The Toxic Edge
|David Heath||March 19th 2013|
Center for Public Integrity
Ten days before Christmas 1965, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. station chief Richard Jacobs walked a half-block on a dusty road lined with scraggly creosote shrubs to check out a neighbor’s toilet.
Jacobs carried with him a secret, something he referred to as the “chromate problem.”
Starting in 1952, the power company began mixing a toxic form of chromium with water to prevent rust at a new pipeline pumping station in Hinkley, a remote desert community united by a single school and a general store. PG&E dumped the chromium-laced water into a pond.
Lately there had been reports of problems with the neighbors’ wells. PG&E had just drawn greenish water from one well and discovered high levels of chromium. Now, retired farmer John Speth was complaining of greenish deposits in his toilet bowl.
Jacobs took a look in the bowl but assured Speth that PG&E had nothing to do with it. “When I left Mr. Speth,” Jacobs later wrote in longhand, “he was satisfied but still concerned about his water.” Speth died of stomach cancer in 1974.
It wasn’t until Dec. 7, 1987 — 22 years after that visit to Speth’s house — that PG&E finally told the local water board that it had contaminated the underground water. The company claimed it had discovered the problem just one week earlier. Read more ..
|Olli Heinonen and Simon Henderson ||March 18th 2013|
U.S. policy, supported by the international community, is to use diplomatic pressure along with economic and financial sanctions to convince Iran not to build nuclear weapons. The latest iteration of the policy came yesterday with President Obama's interview for Israeli television ahead of his visit next week: "We think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon but obviously we don't want to cut it too close…If we can resolve it diplomatically, that's a more lasting option. But if not, I continue to keep all options on the table."
The logic of the policy was outlined in more detail on March 12, when U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper told the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that "Iran's nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran." Read more ..
Catholic Church on Edge
|Annette Langer||March 17th 2013|
Read more ..
Speechlessness was followed by cheers of joy. With a simple "buonasera," the newly elected Pope Francis greeted the faithful in Rome and cracked a joke about coming from the "ends of the earth." It was a rhetorical slam dunk met with jubilation by the audience. There was a similar celebratory atmosphere in his homeland of Argentina. Though not everyone was cheering.
"I can't believe it. I'm so distressed and full of anger that I don't know what to do," wrote the sister of deceased priest and torture victim Orlando Yorio in an e-mail to the journalist Horacio Berbitsky. "Now he's achieved what he wanted."
"He," for Graciela Yorio, refers to a power-hungry man who betrayed her brother and the Hungarian Jesuit Franz Jalics to Argentina's mililtary dictatorshop. A man who did nothing to stop the two faithful from being locked up in prison for five months and tortured. "He" is Pope Francis, then still known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, provincial of the Argentine Jesuits.
Israel's Next Northern War
|David Schenker||March 15th 2013|
The Washington Institute
For the better part of 40 years, the Syrian border has been the quietest of Israel's frontiers. Notwithstanding Israel's 1973 capture and subsequent annexation of Syrian territory in the Golan and Bashar Assad's ongoing support for terrorist organizations targeting the Jewish state, the border has been tranquil since the signing of the 1974 armistice. Indeed, the boundary with Syria -- a state officially still at war with Israel -- has proven even more secure than Israel's lengthy borders with its nominal peace partners Egypt and Jordan.
But two years into the popular armed revolt against the Assad regime, this de facto peace along the Israeli-Syrian border seems to be in grave danger. Just consider the past few weeks: On March 2, three Syrian mortars landed outside Moshav Ramat Magshimim in the southern Golan Heights. Then on March 6, Syrian rebels kidnapped 21 U.N. peacekeepers patrolling the Golan Heights; they were held for a week prior to their release. On Monday, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Benny Gantz said that "the threat of the situation in Syria spiraling out if control is quite high." He added: "What we have here is a strategic detonator that could blow up at any moment." Read more ..
The Edge of Climate Change
|Garry Galluzzo||March 15th 2013|
University of Iowa
Heavy rains have become more frequent in the upper Midwest over the past 60 years, according to a study from the University of Iowa. The trend appears to hold true even with the current drought plaguing the region, the study's main author says.
The fact that temperatures over the country's midsection are rising, too, may be more than coincidence.The hotter the surface temperature, which has been the trend in the Midwest and the rest of the world, the more water that can be absorbed by the atmosphere. And the more water available for precipitation means a greater chance for heavy rains, explains Gabriele Villarini, assistant professor in engineering at the UI. “We found that there is a tendency toward increasing trends in heavy rainfall in the northern part of the study region, roughly the upper Mississippi River basin,” says Villarini, “We tried to explain these results in light of changes in temperature. We found that the northern part of the study region—including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois—is also the area experiencing large increasing trends in temperature, resulting in an increase in atmospheric water vapor.“ Read more ..
