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Archive for May 2012

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The Edge of Agriculture

Futuristic Hydogel Technology Makes Desert Crops Flourish on Barren Soil

May 14th 2012

Hydrogel crops

Here’s another futuristic invention that could completely change the future of agriculture in a desertifying world. Substituting an industrially produced hydrogel for soil makes it possible to farm on sterile desert sand. Similarly to Pink LEDs Grow Future Food with 90% Less Water, this amazing sci fi technology allows the farming of the desert, with 80 percent less water than needed in traditional farming.

The hydrogel technology is the invention of Waseda University Visiting Professor Yuichi Mori, who has years of experience in developing polymeric membranes for use in medical technologies such as blood purification and oxygen enrichment. But Mori saw the greatest need was in desert farming in a future world faced with explosive population growth, but diminishing potential for traditional soil-based agriculture due to soil degradation, erosion, and drought. His hydrogel membrane–based plant cultivation technology has a unique membrane technology. The simple system is much more portable than traditional hydroponics. Read more ..


The Health Edge

Battery-Related Emergency Department Visits by Children More Than Doubles

May 14th 2012

Battery xray

Every 90 minutes, a child younger than 18 years of age is seen in a US emergency department for a battery-related problem. In today's technology-driven world, batteries, especially button batteries, are everywhere. They power countless gadgets and electronic items that we use every day. While they may seem harmless, button batteries can be dangerous if swallowed by children.

A new study conducted by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital found that the annual number of battery-related emergency department visits among children younger than 18 years of age more than doubled over the 20-year study period, jumping from 2,591 emergency department visits in 1990 to 5,525 emergency department visits in 2009. The number of button batteries swallowed by children also doubled during this period. Read more ..


Broken Banking

JP Morgan Multi-Billion Loss Proves Regulation Needed Says White House

May 14th 2012

JP Morgan Chase

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that in the wake of JPMorgan Chase's $2 billion trading loss, it's "amazing" that some — including presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney — are still looking to repeal the president's Wall Street reform law. Speaking to reporters Monday, Carney said the staggering loss reinforces the need for the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and the president's call for tougher financial regulations. "The president fought very hard against Republicans and Wall Street lobbyists to get Wall Street reform passed," he said, according to a pool report.

"This merely reinforces why the president was right to take on this fight," he added.

Carney did not mention Romney by name, but the president's reelection campaign jabbed at the GOP front-runner over the weekend, as the nation's largest bank was still reeling from its big trade gone wrong.

"Mitt Romney has been clear that he would repeal Wall Street reform, an engraved invitation for Wall Street to return to the biggest, riskiest bets that crashed the economy, destroyed trillions of dollars of wealth, and cost millions of workers their jobs," said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, according to Bloomberg.

Romney has repeatedly called for the repeal of Dodd-Frank on the campaign trail, but his campaign highlighted his belief in "the importance of oversight and transparency in the derivatives market" once JPMorgan's trade attracted headlines. It also noted that Romney believes some provisions of the law have merit.

Carney also pointed out that Dodd-Frank was never intended to prevent trading losses on Wall Street, but simply to protect taxpayers from bearing the brunt of them. In JPMorgan's case, he said, the appropriate parties were paying the price for the bad trade. Read more ..


States on Edge

California’s High-Speed Spending Spree

May 14th 2012

Hollywood

The State of California keeps sinking into a deeper hole of debt, with reports showing that the state’s budget shortfall is projected to be $16 billion , up from $9.2 billion in January. But despite all the red ink, the state is still going ahead with a high-speed rail boondoggle that would cost billions.

The LA Times reports: If California starts building a 130-mile segment of high-speed rail late this year as planned, it will enter into a risky race against a deadline set up under federal law.

The bullet train track through the Central Valley would cost $6 billion and have to be completed by September 2017, or else potentially lose some of its federal funding. It would mean spending as much as $3.5 million every calendar day, holidays and weekends included — the fastest rate of transportation construction known in U.S. history, according to industry and academic experts.

That $6 billion is for just part of the project, which has been estimated to cost as much as $98.5 billion. But note the perverse incentive to spend. California stands to receive as much as $4 billion in federal funds that have either been provided or set aside for the project. If they don’t complete it on time, the LA Times reports, that money disappears. Now the race is on to spend. Read more ..


The Edge of Food

Hong Kong Activists Protest Shark Fin Trade

May 14th 2012

Shark fin soup

Shark fin has been considered a luxury in Chinese cuisine since the Ming emperors first demanded the delicacy more than 400 years ago. However, unsustainable and barbaric methods of harvesting the fish mean shark populations are increasingly endangered. More than 150 activists recently braved oppressive heat to deliver a letter calling on the new head of the Hong Kong government, CY Leung, to ban the use of shark fin at official government banquets.

According to Rachel Vickerstaff of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, the southern Chinese city is the destination for over half the shark fin traded globally—a market worth more than $500 million a year. “Our objectives are to get some public awareness of what we’re trying to do and to let CY know why he needs to see why sharks need saving,” said Vickerstaff.

Sharks are afforded some protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, Vickerstaff calculates that up to 70 million sharks are killed each year to feed the growing demand for shark fin among increasingly affluent Chinese consumers. “The Hong Kong government has hidden behind CITES, which is pretty ineffective. CITES only has international trade restrictions on three species of shark. But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists well over 100 species as threatened or near threatened with extinction,” added Vickerstaff.

Nowadays, shark fin is served in soups at business and wedding banquets as a symbol of status. Depending on a specimen’s quality, a bowl of shark fin soup can cost more than $100, while a dorsal fin of the prized whale shark can retail for up to $20,000. Conservationists say the over-fishing of apex predators has a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem. But they say there is some good news. Younger generations in China are increasingly reluctant to partake of shark fin. Read more ..


