Analysis: Italian election explained

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


  • Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back for the fourth time

  • The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11%

  • Pier Luigi Bersani of the center-left Democratic Party is expected to narrowly win

  • Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances

(CNN) -- Little more than a year after he resigned in disgrace as prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back -- for the fourth time.

Berlusconi, the septuagenarian playboy billionaire nicknamed "Il Cavaliere," has been trailing in polls behind his center-left rival, Per Luigi Bersani.

But the controversial media tycoon's rise in the polls in recent weeks, combined with widespread public disillusionment and the quirks of Italy's complex electoral system, means that nothing about the race is a foregone conclusion.

Why have the elections been called now?

Italian parliamentarians are elected for five-year terms, with the current one due to end in April. However in December, Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PdL) withdrew its support from the reformist government led by Mario Monti, saying it was pursuing policies that "were too German-centric." Monti subsequently resigned and the parliament was dissolved.

Berlusconi -- the country's longest serving post-war leader -- had resigned the prime ministerial office himself amidst a parliamentary revolt in November 2011. He left at a time of personal and national crisis, as Italy grappled with sovereign debt problems and Berlusconi faced criminal charges of tax fraud, for which he was subsequently convicted. He remains free pending an appeal. He was also embroiled in a scandal involving a young nightclub dancer - which led him to be charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute.

MORE: From Venice to bunga bunga: Italy in coma

He was replaced by Monti, a respected economist and former European Commissioner, who was invited by Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano to lead a cabinet of unelected technocrats. Monti's government implemented a program of tax rises and austerity measures in an attempt to resolve Italy's economic crisis.

Who are the candidates?

The election is a four-horse race between political coalitions led by Bersani, Berlusconi, Monti, and the anti-establishment movement led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo. Polls are banned within two weeks of election day, but the most recent ones had Bersani holding onto a slender lead over Berlusconi, followed by Grillo in distant third.

READ MORE: Will Monte Paschi banking scandal throw open Italy's election race?

The center-left alliance is dominated by the Democratic Party, led by Bersani. He is a former Minister of Economic Development in Romano Prodi's government from 2006-8 -- and has held a comfortable lead in polls, but that appears to be gradually being eroded by Berlusconi.

Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances, and the Democratic Party has teamed with the more left-wing Left Ecology Freedom party.

The 61-year-old Bersani comes across as "bluff and homespun, and that's part of his appeal -- or not, depending on your point of view," said political analyst James Walston, department chair of international relations at the American University of Rome.

He described Bersani, a former communist, as a "revised apparatchik," saying the reform-minded socialist was paradoxically "far more of a free marketeer than even people on the right."

Bersani has vowed to continue with Monti's austerity measures and reforms, albeit with some adjustments, if he wins.

At second place in the polls is the center-right alliance led by Berlusconi's PdL, in coalition with the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League.

Berlusconi has given conflicting signals as to whether he is running for the premiership, indicating that he would seek the job if his coalition won, but contradicting that on other occasions.

In a recent speech, he proposed himself as Economy and Industry Minister, and the PdL Secretary Angelino Alfano as prime minister.

Roberto Maroni, leader of the Northern League, has said the possibility of Berlusconi becoming prime minister is explicitly ruled out by the electoral pact between the parties, but the former premier has repeatedly said he plays to win, and observers believe he is unlikely to pass up the chance to lead the country again if the opportunity presents itself.

Berlusconi has been campaigning as a Milan court weighs his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, for which he was sentenced to four years in jail last year. The verdict will be delivered after the elections; however, under the Italian legal system, he is entitled to a further appeal in a higher court. Because the case dates to July 2006, the statute of limitations will expire this year, meaning there is a good chance none of the defendants will serve any prison time.

He is also facing charges in the prostitution case (and that he tried to pull strings to get her out of jail when she was accused of theft) -- and in a third case stands accused of revealing confidential court information relating to an investigation into a bank scandal in 2005.

Despite all this, he retains strong political support from his base.

"Italy is a very forgiving society, it's partly to do with Roman Catholicism," said Walston. "There's sort of a 'live and let live' idea."

Monti, the country's 69-year-old technocrat prime minister, who had never been a politician before he was appointed to lead the government, has entered the fray to lead a centrist coalition committed to continuing his reforms. The alliance includes Monti's Civic Choice for Monti, the Christian Democrats and a smaller centre-right party, Future and Freedom for Italy.

As a "senator for life," Monti is guaranteed a seat in the senate and does not need to run for election himself, but he is hitting the hustings on behalf of his party.

In a climate of widespread public disillusionment with politics, comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo is also making gains by capturing the protest vote with his Five Star Movement. Grillo has railed against big business and the corruption of Italy's political establishment, and holds broadly euro-skeptical and pro-environmental positions.

How will the election be conducted?

Italy has a bicameral legislature and a voting system which even many Italians say they find confusing.

Voters will be electing 315 members of the Senate, and 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Both houses hold the same powers, although the Senate is referred to as the upper house.

Under the country's closed-list proportional representation system, each party submits ranked lists of its candidates, and is awarded seats according to the proportion of votes won -- provided it passes a minimum threshold of support.

Seats in the Chamber of Deputies are on a national basis, while seats in the senate are allocated on a regional one.

The party with the most votes are awarded a premium of bonus seats to give them a working majority.

The prime minister needs the support of both houses to govern.

Who is likely to be the next prime minister?

On current polling, Bersani's bloc looks the likely victor in the Chamber of Deputies. But even if he maintains his lead in polls, he could fall short of winning the Senate, because of the rules distributing seats in that house on a regional basis.

Crucial to victory in the Senate is winning the region of Lombardy, the industrial powerhouse of the north of Italy which generates a fifth of the country's wealth and is a traditional support base for Berlusconi. Often compared to the U.S. state of Ohio for the "kingmaker" role it plays in elections, Lombardy has more Senate seats than any other region.

If no bloc succeeds in controlling both houses, the horse-trading begins in search of a broader coalition.

Walston said that a coalition government between the blocs led by Bersani and Monti seemed "almost inevitable," barring something "peculiar" happening in the final stages of the election campaign.

Berlusconi, he predicted, would "get enough votes to cause trouble."

What are the main issues?

There's only really one issue on the agenda at this election.

The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11% -- and hitting 37% for young people.

Voters are weighing the question of whether to continue taking Monti's bitter medicine of higher taxation and austerity measures, while a contentious property tax is also proving a subject of vexed debate.

Walston said the dilemma facing Italians was deciding between "who's going to look after the country better, or who's going to look after my pocket better."

He said it appeared voters held far greater confidence in the ability of Monti and Bersani to fix the economy, while those swayed by appeals to their own finances may be more likely to support Berlusconi.

But he said it appeared that few undecided voters had any faith in Berlusconi's ability to follow through on his pledges, including a recent promise to reverse the property tax.

What are the ramifications of the election for Europe and the wider world?

Improving the fortunes of the world's eighth largest economy is in the interests of Europe, and in turn the global economy.

