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Indonesia on Edge

Indian Ocean Quake and Tsunami Warning Test Preparedness

April 12th 2012

Sumatra village after tsunami
Sumatran village after 2004 earthquake and tsunami
(credit: PM2 Philip A. McDaniel, US Navy)

Experts say the earthquake and subsequent tsunami warning off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, was a successful test of disaster preparedness in the region. Tsunami warning sirens on Thai beaches blared and people quickly headed to high ground shortly after Wednesday’s 8.6 magnitude quake struck the Indian Ocean about 430-kilometers southwest of Banda Aceh.

Evacuation orders were also issued in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Burma through TV, radio, and mobile phone text messaging. In the end, the quake did not create a dangerous tsunami, there was little damage, and there were few casualties.

“From our perspective the fact that the warning went out five minutes, no more than five minutes after the earthquake erupted, went out in Indonesia and was followed shortly after that by other warnings within the system at 8:45, 8:46, 8:48, I think went extremely well,” said Wendy Watson Wright, a spokeswoman for the U.N. cultural agency’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission based in Paris. “I also believe that, in Indonesia at least, that the population showed that they have learned and that self-evacuation was taking place in Aceh.” Read more ..

Edge of Archaeology

Eggs of Enigmatic Dinosaur Discovered

April 12th 2012

dinosaur reconstruktion
Reconstruction of Bonapartenykus ultimus. Illustrator: Gabriel Lio

An Argentine-Swedish research team has reported a 70 million years old pocket of fossilized bones and unique eggs of an enigmatic birdlike dinosaur in Patagonia.

- What makes the discovery unique are the two eggs preserved near articulated bones of its hindlimb. This is the first time the eggs are found in a close proximity to skeletal remains of an alvarezsaurid dinosaur, says Dr. Martin Kundrát, dinosaur expert from the group of Professor Per Erik Ahlberg at Uppsala University. The first Argentine-Swedish Dinosaur expedition and collaboration; Fernando Novas, F. Agnolin and J. Powell from Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales and Martin Kundrát was performed in December 2010.

The dinosaur represents the latest survivor of its kind from Gondwana, the southern landmass in the Mesozoic Era. The creature belongs to one of the most mysterious groups of dinosaurs, the Alvarezsauridae, and it is one of the largest members, 2.6 m, of the family. It was first discovered by Dr. Powell, but has now been described and named Bonapartenykus ultimus in honor of Dr. José Bonaparte who 1991 discovered the first alvarezsaurid in Patagonia. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Online Tool Estimates Youth Exposure to Alcohol Ads on Radio

April 11th 2012

Teenager texting

A new online tool from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health determines the extent of exposure to radio alcohol advertisements among young people ages 12 to 20 in 75 different media markets. This free and user-friendly tool is the first service to provide parents, health departments and other key audiences with access to customizable information on youth exposure to radio alcohol advertising.

"Despite the proliferation of things like smart phones and tablets, radio continues to be a popular source of media among youth," said David Jernigan, PhD, CAMY director. "This tool gives users in dozens of cities across the U.S. the ability to determine the scope to which young people in their community are exposed to alcohol marketing." Read more ..

Indonesia on Edge

Indonesia Issues Tsunami Warning After 8.6 Quake

April 11th 2012

Sumatra quake Apr 2012
Indian Ocean quake near Sumatra (credit: NOAA)

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says an 8.6-magnitude earthquake has struck off the northwestern coast of Indonesia, raising tsunami alerts throughout the Indian Ocean region. The quake hit about 430 kilometers southwest of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital and largest city in the province of Aceh, at an estimated depth of 22 kilometers. An 8.2-magnitude aftershock was reported by the USGS about two hours after the initial earthquake.

In 2004, a giant 9.1-magnitude quake in roughly the same area off Indonesia’s Sumatra island triggered an Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people, about half of them in Aceh province. Wednesday’s quake was at approximately the same depth as the 2004 Indian Ocean quake. It reportedly rattled buildings as far away as Singapore, Thailand, and India.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami watch for 28 countries and territories bordering the Indian Ocean. It warned that earthquakes this size “have the potential to generate a widespread destructive tsunami.” But it also said it had not confirmed that a tsunami has been generated. Read more ..

Earth on Edge

International Scientific Community Issues First “State-Of-The-Planet Declaration”

April 10th 2012

Arid Desert

Scientists issued the first "State of the Planet" declaration at a major gathering of experts on global environmental and social issues in advance of the major UN Summit Rio+20 in June.

The declaration opens: "Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk." It states that consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, where many planetary-scale processes are dominated by human activities. It concludes society must not delay taking urgent and large-scale action.

"This is a declaration to our globally interconnected society," said Dr Lidia Brito, director of science policy, natural sciences, UNESCO, and conference co-chair.

"Time is the natural resource in shortest supply. We need to change course in some fundamental way this decade," she added. Over 3,000 experts in climate change, environmental geo-engineering, international governance, the future of the oceans and biodiversity, global trade, development, poverty alleviation, food security and more discussed the intricate connections between all the different systems and cycles governing our ocean, air, land and the human and animal life dependent on those environments.