Inside the Catholic Church
|Martin Barillas||March 13th 2013|
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent
It was a poised Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina who emerged from the second day of voting by the conclave of cardinals as the new successor of St. Peter as Pope of Rome. In a number of firsts, he has taken the name Francis: the name of the beloved patron saint of Italy.
He is the first Pope to take that name, and also first Latin American, and first non-European in more than 1000 years, to occupy the See of St. Peter. He is also the first member of the Jesuit order to become leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics.
Speaking in Italian, the 77-year-old prelate asked the tens of thousands of faithful assembled in St. Peter's Square to not only pray for him but also for his immediate predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI who remains in retirement at the Castel Gandolfo retreat outside of Rome. Read more ..
The Digital Edge
|Brian Blum||March 13th 2013|
The participants at the DevCon conference in Tel Aviv didn’t see it coming. They thought they were there to hear a lecture by Yair Amit and Adi Sharabani, co-founders of the Israeli startup Skycure, on the topic of mobile security. The setting was altogether ordinary: conference room, screen, projector, PowerPoint.
And then, one by one, members of the audience discovered that their smartphones and tablets were being hacked in real time – in plain sight. Their screens were suddenly swiping without their control; emails were being written without permission; apps opened and photos changed.
Amit and Sharabani were the benign perpetrators and no data was stolen or deleted. Still, the audience learned an unforgettable lesson about just how vulnerable mobile networks can be.
As horrifying as watching your phone go haywire under some hacker’s control can be, the real danger is what lies beyond: the corporate network. And mobile devices are the ideal gateway in. Read more ..
The Battle for Syria
The violence and bloodshed in Syria have surpassed anything seen in the Middle East since the days of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, according to independent investigators in a report released on Monday. There are also reports of sexual violence, including at checkpoints or while being held by intelligence agencies.
The new report, which urges a political solution to what has become an increasingly militarized and sectarian conflict, described the conflict as reaching “new heights of destruction.” The report, released by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, disturbed members of the United Nations Security Council, according to the commission's chairman, Paulo Pinheiro.
“If the national, regional, and international actors fail to find a solution to the conflict and stop the agony of millions of civilians, the alternative will be the political, economic and social destruction of Syria and its society, with devastating implications for the region and the world,” Mr. Pinheiro warned, speaking on behalf of the four-member commission. Read more ..
The North Korean Threat
|Susan St. Claire||March 12th 2013|
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has threatened to "wipe out" a South Korean island as Pyongyang came under new economic and diplomatic fire from US sanctions and UN charges of gross rights abuses.
On a visit to frontline military units on Monday, Kim briefed officers on their mission "to strike" Baengnyeong and turn the island into a "sea of fire".
"Once an order is issued, you should break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like," Kim was quoted as saying by the Korean Central News Agency. Military tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang have risen to their highest level for years, with the communist state threatening nuclear war in response to UN sanctions imposed after its third atomic test last month. Read more ..
The Battle for Syria
|Jonathan Spyer||March 11th 2013|
This week, 48 Syrian soldiers who were reported as having ‘sought refuge’ in Iraq were ambushed and killed on Iraqi soil. At least 9, and possibly as many as 19 Iraqi soldiers who were reported as being in escort of the convoy of Syrian defectors also died in the ambush.
This incident lays bare the extent to which the Syrian civil war has now burst its banks. The expansion follows the lines of local and regional sectarian ties cutting through the borders of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The Iraqi defense ministry, in an official statement, blamed “a terrorist group that infiltrated into Iraqi territory coming from Syria.” The ministry’s statement described the soldiers as wounded men who had sought refuge in Iraq, at the Rabiya border crossing. They were, according to the ministry, being transferred to al-Walid border crossing further south to be returned to Syria when the attack took place. Read more ..
The North Korean Threat
|Steve Herman||March 11th 2013|
South Korean officials say Pyongyang seems to have made good on a threat to sever the hotline at the Panmunjom truce village as South Korea and the United States commence a joint military exerciseMonday. The North is responding to the exercise by claiming it will abrogate the 1953 Armistice Agreement and threatening a preemptive nuclear strike.
