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Archive for January 2014

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Ukraine on Edge

A Conflict of Visions of the Ukrainian Imbroglio

January 28th 2014

Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych

A few months ago, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was expected to sign some agreements that could eventually integrate Ukraine with the European Union economically. Ultimately, Yanukovich refused to sign the agreements, a decision thousands of his countrymen immediately protested. The demonstrations later evolved, as they often do. Protesters started calling for political change, and when Yanukovich resisted their calls, they demanded new elections.

Some protesters wanted Ukraine to have a European orientation rather than a Russian one. Others felt that the government was corrupt and should thus be replaced. These kinds of demonstrations occur in many countries. Sometimes they're successful; sometimes they're not. In most cases, the outcome matters only to the country's citizens or to the citizens of neighboring states. But Ukraine is exceptional because it is enormously important. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has had to pursue a delicate balance between the tenuous promises of a liberal, wealthy and somewhat aloof Europe and the fact that its very existence and independence can be a source of strategic vulnerability for Russia. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

The Way They See It

January 27th 2014

Syria fighting injured baby

Israel receives a lot of unwelcome attention from the U.S., the UN and the EU. As others in the region see it, however, that makes Israel the most important country in the world, and Palestinians the world's luckiest "refugees." While withdrawing security and political assistance from most of the Middle East and Africa, the Obama Administration has increased its visibility in the "peace process" and announced a $4 billion investment plan for Palestine. To other countries, this attention shows who is important in America's eyes.

Through Syrian eyes:
     The Syrian civil war has killed more than 200,000 people, including more than 1,500 by poison gas. More than 11,000 children have died; both children and adults have died by starvation. The Assad regime refused to let relief agencies into villages unless they surrendered and flew the government flag. Starving a population into surrender is a war crime. The government is using "barrel bombs" -- barrels filled with nails and metal shrapnel and thrown from airplanes. Twenty-one people died last week from a barrel bombing of the Aleppo market. There are more than 2 million refugees both internally displaced and in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Read more ..


Book Review

The End of Russia and What it Means for America

January 27th 2014

Implosion

Implosion. Ilan Berman. Regency Publishing. 2013. 256 pp.

It takes a certain chutzpah to write a book that announces something will—or won't—happen, and that if it does or does not happen the world will look considerably different than it does today—or not. This is not like predicting snow for Thursday. But Ilan Berman's Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America is up to the challenge. Berman reads economic, demographic and military trends to determine whether Russia will undergo its second major transformation in less than 100 years. Or not.

Either way, the trends provide a blueprint for policy makers who want to maximize American national interests in Russia, Eurasia and the Pacific. Part of the blueprint is translated directly from the Russian. The last 75 pages of this slim volume consist of "The Foundations of Russian Federation Policy in the Arctic Until 2020 and Beyond," and the "National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation to 2020." Both are windows into current Russian thinking, particularly regarding the Arctic, which is covered in some detail in the body of the book.

A bit of history: The collapse of communism and the demise of the USSR was a surprise to a lot of people who saw the Soviet Union as an unstoppable juggernaut. Economist and demographer Murray Feshbach was not among them. Chief of the jaw-breakingly named USSR Population, Employment and Research and Development Branch of the Foreign Demographic Analysis Division of the Census Bureau for more than 20 years, Feshbach, who might have served as Berman's muse, toiled largely in obscurity. He noted rampant alcoholism, diseases (such as diphtheria) that had been eradicated in the West, abortion trends, and life expectancy in Russia. He took his findings to the Pentagon, where only a handful of people were interested in a back story to Soviet domination—but those who paid attention saw cracks in the mighty edifice. Then, seemingly in an instant —but not really—the USSR was gone. Read more ..


Libya on Edge

Libya Bankruptcy Warning Raises Concerns

January 27th 2014

African refugees from Libya

Libyans like to say their country will one day be seen as “Dubai on the Mediterranean” -- rich, successful and advanced. But as their country struggles with a fitful political transition from autocracy to democracy amid storms of militia violence, political squabbling and lawlessness, they are now hearing for the first time talk that Libya could go bankrupt.

That could happen in four years, according to Revenue Watch Institute, a New York-based think tank.

In a study by its economic analyst, Andrew Bauer, a former member of Canada’s G7 and G20 delegations, Libya has all the oil resources it needs to become the richest country per capita in North Africa but “if current trends continue, the nation of 6.5 million may well go bankrupt by 2018.”

Libyan government officials scrambled to dismiss the forecast but just a few days ago, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Libya, Ali Salem, warned that Libya’s overdependence on oil “could become a nightmare.” Directly addressing the hopes of Libyans of an Emirate-style future, he cautioned at a seminar in Tripoli that Dubai’s enormous wealth comes not just from oil, but is generated by a diversified economy. Read more ..