Dr Mark Stafford Smith, Planet Under Pressure conference co-chair, said, "In the last decade we have become a highly interconnected society. We are beginning to realise this new state of humanity can be harnessed for rapid innovation." "But we need to provide more open access to knowledge, we need to move away from GDP as the only measure of progress, and we need a new way of working internationally that is fit for the 21st century," he added. "This conference has provided new ideas and practical solutions for the way forward." Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Cancer Patients Prefer Risky Treatments With Larger Rewards To 'Safe Bets'

April 10th 2012

blood test

A new analysis provides a closer look at how much cancer patients value hope — with important implications for how insurers value treatment, particularly in end-of-life care. The analysis led by Darius Lakdawalla, director of research at the Schaeffer Center at USC and associate professor in the USC Price School of Public Policy, surveyed 150 cancer patients currently undergoing treatment, and is part of a special issue on cancer spending from the journal Health Affairs.

Lakdawalla and his co-authors found the overwhelming majority of cancer patients prefer riskier treatments that offer the possibility of longer survival over safer treatments: 77 percent of cancer patients said they would rather take a "hopeful gamble" — treatments that offer a 50/50 chance of either adding three years or no additional survival — to "safe bet" treatments that would keep them alive for 18 months, but no longer.

"Consumers tend to dislike risk, and researchers and policy makers have generally assumed that patients care about the average gain in survival," Lakdawalla said. "But patients facing a fatal disease with relatively short remaining life expectancy may have less to lose and be more willing to swing for the fences. This analysis points to the larger ideal — that value should be defined from the viewpoint of the patient." Read more ..

Israel on Edge

Agitators Attempt Fly-in to Israel

April 10th 2012

Israel Airport

Israeli security forces are gearing up for yet another pro-Palestinian protest, expecting hundreds of anti-Jewish activists to fly into Ben-Gurion airport on Sunday, Haaretz reports. The effort, part of the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign, is the follow up to last summer’s failed attempt to flood the Jewish state with international pro-Palestine groups, in which over 300 activists arrived in Israel, more than 100 of which were detained. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch commented on the situation: “Israel will prevent this provocation, as every country prohibits hostile elements from entering their borders. “The provocateurs will be dealt with firmly and quickly, there will be no chases in the halls of the airport,” he added. “Israel police and relevant organizations are prepared to preserve the normal airport routine while preventing any extreme provocations.”

Israel is working with governments around the world who intend on preventing black-listed activists from boarding flights in their home countries. Read more ..

Myanmar on Edge

In Burma, Cease-fire, Talks with Karens, but Kachin Conflict Still Hot

April 9th 2012

Myanmar girl and Aung son

The leaders of Burma’s longest-running insurgent movement met Sunday with democracy leader and newly elected parliament member Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon. The Karen National Union delegation, led by General Secretary Zipporah Sein, said in a statement that they discussed in detail a cease-fire that was negotiated last week with the government.

Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters that a cease-fire is just the first step on the road to peace. “As we all know, a cease-fire is just the first step,” she said. “We can’t have peace without cease-fire. So we are on the first step now, we all need to wait for this step to be concrete, after that we will go for the next step.”

Zipporah Sein said the two sides also discussed the needs of other ethnic groups. “Today we, the Karen National Union, discussed our plan for progressing the development of peace in the country,” she said. “We discussed what we need, how we can achieve a real cease-fire process, not just for the Karen but for the other ethnic groups.” Read more ..

The Obama Edge

White House Has Diverted $500M To IRS To Implement Healthcare Law

April 9th 2012

medicine and money

The Obama administration is quietly diverting roughly $500 million to the IRS to help implement the president’s healthcare law. The money is only part of the IRS’s total implementation spending, and it is being provided outside the normal appropriations process. The tax agency is responsible for several key provisions of the new law, including the unpopular individual mandate. Republican lawmakers have tried to cut off funding to implement the healthcare law, at least until after the Supreme Court decides whether to strike it down. That ruling is expected by June, and oral arguments last week indicated the justices might well overturn at least the individual mandate, if not the whole law.

“While President Obama and his Senate allies continue to spend more tax dollars implementing an unpopular and unworkable law that may very well be struck down as unconstitutional in a matter of months, I’ll continue to stand with the American people who want to repeal this law and replace it with something that will actually address the cost of healthcare,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee for healthcare and is in a closely contested Senate race this year. The Obama administration has plowed ahead despite the legal and political challenges.

It has moved aggressively to get important policies in place. And, according to a review of budget documents and figures provided by congressional staff, the administration is also burning through implementation funding provided in the healthcare law. The law contains dozens of targeted appropriations to implement specific provisions. It also gave the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) a $1 billion implementation fund, to use as it sees fit. Republicans have called it a “slush fund.”

HHS plans to drain the entire fund by September — before the presidential election, and more than a year before most of the healthcare law takes effect. Roughly half of that money will ultimately go to the IRS. HHS has transferred almost $200 million to the IRS over the past two years and plans to transfer more than $300 million this year, according to figures provided by a congressional aide. Read more ..

