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Archive for March 2012

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Iraq on Edge

Iraq Starts New Year with Violence

March 31st 2012

Baghdad bomb

There has been a rapid and widespread deterioration of security in Iraq since the mid-December end of the U.S. military mission there. Yet a detailed analysis of the upsurge in violence reveals that withdrawal of U.S. troops was a less significant driver of violence than the U.S. policy of providing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki with a blank check in his campaign to consolidate power.

Tracking Iraq's Regression

Perceptions of security in Iraq are often based on the number of mass-casualty attacks -- such as car bombs and suicide-vest attacks in crowded places -- undertaken in high-visibility locations like Baghdad or the number of deaths reported by the Iraqi government. According to Washington Institute for Near East Policy metrics sourced from the Iraqi security forces, Iraq witnessed thirty-six confirmed attempted mass-casualty attacks in January 2012, a significant increase on the average of twenty-three attacks a month in the quarter ending December 2011. Officially reported deaths are also increasing, with 340 civilian deaths reported in January 2012 compared to 155 in December 2011.

Yet a closer look at violence in Iraq's provinces produces an even dimmer view of what has occurred since mid-December 2011. Mass-casualty attacks tell only part of the story of violence in Iraq, and mortality statistics overlook the targeted nature of violence in today's Iraq, where a high proportion of victims are local progovernment community leaders. For every one person of this kind who is killed, an exponential number of others are intimidated into passive support for insurgent groups. Read more ..

The Defense Edge

New Study Fails to Resolve Differences over Risks to U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

March 31st 2012

Nuclear Missile in Silo

On March 30, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report that is already starting to be described as having resolved all of the technical issues surrounding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Descriptions of the NAS study by CTBT advocates are certain to be overstatements. There are disagreements among technically knowledgeable people regarding these issues. It was just these kinds of disagreements that caused the Strategic Posture Commission to report in 2009 that it could not reach a consensus position regarding U.S. ratification of the CTBT. For example, the opponents of CTBT ratification on the commission stated that “maintaining a safe, reliable nuclear stockpile in the absence of testing entails real technical risks that cannot be eliminated by even the most sophisticated science-based program because full validation of these programs is likely to require testing over time.” Further, there is an array of narrower technical questions that surround the debate over the value of the CTBT. It is worth examining some of these questions, most of which are raised in the NAS study. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Appeal helps Obama

March 31st 2012

Barack Obama

Irony alert — President Obama gets a boost no matter what the Supreme Court decides on his politically toxic healthcare reform law.

The high court either upholds Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment, imprinting it for history, or it overturns the law, thereby breaking a big stick with which the GOP planned to beat Obama this fall. Should front-runner Mitt Romney become the GOP nominee, what’s left of the stick would more likely resemble a Q-Tip.

Although a final ruling is nearly four months away, oral arguments at the Supreme Court on Tuesday called into question the constitutionality of a mandate to purchase insurance. But recall that four years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama opposed a mandate for the purchase of healthcare insurance when he was running against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Four years ago, Romney, on the other hand, admitted his support for mandates.

Obama ultimately changed his mind, and followed the example then-Gov. Romney had set when he signed healthcare reform into law in Massachusetts in 2006. Both men concluded that conservative think tank Heritage Foundation was correct decades ago in deciding there was no way, without a mandate to buy coverage, to control prices or to protect the taxpayer from uninsured free riders who leech off the government every time they go to the emergency room. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Illegal Ocean Dumping Persists Despite DOJ Crackdown

March 31st 2012

Coast Guard Inspection
Coast Guard Inspection

When a U.S. Coast Guard inspector boarded the M/T Chem Faros, a 21,145-gross-ton cargo ship that pulled into port in Morehead City, N.C., an oiler with the engine crew quietly handed him a note.


The crewman’s hand-scrawled note, passed that March day two years ago, triggered an inquiry that unmasked a wave of high-seas pollution and phony recordkeeping as the ship ferried cargo in Asia and the U.S. The crew had used the so-called magic pipe to divert oily waste overboard at least 10 times in six months. Eleven days before the inspection, the chief engineer ordered 13,200 gallons of oil-contaminated waste dumped into the ocean.

The ship’s owner, Cooperative Success Maritime S.A., was fined $850,000 and sentenced to five years’ probation after its guilty plea. And the chief engineer — after cooperating with authorities — was sentenced to one year of probation. “The oceans must be protected from being used as dump sites for waste oil or other hazardous substances,” said Maureen O’Mara, special agent-in-charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement program in Atlanta, in June 2010. A company attorney declined comment.


The Digital Edge

Who's Talking To Mary Bono Mack About Internet Privacy?

March 31st 2012

LectureTools student user

At a hearing yesterday on a proposed new law that would limit on how easily advertisers could track Internet users, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) seemed confused about what all the fuss was about:

"Before we do any possible harm to the Internet, we need to understand what harm is actually being done to consumers," Mack said. "Where is the public outcry for legislation? Today, I'm simply not hearing it. I haven't gotten a single letter from anyone back home urging me to pass a privacy bill." As Slate pointed out, this is strange, because a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, found that 65 percent of Americans do have serious reservations about their private data being collected on the Internet to help advertisers target them. Maybe Bono Mack really hasn't received any letters of support for the Don't Track Me Online Act of 2011, which would direct the Federal Trade Commission to set guidelines on what information can be collected from Internet users and how it may be used.

But what she definitely has received are tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from companies opposed to the new legislation.


