Be an Optimist: How to Train Your Brain for Positivity

Not a natural optimist? Use these simple exercises to train your brain to more easily pick out the positive.

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You know how when you play Tetris for awhile, even after you stop, you can still see those little falling blocks in your mind’s eye?

The persistence of Tetris isn’t simply an annoying effect of a cleverly designed game, according to scientists. Instead it’s a reflection of something deeply positive about our brains–their plasticity.

That’s a according to a recent post by iDoneThis founder Walter Chen on productivity blog buffer. He cites studies on Tetris (yes, there is such a thing, and yes, this is going somewhere helpful to non-video game addicted entrepreneurs), which found that playing the game for a few hours a week over a period of months, actually changed the brains of players.

“Every time you reactivate a circuit, synaptic efficiency increases, and connections become more durable and easier to reactivate,” Chen writes, before summarizing the importance of the findings: “Whenever you do specific tasks over and over again, they take up less of your brain power over time.”

Learning Positivity

That’s probably not a shock to anyone who has learned to play the piano, speak a foreign language or even hit a tennis ball roughly where you want it to go. So what’s the big deal? This same brain plasticity allows you to master simple skills or sports, also allows you to train yourself to be more positive.

Chen quotes Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage who has previously spoken about his work on the brain and happiness to Inc. Just like we can train our brains to more easily recognize the patterns of Tetris, “we can retrain the brain to scan for the good things in life—to help us see more possibility, to feel more energy, and to succeed at higher levels,” Achor says, dubbing this ability “the positive Tetris effect.”

Happiness Homework

So how do you do this?  Chen offers four very simple interventions that can, over time, actually rewire your brain to see things more positively:

  • Scan for the 3 daily positives. At the end of each day, make a list of three specific good things that happened that day and reflect on what caused them to happen. The good things could be anything — bumping into an old friend, a positive remark from someone at work, a pretty sunset. Celebrating small wins also has a proven effect of powering motivation and igniting joy. As you record your good things daily, the better you will get and feel.
  • Give one shout-out to someone (daily). I love this technique. Take the positive things you’re getting better at recognizing and let people know you’ve noticed. Take a minute to say thanks or recognize someone for their efforts, from friends and family to people at work. A great way to go about this is by sending 1 daily email to someone. It can be your old school teacher, whose advice you are now appreciating every day. A co-worker or someone you’ve only met. Show courage and say thanks.
  • Do something nice. Acts of kindness boost happiness levels. Something as small and simple as making someone smile works. Pausing to do something thoughtful has the power to get you out of that negativity loop. Do something nice that is small and concrete like buying someone a coffee.
  • Mind your mind.  Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Opening our awareness beyond the narrowness of negativity can help bring back more balance and positivity into the picture.

Looking for more details? Chen’s post has much more on the science and what actually happens physically in your brain. You can also check out Achor’s interview about how happiness affects brain function (hint: it doesn’t make it worse), or get tips on how to reframe situations more positively in the moment from my colleague Geoffrey James. Finally, if you’re looking to add more mindfulness to your day, check out this post on how many entrepreneurs incorporate meditation into their lives.

Do you agree that it’s possible to alter you basic orientation towards the world and become more positive? 


Always Running Late? It Could Cost Your Business

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has a reputation for being late. You really don’t want to be like her.

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Some people might say they’re late because they get involved in something and just can’t extract themselves. Or they feel they work crazy hours so they’re exempt from the clock. Business Insider recently reported Marissa Mayer’s lateness is a holdover from the culture at her previous employer, Google.

But I think tardiness is the height of disrespect: whether you’re a founder, tech guru, graphic artist, or salesperson. A late person is downright self-centered and doesn’t give a damn about wasting other people’s time. 

I’ve developed strict policies about lateness to make sure no colleague, customer, or supplier is kept waiting–ever. This isn’t just because I think time management is important; it’s because people who ignore time constraints are a drain on my business. 

If you or your team members are late….

You’ll lose money. 

At my company, Metal Mafia, I have a strict start time; all staff members are to be in their seats and ready to work at 9 a.m. sharp. This means that their coffee is poured, their coats and other items are stowed, and their mind is focused on business. 

