Obama Signs Sandy Disaster Declaration

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The federal government has declared a major disaster in Pennsylvania from last year's Superstorm Sandy.

President Barack Obama signed the disaster declaration Thursday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says more disaster relief could be approved in the future if ongoing damage assessments show it's needed.

The declaration makes aid available for state and local efforts to recover from the effects of sandy between Oct. 26 and Nov. 8 of last year.

Federal funding will be available for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities. It applies to affected areas in Bedford, Bucks, Cameron, Dauphin, Forest, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Monroe, Northampton, Pike, Potter, Somerset, Sullivan, and Wyoming counties.

The storm caused record outages in Pennsylvania. At its peak, 1.2 million customers in the state were without power.

Ralph Nader: Banding Together

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, high-speed internet, high-definition screens, GPS devices, and other innovations have markedly changed the way many Americans spend their time. Think of all the tools and devices that have developed in the past decade alone that make it easier to find travel information, communicate, shop for deals, or choose entertainment. The list grows longer every day. But what about new tools for social justice -- tools for bringing people together to defend their rights against increasingly powerful corporate lobbies. Despite all the advances in technological wizardry, it's still difficult to bring people together behind common causes that benefit the majority or defend the aggrieved.

Many years ago, long before Twitter and Facebook and smartphones, I first recommended the creation of Citizen Utility Boards (CUBs) to fight rising utility bill rates. In short, this concept would have states passing a law to require utilities to include inserts inside bill mailings several times a year inviting residential customers to band together and pay a small membership fee. Funded by these voluntary contributions, CUBs would hire a fulltime staff of consumer lawyers, accountants and organizers to advance ratepayer interests before the monopolistic electric, telephone, gas and water utility companies, utility rate commissions and state legislatures. This "piggybacking" on state mailings provides a convenient way for the citizens to organize a substantial membership organization. The beauty of the CUB concept is that, as a voluntary group, it costs taxpayers nothing -- CUBs do not receive any government or utility funding. It is non-bureaucratic, because no new government personnel or procedures are needed. It enhances civic participation, because the CUB depends for its success on the energy and vision of its members. And it counters the massive inequities of power and information that afflict consumers in their dealings with misbehaving big business.

In 1983, the Illinois General Assembly passed the CUB Act, which formed the Illinois CUB. (See one of the original Illinois CUB inserts here) The results are quite telling. In 1993, $1.3 billion was refunded to customers after the Illinois CUB caught the Commonwealth Edison electric company severely overcharging customers. In 2006, the Illinois CUB discovered again that People's Energy used an illegal profit-sharing deal with the Enron Corporation to overcharge customers in the winter of 2000-2001. In that instance, $196 million was refunded to customers. Not bad for a CUB with an annual budget under $1 million. (Visit the website for the Illinois CUB for more information on their work and accomplishments.)

History has shown the CUB model to be highly effective in protecting the rights of consumers, but unfortunately, it was largely defanged by a split Supreme Court decision in 1986, holding that a corporation has the First Amendment right to not "carry messages inconsistent with its views." Leading conservative Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist disagreed with the decision. He wrote: "Extension of the individual freedom of conscience decisions to business corporations strains the rationale of these cases beyond the breaking point. To ascribe to such artificial entities an 'intellect' or 'mind' for freedom of conscience purposes is to confuse metaphor with reality."

While this decision was a major blow, it is still possible to set up CUBs or similar advocacy groups that would not violate the Supreme Court's ruling. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced an amendment to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform bill in 2010 to create a financial consumers association to defend against credit card and mortgage abuses in addition to other fine print contract schemes (see faircontracts.org) based on the CUB model. Senator Schumer's amendment was not included in the final bill, however.

Imagine how such a model could be applied to protect the interests of health care consumers. What about in the area of auto safety? Banking? Then there are taxes -- a taxpayer accountability group could advocate for tax fairness and efficiency and to cut wasteful spending. Going further, it would be easy to apply the model to the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

I first introduced the CUB idea back in 1974. As technology has evolved, so should our expectations about how Congress and state legislatures can advance civic values and consumer interests by facilitating people banding together in effective citizen groups.