Campus Hate

College Newspaper Prompts Investigation for Fake Hitler Story

April 9th 2012

Click to select Image

While Governor Chris Christie was touring the Holy Land, a New Jersey state university published a satire on Hitler in a school newspaper, Fox News reports.

The Daily Medium, a student-funded, satirical publication from Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus not only published the piece entitled, “What About the Good Things Hitler Did?” but the paper falsely attributed the article to a Jewish student – using his name and his picture.

“To say anything praiseworthy of someone like Hitler, and to have people actually believe it was coming from me even in a satirical manner is just really painful for me and my family," said Aaron Marcus, the victimized student.

Marcus, whose relatives survived the Holocaust, has spoken publicly about the increasing level on anti-Semitism on campus.

The University’s President Richard McCormick issued a strongly worded statement in which he remarked, "federal courts extend broad protection to student media. However, a recent article in the Medium, purporting to be written by student Aaron Marcus and using Mr. Marcus's photograph, is extremely offensive and repugnant. No individual student should be subject to such a vicious, provocative, and hurtful piece, regardless of whether First Amendment protections apply to such expression." Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Google Unveils Project Glass, Augmented Reality Specs

April 8th 2012

Google Glasses

Google Goggles may have only been a figurative name for the firm’s image recognition app, but the unveiling of Project Glass, could make real Google glasses a reality someday.

The search engine giant announced Project Glass on its social network, Google Plus, showing off pictures and even a concept video of the augmented reality eye-wear that could eventually create a digital overlay on top of people’s visual reality.

The concept is for the glasses to give wearers a smart-phone like experience without a smartphone.

The concept pictures posted by the team show glasses frames with a small display screen fitted in front of one eye, which would be able to overlay information and be activated by voice control. Read more ..

Edge of Healthcare

Archbishop Dolan of New York Says Catholic Church in 'Tough Spot' Over Health Reform

April 8th 2012

Archbishop Timothy Dolan Face the Nation

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said on April 8 the Obama administration’s policy on contraception was “a dramatic radical intrusion of government bureaucracy in the internal life” of the Catholic Church and vowed to continue to fight the ruling.

In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Dolan reiterated that he remained unsatisfied with the administration’s policy requiring that employees of religious organizations, including Catholic groups, have access to contraception. Dolan had led the Church’s effort against the regulation, which resulted in what the administration thought was an accommodation to concerns that it was unduly burdening religious groups opposed to birth control. “We still find ourselves in a tough spot,” he said. “We didn’t ask for the fight, but we’re not going to back away from it,” Dolan added. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Case of Obama-Bashing Marine Renews First Amendment Debate

April 8th 2012

The case of a Marine who is facing discharge for posting disparaging comments about President Obama on Facebook has renewed a debate about free speech rights for members of the military. A review board on Thursday recommended that Marine Sgt. Gary Stein be discharged for comments on his “Armed Forces Tea Party” site, where he called Obama “the domestic enemy,” superimposed his face on a “Jackass” movie poster and said he would not follow some orders from Obama.

Service members are banned from engaging in political speech or activities while representing the military. Stein and his lawyers argue he was acting as a private citizen when posting on the Facebook page, and say the Marine Corps are violating his First Amendment rights by prosecuting him for his comments. Stein has an ally on Capitol Hill in Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a Marine reservist who sent a letter to the Marines Tuesday urging them to drop the case against Stein.

Hunter received a response Friday from Marines Maj. Gen. Vaughan Ary, staff judge advocate to Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos, according to Hunter’s spokesman. Ary wrote that his staff would contact the Defense Department’s Office of Legal Policy to recommend an update of the Pentagon directive on service members’ political activity. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Santorum Fights Speculation his Race is Over

April 7th 2012

Rick Santorum

Speculation that Rick Santorum could drop out of the presidential race soon is growing, and confusion among some campaign staffers has done little to dampen that view. Santorum met Thursday with top conservatives to discuss what the campaign could do to right its course, a meeting his top aides insisted was about how to find a path to victory and not whether he should drop out.

The campaign also announced he would take a four-day hiatus for the Easter weekend, the first time he’s taken a day off the campaign trail since a three-day break on Christmas. Santorum is a devout Catholic, but some saw the extended break as a sign that he may be reassessing his path forward. Mitt Romney swept primaries in Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday and passed the halfway mark in the race to the 1,144 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination, although the Santorum campaign disputes the method most people are using to track the delegate count. Speaking after Tuesday's contests, Santorum said he was in the race for the long haul and that the Republican contests were only half over. Pennsylvania and half the country have yet to be heard," he said. "We're here to make sure their voices will be heard in the next few months." Read more ..

The Edge of Justice

Clarence Thomas Scolds Colleagues For Talking Too Much At Oral Arguments

April 6th 2012

Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas defended his silence during the oral arguments last week on President Obama's healthcare law and scolded his colleagues for talking too much.

“I don’t see where that advances anything,” Thomas said of peppering attorneys with questions, according to The Associated Press. “Maybe it’s the Southerner in me. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, I don’t know. I think that when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen.”

Thomas has gained notoriety for his silence from the bench — the Supreme Court justice has not asked a question since 2006. No other Supreme Court justice has made it through a single year without asking a question.