Healthcare on Edge

Palin's Rhetoric Torpedoed Medicare Savings

May 14th 2012

Palin Candidate

We’ll be hearing a lot from politicians this summer and fall about the urgency of dealing with Medicare spending, which will begin to rise sharply in the coming years as increasing numbers of the country’s 75 million baby boomers turn 65.

If we’re fortunate, some courageous candidates will call for renewed debate on a provision of the health care reform bill that had once enjoyed bipartisan support. The one that spineless Democrats decided had to be yanked when a certain former vice presidential nominee claimed, falsely, that it would create government-run “death panels.” Medicare expenditures now total more than half a trillion dollars annually, representing 15 percent of federal spending. The only programs to which the government devotes more dollars are Social Security and national defense, both of which consume 20 percent of yearly federal outlays. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the average annual growth in Medicare spending will be 5.8 percent between 2012 and 2020. It would have been one percentage point higher than that, according to the CBO, if not for the cost-constraining provisions of the Affordable Care Act, most notably the one that will gradually eliminate the bonuses the government pays private insurers to participate in the Medicare Advantage program.

The Affordable Care Act might have been able to curtail spending further if it hadn’t been for Sarah Palin’s reckless rhetoric. It was Palin who charged that a provision of the law allowing Medicare to pay doctors for having end-of-life discussions with their patients would lead to government-run “death panels.” That provision was important because, according to the Congressional Research Service, about one-fourth of total Medicare spending is for the last year of life, and a lot of that spending could be avoided if more folks received counseling from their doctors on what they should do to ensure that their wishes are carried out when the grim reaper comes calling.

No one understands this better than Dan Morhaim, an adjunct professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and deputy majority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates. Morhaim, who also has been an emergency room physician and internist, has seen many cases in which people were hooked up to machines in vain attempts to restore their health—so many, in fact, that he wrote a book that should be required reading on Capitol Hill. Read more ..


Book Review

The Changing Face of the Israel-Islam Conflict

May 14th 2012

The Transforming Fire - Jonathan Spyer

The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel–Islamist Conflict. Jonathan Spyer. Continuum, 2010. 227 pages.

“People walked from tank to tank, shaking hands with friends, wishing each other luck. I remember standing with my friend Ariel Ronen and exchanging a few brief words before we boarded. Blond Ariel, in civilian life the owner of a marketing business in Petah Tikva, was a tank driver from platoon 2. Unlike me, he had a practical, military bent to him, and was standing, watching affairs with a worried furrow to his brow. ‘We aren’t ready for this,’ he said, as we shook hands. I looked at him quizzically, but he declined to elaborate, adding simply, ‘Not all of us will be coming back.’ ‘We will,’ I reassured him, assuming the fatherconfessor role that I had awarded myself in the previous days. He didn’t reply.” (p. 13).

With this passage, and others like it, Jonathan Spyer recounts his experiences serving in the Lebanon War of 2006. A soldier in an Israeli armored reserve unit, a columnist with The Jerusalem Post, and a research fellow in civilian life, Spyer deftly interweaves his battlefield recollections with a sustained assessment of the strategic challenges facing Israel. The result is an insightful, important, and at times pensive volume, one that is part memoir and part sophisticated political analysis. The main threats facing Israel today, Spyer asserts, are Islamist states and organizations—enemies that not only loom on the horizon, such as Iran, but ones such as Hamas and Hizbullah that lurk closer to home, raining down rockets into the nation’s heartland.

The Jewish State operates within a daunting strategic environment. In confronting those challenges, Spyer rightly draws strength from his comrades-in-arms in the Israeli Defense Forces, whose powerful and poignant stories he sympathetically retells. Israel, too, can draw strength from their stoic determination as it formulates and executes a national strategy for defeating the Islamist threats arrayed against it. Read more ..


The Edge of Sport

US Fencers Prepare for Olympics

May 14th 2012

fencers

The United States is the only country to have qualified the maximum of 16 fencers for the London Olympic Games that begin in late July.  U.S. fencers are preparing for the competition not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. ​​

Nzingha Prescod trains at the Fencers Club in New York City.  The Columbia University student began fencing at the age of nine, and is trying to contain her excitement about going to the Olympics. "I don't think I want to think of it as the Olympics, because I feel like the nerves would overwhelm me," said Prescod.  "But if I just think of it as another competition that I've done a million times, then I can just fence like normal." Prescod's teammate James Williams says the Olympics magnify the psychological aspects of sports, because the games are so infrequent. "Everybody is pretty much on the level of parity physically at this point," said Williams.  "So it's mostly mental tenacity and mental fortitude that you're hoping to improve." Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Climate Scientists Discover New Weak Point of the Antarctic Ice Sheet

May 14th 2012

Glacier calving

Bremerhaven, 9 May 2012. The Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf fringing the Weddell Sea, Antarctica, may start to melt rapidly in this century and no longer act as a barrier for ice streams draining the Antarctic Ice Sheet. These predictions are made by climate researchers of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association. They refute the widespread assumption that ice shelves in the Weddell Sea would not be affected by the direct influences of global warming due to the peripheral location of the Sea.

The results of the climate modelers from the Alfred Wegener Institute will come as a surprise to the professional world with the majority of experts assuming that the consequences of global warming for Antarctica would be noticeable primarily in the Amundsen Sea and therefore in the western part of Antarctica. "The Weddell Sea was not really on the screen because we all thought that unlike the Amundsen Sea its warm waters would not be able to reach the ice shelves. But we found a mechanism which drives warm water towards the coast with an enormous impact on the Fichner-Ronne Ice Shelf in the coming decades", says Dr. Hartmut Hellmer, oceanographer at the Alfred Wegener Institute and lead author of the study. Read more ..