The Race for Nuclear

South Carolina Nuclear Reactors Approved for Construction

March 31st 2012

Click to select Image

Federal regulators greenlighted the construction of new nuclear reactors Friday for just the second time in longer than three decades.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted 4-1 to approve a license allowing construction and conditional operation of two new reactors at Scana Corp.’s Virgil C. Summer nuclear power plant in Fairfield County, S.C. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko was the lone vote against approving the license. About two months ago, the commission approved construction of new reactors at Southern Co.’s Vogtle power plant near Waynesboro, Ga. The February decision marked the first time regulators approved construction of a new reactor since 1978. Friday’s decision is a major victory for the nuclear power industry, which has struggled for years to receive the necessary regulatory approvals to build new reactors. 

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval of the license application to build two new advanced-design reactors continues the needed expansion of our nation’s electricity system,” said Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, in a statement. “This will be one of the largest construction and engineering projects in South Carolina history. It will create thousands of well-paying jobs during construction and provide careers for several hundred more people over the decades that the new reactors will generate electricity.” Read more ..

The Edge of Justice

Supreme Court Scandals

March 31st 2012

Supreme Court at the 2010 SOTU

As the Supreme Court considers the healthcare law — and in so doing, possibly dominates a national election for the third time since since 2000 — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warns that a wave of corruption and scandal will result from the earlier high court decision in Citizens United.

As judicial precedent was abandoned in the Bush v. Gore and Citizens United cases, which transformed the Supreme Court into a protagonist in partisan and ideological wars, it is time to consider the dangers to the republic of a court whose majority — which could be on the brink of another election-changing party-line vote — increasingly acts as a partisan faction rather than a disinterested adjudicator of the law.

I supported the final healthcare bill, though I never compared it to landmark achievements such as Medicare and Social Security. It made the world a little bit better, but not as much as it should have, after the money-dominated meat grinder that destroyed the more profound reforms that I (and a majority of voters) supported, such as Medicare-for-all and the public option.

I believe the entire healthcare negotiation, the Supreme Court arguments in the Citizens United and healthcare cases and the ex parte speeches to interested parties by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia before they voted on Citizens United should all have been open to C-SPAN cameras and public review in real time. Read more ..

Edge of Obamacare

Five Questions for the Supreme Court to Consider in the Healthcare Debate

March 31st 2012

US Supreme Court

A handful of specific questions from last week's oral arguments could help shape the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on President Obama’s healthcare law.

The over-arching question before the court is whether the law’s individual mandate is constitutional. But that’s a complicated question, and the two sides of the case don't even agree about how best to ask it.

A decision is expected to come in June — just months before the presidential election.

The biggest takeaway from last week’s arguments was that the mandate is very much in jeopardy. That doesn’t mean, however, that the court is sure to strike it down, and the oral arguments helped illuminate several areas the justices will likely consider in their private deliberations. Here are five questions that could shape the court’s ruling:

A handful of specific questions from last week's oral arguments could help shape the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on President Obama’s healthcare law. Read more ..

Space on Edge

The Growing Problem of Space Junk

March 31st 2012

orbital space junk
Generated image of known space junk (credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

When a hunk of space junk came hurtling close to the International Space Station last week, the crew took shelter in their Soyuz return vehicle as a precaution.

Although the object—piece of an old Russian Cosmos communications satellite—bypassed them, the danger posed by the growing collection of orbital debris is quite real. A good-sized area of Earth's orbital environment has become a virtual junkyard. Debris has been accumulating since the beginning of the Space Age in the late 1950s. Today, the amount of space debris is estimated to be in the tens of millions, ranging from spent rocket stages, old and non-functioning satellites, to tiny particles of rubble, the result of collisions or simple erosion of spacecraft that have been up in space, some of them for decades.

The incident last week isn’t the first time astronauts have been threatened by space junk; the ISS had two other close calls last year. Usually the space station performs what NASA calls a “debris avoidance maneuver”—simply moving itself slightly out of harm’s way. The ISS might be having more space junk encounters since changing position in the last year, moving into an area with a slightly higher density of orbital debris. Read more ..

Mali on Edge

Mali Coup Opponents Lament Attacks

March 31st 2012

Amadou Haya Sanogo
Coup leader Amadou Haya Sanogo (credit: Martin Vogl)

A week after the coup in Mali, some people are worried that freedom of expression is being trampled, after opponents of the military government were attacked while holding a meeting on Thursday in the capital Bamako. Amnesty International has called on the military government to investigate the incident.

On Thursday evening, charred patches on the ground near the Bamako labor offices marked spots where motorcycles and a car were burned during the unrest. People who were at the meeting said that what appeared to be pro-junta youth suddenly began hurling stones into the yard where people were gathered. They said those who were attacked then went after the stone-throwers and fighting broke out.

One man, who said his hand was injured in the scuffle, did not want to be identified, fearing for his security. He says the country is in danger; he fears that civil strife is likely to become worse in the days and weeks to come. “If people no longer have the right to assemble and express themselves without worrying about being attacked,imagine that level of attack on human dignity and human rights,” he said. He continued: as I see it we’ve got two options: remain silent, or speak out and face the violence like that we saw on Thursday. Read more ..

Venezuela on Edge

Golden Boy Could Put Abrupt Stop to Chavez’s Winning Streak

March 31st 2012

Henrique Capriles Radonski

In February, a lively contender emerged with an unanticipated and unprecedented confidence in his ability to go hand to hand with Venezuela’s longtime president Hugo Chávez. Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of the Miranda state seeks to defeat Chávez in the upcoming October presidential election. The recent commotion and continuous media coverage surrounding the upcoming Presidential election has incited interest among the more politically conscious Venezuelan people, who have grown accustomed to Chávez’s seemingly perpetual reign and eternal blusters. Capriles’s oppositional primary victory in February has given him riveting momentum in taking on the daunting task of wrapping up Hugo Chávez’s 13-year rule.