I think about it like this: If Jim wanders in five minutes late for a meeting with Sally because he stopped for Starbucks on the way, five minutes of Sally’s time has been wasted, and the business loses five minutes during which each employee could have been helping customers. Co-workers need to be able to count on access to their counterparts during defined business hours. Failing to enforce this allows your company to lose productivity, which ultimately causes the business to lose money.

You’ll ruin your image. 

When you tell a client or a supplier that you will meet at a certain time, and then you don’t show up at the appointed hour, you put a dent in your credibility.

If one of my account executives were to tell a customer she would call on Tuesday to help with his order and then didn’t call until Wednesday or Thursday, it would be easy for that customer to make the mental leap that an order promised to ship today might not actually go out until next week.

A business that is committed to a customer or partner shows that commitment, first and foremost, by showing up, as agreed upon. Allowing anyone on your team to be less than 100 percent committed to punctuality allows your brand to be tarnished.

You’ll decrease your efficiency. 

As a manager, I make sure that my staff members have the right workload. If an employee is not able to complete her tasks in the allotted time, barring some rare extenuating circumstance, she is not well organized. Her projects, colleagues, and customers will all suffer because of it.

A customer who doesn’t get told about a limited-time sale on the first day doesn’t have as much time to shop as someone who found out right away. A call that does not get returned on the same day is an opportunity slipping away or a problem being allowed to fester.

Companies that have staying power are companies that do everything–not just launch products and deliver merchandise (though that’s crucial, too)–in a timely manner.

There is no get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to being punctual. You either care enough to be on time or you don’t. Excuses are just a way to hide that. 

Glencore Considers Listing in Johannesburg

Commodities titan Glencore International PLC (GLEN.LN) is considering a secondary listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange once it has completed its merger with Anglo-Swiss miner Xstrata PLC (XTA.LN), a person familiar with the matter said Thursday.

The person said Glencore is studying a secondary listing but noted the study is still at an early stage. The person added that the consideration is being driven by the fact that South Africa has a savvy pool of investors who are familiar with both Glencore and Xstrata’s operations in South Africa.

Other miners have also been considering listing their shares on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The executive chairman of Canada-listed Ivanplats Ltd (IVP.T), Robert Friedland, said earlier this week that Ivanplats was considering a secondary listing in Johannesburg before pursing a listing in London.

Meanwhile, a new company called Sibanye Gold is due to start trading on the JSE next week. Sibanye Gold was formed from the spinoff of most of Gold Fields Ltd’s (GFI) South African gold assets into a separately listed company that pays a high dividend.

Investors have been attracted to the JSE by a large pool of investors with knowledge about mining and the fact that each of the companies has a notable presence in South Africa or plans to have a notable presence in South Africa.

Glencore and Xstrata both operate a portfolio of coal assets in the country while Xstrata also has an alloys business and a nearly 25% stake in South African platinum producer Lonmin PLC (LMI.LN), the world’s third-largest producer of the shiny metal.

Glencore and Xstrata are currently in the midst of a merger to create the world’s fourth-largest mining company with a market capitalization of about $80 billion. The two companies are in the final stretch of closing the deal and are now only waiting for regulatory approval from China in order to close the deal. The company has extended the deadline for closing the deal to March 15 in order to secure the final rubber stamp.

Write to Alex MacDonald at

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Copyright © 2013 Dow Jones Newswires

Peugeot to report multi-billion euro writedown-sources

French car maker PSA Peugeot Citroen is set to announce a multi-billion euro writedown on its non-performing assets, two people familiar with the situation said.

Peugeot has net tangible assets worth 14 billion euros ($18.75 billion), according to Thomson Reuters data, and is expected to write down a significant part of it on Thursday, the people said.

Peugeot declined to comment. Traders said the company had called a surprise conference call for analysts on Thursday night.

Any such writedowns would come on top of operational headaches at Peugeot, which has been slammed by overcapacity and falling sales.

Analysts are forecasting a 1.52 billion euro full-year 2012 loss for Peugeot according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. The firm is due to report results next Wednesday.

The auto unit of Peugeot, which last year was removed from France’s benchmark Cac 40 index because of its declining market capitalization, has been burning cash at a rate of roughly 200 million euros a month.