One thing is certain. The American people must have organized voices to help consumer and citizen power counter the forces of concentrated, profit-driven big corporations.

For more on this issue, see the chapter "Invent New Tools for Reform" of my new book, The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future. Available and autographed from Politics and Prose, an independent book store in Washington D.C.

Gun Advocate Says If African Americans Were Armed, Slavery May Not Have Happened

A major gun advocate is promoting his pro-firearms stance by saying that had African Americans been given the right to bear arms, "slavery might not have been a chapter in our history."

Larry Ward, chairman of Gun Appreciation Day, appeared on CNN Friday to defend the nationwide gun rally, which is scheduled for Jan. 19 -- just two days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Talking Points Memo notes.

Ward insists that Gun Appreciation Day, which calls on gun activists across the nation to rally in support of the right to bear arms and against President Barack Obama's “post-Sandy Hook assault on gun rights," actually "honors the legacy of Dr. King."

"We are looking for a peaceful protest," Ward said. Continuing, "I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history."

Maria Roach, founder of United for Change USA, an organization dedicated to prison reform and gun violence prevention, called Ward's comments simply "ridiculous."

"Slavery means that you are a possession," she said on CNN. "Slaves were a possession, just like a gun." She continued to criticize Ward for celebrating weapons just two days before celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in 1968 by a single shot.

Think Progress' Aviva Shen notes the caveats in Ward's armed-slaves argument:

Ward also neglects to mention that in fact there were many armed uprisings by slaves, as early as 1526. Armed revolts almost always failed, and often led to retribution by the slave owners, who had the justice system on their side. Most famously, Nat Turner led a rebellion that resulted in 60 white deaths and 100 black deaths. The state later executed 56 blacks accused of being involved in the insurrection, and white mobs beat and killed at least 200 others in revenge.

Gun Appreciation Day, backed by a coalition of conservative groups, not only coincides with MLK Day, but also Obama's second inauguration.

Roach's United for Change USA has launched a petition to stop Gun Appreciation Day, according to ABC News. "Gun groups are planning to have a National Gun Appreciation Day on January 19th, the same weekend that Americans celebrate the life and service of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an American leader who was assassinated by a rifle's bullet," reads the petition. "This is an outrage and a slap in the face to Americans who value life and freedom!"

As of Friday, the petition had garnered more than 26,000 of the 30,000 signatures needed on SignOn.org.

Saki Knafo: What Do The Videogame Industry And Gun Industry Have In Common?

Joe Biden reportedly met with leaders of the videogame industry today, as part of his attempt to find legislative solutions to the gun problem. Some people think that these meetings are a joke. (See Vanity Fair's arch headline and Paul Tassi's imaginary dialogue in Forbes.)

Who knows whether and what to extent Biden is seriously pursuing regulations of violent videogames? I don't, but one thing seems clear: Both the videogame and gun industries are powerful forces that stand to lose a lot of money if the government steps up its regulatory efforts.

I spoke with California Senator Leland Yee, who has introduced bills to tighten regulations over videogames and guns alike, and he told me he doesn't think the government has much hope of reducing videogame violence through legislative efforts. His own videogame bill was overturned by the Supreme Court on First Amendment Grounds. "I'm hopeful that the videogame industry will work with the Vice President and fiercely take responsibility for the impact that violent video games have on violent behavior," he said. "Unfortunately, the videogame industry has challenged every single violent-videogame bill throughout the states and they have won pretty much all the cases."

Transgender Miss California Contestant Set To Make History

When Kylan Arianna Wenzel takes the stage Saturday for the preliminary round of the Miss California USA pageant, the tall knockout will be representing a lot more than her hometown.

Wenzel, 26, will be the first transgender woman allowed to compete in a Miss Universe Organization pageant since Donald Trump changed the rules to allow women like Wenzel to enter officially.

Trump made the change last spring, after Miss Canada finalist Jenna Talackova was disqualified from the competition because she was not a "naturally born female.”

