor’s degree or higher as of 2006 was 81 years of age. But in the past five months, five highly educated JPMorgan male employees in their 30s and one former employee aged 28, have died under suspicious circumstances, including three of whom allegedly leaped off buildings – a statistical rarity even during the height of the financial crisis in 2008.

CNNMoney torpedoes the workforce:

Subway leads fast food industry in underpaying workers

McDonald’s gets a lot of bad press for its low pay. But there’s an even bigger offender when it comes to fast food companies underpaying their employees: Subway.

Individual Subway franchisees have been found in violation of pay and hour rules in more than 1,100 investigations spanning from 2000 to 2013, according to a CNNMoney analysis of data collected by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

Each investigation can lead to multiple violations and fines. Combined, these cases found about 17,000 Fair Labor Standards Act violations and resulted in franchisees having to reimburse Subway workers more than $3.8 million over the years.

From CNBC, peonage and the classroom:

The other student debt crisis

Student debt is straining millions of students’ finances, and it is a hot-button topic on college campuses across the country. But if you look at who is really borrowing heavily, it’s the graduate students.

Graduate students made up less than 18 percent of all the students receiving federal loans in the academic year 2012-2013, but they received about 40 percent of the federal money, according to an analysis of Department of Education data. And a study released in March by the New America Foundation found that for the roughly 64 percent of graduate students who take out loans, the median debt for their undergraduate and graduate education was over $57,000 in 2012, up from just over $40,000 in 2004.

“The people who are borrowing are borrowing everything,” said Jason Delisle, director of the federal education budget project at the New America Foundation and the author of the recent study. “If you’re going to borrow for graduate school, it’s generally not people who are borrowing just to fill in the gaps.”

More woes for students, from the Christian Science Monitor:

State college tuition skyrocketed during recession, study finds

Strapped from the recession, states foisted more of the cost of public college tuition onto students. In 45 states, tuition rose more than 20 percent since 2008. The trend is only now starting to ease.

As state budgets bounce back from the Great Recession, most are starting to increase their funding of higher education, an area of spending where cuts went especially deep. But all but two states – Alaska and North Dakota – still spend less per student than they did before the recession.

With both college tuition and student loans skyrocketing in recent years, much attention has gone to those state funding levels – a major reason behind the spiraling cost of attending college, at least for public institutions. A new report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a Washington think tank, quantifies just how much funding for public colleges and universities was cut in the past six years, and what the effects of those cuts have been.

“In many states the cuts have been extraordinarily deep,” said Michael Mitchell, an author of the report, in a call with reporters. “Over the last 25 years, nearly every state has shifted higher education costs from the state to students – this has been a trend for some time. But the recession, and the years following the recession, absolutely kicked this trend into high gear…. The cuts are in part a result of state revenue collapse, but they were also a product of poor policy choices, with states relying on spending cuts to make up for lost revenue.”

From Newswise, twice victimized:

Unemployment Common After Breast Cancer Treatment

  • Women who had chemotherapy less likely to be employed 4 years later

Nearly one-third of breast cancer survivors who were working when they began treatment were unemployed four years later. Women who received chemotherapy were most affected, according to a new study from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Researchers surveyed woman in Detroit and Los Angeles who had been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. They narrowed their sample to the 746 women who reported working at the time they were diagnosed. Participants were surveyed about nine months after diagnosis, and then given a follow-up survey about four years later.

Overall, 30 percent of these working women said they were no longer working at the time of the four-year follow-up survey. Women who received chemotherapy were more likely to report that they were not working four years later.

Many of these women reported that they want to work: 55 percent of those not working said it was important for them to work and 39 percent said they were actively looking for work. Those who were not working were significantly more likely to report they were worse off financially. Results of the study appear in the journal Cancer.

Obama whines, via Techdirt:

Obama Complains That TPP Critics Are ‘Conspiracy Theorists’ Who ‘Lack Knowledge’ About Negotiations

from the well,-that-would-appear-to-be-your-own-fault dept

It’s become fairly clear that the TPP agreement is in trouble these days (for a variety of reasons). And it appears that President Obama is losing his cool concerning the agreement and its critics. In a press conference with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, President Obama lashed out at TPP critics, calling them “conspiracy theorists” whose criticism “reflects lack of knowledge of what is going on in the negotiations.” Oh really?