($1 = 0.7469 euros)

(Reporting by Sophie Sassard and Laurence Frost; Editing by Steve Slater and Elaine Hardcastle)

Deutsche Bank, Dutch Pension Fund ABP Settle Legal Dispute Over RMBS

Deutsche Bank AG (DB) and Dutch pension fund ABP have settled a legal dispute over residential mortgage-backed securities, the fund and the bank said Thursday, without disclosing financial details.

The settlement relates to RMBS that Deutsche Bank sold to the pension fund in 2006 and 2007. The RMBS later lost most of their value, and the fund sued the bank for allegedly providing faulty advice on the risks of the securities.

It is the third agreement reached by ABP over RMBS it bought from various banks.

Write to the Frankfurt Bureau at

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Monte Paschi says no more derivatives losses

Italy’s Monte dei Paschi said there were no more derivatives losses beyond the 730 million euros ($988 million) it has disclosed, which have rattled financial markets and become a campaign issue ahead of parliamentary elections.

The derivative trades are at the heart of a fraud probe into former management of the world’s oldest bank, raising doubts about the effectiveness of banking supervisors, including European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, who was Bank of Italy governor from 2006 to 2011, and the role of politicians, who agreed a state bailout for the lender.

Later on Thursday at an ECB news conference, Draghi is likely to be asked how much he knew of the trades.

Facing a grilling from analysts at a conference call a day after the bank revealed the full extent of the losses linked to three derivative contracts, the bank’s management also said on Thursday the Treasury was likely to take a stake in the lender by 2014.

“There are no more Santorini,” Chief Executive Fabrizio Viola said, referring to one of the three trades at the heart of a fraud probe into former management of the bank.

It said late on Wednesday the loss linked to the three trades – Santorini with Deutsche Bank, Alexandria with Nomura and Nota Italia with J.P. Morgan – would affect its 2012 net asset position, but has yet to determine the impact on its financial results.

The bank’s shares were up 6.7 pct at 0.246 euros at 1140 GMT.

The bank’s woes spiraled out of control in the wake of the 9-billion-euro acquisition of smaller rival Antonveneta in 2007, which left Monte Paschi badly weakened just before the global financial crisis erupted.

After being further hit by the euro zone’s debt crisis, Monte dei Paschi last month won final approval for a 3.9 billion euro state bailout, the only Italian lender to need one.

As elections near on February 24-25, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, leading the centre-right’s election charge, has used the bank’s woes to attack both his centre-left rivals and outgoing prime minister Mario Monti, whose Treasury approved the bailout.

The findings of an internal review of the trades, which the bank’s current chiefs say were partially hidden, were submitted on Wednesday to the board, and may lead to a restatement of past financial accounts.


Viola and Chief Financial Officer Bernardo Mingrone were asked repeatedly by analysts whether there may be more skeletons in the bank’s closet, and why the problematic trades had not yet been closed.

They said the review of the bank’s entire financial portfolio was now complete, ruling out further losses, and that the trades had been restructured but were still in place because it was not convenient to terminate them.

The loss from the trades will likely increase the overall 2012 losses for the Tuscan lender, which had already posted a net loss of 1.66 billion euros in the first nine months.

Sources close to the matter have told Reuters the bank has been negotiating with Deutsche Bank and Nomura to restructure or close the deals. One source said the negotiations with Deutsche Bank were going well, while those with Nomura were dragging. Deutsche Bank and Nomura declined to comment.

Mingrone also told analysts that the bank would pay a 2012 coupon of 171 million euros on existing bonds the state holds by issuing more bonds. That option would not be possible in future, so if, as expected, the bank does not make enough profit in 2013 to pay the coupon in cash, it will issue shares to the Treasury instead. Mingrone confirmed that the likely scenario.

Viola also sought to reassure investors and current account holders by saying there had not been no run on the bank’s deposits despite all the bad publicity surrounding the scandal.

Asked about reports of interest for the bank from BNP Paribas or from Italy’s biggest retail lender, Intesa Sanpaolo , Viola said: “Right now there is nothing.”