The disqualification became an international embarrassment for Trump after Talackova hired high-powered attorney Gloria Allred, accusing him of discrimination. Over 20,000 people signed a Change.org petition asking Trump to change the contest rules.

In a profile published this week in Frontiers magazine, Wenzel said that she has dreamed of becoming Miss Universe since she was a little girl, watching Miss USA Brook Lee bring the crown back to America in 1997.

kylan wenzel transgender miss california

Since hearing of the rule change, Wenzel has rearranged her life to compete, according to Frontiers, quitting her job as a shift manager at Jamba Juice and moving her sex reassignment surgery up.

“You have to put it out to the universe -- what you want to do -- and you have to follow up on it,” Wenzel remarked to Frontiers. “So, let’s say for transgender individuals, even if you haven’t had your sex change and you’re not sure, you have to act like you are Miss Universe or you are the woman you see yourself being. And you do that in everyday life."

On her website, Wenzel writes that she was born in South Korea to a German-American father and a South Korean mother. Raised in a millitary family, Wenzel moved often, attending middle school in Arizona and high school in Seoul, South Korea.

It was not always an easy life, Wenzel told Frontiers magazine writer Karen Ocamb, and she struggled in school and with her English language skills. She also revealed a turbulent home life to Frontiers, opening up about physical and sexual abuse in her past.

Visit Frontiers magazine for the full profile.

Wenzel hopes to one day be a television host or broadcast journalist, she writes on her website.

More than 200 Miss California pageant contestants will grace the stage Saturday in Pasadena to be judged in "three areas of competition: Interview, Swimsuit and Evening Gown. Judging criteria includes character, poise, confidence and personality," per the contest's website.

The pageant "motivates every individual girl to really become the best of themselves," Wenzel explained. "They’re trying to find the highest expression of themselves."

The final 20 contestants go on to compete in the finals portion of the show on Sunday.

25 Bizarre Interview Questions From America’s Most Famous Companies

When a big, powerful company like Google announces a job opening, it invariably receives an overwhelming number of perfectly impressive resumes. The only problem is their frustratingly similarities. How does one discover the true creative geniuses in a room of seemingly identical applicants?

The answer, of course, it to ask a bunch of really weird interview questions! And if you don't believe us, check out 25 of the year's strangest examples, compiled by online career community Glassdoor:

Don't get caught off guard if you're asked one of these weirdos:

How Much Is An Oscar Worth?

This time of year, critics and Hollywood insiders tend to ask whether the Oscars still matter, pointing out that the awards often don't reflect popular taste and the ceremony's television audience has shrunk in recent years. What does it mean that Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper and Ben Affleck didn't receive Best Director nominations this year, while their movies were all nominated for Best Picture and they were all nominated by the Directors Guild?

The Academy's choices may not seem meaningful to everyone, but they matter from a monetary standpoint. Hollywood studios depend on awards shows to help certain movies at the box office, which makes up for losses in the production of others and makes room for creative risks.

"Most of the nominees for the 2012 awards stand out significantly from typical blockbusters," said Agata Kaczanowska, an entertainment industry analyst at the market research provider IBISWorld. "Out of the nominees, winners tend to be lower-budget movies that have experienced a larger monetary boost for the Academy Award nomination.”

Over the past five years, Best Picture winners had an average budget of $17 million and earned an average of $82.5 million at the box-office — with more than half of the box office sales happening after the Oscar nomination, according to the IBISWorld report. That's an average box office haul of 485.6 percent of each movie's budget.

The waves of moviegoers who buy tickets for Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning films may be one reason studios release buzzy films towards the end of the year.

A Best Picture nominee gets an average box office boost of $6.9 million, according to a 2001 analysis by Randy Nelson, professor of economics and finance at Colby College. If it goes on to win the Oscar, it can expect a bump of $18.1 million.

"It is, categorically, a financial benefit, if your film is still in release," Eric Fellner of Working Title Films, which produced Les Misérables, told CNN on Thursday. He added that the studio will be "spending money to advertise the fact that the film is opening [in Europe], and that it got this many nominations." (It got eight, including Best Picture.)