Thomas defended his decision to stay mum during a 90-minute panel on Thursday evening that was moderated by the dean of the University of Kentucky's law school.

“I don’t need to hold your hand, help you cross the street to argue a case. I don’t need to badger you," Thomas said.

The George H.W. Bush-appointee said the frequent questions from his colleagues during the healthcare oral arguments weren't unusual. But Thomas said the habit of frequent interruptions is unproductive.

"We have a lifetime to go back in chambers and to argue with each other,” he said. “They have 30, 40 minutes per side for cases that are important to them and to the country. They should argue. That’s a part of the process. Read more ..

Sudan on Edge

Tensions Flare Between North, South Sudan

April 5th 2012

Tribal Violence in Sudan

Tensions between Sudan and the months-old South Sudan are on the rise. For the last week, the northern Sudanese government in Khartoum has bombed various southern areas, including oil fields, military positions, and villages along the countries' disputed border. Khartoum has also accused its southern neighbor of an incursion into the north -- a claim the south flatly rejected.

Delegations from both countries are currently in Ethiopia to discuss security issues. Khartoum, however, failed to send the chief of its security delegation, stalling talks. In addition, a meeting scheduled for April 3 between the two presidents -- Salva Kiir in the south and Omar al-Bashir in the north -- was called off by the latter due to border fighting. During the meeting, the countries were expected to finalize agreements on citizenship and border demarcation. South Sudan has said that the invitation to negotiate still stands.

Also on the negotiating agenda for the presidents is the question of how the Sudans will share oil revenue. South Sudan's secession removed 75% of the north's oil fields, but the oil-rich south is landlocked and its pipelines run through the north. Earlier this year, the south's government in Juba shut down oil production after Khartoum seized oil as compensation for what it says are unpaid transit fees. Read more ..

Myanmar on Edge

US Eases Some Burma Sanctions Following Elections

April 5th 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi

The United States is easing some sanctions against Burma, following Sunday’s by-elections in which pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party won 40 of the 45 seats available.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says some senior Burmese officials and parliamentarians will now be allowed to visit the United States and that Washington will lift its ban on the export to Burma of U.S. financial services and investment to help accelerate modernization and reform. She says the Obama administration is preparing to nominate an ambassador to Rangoon along with a full U.S. Agency for International Development mission and a normal country program for the United Nations Development Program.

Clinton says Burma’s reform process has a long way to go and that the future is neither clear nor certain. But, she says, the United States is committed to meeting action with action. “The results of the April 1 parliamentary by-elections represents a dramatic demonstration of popular will that brings a new generation of reformers into government. This is an important step in the country’s transformation,” she said.

In recent months, Clinton says, that transformation has included an unprecedented release of political prisoners, new legislation broadening the rights of political and civic association, and moves toward greater dialogue between the government and ethnic minority groups. “We will continue to seek improvements in human rights, including the unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners and the lifting of conditions on all those who have been released. We will continue our support for the development of a vibrant civil society, which we think will greatly add to the reform of the economy and society,” she said. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Santorum Might Drop Out Rather Than Lose Pennsylvania Primary

April 4th 2012

Click to select Image

The possibility of a loss in his home state of Pennsylvania might force Rick Santorum to drop out of the Republican primary sooner than he’d planned, say GOP strategists.

Santorum is notoriously strong-willed, and those close to him say that party elders will not be able to convince him to exit the race if he thinks he has a shot at the Republican nomination.

But one of Santorum’s close friends hinted that while the former Pennsylvania senator remains confident about winning his home state and using that to build May momentum, if that confidence falters, he might exit the race. Pennsylvania state Sen. Jake Corman (R), a longtime friend of Santorum and his family, said if it appeared Santorum wasn’t going to win the state, the former senator could drop his campaign.

“He’s a realist; he doesn’t have his head in the clouds,” Corman said. “As long as he sees a pathway to the nomination he’s going to stay in it, but he won’t stay in it to prove a point. If he gets to the point where he doesn’t think he’ll be the nominee, he’ll get out.” Santorum is running second in the delegate count to rival Mitt Romney, and the party establishment is increasing pressure on the former senator to exit the race and clear a path for the former Massachusetts governor. And while he led Romney by six points in a Quinnipiac poll of Pennsylvania voters out Tuesday, that was before Romney’s win in Wisconsin on Tuesday night. It’s also a decline for the former senator, who led Romney by double digits earlier this month. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Obama ‘Confident’ Supreme Court Will Uphold His Healthcare Reform Law

April 3rd 2012

Obama in front of AMA

President Obama on Monday said he is confident the Supreme Court will uphold his healthcare reform law and warned a ruling against it would be an “unprecedented” act of judicial activism. Speaking at a Rose Garden press conference alongside Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Obama weighed in for the first time on last week’s high court hearings, which left many Democrats fearful that the court is poised to strike down his signature domestic achievement. 