(additional reporting by Jennifer Clark; Editing by Will Waterman)

As ads dip, Times Co increases revenue on circulation gains

The New York Times Co said because more people are paying for its digital newspapers revenue grew in the fourth quarter, sending shares up as high as 15 percent on Thursday.

The earnings results – the company reported better than expected revenue and profit – marked the public debut of Mark Thompson as the Times Co’s Chief Executive to Wall Street.

On his first call with analysts, Thompson spotlighted the company’s progress on the digital front and how circulation revenue has surpassed advertising revenue for the first time for 2012.

“I took this job not just because I have been a devoted user of the New York Times for many years, but because I believe it is one of a handful of global news brands which cannot just survive but can thrive in this digital era,” he said in his opening remarks.

Indeed, the company, which also publishes The Boston Globe, is reaping the benefits of charging readers for full access to its digital newspapers, a program it introduced almost two years ago.

Benchmark Co analyst Edward Atorino called the circulation revenue “phenomenal.”

“It looks better than I thought,” he said about the overall results.

Circulation revenue rose 16.1 percent to $257.8 million mainly because of growth in digital subscriptions.

Paid digital subscribers to the Times and The International Herald Tribune, which it also owns, totaled 640,000 at the end of the fourth quarter, an increase of 13 percent from the third period.

“What is notable is for the first time circulation revenue did exceed that of advertising revenue which helps allay my concern that print media will drag down the New York Times,” said Morningstar analyst Joscelyn MacKay.

However, the Times has been promoting its digital subscriptions heavily and MacKay wonders how long it can keep circulation revenue up. “I’m still skeptical on the sustainability of that number,” she said.


Amid the good news, however, there were some troubling signs. Revenue rose because of an extra week in the quarter. Even factoring that in, advertising revenue in the fourth quarter was still down 3 percent to $279.9 million. Stripping out the additional week, ad revenue tumbled 8.3 percent on declines in both print and digital.

New York Times executives said they expect advertising revenue to perform similarly this quarter.

The New York Times is not alone in trying to ease its dependence on advertising and reap more money from readers. Gannett Co, the largest newspaper chain in the United States and publisher of USA Today, reported similar advertising trends on Monday.

“I don’t expect advertising revenue to grow anytime soon,” MacKay said.

Thompson said the Times Co was unlikely to reinstate its dividend at least in the near-term, a subject that has been on the lips of analysts and investors since the company eliminated it in 2009.

“We believe that for the present it is in the best interest of the company to maintain a conservative balance sheet,” Thompson said. “We do not believe, therefore, that this is the appropriate time to restore a dividend.”

Pension obligations as well as a decline in advertising revenue and investing in digital products were the reasons Thompson said company wants to be prudent with its nearly $1 billion pile of cash.

“I do foresee the need to invest in the digital growth of the New York Times digital products and services at home and abroad,” Thompson said. “Our priority is to define and rollout that growth strategy.”

Thompson spent nearly his entire career at the BBC, and the Times Co job represents his first in both the U.S. and the newspaper industry.

He mentioned that he is currently conducting a strategic review but offered only that the company plans to expand especially in video and mobile and that he would disclose more details in the coming months.

He also hinted of more cost cutting. Dozens of business and newsroom executives departed the company over the last few weeks as the company cut staff.

The New York Times said fourth-quarter revenue totaled $575.8 million, a 5.2 percent rise from the same quarter a year ago. Analysts were expecting $570.42 million, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

The company reported net income of $176.9 million, or $1.14 per share, compared with $58.9 million, or 39 cents per share in the same quarter last year.

Adjusted for special items including severance costs and a gain on the sale of, the company reported earnings of 32 cents a share versus 39 cents for the same period last year. Analysts were expecting 31 cents.

Shares of the New York Times were up 4.7 percent at $8.63 in afternoon trade.

(Reporting by Jennifer Saba in New York; Editing by Peter Lauria, Jeffrey Benkoe and Martin Golan)

How Russia has changed since its last Olympic Games

As Russia gears up for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games one year from today, many former Soviets hold bittersweet memories of the last time their country hosted the Olympics.