If you take an issue like drugs, for example, the United States does extraordinary work in research and development, and providing medical breakthroughs that save a lot of lives around the world. Those companies that make those investments in that research oftentimes want a return, and so there are all kinds of issues around intellectual property and patents, and so forth.

At the same time, I think we would all agree that if there’s a medicine that can save a lot of lives, then we’ve got to find a way to make sure that it’s available to folks who simply can’t afford it as part of our common humanity. And both those values are reflected in the conversations and negotiations that are taking place around TPP. So the assumption somehow that right off the bat that’s not something we’re paying attention to, that reflects lack of knowledge of what is going on in the negotiations.

More on the TPP from the Japan Daily Press:

TPP deal talks in the ‘last stretch’ says Japanese official

A week after U.S. President Barack Obama left Japan after a three-day state visit that saw no conclusion to bilateral negotiations crucial to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, a high-ranking official from Japan said that significant progress has been made but further efforts are needed to finalize an agreement.

Speaking to reporters via a translator in New York, Senior Vice Minister of the Cabinet Office Yasutoshi Nishimura said that the two countries are in the “last stretch” of their negotiations. He admitted that while there “was some progress” last week, “there still remains a gap and we have to make efforts to come to a compromise.” He added that the final stages of talks will be difficult as it seemed that neither side wants to budge on some of their considerations, particularly in agriculture for Japan and automobiles for the US. Finalizing a TPP deal is essential in the growth strategy of the so-called “Abenomics,” a series of economic policies introduced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to increase consumer spending and ease monetary policies. This strategy was proposed by no other than Nishimura to the prime minister.

And from TMZ, the first of two porno posts:

Samuel L. Jackson

Stop Promoting Free Porn …Say Angry XXX Actors

Samuel L. Jackson likes his porn … but he wants it for FREE … and that’s pissing off some XXX stars who accuse Sam of promoting film piracy.

Jackson — aka Nick Fury —  was at a news conference for the new Capt. America movie when he was asked to name one of the best pop culture achievements of the last 50 years. SLJ had a quick answer: RedTube — the free porn sharing website.

Now some actors in the skin biz are demanding an apology from Sam … telling TMZ RedTube is nothing more than a pirate site that allows users to illegally post stolen porn.  And, they add, “Superheroes don’t steal porn.”

Our second porn post, via Al Jazeera:

PayPal blocking transactions of porn professionals

  • Emails obtained by cite concerns over webcam transactions and security

Online payment giant PayPal closed porn star Teal Conrad’s accounts and “banned her from the site,” she told Al Jazeera on Wednesday, one day after a report on how financial institutions are shutting out clients who work in the adult entertainment industry.

An email sent by PayPal to Conrad, obtained by Al Jazeera, said: “We’ve recently reviewed your PayPal account activity and determined that you are in violation of PayPal’s Acceptable Use Policy regarding your sales / offers of cam shows.”

PayPal’s Acceptable Use Policy bars people from using the service for transactions involving “certain sexually oriented materials or services.”

Digesting legal weed with the Independent:

Colorado’s new cannabis laws: OK to smoke, not OK to eat

Colorado, the US state which recently became the first to legalise cannabis for recreational use, is considering new legislation to govern pot-infused food. A task force comprised of lawmakers and marijuana producers met in Aurora, near Denver, on Wednesday to begin discussing new rules for the labelling and consumption of so-called “edibles”, following two recent deaths that were said to have been marijuana-related.

In late 2012, Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment legalising marijuana for recreational use. The new law came into force on 1 January 2014, when legal commercial weed sales began. In its first month, the state raised around $2m (£1.2m) in pot taxes.

For many, edible pot products have proved to be a more practical alternative to smoking the drug: the law prohibits smoking weed outdoors and few hotels allow it on their premises. Yet while edibles are increasingly popular, there are also widespread complaints from consumers that they are inadvertently ingesting too much pot too quickly, leading to bad experiences.

