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Wednesday Morning News

Good Morning Conflucians!!

Are you kidding me, actual Russian spies? No way. How could you not lead with this juicy story. So three Russian spies walked into a bar… But seriously, we caught some spies apparently:

Richard and Cynthia Murphy grew lettuce in a backyard garden, walked their daughters to the school bus each morning, and swapped Christmas cards with neighbors who had moved to Texas.

Their modest three-bedroom house sported maroon shutters and a wrap-around porch, and sat on a winding street in a well-heeled suburb across from Manhattan. They drove a green Honda Civic.

To all appearances, the Murphys were a typical, child-obsessed American family — not deep-cover Russian spies straight from a Cold War novel.

Their arrests, along with those of 9 other alleged Russian spies, has exposed a surprising side to modern espionage: The group led mundane lives far from the James Bond image. Instead of car chases and shootouts, they paid taxes, haggled over mortgages, and struggled to remember computer passwords.

As a result, the 11 — the biggest alleged spy ring every broken by the FBI — blended into American society for more than a decade. They joined neighbors at block parties, school picnics and bus stops. Four of the couples were married, and at least three had young children.

One suspect wrote columns for a Spanish-language newspaper in New York. Another ran an international consulting and management firm in Boston, while his wife sold high-priced real estate near Harvard University. Yet another drove a shiny blue BMW to his investment banking job in Seattle; he regularly updated his status on LinkedIn, a social networking site.

This all begs the question, um, why? I mean, people can just come and go and legitimately be a Russian with a green card, or otherwise legal resident work, learn stuff, and then return. And in those positions, try to influence. All legal. What’s with all the spying already. And spy us? Really? Haven’t they noticed the economy and all the other signs of us going down the tubes fast?

And speaking of obvious Russian spies, Larry King has announced his retirement:

After 25 years hosting a nightly talk show, CNN’s Larry King says “it’s time to hang up my nightly suspenders.”

After weeks of speculation triggered by that anniversary and sharply declining ratings, King’s move — on his own terms, CNN says — ends his storied run on the struggling news network’s signature show this fall.

At the top of Tuesday’s broadcast, King, 76, told viewers he “talked to the guys here at CNN, and I told them I would like to end Larry King Live, the nightly show, this fall and CNN has graciously accepted, giving me more time for my wife, and I to get to the kids’ Little League games.” But he promised regular news specials.

Larry has been around forever. I have to admit I never particularly liked his style and show — all softballs, just giving people a platform to say their side without real questions. But because of that style he would often get people to talk that otherwise wouldn’t I supposed. Who will be wearing the suspenders now one wonders.

And in related softball news, both Petraeus and Kagan are in confirmation hearings. From the Petaeus article:

Petraeus, President Obama’s nominee to lead U.S. troops in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if he is confirmed he will “look very hard” at how the rules and directives are put into practice.

“I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers on the ground,” Petraeus said.

The committee approved the nomination Tuesday, clearing the way for a full Senate vote. Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he hoped to have that vote this week.

And then from the Kagan article:

Elena Kagan told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that her political outlook is “generally progressive,” but the glimpses she offered into her legal views defied Republican efforts to pigeonhole the type of Supreme Court justice she would be.

During the first day of questioning at her confirmation hearings, Kagan said that she respects legal precedent that upholds people’s right to own guns and that she supports the use of military commissions to prosecute enemy combatants — positions favored by many conservatives.

Oh sorry, I just fell asleep while looking at those articles. Yea, that boring. I actually watched some of the hearings yesterday too. If anyone has trouble sleeping, I strongly recommend them.

In blow hard, hot air news, Alex becomes a hurricane and Joe “foot in mouth” Biden visits the gulf. Blow hard #1 article:

Tropical Storm Alex strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday night to become the first June hurricane on the Atlantic side of the United States since 1995, the National Hurricane Center said.

Alex gained strength and upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane Tuesday night, the hurricane center said.

The hurricane center’s advisory issued at 11 p.m. ET said Alex was moving to the west at 9 mph and was expected to hit the northern Mexico coast Wednesday evening. The center reported the storm had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph.

And then we have blow hard #2 article:

As storm winds pushed oil over booms protecting the Louisiana coast, Vice President Joe Biden made his first tour of the troubled gulf region Tuesday, assuring locals that claims filed against oil giant BP would be paid even if they exceeded the $20 billion the company set aside in an escrow account.

“That $20-billion fund, that’s not a ceiling,” Biden said. “BP is required to pay whatever it is [that] falls under their responsibility, whether it ends up being $25, $30, $40 or $50 billion.”

With some of those desperate residents serving as a backdrop in Louisiana on Tuesday, Biden said: “Some of the guys behind me made some claims, and they’ve gotten partial payment. The concern was: Is this it? It ain’t it. It ain’t it. This is the beginning. This is not the end.”