Italy's woes have alarmed foreign investors. However, financial commentator Nicholas Spiro, managing director of consultancy Spiro Sovereign Strategy, says the European Central Bank's bond-buying program has gone a long way to mitigating investors' concerns about the instability of Italian politics.

Why is political instability so endemic to Italy?

Italy has had more than 60 governments since World War II -- in large part as a by-product of a system designed to prevent the rise of another dictator.

Parties can be formed and make their way on to the political main stage with relative ease -- as witnessed by the rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement, the protest party which was formed in 2009 but in local and regional elections has even outshone Berlusoni's party at times.

Others point to enduringly strong regional identities as part of the recipe for the country's political fluidity.

READ MORE: Italian Elections 2013: Fame di sapere (hunger for knowledge)

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“NCIS: LA” cameraman injured shooting spinoff episode

NEW YORK ( – A cameraman for “NCIS: LA” was hospitalized with serious injuries after he was pinned while shooting an episode.

Production was shut down immediately after the accident Thursday night but was to resume Friday. The cameraman’s name was not released.

The accident comes two years after the death of a guard who was struck and killed by an out-of-control van during filming of an episode of “NCIS.” Police said the van’s 60-year-old driver suffered a medical condition and hit the security guard, who was 52.

The new episode being shot will serve as a backdoor pilot to a potential spinoff of “NCIS: LA,” which itself is a spinoff of “NCIS.”

The spinoff episode, produced by “NCIS” and “NCIS: LA” producer Shane Brennan, stars John Corbett and Kim Raver.

The accident is the third this year during production on a TV show. Two people were injured last month on the set of “Castle,” and three people were killed in a helicopter crash two weeks ago while shooting a reality show.

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Investors face another Washington deadline

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors face another Washington-imposed deadline on government spending cuts next week, but it's not generating the same level of fear as two months ago when the "fiscal cliff" loomed large.

Investors in sectors most likely to be affected by the cuts, like defense, seem untroubled that the budget talks could send stocks tumbling.

Talks on the U.S. budget crisis began again this week leading up to the March 1 deadline for the so-called sequestration when $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts are scheduled to take effect.

"It's at this point a political hot button in Washington but a very low level investor concern," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The fight pits President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats against congressional Republicans.

Stocks rallied in early January after a compromise temporarily avoided the fiscal cliff, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index <.spx> has risen 6.3 percent since the start of the year.

But the benchmark index lost steam this week, posting its first week of losses since the start of the year. Minutes on Wednesday from the last Federal Reserve meeting, which suggested the central bank may slow or stop its stimulus policy sooner than expected, provided the catalyst.

National elections in Italy on Sunday and Monday could also add to investor concern. Most investors expect a government headed by Pier Luigi Bersani to win and continue with reforms to tackle Italy's debt problems. However, a resurgence by former leader Silvio Berlusconi has raised doubts.

"Europe has been in the last six months less of a topic for the stock market, but the problems haven't gone away. This may bring back investor attention to that," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.


The spending cuts, if they go ahead, could hit the defense industry particularly hard.

Yet in the options market, bulls were targeting gains in Lockheed Martin Corp , the Pentagon's biggest supplier.

Calls on the stock far outpaced puts, suggesting that many investors anticipate the stock to move higher. Overall options volume on the stock was 2.8 times the daily average with 17,000 calls and 3,360 puts traded, according to options analytics firm Trade Alert.

"The upside call buying in Lockheed solidifies the idea that option investors are not pricing in a lot of downside risk in most defense stocks from the likely impact of sequestration," said Jared Woodard, a founder of research and advisory firm in Forest, Virginia.

The stock ended up 0.6 percent at $88.12 on Friday.

If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on reducing the U.S. budget deficit in the next few days, a sequester would include significant cuts in defense spending. Companies such as General Dynamics Corp and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp could be affected.

General Dynamics Corp shares rose 1.2 percent to $67.32 and Smith & Wesson added 4.6 percent to $9.18 on Friday.


The latest data on fourth-quarter U.S. gross domestic product is expected on Thursday, and some analysts predict an upward revision following trade data that showed America's deficit shrank in December to its narrowest in nearly three years.

U.S. GDP unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter, according to an earlier government estimate, but analysts said there was no reason for panic, given that consumer spending and business investment picked up.

Investors will be looking for any hints of changes in the Fed's policy of monetary easing when Fed Chairman Ben Bernake speaks before congressional committees on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Shares of Apple will be watched closely next week when the company's annual stockholders' meeting is held.

On Friday, a U.S. judge handed outspoken hedge fund manager David Einhorn a victory in his battle with the iPhone maker, blocking the company from moving forward with a shareholder vote on a controversial proposal to limit the company's ability to issue preferred stock.

(Additional reporting by Doris Frankel; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Italy's Innerhofer wins World Cup downhill

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany (AP) — Christof Innerhofer of Italy won his third World Cup downhill of the season Saturday, on a course where he has a history of good results.

Innerhofer bested three Austrians to earn his sixth career victory, covering the 2.58-kilometer (1.6-mile) Kandahar course in 1 minute, 37.83 seconds to beat Georg Streitberger by 0.12 seconds. Streitberger was the 30th runner out of the gate and Innerhofer wiped his brow symbolically when the Austrian crossed the line. Klaus Kroell was 0.16 seconds back in third.

Hannes Reichelt was fourth and world champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway finished fifth.

The Kandahar course was shortened after heavy snow over the past few days made the preparation of the entire run impossible.

Innerhofer won three medals in Garmisch-Partenkirchen when the world championships were held here in 2011.

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How troubled Italy fell into a coma

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


  • Bill Emmott: "Good Italy and Bad Italy" represent spit personalities of troubled country

  • In 1950s, Italy was Europe's "emerging economy" and a pioneering center for design

  • Old demons, including corruption and bloated public pensions, nearly bankrupted Italy

  • Today Italy's biggest problem is the country's refusal to take responsibility and change

Editor's note: Bill Emmott is a British journalist and was the editor of The Economist from 1993 to 2006. His book "Good Italy, Bad Italy" was published in English in 2012, and he is the narrator of "Girlfriend in a Coma," a documentary about Italy's current crisis.

(CNN) -- On my first visit to Italy, at the age of 18, I fell in love with the country and its amazing history almost at first sight, as I and my friends sailed across the lagoon on the ferry to Venice. When we returned and found our camper van had been emptied out by thieves, I felt a little less enamored, to say the least.

This was my first glimpse of the split personality of a country that is expressed nearly 40 years later in the title of my 2012 book, "Good Italy, Bad Italy," and is the theme of the new film I have just narrated for the Italian director Annalisa Piras, "Girlfriend in a Coma".

Yet what I didn't realize then, as a (fairly) innocent teenager, was quite how significant Italy's history is for the whole of the West.

