Daily Archives: February 7, 2009

Royal Bank of Scotland to pay £1 billion in bonuses to staff after £20 billion taxpayer bail-out

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The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is proposing to pay close to £1 billion in bonuses to its staff, just months after it was rescued by a £20 billion taxpayer bail-out, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.

Telegraph | Feb 6, 2009

Royal Bank of Scotland to pay staff £1 billion in bonuses

By Mark Kleinman, City Editor and Patrick Hennessy, Political Editor

The bank’s board has begun discussions about the bonuses with UK Financial Investments (UKFI), the body set up by the Treasury to manage the Government’s shareholdings in Britain’s ailing banks.

The scale of the plan is likely to increase public anger as the recession deepens, and add to the frustration of ministers. It comes as Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, announces in The Sunday Telegraph today his plans for an independent review of the way banks are managed, including the bonus system.

The review, which ministers hope will address voters’ concerns about big payments to executives, will examine the roles of directors and institutional investors and study how British banks compare with overseas institutions.

“We cannot return to business as usual,” writes Mr Darling in this newspaper. “It is in everyone’s interest to get banks’ governance right. It would be wrong to reward people whose excessive risk-taking brought the banks down, causing misery to millions of their customers. Success should be rewarded. Failure should not.” The Chancellor will announce the detailed terms of reference of the review, and its chairman, tomorrow.

In an attempt to appease ministers, RBS has indicated that no individual banker will receive a bonus with a cash element of more than £25,000 under its plans.

The remainder of the bonuses, to be paid next month, will be in RBS shares, with a large proportion of them deferred or not paid at all if an employee leaves RBS within an agreed period, or if their area of the bank makes significant losses in the following two years. UKFI, which is led by John Kingman, a senior Treasury official, is considering the proposals.

About half of the bank’s “bonus pool” will consist of payments that RBS believes it is contractually obliged to pay. Much of this sum will be paid to employees of ABN Amro, the Dutch banking group for which RBS is now acknowledged to have overpaid at the height of the banking boom. The proposed remaining bonus pool, worth about £500 million, is discretionary.

Although the sum of nearly £1 billion will provoke outrage, it represents a fall of about 60 per cent on the previous year’s bonus payments. The cash component is understood to be about 80 per cent down on last year.

RBS, which has a new chairman and chief executive in place of their sacked predecessors, is sensitive to accusations that it is paying “rewards for failure”. Stephen Hester, the new boss, will give evidence to the Commons Treasury select committee on Wednesday, when he is likely to be questioned about the bonuses. His predecessor, Sir Fred Goodwin, will appear on Tuesday.

A statement issued by UKFI last week said that “as a majority shareholder in RBS, [UKFI] is in discussions on possible approaches to remuneration. No decisions have yet been taken.”

The row over bonuses will also affect employees at Lloyds, in which the taxpayer owns a 43pc stake, and Barclays. Lloyds’ executive directors are understood to be planning to retain their share-based bonuses for last year.

Barclays is understood to be planning to pay £600 million in bonuses following the announcement of its full-year results tomorrow. That represents a fall of more than 50 per cent from last year.

Barclays has remained free from government investment but it is likely to participate in the asset insurance scheme being devised by the Treasury, which officials have decided will include binding commitments on pay policies.

RBS declined to comment.

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Too much television can make children ‘mentally ill’

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Too much television can make children ‘mentally ill’ Photo: GETTY

Too much television and time spent on the internet can make children mentally ill, an in-depth report has concluded.

Telegraph | Feb 2, 2009

Excessive exposure makes a child materialistic, which in turn affects their relationship with their parents and their health.

That is one of the conclusions of a new wide-ranging survey into British childhood, produced for the Children’s Society.

It says that children are part of a new form of consumerism, with under 16 year-olds spending £3 billion of their own money each year on clothes, snacks, music, video games and magazines.

The report claims that some advertisers “explicitly exploit the mechanism of peer pressure, while painting parents as buffoons” and that in its most extreme form, advertising persuades children that “you are what you own”.

In addition the “constant exposure” to celebrities through, TV soaps, dramas and chat shows is having a detrimental effect.