The Edge of Justice

Six Amicus Curiae Urge Supreme Court To Hear Rubashkin Case

May 14th 2012

Sholom Rubashkin
Sholom Rubashkin

In a sign that the Sholom Rubashkin case continues to roil the highest ranks of the nation’s legal community, six amicus briefs from prestigious legal organizations and renowned legal authorities have called on the Supreme Court to grant the Rubashkin case a hearing.

The briefs are from former Solicitor General Seth Waxman, joined by 86 former DOJ officials and federal judges; the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; The Washington Legal Foundation; The Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers; a group of 40 legal ethics professors; and the Justice Fellowship. Legal observers say it is unusual for so many amicus briefs to be filed at the “cert petition” stage, before the Supreme Court has granted a hearing.  The issues of misconduct and gross sentencing disparity in the case were apparently so disturbing, they compelled legal advocacy groups and ethics experts to file earlier, to urge the Supreme Court to grant a review.

Experts who have read the briefs and noted the signatories’ names say the briefs are not merely casual expressions of support from prominent people. They are passionate and persuasive arguments that harshly criticize the rampant injustices in the case. They raise an alarm about the setting of dangerous precedents unless the injustices are remedied. Taken together, the six amicus briefs hammer home a sense of outrage in top echelons of the legal community over the apparent disregard for judicial ethics and fair play that  drove the misconduct in the Rubashkin case. Read more ..


China on Edge

“Shading” The Truth In China

May 14th 2012

Chen Guangcheng

The twists and turns of the fate of blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng have had much of China’s online community in thrall.

On April 27, Chen arrived in the US embassy from his native Shandong, where he had escaped from house arrest. Despite news of the event being censored, Chinese internet users quickly became aware of his situation. This was especially true on Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. To bypass the censors, netizens used nicknames concocted for Chen Guangcheng, including “Shawshank” and “Sunglasses.” But even these terms were soon blocked.

On May 2, things took a dramatic turn when he left the embassy under the guidance of U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke to seek medical treatment at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital. It was said that he had left of “his own volition”.

Charles Custer, who runs blog site ChinaGeeks, explored in the post “Sina’s Softer Censorhip” how “on your own volition” had become a online meme by that evening. In the post, he says that instead of blocking the term, Sina Weibo simply stopped indexing any new posts that used the term. Custer said the maneuver created what he calls “an artificial silence”, where users may think no one is talking about the issue even though there were many posts discussing the matter. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Mystery Package from Yemen Leads to Worker Illness and Government Stonewalling

May 14th 2012

Mail Room

Paz Oquendo, a worker at the U.S. Postal Service’s Orlando sorting facility, smelled the noxious odor first. It was Feb. 4, 2011, and the foul stench was coming from one of the large mailbags hanging near the package-conveyor belts. She ran over to Jeffrey A. Lill, the 44-year-old shift supervisor who was monitoring the sorting from a platform, and reported the smell. “I can’t breathe,” Oquendo told Lill. 

Lill headed toward the center of the sorting floor—an area workers call “the belly”—to investigate the odor.

Then he smelled it—a strong chemical stench he couldn’t identify. It was coming from a bag wet with a brown viscous substance. Lill looked in the wet sack and saw a broken package with tubes and wires sticking out. He remembers reading the return address with surprise: Yemen. Four months earlier, two bombs from Yemen had been sent through FedEx and UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service had alerted everyone to be on the lookout for packages coming from the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. Read more ..


Turkey on Edge

Flooding out Terror? Turkey’s Ilisu Dam Project

May 14th 2012

Ilisu Dam
Ilisu Dam project

You may have heard of dams being built for water management purposes or electricity production, but probably not one being built for counter-terrorism purposes. Turkey’s proposed Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River would satisfy just that end. When Ankara completes the proposed construction on the dam in 2013, a large artificial reservoir would flood canyons across the rugged terrain of southeastern Turkey, thus effectively flooding out the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) from the area and scoring a rare “hydro-victory” against terrorism.

The Ilisu Dam project is part of the government-funded Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which traces its origins to the early days of the Turkish republic when plans to utilize the Euphrates and Tigris rivers for energy generation and irrigation were first developed. However, GAP it still awaiting completion. Major fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military has prevented completion of the project since the 1990s. Read more ..


Inside Israel

An Israel Megalopolis

May 14th 2012

Tel Aviv Skyline

The future shape of the State of Israel may have been glimpsed via an article published in Saturday's YNet, and it seems like something out of a science-fiction film: In short, many experts believe that Israel is already on its way to becoming a mega-city or "megalopolis," which will one day compass the entire center of the country.

This model, known as megalopolis, would see Israel turning into an urban city-state, similar to Singapore and Hong Kong. According to proposal, the entire area between Haifa in the north and Beersheba in the south will become a continuum of urban communities, moving agricultural lands to Negev and Galilee frontiers. While this conjures up visions of a Blade Runner or Metropolis-style dystopia, advocates of the megalopolis idea believe that it offers certain important and perhaps essential advantages.

First, it would solve the housing crisis that is currently causing deep social unrest in the country, creating enough living space for "up to 10 million people without raising housing prices." Read more ..


