Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bill Gates foundation trust sues Brazil's Petrobras over share losses

The Petrobras logo is seen in front of the company's headquarters in Sao Paulo April 23, 2015. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker


The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust has sued Brazil's Petrobras (PETR4.SA) (PBR.N) to recoup stock losses stemming from a corruption scandal at the state-run oil company.
According to a complaint filed late Thursday night in federal court in Manhattan, Petrobras' "pervasive bribery and money laundering scheme" caused the trust and another plaintiff, WGI Emerging Markets Fund LLC, to lose tens of millions of dollars by investing in the company.
"Indeed, the scandal still seems to escalate by the day - as more guilty pleas, more arrests, and more secret bank accounts are uncovered," the complaint said.
 

Petrobras, whose formal name is Petroleo Brasileiro SA, is facing a slew of U.S. class-action litigation claiming that years of corruption, including bribery, inflated the value of more than $98 billion of its stock and bonds.
Created in 2000 by Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, the Gates Foundation focuses on improving health and education and reducing poverty.
Based in Seattle, it is among the world's largest philanthropic organizations, with a $41.3 billion endowment.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N) Chairman Warren Buffett is a trustee of the foundation.
The trust, which manages the endowment assets, is suing on its own, suggesting it believes it might recover more of its losses on Petrobras' American depositary shares that way.
A Brazilian affiliate of Petrobras auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is also a defendant.
Petrobras and PwC declined to comment. Lawyers for the trust did not respond to requests for comment.
Westwood Global Investments LLC, a Boston-based firm, manages investments for the foundation and the WGI fund.
Petrobras' market value has plunged more than 90 percent from nearly $300 billion seven years ago.
It took a $17 billion writedown in April for overvalued assets. Prosecutors have said more than $2 billion of bribes were paid over a decade, mainly to Petrobras executives from construction and engineering companies.
The case is WGI Emerging Markets Fund LLC et al v. Petroleo Brasileiro SA et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 15-07568.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why Pope Francis is dominating the news in a secular age


Pope Francis greets school children in D.C.


Even admirers of Pope Francis may have been taken aback by the wall-to-wall coverage that has greeted his visit to the United States. My own media appearances talking about the pope seem to expand into second segments, and move to the front of every show. MSNBC carried his remarks at the White House and to a joint session of Congress unedited.
Only one in six Americans are religiously observant to the point of attending a religious service in any given week. Of those, only a portion are Catholic. And yet, we see the entire Congress rise to give him standing ovations. Hillary Clinton is piggy-backing on his appearance. Barack Obama, who has tangled with America's Catholic bishops on a number of issues, is rolling out the red carpet. Occasional critics of Pope Francis, like myself, find themselves surprisingly moved.
What's going on?
I'd suggest a huge part of the spell the papacy has cast over modern worldly powers can be attributed to the institution's longevity. The Catholic Church and the papacy are by far the longest-lived institutions of Western civilization. Francis' predecessors have played a diplomatic role in the political life of the West since before the emergence of all the modern nation-states. Popes tangled with King Otto and Charlemagne. The Popes called the Crusades. The papacy has survived all manner of intrigue, even when Napoleon I had Pope Pius VII kidnapped and dragged over the Alps to Fontainebleau Castle. It's a longevity that any nation or throne would envy. To welcome the Roman pontiff into Congress is to be entered into this long chain of history.
The pope's power is also mysterious. Joseph Stalin famously quipped, "How many divisions does the pope of Rome have?" He has so much more than that, even when having so little practical authority. Popes sometimes are thwarted in the most basic ways. Their bishops and priests can and often do ignore them. Pope Benedict XVI resigned in part because his papacy was so undermined by subordinates that even his personal butler had turned into a spy against him. And yet, the pope can draw crowds running into the millions when he travels. John Paul II is co-credited with helping to hasten the end of the Soviet Union merely through his largely symbolic support of the Polish solidarity movement.
And the pope's popularity is the envy of any politician — particularly this pontiff's popularity. Pope Francis enjoys upwards of 90 percent approval ratings from Catholics. This Argentine even gets positive marks from more than 60 percent of white evangelical American Protestants, whose forebears were likely to think of his predecessors in terms of the Anti-Christ or the Whore of Babylon.
Part of this popularity and "approval" is completely indifferent to the details of the Catholic Church's doctrine, or even to the pope's own unique political priorities. It is due to the majesty of the office, and the role it plays as a global symbol for religion, for Western religion, and for the unity of nearly a billion Catholics across more than 100 nations. He is "ours" even when we disagree with him.
Another source of this fascination comes from the fact that religion has been at the center of so much public controversy in recent years. Religious people can become hate figures almost instantly, as their consciences become hypothetical impediments to pizza-weddings in Indiana, or to the administration of free birth control to the secretaries of nuns. The pope allowed us to see religion on another plane.
Ultimately, there is a longing underneath it all. Western civilization has almost lost the idea of common religious rites, and of religious reasoning in public. But it still has all the impulses of Christendom kicking around inside its guts. These express themselves in sudden, overwhelming appetites for moral reform, and in personal conversion to new causes. The pope is one of the last authorities who can claim to speak to that longing.