It says: “Children today know in intimate detail the lives of celebrities who are richer than they will ever be, and mostly better-looking. This exposure inevitably raises aspirations and reduces self-esteem.”

It adds the way celebrities are portrayed “automatically encourages the excessive pursuit of wealth and beauty.”

This “media-driven consumerism” is having a negative effect on a child’s wellbeing, the report says.

It highlights a study into the effect of consumerism on the psychological wellbeing of 10-13 year-olds.

That study found: “Other things being equal, the more a child is exposed to the media (television and Internet), the more materialistic she becomes, the worse she relates to her parents and the worse her mental health.”

The Good Childhood inquiry, compiled by more than 35,000 contributors is independent of the Church of England affiliated society but has been endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams.

It takes an in-depth look at the changing face of childhood and family life in Britain, and the challenges facing youngsters today.

The report has found that only a quarter of children with mental health problems get any specialist help, and one in 10 five to 16-year-olds now have mental health issues, ranging from anxiety or depression to conduct disorders such as destructive behaviour.

It claims that the upward trend of violence in the media in general, is making children violent and causing tension within the family.

The report says: “We know from controlled studies that exposure to violence can breed violence.

“So it seems likely that the upward trend in media violence is helping to produce the upward trend in violent behaviour – and also the growth of psychological conflict in family relationships.”

The report also notes that commercial pressures have led to the “premature sexualisation” of young people.

It notes that young people are having sex earlier because of “many forces”, including “more privacy when both parents work, more contraception, commercial pressures toward premature sexualisation, and fundamental changes in attitude”.

The report recommends that sex and relationships, and understanding of the media should be a compulsory part of the personal, social and health curriculum.

And it says advertising of unhealthy foods and alcohol should be banned before 9pm.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park records coldest temp in more than 20 years

Mt. LeConte Lodge records coldest temp in more than 20 years

WVLT | Feb 4, 2009

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) — The temperature at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Mt. LeConte Lodge dropped to 22 degrees below zero Tuesday night, and park officials say that’s the coldest temperature recorded there since 1986.

Bob Miller with the park service says it was also the fourth coldest day since officials started keeping records in 1978.

“Besides being 22 below, the Park’s closest weather station with wind
measuring equipment – Cove Mtn in Sevier Couty, Tenn. – reported gusts up to 45 mph (Tuesday) night,” Miller says. “That works out to a wind chill of -60 degrees. At 60 below exposed flesh will be frostbitten in four minutes.”

Miller says, the coldest reading on record was -32 degrees on Jan 21, 1985.

January was third-coldest ever recorded in Caribou Maine

Associated Press | Feb 4, 2009

CARIBOU — Last month went down as the third coldest January on record in the northern Maine city of Caribou and the fifth coldest in Bangor.

The National Weather Service says Caribou’s average temperature for the month was 2.5 degrees. The only colder Januarys were in 1994, when it averaged minus 0.7 degree, and 1957, when it was 1.3 degree.

Bangor’s average temperature for the month was 10.1 degrees — nearly 8 degrees below normal.

According to the weather service, Portland had its 17th coldest January in 69 years of record-keeping. For the month, the average temperature was 17.5 degrees, which was 4.2 degrees below normal.

7 ex-Soviet nations to form rapid reaction force

AP | Feb 5, 2009

By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

russian_rapid_reaction_force1MOSCOW (AP) — Seven former Soviet nations including Russia will form a joint rapid reaction force, the Russian president said Wednesday — as the Kremlin seeks to squeeze the United States out of energy-rich Central Asia.

The announcement was made just a day after Kyrgyzstan said it would end its U.S. lease of a key air base that supports military operations in Afghanistan. Evicting U.S. troops from Kyrgyzstan would mark a victory for Moscow in its battle for influence in what it considers its historic backyard.

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President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia, Armenia, Belarus and four Central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — had reached the agreement to form a new security force during a summit of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization on Wednesday.

The force would add a military dimension to the Moscow-dominated alliance, which so far has served mostly as a forum for consultations.