The Environmental Edge

Time, Place and How Wood is Used are Factors in Carbon Emissions from Deforestation

May 13th 2012

Trees burning in Amazon

A new study from the University of California, Davis, provides a deeper understanding of the complex global impacts of deforestation on greenhouse gas emissions. The study reports that the volume of greenhouse gas released when a forest is cleared depends on how the trees will be used and in which part of the world the trees are grown. When trees are felled to create solid wood products, such as lumber for housing, that wood retains much of its carbon for decades, the researchers found. In contrast, when wood is used for bioenergy or turned into pulp for paper, nearly all of its carbon is released into the atmosphere. Carbon is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. "We found that 30 years after a forest clearing, between 0 percent and 62 percent of carbon from that forest might remain in storage," said lead author J. Mason Earles, a doctoral student with the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. "Previous models generally assumed that it was all released immediately."

The researchers analyzed how 169 countries use harvested forests. They learned that the temperate forests found in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe are cleared primarily for use in solid wood products, while the tropical forests of the Southern hemisphere are more often cleared for use in energy and paper production. "Carbon stored in forests outside Europe, the USA and Canada, for example, in tropical climates such as Brazil and Indonesia, will be almost entirely lost shortly after clearance," the study states. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

House Lawmakers Face Renewed Fight over Detainee Provisions

May 13th 2012

US Marines capture Iraqis DoD photo 2003

The House will re-ignite a debate this week that last year sparked public outrage and a White House veto threat: Can terror suspects on U.S. soil be detained indefinitely?

Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans are planning to push an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill on the House floor next week that would strip out provisions allowing the military to hold terror suspects captured in the U.S. The amendment would undo language from last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and go one step further to change the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

Opponents of the detention laws warn that U.S. citizens are at risk of indefinite military detention if the law is not changed. Proponents claim the detention laws are a necessary tool in the fight against terror and last year’s bill merely codified current U.S. law. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) offered a fix to this year’s authorization bill granting habeas corpus rights to terror detainees. Read more ..


Germany on Edge

Regional Electoral Defeat Deals a Blow to Chancellor Merkel's Political Fortunes

May 13th 2012

Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives suffered an embarrassing loss in the May 13 legislative election in Germany's most populous state as she continues pushing for economic austerity in Europe.

Preliminary results show the opposition left-wing Social Democrats winning 39 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia. Merkel's Christian Democrats won 26 percent. The Social Democrats will likely form a coalition with the Greens in the state. The conservative candidate for governor, German environment minister Norbert Roettgen, calls the May 13 election a bitter defeat that really hurts. Some German political analysts say the results in North Rhine-Westphalia may be a harbinger of next year's federal election, in which Chancellor Merkel plans to seek another term Read more ..


America and China

Congress Eerily Quiet over Chinese Take-Over of US Banks

May 13th 2012

Industrial and Commericial Bank of China

U.S. lawmakers have been unusually silent about federal regulators' decision to allow a Chinese bank to take over 13 bank branches in New York and California, suggesting that they think American banks have much to gain.

Members of both parties usually relish the chance to bash China on everything from government subsidies to the yuan's exchange rate. Yet the May 9 decision by the Federal Reserve to certify a Chinese bank acquisition for the first time was met by near-universal silence.

Scott Talbott, the head lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, said that's unsurprising. The U.S. wants China to open up its financial services market – foreign ownership of Chinese banks is limited to 25 percent – and allowing a Chinese presence in the U.S. is seen as a necessary trade-off. “What this boils down to is that there are a ton more potential customers in China for U.S. banks than there are potential customers for the Chinese here,” Talbott said. “So in the long run, the approval is going to benefit the U.S.”

The decision on May 9 allows Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, which is 70 percent owned by the Chinese government, to take an 80 percent stake in a Hong Kong-based bank with 13 branches in the U.S. The Fed also allowed two other Chinese banks to open branches in New York and Chicago. The decision came days after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner met with top Chinese officials for annual talks in Beijing. China agreed during those talks to allow foreigners a greater stake in Chinese brokerage firms.

Julian Pecquet writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Florida Becomes Battleground for House and Senate Races

May 13th 2012

Unemployment Line in California

Florida is full of competitive Senate and House races in 2012, but good luck to any candidate who tries to break through the noise of what is guaranteed to be a fierce battle between Mitt Romney and President Obama in the Sunshine state. The ultimate swing state, Florida was responsible for delivering George W. Bush to the White House in 2000, while Obama won there by 3 points in 2008. Romney trounced his rivals in the GOP primary there in January, and neither candidate can afford to take the state for granted.

The economy is likely to be the focal point of the race in Florida, as in other states. One worrying sign for the Obama campaign is that the economic recovery in Florida has lagged behind other areas of the country. Florida’s unemployment rate is hovering around 9 percent — down from a high of 11.3 percent in 2010, but still far above the national rate of 8.2 percent. Adding to the high-octane political climate will be the convergence of conservative leaders from across the country in Tampa, Fla. for the Republican National Convention in August. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Uganda Captures Lieutenant of Notorious Joseph Kony of Lord's Resistance Army

May 13th 2012

Caesar Achellam
Caesar Achellam of Lord's Resistance Army

The Ugandan military says it has captured a commander of the Lord's Resistance Army during an operation in the Central African Republic. Caesar Achellam was seized on May 12 following a firefight with Ugandan forces. The arrest of Caesar Achellam is a major victory for multi-national forces combating the LRA across central Africa.

The operations center in the Central African Republic, shared by the Ugandan military and American Special Forces, has posted Achellam's photograph to a wall, next to the other top targets in the LRA, including rebel leader Joseph Kony. The Reuters news agency quoted Ugandan military spokesman Felix Kulaigye describing Achellam as “a big fish.”

The military says he was arrested in the Central African Republic, one of the countries where the LRA is known to operate. The group once numbered in the thousands, but U.S. and Ugandan military officials believe there are only a few hundred fighters left. Read more ..