Broken Government

Rule of Law or Lawlessness: the Choice is Up to Obama

January 27th 2014

As Edward Snowden has continued to slowly release more information about the widespread intelligence gathering techniques of the National Security Agency (NSA), there have been more calls for him to be granted an amnesty and further calls for placing limits on intelligence gathering by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.

Der Spiegel has reported that NSA has a hacker unit, in the fine tradition of intelligence operatives labelled the Tailored Access Operations (TAO), which has developed techniques to exploit the weaknesses and hardware of computers.

According to Der Speigel, TAO has developed computer-monitor cables to record what appears on the screen, USB sticks with radio transmitters and fake base stations to obtain mobile phone signals, as well as attaching espionage software to computers that were intercepted on their way from the factory to customers! Another NSA unit is trying to build a “quantum computer” to break any type of encryption used by banks, businesses, hospitals, lawyers, and governments all over the world to protect their records. Read more ..


The Economy on Edge

California Drought Could Impact World Food Prices

January 27th 2014

mexico drought

Southern California, where many fruits and vegetables for the country are grown, is experiencing a recording-breaking drought, which could impact world food prices in 2014.

Andy Domenigoni is a fourth generation grower in Riverside, California. He says there are good years and bad years, and this year things are not looking good. “I have some fields that we planted almost a month ago that are still not out of the ground,” Domenigoni said.

He says normally it takes five to seven days for the wheat to sprout, but not this year. He points to a brown field behind him. “This field was planted two weeks ago and it is just bone dry. The seed is not in any moisture," he said. "It can’t sprout. We got to wait for the rain.”

Domenigoni is not the only one waiting for rain. The western United States has been in a drought that has been building for more than a decade, according to climatologist Bill Patzert of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Ranchers in the West are selling off their livestock," Patzert said. "Farmers all over the Southwest, from Texas to Oregon, are fallowing in their fields because of a lack of water. For farmers and ranchers, this is a painful drought.” Read more ..


Afghanistan on Edge

US Condemns Afghan Order to Free 37 Prisoners

January 27th 2014

Karzai

The U.S. military in Afghanistan is condemning an Afghan government order to release 37 prisoners from Bagram prison, saying they pose a threat to security; there are signs of worsening relations between Washington and Kabul.

A special Afghan government panel called the Afghan Review Board, or ARB, recently announced it had evaluated the cases of 88 suspected Taliban fighters being held at an Afghan-supervised detention facility on the U.S.-run Bagram airfield north of Kabul.  It said 37 of the inmates are innocent. The board also said there is insufficient evidence against most of the remaining prisoners.

Monday, the U.S. military said it had learned that the review board has ordered the release of 37 of the 88 individuals.

In a statement U.S. officials described those being released as “dangerous individuals” and insisted they are legitimate threats to security. A spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul, Lt. Col. Will Griffin, said there is strong evidence supporting prosecution or further investigation.  

“The ARB is releasing back to society dangerous insurgents who have Afghan blood on their hands. The 37 being released include 17 who are linked to the production of attacks using improvised explosive devices; three who participated in or had knowledge of direct attacks wounding or killing 11 ANSF (Afghan National Security Force) members; and four who participated in and or had knowledge of direct attacks wounding or killing 42 US or Coalition Force members,” warned Griffin. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Coddling the Muslim Brotherhood

January 27th 2014

Morsi

The TSA public review that was released last week reports a 16.5 percent (257) increase in guns discovered in 2013 over the previous year. Checkpoints across the countrydiscovered 1,813 firearms in carry-on bags. Of those, 1,477 (81 percent) were loaded, averaging nearly fivefirearms that could have been fired at a U.S. airport on any given day. Firearms were intercepted in 205 airports. How many guns got by the TSA?

The report details some of the weapons that were discovered and the methods used to try to conceal them. However, there is nothing about the passengers who intentionally packed them. Were they American citizens? White? Hispanics? Blacks? What was their average age? What was their gender? How many had criminal records? What triggered the search? And, were any of these passengers "home-grown" jihadis?

Briefing reporters earlier this month, Deputy Coordinator of Regional Affairs and Programs in the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism, Justin Siberell said that "since the Arab uprising, dozens of terror groups having affiliation with Al-Qaeda have emerged...Al-Qaeda is more decentralized, with like-minded groups drawing inspiration from its ideology. ... The U.S. is concerned over the fact that regional conflicts are fuelling these groups." Another senior Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) official added, "Homegrown terror suspects are difficult to find. ... It is the biggest challenge today for intelligence and law enforcement officials." Read more ..