Bill Emmott

Bill Emmott

The greatest case study, or cautionary tale, comes from Venice itself. In medieval times La Serenissima, as Venice is known, became the richest and most powerful city-state in the Mediterranean. It was run by a quasi-democratic "grand council", made up of the merchants who were making the city rich, an elite that was open to newcomers if they had new ideas and new energies.

But in the 14th century the elite decided to close its doors to newcomers, allowing in only those related by family to the old guard, and nationalizing trading rights. The decline of Venice began with that decision.

Italy today is like a huge re-run of that sad Venetian story. During the 1950s and 1960s, the country was Europe's own "emerging economy" of the period, enjoying the third fastest average annual GDP growth rate in the world during those decades, beaten only by Japan and South Korea. It was helped by the global move towards freer trade and by the early European Union, but also by its own then very dynamic society and economy.

New, entrepreneurial companies were formed, new ideas blossomed; Italy became a pioneering center for design, for cinema, and for fashion, and the migration of millions of workers from the poor south to the industrializing north provided the factories with labor at a competitive price.

But then old demons came back to haunt Italy. The sharp polarization, combined with fear, between left and right that was a legacy of the fascist period of Mussolini from 1917 to 1943, returned first in the form of a huge wave of strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then in a deadly form of political violence. Nearly 500 people died in shootings, bombings and other tragedies during the decade and a half from 1970 as extremists on both left and right fought a running battle.

As well, sadly, as taking part in the violence, governments responded by trying to buy social peace -- first by implementing a very restrictive labor law which had the effect of making the law courts the principal arbitrator in industrial disputes; and second by an explosion of public spending (and thus borrowing) chiefly on pensions and a national health system.

Public pensions became the main form of unemployment insurance, as unwanted workers were permitted to retire early and draw pensions. But public debt became the main albatross around Italy's neck as governments ran budget deficits that in 1975-95 averaged (yes, averaged) almost 10% of GDP each and every year. The result: a pioneering crisis of sovereign debt and a foretaste of the crises now roiling the eurozone, as Italy's debt load reached 120% of GDP in the early 1990s and sent the country into near bankruptcy.

That financial crisis, in the course of which the Italian lira was ejected from Europe's pre-euro exchange-rate system (along with Britain's pound sterling) coincided with a huge political crisis, as corruption investigations brought crashing down the parties that had dominated Italian politics for the past 40 years.

The crisis brought talk of a new start, a "second republic" (to succeed the first, formed with the postwar constitution in 1945-48) and even a renaissance. In the interim, governments led by so-called technocrats (a professor, a governor of the Bank of Italy, an ex-diplomat) were brought in to make reforms and give the country a much needed "reset" before normal politics would be resumed.

It didn't happen. Hence, 20 years later, Italy finds itself in yet another crisis, one that looks eerily similar. The country's sovereign debt is -- you guessed it -- 120% of GDP. A mix of financial crisis and scandals brought down the long-running government of the media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, while also discrediting establishment politicians of all parties.

In November 2011 a technocrat, the economics professor and former European Commissioner Mario Monti, was brought in to stabilize the country's finances, make reforms and give the country a "reset" before normal politics commence again after the upcoming elections.

It is too soon to say that the "reset" -- or, to use a broader metaphor, the upgrading of Italy's cultural, political and economic software -- will fail again. But it can be said that progress has been slow and disappointing.

Prime Minister Monti succeeded in stabilizing the public finances, but at the cost of a deeper recession than in all other eurozone economies except Greece and Spain. Beyond that, however, no major reforms have been implemented -- so the justice system remains painfully slow, the labor laws still discourage hiring while leaving millions of young people on poorly paid temporary contracts, competition remains overly restricted, too many markets are over-regulated, meritocracy remains stunted, corruption remains rife, and the huge cost of politics and political privileges has been left unchanged.

These tasks all remain for whichever coalition succeeds in forming a government after the elections. They should, however, have been done during the previous 20 years. Some progress in liberalizing markets was made, but not enough to stop Italy's GDP growth rate during 2001-10 from being the 180th worst in the world, just ahead of Haiti's.

Why not? Resistance from entrenched interest groups has been strong. Berlusconi's entry into politics in 1994 was essentially designed to obstruct change, to preserve his quasi-monopolistic businesses, and to ensure the old political ways could continue. On the left, suspicion of capitalism has remained rife, trade union powers have been maintained more successfully than in Germany or even France, and the use of political patronage to build power networks and reward supporters has helped destroy meritocracy.

The big question, however, is why Italians have allowed this to happen. The answer in our film, "Girlfriend in a Coma", is taken from Italy's, and arguably Europe's, greatest ever poet: Dante Alighieri. In his "Divine Comedy" of the 14th century, the sin he condemned most vigorously was "ignavia," by which he meant sloth -- the failure to take responsibility, the failure to show moral courage and to change things.

That is the coma that filmmaker Annalisa Piras and I diagnose as the Italian condition: economic stagnation, yes, but also a failure of consciousness and responsibility, which is in effect a moral failure.

Umberto Eco, the philosopher and novelist, adds a further explanation in the film. Italians, he says, "do not have a sense of the state." They had and respected a very powerful state in Roman times but that collapsed. The only states that have successfully replaced it since then have been the city states of Venice, Florence and elsewhere, which produced great riches and even the Renaissance of art, science, humanism and culture of the 15th century, but never achieved a set of stable, respected, still-less national institutions.

To get Italy out of its coma, its second crisis of 20 years, new governments will have to work hard to fix that problem. To make sure they do so, Italians will need to shed their ignavia and to become more active and demanding -- not in their sectional or local interests, but in the national interest.

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Oscar animators ready to be taken seriously

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — In the animated feature film category at this year’s Oscars, there’s a film set in medieval Scotland, another that features old-school video game characters, one that relies heavily on dry British humor, while the other two take inspiration from the supernatural.

It’s not exactly kid stuff — and that’s how the directors like it.

“I think this year with these films — and so many more — the envelope for animation is being pushed,” said “Brave” director Mark Andrews at an Academy Awards event Thursday night honoring the animated feature film nominees. “We keep seeing more risky, deep films that we wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago coming out. I wanna be one of those guys pushing it more and more and more because it’s not only an awesome medium, but there’s so many more stories that we can tell.”

The Scotland-set “Brave,” a darker fable from Pixar about a rebellious red-headed princess named Merida, will face off against four other animated films at Sunday’s 85th annual Academy Awards. The category was first introduced at the 2002 ceremony, with “Shrek” winning the inaugural trophy.

Despite the less lighthearted tone of this year’s animated nominees, none cracked the best picture category for a spot alongside the likes of “Argo,” ”Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” (Only three animated films have ever been nominated for best picture at the Oscars: “Beauty and the Beast,” ”Up” and “Toy Story 3.”)

“Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” mastermind Tim Burton could take home his first-ever Oscar at the Dolby Theatre ceremony for “Frankenweenie,” his black-and-white stop-motion film based on his 1984 live-action short film of the same name.