The Energy Edge

Scientists Generate Device Electricity from Pressures

May 13th 2012

HTC thunderbold droid phone

Imagine charging your phone as you walk, thanks to a paper-thin generator embedded in the sole of your shoe. This futuristic scenario is now a little closer to reality. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a way to generate power using harmless viruses that convert mechanical energy into electricity.

The scientists tested their approach by creating a generator that produces enough current to operate a small liquid-crystal display. It works by tapping a finger on a postage stamp-sized electrode coated with specially engineered viruses. The viruses convert the force of the tap into an electric charge. Their generator is the first to produce electricity by harnessing the piezoelectric properties of a biological material. Piezoelectricity is the accumulation of a charge in a solid in response to mechanical stress.

The milestone could lead to tiny devices that harvest electrical energy from the vibrations of everyday tasks such as shutting a door or climbing stairs. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Assad’s Russian Lifeline

May 13th 2012

Syria protests Apr 2011

The port of Oktyabrsk is situated on the left bank of the Bug River, 58 km. north of the entry to the Black Sea. Close to the city of Nikolayev, this anonymous Ukrainian port could not seem further from the strife-torn Middle East. Yet in the last year, Oktyabrsk has played a key role in the international structure that enables the survival of the Assad dictatorship in Syria. It is the main point from which ships bearing the Russian arms that underwrite the Assad regime’s survival set off undisturbed on their journey to the Syrian coast.

Chartered by the state-owned Russian arms corporation Rosoboronexport, the ships make their way from Oktyabrsk to the Black Sea. They cross the Bosphorous Straits to Limassol in Cyprus and continue to the Russian deep sea port in Tartous, Syria. These shipments form a vital node in Moscow’s tireless effort to prevent revolution in Syria. They have received insufficient international attention. If Syria constitutes, as some believe, the central linchpin to understanding events in the Middle East, then the signs are not positive. Read more ..


Earth on Edge

Reading the Ash from the Icelandic Volcano

May 13th 2012

Eyjafjallajökull eruption Apr 2010
Eyjafjallajökull eruption, Apr 2010 (© 2010/credit: Marco Fulle)

In May 2010, the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull reached the Iberian Peninsula and brought airports to a halt all over Europe. At the time, scientists followed its paths using satellites, laser detectors, sun photometers, and other instruments. Two years later they have now presented the results and models that will help to prevent the consequences of such natural phenomena.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in the south of Iceland began on 20 March 2010. On 14 April, it began to emit a cloud of ash that moved towards Northern and Central Europe, resulting in the closure of airspace. Hundreds of planes and millions of passengers were grounded. After a period of calm, volcanic activity intensified once again on 3 May. This time the winds transported the aerosols (a mixture of particles and gas) towards Spain and Portugal, where some airports had to close between 6 and 12 May. This was also a busy time for scientists, who took advantage of the situation to monitor the phenomenon. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

With Election Charade, Assad Bides Time

May 13th 2012

Syrian Protesters

Polling stations for the Syrian “Peoples’ Assembly” election opened at 7 a.m. on Monday. Information Minister Dr. Adnan Mahmoud said the elections would be held in “an atmosphere of democracy and pluralism,” according to the SANA state news agency.
Opposition activists dispute the claim, saying that the current polls are the latest episode in an ongoing regime campaign of window-dressing, of fiddling while the country burns. The scheduled vote is part of the strange, alternate reality that the Syrian regime seeks to create around itself and the population over which it rules.

The authorities tout the elections as the latest stage in a reform process initiated by dictator Bashar Assad in February. At that time, with world attention focused on the crackdown of opposition forces in Homs, the regime held a referendum on a new constitution. Assad claimed 89 percent of the public’s support for his proposals. But there is little new about the current elections.
Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Christians Rousted from their Homes by Anti-Assad Forces in Syria

May 13th 2012

Patriarch Gregorios Lanham of Antioch
Patriarch Gregorios III Lanham of Antioch

The fighting between Syria's President PaAssad and dissidents seeking to overthrow his government made a disturbing turn in at least two different areas of the country. Recently near the city of Homs, according to Vatican sources, combatants have forcibly expelled all Christian families from the village of Al Borj Al Qastal in the province of Hama. News agencies and local Church sources confirmed that militias of the composite Syrian Liberation Army had penetrated the village, driving out all Christian families and taking possession of their homes and turning a church into a military headquarters. The village had been home to approximately 10 Christian families who are now refugees.

In another incident, Father George Louis, a Catholic priest and pastor of St. Michael's parish in Qara, Damascus province, was attacked in his home during the early morning hours on May 11. According to Vatican sources, it was at dawn on May 11 that two masked gunmen entered Fr. Louis' home, threatening him and demanding the keys to the house. Binding his hands and tying him to a chair, one of the them struck him on the head with a glass bottle that caused a deep wound. While the priest was bleeding profusely, the assailants struck him again, breaking his teeth. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

GOP Plans East Coast Missile Defense Against Any Iranian Strike

May 13th 2012

THAAD Missile Intercept

A new Republican plan to set up a missile defense site on the East Coast has attracted election-year fireworks, with Democrats accusing the GOP of pushing the idea to undercut President Obama’s national-security credentials. Democrats say Republicans are playing politics, but GOP members hit back saying the site is necessary to get ahead of the rising threat of Iran’s missile development and to plug a gap in U.S. missile defenses. The issue is shaping up to be one of the most contentious at Wednesday’s House Armed Services Committee markup, where Democrats are planning multiple amendments to try to strip out $100 million that was included to jump-start the East Coast site.