As more than 13,000 American and South Korean military personnel began the Key Resolve annual joint drill, no one on the northern side of the de-militarized zone answered the routine daily 9 am hotline telephone call from the South. The two sides have a protocol of phone contact twice daily. A Unification Ministry spokesman says South Korea did not bother to try again to make the regular 4 p.m. call Monday. Last week, North Korea announced it was severing the communications link, established in 1971. Read more ..
The Edge of Climate Change
|Cheryl Dybas||March 9th 2013|
With data from 73 ice and sediment core monitoring sites around the world, scientists have reconstructed Earth's temperature history back to the end of the last Ice Age. The analysis reveals that the planet today is warmer than it's been during 70 to 80 percent of the last 11,300 years.
Lead author Shaun Marcott of OSU says that previous research on past global temperature change has largely focused on the last 2,000 years. Extending the reconstruction of global temperatures back to the end of the last Ice Age puts today's climate into a larger context.
"We already knew that on a global scale, Earth is warmer today than it was over much of the past 2,000 years," Marcott says. "Now we know that it is warmer than most of the past 11,300 years." "The last century stands out as the anomaly in this record of global temperature since the end of the last ice age," says Candace Major, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences. Read more ..
Battle for Syria
|David Schenker, Michael Herzog, Andrew J. Tabler, and Jeffrey White||March 8th 2013|
The Washington Institute
If current international inaction on Syria continues, UNDOF will face increasing difficulties, and the long-quiet Israel-Syria border could easily revert to a battlefield.
On March 6, twenty-one Filipino soldiers deployed with the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were abducted while on routine patrol in the Syrian demilitarized portion of the Golan Heights. As of this writing, they are still detained, albeit reportedly unharmed. The incident is the latest in a series of assaults on the UN peacekeepers responsible for ensuring compliance with arms limits set in the 1974 disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria. Already, the deterioration in security has prompted Japan, Canada, and Croatia to withdraw their longstanding personnel contributions from UNDOF. If the trend continues, the remaining contributors are all but certain to curtail their commitments as well, ending the only effective international monitoring mechanism along the Israel-Syria border. Read more ..
The Cyber Edge
|Rachel Ehrenfeld||March 7th 2013|
Since the hacking of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, etc., and the Mandiant revelations about China's PLA Unit 61398, the media and Internet have offered an explosion of talk about now as a"tipping point" in cybersecurity. We're, in fact, long past the "tipping point": what Mandiant had to say about Chinese hacking was actually old news to those who follow cyber news.
As has been the case in the past, there seem to be three camps on the issue of cybersecurity: "the-sky-is-falling" or "cyber-Pearl-Harbor" camp, the "overblown-threat" camp, and the camp worried about the cyberdefense threat to privacy rights. We shouldn't forget the advocacy of international "rules of the game" for cyberspace, which was recently argued by Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Financial Times. None of these offer much new. And Obama's cybersecurity executive order on February 12, has elicited few comments beyond "not enough, too preliminary" and "a worrisome expansion of government right-to-prying-on-citizens." Read more ..
South Korea on Edge
|Steve Herman||March 6th 2013|
South Korea is responding firmly to North Korea's threat to abrogate next Monday the peninsula's truce agreement and resume military action.
"If North Korea conducts any provocations that threaten the life and safety of South Koreans then it should be clear there will be strong and decisive punishment not only against the source of the aggression and its support forces, but also the commanding element," South Korean army general Kim Yong-hyun told reporters Wednesday at the Ministry of National Defense.
The South Korean response follows some of the most explicit threats of action in years from the North. The Wednesday edition of the North Korean worker's party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, says Pyongyang will be compelled to take action because joint annual drills involving U.S. and South Korean forces are actually intended as a surprise "preemptive nuclear strike" against the North. Read more ..
Europe on Edge
|George Friedman||March 5th 2013|
The global financial crisis of 2008 has slowly yielded to a global unemployment crisis. This unemployment crisis will, fairly quickly, give way to a political crisis. The crisis involves all three of the major pillars of the global system -- Europe, China and the United States. The level of intensity differs, the political response differs and the relationship to the financial crisis differs. But there is a common element, which is that unemployment is increasingly replacing finance as the central problem of the financial system.
Europe is the focal point of this crisis. Last week Italy held elections, and the party that won the most votes -- with about a quarter of the total -- was a brand-new group called the Five Star Movement that is led by a professional comedian. Two things are of interest about this movement. First, one of its central pillars is the call for defaulting on a part of Italy's debt as the lesser of evils. The second is that Italy, with 11.2 percent unemployment, is far from the worst case of unemployment in the European Union. Nevertheless, Italy is breeding radical parties deeply opposed to the austerity policies currently in place. Read more ..