From The Register, getting a little for a lot?:

Google Glass teardown puts rock-bottom price on hardware

  • Google objects to notion that $1500 headset only costs $80 to make

A teardown report on Google Glass is raising eyebrows over suggestions that the augmented reality headset costs as little as $80 to produce.

Researchers with the TechInsights’ teardown.com service placed the bill of materials (BOM) of the device at a mere $79.78. The report, which considers the cost of components ranging from processor and battery to non-electric structural pieces, estimates that no part of a Glass headset costs the company more than $14.

Thus far, Google has limited the Glass headset to tightly-controlled demo programs and a one-day sale which require users to cough up $1,500 to get their hands on the headset.

Al Jazeera America covers the plight of Native Americans in the U.S.:

Exclusive: Navajo Nation report raises concerns on ‘food sovereignty’

  • Researchers suggest the nation needs to develop homegrown solutions to counter the scarcity of healthy food

Many in the Navajo Nation do not have the food they need, even though more than half the population receives some kind of nutritional subsidy, according to a study by Navajo Nation researchers released exclusively to Al Jazeera.

The inability to adequately feed its people poses a threat to the Navajo Nation’s sovereignty and sustainability, according to the study’s authors, who suggest the need to develop homegrown solutions to food scarcity.

The Diné Food Sovereignty Report, the most extensive exploration to date on the nation’s food supply, is scheduled for release next week by the Navajo think tank the Diné Policy Institute (DPI). The study reveals that 63 percent of 230 Navajo people surveyed receive some kind of government food subsidy such as food stamps.

And the Canadian Press covers their plight north of the border:

Report of 1,000 murdered or missing aboriginal women spurs calls for inquiry

  • APTN reports RCMP arrived at tally after contacting other police forces across Canada

The Conservative government is resisting renewed calls for an inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls despite a media report that suggests there may be hundreds more cases than previously thought.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney was asked Thursday to finally call a inquiry in light of a report by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network that Canada may be home to more than 1,000 cases of murdered and missing women.

His answer, in short: no.

Instead, Blaney launched a partisan broadside against the NDP’s refusal to support the government’s budget bill, which includes a five-year, $25-million renewal of money aimed at stopping violence against aboriginal women and girls.

And another nother-of-the-border woe from the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Rob Ford takes leave as recent drug video emerges

A second video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking what has been described as crack cocaine by a self-professed drug dealer was secretly filmed in his sister’s basement early Saturday morning.

The clip, which was viewed by two Globe and Mail reporters, shows Mr. Ford taking a drag from a long copper-coloured pipe, exhaling a cloud of smoke and then frantically shaking his right hand. The footage is part of a package of three videos that the drug dealer says he surreptitiously shot around 1:15 a.m., and which he says he is now selling for “at least six figures.”

The footage comes to light weeks after Mr. Ford embarked on a re-election campaign styled on the importance of second chances and forgiving mistakes. Nearly a year ago, the mayor thrust himself into worldwide infamy when another drug dealer, Mohamed Siad, tried to sell another video of the mayor allegedly smoking crack to media outlets in Canada and the United States. At the time, the mayor denied using the drug, only to later admit that he had smoked crack cocaine in a “drunken stupor” and that he was not an addict.

Off to Europe starting with a bubble alarm from the Guardian:

Bank of England warns UK housing market could suffer hard landing

Deputy governor for financial stability says it’s ‘dangerous’ to ignore momentum in housing market, and warns it could end in sharp correction and negative equity for many households

And the neoliberal agenda strike again, tragically. From the Guardian:

Owen Paterson defends ‘privatising’ UK environmental science agency

  • New commercial partner sought for Food and Research Agency, but Labour denounces move as a ‘secretive sell-off’

The UK environment secretary has defended government plans to seek a private investor for its environmental science agency.

But the Labour party said that the lack of detail from Owen Paterson made the move look like a “secretive sell-off” and “anti-science”.

The Guardian reported on Monday that plans were in motion to open up the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), which undertakes research on pesticides, bee health, GM safety, alien pests and food-testing, to a joint venture with investment from the private sector.