The Republican proposal calls for the East Coast site, which would be the third in the country, to be operational by the beginning of 2016. Democrats contend the total cost would be $4 billion. Republicans counter that the price tag would be half of that amount. “This is a political move,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who intends to introduce an amendment Wednesday to strip the provision from the defense authorization bill. “Every time the election comes around, the Republicans run out a national security agenda.”

It is unclear where the Obama administration stands on the matter. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress slammed Obama on missile defense after his “hot mic” moment in March, in which Obama told then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he needed “flexibility” until after the Nov. 6 election. Republican legislators have also criticized the Obama administration for considering reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. But GOP lawmakers say the site is not about politics, and is necessary due to increased threats from Iran, as tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated in recent months over Iran’s nuclear program. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

Iran Filters Khamenei's Fatwa On Antifiltering

May 13th 2012

Assaholah Ali Khameini

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has apparently become the latest victim of Iran's Internet censorship regime -- to which he himself has given his blessing and approval.

The website Tabnak reports that Khamenei's "fatwa" on the illegality of using antifiltering tools in Iran was itself blocked in the country, some 30 hours after it was published on Iranian websites. The ruling was seemingly filtered because it contained the word "antifiltering," which triggered the country's censorship system to automatically block it. The misfire prompted the conservative website to write, "The filtering of a [religious] order is so ugly for the executive [branch] that it can bring into question the whole philosophy of filtering."

Tabnak has close ties to Mohsen Rezai, the current secretary-general of the Expediency Council and former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters in the Islamic republic, issued the ruling after being asked about inaccessible websites by the semiofficial Mehr news agency. Mehr wrote to Khamenei's office to say that some Iranians, because of their jobs -- including journalists -- need to visit blocked websites for news and information that is "usually not available on authorized websites." Mehr then asked what the religious ruling would be in such cases. Read more ..


Russia on Edge

Putin Without a Plan

May 13th 2012

Putin

Remember Putin's Plan? It was all the rage during the 2007-08 election cycle when billboards sprung up around Moscow touting how it would lead to "Victory For Russia."
 
It was never exactly clear what the plan was, but it made for a useful meme as Putin was preparing to temporarily turn the presidency over to his handpicked interim successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
 
The hype about Putin's Plan and the hysteria surrounding the over-the-top "national leader" campaign that materialized around the same time appeared to be an effort to reassure the elite and the public that Russia's hard won stability and newfound prosperity would not evaporate due to a meager presidential transition.

Sure, Putin was leaving the Kremlin in a formal sense, but he was letting it be known that he remained in charge and had a vision of where he wanted to take the country.
 
So with the Medvedev interlude over and Putin sworn in for another six years in the Kremlin, it is worth revisiting whether or not he does in fact still have a plan.
 
The idea that Putin had some kind of master plan has long been something of an obsession for Kremlin watchers, myself included, as we tried to discern whether he had a strategy for Russia's long-term political and economic development.

Here's how I described the apparent blueprint toward the end of Putin's first stint in the Kremlin in an October 2007 piece: "At the heart of that strategy is the establishment of an enduring political system -- a centralized, authoritarian, vertically integrated and unitary executive that can manage a thorough and comprehensive modernization of Russia." Read more ..


The Environmental Edge

Old Habitats Re-Emerge After Chile 2010 Eathquake

May 13th 2012

Chile Earthquake Results Credit: Mario Manzano
Habitat Revealed After Chile Earthquake Credit: Mario Manzano

The reappearance of long-forgotten habitats and the resurgence of species unseen for years may not be among the expected effects of a natural disaster. Yet that's exactly what researchers found in a study of the sandy beaches of south central Chile, after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami in 2010. Their study also revealed a preview of the problems wrought by sea level rise--a major symptom of climate change. In a scientific first, researchers from Southern University of Chile and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) were able to document the before-and-after ecological impacts of such cataclysmic occurrences. The study is said to be the first-ever quantification of earthquake and tsunami effects on sandy beach ecosystems along a tectonically active coastal zone.

"So often you think of earthquakes as causing total devastation, and adding a tsunami on top of that is a major catastrophe for coastal ecosystems," said Jenny Dugan, a biologist at UCSB. "As expected, we saw high mortality of intertidal life on beaches and rocky shores, but the ecological recovery at some of our sandy beach sites was remarkable. "Plants are coming back in places where there haven't been plants, as far as we know, for a very long time. The earthquake created sandy beach habitat where it had been lost. This is not the initial ecological response you might expect from a major earthquake and tsunami." Read more ..


Book Review

Who's Publishing What These Days—and How?

May 13th 2012

Merchants of Culure - John B. Thompson

John B. Thompson. Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (2nd ed.). Polity Press, 2012. 440 pages.

John B. Thompson begins this book with a publishing anecdote that will be familiar even to those on the margins of the business: the story of how Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, gave a talk in 2007 as part of a series at the university with the title “The Last Lecture.” As it turned out, Pausch was dying of pancreatic cancer, giving his well-received presentation an element of poignance that generated a wave of national publicity. What proved truly stunning, however, was how eager New York publishers were to acquire the book that became The Last Lecture: Pausch, a first-time big-time author was paid a $6.75 million advance by Hyperion, a Disney company. How could that possibly make sense?

In 400 chiseled pages, Thompson explains why such an offer came about, and why it made sense—indeed, The Last Lecture proved to be a lucrative acquisition for Hyperion. He does so with the methodological acumen of the sociologist he is (at the University of Cambridge). Thompson conducted hundreds of interviews for Merchants of Culture, supplemented by new interviews with many of his sources for this newly released second edition of the book (the first was published in 2010). Much of Thompson's analysis builds on that of his 2005 book Books in the Digital Age, which focused on scholarly publishing. Here he focuses on trade publishing, the hyper-commercial industry focused in New York and London.

