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Sentence Cut in Texas for School Official Jailed in Test Scandal

HOUSTON — The former superintendent of an El Paso school district who was sent to prison in one of the country’s worst education scandals has received an unexpected reward — a nearly one-year reduction in his prison term.

A recent decision by the federal Bureau of Prisons to take 11 months off the sentence of the former superintendent, Lorenzo Garcia, has angered educators, parents and lawmakers in El Paso and has drawn attention to the obscure drug counseling program that has become a popular way for white-collar criminals to reduce their prison time.

Mr. Garcia, 58, had been scheduled for release in October 2015 after being sentenced to three years and six months. But prison officials shortened his sentence and moved up his release date to November 2014 after Mr. Garcia completed a drug counseling program while in federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa.

Mr. Garcia, who once led the El Paso Independent School District, pleaded guilty last year to his role in a scheme to inflate test scores in struggling schools by preventing low-performing students from taking the exams, as a way to improve school performance under the federal No Child Left Behind law.



Move Over Bigfoot, Here Comes Sheepsquatch

The McClintic Wildlife Management Area is over 3,000 acres of woodland, farms, and wetland in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, population 4,350. In the dense forest you’ll find animals, hunters, partying teenagers, and the occasional explosive bunker. Locals call McClintic the “TNT Area” because the grounds were once used for munitions manufacturing in World War II. The explosives were stored in bunkers covered in sod, and their humps still mar the landscape of the TNT Area. Occasionally, they blow up. But it’s not a careless hunter or even an exploding bunker that tops the list of scary things lurking around the TNT. No, it gets a lot stranger than that.

“The TNT Area itself is just chock full of amazing weirdness,” says Kurt McCoy, author of “White Things: West Virginia’s Weird White Monsters.”

White Things are exactly what they sound like. They are indefinable creatures the color of ghosts, crisp tablecloths and pure driven snow. Such stories crop up all over the U.S., but McCoy says they are especially prevalent in West Virginia. Over the years, McCoy has amassed many tales of White Things.

“I ran across everything from something that was described as a huge stingray that was white, to an owl-type thing. The archetypal White Thing is shaped sort of like a badger with a bushy tail and ranges in size from a large dog to slightly larger than a person,” says McCoy. “There was a headless monster in Grafton which was white, but had seal-like skin. And then, of course, there’s the notorious Sheepsquatch.”

Sheepsquatch first reared his oblong head in the 1990s.

Legend has it that a car full of women were making their way home after a family reunion through the TNT Area. There was snow on the ground and they crunched along the treacherous roads at just a few miles an hour. And that’s when it stepped out of the woods.



New towers for the rich soar in New York

Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Here's how a 1932 guide to Manhattan describes the view of Central Park from the 43-story Essex House: "an unbroken vista — unequaled anywhere in the city. ... Few apartment buildings in the world are more ideally located."

Today, here's how visitors typically describe the park view from One57, an apartment building a block south of the Essex House and more than twice its height: "Wow!"

The same can be said of the building itself. One57 exemplifies a new type of skyscraper — very tall, improbably slender, ostentatiously opulent — that is reshaping a famous skyline composed mostly of bulky office buildings.

One such apartment tower under construction, 432 Park Avenue, will have a top floor higher than the Empire State Building's observation deck. Another will have a top floor higher than any in One World Trade Center, which is officially (by virtue of its spire) the nation's tallest building.

The 432 Park penthouse has sold for $95 million; two duplex apartments at One57, now nearing completion, also are under contract, each for more than $90 million. Even a studio apartment on a lower floor at 432 Park (designed for staff — a maid or butler) costs $1.59 million.



SEC Issues More Fines Over Magnetar Deals – and Appears to Move on

by Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisinger
ProPublica, Dec. 12, 2013, 5:38 p.m.

Five years after the financial crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission appears to be wrapping up its investigation into more than $40 billion worth of controversial mortgage deals that helped turn the financial crisis into the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Today, the agency announced fines against Merrill Lynch for its role in sponsoring three of the securities with a total value of $4.5 billion.

Merrill, which is now owned by Bank of America, agreed to pay a fine of $131 million, but did not admit wrongdoing in the deals, which were created at the behest of an Illinois-based hedge fund called Magnetar.

As ProPublica detailed in 2010, Magnetar worked with investment banks to build CDOs that the hedge fund also bet against. Magnetar would buy the riskiest part of the CDO, which gave it influence in picking which bonds would be included in the CDO. In turn, the hedge fund pushed riskier bonds that would make the investment more likely to fail.

The fines against Merrill are the just the latest in a long series of Magnetar-related SEC settlements, now totaling more than $435 million.

“We are pleased to resolve this matter, which pre-dated Bank of America's acquisition of Merrill Lynch,” said William Halldin, a spokesman for the bank.



Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch From America's Most Desperate Town

By Matt Taibbi
December 11, 2013 10:10 AM ET
The first thing you notice about Camden, New Jersey, is that pretty much everyone you talk to has just gotten his or her ass kicked.

Instead of shaking hands, people here are always lifting hats, sleeves, pant legs and shirttails to show you wounds or scars, then pointing in the direction of where the bad thing just happened.

"I been shot six times," says Raymond, a self-described gangster I meet standing on a downtown corner. He pulls up his pant leg. "The last time I got shot was three years ago, twice in the femur." He gives an intellectual nod. "The femur, you know, that's the largest bone in the leg."

"First they hit me in the head," says Dwayne "The Wiz" Charbonneau, a junkie who had been robbed the night before. He lifts his wool cap to expose a still-oozing red strawberry and pulls his sweatpants down at the waist, drawing a few passing glances. "After that, they ripped my pockets out. You can see right here. . . ."

Even the cops have their stories: "You can see right here, that's where he bit me," says one police officer, lifting his pant leg. "And I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm going to have to shoot this dog.'"

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/apocalypse-new-jersey-a-dispatch-from-americas-most-desperate-town-20131211

Friday TOON Roundup 4 - The Rest (Murdoch image warning)





N. Korea




Friday TOON Roundup 3 -Repubs

Friday TOON Roundup 2 - No wage increase, either

Friday TOON Roundup 1 -Shafting the Jobless

Chinese spacecraft gets a close look at Asteroid Toutatis

By Deborah Netburn
December 12, 2013, 7:43 p.m.

Space rock, or space rocks? A new study of asteroid 4179 Toutatis suggests the large asteroid that zips past Earth every four years is actually a collection of rocky fragments held together by gravity.

"We may conclude that Toutatis is not a monolith, but most likely a coalescence of shattered fragments," the researchers wrote in a paper in Scientific Reports.

The study, published Thursday, is based on images of the asteroid collected by the Chinese space probe Chang'e-2 (see above).

After completing its primary mission to study the moon in 2011, Chang'e-2 was positioned to take images of Toutatis just after the asteroid made a much-hyped close approach to Earth last December.

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