Easing separation anxieties with the London Telegraph:

Scottish ‘yes’ vote could improve UK credit, says Moody’s

  • Moody’s has said an independent Scotland would likely receive an investment grade rating and that the rest of the UK’s credit could actually be improved in the event of a ‘yes’ vote

Britain could end up with a better credit rating if Scotland votes for independence, with a ‘yes’ providing the catalyst for an upgrade of the remaining UK’s debt, according to Moody’s.

The rating agency said Scottish independence was “unlikely” to have any impact on the country’s credit and that the elimination of the sizeable fiscal transfers between the rest of Britain and Scotland could actually be a “credit positive”.

In a series of reports on the impact of independence, Moody’s said it believed Scotland would likely hold an investment grade rating, but warned that the rest of the UK would only maintain its current credit if the Scottish accepted their share of Britain’s debt pile.

From the Guardian, austerianism strikes again:

Freeze minimum wage for a decade, says Commission of Audit

  • Level should be reduced to 44% of average weekly earnings, or $486.20 a week, from its current $622.20, says report

The minimum wage should be frozen for a decade, reduced to 44% of average weekly earnings and vary between states and territories, according to the Commission of Audit.

The current minimum wage is $622.20 a week, or $16.37 an hour, about 56% of average weekly earnings. Reducing it by 44% this year would see it fall to $486.20 a week.

The report recommends that the cut could be implemented over 10 years by keeping the growth at 1 percentage point less than inflation.

And from the Independent, the geography of health:

People born in the wealthy south east have 14 more years without disability than those from Liverpool or Manchester

Further evidence of the scale of the UK’s health divide was revealed today as it emerged that those born in the richest London boroughs and affluent parts of the South East can expect to enjoy up to 14 years of additional disability-free life compared with those from the most deprived parts of England.

An average man born in Liverpool or Manchester will live for just 56 years before developing a major life-limiting condition, spending a quarter of his natural span coping with disability, figures published by the Office for National Statistics have revealed.

The findings have major implications for health policy makers who were urged to take urgent steps to end the lifespan lottery of an individual’s birthplace dictating their future longevity and wellbeing.

On to Sweden and more hard times intolerance from TheLocal.se:

Mass arrests at neo-Nazi May Day demonstration

A total of 19 people have been arrested and dozens of others carted away following clashes at a neo-Nazi May Day march in Jönköping, central Sweden, where counter demonstrators outnumbered the far-right activists.

The protest march by the right wing Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas party – SVP) attracted a large police presence, reckoned to be as high as 450 officers, following trouble at a similar rally last year.

In addition to the 19 arrests, a further 90 people were taken away from the scene by bus. Another 32 people were taken into custody on grounds of causing disorder. It’s understood that of the 19 arrests, 13 of them were as a result of disobeying police orders.

And from Amsterdam, warnings of corporate misbehavin’ from DutchNews.nl:

Dutch central bank says trust office performances are ‘worrying’

Trust offices, which manage letter box companies in the Netherlands, are not doing their job properly, according to the Dutch central bank, the Financieele Dagblad reports on Thursday.

The central bank looked into 10 trust offices and concluded that only two were completely above board.

Four lost their licences, two were fined and two others are the subject of further investigation to assess if their managers are ‘suitable and trustworthy’, the Financieele Dagblad says.

Germany next, and a labor day demand from Deutsche Welle:

German unions demand wage minimum without loopholes

Germany’s DGB trade union federation has marked May Day by demanding that a minimum wage be introduced nationwide without loopholes. Leaders also blamed high youth unemployment in southern Europe on austerity policies.

Germany’s trade union chief Michael Sommer told Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government on Thursday to resist employer pressure for exceptions while legislating to introduce a planned hourly wage minimum of 8.50 euros ($11.50).

The minimum – known in German as ‘Mindestlohn’ and to be phased in over the next two years – was one of the key policy planks of the coalition which Merkel’s conservatives formed with the union-allied Social Democrats (SPD) in January.

Speaking at a May Day rally in Bremen, Sommer said “no hour should be cheaper than 8.50 euros,” adding that the unions saw that wage minimum’s introduction as a “test” on whether Merkel’s government was “really serious” about social justice.