“Frankenweenie” is among three of the five Oscar nominated films this year that employ stop-motion, the intricate and time consuming animation method that use miniature sculptures and sets. Despite a strong stop-motion presence at this year’s Oscars, Burton cited finances, not the omnipresence of computer animation, as the reason that more stop-motion films aren’t produced.

“In the case of ‘Frankenweenie,’ it’s not like it was a studio wish-list to-do: ‘Let’s make black-and-white stop-motion animation,’” said Burton. “You hope it can survive. We all love it.”

The other stop-motion nominees are the English seafaring comedy “Pirates! Band of Misfits” from director Peter Lord and the undead tale “ParaNorman” from directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler.

“Wreck-It Ralph” director Rich Moore told the crowd at the motion picture academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters that he never envisioned the video game adventure from Disney as a musical, but “Book of Mormon” co-writer Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez did create an original song for the film.

“It didn’t work, so it’s not in the movie,” said Moore. “That’s our process. We try lots of stuff. We throw it against the wall, and the stuff that sticks stays in the movie. It’s a very organic process making films like this.”


Follow AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang on Twitter at

Entertainment News Headlines – Yahoo! News

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Stock futures rise after HP earnings, German data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock index futures rose on Friday, indicating the S&P 500 may halt a two-day losing skid, boosted by positive economic data from Europe and better-than-expected earnings from Hewlett-Packard.

The S&P 500 <.spx> has dropped 1.9 percent over the past two sessions, its worst two-day drop since early November, putting the index on pace for its first weekly decline of the year. The retreat was triggered by minutes from the Federal Reserve's January meeting released earlier in the week which suggested stimulus measures may end earlier than thought.

Still, the index is up more than 5 percent for the year and has held the 1,500 support level.

Hewlett-Packard Co climbed 4.7 percent to $17.90 in premarket trading after the No. 1 personal computer maker's quarterly revenue and forecasts beat Wall Street expectations as it continued to cut costs under CEO Meg Whitman's turnaround plan.

The German Ifo business climate indicator for February rose to 107.4, its best one-month rise in more than two years, boosting optimism after Thursday's disappointing PMI data stoked concerns over the euro zone economy.

S&P 500 futures rose 6.4 points and were above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures gained 28 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 10.5 points.

Insurer American International Group Inc reported fourth-quarter results that beat analysts' expectations, although Chief Executive Robert Benmosche said some employee bonuses will be smaller this year because the company did not meet all of its performance targets. Shares advanced 3.8 percent to $38.68 in premarket trading.

Marvell Technology Group Ltd rose 4.5 percent to $9.90 in premarket trade after the chipmaker forecast results this quarter that were largely above analysts' expectations as it gained market share in the hard-disk drive and flash-storage businesses.

Fellow chipmaker Texas Instruments Inc raised its quarterly dividend by a third and said it would buy back an additional $5 billion in stock.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Thursday morning, of 427 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 69.3 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.9 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

European shares advanced after the better-than-expected German survey, with the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index <.fteu3> up 1.1 percent. <.eu/>

Asian shares recouped some of the previous session's steep falls as investors reassessed concerns that the Federal Reserve may end its ultra-soft monetary policy earlier than expected, but weak U.S. and European data capped Friday's recovery.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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Would the pope vote be hackable?

The Conclave of Cardinals that will elect a new pope will meet in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.


  • Bruce Schneier: Rules for picking a new pope are very detailed

  • He says elaborate precautions are taken to prevent election fraud

  • Every step of the election process is observed by people who know each other

  • Schneier: Vatican's procedures, centuries in the making, are very secure

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Survive." In 2005, before the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, Schneier wrote a piece on his blog about the process. This essay is an updated version, reflecting new information and analysis.

(CNN) -- As the College of Cardinals prepares to elect a new pope, security people like me wonder about the process. How does it work, and just how hard would it be to hack the vote?

The rules for papal elections are steeped in tradition. John Paul II last codified them in 1996, and Benedict XVI left the rules largely untouched. The "Universi Dominici Gregis on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff" is surprisingly detailed.

Every cardinal younger than 80 is eligible to vote. We expect 117 to be voting. The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, directed by the church chamberlain. The ballot is entirely paper-based, and all ballot counting is done by hand. Votes are secret, but everything else is open.

Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier

First, there's the "pre-scrutiny" phase.

"At least two or three" paper ballots are given to each cardinal, presumably so that a cardinal has extras in case he makes a mistake. Then nine election officials are randomly selected from the cardinals: three "scrutineers," who count the votes; three "revisers," who verify the results of the scrutineers; and three "infirmarii," who collect the votes from those too sick to be in the chapel. Different sets of officials are chosen randomly for each ballot.

Each cardinal, including the nine officials, writes his selection for pope on a rectangular ballot paper "as far as possible in handwriting that cannot be identified as his." He then folds the paper lengthwise and holds it aloft for everyone to see.

When everyone has written his vote, the "scrutiny" phase of the election begins. The cardinals proceed to the altar one by one. On the altar is a large chalice with a paten -- the shallow metal plate used to hold communion wafers during Mass -- resting on top of it. Each cardinal places his folded ballot on the paten. Then he picks up the paten and slides his ballot into the chalice.

Pope may change rules to allow earlier election

If a cardinal cannot walk to the altar, one of the scrutineers -- in full view of everyone -- does this for him.

If any cardinals are too sick to be in the chapel, the scrutineers give the infirmarii a locked empty box with a slot, and the three infirmarii together collect those votes. If a cardinal is too sick to write, he asks one of the infirmarii to do it for him. The box is opened, and the ballots are placed onto the paten and into the chalice, one at a time.

When all the ballots are in the chalice, the first scrutineer shakes it several times to mix them. Then the third scrutineer transfers the ballots, one by one, from one chalice to another, counting them in the process. If the total number of ballots is not correct, the ballots are burned and everyone votes again.

To count the votes, each ballot is opened, and the vote is read by each scrutineer in turn, the third one aloud. Each scrutineer writes the vote on a tally sheet. This is all done in full view of the cardinals.

The total number of votes cast for each person is written on a separate sheet of paper. Ballots with more than one name (overvotes) are void, and I assume the same is true for ballots with no name written on them (undervotes). Illegible or ambiguous ballots are much more likely, and I presume they are discarded as well.

Then there's the "post-scrutiny" phase. The scrutineers tally the votes and determine whether there's a winner. We're not done yet, though.

The revisers verify the entire process: ballots, tallies, everything. And then the ballots are burned. That's where the smoke comes from: white if a pope has been elected, black if not -- the black smoke is created by adding water or a special chemical to the ballots.

Being elected pope requires a two-thirds plus one vote majority. This is where Pope Benedict made a change. Traditionally a two-thirds majority had been required for election. Pope John Paul II changed the rules so that after roughly 12 days of fruitless votes, a simple majority was enough to elect a pope. Benedict reversed this rule.

How hard would this be to hack?

First, the system is entirely manual, making it immune to the sorts of technological attacks that make modern voting systems so risky.