Edge of the Cliff
|Jeremy Herb||March 3rd 2013|
The Pentagon’s decision to cancel a carrier group’s deployment to the Middle East has become a political flashpoint in the growing fight over how and what the Obama administration is cutting under sequestration. The move has been criticized by some Republicans and The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward added fuel to the fire by describing the cancellation as “madness.”
“We now have the president going out — because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can’t do what I need to do to protect the country,” Woodward said on MSNBC. “That’s a kind of madness that I haven’t seen in a long time.”
The Pentagon says the decision was a difficult but strategic move devoid of politics that was necessary in order to deal with the twin problems of sequestration and last year’s continuing resolution. The Pentagon delayed deployment of the USS Harry Truman as it reduced the number of aircraft carriers it has in the Gulf from two to one.
Read more ..
America and Israel
|Martin Barillas||March 2nd 2013|
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent
Starting on March 3, some 13,000 Jewish and non-Jewish activists will descend upon Washington during the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. These supporters of Israel will listen to powerful members of the U.S. government, all of whom are expected to advocate for a strong and independent Israel.
Among those scheduled to speak are Vice President Joseph Biden, Representatives Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Senators John McCAin (R-AZ) and Robert Menendez (R-NJ).
In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are scheduled speakwe. Break-out sessions, book-signings, and artistic performances are also scheduled. The conference will continue until March 5, allowing the thousands of activists to make visits to their respective members of Congress to probe their support of Israel. Read more ..
The New Egypt
Reuters and Ynet News
A Cairo court ruled that the Egyptian government must destroy all tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
The labyrinth of tunnels is an infamous smuggling route for arms trafficking.
It is also believed that 30% of the goods that reach the Gaza Strip, as well as over 1.5 million people a year, make their way through the tunnels in an attempt to bypass the blockade that has been imposed by Israel and Egypt for more than seven years.
The underground maze stretching beneath Rafah, Sinai and Gaza is said to include 450 main tunnels and 750 sub-tunnels. Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood has close ties with the Hamas Islamists that run Gaza, but many Egyptians fear the enclave is a security risk for Egypt. Leftist lawyers said they brought the case with activists to force the government's hand. Read more ..
Edge of the Universe
|Aaron Dubrow||February 27th 2013|
University of Texas
Voracious absences at the center of galaxies, black holes shape the growth and death of the stars around them through their powerful gravitational pull and explosive ejections of energy.
"Over its lifetime, a black hole can release more energy than all the stars in a galaxy combined," said Roger Blandford, director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Science. "Black holes have a major impact on the formation of galaxies and the environmental growth and evolution of those galaxies."
Gravitational forces grow so strong close to a black hole that even light cannot escape from within, hence the difficulty in observing them directly. Scientists infer facts about black holes by their influence on the astronomical objects around them: the orbit of stars and clumps of detectable energy. With this information in hand, scientists create computer models to understand the data and to make predictions about the physics of distant regions of space. However, models are only as good as their assumptions. Read more ..
|Ganesh Sahathevan||February 26th 2013|
"Yuan expected to be int'l currency around 2020", read the headline of the People's Daily On-Line, the Chinese Communist Party's English publication.
"Experts believe that the yuan will be fully eligible to be an international currency by around 2020. Experts believe that China has made significant progress in internationalizing its currency in recent years. However, these experts are quoted saying that there is still need 'to foster financial market development, and further improve corresponding supervision and regulation systems.'"
However, the internationalization of the yuan will lead to a loss of control of the value of the yuan and conflicts with China's desire to control the value of its currency. The conflict is reflected in recent statement by the Deputy Administrator of State Administration of Foreign Exchange, People's Bank of China, Wang Xiaoyi. According to him, "First, a free-floating exchange rate regime is usually applied to countries that issue reserve currency, which helps to immunize their domestic firms against exchange rate risk. Read more ..
Battle for Syria
|Martin Barillas||February 25th 2013|
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent
The Syrian government says it is ready for talks with the armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said on February 24 in Moscow that Syria is open to dialogue with those who want to take part. The foreign minister is meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who said last week there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis and that continued fighting between rebels and government forces will lead to "mutual destruction."
Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev recently expressed doubts about the ability of the Assad government to remain in power. Medvedev said in an interview with Brazil's O Globo newspaper that the future of the decades-old regime is secondary to finding a peaceful solution. Setting upon a venue for negotiations, said the Russian leader, is of critical importance, said Medvedev, rather than supplying arms to any of the parties to the conflict or proclaiming as legitimate one side or the other. Read more ..
|Russell Berman||February 23rd 2013|
A bipartisan House group is making “really good progress” on immigration reform legislation despite missing a target date for an agreement, a top Republican participant said.
“I am now more sure than ever that we’re going to have a bipartisan bill,” a longtime advocate of comprehensive reform, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), said in an interview. “We’re making incredible progress.”
Diaz-Balart is a member of a House group that includes more than a half dozen liberal and conservative lawmakers who have been working for years behind closed doors on an immigration overhaul. As talks accelerated in recent months, people involved in the effort said the group had hoped to announce an agreement around President Obama’s State of the Union address. Read more ..
The New Egypt
|Eric Trager||February 21st 2013|
Two years ago this week, a popular uprising ended Hosni Mubarak's thirty-year reign. Egypt's revolution is still churning, of course, and that country is now deeply polarized between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, which has embraced many of Mubarak's autocratic tendencies in its attempt to consolidate power, and a non-Islamist opposition that fears theocratic rule in Egypt. Yet the Brotherhood and its opponents don't only disagree on what Egypt's post-Mubarak polity should look like; they also apparently disagree on when Egypt's revolution actually started, and what Egyptians really revolted against.
Indeed, for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's revolution has been going on for centuries, and essentially boils down to a long-term effort to resist western political influence and secularism, which it views as a foreign cultural import.
To understand this hostile historical view, it is worth examining Muslim Brotherhood party leader Abdel Mawgoud Al-Dardery's recent talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Many think that the Egyptian revolution only started on the 25th of January ," Al-Dardery told an audience of Washington policy wonks last week. "But I think the revolution was in the making for so many decades before that." According to Al-Dardery, Egypt's revolution took "213 years," beginning with resistance to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 and intensifying with resistance to Britain's invasion of Egypt in 1882. Read more ..
Nigeria on Edge
|Heather Murdock||February 20th 2013|
Voice of America News
Fourteen years after the Odi community in Nigeria's Niger Delta was flattened in what many call a 'massacre,' a Nigerian court this week ordered the government to pay the community nearly $240 million within the next three weeks.
Exactly what happened in Odi, a town in oil-rich Bayelsa State, is still unclear. Human Rights Watch says gang members in Odi killed twelve policemen in early November 1999.
A few weeks later, Human Rights Watch says soldiers raided the town of about 15,000 people, destroying almost every single building and possibly killing hundreds of people. Locals say it was thousands who died, and the attacks were racially motivated against ethnic Ijaws, with soldiers writing, "We will kill all Ijaws” on demolished buildings. The government of the time still defends the raid, saying it was rooting out terrorists and destroying their base. Read more ..
|Justin Sink||February 20th 2013|
Continuing to hunt for a political advantage in the fight over the looming sequester, President Obama on Wednesday will conduct interviews with eight local television stations in an attempt to intensify pressure on congressional Republicans.
The interviews come just a day after Obama warned the $85 billion in automatic cuts would take a "meat cleaver" to the country's economy and military readiness. "By speaking to anchors from stations around the country, the president will have an opportunity to focus on the harmful local impacts that will be felt if congressional Republicans refuse to compromise," a White House official said.
Republicans have slammed Obama's approach in recent days, arguing the president is attempting to point fingers rather than identify cuts that could offset the blunt, across-the-board impact of the sequester. Read more ..
|Molly K. Hooper||February 19th 2013|
House GOP lawmakers say they do not fear political blowback if Congress fails to prevent $85 billion in automatic spending cuts from triggering in two weeks.
The cuts known as the sequester are almost certain to hit the Pentagon and non-defense discretionary spending on March 1, and congressional Republicans and the White House are focused more now on avoiding blame for the cuts than preventing them.
That creates a challenging environment for House Republicans, given President Obama’s use of the bully pulpit, which he used to build pressure on them during last year’s fight over the “fiscal cliff.”
Already the White House warns that the cuts will reduce loan guarantees to small businesses, end Head Start funding for 70,000 children and leave 373,000 seriously mentally ill people without treatment.
It says there will be fewer food inspections, raising the potential for a food-borne illness outbreak, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will need to eliminate grants for firefighters and emergency personnel. Read more ..