Explosion Levels Texas House

LEWISVILLE, Texas -- An explosion has destroyed a home and scattered debris throughout the surrounding neighborhood in North Texas.

Authorities are trying to determine what led to the blast early Friday afternoon in Lewisville, about 20 miles northwest of Dallas.

Lewisville Fire Department officials did not immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment by The Associated Press. There were no immediate reports of casualties. It was not clear who owned the home.

Nearby streets were closed as a precaution as firefighters sprayed water on the smoldering debris.

Further details were not immediately available.

Flatulent Employee Accused Of ‘Creating Hostile Work Environment’ Gets Break

WASHINGTON -- The Social Security Administration issued an official reprimand to the employee after months of flatulence problems, but the agency says it has since retracted the rebuke.

The reprimand letter runs four pages and is dated Dec. 10. It charges the Social Security Administration employee with "conduct unbecoming a federal employee" and "creating a hostile work environment" because of the repeated gas passing.

The letter was originally posted on The Smoking Gun website with names blacked out.

A Social Security Administration spokesman said Friday in a two-sentence email that the reprimand was rescinded a week after it was issued "when senior management became aware" of it. The spokesman said the agency could not comment further.

Flatulent Employee Accused Of ‘Creating Hostile Work Environment’ Gets Break

WASHINGTON -- The Social Security Administration issued an official reprimand to the employee after months of flatulence problems, but the agency says it has since retracted the rebuke.

The reprimand letter runs four pages and is dated Dec. 10. It charges the Social Security Administration employee with "conduct unbecoming a federal employee" and "creating a hostile work environment" because of the repeated gas passing.

The letter was originally posted on The Smoking Gun website with names blacked out.

A Social Security Administration spokesman said Friday in a two-sentence email that the reprimand was rescinded a week after it was issued "when senior management became aware" of it. The spokesman said the agency could not comment further.

Fiscal Cliff Defines Obama’s Second Term

Constant crisis, a more aggressive president, maybe even a more accommodating Republican Party: what last week's agreement tells us about the road ahead.

The fiscal cliff was not the end. If anything, it was the beginning of a new season of crisis on Capitol Hill. Aren't you glad?

Fiscal Cliff Defines Obama’s Second Term

Constant crisis, a more aggressive president, maybe even a more accommodating Republican Party: what last week's agreement tells us about the road ahead.

The fiscal cliff was not the end. If anything, it was the beginning of a new season of crisis on Capitol Hill. Aren't you glad?

White House Holds Call With Major Foundations About Gun Control

President Obama may be tapping the philanthropic sector for support in gun violence prevention measures.

As part of President Barack Obama’s gun violence prevention efforts, the White House placed a call to several nonprofits -- none of which are gun control groups -- to determine their level of support for stronger gun control legislation, Politico reports.

The White House declined to comment about the call with foundations including Open Society Institute, the McCormick Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the California Endowment, the news outlet reports.

“There’s only one reason why you get a bunch of deep-pocketed funders on the phone,” a participant on the call told Politico. “It’s not because they’re great dancers. It’s because at the end of the day you need to tap into them for something.”

Pressure for stronger gun control legislation stems from the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that led to 27 deaths, including 20 children, six adults and the shooter, according to the AP.

Since the tragedy, nonprofit organizations like the Brady Campaign and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence which lobby for gun control have reported a spike in donations, the Huffington Post reports.

"People are desperate to do something to make sure that this does not happen again, a mass shooting in a kindergarten classroom," Sarah Hench, director of development at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence told HuffPost.

Gun-rights supporters see the situation differently. Many have reacted to the White House’s discussions on gun control by calling for a national "Gun Appreciation Day" on Jan. 19, Fox News reports.

Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with video game representatives on Friday to examine cultural factors that contribute to gun violence, the AP reports. Biden’s task force, which has also met with Comcast Corp. and the Motion Picture Association of America, will report its recommendations to President Barack Obama on Tuesday, according to the news outlet.