The recent oppositional presidential primary attracted nearly 3 million voters, a landmark in terms of Venezuelan voter turnout. Capriles captured around 2/3 of all votes in the primary election within his party, routing Governor Pablo Perez of the Zulia state by an imposing margin. The youthful and enthusiastic Capriles has been more than willing to appear in front of a media hungry for an anti-Chávez spin.

Capriles has been packaged as a youthful and worthy alternative to Hugo Chávez, who has made the public slowly aware of the true nature of his fragile physical state. Though Chávez has augmented his public appearances following his short-lived convalescence, there still exists a lingering uncertainty regarding the stability of his health. Apparently, Chávez’s battle with cancer is far from over. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Israeli Drug Could Save Stroke Victims

March 31st 2012

Invisible Brain

Could a new Israeli treatment help save millions of people from death and severe disability after a stroke? The six-person team of the recently funded company Thrombotech believes they have a fighting chance. Their new drug amplifies the effects of one of the only existing stroke medications on the market, while preventing dangerous side effects.

There is a critical window of time needed to get to the hospital if one is having a stroke. If it is an ischemic stroke—i.e., an artery to the brain is blocked—doctors must get the blood flowing to the brain quickly. The only currently approved treatment for this today is an enzyme called tPA. If given within three hours, tPA dissolves the blood clots blocking the flow of blood to the brain. However, it can be used in just 10 percent of cases and can cause life-threatening side effects such as hemorrhaging.

Yet except for tPA, there isn’t much in a doctor’s arsenal for fighting the serious effects of strokes, which are the leading cause of disability in the world and the third leading cause of death in the United States after cancer and heart disease. This is precisely the need that Ness Ziona-based Thrombotech is targeting. Read more ..

Edge on Afghanistan

How America Can Learn from the Case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

March 31st 2012

Staff Sgt Robert Bales
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, U.S. Army

It was only a matter of time until the tragic incident attributed to Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales occurred. That doesn’t dismiss or excuse it, just acknowledges the consequences of more than 10 years of hard combat. Forty years ago, the trial over the events at My Lai startled the country as the Vietnam War was winding down. It fed even more anti-war sentiment. In this case, the conduct of a soldier on the ground has the capacity to unravel the end game for Afghanistan. Stepping aside from the impending trial and personal tragedy, Bales and his actions focus attention on lessons to be learned for the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) coming out of the longest engagement ever in its history, not withstanding its higher quality and tremendous capability.

Once again, the nation faces tough choices in sustaining and rebuilding a strong military in the midst of a weak economy and huge deficits. The Army is projected to downsize from a high of 570,000 to 490,000 troops and must still be ready to meet unpredictable and growing threats to national security. Its equipment and resources are worn and need repair and modernization. The food fight has commenced in the halls of the Pentagon and Congress over investing in weapons or personnel. But limited funding might not allow for both equipping the military and refitting its warriors. Historically, personnel requirements have been subordinated to lobbying for bigger and better weapons systems. Read more ..

Beren's Sinoff and TAPPS Burleson Both Narrow-Minded

March 31st 2012

I am not sure who was worse in the cause of equal rights and religious tolerance at the Beren School controversy (see The Texas Sabbath Showdown: The Inside (and Still Blazing) Story, Page One, March 27,). Was it the narrow-minded Edd Burleson of TAPPS who could not see past his own prejudices, or the narrow-minded Rabbi Harry Sinoff who could see past his fears? I can understand Burleson, but why Sinoff. His "please step on me" attitude only encourages such incidents.

Mideast on Edge

Combat in Yemen Leaves Scores of Dead

March 31st 2012

Yemeni Tribesmen

Fierce clashes have erupted between military forces and suspected al-Qaida-linked militants in southern Yemen, leaving at least 30 people dead.

Yemeni officials say the fighting broke out early on March 31 when militants attacked an army post in the town of Mallah, in Lahij province. The area is near Abyan province, an al-Qaida stronghold. The Ansar al-Sharia militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack. Earlier this month, the group claimed responsibility for the death of an American teacher who was killed in southern city of Taiz. The Yemeni government has been trying to recover from anti-government protests that resulted in the resignation of long-time leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh's deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, took over as president in February. He vowed to fight al-Qaida and stabilize the country. Read more ..

The Edge of Disaster

Staying Ahead of Asia’s Next Natural Disaster

March 31st 2012

Sumatra village after tsunami
Sumatran coastal village after tsunami
(credit: PM2 Philip A. McDaniel, US Navy)

This week’s moderate earthquake in Japan, one of the Asian countries best prepared for natural disasters, was a stark reminder of the value of readiness in a region disproportionately targeted by the forces of nature. While Japan continues to dig out from last year’s triple disaster, Thailand is scrambling to avert a repeat of last year’s historic floods.

Since then, Thai authorities have set aside billions of dollars for a long-term water resource management plan that they say will ensure that the disaster will not be repeated.

Bangkok resident Suthi Sun remembered the floods like a bad dream. When the waters reached his residence, he said in an e-mail interview that “this was the first time I found the high level of flooding. The highest level was 1.5 meter[s]. Meanwhile my ceiling is about 2.2 to 2.5 meters.”