Although it was Biden’s first visit since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 people, President Obama has visited the region four times and top administration officials have made repeated visits.

Thanks for all the fish Joe. What a smart-ass.

And speaking of blow hards, Scott Brown scares all the Democrats so much that they pee their diapers and they remove the bank tax from the reform bill so Scott won’t call them bad names again:

Senator Scott Brown yesterday forced Democrats to remove a $19 billion tax on big banks and hedge funds from the proposed Wall Street regulatory overhaul, the second time the Massachusetts Republican has used his pivotal role in the Senate to influence the legislation in favor of major financial institutions.

After Brown threatened in writing yesterday to oppose the package unless the $19 billion tax was eliminated, House and Senate lawmakers reconvened late yesterday and agreed on a new way to pay for the additional regulatory oversight in the sweeping legislation, which is intended to help prevent another economic crisis like the 2008 market meltdown.

Instead of the tax, Congress would use $11 billion in funds from the 2008 bank bailout, combined with a small increase in bank fees paid to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

I’m so impressed with the new Obama Democratic party. They’re so principled. That was sarcasm. I just got an email from Al Franken about what a great job they’ve all been doing. I assume he’s talking about Republicans. Also sarcasm. At this point it’s so bad it’s hard to put words together about that party. They’ve made themselves completely hollow and empty and irrelevant. Not an easy task. But they did it. And they did it with a supermajority. I’m stunned beyond the capacity for rational thought. Salon has more on the Brown running the senate:

Who calls the shots in Washington? Judging by the latest report from Bloomberg, the man who holds all the cards is Scott Brown, the (very) junior senator from Massachusetts. Within an hour of Brown’s announcement that he would not support the Dodd-Frank bank reform bill if it incorporated a $19 billion bank levy to pay for the costs of shutting down failing financial institutions, the Democrats appear to have buckled.

Shifting gears a bit, and I try not to let my bias come through, but this one is just too priceless. Apparently a leaked memo from Microsoft came out with their admiration for Apple because Apple actually makes products that just work. Apparently they’ve been making products for years that didn’t work and just now figured out the secret:

Microsoft (NSDQ:MSFT) has zeroed in on what makes Apple (NSDQ:AAPL) products so popular that people will wait hours in line just for a chance to purchase them. But will this realization be reflected in the next version of Windows, or just used as a compass for product development down the road?

One of a series of purported Windows 8 slides that leaked earlier this week focuses on the uncomplicated, “It just works” nature of Apple product design. The slide describes a virtuous circle in which a user experience that’s “low in friction” makes the products easy for people to use, which in turn leads to satisfied customers placing high value in the products.

“This is something people will pay for!” reads the slide.

I couldn’t help laughing at that. Please, no Apple vs. Microsoft wars kids. You know who you are.

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, moved into the PM office:

The morning after the Rudds departed from Canberra residence The Lodge to return home to Brisbane – tweeting as they went – Ms Gillard opened her new office to photographers.

In the place of the Rudd accoutrements are photographs of her partner Tim Mathieson, Ms Gillard’s books, including one about leadership by women, and a pair of gumboots given to her by a students at Tasmania’s Penguin Primary school.

Ms Gillard also displayed a pair of yellow football boots sent to her by a footwear manufacturer to highlight her claim last month that there was more chance of her becoming full forward for her beloved Bulldogs AFL team than prime minister.

Back to the sad gulf news, we had day 70 yesterday. Here’s a summary of the latest at the NYTimes:

Strong winds from a tropical storm raised wave heights to seven feet or more, forcing the suspension of skimming operations and controlled burns on Tuesday. Rough seas make it impossible to contain oil so skimmers can pick it up or ignite it. Forecasters expected the storm, named Alex, to reach hurricane strength before making landfall Wednesday in northern Mexico or South Texas.

The State Department said the United States was accepting help from 12 countries and international organizations in dealing with the spill. Most of have offered skimmers, boom or dispersant chemicals. Among those whose offers have been accepted are Canada, Mexico, Croatia, Holland, Norway and Japan, as well as the International Maritime Organization and the Monitoring and Information Center.

And a bit more on the aid finally being accepted:

The United States is accepting help from 12 countries and international organizations in dealing with the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the State Department said Tuesday.

The State Department said in a news release that the U.S. is working out the particulars of the help that’s been accepted.

More than 30 countries and international organizations have offered to help with the spill. The U.S. hasn’t made a final decision on most of the offers.

The United States rarely faces a disaster of such magnitude that it requires international aid, but the government did accept assistance after Hurricane Katrina.

Most of the countries and groups have offered skimmers, boom or dispersant chemicals, according to a chart on the State Department’s website.

“To be clear, the acceptance of international assistance we announced today did not mean to imply that international help was arriving only now,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “In fact, before today, there were 24 foreign vessels operating in the region and nine countries had provided boom, skimmers and other assistance.”