Second, the small group of voters -- all of whom know each other -- makes it impossible for an outsider to affect the voting in any way. The chapel is cleared and locked before voting. No one is going to dress up as a cardinal and sneak into the Sistine Chapel. In short, the voter verification process is about as good as you're ever going to find.

A cardinal can't stuff ballots when he votes. The complicated paten-and-chalice ritual ensures that each cardinal votes once -- his ballot is visible -- and also keeps his hand out of the chalice holding the other votes. Not that they haven't thought about this: The cardinals are in "choir dress" during the voting, which has translucent lace sleeves under a short red cape, making sleight-of-hand tricks much harder. Additionally, the total would be wrong.

The rules anticipate this in another way: "If during the opening of the ballots the scrutineers should discover two ballots folded in such a way that they appear to have been completed by one elector, if these ballots bear the same name, they are counted as one vote; if however they bear two different names, neither vote will be valid; however, in neither of the two cases is the voting session annulled." This surprises me, as if it seems more likely to happen by accident and result in two cardinals' votes not being counted.

Ballots from previous votes are burned, which makes it harder to use one to stuff the ballot box. But there's one wrinkle: "If however a second vote is to take place immediately, the ballots from the first vote will be burned only at the end, together with those from the second vote." I assume that's done so there's only one plume of smoke for the two elections, but it would be more secure to burn each set of ballots before the next round of voting.

The scrutineers are in the best position to modify votes, but it's difficult. The counting is conducted in public, and there are multiple people checking every step. It'd be possible for the first scrutineer, if he were good at sleight of hand, to swap one ballot paper for another before recording it. Or for the third scrutineer to swap ballots during the counting process. Making the ballots large would make these attacks harder. So would controlling the blank ballots better, and only distributing one to each cardinal per vote. Presumably cardinals change their mind more often during the voting process, so distributing extra blank ballots makes sense.

There's so much checking and rechecking that it's just not possible for a scrutineer to misrecord the votes. And since they're chosen randomly for each ballot, the probability of a cabal being selected is extremely low. More interesting would be to try to attack the system of selecting scrutineers, which isn't well-defined in the document. Influencing the selection of scrutineers and revisers seems a necessary first step toward influencing the election.

If there's a weak step, it's the counting of the ballots.

There's no real reason to do a precount, and it gives the scrutineer doing the transfer a chance to swap legitimate ballots with others he previously stuffed up his sleeve. Shaking the chalice to randomize the ballots is smart, but putting the ballots in a wire cage and spinning it around would be more secure -- albeit less reverent.

I would also add some kind of white-glove treatment to prevent a scrutineer from hiding a pencil lead or pen tip under his fingernails. Although the requirement to write out the candidate's name in full provides some resistance against this sort of attack.

Probably the biggest risk is complacency. What might seem beautiful in its tradition and ritual during the first ballot could easily become cumbersome and annoying after the twentieth ballot, and there will be a temptation to cut corners to save time. If the Cardinals do that, the election process becomes more vulnerable.

A 1996 change in the process lets the cardinals go back and forth from the chapel to their dorm rooms, instead of being locked in the chapel the whole time, as was done previously. This makes the process slightly less secure but a lot more comfortable.

Of course, one of the infirmarii could do what he wanted when transcribing the vote of an infirm cardinal. There's no way to prevent that. If the infirm cardinal were concerned about that but not privacy, he could ask all three infirmarii to witness the ballot.

There are also enormous social -- religious, actually -- disincentives to hacking the vote. The election takes place in a chapel and at an altar. The cardinals swear an oath as they are casting their ballot -- further discouragement. The chalice and paten are the implements used to celebrate the Eucharist, the holiest act of the Catholic Church. And the scrutineers are explicitly exhorted not to form any sort of cabal or make any plans to sway the election, under pain of excommunication.

The other major security risk in the process is eavesdropping from the outside world. The election is supposed to be a completely closed process, with nothing communicated to the world except a winner. In today's high-tech world, this is very difficult. The rules explicitly state that the chapel is to be checked for recording and transmission devices "with the help of trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability." That was a lot easier in 2005 than it will be in 2013.

What are the lessons here?

First, open systems conducted within a known group make voting fraud much harder. Every step of the election process is observed by everyone, and everyone knows everyone, which makes it harder for someone to get away with anything.

Second, small and simple elections are easier to secure. This kind of process works to elect a pope or a club president, but quickly becomes unwieldy for a large-scale election. The only way manual systems could work for a larger group would be through a pyramid-like mechanism, with small groups reporting their manually obtained results up the chain to more central tabulating authorities.

And third: When an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple of thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

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Rapper Ja Rule set to leave NY prison in gun case

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Platinum-selling rapper Ja Rule was set to leave an upstate prison on Thursday after serving most of his two-year sentence for illegal gun possession but head straight into federal custody in a tax case.

The rapper, who had been in protective custody at the Mid-State Correctional Facility because of his celebrity, has some time remaining on a 28-month sentence for tax evasion, correction officials said. His sentences were expected to run concurrently.

Ja Rule may have less than six months left and may be eligible for a halfway house, defense attorney Stacey Richman said. An order to pay $ 1.1 million in back taxes is one of the main reasons he wants to get back to work, she said.

“Many people are looking forward to experiencing his talent again,” Richman said.

Ja Rule scored a Grammy Award nomination in 2002 for the best rap album with “Pain is Love.” He also has appeared in movies, including “The Fast and the Furious” in 2001 and “Scary Movie 3″ in 2003.

Ja Rule, who went to the prison in Marcy in June 2011, is getting out at his earliest release date, state correction spokeswoman Linda Foglia said. He had two misbehavior reports for unauthorized phone calls in February 2012 and had work assignments on lawn and grounds crews and participated in education programs, she said.

In the gun case, New York City police said they found a loaded .40-caliber semiautomatic gun in a rear door of Ja Rule’s $ 250,000 luxury car after it was stopped for speeding, and he pleaded guilty in 2010.

He admitted in March 2011 in federal court that he failed to pay taxes on more than $ 3 million he earned between 2004 and 2006 while he lived in Saddle River, N.J.

“I in no way attempted to deceive the government or do anything illegal,” he told the judge. “I was a young man who made a lot of money — I’m getting a little choked up — I didn’t know how to deal with these finances, and I didn’t have people to guide me, so I made mistakes.”

Richman said the 36-year-old rapper, whose real name is Jeffrey Atkins, is looking forward to his daughter’s graduation.

“He’s a devoted father,” she said.

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Wal-Mart holiday profit rises despite lackluster sales

(Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc posted a larger-than-expected rise in quarterly profit on Thursday, as a lower-than-anticipated tax rate helped to overcome some weakness in sales at its major Walmart U.S. unit that persisted into the beginning of February.

The world's largest retailer also raised its dividend payout. Its shares fell 1 percent in premarket trading.