Palestinians on Edge

Hamas Continues Military Training in Schools

January 27th 2014

Training Schools

On January 7, 2014, the ministry of the education of the Hamas administration in Gaza, in collaboration with the ministry of the interior, announced the opening of the training camps of the second round of the Al-Futuwa military training program. Al-Futuwa is a Sufi term that has some similarities to chivalry and virtue or young-manliness. The camps, which last for about a week, were held last year for the first time. Al-Futuwa includes theoretical military topics and practical military training. According to the organizers, this year the program was expanded to 49 high schools throughout the Gaza Strip, with 13,000 students participating, as opposed to 5,000 who participated last year.

Osama al-Muzeini, Hamas minister of education, held a press conference at one of the high schools, where he said that the ministry of education had decided to expand the program in light of its great success the previous year. He called it a "national project" which objective was to raise a generation of Palestinian youths capable of "liberating and defending their country." He added that the program would train the students in combat skills and make them familiar with weapons so that they would be able to "'resist the occupation." He condemned those who criticized the camps by claiming they were educating for violence and terrorism, saying that "the program instills good social values". Fathi Hamad, Hamas minister of the interior, said that the students participating in the camps will have "the main role in liberating Al-Aqsa mosque from the pollution of the occupation." He said that it was worth their while to train and prepare to participate in "the liberation of Ashdod, Yavne, Jaffa, Acre, Lod, Ramla and all the villages in Palestine." Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

Be Angry with the Iranians, Mr. President, and Yourself

January 27th 2014

Obama-Limo

The Obama administration is angry that Senate proponents of additional sanctions against Iran (to be instituted if the interim accord expires without a final agreement) appear to be more skeptical of Iranian promises than the president and Secretary Kerry are.  The administration is angry as well that signers, particularly Democratic senators, of the Kirk-Menendez Amendment find themselves in accord with the security concerns of the government of Israel.  And finally, the administration is angry with American Jews.

The Jerusalem Post this week cited an Israel Radio report of an American official saying the president and Secretary of State Kerry are "disturbed over what is being perceived in their inner circle as 'Jewish activism in Congress' that they think is being encouraged by the Israeli government."  According to the Israel Radio report, the Israeli government is increasingly being viewed as "fanning the flames" among American Jews by encouraging them to promote the Israeli government position specifically on Iran sanctions. Read more ..


Security Edge

Chile and Peru Anxiously Await Far-Reaching International Court Decision

January 26th 2014

The events of this upcoming January 27, 2014 are likely to determine the short and long-term future regarding the relations between Peru and Chile. On that date, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague will announce its ruling on a long-standing maritime dispute between the two South American coastal states.

The Dispute

In dispute is an area of approximately 38,000 square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. The nation that controls it will see great benefits to its fishing industry – the Peruvian media explains that this area is rich with sea life like the jurel and the anchoveta (of the anchovy family).The association of artisanal fishermen of Arica in Chile have claimed that if the aforementioned disputed territory is surrendered to Peru, they could lose 40% of their fishing territory.

Peru went to the ICJ to resolve this dispute in 2008; six years later, the court will finally give its verdict. A December 2013 ICJ press release solemnly declares that, “It is recalled that the judgements of the Court have binding force and are without appeal for the parties concerned.” Read more ..


Ukraine on Edge

Dwindling Choices for Ukraine President Yanukovych

January 26th 2014

Ukraine's Euromaidan protest movement has gained fresh momentum as the country's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych seemed to spend the weekend losing old friends while failing to make new ones.

Demonstrators kept a steady drumbeat in the capital Kyiv, buoyed by a 24-hour cycle that saw opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk decline Yanukovych's partnership deal and protesters oust some 200 police from makeshift headquarters in a Kyiv congress center.

Meanwhile, protests continued to spread into parts of Ukraine once considered Yanukovych's base. Thousands of pro-Maidan demonstrators gathered outside the regional administration headquarters in Zaporyzhzhya in the country's traditionally pro-Russian east. In the neighboring region of Dnipropetrovsk, hard-core football fans known as "ultras" provided security for protesters marching on the local government. Read more ..


Oil Addiction

Lawmakers Demand Stricter Oil Train Regs

January 26th 2014

train on fire

Lawmakers are calling for a comprehensive review of the nation’s rules that govern freight rail shipments of crude oil cargo following a string of rail accidents in recent months, and after receiving a warning from safety regulators that inaction could lead to a "major loss of life."

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) are pushing the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enact more stringent rules for oil-by-rail shipments, in the wake of a December derailment in their home state that spilled 400,000 tons of crude oil.