It's in the nature of any project of this sort that it stands to date quickly. But Thompson has done a notably good job of keeping his findings timely—the figures here run into mid-2011, capturing the arrival of the e-book transformation of the industry at that moment it shifted from an abstract possibility to an increasingly evident reality. In some sense, however, the book feels fresh and up-to-date because of an intuitive grasp of temporal proportion; his perspective dates back to the corporate consolidation of the publishing industry in the 1970s, and he traces trends that in many cases have been decades in the making. Read more ..


The Environmental Edge

An Ocean of Plastic Trash

May 13th 2012

Garbage in Ocean

A 100-fold upsurge in human-produced plastic garbage in the ocean is altering habitats in the marine environment, according to a new study led by a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. In 2009 an ambitious group of graduate students led the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) to the North Pacific Ocean Subtropical Gyre aboard the Scripps research vessel New Horizon. During the voyage the researchers, who concentrated their studies a thousand miles west of California, documented an alarming amount of human-generated trash, mostly broken down bits of plastic the size of a fingernail floating across thousands of miles of open ocean.

At the time the researchers didn't have a clear idea of how such trash might be impacting the ocean environment, but a new study reveals that plastic debris in the area popularly known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has increased by 100 times over in the past 40 years, leading to changes in the natural habitat of animals such as the marine insect Halobates sericeus. These "sea skaters" or "water striders"—relatives of pond water skaters—inhabit water surfaces and lay their eggs on flotsam (floating objects). Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Splits in the Democratic Party May Plague Obama

May 13th 2012

Barack Obama Israel speech

The West Virginia Democrats who voted for an imprisoned felon instead of President Obama are accused of being racists by at least one national Democrat, according to ABC News, which declined to name the high-profile Dem. Forty-two percent of Democrats voting in Tuesday’s primary voted for Keith Judd, or rather, Federal Inmate No. 11593-051, who won 10 counties in the Mountain State and, like Obama, didn’t campaign there. He’s not even incarcerated in West Virginia, but Texas. He merely met the most minimum of standards, paying the $2,500 filing fee and submitting a notarized “certificate of announcement.” No campaign manager, no pollster, no endorsements — it literally took nothing to get 42 percent against Obama among Democrats, now making it rather difficult for them to tout the alleged “split” in the Republican Party.

Obama also lost 21 percent of the primary vote in North Carolina against someone named “no preference.” No word yet if “no preference” will have a speaking role at the Democratic convention this summer in … North Carolina. Read more ..


The Prehistoric Edge

Were Dinosaurs Undergoing Long-term Decline before the Mass Extinction?

May 13th 2012

T-Rex (AMNH)

Despite years of intensive research about the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs about 65.5 million years ago, a fundamental question remains: were dinosaurs already undergoing a long-term decline before an asteroid hit at the end of the Cretaceous? A study led by scientists at the American Museum of Natural History gives a multifaceted answer. The findings, published in Nature Communications, suggest that in general, large-bodied, “bulk-feeding” herbivores were declining during the last 12 million years of the Cretaceous. But carnivorous dinosaurs and mid-sized herbivores were not. In some cases, geographic location might have been a factor in the animals’ biological success.

“Few issues in the history of paleontology have fueled as much research and popular fascination as the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs,” said lead author Steve Brusatte, a Columbia University graduate student affiliated with the Museum’s Division of Paleontology. “Did sudden volcanic eruptions or an asteroid impact strike down dinosaurs during their prime? We found that it was probably much more complex than that, and maybe not the sudden catastrophe that is often portrayed.” Read more ..


The Arab Winter in Egypt

Winter or Spring: Islamists, the Military, and Post-Revolution Politics in Egypt

May 13th 2012

Egyptian Kid at Rally

The so-called “Arab Spring” has forever changed the face of the Middle East, and it’s not finished. While the revolts that toppled longtime autocrats in Tunisia and Libya were remarkable accomplishments, these states are of little strategic interest to the United States. Unlike Libya and Tunisia, what transpires in Syria—an ally of Iran that possesses a substantial chemical weapons stockpile—could have significant implications for Washington. But Syria remains a work in progress.

To date, the most important development in the region for the U.S. has been the fall of Egypt’s longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Since 1977, Egypt has been a strategic partner of the United States—providing essential political support to U.S. policies in the Middle East—and an important peace partner of Israel in a hostile region.

The fall of Mubarak heralds a change in the regional strategic architecture that had been in place since 1979. For decades, the regional balance of power pitted U.S.-oriented Egypt, Turkey, and Israel against anti-Western, terrorist-supporting regimes in Iraq and Iran. While the structure had changed slightly before February 2011—Iraq dropping off the “adversaries” list in 2003 about the same time that Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) moved out of the pro-West camp—Egypt remained a key friend to the United States. With the tectonic political and social shifts in post-Mubarak Egypt, however, it is unclear how long this friendship will continue, and what U.S.- Egyptian bilateral relations will look like going forward. Read more ..


Nigeria on Edge

Nigerian 'Gold Rush' Poisoning Children

May 13th 2012

Nigeria Polio vaccination

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders says at least 4,000 children are suffering from lead poisoning as a result of artisanal gold mining in Zamfara State in Nigeria. The group says emergency federal funds are needed to prevent many of these children from dying.  Activists say the funding has been approved, but none of it has been made available to help the people in Zamfara. Zamfara State is literally sitting on a gold mine.  Nigeria's Doctors Without Borders head, Ivan Gayton, says since gold prices surged in recent years, small time miners can sometimes sell their gold for as much 70 or 80 percent of its international market value. This means villagers who were living on a few dollars a day, are now living on $10 or $15 a day. But unsafe mining practices are releasing so much lead into the community that it is killing local children.  Roughly 400 children have died in the past two years, thousands are awaiting emergency treatment, and nobody knows how many others are in need of urgent care. Read more ..