“I’m confident the Supreme Court will uphold the law,” Obama said. “The reason is, because in accordance with precedent out there, it’s constitutional. “That’s not just my opinion, by the way,” Obama continued. “That’s the opinion of legal experts across the ideological spectrum, including two very conservative appellate court justices.” The president said it would be “unprecedented” for the court to strike down the individual mandate to have insurance because the law was passed by “a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”

Obama warned the high court against “a lack of judicial restraint,” in which “an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.” Read more ..

The Edge of Justice

Sholom Rubashkin Legal Team Files for Supreme Court Review

April 2nd 2012

Sholom Rubashkin
Sholom Rubashkin

Lawyers for Sholom Rubashkin today filed a petition for writ of certiorari for the United States Supreme Court. Rubashkin, who is serving a 27-year sentence for bank fraud, is seeking relief from the Supreme Court because the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to consider evidence that Rubashkin first discovered after the trial that made the trial fundamentally unfair. The newly discovered evidence showed that the trial judge had participated for seven months before the immigration raid on Rubashkin’s meat-packing plant in planning for the raid. She and the prosecutors failed to disclose these meetings to Rubashkin’s trial lawyers.  Rubashkin is also seeking relief from the Supreme Court because the Eighth Circuit upheld his extraordinary 27-year sentence as “reasonable” even though the trial court did not consider whether that sentence would result in unwarranted disparities among similarly situated defendants, as required by federal sentencing law. Rubashkin is represented by Paul Clement of Bancroft PLLC and Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin, LLP

“The Court of Appeals’ decision raised two issues of extraordinary importance to criminal defendants and to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system as a whole,” said Paul Clement. “Sholom Rubashkin was given an unusually harsh sentence for his actions. In my entire career, I cannot recall a similar instance of harsh punishment for a non-violent, first-time offender with a long record of charitable service to his community.” Read more ..

North Korea's Nukes

New Images Show North Korea Readying for Rocket Launch

April 2nd 2012

North Korean Rocket Launch Site 4-2-12
North Korean Launch Site

New satellite images of a North Korean rocket site show evidence of increased preparation for a space launch that Washington sees as cover for a long-range missile test. The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said Sunday that satellite photos taken last Wednesday show a mobile radar trailer, not previously present at the new Tongchang-ri site, and rows of what appear to be empty fuel and oxidizer tanks. The Institute said the photos also show what appears to be activity near the launcher assembly building, where news reports indicate the stages of the Unha-3 rocket are located. Pyongyang says the launch will put a functional satellite into orbit as part of the celebration of the 100th birthday of the late leader Kim Il Sung, the founder of the communist state and Kim Jong Un's grandfather.

The United States, Russia, South Korea and Japan all have condemned the planned launch.  Even Pyongyang's long-time ally, China, has expressed rare disapproval, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply concerned." The Aspen Institute "think tank" in Berlin said Sunday that North Korean and American delegations had held informal talks in Germany.  Charles King Mallory, executive director of the Institute, confirmed the meeting but did not comment in detail on the contents of the so-called "track two" talks or who participated in them. Read more ..

Myanmar on Edge

Burma Holds Parliamentary Election

April 1st 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi (credit: Htoo Tay Zar)

Voters in Burma cast ballots Sunday in parliamentary elections seen as a crucial test of the country’s democratic reform progress. Candidates vied for 45 seats in the 664-seat parliament in the first by-elections since the new, nominally civilian government took office in March of last year. For the first time, the government has invited a small number of foreign observers and journalists to witness the elections.

Main opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the National League for Democracy (NLD), ran for the first time since 1990, when her party won a landslide victory in general elections. At that time, military leaders refused to relinquish power and kept her in some form of detention for most of the next 20 years.

The NLD alleged Sunday that some ballot papers had been covered in wax, which could be rubbed off later to change the votes. The opposition also complained of voter intimidation.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who is widely expected to win, has said she does not expect Burma’s election to be fair, but that it is still significant. She was released from house arrest shortly after the November 2010 elections—won by military-backed candidates and marred by widespread complaints of cheating—and got actively engaged in the political process. The NLD boycotted that election after she was not permitted to run. Read more ..

Syria on Edge

Annan Calls for Ceasefire in Syria; Opposition Backers Meet in Istanbul

April 1st 2012

Annan; al-Assad

U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan says the Syrian government must immediately implement a cease-fire and stop its attacks on opposition groups, as fresh clashes broke out across the country on Friday. Annan's spokesperson, Ahmad Fawzi, told reporters in Geneva that the “deadline is now” for President Bashar al-Assad to implement the six-point peace plan drawn up by the former U.N. chief. He did not specify what action, if any, would be taken if al-Assad did not comply.

Arab leaders at a Baghdad summit on Thursday endorsed the Syria peace plan and called for its immediate implementation. Al-Assad agreed to the peace plan on last week, but government forces have not shown restraint. Chatham House Middle East analyst Nadim Shehadi says al-Assad may have agreed to the peace plan as a stalling tactic. “It's something that the regime can use to buy time and the regime can always blame the violence on others and the non-implementation on others and can always buy time by slowly implementing or seeming to implement but not really implementing.”

Rights groups say at least 11 people were killed on Friday in clashes between demonstrators and security forces. The groups say the violence erupted as anti-government protests took place in several cities. Read more ..