The accident near Casselton, N.D., which caused no casualties, was followed in January by a derailment in New Brunswick, Canada, which caused evacuations but also no casualties. Six months earlier, the oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic in Quebec province, Canada, on July 6, 2013, killed 42 people and incinerated 30 buildings, There have been several other oil train accidents in North America since. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Electricity From Organ Movement Powers Body Implants

January 26th 2014

Pacemaker

Someday, implanted medical devices such as a heart pacemaker may be powered by the movement of the body’s organs. Researchers have demonstrated the potential of natural organ motion to do just that.

So-called piezoelectric materials produce electrical current when they are stressed or squeezed. Imagine, for example, electricity being created by stretching a rubber band.

John Rogers and colleagues at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have created a low-level current device by attaching piezoelectric materials to flexible ribbons of plastic. When the device was applied to moving organs, Rogers said it generated little bursts of electric current. 

“And that turns out to be a useful characteristic because when mounted on an organ like the heart, or the lung or the diaphragm, the natural motion of the organ then creates this bending motion," he said. "And that current can be stored in a battery, a tiny chip-scale battery, and then be used to power biomedical implants like cardiac pacemakers.” Read more ..


Defense on Edge

US Military Refocus on Pacific a Work in Progress

January 26th 2014

U.S. Naval Carrier

One of the main features of the global defense strategy laid out by President Barack Obama two years ago, shifting the U.S. military's focus from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region, is meeting significant challenges from China and its rapidly developing military power.

But U.S. military officials say American dominance of the Asia Pacific is not diminishing.

Recent actions by China, including its imposition of an aircraft identification zone over the East China Sea and a near collision between Chinese and U.S. warships, show that dominance is being challenged.

The Obama administration, in its efforts to shift focus from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Pacific, where China has been building up its forces, includes strategic placement of a new aircraft carrier and the development of hypersonic missile technology.  Read more ..


China on Edge

China Anti-Corruption Activist Gets 4-Year Sentence

January 26th 2014

China democracy demonstration

A court in China has sentenced a prominent anti-corruption activist to four years in prison for allegedly "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."

The activist, Xu Zhiyong is the founder of the New Citizens' Movement. The group advocates for rule of law and other issues, including the rights of the children of migrant workers and for the public disclosure of the assets of high-ranking officials. ​

Shortly after the verdict was read, Xu's lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, came out of Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate People's Court and tried to speak with reporters. But he was quickly surrounded by plain-clothes and uniformed police and forcibly escorted off. Authorities say they were trying to protect his safety and maintain order outside the court. Zhang adamantly disagreed and protested as police carted him away. "I am perfectly safe," he told police. "It is not the journalists who are infringing on my rights." Read more ..


The Ukraine on Edge

Catapults And Forced Strips: How Ukrainian Police, Protesters Are Doing Battle

January 26th 2014

A standoff between riot police and protesters has persisted in downtown Kyiv since January 19, and the scene has sometimes turned violent. At least two protesters have died from gunshot wounds and over 100 riot policemen have been injured, according to the Interior Ministry.

While thousands have been gathering peacefully on a nightly basis in Independence Square -- the sight of a pro-European encampment that is now two months old -- more radical protesters have taken up positions on Hrushevskyy street, 1,500 meters away.

Mysterious Bullets

When the violence started following mass protests on January 19, police could be seen firing what appeared to be rubber bullets. But by early morning on January 22, at least two protesters had been shot dead, and some were accusing police of using far more powerful rounds. Christopher MIller, an editor at the "Kyiv Post" said he saw a protester get hit with a bullet said to resemble ammunition used for hunting. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Croatian Researchers Pioneer Use Of Robots To Diagnose Autism

January 26th 2014

Autism

Four-year-old Luka is enthusiastic about his new friend. "He can write. He can sit down. And he can drink water," he says. The two also like to dance together.

But it is an unusual friendship. Luka is a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disability that inhibits social, behavioral, and communications skills. And his friend, Rene, is a robot.

They met thanks to a joint project of the University of Zagreb's Faculty of Education and Rehabilitation Sciences and its Faculty of Electronics and Computer Sciences. The initiative aims to use robots to improve the diagnosis and assessment of children with the disorder, a process that until now has been highly complex and subjective. The robot is intended to assist, not replace the clinician.

"For children with autism, the robot is a stimulus that is very simple and always the same," says researcher Jasmina Stosic. "Its eyes are always in the same place. Its mouth is always in the same place. People are rather complicated for such children because when we talk we make various gestures. And one day we'll wear a red t-shirt and the next day, a blue one. The robot is one constant stimulus, and the children don't need to think about so much different information and instead can concentrate on the essence." Read more ..