“We all have agreed on the need” for the force, Medvedev said, but he did not give details of how the force would be composed. On Tuesday, he said Russia and Belarus would also be forming a joint military system to monitor and defend their air space.

Russia, the U.S. and China have been vying for influence in the Caspian and Central Asia region, which is believed to contain the world’s third-largest energy reserves. The rivalry has been compared to the 19th-century Great Game between the British Empire and Czarist Russia for dominance in the region.

When the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Russia’s president at the time, Vladimir Putin, had welcomed U.S. troops in Central Asia. The move helped to temporarily improve U.S.-Russia relations, but as relations worsened again Moscow became impatient about the U.S. presence.

Moscow set up its own air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2003, and then scored another point in 2005, when Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops from an air base near the Afghan border.

On Tuesday, Kyrgyzstan followed suit with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announcing his intention to shut the U.S. base after Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with $2 billion in loans plus $150 million in aid.

The lease deal obliges Kyrgyzstan to give the U.S. 180 days notice to clear the base. The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan said no formal notice had been delivered, and said talks on the issue would continue. But the Kyrgyz government later sent a bill to parliament calling for the base agreement to be ended.

Medvedev has said Russia welcomes the transit of non-lethal U.S. cargo for troops in Afghanistan through the region.

Bristol endures its coldest weather in 20 years

This is Bristol | Feb 7, 2009

THE Big Freeze was gripping the Bristol area this weekend as the region endured its coldest winter in 20 years.

Yesterday, the story was of motorists slipping and sliding into work on sludge-bound roads, while children stayed home as the vast majority of schools remained closed.

Heavy snowfall early yesterday and accidents closed roads across the West and made others impassable. Motorists made their way in and out of work as best they could.

Minor accidents were reported across the region. Motorists’ organisation, the RAC, described them as “a few bumps and shunts”.

In Bristol, the A37 Wells Road at Totterdown became impassable as vans, lorries and cars were abandoned on Happy Landings Hill.

There were problems too on the A369 between Portishead and Bristol, on the A38 south of the city, on the A46 and, in the city itself, on St Michael’s Hill, on Whiteladies Road, on the A4 at West Town Lane, on Bridge Valley Road, just off the Downs, and on the A420 in St George.

And both Severn bridges – for the first time ever – were shut after five motorists reported windscreens shattered by chunks of ice falling from the gantries.

That blocked the M4 and M48, but otherwise motorway traffic was able to keep moving, with a 30mph speed limit imposed but up to three lanes in both directions on the M4 and M5 kept open.

Blagdon was entirely cut off for several hours before North Somerset Council’s snow ploughs came to the rescue, clearing the A368 into the village.

First buses were off the roads until mid-afternoon, although other firms managed to keep their services running.

Flights from Bristol International Airport were cancelled, shoppers stayed at home unless they wanted to buy a sledge – but hospitals were open for business as usual.

Plummeting temperatures – which have plunged as low as -10°C in some rural areas – mean the main problem will be dangerously icy roads.

Main routes were being gritted, but stocks of rock salt are falling and councils warned side roads would not be treated.

Bristol City Council spokesman Simon Caplan said: “We are down to our last 50 tonnes, but we are getting another 360 tonnes, so we will be gritting all A roads and commuter routes.

“But roads will still be slippery in places and we urge motorists to travel only if they absolutely need to and then to do so with care.”

Some motorists questioned whether enough had been done to clear main routes.

But Bristol City Council and the West’s other local authorities said they had gritted main roads several times overnight and brought in snow ploughs where necessary – as they had the previous night.

Even the RAC said councils had done the best they could with limited budgets and the coldest winter in two decades.

Spokesman Adrian Tink said: “I have a lot of sympathy with councils. They’ve been operating to the best of their ability, but it’s a once-in-20-years event and it’s very difficult to plan for.

“However, that is cold comfort for motorists. They pay £45 billion a year in taxes and overall they’ve had pretty poor service this week.”

By late morning, as the overnight snowstorm cleared, at least one council, North Somerset, was advising motorists to leave work early.

“We want everyone off the roads by 5pm because that’s when temperatures will drop below zero,” said a spokeswoman.