Wal-Mart earned $1.67 per share from continuing operations in the fiscal fourth quarter, up from $1.51 per share a year earlier. Wal-Mart had forecast a profit of $1.53 to $1.58 per share from continuing operations, and analysts expected it to earn $1.57 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Walmart U.S. has had a slow start to February, which Walmart U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon attributed largely to a delay in income tax refunds. The company expects sales at Walmart U.S. stores open at least a year, or same-store sales, to be about flat during the current first quarter. A year earlier, such sales rose 2.6 percent.

Efforts such as extending its layaway program and matching competitors' prices attracted shoppers during the competitive holiday season, but Walmart U.S. same-store sales rose just 1 percent in the fourth quarter. The company had forecast an increase of 1 percent to 3 percent, and analysts, on average, had looked for a 1.5 percent gain.

A year earlier, Walmart U.S. same-store sales rose 1.5 percent.

Still, Wal-Mart said that its biggest unit gained market share in major categories of food, consumables, health and wellness and over-the-counter medications, as well as in entertainment and toys, which are big sellers during the holiday period, citing data from Nielsen and the NPD Group.

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl in Boca Raton, Florida; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)

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Prosecutors: Detective should be dropped from case

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority acknowledged Thursday that the timing of attempted murder charges against a policeman leading the investigation into Oscar Pistorius was "totally weird" and that the policeman should be dropped from the case against the world-famous athlete.

Bulewa Makeke, spokeswoman for the NPA, said it was a decision for police and not prosecutors whether to take detective Hilton Botha off the case that has riveted the world's attention and is bringing scrutiny on South Africa's justice system. Botha testified on Wednesday in the case, acknowledging that nothing in Pistorius' account of the fatal Valentine's Day shooting of his girlfriend contradicted what police had discovered. That testimony in the double amputee's bail hearing marked a setback for the prosecution.

Botha was summoned by the magistrate on Thursday after police said charges have been reinstated against him in connection with a 2011 shooting incident in which he and two other officers allegedly fired at a minibus.

"Is he going to be dropped from the case? I don't know. I think the right thing would be for him to be dropped," Makeke said outside Pretoria Magistrate's Court shortly before Pistorius' bail hearing went into a third day. "Obviously there will be consultations between the two (police and prosecutors) to determine what is the best course of action."

Magistrate Desmond Nair questioned Botha over delays in processing records from phones found in Pistorius' house following the killing of 29--year-old Reeva Steenkamp. Prosecutors have charged Pistorius, a Paralympian who also competed in the London games last year, with premeditated murder. Pistorius says he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder.

Botha also testified Thursday that he had investigated a 2009 complaint against Pistorius by a woman who claimed the athlete had assaulted her. He said that Pistorius had not hurt her and that the woman had actually injured herself when she kicked a door at Pistorius' home.

The chief prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, said in court Thursday that they were not aware that the charges against Botha had been recently reinstated when he testified against Pistorius. Police say that Botha and two other police officers fired at a minibus they were trying to stop and will appear in court in May to face seven counts of attempted murder.

Pistorius is charged with premeditated murder in the Valentine's Day shooting of his girlfriend.

Pistorius' defense team on Thursday began to pick apart the state's case against him.

"The poor quality of the evidence offered by investigative officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings of the state's case," Roux said Thursday as Pistorius sat calmly in the dock looking down at his hands.


AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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Obama can't kick his legacy down road

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst

February 19, 2013 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)

President Obama has a small window of opportunity to get Congress to act on his priorities, Gloria Borger says.


  • Gloria Borger: Prospect of deep budget cuts was designed to compel compromise

  • She says the "unthinkable" cuts now have many supporters

  • The likelihood that cuts may happen shows new level of D.C. dysfunction, she says

  • Borger: President may want a 2014 House victory, but action needed now

(CNN) -- So let's try to recount why we are where we are. In August 2011, Washington was trying to figure out how to raise the debt ceiling -- so the US might continue to pay its bills -- when a stunt was hatched: Kick the can down the road.

And not only kick it down the road, but do it in a way that would eventually force Washington to do its job: Invent a punishment.

Gloria Borger

Gloria Borger

If the politicians failed to come up with some kind of budget deal, the blunt instrument of across-the-board cuts in every area would await.

Unthinkable! Untenable!

Until now.

In fact, something designed to be worse than any conceivable agreement is now completely acceptable to many.

And not only are these forced budget cuts considered acceptable, they're even applauded. Some Republicans figure they'll never find a way to get 5% across-the-board domestic spending cuts like this again, so go for it. And some liberal Democrats likewise say 8% cuts in military spending are better than anything we might get on our own, so go for it.

The result: A draconian plan designed to force the two sides to get together has now turned out to be too weak to do that.

And what does that tell us? More about the collapse of the political process than it does about the merits of any budget cuts. Official Washington has completely abdicated responsibility, taking its dysfunction to a new level -- which is really saying something.

We've learned since the election that the second-term president is feeling chipper. With re-election came the power to force Republicans to raise taxes on the wealthy in the fiscal cliff negotiations, and good for him. Americans voted, and said that's what they wanted, and so it happened. Even the most sullen Republicans knew that tax fight had been lost.

Points on the board for the White House.

Now the evil "sequester" -- the forced budget cuts -- looms. And the president proposes what he calls a "balanced" approach: closing tax loopholes on the rich and budget cuts. It's something he knows Republicans will never go for. They raised taxes six weeks ago, and they're not going to do it again now. They already gave at the office. And Republicans also say, with some merit, that taxes were never meant to be a part of the discussion of across-the-board cuts. It's about spending.

Here's the problem: The election is over. Obama won, and he doesn't really have to keep telling us -- or showing us, via staged campaign-style events like the one Tuesday in which he used police officers as props while he opposed the forced spending cuts.

What we're waiting for is the plan to translate victory into effective governance.

Sure, there's no doubt the president has the upper hand. He's right to believe that GOP calls for austerity do not constitute a cohesive party platform. He knows that the GOP has no singular, effective leader, and that its message is unformed. And he's probably hoping that the next two years can be used effectively to further undermine the GOP and win back a Democratic majority in the House.

Slight problem: There's plenty of real work to be done, on the budget, on tax reform, on immigration, climate change and guns. A second-term president has a small window of opportunity. And a presidential legacy is not something that can be kicked down the road.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

Part of complete coverage on

February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)

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Actor/producer Jesse Williams says Quentin Tarantino's film "Django Unchained" subordinates black characters and fails to illuminate the history of slavery.

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Ruben Navarrette believes that it's the guest workers program that will make or break the prospects for immigration reform.

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Howard Kurtz says lesser news stories eclipsed the follow up coverage that Obama's State of the Union deserved.

February 19, 2013 -- Updated 0024 GMT (0824 HKT)

President Obama may not have the votes to pass gun legislation, but David Frum says the government could do a lot to increase gun safety anyway.

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Since Canada will not tolerate an influx of zombies, we have to get ready and secure our borders, says Dean Obeidallah.