America on Edge

Contradictions in California Dreamin' on Such a Winter's Day

January 26th 2014

For better or worse, if something happens in California please be assured it will soon come to a neighborhood theater near you. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Pleasant Valley Sunday suburban sprawl, the car culture, LSD, and acid rock all launched or took hold in the Golden State.

Politically, California was the birthplace of the 1960s student revolt, the Black Panther Party and La Causa, the great movement of the farmworkers spearheaded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. California also gave rise to the modern tax revolt, the Reagan Revolution and state immigration battles like the 1994 fight over Proposition 187. Read more ..


Egypt after Morsi

Deadly Clashes in Egypt on Anniversary of Uprising

January 25th 2014

7.2.2013 Egypt Protests

Egyptian officials say at least 29 people were killed in violence Saturday along the fringes of celebrations marking the third anniversary of the uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

Both supporters and opponents of Egypt's interim government clashed on side streets leading to Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, waving clubs and hurling rocks and bottles at each other.

Government officials say fatalities occurred at anti-government protests that coincided with government sanctioned celebrations that were staged to show support for the current military-installed leadership.

Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, thousands of pro-government supporters flooded Tahrir Square, chanting and waving flags and posters as they pledged support for General Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, Egypt's current defense minister and de facto leader, whom supporters are urging to run for president. Egypt's interim government has hinted several times in recent weeks that presidential elections will take place later this year before parliamentary elections.
Read more ..


The Way We Are

Home Birth Movement in the US Challenges Norms

January 25th 2014

Newborn baby

In the United States since the 1940s, most births have taken place in the hospital, attended by obstetricians employing the full armament of modern drugs and technology.

In the last two decades, the rate of Caesarean surgical deliveries has shot up dramatically, to more than one in three births today. Partly in response, a home birth movement that began in the 1960s has sprung up again.

New York medical student Emilie Jacobs and her husband, Rowan Finnegan, parents of 22-month-old Elias, are planning another home birth for their second child. “If it’s a healthy pregnancy, and there’s no reason you would need more stringent medical care, more advanced procedures, then why not?” asked Jacobs.

The same licensed nurse-midwife will attend her, bringing along the emergency equipment of a paramedic, just in case. Although most problems in labor are detected in plenty of time, several top hospitals are only a few minutes away, Jacobs noted. Ten percent of planned home births do end up in the hospital, usually because labor has failed to progress. But if all goes well, Jacobs will have a peaceful, unmedicated birth - with no high-tech monitoring, surgery or drug-induced labor. Read more ..


Nature's Edge

Skipping Pesticides, Farmers Control Weeds with Plants

January 25th 2014

Small Farm

A deep green field of rye swayed in a gentle breeze at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville, Maryland, research station last May, blissfully ignorant of its impending doom.

Two-meter-tall stalks sported budding seed heads that would never ripen into amber waves of grain.

With a rattle and a screech, a tractor rolled through the field, knocking the grass flat with a giant red rolling pin. Metal bars curving around the rolling pin crushed the rye and killed it.

Left behind was a solid carpet of flattened rye. It’s the latest in chemical-free weed control, explained USDA ecologist Steve Mirsky.

“It covers the ground,” he said. “It reduces the amount of light that gets down to the soil surface. And by keeping the ground cooler, it also inhibits the germination of weeds.” And that’s important, he added, because “weeds are becoming much more of an issue in agriculture again.” Read more ..


Russia on Edge

Russia's Growing Regional Debts Threaten Stability

January 25th 2014

Putin

Since the 2009 financial crisis, the Kremlin has allowed Russia's regions to take the brunt of the country's economic decline in order to keep the federal government seemingly healthy, with a nominally small budget deficit and large currency reserves. But now most of Russia's regional governments' debts are so high, it is becoming dangerous for the federal government and big banks and could soon become unmanageable.

Russia is so large that the Kremlin lacks the resources to run each region of the country directly. Currently Russia is split into 83 regions of all shapes and sizes, which fall into categories of oblasts, republics, krais, federal cities and autonomous okrugs. Historically, the Kremlin has given regional leaders (mayors, governors, heads or republic presidents) the power to run their own regions and ensure loyalty to the Kremlin and stability for the country.

However, the Kremlin is constantly concerned with its control over the regions. The federal government's ability to maintain the loyalty of each region has been tested often throughout history. For instance, dozens of regions attempted to break away after the fall of the Soviet Union, occasionally leading to wars such as those in Chechnya.

The central government's control over the regions was demolished during the devastating financial crisis in 1998. Many of the regional heads defied the federal government in order to look out for their own regions' survival. It was the second-worst regional breakdown in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it was related directly to the chaos caused by that collapse. This is why the currently growing economic strains in the regions will be of great concern for the Kremlin. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Supreme Court Hands Victory to Religious Groups over Obamacare Mandate

January 25th 2014

Click to select Image

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that an order of nuns in Colorado is not required to fully comply with ObamaCare’s contraception mandate, in a partial and temporary victory for critics of the contentious provision.