The North Korean Threat

North Korea Warned by Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean Leaders

May 13th 2012

Kim Jong Un

The leaders of China, Japan and South Korea say they will not tolerate further provocation from North Korea, amid fears that Pyongyang is preparing for a new nuclear test. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made the remark Sunday after meeting in Beijing with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. North Korea's failed rocket launch last month led to sanctions from the U.N. Security Council. The launch drew immediate condemnation from the United States and its allies, who view it as a disguised ballistic missile test barred under U.N. resolutions. The three leaders decided Sunday to start free-trade negotiations before the end of the year. They also signed an investment agreement. China, Japan and South Korea are the three largest East Asian economies. At the same time, the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan pledged to work together to keep North Korea from escalating tensions, saying it is unacceptable for Pyongyang to conduct a nuclear test or other provocative acts after last month's rocket launch. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

IBEX Finds that Expected Solar System Boundary Isn’t There

May 13th 2012

IBEX in high Earth orbit
Artist's conception of IBEX in high Earth orbit (credit: NASA GSFC)

For the last few decades, space scientists have generally accepted that the bubble of gas and magnetic fields generated by the sun—known as the heliosphere—moves through space, creating three distinct boundary layers that culminate in an outermost bow shock. This shock is similar to the sonic boom created ahead of a supersonic jet. Earth itself certainly has one of these bow shocks on the sunward side of its magnetic environment, as do most other planets and many stars. A collection of new data from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), however, now indicate that the sun does not have a bow shock.

For a paper appearing in Science Express, scientists compiled data from IBEX, NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft, and computer models to show that the heliosphere just isn’t moving fast enough to create a bow shock in the tenuous and highly magnetized region in our local part of the galaxy.

“IBEX gives a global view. It shows the whole of this region,” says Eric Christian, the mission scientist for IBEX at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and who was formerly the program scientist for Voyager. “At the same time the Voyager spacecraft are actually there, in situ, measuring its environment at two locations. The combination of IBEX and Voyager gives you great science and now the new IBEX results strongly indicate that there is no bow shock.” Read more ..


The Obama Edge

DOMA Repeal Revisited With Obama's Support of Gay Marriage

May 13th 2012

Obama pensive with flag

Legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is garnering new attention from lawmakers in the wake of President Obama's support of same-sex marriage.

The Respect for Marriage Act would repeal DOMA and afford federal protections to legally married same-sex married couples, like those in New York state and elsewhere, that male and female couples already enjoy. Since Obama's statement Wednesday, the bill has picked up new co-sponsors and Democratic leaders, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), have said they would support legalizing same-sex marriage.

That has given new hope to activists lobbying for the bill, such as Jo Deutsch, federal director for Freedom to Marry. Deutsch said that White House support of same-sex marriage can guide lawmakers through the same evolution on the issue that the president just completed. “It shows a man going from point one — from his own questioning, to talking to family and friends, thinking about his own religious upbringing, from seeing people who are impacted by DOMA — and come to end of that journey and say he is for the freedom to marry,” Deutsch said. “That piece acts as an umbrella over all of what is going on on Capitol Hill. ... Because if President Obama can do it and say he is for the freedom to marry, maybe I can do it too." Read more ..


The Health Edge

Novel Approach to Stimulate Immune Cells

May 13th 2012

Synapse

Researchers at Rutgers University have uncovered a new way to stimulate activity of immune cell opiate receptors, leading to efficient tumor cell clearance. Sarkar, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and his research team have been able to take a new pharmacological approach to activate the immune cells to prevent cancer growth through stimulation of the opiate receptors found on immune cells.

This research, funded by the National Institutes of Health-National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholosm. It describes two structurally different but functionally similar opioid receptors, Mu- and Delta-opioid receptors. These receptors form protein complexes as either two structurally similar receptors as a homodimer—formed by two identical molecules—or two structurally dissimilar protein complexes as a heterodimer—formed by ethanol inducement—in immune cells. The team pharmacologically fooled these two structurally different but functionally similar opioid receptors to form more homodimers so that opioid peptide increases the immune cells’ ability to kill tumor cells. Read more ..


The Environmental Edge

Groundwater Pumping Leads to Sea Level Rise, Cancels Out Effect of Dams

May 12th 2012

Stormy Seas

As people pump groundwater for irrigation, drinking water, and industrial uses, the water doesn’t just seep back into the ground — it also evaporates into the atmosphere, or runs off into rivers and canals, eventually emptying into the world’s oceans. This water adds up, and a new study calculates that by 2050, groundwater pumping will cause a global sea level rise of about 0.8 millimeters per year.

“Other than ice on land, the excessive groundwater extractions are fast becoming the most important terrestrial water contribution to sea level rise,” said Yoshihide Wada, with Utrecht University in the Netherlands and lead author of the study. In the coming decades, he noted, groundwater contributions to sea level rise are expected to become as significant as those of melting glaciers and ice caps outside of Greenland and the Antarctic. Between around 1970 and 1990, sea level rise caused by groundwater pumping was cancelled out as people built dams, trapping water in reservoirs so the water wouldn’t empty into the sea, Wada said. His research shows that starting in the 1990s, that changed as populations started pumping more groundwater and building fewer dams. Read more ..



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