Sun said the Thai government tried to do its best but had no “clear or certain policy.” Ruengrawee Pichaikul, Senior Program Coordinator for the Asia Foundation in Thailand, agreed, saying in an e-mail interview that some believed the scale of the flooding was beyond the government’s capacity. When responding to similar charges leveled against the government during the flood, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said, “I tell you the truth, we have done everything to the best of our ability. … We are facing the most severe flooding ever. We need encouragement, support, and cooperation from all sectors and from all the people as well.” Read more ..

Catholic Church on Edge

Cardinal Schönborn Confirms Homosexual on Parish Council in Austria

March 31st 2012

Florian Stangl of Austria
Florian Stangl

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who leads the Roman Catholic Church in Austria, has apparently confirmed that an openly homosexual man may serve on the parish council at a church in Stutzenhofen – a town in the Weinviertel region.

Florian Stangl was elected to the advisory post by members of the congregation, but apparently did not find approval on the part of his pastor, Rev. Gerhard Swierzek.

Stangl and his companion resorted to asking for a personal interview with Cardinal Schonborn, who then spoke with the pair and dined with them. According to Austrian daily Die Presse, Cardinal Schonborn decided that Stangl should not be excluded from the position, but the decision was not made public until March 30. Rev. Swierzek, who had opposed the homosexual Stangl, has since received death threats. Gasoline is said to have been poured through a window at his rectory, while a local newspaper reported that there was a rumour that the priest had left on vacation. Read more ..

The Arab Winter in Egypt

Is the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Nominating a Presidential Candidate?

March 31st 2012


Shortly after mass protests toppled Hosni Mubarak last February, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood sought to assuage fears of an "Islamist takeover" by making two promises to both the international community and to Egyptian secularist parties: that it would run candidates in fewer than 50 percent of the parliamentary races, and that it would not run a presidential candidate. Yet one month before the parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood backtracked on its first promise. Fearing that upstart Salafist parties would steal its thunder, the Brotherhood's electoral alliance ran a full slate of candidates. The reversal paid off: The Brotherhood won a 47-percent parliamentary plurality, nearly doubling the second-place Salafists' 24-percent take.

Now the Brotherhood is considering a second flip-flop: Its leaders are deliberating over whether to run a presidential candidate. They fear that, without a Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, the organization's younger members will vote for Abdel Monem Abouel Fotouh -- a popular former Brotherhood leader whom the organization banished last year after he declared his presidential candidacy despite the Brotherhood's policy against running a presidential candidate at that time. If a critical mass of Muslim Brotherhood members vote for the outcast Abouel Fotouh, it would represent a major affront to the organization's leadership.

So how is the Muslim Brotherhood leadership conducting this intra-party deliberation of obvious national importance? The answer is revealing, if not reassuring, about the Brotherhood's political practices.

Zakariya Helmy, an activist in the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, told me that Brotherhood leaders were claiming that they had sought the counsel of the organization's rank-and-file members. "The argument [that the Brotherhood leaders are making] is that, before we take any decision, we start taking the opinion of the grassroots of the local areas and members of every local area," he says. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Lebanon’s Security Concerns over Syria

March 31st 2012

Lebanese protesters

Since the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began a year ago, Lebanon has lived in fear that the worsening violence will spill across the border. In recent days, that fear has come close to being realized with reports that Syrian troops fired into Lebanon during clashes with rebels. The reports were mixed, with some stating that Syria staged an incursion across the frontier to destroy a house that allegedly harbored members of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), while others claimed that a few machine gun rounds strayed across the border during fighting on the Syrian side. The Lebanese government, which is backed by Damascus, denied that any incursions occurred, but opposition supporters accused Syrian troops of burning homes belonging to Lebanese who sympathize with the rebels next door.

The rival views neatly reflect a deep political division in Lebanon. The poles are represented by the Future Movement, which is headed by Saad Hariri and openly champions the Syrian revolutionaries and the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Hizballah, which continues to support its ally in Damascus. Prime Minister Najib Mikati has adopted a policy of noninterference on Syria, placing it at odds with the consensus view of the twenty-two-member Arab League. Lebanon was one of only two countries to voice reservations over the league's February decision to formally recognize the Syrian opposition and ask the UN Security Council to deploy a peacekeeping force. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Beware: Peppers, Pears, and Grapes From Turkey Are Most Toxic Produce In Europe

March 31st 2012

produce stand in urla
Credit: Peggy Suada Oz

Of 76 different fruits and vegetables recently evaluated, Turkish peppers contained the most excessive and dangerous amounts of pesticide chemicals, according to Food Without Pesticides, a new 26-page guide (currently only available in German) to European food released this week by Greenpeace Germany.

Turkish peppers topped the list of “most contaminated” produce in the guide, with an average of 24 chemical substances found in the specimens analyzed. In second place, with an average of 10 chemical substances, were Turkish pears. Nine chemical substances were found in Turkish pears, on average, putting them at third place.

Eleven different Turkish crops were rated, using 582 samples. The guide used a green/yellow/red light system to show its ratings, with a red light meaning that more than one-third of the samples had dangerous levels of chemicals in them.

Of all 23 major fruit-and-vegetable-exporting countries that were evaluated in the report, Turkey had the highest number of crops in the “red light” category. The study was conducted using fruit taken from retail and wholesale stores in Europe in 2009 and 2010, but it is unlikely that pesticide use has declined significantly in Turkey since then. Read more ..