In an order handed down late Friday, the justices concluded that the nuns — and roughly 200 religious nonprofits — do not need to file government forms to exempt themselves from the law’s mandate that workers receive free contraception as part of employee health insurance plans.

Still, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged and other nonprofits “that hold themselves out as religious” and object to the provision must inform the Department of Health and Human Services of that status to avoid paying penalties under the law. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

White House Announces a 'Hangout' with a Big Wedge of Cheese

January 25th 2014

The White House will host a virtual "Big Block of Cheese Day" later this month in a nod to historical tradition — and the popular West Wing television show. In the show, White House staffers were required on one day a year to meet with citizens and interest groups who normally might not earn attention from top administration officials. The fictional tradition was a nod to President Andrew Jackson, who in 1837 hosted an open house with a 1,400 pound block of cheese in the White House's foyer.

But the real White House said Friday that they would be hosting a real version of the event — albeit in cyberspace. "On Wednesday, January 29th, with a nod to history (and maybe the TV show the West Wing), the Obama Administration is hosting the first-ever virtual “Big Block of Cheese Day,” during which dozens of White House officials will take to social media for a day long 'open house' to answers questions from everyday Americans in real-time on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and via Google+ Hangout," the White House said in a statement. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Processing Lies and Cheating of the U.S. Engagement in the Mideast

January 25th 2014

Mirable dictu! Even Fareed Zakaria says the P5+1 deal with Iran is a “train wreck.” Why? Because “They talked about dismantling the heavy water reactor at Arak. But he [Rouhani] made clear, categorically, specifically and unequivocally, none of that is going to happen.”

Too bad neither he nor many others wonder about the root cause for the different understandings of what was agreed to on November 24 in Geneva. Or, why when Iran is allowed to decide, a posteriori, which parts of the agreement it will adhere to, there is no reaction from Washington apart from “oh, they’re only speaking for domestic political consumption.” Delay easing sanctions as a response? Not a chance. Shhh! We’re still negotiating! Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

President Obama Goes Up Against Hobby Lobby

January 25th 2014

Click to select Image

Senior advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, wrote for the White House blog and the Huffington Post that, "A Woman's Health Care Decisions Should Be in Her Own Hands, Not Her Boss's." I couldn't agree more.

Odd then that the administration is trying to insert bosses, many of them against their deeply held religious beliefs, into the private health care decisions of women. Ms. Jarrett writes that, "The ACA (Affordable Care Act) was designed to ensure that health care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor, and not by her boss, or Washington politicians."

In fact, the administration has done the opposite. It has forced employers to act as middlemen between women and their doctors by forcing them to participate in providing four potentially life terminating drugs and the whole gamut of FDA-approved contraceptives, even when they object on religious grounds. And then it thrust the issue right into the portfolio of Washington politicians by making it an election wedge issue, by using it to stoke partisan bickering, and by peddling lies about a "war on women." Read more ..


The Coal Problem

Green Group Asks Pro-Coal Lawmaker to Return Campaign Donation

January 24th 2014

Alma coal-fired plant Wisconsin

The League of Conservation Voters is asking Rep. William Enyart (D-Ill.) to return a campaign contribution for backing a coal-friendly bill.

The green group's action fund donated $5,000 to Enyart's campaign in 2012 after he promised in a candidate questionnaire sent out by the group to defend the Clean Air Act if elected to Congress.

Enyart's offense: co-sponsoring the bill H.R. 3826, which seeks to reign in what the GOP claims is the Environmental Protection Agency's overreach on greenhouse gas emission standards for coal-fired power plants.

The bill ensures that "regulations are based on technology that is proven and commercially available for use," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), co-author of the legislation with Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.). In a letter to Enyart on Thursday, the League of Conservation Voters calls the bill "one of the broadest attacks on the environment we've seen yet from the Republican leadership." Read more ..


The Edge of Obamacare

In Obamacare Go for Bronze Health Plans

January 24th 2014

Obamacare

For those who find themselves shopping for health coverage through Obamacare, here’s a general tip: save cash on your premiums and buy the bronze health plan. For most consumers, the gold and platinum options will be a waste of money.

We analyzed dozens of Obamacare plans, and found one striking result. The networks of providers, and in many cases the drug formularies, are the same whether you’re buying a particular insurer’s bronze plan, or purchasing the same insurance option in a gold or platinum offering. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Kelly Funderburk and I posted some of our data here.

The bottom line is this. When you’re choosing a particular insurance offering, you typically can’t trade up to a better benefit by buying the gold or platinum variety of that plan. It’s usually the exact same benefit regardless of the metal you choose. Read more ..