White House Holds Call With Major Foundations About Gun Control

President Obama may be tapping the philanthropic sector for support in gun violence prevention measures.

As part of President Barack Obama’s gun violence prevention efforts, the White House placed a call to several nonprofits -- none of which are gun control groups -- to determine their level of support for stronger gun control legislation, Politico reports.

The White House declined to comment about the call with foundations including Open Society Institute, the McCormick Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the California Endowment, the news outlet reports.

“There’s only one reason why you get a bunch of deep-pocketed funders on the phone,” a participant on the call told Politico. “It’s not because they’re great dancers. It’s because at the end of the day you need to tap into them for something.”

Pressure for stronger gun control legislation stems from the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that led to 27 deaths, including 20 children, six adults and the shooter, according to the AP.

Since the tragedy, nonprofit organizations like the Brady Campaign and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence which lobby for gun control have reported a spike in donations, the Huffington Post reports.

"People are desperate to do something to make sure that this does not happen again, a mass shooting in a kindergarten classroom," Sarah Hench, director of development at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence told HuffPost.

Gun-rights supporters see the situation differently. Many have reacted to the White House’s discussions on gun control by calling for a national "Gun Appreciation Day" on Jan. 19, Fox News reports.

Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with video game representatives on Friday to examine cultural factors that contribute to gun violence, the AP reports. Biden’s task force, which has also met with Comcast Corp. and the Motion Picture Association of America, will report its recommendations to President Barack Obama on Tuesday, according to the news outlet.

Takeover Contagion: Detroit’s Just The Latest City To Face State Control

-- If Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder concludes that Detroit cannot fix its own financial problems, the city would become the sixth in the state to get an emergency manager. Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac, Ecorse and Allen Park currently have emergency financial managers.

A look at other U.S. cities that are, or have been, under state control:

_ Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital, has been under state oversight since 2011. The Republican-controlled Legislature had been trying to force the city to pay down a $300 million debt tied to a trash incinerator renovation project. Mayor Linda Thompson has called her proposed $54.3 million budget for 2013 "bare-boned."

_ Atlantic City let New Jersey take over its finances in 2010. The arrangement allows the city to spread its $9.5 million budget deficit over five years, sparing residents and businesses a significantly larger property tax increase. State supervision also allows the city to defer some expenses.

_ Camden, N.J., spent seven years under state control beginning in 2002, but problems have persisted. Two years ago, about half of the city's police department and a third of its firefighters were laid off to save money. Since then, all the laid-off public-safety workers have been called back, but their numbers have fallen through attrition.

_ Massachusetts put the city of Chelsea under state receivership in 1991 due to chronic money problems and more than $9 million in debt. The mayor was removed from office and a state-appointed receiver put in his place. The receiver was able to rip up and redo union contracts, impose new fees and change zoning regulations. By 1993, Chelsea had a budget surplus.

_ State legislators in New York created the Municipal Assistance Corp. in 1975 to rescue New York City from imminent bankruptcy. The MAC board took over the city's finances and was able to borrow billions of dollars on its behalf. The MAC kept the city solvent and was disbanded in 2008.

Takeover Contagion: Detroit’s Just The Latest City To Face State Control

-- If Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder concludes that Detroit cannot fix its own financial problems, the city would become the sixth in the state to get an emergency manager. Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac, Ecorse and Allen Park currently have emergency financial managers.

A look at other U.S. cities that are, or have been, under state control:

_ Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital, has been under state oversight since 2011. The Republican-controlled Legislature had been trying to force the city to pay down a $300 million debt tied to a trash incinerator renovation project. Mayor Linda Thompson has called her proposed $54.3 million budget for 2013 "bare-boned."

_ Atlantic City let New Jersey take over its finances in 2010. The arrangement allows the city to spread its $9.5 million budget deficit over five years, sparing residents and businesses a significantly larger property tax increase. State supervision also allows the city to defer some expenses.

_ Camden, N.J., spent seven years under state control beginning in 2002, but problems have persisted. Two years ago, about half of the city's police department and a third of its firefighters were laid off to save money. Since then, all the laid-off public-safety workers have been called back, but their numbers have fallen through attrition.