Reuters delivers the cuts:

Siemens to cut thousands of jobs as part of new strategy: report

A new strategy to be unveiled by Siemens (SIEGn.DE) on May 7 will include thousands of job cuts, Germany’s Manager Magazin Online reported on Monday, citing several senior Siemens managers.

It said the strategy would see Siemens’ four main divisions – Industry, Energy, Healthcare and Infrastructure & Cities – dismantled, creating a flatter hierarchy and resulting in job cuts of roughly between 5,000-10,000.

It also said Siemens would announce an acquisition in the energy sector worth at least 1 billion euros ($1.38 billion), separate to the deal with Alstom (ALSO.PA) currently being considered by Siemens.

Off to Italy, and a judicial shoe-in from TheLocal.it:

Dolce & Gabbana duo get 18-month jail sentence

Italian fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana were on Wednesday sentenced to 18 months in prison for tax evasion, going against a prosecutor’s call last month to have the pair acquitted.

The designers were found guilty of €200 million worth of tax evasion, through the creation of a shell company in Luxembourg in 2004 and 2005.
Wednesday’s decision by Milan’s Court of Appeal upholds the guilty verdict of Dolce and Gabbana’s trial last year, reducing their prison sentences by two months.

After the jump, Latin American news, a postal privatization push Down Under, mixed economic and environmental news form China, economic uncertainly in Japan, emerging global environmental threats, and the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . .

Our first Latin American story covers discontent in Brazil with MercoPress:

Brazil: Protestors demanding housing block main access routes and camp outside City Council

A demonstration supporting access to low-cost housing on Wednesday blocked several stretches of the Marginal Tiete, one of the main access routes to Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and financial capital.

The protest was called by a group of residents who are asking the Sao Paulo municipal administration to cancel the order to vacate a plot of land they occupied near the Marginal Tiete.

The demonstrators blocked part of the road in the direction of downtown and tried to stop some of the vehicles that were moving along other routes.

This type of protest in support of dignified housing is becoming a regular occurrence in Sao Paulo, where millions of people live in huge camps that lack basic services such as running water and electricity.

Australia next, with another neoliberal push from the Guardian:

Australia Post and the Mint targeted in privatisation push

Commission of Audit proposes tapping $13bn of equity tied up in government business enterprises

Privatisation is back on the federal agenda, with the Commission of Audit proposing the sell-off of nine major government entities – including Australia Post, and the money printing service, the Australian Mint.

The new report contends the commonwealth now has about $13bn of equity tied up in government business enterprises.

It reasons that all commonwealth bodies which operate in “contestable markets” should be considered for their future privatisation potential. It also questions whether privatised businesses should have ongoing community service obligations to the community. Entities like Australian Post fund their community service obligations, such as providing postage at uniform rates, by cross subsidy.

India next, and slumming it with Vocativ:

Slumming It: Tourism in India’s Shantytowns

  • Tourists are flocking to Mumbai slums to peek at poverty. And residents see their curiosity as a lucrative opportunity to escape

Mumbai is India’s financial capital, a locus of wealth on the subcontinent, yet located in the heart of this modern city is one of Asia’s largest slums. Dharavi occupies less than 1 square mile, yet is home to an estimated 1 million people. While some may view this densely populated city within a city as an eyesore, others see its potential as a tourist attraction.

Tourists come to Dharavi to witness how the other half lives, more so than ever since the 2009 premiere of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which follows the story of a young man from the slums. Locals have started tour companies to capitalize on this increase in tourism. Although the tours raise certain ethical issues, many of these companies make a point to also give back to the community that they are putting on display.

China next, with an uptick from SINA English:

China’s manufacturing growth rises in April

CHINA’S manufacturing growth continued to rise in April, fresh evidence of better performance in the manufacturing sector, official data showed today.

The purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for the country’s manufacturing sector rose to 50.4 percent last month, up from 50.3 percent in March, according to a statement jointly released by the National Bureau of Statistics and the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing. This is the second consecutive monthly uptick of the widely-watched data.

The index began to climb in March after posting three months of declines. A reading below 50 indicates contraction, while above 50 signals expansion. The sub-index for new orders gained 0.6 percentage point in April from the previous month to 51.2 percent, the statement said.