The Weapon's Edge

Want to Test Your Nuclear Weapon? The World Will Know

March 31st 2012

Trinity Test July 16, 1945
Trinity Test Shot, July 16, 1945; estimated yield: 20kT (credit: LANL)

Beneath the oceans, on distant islands, in barren deserts, on icy hillsides, and at hundreds of other spots around the globe, special sensors are sniffing the air, measuring ground motion, watching for a particular kind of light, and listening for unique sounds. Their function is to pick up the telltale sign of a nuclear explosion, and according to a scientific report released in Washington on March 30, they can now do it very well.

The sensors, deployed at more than 260 sites under the supervision of an international organization based in Vienna, are singly or collectively able to discern the distinctive traits of such blasts anywhere in the world, down to a level of explosive force “well below” the equivalent of 1000 tons of TNT, or a fraction of the force of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, a panel of the National Research Council told the White House in its report.

U.S.-owned intelligence gear deployed around the globe and on satellites can do even better, the report said, without disclosing how much. Its overall message was that if the United States decides to join a global treaty banning nuclear tests—a expressed goal of many U.S. officials since the treaty was completed in 1996—it would not have to worry about militarily-significant, undetected cheating by others. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Super Donor Friess Skips Super PAC to Help Santorum

March 31st 2012

Foster Friess
Foster Friess (credit: Gage Skimore)

Ahead of Tuesday’s GOP presidential primary in Wisconsin, wealthy investor Foster Friess is giving his preferred candidate, Rick Santorum, a boost. This time though, rather than contributing to a pro-Santorum super PAC, he’s taking matters into his own hands. Friess has personally spent $8,675 to help his friend win, including roughly $1,000 each for a radio ad touting the former Pennsylvania senator and a newspaper ad, both in Friess’s hometown of Rice Lake, Wis.

Citizens have long been free to spend their personal funds directly on independent expenditures, which cannot be coordinated with candidates’ campaigns, but such spending is exceedingly rare. In fact, Friess is just the third individual to make personal independent expenditures this election cycle, according to an analysis of filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Typically, people tend to give money to existing organizations like super PACs, which can pool resources, produce more efficient ad buys and “capitalize on the expertise” of the people running the group, said attorney Paul Ryan, of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. Ryan commended Friess for being willing to attach his name to these advertisements. If you are willing to spend money on a political advertisement, Ryan said, “you should stand by its content.” Read more ..

Pakistan and the US

Pakistanis Debate New Terms for Relationship with US

March 31st 2012

hina rabbani khar, foreign minister
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (credit: Wajid Hussain/VOA)

Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar says that the ongoing parliamentary review of her country’s “complex” ties with the United States may be painstakingly slow, but it will lay a lasting foundation for the future. Her remarks came as the parliament adjourned its joint session for a week to let lawmakers hammer out differences over a set of recommendations to reset Islamabad’s relations with Washington and its Western allies.

The long-awaited parliamentary debate to review Pakistan’s relationship with the United States began early this week. But the meeting failed to see a substantive discussion on the draft recommendations because the opposition demanded the removal of some controversial provisions.

Lawmaker Ayaz Amir represents the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which is headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. “Parliament has been almost paralyzed or stalled for over a week. The recommendations have been tabled but a meaningful debate has not even begun. If anything is having an influence it is what they [lawmakers] perceived to be public opinion, and that is creating a problem,” Amir said. Read more ..

Music on Edge

Remebering Banjo Legend Earl Scruggs

March 31st 2012

Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs, whose distinctive style of bluegrass banjo picking influenced countless players and helped to shape the sound of modern country music, died in a Nashville hospital Wednesday, March 28. He was 88 years old.

Before Earl Scruggs, most banjo players used a two-fingered picking style. But all that changed after the 21-year-old North Carolina native joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1945, and brought his three- fingered rolls to Nashville. “I used to play with just the finger and thumb, which they call two-fingered style. Then I started playing a tune when I was about 10 or 11 and this third finger started working, which filled in some spaces. And that excited me because I could play some other tunes that I couldn’t play with the two finger style. So I just kept working with what I had.”

Before Earl Scruggs, the banjo was often considered a novelty item in a band. It was usually played by a comic character, not a serious musician. As fellow banjo player Béla Fleck explains, Earl Scruggs changed all that. “I think it was a combination of an incredible rhythmic approach with a very simple and beautiful harmonic language,” he said. “He plays the banjo and it grabs you just like the lead vocal would. An amazing technique. They called him ‘the Paganini of the banjo’ in the New York Times when he played at Carnegie Hall. And I think he was just a beautiful, beautiful player. I think the lessons that you learn from someone like that transcend bluegrass and are just about music.” Read more ..

Religious Tolerance

Chief Rabbinate of Israel and Vatican Agree on the Moral Ramifications of the Financial Crisis

March 30th 2012

Rabbi Cohen of the Rabbinate of Israel
Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel

Religious perspectives on the current financial crisis: vision for a just economic order" was the theme of the eleventh meeting of the Bilateral Commission of the Delegations of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, which was held in Rome. The March 27-29 event was presided by Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, and by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

In an English-language joint statement issued at the end of the meeting, the two sides highlight that, "while many factors contributed to the financial crisis, at its roots lies a crisis of moral values in which the importance of having, reflected in a culture of greed, eclipsed the importance of being; and where the value of truth reflected in honesty and transparency was sorely lacking in economic activity."

"At the heart of Jewish and Catholic visions for a just economic order is the affirmation of the sovereignty and providence of the Creator of the world with Whom all wealth originates and which is given to humankind as a gift for the common good", the text adds. Therefore "the purpose of an economic order is to serve the well being of society, affirming the human dignity of all people, each created in the divine image." This concept "is antithetical to egocentricity. Rather, it requires the promotion of the well being of the individual in relation to community and society". It also "posits the obligation to guarantee certain basic human needs, such as the protection of life, sustenance, clothing, housing, health, education and employment". Read more ..