Trump’s sexism and Fiorina’s dishonesty

One part of me wants to bash Carly Fiorina for her persistent dishonesty. The other part wants to defend her against Donald Trump’s persistent sexism. So here’s both.
Fiorina’s dishonesty is flagrant and unapologetic. Called on her misstatements, Fiorina doesn’t cede ground, she attacks critics. Exhibit A is her evocative description, at the most recent GOP debate, of a nonexistent Planned Parenthood video: “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’ ”
Horrific, but untrue. The sting video, released by an anti-abortion group, features a former technician for a fetal tissue procurement company describing how a Planned Parenthood employee “taps the heart and it starts beating,” then instructs her to remove the brain.
As Factcheck.org concluded, “The video does contain images of what appear to be intact fetuses, but they don’t fit Fiorina’s description.” One clip, in which a fetus appears to move, is credited to a different anti-abortion group, and it’s unclear where it was filmed. Another shows a stillborn baby, it turns out, not an aborted fetus.
Fiorina’s comments could be chalked up to forgivable hyperbole, easily remedied. The audio from the technician is gruesome enough, and Fiorina could be excused for thinking, as the video’s producers presumably intended, that she was actually watching the scene being described.
But backing down is not the Fiorina way. Repeatedly challenged after the debate, she repeatedly asserted that she was correct and that any disagreement was lazy partisanship from critics who hadn’t bothered to watch.
“I didn’t misspeak,” Fiorina told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “I have seen those images.”Fox News’s Chris Wallace asked her, “Do you acknowledge what every fact-checker has found . . . there is no actual footage of the incident that you just mentioned?”
Fiorina: “No, I don’t accept that at all. . . . I haven’t found a lot of people in the mainstream media who have ever watched these things.”
This dishonesty is part of a pattern. Fiorina’s up-by-the-bootstraps foundational story — from secretary to chief executive — is similarly misleading. In fact, Fiorina is the child of privilege. Her father was a Stanford law professor, Duke Law School dean, deputy attorney general and federal appeals court judge. Horatio Alger this is not.
At the same time, Trump manages to put me in Fiorina’s corner. In Trumpworld, where women matter for their looks, there only two kinds: attractive, and therefore “bimbos” (see, e.g., Megyn Kelly), or “dogs.” Which is not quite what he said about Fiorina to Rolling Stone but close: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?
Even when he is backpedaling, Trump can only do it condescendingly, in terms of appearance. “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman,” Trump said at the debate. Dig, Donald, dig.
And even when he’s not commenting on appearance, Trump’s criticism of Fiorina is laced with not-so-subtle sexism. “She’s got a good pitter-patter,” Trump told Stephanopoulos, “but if you listen to her for more than five minutes straight, you get a headache.” He used the same dismissive line on “Fox & Friends” the next day.
Pitter-patter? Headache? The first is classic trivializing of what a woman has to say. The second is classic invocation of woman as nagging shrew. It’s easy to imagine Trump complaining to one of his ex-wives that she’s giving him a headache. It’s hard to imagine him using those words in connection with one of his male opponents. (They are, instead, “low-energy” — shades of, ahem, low-T.)
Not that Trump’s fellow candidates are paragons of gender-neutral virtue. How revealing that Mike Huckabee picked his wife and Ben Carson his mother as candidates for the $10 bill.
Really, women are only valued as wives and mothers? They can’t think of a woman — anAmerican woman, Jeb Bush, not Margaret Thatcher — with accomplishments besides marriage and procreation? What if a female candidate selected her husband or father to be featured on the national currency?
Fiorina rejected the premise as mere “gesture,” arguing that “we ought to recognize that women are not a special interest group.” But currency is inherently symbolic; including a woman is about equal, not special, treatment.
Fiorina’s response lets her appear above the fray of gender politics, even as she benefits from being the only woman in the GOP race and touts her ability to take on Hillary Clinton.
Anyone else get the sense that the only woman Fiorina would be happy to see on the $10 bill is . . . Fiorina?