Road to the Olympics

CBC is the official Canadian broadcaster for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Russia. This week, begins indepth coverage looking at preparations for the Games and life in Russia today. will have full coverage leading up to Olympics, which begin on Feb. 7, 2014.

But Elena Eremeeva remembers the 1980 Moscow Games for something other than sports: she recalls the long waits she had to buy bananas.

In preparation for those Olympics — the first for a Communist country — Soviet officials cleaned up major cities and trucked in large quantities of scarce food products.

“My whole life revolved around trying to feed my family and standing in queues for food,” says Eremeeva, now choirmaster at a Russian church in Toronto.

“That summer I remember people waiting hours to buy bananas.”

Back in 1980, Eremeeva was a 23-year-old music student living in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), pregnant with her first child.

Life was good for her that summer. Although the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan six months before, Elena’s husband, Piotr, had escaped deployment by paying off officials with a suitcase of cognac.

Elena Eremeeva remembers how her life in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) more than 30 years ago revolved around trying to feed her family.Elena Eremeeva remembers how her life in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) more than 30 years ago revolved around trying to feed her family. (Courtesy Elena Eremeeva)

The war in Afghanistan and then the sentencing to exile in January 1980 of physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov had led to an international boycott of the Moscow Games.

For the Soviet Union, the boycott initiated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter was a blow. Sixty-five national teams — including Canada’s — stayed home.

Britain and France were among the countries that sent athletes, as well as many new African countries, and Moscow was determined to put on a spectacular show.

“The Olympics were an attempt at damage control of the image of the Soviet Union,” says Lewis Siegelbaum, a historian at Michigan State University who visited Moscow as a young scholar in 1980.

SOCHI 2014
Road to the Olympics
Full CBC coverage leading up to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi

The Soviets were saying “come look at our society, how prosperous and stable it is. It was a grand party to celebrate a superpower as equal to the First World,” he says.

Eremeeva remembers state television showing programs “about how the Soviet Union was so wonderful,” although she says she was cynical even then.

The mascot Misha featured prominently at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Moscow on July 19, 1980.The mascot Misha featured prominently at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Moscow on July 19, 1980. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

But many Soviet citizens were wowed by the pageantry of the lavish Opening Ceremonies, presided over by the doddering but still all-powerful Communist Party leader, Leonid Brezhnev.

Soviet cosmonauts sent their greetings from space and dancers and acrobats interpreted the achievements of the peoples who made up the Soviet empire. The mascot was Misha the smiling bear.

“They were trying to find an image that the kids would find cute,” says Siegelbaum.

Misha was an incredibly successful marketing tool, and a whole generation of Soviet children and parents remember his iconic image fondly.

Alexei Yurchak, an anthropologist at Berkeley University in California and a specialist on the Brezhnev period, was 20 years old and living in Leningrad at the time of the Games.

“Enthusiasm was very high among Soviets,” says Yurchak. “It wasn’t seen as a political vehicle, but rather as a sporting event.”

The Soviets won the most medals, taking 195. Eighty of them were gold.

Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci competes at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci competes at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. (Central Press/Getty Images)

U.S. and Canadian viewers watched the superstars of the Communist sports establishment from afar on news broadcasts. The stars included gold medal gymnasts Nelly Kim of the U.S.S.R. and Nadia Comaneci of Romania who riveted with their flawless performances.

Soviet citizens who took an interest in the event were proud of their athletes’ achievements.

“In the official discourse, success in sport was an indicator of the superiority of socialism. Sports was a platform for competition with the West during the Cold War,” says Larisa Zakharova, a historian of Soviet culture at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Looking back, many former Soviet citizens, including Eremeeva, are nostalgic about the Brezhnev era.

Like many Soviet citizens, Eremeeva had access to regular subsidized holidays — in her case to the beach in the Crimea —and was assured of some sort of a job with a regular wage guaranteed by the state.

“People remember the stability and predictability. It was very different from the unpredictability that followed,” says Siegelbaum.

“The standard of life was higher than in the previous years. The elites — intellectuals, officials and artists — in particular, enjoyed a certain social status and material comfort. But at the same time, there was tough political repression, particularly against dissidents,” says Zakharova.