The Edge of Film

Oscar-Nominated Film Examines Egypt Uprising

January 24th 2014

Tahrir Square 22 nov 2011

The Egyptian uprising that unseated President Hosni Mubarak, a decades-long autocrat, is three years old.

An unusual documentary, The Square, takes an intimate view of the events and has been nominated for an Oscar, the first Egyptian film to receive this honor.

The uprising began in January 2011 with a burst of optimism. Thousands of Egyptians of all stripes converged on a central square, demanding the departure of the military-backed ruler.

After 18 days, the unbelievable happened; Mubarak stepped down.

The Square focuses on several characters who guide us through the joy in Tahrir Square and the rollercoaster that followed Mubarak's departure. Most, like Ahmed, are secular young people who launched the revolution. But there’s also Magdy, a Muslim Brother who joined early on, and Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla, from the intellectual upper class. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Environmentalists Criticize EU's Draft Climate Policy

January 24th 2014

Pakistan flooding

The European Union's executive arm has unveiled what it calls an ambitious new climate change and energy policy for the 28-member bloc.

Europe has been hailed as a leader in fighting greenhouse gases. But a year before a key United Nations climate change conference, critics say the EU's proposals don't go far enough. 

With cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, more renewables and greater energy efficiency by 2030, the new climate and energy proposals make environmental and business sense, according to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who unveiled the draft package in Brussels.

"An ambitious and smart 2030 strategy will contribute to Europe's share in global climate action," he said, "but will also help to reduce our costly dependence on imported gas and oil [and] boost our green technology industry and sustainable growth, by providing a stable long-term perspective for our companies to invest," Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Can Fish Oil Help Preserve Brain Cells?

January 24th 2014

Alzheimers brain cells

People with higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may also have larger brain volumes in old age equivalent to preserving one to two years of brain health, according to a study published in the January 22, 2014, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Shrinking brain volume is a sign of Alzheimer’s disease as well as normal aging.

For the study, supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the levels of omega-3 fatty acids EPA+DHA in red blood cells were tested in 1,111 women who were part of the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study. Eight years later, when the women were an average age of 78, MRI scans were taken to measure their brain volume. Those with higher levels of omega-3s had larger total brain volumes eight years later. Those with twice as high levels of fatty acids (7.5 vs. 3.4 percent) had a 0.7 percent larger brain volume. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

Iranian Executions Belie Claims of "Moderation"

January 24th 2014

Rowhani

On Wednesday the United Nations called on Iran to put an end to an ongoing surge in executions. Amnesty International reports that 40 people have been executed in Iran in the last two weeks. The executions are conducted in public and hanging is the most common form of punishment. Most of the criminals are charged with drug-related offenses. There is no means of appeal if convicted of a drug crime in Iran and non-lethal drug crimes do not meet international protocol for crimes worthy of execution.

In 2013, which includes the June election of President Hassan Rouhani, there were 100 more executions than in 2012. The drastic increase undermines with Rouhani's efforts to present himself as ideologically and politically "moderate" and thus a potential partner for talks with the West. His "moderate" persona was the main impetus for the White House to open diplomacy and undertake the talks that eventually led to the current six-month nuclear agreement. Read more ..


Inside Abu Dhabi

Brestfeeding by Law, in Abu Dhabi

January 24th 2014

Woman Breastfeeding Abu Dhabi

According to Islam, being breastfed is a right for all children. Now Abu Dhabi has passed a clause in their Child Rights law that requires all women to breastfeed their children – up to the age of two.

Islam has some pretty interesting points of view when it comes to breastfeeding, where it is recommended that a child nurse at least until the age of two.

There are loads of environmental and health benefits to breastfeeding, basically cutting out an entire industry of formula, cow-made or soya products; breastfeeding makes sure your baby gets all the vitamins and micronutrients, some not even known to science. It also helps a woman get make in shape and good spirits after giving birth. Some say it’s worth more than oil, like the author of this book. But to make it law? What does this do for women’s rights?

The Minister of Social Affairs, Mariam Al Roumi, according to The National, told law makers that men would then be able to sue their women if their wives didn’t breastfeed. But Salem Al Ameri from Abu Dhabi said that being breastfed was a right of all children. Another lawmaker agreed that the required age should be two. That it should be seen as a duty and not an option for women.  Read more ..


America on Edge

American War Weariness? Think Again!

January 24th 2014

US Troops in Afghanistan

Over and over again we hear that Americans have lost their traditional willingness to use military force in places like Syria and Iran for a simple reason: They are war weary. This is often stated as an obvious, undeniable truth connected to the winding down of two long wars in Afghanistan (begun in 2001) and Iraq (begun in 2003). Yet, few bother to see if this is actually true and, if so, what it means for the United States.