The Cost of War

Across Borders And Battle Lines, Four Mothers Affected By War

March 30th 2012

Ama Gullah
Ama Gullah (credit: Shah Saqeem/RFE/RL)

There isn’t too much that binds together Ama Gullah, a 45-year-old grandmother from the city of Kandahar, and Dr. Becky Whetstone, a marriage counselor and therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas. But they are two of the tens of thousands of mothers strewn across four continents whose sons and daughters have become casualties of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan—a war that, according to some estimates, has claimed the lives of some 50,000 combatants, along with thousands of civilians.

The emotional trauma of the death of a child does not vary much across battle lines.

In recent interviews with four mothers of the dead from different sides of the war, RFE/RL found little talk of politics or ideology.These women’s thoughts linger on difficult, unanswered questions, and on the new burdens of family: taking care of widowed daughters-in-law and raising newly fatherless grandchildren. Most of them just want the conflict to stop. Read more ..

Colombia on Edge

Colombia's New Counterinsurgency Plan

March 30th 2012

Colombian Death Squads

Colombian security forces attacked a camp belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on March 26 in Vistahermosa, Meta department, killing 36 members of the guerrilla group and capturing three. The operation, which Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said resulted in the deaths of more FARC members than any other single strike in the 50-year-long conflict between the Colombian government and Marxist guerrilla groups, came shortly after a similar action in Arauca state in which 33 FARC members were killed and 12 were captured.

The operations were launched as part of an aggressive new Colombian counterinsurgency strategy dubbed Operation Espada de Honor ("Sword of Honor"), created in response to the increasing violent activity by the country's guerrilla groups. The plan expands the list of targets for security forces and the locations where they will engage guerrillas, with the goal of crippling the FARC both militarily and financially.

Espada de Honor is the latest of several plans by the Colombian government to combat militancy in the country. To fully understand the plan and its implications, it is helpful to examine the nature of Colombia's guerrilla groups, previous government counterinsurgency strategies and how the FARC has reacted to them. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Iran Must Be Stopped

March 30th 2012

ahmadinejad and zion

Recent advances in Iran’s nuclear weapons  program show that  events  are  moving extraordinarily swiftly, as Tehran nears  the end  of its decades-long quest  to possess  a lethal  WMD capability.

One  thing  is certain: If Iran  succeeds, the Middle  East  – and  the world – will be far more dangerous  and  unstable, with  substantially  increased prospects for further nuclear  proliferation. That is why we are facing difficult, risky, and uncertain decisions. Iran has pursued nuclear weapons since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the shah, replacing the monarchy with an authoritarian, theocratic regime. The mullahs placed the nuclear program (camouflaged as a “civil nuclear power” project) under the increasingly powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps  (IRGC),  a force independent of lran’s regular army, devoted  passionately to preserving the revolution. Read more ..

America and Israel

AIPAC at the Pinnacle of Success

March 30th 2012


The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a uniquely American organization supported by the majority of American Jews, is the most important global Jewish association engaged in Israel advocacy.

Jews on the far left, like those associated with J Street, an organization created with the sole objective of discrediting AIPAC, seek to besmirch it. They accuse its leaders of being partisan right wing extremists out of synch with the attitudes of the majority of American Jews. On Sunday, Amos Oz the talented Israeli author whose political sophistication regrettably does not match his literary talent, told the J Street Conference: “I have been waiting for you all my adult life” and condemned AIPAC for being “militant”, “extremist” and “hawkish”.

Other detractors, highlighted by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, accuse AIPAC of imposing “a stranglehold on US Congress” and distorting American foreign policy.

Israeli fringe groups also try to demonize the organization which is committed to their security and wellbeing. Former Meretz Minister Yossi Sarid recently remarked pathetically that “AIPAC is a hostile organization: Those Jews are endangering our lives here, now more than ever. If only they would leave us alone, if only they would stick to their own affairs and release us from the punishment of their support…Why do you insist on being portrayed as the ones who are pushing your country into another war? Why are you doing this to yourselves? …Is it right for you to once again reawaken the question of dual loyalty?” Most Israelis would dismiss such remarks as demented ravings. Read more ..

Obama and Israel

The State Department knows the Capital of Israel

March 30th 2012

Knesset (credit: Beny Shlevich)

American students are often ridiculed for their poor knowledge of geography, but the government institution responsible for U.S. foreign policy would be expected to have a better handle on such basic questions as the capitals of the nations of the world. Apparently, however, the State Department is unable to identify the capital of the State of Israel.

The following exchange took place on March 28, 2012, between State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland and a reporter:

QUESTION: Yesterday there was a bit of a kerfuffle over an announcement that was made by the department about the travel of your boss ... Is it the State Department's position that Jerusalem is not part of Israel?
MS. NULAND: Well, you know that our position on Jerusalem has not changed .... With regard to our Jerusalem policy, it's a permanent-status issue; it's got to be resolved through the negotiations between the parties. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Treating Cancer as a Chronic Disease

March 30th 2012

Head/neck cancer cell
Cancer cell

New research from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and Research Institute and the Rambam Medical Center may lead to the development of new methods for controlling the growth of cancer, and perhaps lead to treatments that will transform cancer from a lethal disease to a chronic, manageable one, similar to AIDS.