How is Ben Carson both so incredibly smart and so spectacularly stupid?

There are a lot of scientific prerequisites if you want to go to medical school — not just biology, but also chemistry and physics, even some math. By the time you get there, and certainly by the time you leave, you'll be long acquainted with the scientific method and the broad contours of scientific knowledge on those topics.
So imagine it's 1970 or so, and you're young Ben Carson, sitting in a biology class at Yale University. With your sharp mind and strong study habits, you don't have much problem understanding the material, grasping the copious evidence underlying the theory of evolution, all the fossils going back millions of years, how it all fits together in an endless process that affects everything from a towering redwood down to a microscopic virus. And yet, the whole thing sounds like an attack on the beliefs about the universe you were taught your whole life from your family and your church. How can you resolve this contradiction?
Dr. Ben Carson© REUTERS/Carlos Barria Dr. Ben Carson
The resolution came somewhere along the way for Carson: Satan. Evolution is Satan's doing.
The fact that Carson believes this is a true puzzlement. Because Carson is an undeniably smart man. You don't get to be one of the world's most renowned neurosurgeons without the ability to understand complex systems, evaluate evidence, sift the plausible from the implausible, and integrate disparate pieces of data into a coherent whole. And yet he thinks that the theory of evolution is not just a great big hoax, but a hoax literally delivered to us from Hell.
Forgive me for my contemptuous tone, but that is what Carson actually believes. In a 2012 speech put up this week by Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski, Carson says, "I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary," and reveals that he plans to write a book explaining how the organs of the human body refute evolutionary theory. He also says the Big Bang is bunk, because the second law of thermodynamics says that entropy always increases, and there's too much order in the universe, what with things like galaxies and solar systems and planets. "Now that type of organization to just come out of an explosion? I mean, you want to talk about fairy tales, that is amazing." Someone should explain to him that order didn't arrive right out of the explosion, but over billions of years. You see, because of gravity...oh, never mind.
Carson's ideas about the Big Bang are quite similar to his beliefs about Islam, in that he picked up a snippet of information somewhere — there's a passage in the Koran that says this or that, there's a thing called entropy — and that snippet seemed to take hold of his rational faculties and beat them to a pulp.
To be clear, this isn't just about religious faith. There are millions upon millions of people in the world who believe fervently in a divine power, but who also acknowledge the truth of evolution. The Catholic Church, for instance, is quite clear that there's nothing incompatible between its theology and evolution. You can believe God set the process in motion or that God guides it down to the smallest detail; nothing about a belief in God prevents you from understanding and accepting what generations of scientists have discovered about the history of life on Earth.
So how do we explain this contradiction? All of us have some things we know a lot about and some things of which we're ignorant. Some of us are extraordinarily good at reading people and understanding social relations, but are helpless when it comes to math; others are just the opposite. Some of us pick up languages easily, others don't. Intelligence is complex and varied.
But what's so odd about Carson is that science is the very thing he was trained in, and the thing at which he excelled. Yet his religious beliefs are apparently so powerful that they completely overwhelm his ability to look objectively at any scientific area that might give some answers to what people once thought were purely metaphysical questions.
Training in science is also training in how to think — what sorts of questions can be answered in what sorts of ways, and how you know what you know and what you don't. That's why it's nearly as surprising to hear Carson offer as justification for his belief that no Muslim should be president, "Taqiyya is a component of Shia that allows, and even encourages you to lie to achieve your goals," as it is to hear him dismiss the Big Bang with a line about entropy. It isn't surprising that Ben Carson knows next to nothing about Islam; what is surprising is that, despite a career immersed in a very specialized field, he would think that he could listen to a couple of Glenn Beck rants and come to a deep understanding of a 1,400-year-old religion.
That's not to mention the fact that Carson's entire campaign for president is built on the rejection of knowledge and experience, in that he argues that all you need to succeed as president is common sense, even if you've never spent a day in government. That opinion, unfortunately, is widely held. As is, we should mention, belief in Satan — according to polls, a majority of Americans believe in the devil, so Carson is hardly alone.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

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