February 18, 2013 -- Updated 2259 GMT (0659 HKT)

Pablo Spiller says consumers will likely get more choices and improved quality of service.

February 18, 2013 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)

Convincing Congress to take on climate change will be an uphill battle, unless there's strong grass roots support, says Julian Zelizer.

February 17, 2013 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)

Bob Greene says the stories of former slaves, compiled in 1930s, tell of families torn apart, people deprived of basic freedoms

February 18, 2013 -- Updated 0028 GMT (0828 HKT)

Cameron Russell says her looks fit a narrow definition of beauty and her career as a model gives her views undeserved attention

February 19, 2013 -- Updated 0116 GMT (0916 HKT)

Meg Urry says the likelihood that a meteor hits and an asteroid passes close by Earth on the same day is quite improbable, yet the two events happened on Friday

February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)

Frida Ghitis says the murder of Reeva Steenkamp allegedly by Oscar Pistorius is a reminder that we have to do more to protect women.

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A Minute With: Billy Crystal, former host of the Academy Awards

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Few people have more experience hosting the Academy Awards than actor Billy Crystal, who was the master of ceremonies for the movie industry’s highest honors for the ninth time last year.

As “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane prepares to host the Oscars for the first time on Sunday, Crystal, 64, spoke to Reuters about his own experiences and offered some tips.

Q: What is the secret to being a good Oscar host?

A: “Anytime I’ve been asked by new hosts – Chris Rock called me, Jon Stewart called me – I always say the same thing: ‘Whatever your approach, the world is a rough room. And it’s a big room. Not everybody is going to like what you have to say. But when you’re up there, look like you want to be there. You’re the captain of show business that night. That’s your job.’”

Q: Is there a particular way to handle the audience?

A: “You’ve got the first five rows of people who are all nominated actors. They are really nervous. The women are in uncomfortable dresses. The men aren’t used to wearing tuxedos. For most of them, it’s the end of a really long awards season. The lights are bright, it’s usually really cold in there and there are cameras running everything to get reaction shots. So make them feel relaxed. And you have to be funny.”

Q: In those conditions, that sounds like a pretty tall order.

A: “It’s a really difficult job because it goes against everything you want to do as a performer and I always found that hard. As a performer who loves his job on stage, I don’t really like to see the audience, I like to feel them. So I try to encourage (new hosts) to understand that it’s not going to be what they’re used to.”

Q: Do you have a favorite year of all the ones you hosted?

A: “Definitely my first one (in 1990) because it was the first and it went really, really well. Then the one I almost didn’t do (in 1992) because I had pneumonia. I had a 104 temperature and was so sick. I came out as Hannibal Lecter in a mask and was wheeled out on a gurney and went out into the audience and talked to Anthony Hopkins. It was the year Jack Palance won for ‘City Slickers‘ and did the one-arm push-ups. That set me up for an evening of just running jokes about him.”

Q: Any mishaps that you recall needing to step in and save?

A: “At the (1992 ceremony) I introduced Hal Roach from the stage. It was his 100th birthday. He wasn’t supposed to speak, only wave. But he started speaking, holding himself up by the seat in front of him. You could barely hear him. It went on and on. You could feel people getting restless. Lines were racing through my head and I thought, ‘How do you get out of this?’”

Q: And how did you?

A: “I hit on a line and just looked at the audience and said: ‘It’s only fitting, he got his start in silent films!’ It got a big cheer. For me, I could look at that one little moment and say, ‘I was okay then. I was a good comedian that night.’”

Q: Did hosting the Oscars ever get old for you?

A: “If it ever gets old hat, you shouldn’t do it. The nervous part for me was when we had a good show, trying to top it the next year. It was putting that self-imposed pressure on myself. We were fortunate enough to have some good shows and some not as good as others.”

Q: Do you have one particular moment that will always stay with you?

A: “I came up with this idea of putting me in the nominated films. The last piece was ‘The English Patient‘ where I’m walking in the desert. David Letterman had a rough time (when he hosted the Oscars in 1995), so I said, ‘What if Letterman is in the plane and he’s coming after me because I’m hosting?’ So we did that and I thought, ‘What if I come through the screen?’ So they built a screen and I ran on film and then popped right through the screen and suddenly I was live (at the theater).”

Q: So was that your favorite moment?

A: “Here’s my singular favorite moment: My mother was in the audience that night. It was the only time she saw me host the Oscars in person. When I popped through the screen, she and I made eye contact. We just looked at each other … so that was the greatest moment.”

Q: Would you host again if asked?

A: “Today with social media, everybody who can press ‘send’ is a critic. There’s a lot of good ones, but the mean ones are really mean. If you have a thin skin for that it makes it hard … For me if the show is good, it’s expected. If it’s a bit off, you get creamed. And I don’t feel like getting creamed anymore.”

(Editing by Jill Serjeant, Patricia Reaney and Stacey Joyce)

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Stock futures flat with data, Fed minutes on tap

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock index futures were little changed on Wednesday, ahead of data on the housing market and inflation, as well as minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's January meeting.

Housing starts and permits for January along with the January producer price index are due at 8:30 a.m. (1330 GMT).

Economists in a Reuters survey forecast the housing starts data to show a 925,000-unit annualized rate in January versus 954,000 in December, and a total of 915,000 permits in January compared with 909,000 in the prior month. PPI is expected to show a 0.4 percent rise compared with a 0.3 percent drop in December. Excluding volatile food and energy items, PPI is expected to rise 0.2 percent versus with a 0.1 percent increase in December.

Later in the session, investors will look to the minutes from the Fed's January meeting for any clues on how long the current monetary policy will remain in effect.

The S&P 500 <.spx> is up 7.4 percent for the year, fueled by legislators' ability to sidestep an automatic implementation of spending cuts on tax hikes on January 1, better-than-expected corporate earnings and modestly improving economic data that has been tepid enough for the Fed to maintain its stimulus policy.

S&P 500 futures slipped 0.5 point and were slightly below fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures rose 14 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 2 points.

As earnings season winds down, S&P 500 companies set to report include Devon Energy Corp and Fluor Corp .

According to the Thomson Reuters data through Tuesday morning, of the 391 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 70.1 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

European shares traded flat, consolidating after the previous session's sharp gains, held back by weak earnings newsflow and as traders cited caution ahead of the minutes from the Fed's January policy meeting. <.eu/>

Asian shares scaled their highest levels since August 2011 after an improving global economic outlook whetted investor appetite for risk, while the yen firmed amid doubts over Japan's commitment to drastic reflation.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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Police: No inconsistencies in Pistorius account

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — A police detective, testifying at Oscar Pistorius' bail hearing Wednesday, said that police have not found anything inconsistent with how the star athlete described his shooting of his girlfriend — a killing that Pistorius says was accidental but which prosecutors call murder.

The second day of the bail hearing in a case that has riveted South Africa and much of the world appeared at first to go against the double amputee, with prosecutor Gerrie Nel saying a witness can testify to hearing "non-stop talking, like shouting" between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. before the predawn shooting on Valentine's Day.