Yurchak, who has written about this period and its contradictions in his book, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, says Russians are nostalgic about it now, because they understand that when it was over, certain freedoms were lost at the expense of others gained.

During the Soviet era, Elena Eremeeva, left, had access to regular subsidized holidays — in her case to the beach in the Crimea.During the Soviet era, Elena Eremeeva, left, had access to regular subsidized holidays — in her case to the beach in the Crimea. (Courtesy Elena Eremeeva)

“Their world shrank because of the market. They are nostalgic for the free time, the social life. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had enough,” he says.

“Most people weren’t caught up in the literal meaning of ideology. They didn’t pay attention to what the political slogans said. They became invisible to them.”

The late 1980s brought the excitement of the twin policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) under the reformist Communist Party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. He eased political repression and opened up the economy and society to pluralism and the outside world.

Eremeeva got a job singing in one of the few church choirs that were quasi-tolerated by the Soviet regime at the time, even though the KGB regularly badgered the choir members.

Pro-democracy protests

“We so hoped that finally people would open their eyes and live for themselves and not for the motherland. Leningrad was renamed St. Petersburg again. We got our history back.”

But the opening up of the country to reforms also brought unexpected social and political chaos.

The easing of censorship and state repression led to pro-democracy protests that spread across the Soviet empire. The Iron Curtain fell and so did Communist regimes in eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union, nationalist movements sprang up in the republics, leading to calls for secession.

Historian Lewis Siegelbaum pauses in the courtyard of the apartment building he was staying in during a visit to St. Petersburg in June 2011. The derelict car dates from the early 1980s.Historian Lewis Siegelbaum pauses in the courtyard of the apartment building he was staying in during a visit to St. Petersburg in June 2011. The derelict car dates from the early 1980s. (Courtesy Lewis Siegelbaum)

“By the end of the ’80s, a functioning state ceased to exist. The republics fell off a sinking ship and [President] Boris Yeltsin finally kills the wounded animal that is the Soviet Union. That is only the beginning of the whole decade of really hard times,” says Siegelbaum.

The 1990s were brutal years economically, as Russian society struggled to cope with an emerging market economy and the political fallout of the collapse of communism.

The rich got richer, while the poor got poorer. This was the decade of Russian gangsters, homeless street kids, destitute pensioners and the collapse of the world as most Soviets had known it.

Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB functionary, came to power in 2000, and was initially embraced as a pragmatic, disciplined president intent on re-establishing political stability and reviving the economy.

The economy stabilized, largely because of the country’s vast wealth of oil and gas resources, and Europe as a captive market.

Glaring disparities

But Putin also cracked down on democratic freedoms and the disparities between the poor and the wealthy remained glaring.

Fast forward to 2013. Putin is once again in power, his third term as president (after a four-year hiatus as prime minister from 2008-2012). For him, next year’s Olympic Games are a showcase of a revived and newly confident Russia.

Timeline: The life and career of Russia’s engimatic leader
Russian president came from humble beginnings, spied for the KGB

Eremeeva will be watching the Olympics from Toronto, where she emigrated with her family in 1995.

She returned to St. Petersburg most recently in December to bury her 77-year-old-mother, a pensioner who had survived the devastation of the Second World War but struggled in poverty in the new Russia. She died in a Russian hospital where Eremeeva says she had to pay bribes to ensure proper medical treatment.

“Today there’s such a huge divide in the country between rich and poor. The society is for the young,” says Eremeeva.

Eremeeva thinks long and hard when asked which era was better, the time of the Moscow Olympics or now.

“I can’t even say. Back in 1980, we had guaranteed work, health care. But today, if you are old with no money, you are out alone on the street.”

She says the Russian government will say “we’re just like you, we now have the same stores, the same brands, the same wealth. Well, it’s all fake.”

“The Soviet regime always wanted to show how it was better than the West. Well, it’s not the Soviet Union any more, but Russia is still trying to prove it’s better.”

Drone report released ahead of CIA hearing

Nominated to head the CIA, John Brennan told a protest-disrupted Senate confirmation hearing Thursday the United States remains at war with al-Qaeda and other terrorists and is under “daily cyberattack” by foreign countries and others.