Smoking out trouble, via The Verge:

China declares war on pollution

  • Aggressive legislation raises hopes that Beijing is finally getting serious about the environment

China’s explosive growth has wreaked havoc on its environment, and for decades, the government paid it little more than lip service. But the ruling Communist Party has changed its tune in recent months, acknowledging the extent of its pollution crisis, and taking aggressive action to curtail it.

Last week, the government passed sweeping amendments to its environmental protection laws — the first changes in 25 years — imposing tougher penalties for polluters and making it easier for whistleblowers and advocates to report polluting companies. When it goes into effect next January, the law will establish “environmental protection as the country’s basic policy.”

The amendments passed this month mark the latest in a series of recent moves to curb pollution in China, where environmental concerns have become a hot political issue. Late last year, the government announced its first national plan to combat climate change, and it has already committed $280 billion to cleaning its air. In March, Premier Li Keqiang said China will “declare war” on pollution, describing the country’s smog problems as “nature’s red-light warning against inefficient and blind development.”

Global Times delivers a corporate push:

China OKs IPOs after 18-month suspension

China’s securities watchdog on Wednesday approved applications for initial public offerings (IPO), the first time in 18 months.

The first batch to be approved are Kuaijishan Shaoxing Rice Wine Co. Ltd., Guangdong Ellington Electronics Technology Co. Ltd., and Nanjing Kangni Mechanical and Electrical Co. Ltd. But edg (China) Corporation Ltd. did not pass the review, according to the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC).

The CSRC said it will go on to review another three companies’ IPO applications on May 7.

From Want China Times, tech moves east to west:

Foxconn sells communications technology patents to Google

Taiwan-headquartered electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn surprised many when it announced the sale of a number of communication technology patents to Google on April 28, according to Sina’s tech news portal.

The sale was part of the strategy of Hon Hai Precision Industry, Foxconn’s parent company, to maximize the value of its intellectual property portfolio. As of 2014, it has applied for more than 128,400 patents across the world and has been granted more than 64,300 patents.

According to a report, the recently sold patents covered a wide range of fields, including mobile, internet and robot development. The report indicated that Foxconn’s move is an attempt to expand its horizons as its major client Apple faces furious market competition.

Of to Japan, and a renewed push from Jiji Press:

Japan, U.S. to Resume TPP Talks after Holidays

Japan and the United States are set to resume bilateral trade liberalization talks for an envisioned Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral deal after the end of Japan’s Golden Week holiday period in the middle of next week.

The two countries are first slated to hold working-level talks where they will work out several options that could be discussed at minister-level talks to be followed, in an effort to achieve a breakthrough in particularly thorny issues such as Japanese tariffs on pork and other farm products and automobile trade, a Japanese government official said.

In ministerial discussions late last month, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman proposed to Japanese TPP minister Akira Amari that the two nations should first set new Japanese tariff rates for sensitive categories including beef and pork.

From Xinhua, troubles from a once dominant brand:

Sony slashes earnings to 1.3 bln USD loss, as turnaround plan flounders

Sony Corp. for the third time in a year slashed its earnings, saying Thursday it now expects a 130 billion yen (1.3 billion U.S. dollar) group net loss for the business year ended in March owing to slumping consumer demand for its electronics products.

The electronics giant said today in preliminary earnings report that a February projection for a 110 billion yen loss had been upwardly revised to 130 billion yen, from an initial projection of a 30 billion yen deficit made in October, as an aggressive turnaround plan by its chief has yet to show signs of reviving the struggling Tokyo-based firm.

Owing to slumping PC sales, Sony said it now expects to incur costs to the tune of 30 billion yen connected to its sagging PC businesses and a 25 billion yen write-off bill related to overseas disk manufacturing businesses.

Rcovery? Or Not. From the Yomiuri Shimbun:

Kuroda says inflation goal in sight; some analysts differ

The Bank of Japan remains optimistic about its outlook that the core consumer price index will reach its 2 percent inflation target in fiscal 2015 through fiscal 2016, but some market analysts have voiced skepticism and speculated that the central bank will need to implement further easing measures.

BOJ Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda said at a press conference Wednesday that the consumer price index is expected to show a 2 percent inflation rate “in a period around fiscal 2015.”