Pistorius said in an affidavit read in court Tuesday that he and girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and budding reality TV star, had gone to bed and that when he awoke during the night he detected what he thought was an intruder in the bathroom. He testified that he grabbed his 9 mm pistol and fired into the bathroom door, only to discover later to his horror that Steenkamp was there, mortally wounded.

Under cross-examination, police Detective Warrant Officer Hilton Botha acknowledged that the witness who allegedly overheard argument was 600 meters (yards) from Pistorius' house, where the shooting occurred.

Pistorius, the first Paralympian runner to compete at the Olympic Games, is charged with premeditated murder in the case.

The prosecution attempted to cement its argument that the couple had a shouting match, that Steenkamp fled and locked herself into the toilet and that Pistorius fired four shots through the door, hitting her with three bullets.

Botha added: "I believe that he knew that Reeva was in the bathroom and he shot four shots through the door."

But asked if the police found anything inconsistent with the version of events presented by Pistorius, Botha responded that they had not.

Botha, a 16-year police veteran, said the trajectory of the bullets showed the gun was fired pointed down and from a height. Pistorius' statement Tuesday said that he was on his stumps and feeling vulnerable when he opened fired. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel has said the killing was premeditated because Pistorius took time to put on his prosthetic legs before the shooting.

Nel projected a plan of the bedroom and bathroom for the courtroom and argued Pistorius had to walk past his bed to get to the bathroom and could not have done so without realizing the Steenkamp was not in the bed.

"There's no other way of getting there," Nel said.

Hilton said the holster for the 9 mm pistol was found under the side of the bed on which Steenkamp slept — also implying it would have been impossible for Pistorius to get the gun without realizing that Steenkamp was not in the bed and could have been the person in the bathroom. Pistorius testified Tuesday that the bedroom was pitch dark.

Hilton said Steenkamp was shot in the head over her right ear and in her right elbow and hip, with both joints broken by the impacts.

Defense attorney Barry Roux asked Botha if Steenkamp's body showed "any pattern of defensive wounds," and the detective said it did not.

Hilton said the shots were fired from 1.5 meters (five feet), and that police found three spent cartridges in the bathroom and one in the hallway connecting the bathroom to the bedroom.

Police also found two iPhones in the bathroom and two BlackBerrys in the bedroom, Hilton said, adding that none had been used to phone for help. Pistorius had said that he called the manager of his guarded and gated housing complex and a private paramedic service.

Roux said Pistorius did make calls, including to the guards of the housing estate. In one case, he said, a guard could hear Pistorius crying. "Was it part of his premeditated plan, not to switch off the phone and cry?" Roux asked sarcastically.

Botha said Pistorius did not have a license for a .38-caliber weapon and consequently his possession of ammunition for such a weapon was illegal.

The detective said that all Pistorius would say after the shooting was "he thought it was a burglar."

In an additional revelation Wednesday, police said they found two boxes of testosterone and needles in the Pistorius' bedroom.

But Roux said the substance was a "herbal remedy," and not a steroid or a banned substance.


Imray reported from Johannesburg, from which Associated Press writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report.

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Time to respect Chavez's merits?

By Samuel Moncada, Special to CNN

February 18, 2013 -- Updated 1218 GMT (2018 HKT)

One Venezuelan official says the reforms enacted in Hugo Chavez's 14-year tenure deserve respect.


  • Despite perceptions, Hugo Chavez has brought social progress to Venezuela

  • Moncada: Venezuela's critics have engineered a false narrative of impending disaster

  • Venezuela has used its vast oil reserves to transform lives of ordinary people

  • Ambassador says Chavez's most significant achievement is his empowerment of the majority

Editor's note: Samuel Moncada has been the Ambassador of Venezuela to the United Kingdom since 2007 and holds a PhD in Modern History from Oxford University. He is solely responsible for the content of this analysis.

(CNN) -- Reading the international press, one would be forgiven for thinking that Venezuela is on the verge of collapse.

Over the past decade, all sorts of predictions have been made, ranging from catastrophic election defeats to the implosion of the Venezuelan economy. But the fact these predictions have failed to materialize has not deterred many of Venezuela's most fervent critics in their quest to engineer a constant and misleading narrative of impending disaster.

More: Chavez returns after Cuba cancer treatment

The reality is that ever since President Hugo Chavez was first elected, Venezuela has defied these negative predictions and brought unprecedented social progress to the country over the last 14 years. Since 2004 poverty has been reduced by half and extreme poverty has been cut by 70%. University enrolment has doubled, entitlement to public pensions has tripled, and access to health care and all levels of education have been dramatically expanded.

Venezuela now has the lowest levels of economic inequality of any Latin American country as measured by the Gini coefficient. Our country has already achieved many of the Millennium Development Goals, and is well on target to achieve all eight by the 2015 deadline.

This progress has been achieved by using Venezuela's vast oil revenues to transform the lives of ordinary people. The sheer scale of our oil reserves -- the world's largest -- guarantees the complete sustainability of the model in which the country's resources are used to stimulate growth in the economy and aid development.

But Chavez's most significant achievement has been to trigger the awakening and empowerment of the majority. A majority of Venezuelans have seen vast improvements in their living standards and, as a consequence, they have continued to defend their interests at the ballot box.

The Venezuelan people are very clear about what they want. President Chavez was re-elected in October 2012 with 54% of the vote in an election that boasted an 81% turnout. The Venezuelan people showed their support for the government again in December 2012 in the gubernatorial elections, which saw Chavez's political party win 20 out of 23 states.

Governments in Europe and other parts of the world could only dream of these levels of support after 14 years in power. This shows that social progress in Venezuela has been consolidated and that there is a desire to further expand this progress.

In the coming years, the Venezuelan government will continue to respond to the needs of the Venezuelan people. Hundreds of thousands of new homes have been built over the last two years which have not only greatly improved living standards but also provided jobs and contributed to a boom in the construction industry. The government is well on its way to meeting its target of building three million new homes by 2019.

While many economies around the world are shrinking, the Venezuelan economy grew by 5.5% in 2012. Against the backdrop of a continuing international financial crisis, commerce in Venezuela grew by 9.2% and communications by 7.2%, manufacturing grew by 2.1% and the oil sector grew by 1.4% -- making Venezuela one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America.

At a time when many countries are attacking the rights of the most vulnerable sectors of society, Venezuela is providing ever greater protection for low-income senior citizens and single-parent families with younger children or disabled dependents.

The failed development models of previous governments condemned millions of Venezuelans to poverty. Before the election of Chavez in 1998, Venezuela suffered years of falling GDP. The country had one of the worst economic records in the world -- a record that led to mass social unrest and violent military crackdowns.

Venezuela will continue on its path of social progress and empowering ordinary citizens. The greatest hope for the future is the people know that they alone hold the power to determine the direction the country will take.

After so many failed predictions, isn't it time to respect Venezuela's democracy and the will of the people?

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