In a statement delivered before he answered questions, Brennan promised to keep members of the congressional intelligence committees “fully and currently informed” and acknowledged that the Central Intelligence Agency “is not immune from scrutiny” of its efforts to safeguard the nation.

Interactive: The evolution of the drone strike
Pilotless planes, first used for surveillance, now a deadly military weapon

Legislators poured over a top-secret memo explaining the White House’s rationale for drone strikes targeting al-Qaeda operatives overseas, just hours before Brennan faced a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing.

The hearing was interrupted repeatedly — once before it began and then several times before Brennan had completed his brief statement. At one point, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and the chairman of the committee, ordered the proceedings halted and the room cleared so those re-entering could be screened to block obvious protesters.

The shouted protests centred on CIA drone strikes that have killed three American citizens and an unknown number of foreigners overseas.

Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief and Obama’s nominee to run the nation’s spy agency, helped manage the drone program. His confirmation hearing this afternoon set the stage for a public airing of some of the most controversial programs in the covert war on al-Qaeda, from deadly drone strikes to the CIA’s use of interrogation techniques like waterboarding during former president George W. Bush’s administration.

The CIA’s drone strikes primarily focus on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in the tribal regions of Pakistan, while the military has launched strikes against al-Qaeda targets in Yemen and Somalia. The agency also carries out strikes in Yemen, where three American citizens with al-Qaeda connections have been killed: Anwar al-Awlaki , his 16-year-old son and Samir Kahn.

‘Not an open-ended process’

Delivery of the secret document to the Senate and House intelligence committees, directed by Obama late Wednesday, suggested the White House was trying to clear obstacles to Obama’s second run at placing Brennan in the top spot at the CIA. His first attempt, in 2009, was stymied by critics who charged that Brennan backed harsh interrogation techniques used while he was at the CIA.

Obama directed the U.S. Justice Department to provide the memo to members of the Senate and House intelligence committees. Legislators were examining the opinion Thursday.

Spokesman Jay Carney said the White House was making an “extraordinary accommodation” in allowing legislators to view classified Justice Department legal advice on drone strikes against Americans. Carney said the White House does not plan to send the Justice memos to those beyond those on the House and Senate intelligence committees.

“This is not an open-ended process,” he said. “This is a specific and unique accommodation in this circumstance.”

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat and a committee member who had pressed the administration to provide the opinion, left open the possibility he might still try to block Brennan’s nomination. He said turning over the opinion was a good first step.

“I’m committed to making sure that we get all the facts,” Wyden said on NBC television’s Today show. “Early this morning, I’m going to be going in to read the opinion. We’ll go from there.”

Wyden said “there are still substantial questions” about how the administration justifies and plans drone strikes. “The founding fathers thought the president should have significant power in the national security arena. But there have to be checks and balances,” Wyden said. “You can’t just skirt those checks and balances if you think it’s inconvenient.”

Leaked memo

An unclassified memo leaked this week says it is legal for the government to kill U.S. citizens abroad if it believes they are senior al-Qaeda leaders continually engaged in operations aimed at killing Americans, even if there is no evidence of a specific imminent attack.

Brennan laid out the administration’s policy for targeting al-Qaeda with lethal drone strikes ahead of the hearing, defending the use of such strikes but disavowing the harsh interrogation techniques used when he was at the CIA.

White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has defended the use of drone strikes but disavowed the harsh interrogation techniques used when he was at the CIA.White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has defended the use of drone strikes but disavowed the harsh interrogation techniques used when he was at the CIA. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In answers to pre-hearing questions released Wednesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan said no further legislation was necessary to conduct operations against al-Qaeda wherever it’s operating.

He also answered some of his critics who charged him with backing the detention and interrogation policy while he served at the CIA. Brennan said in his written answers that he was “aware of the program but did not play a role in its creation, execution, or oversight.” He added that he “had significant concerns and personal objections” to the interrogation techniques and voiced those objections privately to colleagues at the agency.

Brennan went on to describe how individuals are targeted for drone strikes, saying whether a suspect is deemed an imminent threat — and therefore appropriate for targeting — is made “on a case-by-case basis through a co-ordinated interagency process” involving intelligence, military, diplomatic and other agencies.