“After that, [the economy] is highly likely to move into a growth path that could sustain this [rate] in a stable manner,” he said after the BOJ released its semiannual Outlook for Economic Activity and Prices report.

Next up, Fukushimapoocalypse Now!, first with NHK WORLD:

Expert: TEPCO’s safety culture still insufficient

A panel of nuclear experts monitoring reforms at the Tokyo Electric Power Company says the utility’s nuclear safety culture has not yet reached the required level.

TEPCO regularly reports to the independent advisory panel the utility set up after the 2011 accident at its Fukushima Daiichi plant. The utility gives updates on reforms to safety measures at nuclear power plants.

In the latest report, submitted on Thursday, TEPCO officials acknowledge management problems led to troubles with systems used to purify contaminated water, and repeated water leaks.

They say the firm has failed to end the vicious cycle of relying on makeshift systems due to lack of time, which leads to fresh troubles.

The Japan Times digs up the dirt:

Cohosts of Fukushima No. 1 OK meetings on soil storage plan

The assemblies of the two towns that cohost the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on Thursday approved the central government’s request to hold meetings to explain its plan to build storage facilities there for soil tainted by the March 2011 nuclear disaster.

Now that the Okuma and Futaba municipal assemblies have agreed to permit the meetings, the central government could start holding briefing sessions to persuade residents to accept the storage plan as soon as this month.

The government hopes to win backing for the storage project by explaining the details of the facilities and its measures for promoting local community development.

And from the Asahi Shimbun, slow-motion flight:

50 hours needed for evacuation if another nuclear accident occurs

It would take two days to evacuate over half a million residents in the event of another massive radioactive leak at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, according to local officials.

The prediction released April 30 was part of a wide-area evacuation plan worked out by the prefectural government in preparation for the possibility of another nuclear accident occurring at one of the two nuclear power plants there.

It was based on the assumption that current evacuees from the areas around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was crippled by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, have all returned to their homes.

From the Mainichi, a headline that leaves us very curious:

Two senior Fukushima police officers found dead in suspected suicides

Two senior Fukushima Prefectural Police force officers have been found dead within a week in what appear to be suicides, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

Prefectural police disclosed the deaths of the officers, who belonged to the criminal investigation division, on May 1. According to police, a 51-year-old inspector was found dead at a prefectural police facility in the city of Fukushima on April 28. His boss, a 52-year-old superintendent, was found dead in a car in Yamagata Prefecture on April 30 after he had been missing for two to three days. Police are questioning related parties and investigating motives for the apparent suicides.

The superintendent ranked just below the division chief. He was responsible for supervising criminal cases such as those involving corruption and fraud. The inspector was an assistant to the division chief.

From JapanToday, lingering doubts:

Fukushima residents unsure of return to no-go zone

The Japanese government is pushing ahead with efforts to decontaminate and reopen as much of a 20-kilometer no-go zone around the plant as it can. Authorities declared a tiny corner of the zone safe for living as of April 1, and hope to lift evacuation orders in more areas in the coming months and years.

Former residents have mixed feelings. In their hearts, many want their old lives back. But distrust about the decontamination program runs deep. Will it really be safe? Others among the more than 100,000 displaced have established new lives elsewhere, in the years since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami sent three of Fukushima’s reactors into meltdown.

If the evacuation order is lifted for their area, they will lose a monthly stipend of 100,000 yen they receive from Tokyo Electric Power Co, the owner of the Fukushima plant.

And from the Japan Daily Press, pushing ahead regardless:

Japan, France to announce joint research on fast reactor

Aside from the trade talks and security pacts, part of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Europe is to build cooperation with other countries regarding research on fast reactors, aimed to help Japan’s nuclear energy use. Japan and France are set to collaborate on a research project on this, which the two nations will announce during Abe’s visit to the country in the next days as part of his six-country European tour.

The joint research will see Japan offer technical knowledge for the development project of France, which aims to reduce highly-radioactive waste. France, on the other hand will offer Japan a chance to test fuel for their new fast demonstration reactor called ASTRID or Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration in its Monju facility for fast-breeder reactors. The testing is part of France’s plan to start operations of the ASTRID reactor by 2025 on the premise that a basic design will be completed by 2019.