By placing cancer cells in and near a growth developed from a population of human stem cells, scientists have demonstrated that the cancer cells grow and proliferate more robustly when exposed to human cells than they do in a typical petri dish or mouse model. The cancer cell population is also more diverse than had previously been understood.  The research was published in the current advanced online issue of the journal Stem Cells. Maty Tzukerman, Rambam senior research scientist and the project leader and senior co-author on the report, says that this model will facilitate targeted drug discovery aimed at blocking the cancer cell self-renewal process.

Previous studies have determined that some tumor cells appear to be differentiated, while others retain the self-renewal property that makes cancer so deadly. According to Technion Professor Karl Skorecki, director of Medical Research and Development at Rambam Health Care Campus and senior co-author on the report, this new research attempts to understand how cancer grows, and to find ways to halt the runaway replication. 

In order to mimic the human cancer environment as closely as possible, the research team developed a teratoma - a tumor made of a heterogenous mix of cells and tissues - by enabling the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells into a variety of normally occurring human cell lines on a carrier mouse. The human cellular teratoma constitutes a new platform of healthy human cells for monitoring the behavior and proliferation of human cancer cells. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Obama's 'Space' for Russia

March 30th 2012

Barack Obama in Thought

The sound bite went viral -- the president of the United States asking the Russian president to carry a message to Putin for "space" in dealing with contentious missile defense issues until after the election so the American president would have "more flexibility." The photos went viral as well: President Obama's hand on Medvedev's knee, the smiling president with his arm around Medvedev's shoulder, the two of them sipping tea.

It is bad, of course, on many levels, but historically consistent. The president is notoriously hostile to missile defense, as are the Russians. The Russians are particularly hostile to U.S. missile defenses, which they believe threaten their offensive missile programs, such as those planned by NATO for Europe during the Bush administration. In September 2009, Mr. Obama introduced his Russian "reset" in a speech at Moscow's New Economic School by adopting Russia's greatest concern as a point of bilateral agreement.

"America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia ... on the fundamental issues that will shape this century, Americans and Russians share common interests that form a basis for co-operation," he said. Including, it seems, cooperation on Iran, which the Russians had assisted with (allegedly peaceful) nuclear technology at Bushehr. The President promised, "If the threat from Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile program is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated." Something the U.S. wanted for something Russia wanted -- but at whose expense? It didn't take long to find out. Read more ..

Beren Academy Basketball Team Beat Their Own School Leadership

March 30th 2012
Based on the play-by-play story by Edwin Black on the Beren Academy confrontation (see The Texas Sabbath Showdown: The Inside (and Still Blazing) Story, Page One, March 27,) it appears that the school's Jewish basketball team only won "on the court" because their lawyers "went to court" and did it despite the objections of the school leadership. I was frankly put off by the comment of the school head person, Rabbi Sinoff who was unwilling to demand equal rights on so small an issue as moving up the game by five hours. Looks like the team that the players beat was their school leadership.

Healthcare on Edge

Justice Scalia’s Comments During Healthcare Case Rile Democrats

March 30th 2012

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
Antonin Scalia

Democrats are fuming over Justice Antonin Scalia’s conduct during this week’s Supreme Court deliberations on President Obama’s healthcare law. 

Scalia appeared hostile to the law while several of the high court’s liberal justices seemed to cheerlead for its defense. But it was Scalia’s attitude that rubbed some Democrats the wrong way.

Scalia mocked the so-called “Cornhusker Kickback” without seeming to know that provision was stripped out of the law two years ago. The justice also joked the task of having to review the complex bill violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. “You really want us to go through these 2,700 pages?” he quipped. “Is this not totally unrealistic? That we are going to go through this enormous bill item by item and decide each one.”

The comments did not sit well with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a member of the Gang of 14, which in 2005 established guidelines for considering judicial nominees. “I am concerned that Justice Scalia’s comments call into question his impartiality and instead suggest judicial activism,” Nelson said. Nelson was taken aback by Scalia’s suggestion that reading the law was too much to expect of justices ruling on its constitutionality. Read more ..

America on Edge

Undertanding the 1 Percent

March 30th 2012


I have often asked myself, and heard it asked by others, why so many wealthy people support liberal causes (this is the flip-side of the usual election-year frustration of the liberals with the working classes' clinging to their guns and religion). In this presidential election, as in 2008, the Democratic Party, who claim with less and less credibility to be the champions of the poor, have far more money to spend than the Republican Party, who are said to be the party of the greedy upper classes; how could this be?

The simple answer is this: wealthy liberals blatantly use social liberalism and big government regulation to protect their relative position in society. Big government regulation and taxation thwarts the economic mobility of those trying to move up, allowing the elites to remain elite, while still seeming pious for all their apparent efforts to help the little people.
Note that their idea of political action deals always with outcomes, never with principles: they see the federal government as a charitable organization, or a tool which they can use to reshape society-I'm not impugning motives; this is what they openly profess. Conservatives have an ideal government in mind, one that sticks to the principles of the Founders; liberals have an ideal society in mind, and they will tinker with the government until it creates one.
It's not hard to find examples: wealthy liberals fortifying their positions with their Robin Hood policies are in the news every day.  One we're all sick of hearing about is multibillionaire investor Warren Buffet, who supports raising capital gains and dividend taxes, despite having made his fortune this way. While I respect Warren Buffett, and do not begrudge him his wealth and success, he makes a highly disingenuous case for some very destructive policies. Not only has Buffett made the moral argument that it is "fair" or, just, to impose an alternative minimum tax of 30 percent on millionaires, but he has misrepresented both the salary of his secretary (who has allowed herself to be enlisted for his and the president's political purposes), and about the total percentage tax that he actually pays. What could explain such bizarre behavior from an octogenarian billionaire? Why would a self-made man want to punish success and reward failure? Read more ..