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 ..

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 ..

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 ..

The Battle for Syria

Arab League Meets in Baghdad as Scores Die in Syria

March 29th 2012

Arab League meeting

Arab leaders and envoys discussed a response to the Syrian crisis at a Baghdad summit - the first to be held by the Arab League in the Iraqi capital since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. A rocket exploded near the fortified Green Zone, in which the behemoth U.S. Embassy is located and where the summit was being held, but caused no casualties.

Arab League members called on the Syrian government and opposition to implement the terms of a peace plan drafted by international envoy Kofi Annan, a former head of the United Nations. The plan urges both sides to start a cease-fire and a dialogue, but does not call for dictator Bashr al-Assad to step down as part of a political transition.

Arab leaders previously had urged the Syrian president to hand power to a deputy to manage the transition, but now they appear to have backed away from that demand. Read more ..

Edge on Russia

What was the Holocaust? Wallpaper Paste, Say Blonde Russian Twins

March 29th 2012

Russian game show

A beautiful set of twins from a village in Russia's Vladimir Oblast has become a national sensation for all the wrong reasons. Appearing recently on a television game show late last year, Ksenia and Yevgenia Karatygina had the chance to win 500 rubles ($17) by answering the question: "What was the Holocaust?"

After some hesitation, Yevgenia answered, "We think that the Holocaust is wallpaper paste," she said. A video of the exchange has since gone viral on YouTube, attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers.

The blonde twins, who study at Moscow's Kosygin Technical University, explained that history and geography were never that interesting to them in school. Yevgenia Kartygina said she was more interested in poetry.

"To be honest, such subjects in school were pretty dull," Yevgenia said. "Not because the teacher was bad -- he knew what he was talking about. But I didn't want to devote my life to that -- I wasn't planning to study at some institute connected with history. So during those lessons, I was doing my own thing. I was writing poems. Now we are writing music -- we are into music." As a result, however, neither sister could say what Auschwitz was nor had any idea that more than 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Read more ..

Healthcare on Edge

Justices Seem Split over Striking Down Healthcare

March 28th 2012

nurse w/stethoscope

The nine Supreme Court justices were divided Wednesday over whether to strike down all of President Obama’s healthcare law if they find that its individual mandate is unconstitutional. The court’s conservative members, including possible swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, leaned toward invalidating the whole law, while the liberal justices said the court should leave it to Congress to determine how much of the law depends on the mandate.

Chief Justice John Roberts, another possible swing vote, pressed the attorneys on both sides of the issue about equally. 

Arguments about severability come a day after the court engaged in two hours of intense debate over whether the insurance mandate violates the Constitution. Five justices on Tuesday appeared skeptical that the mandate meets constitutional muster, meaning the debate over whether the rest of the law must also be tossed could come into play.

The Hill's Supreme Court coverage:
♦ AUDIO, TRANSCRIPT: Day 3 hearings on 'severability'
♦ AUDIO, TRANSCRIPT: Day 3 hearings on Medicaid
♦ Scarborough: Court loss would be 'big win' politically for Dems
♦ White House has no contingency plans if health law is tossed
♦ Scalia: 'Cornhusker Kickback' was bribery
♦ Lawmakers back to talking points as court leaves them in dark
♦ Pelosi: Dems ready to accept Supreme Court verdict

Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler said the court would have to strike two other provisions along with the mandate: the requirement that insurers cover anyone who applies and the ban on charging higher prices to customers with pre-existing conditions.

The Battle for Syria

Syria Accepts Annan Peace Plan

March 27th 2012

Annan; al-Assad

International peace envoy Kofi Annan says Syria has accepted his plan to end violence in the country.

A spokesman for Mr. Annan said Tuesday Syria’s response came in a letter to the U.N.-Arab League envoy.

Mr. Annan met with Chinese officials Tuesday in Beijing, including Premier Wen Jiabao, as China pledged to support his mediation efforts.

The plan calls on Syrian government forces and rebels to agree on a cease-fire and engage in dialogue. The blueprint, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, does not include a Western and Arab demand for President Bashar al-Assad to resign—a requirement that Russia and China oppose.

U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said Tuesday there is a basic structure in place to discuss with Russia and China what they can do to support Mr. Annan.

“I think we felt like we made some progress with regard to Syria in that, despite the differences that we’ve had—and they continue with regard to Syria—there is the framework for cooperation through the Kofi Annan initiative which, again, at the very least, provides a framework for stopping the violence, initiating greater humanitarian access to the people of Syria, and initiating a transition in that country. Again, we believe very strongly that that transition has to involve Assad leaving power.” Read more ..

The World on Edge

World Leaders Call For More Nuclear Security Cooperation

March 27th 2012

Lee and Obama at Nuke Summit
Presidents Lee Myung-Bak of S. Korean, Barack Obama of the U.S.

World leaders gathered for a nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea, have pledged tough action to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism but have agreed no new concrete measures.