The A38 was “passable with care”, with “extreme caution” needed between Sidcot and Bristol, the authority said mid-morning.

A spokesman said there were snow ploughs on the A38 continuously. By early afternoon, North Somerset said A roads were all passable and snow ploughs were now being concentrated on B roads.

Police yesterday morning urged all drivers only to get in their cars if it was absolutely necessary and to avoid minor roads if possible.

Taxi firms found their phone lines jammed with calls yesterday morning as commuters tried to get a lift to work.

Cabbies were struggling to pick people up, and had to ask passengers to meet them on main roads rather than drive down the treacherous side roads.

Eurotaxis, based in Westerleigh, Bristol, described business as “absolutely manic”.

Yesterday morning, the A369 was blocked by heavy snow near Dennyview Road, Abbots Leigh. A lorry became stuck and cars got into difficulties after they tried to turn around.

In Bristol, a jack-knifed Somerfield lorry on Blackboy Hill near the former Woolworths store led to long queues on Whiteladies Road.

Bristol City Council said at 9.30am that the A4 at West Town Lane was “particularly difficult” and the Wells Road (A37) at Happy Landing Hill was practically impassable.

Spokesman Mr Caplan said Whiteladies Road was extremely difficult to navigate.

Traffic on the A420 had been delayed due to a heavy goods vehicle becoming stuck at the Fountain junction of Church Road and Summerhill, St George.

Bridge Valley Road, just off the Downs, was closed because of a fallen tree.

Mr Caplan said the council had dealt with particular calls for extra assistance at St Michael’s Hill, Kingsdown, “as vehicles struggled to cope with the conditions on this steep hill”.

In South Gloucestershire, the council reported that its street care department had been working throughout the night, gritting around 300 miles of roads.

A spokesman said: “Ploughs are currently working to clear snow from the roads, before applying another treatment.

“Staff are responding to requests for assistance from the public as quickly as they are able to.”

Merciless robots to fight future wars by 2015

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Merciless robots will fight future wars: researcher

AFP | Feb 6, 2009

LONG BEACH, California (AFP) – Robots will be armies of the future in a case of science fact catching up to fiction, a researcher told an elite TED gathering on Wednesday.

Peter Singer, who has authored books on the military, warned that while using robots for battle saves lives of military personnel, the move has the potential to exacerbate warfare by having heartless machines do the dirty work.

“We are at a point of revolution in war, like the invention of the atomic bomb,” Singer said.

“What does it mean to go to war with US soldiers whose hardware is made in China and whose software is made in India?”

Singer predicts that US military units will be half machine, half human by 2015.

The US Army already recruits soldiers using a custom war videogame, and some real-world weapon controls copy designs of controllers for popular videogame consoles.

Attack drones and bomb-handling robots are already common in battle zones.

Robots not only have no compassion or mercy, they insulate living soldiers from horrors that humans might be moved to avoid.

“The United States is ahead in military robots, but in technology there is no such thing as a permanent advantage,” Singer said. “You have Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran working on military robots.”

There is a “disturbing” cross between robotics and terrorism, according to Singer, who told of a website that lets visitors detonate improvised explosive devices from home computers.

“You don’t have to convince robots they are going to get 72 virgins when they die to get them to blow themselves up,” Singer said.

Robots also record everything they see with built-in cameras, generating digital video that routinely gets posted online at YouTube in graphic clips that soldiers refer to as “war porn,” according to Singer.

“It turns war into entertainment, sometimes set to music,” Singer said. “The ability to watch more but experience less.”

Robotics designer David Hanson offered hope when it comes to making robots a little more human.

Hanson builds robots that have synthetic flesh faces and read people’s expressions in order to copy expressions.

“The goal here is not just to achieve sentience, but empathy,” Hanson said.

“As machines are more capable of killing, implanting empathy could be the seeds of hope for our future.”

Hanson demonstrated a lifelike robotic bust of late genius Albert Einstein that makes eye contact and mimics people’s expressions.

“I smiled at that thing and jumped out of my skin when it smiled back,” TED curator Chris Anderson quipped. “It’s freaky.”