If the connection were that simple, how can we explain American behavior after World War I and World War II? For the United States did not even enter World War I until April 1917, 32 months after the war started, and seriously engage in combat until September 1918, only two months before the end of the war. Its 55,000 battle losses were far less than 1% of total fatalities (9.5 million) suffered in the war. And none of the war was fought on American soil but rather it devastated significant areas of northern France, Eastern Europe and even part of Turkey. Read more ..


The 2016 Race

House Speaker Boehner Favors Jeb Bush for 2016 Presidential Race

January 24th 2014

Click to select Image
Jeb Bush

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the evening of January 23 that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be a great president if he ran in 2016. However, the Speaker made clear he is not endorsing anyone more than two years before the election.

“Well listen I’m not endorsing anybody, but Jeb Bush is my friend, and I frankly think he would be a great president, I really do,” he said on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Bush was the only potential GOP candidate Boehner mentioned when asked who he liked for president.

In the wide-ranging interview, Boehner also touched on last October’s government shutdown and other presidential prospects.

Boehner said the bridge scandal that has dogged New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) would not be going away any time soon — whether or not Christie knew anything about the lane closures. Read more ..


Broken Government

Washington Rocked by Thousands of Faked Security Clearance Reviews

January 24th 2014

Click to select Image

Shelves are as clean as they could get. Flushed everything like a dead goldfish.”

That’s what a key supervisor in charge of reviewing federal security clearances told a superior in April 2010, in a message boasting about how he and his colleagues had approved numerous clearances and sent them on to the federal Office of Personnel Management without conducting required quality reviews.

The quote, which federal prosecutors say appeared in an email sent between two senior employees at a federal contractor called US Investigative Services (USIS), appears in a court filing by the Justice Department on Jan. 22 that supports and adds startling detail to a whistleblower’s previous legal claim against the firm.

The filing bluntly accuses USIS, which OPM pays to review security clearance applications for more than 100 federal agencies and departments, of deliberately defrauding the government from March 2008 through at least Sept. 2012 by pretending it conducted quality reviews that actually never occurred. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Elements of a Proposed Solution to the Iranian Nuclear Challenge

January 24th 2014

Iran Nuclear Equipment centrifuges

This report discusses the necessary provisions of a comprehensive solution regarding Iran’s nuclear program that the P5+1 and Iran will seek to conclude over the coming months as outlined in the Joint Plan of Action. In particular, this discussion seeks to define Iran’s enrichment and heavy water reactor programs and their associated parameters, and the duration of long-term provisions.

The provisions discussed in this report require intrusive verification of Iran’s nuclear program aimed at ensuring that Iran’s declarations are correct and complete and developing confidence in the absence of undeclared nuclear facilities and materials. The latter condition must include sufficient verification measures to detect the construction and operation of secret gas centrifuge plants, a daunting task in the best of circumstances. This report does not address in detail the necessary verification steps; those steps will be the subject of subsequent ISIS workshops and reports. Read more ..


The Future of Food

Aquaponics Offers a Vision of Sustainable Food Production for the Future

January 24th 2014

Rob Handler is about to harvest his research. Typically, that means the gigantic kale and nice-sized onions and basil he’s growing nine stories up in the Dow Environmental Science and Engineering greenhouse. Today, though, it means the key ingredient for fish tacos, to be served at a residence hall.

“We have been growing tilapa,” he says. “They are a hardy fish that grows well in a controlled environment.”

They are also the key ingredient in his aquaponics project, where fish waste fertilizes the plants and plants keep fish healthy by cleaning the water.

“It’s the same interaction that happens in the natural world,” says Handler, operations manager of the Sustainable Futures Institute at Michigan Technological University. “We are just managing things with tanks and pipes.” Read more ..


China On Edge

China's GDP Growth Says Little

January 23rd 2014

Bank of China

China announced its 2013 economic results Monday. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew 7.7 percent to RMB56.9 trillion - about US$9.3 trillion. It may seem odd that GDP and other statistics measuring the actions of 1.3 billion people can be compiled in barely three weeks, but it's comparatively normal. After all, the inflation rate was compiled in nine days.

The first problem with Chinese numbers, then, is they are frequently hard to credit. The second is the conventional view of GDP and its relationship to more jobs, greater wealth and other beneficial outcomes is deeply flawed. The combined outcome is a serious mischaracterization of how China is doing. The oft-used line that "the economy" is slowing but still boasts the world's fastest rate of growth is inaccurate and misleading. What matters most is that available data indicate debt accumulation will induce economic stagnation. Read more ..



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