Brennan defends strikes

Human rights and civil liberties groups have decried the methods for targeting terror suspects, especially U.S. citizens.

Brennan defended the missile strikes by unmanned Predator or Reaper drones as a more humane form of war, but he acknowledged “instances when, regrettably and despite our best efforts, civilians have been killed.”

“It is exceedingly rare, and much rarer than many allege,” he added.

Aides have portrayed Brennan as cautious in the use of drones, restraining others at the CIA or military who would use them more often, even though as the White House’s counterterror adviser, he has presided over an explosion of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Fewer than 50 strikes took place during the Bush administration, while more than 360 strikes have been launched under Obama, according to the website The Long War Journal, which tracks the operations.

Administration officials say Brennan would further limit the use of drones by the CIA and leave the majority of strikes to the military. Brennan signalled in his written answers that he would not seek to expand the CIA’s paramilitary operations.

“While the CIA needs to maintain a paramilitary capability … the CIA should not be used, in my view, to carry out traditional military activities,” Brennan wrote, referring to activities like the special operations raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Brennan said he would work to improve the CIA’s intelligence collection and performance across the Arab world after a spate of unanticipated unrest, from the revolts of the Arab Spring to the terror attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

© The Associated Press, 2013
The Canadian Press

Snowstorm headed for southern Ontario

People in southern Ontario are being warned to expect another wintry blast, as a major snowstorm is expected to hit most of the region Thursday and Friday.

Environment Canada has issued a winter storm watch for much of southern and parts of eastern Ontario, extending from London to Peterborough, and including Toronto.

Between 15 and 25 centimetres of snow along with strong easterly winds are expected. Some freezing rain and ice pellets are also possible over the southwest.

It’s expected the storm will deliver the Greater Toronto Area’s most significant snowfall in five years.

CBC meteorologist Claire Martin said the last time Toronto experienced similar snow accumulations was Feb. 6, 2008, when 30.4 cm hit the city.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a snowfall this heavy,” said another CBC meteorologist, Jay Scotland. “And we’re not just looking at snow. Things will be really bad in terms of visibility for Friday morning.”

Possible flight cancellations

The storm is expected to start on Thursday evening, with the bulk of the snow, about 20 cm, expected to fall between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. ET.

The City of Toronto has issued a cold weather alert, a move that opens additional spaces at homeless shelters. City officials were also busy readying snow-clearing equipment, including plows that weren’t used even once last winter.

Pearson International Airport posted a weather alert on its website, warning that those scheduled to travel on Thursday or Friday should check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport.

“Toronto Pearson has invested in infrastructure, equipment and staff training for effective snow clearing, de-icing of aircraft and in-terminal assistance for passengers,” it said in a statement.

WestJet issued a similar travel warning for Thursday and Friday, that a winter storm may cause the delay or cancellation of flights to and from Toronto.

Air Canada has issued an alert for Thursday, warning that flights may be “impacted by forecasted snow.”

Difficult morning drive

That will make for a difficult Friday morning rush-hour commute anywhere along the Highway 401 corridor from London to the GTA and through the Golden Horseshoe.

CBC News reporter Trevor Dunn said commuters should prepare for a difficult drive or arrange to take transit.

“The worst is coming overnight and it will continue through early Friday,” Dunn reported Thursday. “By all appearances, tomorrow morning looks treacherous.”

The storm will also bring heavy snowfall to eastern Ontario, parts of Quebec and Eastern Canada.

The storm is the combination of two weather systems that will merge in the eastern United States. Many cities in the northeast corridor are expecting blizzard conditions on Friday. Parts of New England are predicting accumulations of up to 60 cm.

Friday night’s storm will be a far cry from the one that hit Toronto in January 1999, when the city famously called in the army to help with the cleanup. Thirty-eight centimetres fell in one day and more than 100 cm accumulated within a week.

Things will be quite different come Monday, when much of the weather will turn to a slushy mess.

Monday forecasts for much of Ontario are calling for rain and above-zero temperatures, including:

  • Toronto daytime highs that are expected to hit 7 C.
  • Windsor experiencing above-zero temperatures
  • Ottawa expecting a mix of snow and rain.