And just when some home sales numbers looked only slightly horrible, they’re not even as good as that. It appears that 1 in 3 home sales is a foreclosure with deep discounts:

Foreclosure homes accounted for 31 percent of all residential sales in the first quarter of 2010, with the average sales price of properties that sold while in some stage of foreclosure nearly 27 percent below homes that were not in the process, Irvine, California-based RealtyTrac said.

“In a normal market, only 1 to 2 percent of home sales are foreclosures, so this is certainly a significant level,” Rick Sharga, senior vice president at RealtyTrac, said in an interview.

Total U.S. foreclosure sales in 2009 were up more than 1,100 percent from 2006 and more than 2,500 percent from 2005. Foreclosure sales accounted for 29 percent of all sales in 2009, up from 23 percent in 2008 and a mere 6 percent in 2007, the real estate data company said.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Those poor, poor real estate agents, I think they need bailed out next. Yes, sarcasm again.

And speaking of, apparently the Treasury lacks the staff to monitor and manage the bailout funds:

The Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (Sigtarp) said Treasury was not meeting its responsibility for monitoring how insurer AIG, Bank of America, Chrysler, Citigroup, GM and GMAC use bailout funds.

“Twenty months into its administration of TARP, Treasury simply has no legitimate excuses as to why it has still failed to accomplish the critically important task of assembling a robust compliance staff,” the audit report said.

It said Treasury was “too slow” in conducting compliance reviews with the companies and said it has only begun to review three of the six companies’ documentation that shows whether they are meeting conditions for the receipt of funds.

Of course they don’t have the staff. Who is surprised at this. There are only two explanations for this. Either they are corrupt and don’t want the staff and don’t want to really monitor those moneys very closely, or they’re completely incompetent. I think this epitomizes the Obama administration: corrupt or incompetent. Perhaps both.

But Obama found the time, and someone in his office actually could handle the scheduling, to meet with the Saudi King to do some toe touching, ring kissing, and to get his marching orders. Obama will also meeting with Netanyahu:

Arab leaders are disappointed that Obama has not made more progress in pressuring Israel to give ground in U.S.-mediated peace talks. Obama will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on July 6.

Obama said his lunch with King Abdullah ranged over various strategic issues, including Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as “the importance of moving forward in a significant and bold way in securing a Palestinian homeland that can live side by side with a secure and prosperous Israeli state.”

Netanyahu began indirect talks with the Palestinians in May but has imposed strict conditions for accepting their demand for statehood.

In addition, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said earlier Tuesday that problems with the talks, and divisions among the Palestinians, meant no Palestinian state would be founded by 2012. This was an apparent reference to a call by the Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — for an accord by that time.

Obama and King Abdullah “expressed their hope that proximity talks between Israelis and Palestinians will lead to the resumption of direct talks with the aim of two states living side-by-side in peace,” the White House said.

NYTimes has an article spotlighting a West Virginia resident on the loss of Byrd and other political outlooks, and especially what the future might bring after losing such a strong Democrat:

A few things jump out from the fraying calendars and coal mine pictures Mr. Jones has collected: the life-size cardboard cutout of George W. Bush, wearing a Friends of Coal button; the photograph of Mr. Jones and his wife with Bill Clinton; and a McCain-Palin button pinned to the wall.

“These are the ones I liked at the time,” said Mr. Jones, a lifelong Democrat who felt kinship with Mr. Clinton but then voted for Mr. Bush twice, loves Sarah Palin and castigates President Obama for, he says, bailing out the wealthy bankers.

Worship of Senator Robert C. Byrd is a given in this small mountain town where he was raised and where, as throughout the state, flags have hung at half-staff since he died early Monday morning. Consistent with Mr. Byrd’s stature, the Democratic Party dominates West Virginia politics: it controls the State Legislature, both Senate seats and two of the three House seats. In 2008, Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, won re-election with 70 percent of the vote.

But in that same election, John McCain carried West Virginia with 56 percent of the vote. Here in Raleigh County, voters ignored the advice of their favorite son, Mr. Byrd, and gave the Republican presidential ticket 63 percent of the votes.

Tommy Lovell, 69, a mine union member who occupied one of the soft old chairs in this former shop, said he was among the minority here who had actually voted for Mr. Obama. Now he regrets it. “He’s not for coal, the health care scares me, and he’s spending too much money,” Mr. Lovell said.

That spending too much money meme sure is working. Probably doesn’t help that most of the money spent so far was for bankers and wall street and heath insurance companies other wealthy people and companies. Perhaps it’s reasonable to assume that this administration will never spend money on work programs or on anything to actually create jobs or help people in need. I frankly find it hard to imagine him spending money to actually help anyone that needs help. Of course I don’t expect a Republican to either. Oh wait, Obama is a Republican. Now it all makes sense.

That’s a bit of what’s going on. Chime in with what you’re finding.