However, all 48 nuclear reactors of Japan are offline after the 2011 meltdown in Fukushima, which makes international partnerships a bit harder. To facilitate the research, the government is expected to speed up the reforms needed by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), most especially in their safety requirements, before it can be turned on. Japan’s special interest in the ASTRID reactor stems from its capability to decrease radioactive wastes in nuclear plants and to shorten the radioactivity generated by the plants, which is proven dangerous to humans. The joint research agreement will be announced by Abe and French President Francois Hollande within the week and would be signed by officials from the Japan’s Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, Natural Resources and Energy Agency and France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.

From our Department of Other Fuels/Other Places/Other Problems, this from Yale Environment 360:

In a Troubled African Park, A Battle Over Oil Exploration

Africa’s Virunga National Park has long been known for its mountain gorillas and for the lawless militias that operate there. But the recent shooting of the park warden and plans to begin oil exploration inside the park have sparked international concern about the future of this iconic World Heritage Site.
by fred pearce

Africa’s oldest national park will soon be echoing with the sounds of geologists conducting seismic surveys to establish the size of the park’s oil reserves — in direct defiance of requests from the United Nations, conservation groups, and the British government. The survey in Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is set to begin any day now. This comes just two weeks after the park’s chief warden, Belgian prince and conservationist Emmanuel de Merode, was shot during an ambush on the road to the park.

There is no evidence to suggest that the two events are linked in any way. But they underline a growing sense of crisis about the future of the park, which is slightly smaller than Yellowstone. It includes mountain forests, wetlands, savanna grassland, volcanoes, and lakes, and it is home to Africa’s largest surviving populations of mountain gorillas and hippos. It is believed to have more biological diversity than any other protected area in Africa.

The Asahi Shimbun recalls an environmental disaster of decades past:

Minamata disease victims seek UNESCO Memory of World listing

Minamata disease sufferers and their relatives plan to seek registration of materials related to their mercury poisoning disease in UNESCO’s Memory of the World.

Members of the Storytellers Organization at the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum were to hand over their petition to Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara and Kumamoto Governor Ikuo Kabashima on May 1, which marks the 58th anniversary of formal recognition of Minamata disease. It ranks as one of the four big pollution diseases in Japan.

A commemorative ceremony for Minamata disease victims was held here earlier in the day.

From Salon, the human legacy?:

Our trash has found its way to the deepest, darkest depths of the oceans

  • Researchers mapping the ocean floor found garbage everywhere they went

We haven’t yet reached the point when we need to start seriously considering launching our trash into space, but humanity’s garbage has already found its way to places where no man has gone before.

European scientists working to map the ocean floor say they found trash everywhere they went, at points nearly 15,000 feet deep and as far away as 1,200 miles from the nearest human settlement. They turned up plastic, discarded fishing nets and lines, glass, metal, wood, paper and cardboard, clothing, pottery and other, unidentified materials from the continental shelf of Europe to the mid-Atlantic ridge (about halfway to America), as well as in the Mediterranean Sea. The entire report of their “discovery,” which they wrote up for PLOS ONE, reads like a nightmare — one that’s set in a very densely packed dump.

“This survey has shown that human litter is present in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote and deepest parts of the oceans,” said Kerry Howell, of Plymouth University’s Marine Institute. “Most of the deep sea remains unexplored by humans and these are our first visits to many of these sites, but we were shocked to find that our rubbish has got there before us.”

Another for our final item, another miracle material, another set of problems, via the Independent:

Miracle material graphene has dangerous edge

  • The wonder stuff could damage the environment if it is let loose, experts have warned

Graphene has been hailed as a miracle material that many believe could revolutionise many industries, but it might have more dangerous side effects as it spreads into the environment, experts say.

Researchers have found that the graphene oxide, created when the material is exposed to air, moves easily through bodies of water. Researchers worry could lead to it easily finding its way into human bodies.

That is worrying because the effects of graphene in human bodies are unknown. One recent study at Brown University found that jagged edges of the material can easily pierce cell membranes, allowing it to enter cells and disrupt their functions.

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