A statement at the close of the gathering on March 27 said it was the “fundamental responsibility” of all states to safeguard nuclear materials and keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

It added that “nuclear terrorism continues to be one of the most challenging threats to international security” and said countering that threat requires “strong national measures.” However, the statement provided no specific details on how governments intend to combat the threat.

U.S. President Barack Obama said that threats remain due to “bad actors” actively seeking unsecured nuclear materials. “Of course, what is also undeniable is that the threat remains. There are still too many bad actors in search of these dangerous materials and these dangerous materials are still vulnerable in too many places,” Obama told the summit. Read more ..

America and Israel

Jerusalem Passport Case Must Be Heard--Supreme Court

March 26th 2012


The American parents of a boy born in Jerusalem, Israel can litigate their insistence that their son's US passport list Israel as his birthplace. So says a US Supreme Court ruling just issued. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, successive American governments have declined to recognize any country as having sovereignty over Jerusalem, which is home to the holiest sites in Judaism and Christianity and  the third holiest site in Islam. The State Department, applying long-standing US policy, insisted that nine-year-old Menachem Zivotofsky's birth certificate, and thus his passport, show Jerusalem—with no country specified—as the place of birth. Parents Naomi and Ari Zivotofsky, filed a lawsuit in 2003 challenging this in federal court in Washington, DC, basing their argument on a 2002 American law, passed just before Menachem was born.

Constitutional lawyers Nathan Lewin and Alyza Lewin fought for the right to argue the case. Nathan Lewin ultimately prevailed at the high court.

A feature of the contentious lawsuit was the usuaal spectacle of website scrubbing by the the State Department under instructions from the Obama Administration and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. In the run-up to the court's ruling, pictures with captions reading "Jerusalem, Israel" were changed to delete the word "Israel." One of them was of a Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial ceremony. Moreover, others citizens who had received passports stamped "Israel" were told to turn them in to correct a bureaucratic error.

Fundamental dynamics of Congressional intent and presidential policy are at stake. In the 35-page ruling, the Supreme Court declared, "They [the petitioners] argue that these powers include the power to specify the content of a passport (or consular birth report). And when such a specification takes the form of statutory law, they say, the Constitution requires the President (through the Secretary of State) to execute that statute." Read more ..

Edge of Terrorism

Egyptians Discover Iranian Plot to Terrorize Israeli Ships Crossing the Suez

March 26th 2012

Cargo Ships in Suez Canal
Cargo ship passing through the Suez Canal, Credit: Daniel Csörföly

An Egyptian Al-Ahram weekly newspaper claimed that Iran plotted to carry out a terror attack on an Israeli ship as it passed through Egypt’s Suez Canal. The report suggested that Iran hired two Egyptians Suleiman Razek Abdul-Razek and Salameh Ahmed Salameh, offering them 50 million Egyptian pounds ($8.3 million US). Egyptian security forces discovered the plot and arrested the two men on Saturday.

The plot was discovered before enacted, as the two would-be terrorist attempted to hire a third party, believed to be a man named Mohamed Zakri, to carry out the bombing. but are now denying any involvement in the matter whatsoever. In a similar manner to the way Iran had recruited Manssor Arbabsiar to carry out terrorist plots against United States, this report would indicate that the Iranian efforts to spread its campaign of fear is still very much in effect. Read more ..

Edge of Healthcare

Obama's Signature Legislative Achievement Hangs in the Balance

March 26th 2012

US Supreme Court

President Obama’s signature domestic achievement — and, with it, a big part of his political legacy — is now in the hands of the Supreme Court. The nine justices on March 26 will begin hearing three consecutive days of oral arguments about whether the healthcare law is unconstitutional. The landmark legal challenge threatens to overturn an historic legislative victory, raising the stakes once again in a debate that will help define Obama’s presidency.

The six-hour oral argument is the longest the court has heard in 45 years. And this is the first time in more than 75 years that the court is in a position to strike down a sitting president’s agenda while he runs for reelection. “It’s just perfect, in terms of this being a first-term president’s signature legislation, and that it could be invalidated during a presidential election year,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

That last instance came in 1935 when, in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, the court considered the constitutionality of his National Recovery Act and struck it down.

Legal experts agree the healthcare case is already in the same league as the court’s most famous decisions, including rulings on abortion and civil rights. Some argue it’s more important than Bush v. Gore, the case that decided the 2000 presidential election, because of its sweeping implications for the role of government. “It has the potential to fundamentally alter our concept of limited government,” said Robert Alt, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Read more ..

Senegal on Edge

Sall Defeats Wade in Senegal’s Presidential Runoff

March 26th 2012

Macky Sall (president-elect Senegal 2012)
Macky Sall, president-elect of Senegal

Opposition candidate Macky Sall says a new era can begin in Senegal after his victory in Sunday’s runoff presidential election.

Unofficial results showed voters backed Mr. Sall over President Abdoulaye Wade, who was running for a controversial third term.

Mr. Sall told reporters the election is a victory for all of Senegal.

