Thursday April 25, 2013

In the age of computer trading, a phony tweet and algorithms can send stocks plunging

NEW YORK (AP) -- For a few surreal minutes, a mere 12 words on Twitter caused the world’s mightiest stock market to tremble.

No sooner did hackers send a false Associated Press tweet reporting explosions at the White House on Tuesday than investors started dumping stocks -- eventually unloading $134 billion worth. Turns out, some investors are not only gullible, they’re impossibly fast stock traders.

Except most of the investors weren’t human. They were computers, selling on autopilot beyond the control of humans, like a scene from a sci-fi horror film.

"Before you could blink, it was over," said Joe Saluzzi, co-founder of Themis Trading and an outspoken critic of high-speed computerized trading. "With people, you wouldn’t have this type of reaction."

For decades, computers have been sorting through data and news to help investment funds decide whether to buy or sell. But that’s old school. Now "algorithmic" trading programs sift through data, news, even tweets, and execute trades by themselves in fractions of a second, without slowpoke humans getting in the way. More than half of stock trading every day is done this way.

GOP postpones vote to use disease-prevention money to extend coverage for high-risk patients

WASHINGTON (AP) -- An effort by House Republicans to highlight problems with President Barack Obama’s health care law by bailing out a program for people with pre-existing medical conditions appeared to backfire Wednesday.

GOP leaders postponed a scheduled vote after the measure met strong opposition from two directions: from conservative groups resistant to any federal role in health care and from Democrats who objected that the Republicans planned to pay for the high-risk patient program by raiding a disease prevention provision the administration says is essential to the overhaul.

The legislation, a departure from the usual GOP efforts to kill the Affordable Health Care Act outright, also faced a White House veto threat.

Erica Elliott, spokeswoman for Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, said in a statement, "We had good conversations with our members and made a lot of solid progress" on the bill. But she said there was "still work to do," and with members leaving for the Bush Presidential Library dedication, "we’ll continue the conversations" when the House returns in May after a recess next week.

The GOP bill would provide up to $3.6 billion to shore up the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan, or PCIP, which is intended to be a stopgap measure for uninsured high-risk patients until the end of this year, when full consumer protections under the health care act go into effect.

11th-century minaret of landmark mosque in Syria destroyed amid heavy fighting

BEIRUT (AP) -- The 11th-century minaret of a famed mosque that towered over the narrow stone alleyways of Aleppo’s old quarter collapsed Wednesday as rebels and government troops fought pitched battles in the streets around it, depriving the ancient Syrian city of one of its most important landmarks.

President Bashar Assad’s government and the rebels trying to overthrow him traded blame over the destruction to the Umayyad Mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site and centerpiece of Aleppo’s walled Old City.

"This is like blowing up the Taj Mahal or destroying the Acropolis in Athens. This mosque is a living sanctuary," said Helga Seeden, a professor of archaeology at the American University of Beirut. "This is a disaster. In terms of heritage, this is the worst I’ve seen in Syria. I’m horrified."

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a commercial hub, emerged as a key battleground in the nation’s civil war after rebels launched an offensive there last summer. Since then, the fighting has carved the city into rebel- and regime-held zones, killed thousands of people, forced thousands more to flee their homes and laid waste to entire neighborhoods.

The Umayyad Mosque complex, which dates mostly from the 12th century, suffered extensive damage in October as both sides fought to control the walled compound in the heart of the old city. The fighting left the mosque burned, scarred by bullets and trashed. Two weeks earlier, the nearby medieval covered market, or souk, was gutted by a fire sparked by fighting.

Fresh clashes between Sunnis and security forces in Iraq prompt fears of wider struggle

BAGHDAD (AP) -- With Sunni gunmen beginning to confront the Shiite-led government’s security forces head-on in northern and western Iraq, fears are growing fast of a return to full-scale sectarian fighting that could plunge the country into a broader battle merged with the Syrian civil war across the border.

With more than 100 people killed over the past two days, it’s shaping up to be the most pivotal moment for Iraq since U.S.combat troops withdrew in December 2011.

"Everybody has the feeling that Iraq is becoming a new Syria," Talal Younis, the 55-year-old owner of a currency exchange in the northern city of Mosul, said Wednesday. "We are heading into the unknown. ... I think that civil war is making a comeback."

A crackdown by government forces at a protest site in the northern town of Hawija on Tuesday triggered the latest unrest. It has enraged much of the country’s restive Sunni Arab minority, adding fuel to an already smoldering opposition movement and spawning a wave of bold follow-up clashes.

It is too soon to say whether the rage will lead to widespread insurrection in the largely Sunni cities of Mosul and Ramadi or, more significantly, spiral into open sectarian warfare in the streets of Baghdad.

Mississippi men at center of ricin letters case had feuded for years

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) -- The investigation into poisoned letters mailed to President Barack Obama and others has shifted from an Elvis impersonator to his longtime foe, and authorities must now figure out if an online feud between the two men might have escalated into something more sinister.

Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, was released from a north Mississippi jail on Tuesday and charges against him were dropped, nearly a week after authorities charged him with sending ricin-laced letters to the president, Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and an 80-year-old Lee County, Miss., Justice Court judge, Sadie Holland.

Before Curtis left jail, authorities had already descended on the home of 41-year-old Everett Dutschke in Tupelo, a northeast Mississippi town best known as the birthplace of the King himself. On Wednesday, they searched the site of a Tupelo martial arts studio once operated by Dutschke, who hasn’t been arrested or charged.

Curtis, who performs as Elvis and other celebrities, describes a bizarre, yearslong feud between the two, but Dutschke insists he had nothing to do with the letters. They contained language identical to that found on Curtis’ Facebook page and other websites, making him an early suspect.

Federal authorities have not said what led them to drop the charges against Curtis, and his lawyers say they’re not sure what new evidence the FBI has found.

Father of Canada terror plot suspect sought advice on increasingly radical son

TORONTO (AP) -- One of two men accused of plotting with al-Qaida members in Iran to derail a train in Canada became radicalized to the point that his father reached out to a Muslim support group for help and advice, a local religious leader said Wednesday.

Muhammad Robert Heft, president of the Paradise Forever Support Group Inc., a non-profit organization that provides support to Muslims in Canada, said Mohammad Jaser came to him several times citing concerns about the radicalization of his son.

"He came to me about his son saying he how concerned he was getting about the rigidness of his son and his interpretation of Islam. He was becoming self-righteous, becoming pushy, pushing his views on how much they (his family) should be practicing as a Muslim," said Heft.

Jaser’s son, Raed, 35, has been charged along with Chiheb Esseghaier, 30 with conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group in their plot to derail a train that runs between New York City and Montreal.

Canadian investigators say the men received guidance from members of al-Qaida in Iran. Iranian government officials have said the government had nothing to do with the plot.

Building collapse in Bangladesh kills 87; scores trapped in wreckage

SAVAR, Bangladesh (AP) -- Rescuers tried to free dozens of people believed trapped in the concrete rubble after an eight-story building that housed garment factories collapsed, killing at least 87. Workers had complained about cracks in the structure before it came tumbling down, but were assured it was safe.

Searchers cut holes in the jumbled mess of concrete with drills or their bare hands, passing water and flashlights to those pinned inside the building near Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka.

"I gave them whistles, water, torchlights. I heard them cry. We can’t leave them behind this way," said fire official Abul Khayer. Rescue operations illuminated by floodlights continued through the night.

The disaster came less than five months after a factory fire killed 112 people and underscored the unsafe conditions in Bangladesh’s massive garment industry.

Workers said they had hesitated to go to into the building on Wednesday morning because it had developed such large cracks a day earlier that it even drew the attention of local news channels. Spectacle that has become the Jodi Arias murder trial grows; seat in gallery sold for $200

PHOENIX (AP) -- Ticket scalping is nothing new in the sports and music world, but for a murder trial?

Dozens of people flock to court each day for a chance to score one of a handful of seats open to the public in Jodi Arias’ ongoing murder trial in Arizona. The seats are provided on a first-come, first-serve basis, and nearly four months into the trial, the crowds are growing.

This week, one trial regular sold her spot to another person for $200 -- and both got reprimands from the court on Tuesday.

Desiree Lee, a regular attendee, said another woman had traveled from Michigan to see the trial but couldn’t get a seat because she was too far back in line.

"She was asking a couple of people ahead of me if they wanted to sell their seats," Lee, who lives in the area, told ABC15 in Phoenix. "I said yes because I can come every day if I wanted to ... I seriously didn’t know I was going to get in trouble.

A book group with a purpose: Lean In circles analyze career moves, Sheryl Sandberg-style

NEW YORK (AP) -- "Remember -- you are your own brand," business coach Franne McNeal was telling some 100 women crowded into a downtown Manhattan office lounge one evening last week.

"If you lean back, you are denying the universe your greatness. So lean in, shout out, and get comfortable with who you are! Tonight is about teamwork."

Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer whose best-selling book, "Lean In," inspired the meeting, would surely have been happy with the turnout. Her book, and the national discussion it seeks to launch, is aimed at helping women empower themselves in the workplace. On its final page, it suggests forming small circles to continue the conversation. The idea is about 10 people per group, but more than 10 times that number showed up last Tuesday in response to an open invitation on LinkedIn from Mary Dove, a New York psychotherapist.

"Do we do ANYTHING small here in New York?" Dove asked the crowd with a smile.

Many, though not all, the attendees had read "Lean In," which came out last month to a burst of publicity, blockbuster sales -- and much controversy. Was Sandberg, as some of the negative reviewers asserted, essentially putting the blame on women for their inability to fully crack the glass ceiling? Was she giving a pass to government and employers, and instead firing, as one USA Today columnist wrote, the "latest salvo in the war on moms?"