The Budget Battle

Defense Industry Needs to Bear its Share

March 30th 2012

The Pentagon

As indicated by the recent rollout of the House Republican budget strategy, the gloves are off in the battle to define the country’s spending priorities in the run-up to the November elections. But neither party adequately addresses the largest item in the discretionary budget: the Pentagon. The Obama Administration’s approach to curbing runaway defense spending has been far too timid, while Republicans—from Paul Ryan to Mitt Romney—actually want to increase spending substantially beyond current levels.

A key player in this debate is the defense industry, which is pulling out all the stops to get the Pentagon a free pass from future budget cutting. The industry’s main trade group, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), has financed two studies raising the specter of a million jobs lost from planned Pentagon cuts.

But in fact, maintaining Pentagon spending at current high levels while pushing the burden of budget cuts on domestic programs would result in a net loss of jobs nationwide. That’s because arms spending produces substantially fewer jobs than virtually any other use of the same money, including a tax cut. Structured properly, Pentagon spending cuts could actually give a boost to the economy. Read more ..

Edge on Biology

Fast-Evolving Genes Provide Constantly Refined Venoms for Sea Snails

March 30th 2012

conus snail

When tropical marine cone snails sink their harpoon-like teeth into their prey, they inject paralyzing venoms made from a potent mix of more than 100 different neurotoxins.

Biologists have known for more than a decade that the genes which provide the recipes for cone snail toxins are among the fastest-evolving genes in the animal kingdom, enabling these predatory gastropods to constantly refine their venoms to more precisely target the neuromuscular systems of their prey. But scientists had been unable to explain the molecular mechanisms behind the impressive diversity and the speedy evolution of cone-snail toxins, which are known as conotoxins. Now, two University of Michigan evolutionary biologists report that their reconstruction of the evolutionary history of these genes has revealed rapid and continuous gene duplication over the last 11 million years that is coupled with the accelerated rates of conotoxin evolution. Read more ..

The Race for Alt Fuels

UCLA Researchers Use Electricity and Carbon Dioxide to Generate Butanol

March 30th 2012

Ralstonia Eutropha

Imagine being able to use electricity to power your car—your existing car, not an electric vehicle. Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have for the first time demonstrated a method for converting carbon dioxide into a liquid fuel—isobutanol—using electricity.

Today, electrical energy generated by various methods is still difficult to store efficiently. Chemical batteries, hydraulic pumping, and water splitting suffer from low energy-density storage or incompatibility with current transportation infrastructure.

In a study published March 30 in the journal Science, James Liao, UCLA’s Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering, and his team report a method for storing electrical energy as chemical energy in higher alcohols, which can be used as liquid transportation fuels.

“The current way to store electricity is with lithium ion batteries, in which the density is low, but when you store it in liquid fuel, the density could actually be very high,” Liao said. “In addition, we have the potential to use electricity as transportation fuel without needing to change current infrastructure.” Read more ..

Film Review

Friends With Kids: A Movie that is Ignorant about Romance

March 30th 2012

friends with kids

Friends With Kids. Director: Jennifer Westfeldt. Starring: Megan Fox, Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt. Length: 90 mins.

The thing I always think about movies like Friends With Kids — movies in which two people who are obviously made for each other resolutely maintain to themselves and the world that they are just good friends until the moment of epiphany when they discover they are totally hot for each other — is to wonder if such stupidity really does exist in nature or if it is entirely made up for ideological reasons. I lean toward the latter explanation. Feminists, I think, suffer from the terminal naiveté of always being ready to believe in the irrelevance of sex in human relations — even relations between lustful males and the nubile females. It’s just something they have to believe, like "the personal is the political" or "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." What they mean is that’s how it should be. They state it in the indicative rather than the imperative in order to pretend to themselves that what should be already is — even though it often isn’t and sometimes never could be.

But the long-delayed romance between best friends Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed the picture) and Jason (Adam Scott) is set in a movie with much larger ambitions. This is not just a romance but an essay in the thing to which romance was traditionally a prelude, namely family formation. If the two things had never been separated by the sexual revolution, a movie like this could never have been made. And for all its many faults — about which more in a moment — it does have the very large virtue of reintroducing the two to each other and making its intended audience of hip urban singles — and those who aspire to be or are nostalgic about having been among them — to think about what still seem to some of us the natural links between romantic love and families. Read more ..

Poisoned Places

EPA Steps in at Iowa Plant—after Years of Complaints

March 30th 2012

grain processing plant (iwatch)
GPC Plant, Muscaine, Iowa (credit: Chris Hamby/iWatch)

For years, people living in the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa, have complained about the ash and smoke blowing into their neighborhood from a corn processing plant. State regulators have brought enforcement cases against the company, but the town’s South End neighborhood remains under a haze.

On March 27, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, alleging years of violations of air pollution rules at the plant owned by Grain Processing Corp. The letter issued to the company, known as GPC, doesn’t impose penalties, but puts it on notice that the EPA is considering an enforcement case. GPC spokesman Janet Sichterman said company officials are reviewing the notice and “aren’t in a position to make a comment on it now.”

The action comes as the company is battling the Iowa attorney general, who has alleged separate violations of air and water pollution rules in a lawsuit. A group of citizens, calling themselves Clean Air Muscatine, has filed a petition to intervene in that case, saying the state’s previous actions against GPC have failed to protect people living near the facility. Read more ..

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