“I also salute those who chose the other candidate. I will be the president of all Senegalese people.” He said he will represent all of the Senegalese people. His supporters rallied in the capital, Dakar, to celebrate his victory. Mr. Wade said in a statement he called Mr. Sall to congratulate him. He also thanked his own supporters and urged them to look toward upcoming parliamentary elections. Official provisional results are still days away, but observers praised the vote. Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo led the African Union’s observer mission and stated that the election was transparent and peaceful. “The election this time because we had less number of contestants to deal with was smoother, was more orderly.” Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Biomarkers for Autism Discovered

March 25th 2012


An important step towards developing a rapid, inexpensive diagnostic method for autism has been take by Uppsala University, among other universities. Through advanced mass spectrometry the researchers managed to capture promising biomarkers from a tiny blood sample. The study has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature Translational Psychiatry.

There are no acknowledged biomarkers for autism today. Researchers at Berzelii Centre and the Science for Life Laboratory in Uppsala who, in collaboration with colleagues at Linnaeus University in Sweden and the Faculty of Medicine in Tehran, Iran, have discovered some promising biomarkers.

Many diseases are caused by protein alterations inside and outside the body’s cells. By studying protein patterns in tissue and body fluids, these alterations can be mapped to provide important information about underlying causes of disease. Sometimes protein patterns can also be used as biomarkers to enable diagnosis or as a prognosticating tool to monitor the development of a disease. In the current study disruptions of the nervous system were in focus when the scientists studied protein patterns in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Army Pounds Homs; US, Allies Consider “Non-Lethal” Aid for Rebels

March 25th 2012

Bombing Hits Syria March 18 2012

Activists say Syrian forces resumed heavy shelling of the already battered city of Homs on March 24, as international envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Russia to discuss efforts to mediate an end to the crisis in Syria.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least three people were killed in the Khaldiyeh district of Homs and nearby town of Qusair following shelling that began early Saturday. Homs has seen some of the heaviest fighting in Syria’s year-long uprising.

Clashes were also reported in Idlib province bordering Turkey, where the rights group says at least one person was killed.

Saturday’s violence came as joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Moscow in an effort to convince Russia to support international calls for a cease-fire and open political dialogue in Syria. Russia and China have repeatedly blocked Security Council action against Syria—saying such action interferes in its internal affairs—since the deadly crackdowns on protests erupted. However, the two nations did support a Security Council resolution in recent days endorsing Annan’s six-point plan for peace, and Russia has also called on the Syrians to give humanitarian aid workers a chance to help beleaguered civilians. Read more ..

America on Edge

Rep. Chu Fights For Tough Hazing Policies After Nephew’s Death

March 23rd 2012


For Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), military hazing hits too close to home. Chu’s nephew, Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, committed suicide in Afghanistan last year after he was beaten and hazed while serving there. Now Chu has become an outspoken critic of the military's hazing policies, accusing the services of brushing off the issue.

Last month she and other Democrats called for a congressional hearing on military hazing, which the Armed Services Committee held on Thursday. Chu and two other Democrats sat in on the hearing to question military officials.

“It’s a difficult matter to talk about in such a public setting, but I feel like I have to,” Chu said.

Chu shared the details of her nephew’s hazing with the military officials at the hearing, saying Lew, 21, was beaten and sand was poured on his face after he fell asleep while on guard. “Finally, 22 minutes after they stopped, at 3:43 a.m., Harry climbed into a foxhole and killed himself with his own gun,” Chu said. “And what punishment was given? Virtually nothing,” she said. “In Harry's case three Marines were charged, one Marine was given just one month in confinement, two were found not guilty by a jury of their peers, fellow Marines.” Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

EU Imposes New Sanctions on Syria's Assad Family

March 23rd 2012


The European Union has decided to impose new sanctions on the inner circle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as fresh clashes broke out across the country.

European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels say they will impose a travel ban and asset freeze against several members of the president's administration and family, including his British-born wife, Asma al-Assad.

Mrs. Assad gained recent attention after emails obtained by Britain's Guardian newspaper allegedly revealed that she went on large shopping sprees while Syria descended into violence. It is not clear if the ban would be able to prevent her from traveling to Britain, where she is thought to still hold citizenship.

Before the meeting, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the sanctions will help add pressure on the Syrian government, which he said continues its "murdering" behavior.

"It is important that the European Union today adds to that pressure on the regime with sanctions that I hope will cover not only members of the regime, but people associated closely with the regime. It is important that we tighten the diplomatic and economic strangehold on them," said Hague. Read more ..

The Edge of Terror

Toulouse Killer Dead after Siege, Firefight

March 22nd 2012

french riot police toulouse mar 2012

French police stormed the apartment of Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah the moring of Thursday March 22, killing the self-described jihadist and ending a 32-hour siege.

The Times of Israel reports that three French police officers were wounded in the encounter, during which Merah came out with “guns blazing.”

Police used a camera to survey the apartment and when the camera entered the bathroom, the gunman came out, guns blazing, Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters.

A firefight ensued and Merah jumped out the first-floor window and was “found dead,” he said. Heavy gunfire was heard outside for several minutes after police entered the apartment. Some 300 bullets were exchanged in the firefight.

Merah, who confessed to killing three children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school in Toulouse Monday, reportedly said he wanted “to die weapons in hand,” according to Gueant earlier Thursday. Read more ..

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