_ Massachusetts put the city of Chelsea under state receivership in 1991 due to chronic money problems and more than $9 million in debt. The mayor was removed from office and a state-appointed receiver put in his place. The receiver was able to rip up and redo union contracts, impose new fees and change zoning regulations. By 1993, Chelsea had a budget surplus.

_ State legislators in New York created the Municipal Assistance Corp. in 1975 to rescue New York City from imminent bankruptcy. The MAC board took over the city's finances and was able to borrow billions of dollars on its behalf. The MAC kept the city solvent and was disbanded in 2008.

WATCH: Is This What Obesity Looks Like?

Before you think about getting a greasy hamburger for dinner, you might want to watch this video.

An Australian obesity awareness and healthy living campaign by LiveLighter.com has created a graphic 30-second video about what happens to all our vital organs when fat enters our bodies.

The video targets overeating and a lack of physical activity, and how the two together can result in a gross, yellow fatty mess — with sound effects included.

Toxic fat or visceral fat can be known to release chemicals into your body and because of this, excess fat can lead to heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, according to the campaign. One health expert said toxic fat is “constantly pumping poisons into the bloodstream,” according to the Daily Mail.

In Canada, even though obesity rates haven’t budged since 2009, over 4.6 million adults remain overweight and rates among men and women as individual groups continue to rise, according to Statistics Canada.

Earlier this year, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta launched a series of anti-obesity ads to urge North Americans to stop sugar coating obesity, while the city of New York defended their anti-obesity ad targeting diabetics and amputees.

Is this video effective or just too graphic? Let us know in the comments below.

ALSO: LOOK: Highlights from Canada’s 2011 community health survey:

Lerer on a Roll in ’11, Bedrocket Seed Fund Nears Close–UPDATED

Ken Lerer can’t seem to stop getting his hands on money this year. First, Lerer Ventures, the namesake VC firm he runs with his son, closed $25 million from friends and family offices in May to follow up on his successful $8.5 million vehicle that closed in 2010. Now Lerer is also closing in on completing his Bedrocket Media Ventures seed fund, a vehicle that will contain about $11.5 million, according to a recent S.E.C. filing.

Despite getting its first investment July 28, the fund is nearly closed—with just $2.5 million that still needs to be gathered.

In an interview with AllThingsD, Lerer said the video studio and incubator would create content that can be used on the Web and on standard television. With Lerer’s track record, entrepreneurs will likely be eager to work with him. He was co-founder and chairman of the Huffington Post, which AOL acquired earlier this year for $315 million.

It’s been a busy year for Lerer. The AOL acquisition of the Huffington Post brought to the VC former HuffPo CEO Eric Hippeau, who left after the deal. This stoked ambitions of raising an even bigger fund. So far this year, deals have included Lerer Ventures’ teaming with NEA and Greycroft to back Pulse, the application company. Group Commerce, which Lerer Ventures had previously supported, also raised another $10 million to develop its daily deals operation at a higher valuation than the VC’s initial investment, peHUB reported.

And Lerer Ventures still has other irons in the fire. His investments include AdKeeper, Adapt.ly, AxialMarket, UberMedia and OnSwipe, to name a few.

Things have been looking up not just for the senior Lerer this year. Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer, the junior Lerer, also works on investments with Lerer Ventures and recently took to the Interwebs to declare his site is closing in on $40 million in revenue this year. UPDATE: A source told peHUB that Ben Lerer will also be working with Bedrocket as an advisor.

It is not clear what, if any, involvement Ben Lerer will have with the Bedrocket project. His name was not provided on the company’s most recent filing. The only ones listed were Brian Bedol, who has built and sold a pair of networks, and former hedge fund manager and Boston Celtics investor Jim Palotta. With friends like the one the senior Lerer has, it is no wonder his second investment fund this year gained traction so quickly. Past investors include Chris Dixon and Ron Conway.

Ken Lerer could not be reached for comment.