America and Israel
|Meghashyam Mali ||February 18th 2013|
President Obama will be awarded the Israeli Presidential Medal of Distinction during his visit to Israel next month, according to a report in the Times of Israel. Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to receive the honor, which was announced by Israeli President Shimon Peres’s office on Monday.
“Barack Obama is a true friend of the State of Israel, and has been since the beginning of his public life,” said Peres in a statement announcing the decision. “As president of the United States of America, he has stood with Israel in times of crisis," he continued. "During his time as president he has made a unique contribution to the security of the State of Israel, both through further strengthening the strategic cooperation between the countries and through the joint development of technology to defend against rockets and terrorism.” Read more ..
The Human Edge
|Ashley Yeager||February 17th 2013|
Rats can't usually see infrared light, but they have "touched" it in a Duke University lab. The rats sensed the light as a sensation of touch after Duke neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis and his team fitted the animals with an infrared detector wired to electrodes implanted in the part of the mammalian brain that processes information related to the sense of touch.
One of the main flaws of current human, brain-controlled prosthetics is that patients cannot sense the texture of what they touch, Nicolelis said. His goal is to give quadriplegics not only the ability to move their limbs again, but also to sense the texture of objects placed in their hands or experience the nuances of the terrain under their feet.
His lab studies how to connect brain cells with external electrodes for brain-machine interfaces and neural prosthetics in human patients and non-human primates, giving them the ability to control limbs, both real and virtual, using only their minds. He and his team have shown that monkeys, without moving any part of their real bodies, could use their electrical brain activity to guide the virtual hands of an avatar to touch virtual objects and recognize their simulated textures. Read more ..
The Iranian Threat
|Frederick Starr||February 16th 2013|
U.S. President Barack Obama has often spoken of the ever-tightening ring of sanctions against Iran. The hope is that the sanctions will eventually bring the Islamic Republic to the bargaining table, if not to its knees. The effort, however, would be more effective if these sanctions did not go hand in hand with a longstanding and lucrative annual bonus to Iran from Washington. This bonus takes the form of a subsidy that arises from the United States and NATO's tacit support for Iran's ports on the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
The United States has largely failed to open any alternative route connecting Afghanistan and the great sea lanes that traverse the Arabian Sea, or between Afghanistan's northern neighbors in Central Asia and those same warm-water corridors of trade. Thanks to this failure, shippers from China, Russia, India, and Europe have no alternative but to use the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, from which some 90 million tons of goods annually are transported by rail to Turkey, the Mediterranean world, Europe, and Russia. Business at that old entrepôt on the Persian Gulf has boomed to such an extent that Iran, with help from India and Russia, has built an even more convenient port and free trade zone on the Gulf of Oman, at the city of Chabahar, from which goods will proceed overland by road and rail to Afghanistan. Read more ..
The Nuclear Edge
|Steve Herman||February 15th 2013|
North Korea's claim this week to have successfully conducted a third underground nuclear test is prompting some in South Korea and Japan to advocate possessing their own such weapons.
South Korean lawmaker Chung Mong-joon of the governing Saenuri (New Frontier) party made such a remark during a meeting of his colleagues from the National Assembly, comparing the situation with North Korea to “a gangster in the neighborhood buying a brand-new machine gun” and trying to defend oneself with merely a pebble.
Chung is no fringe politician. He is the country's wealthiest lawmaker through his controlling shares in the Hyundai Heavy Industries group. The JoongAng Ilbo, major South Korean newspaper, terming North Korea's latest test an existential threat to Seoul, questions whether the country should arm itself with nuclear weapons and if the United States will ultimately protect it if Pyongyang were to threaten a nuclear attack. Read more ..
The Battle for Syria
|Yaakov Lappin||February 14th 2013|
On January 30, just before dawn, according to international media reports, the Israel Air Force struck a target (or targets) in Syria. While many details of this attack remain shrouded in mystery, since then a number of facts have come into focus.
The strike followed months of warnings from Jerusalem that Israel would not tolerate the proliferation of strategic arms, or unconventional weapons, from the crumbling Syrian state to Hezbollah.
Days after the attack, Syrian state television released images of one of the bombed-out sites on the outskirts of Damascus, showing large, wrecked, military trucks that could well have been carrying advanced anti-aircraft missile systems.
That would fit well with media reports that cited Western intelligence officials, who said that SA-17-type air defense systems were the target. Other sources have suggested the anti-aircraft missiles in question were the SA-8 model. Syria possesses an array of sophisticated air defense systems, and their proliferation to Assad's ally, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, could curtail the IAF's maneuverability over Lebanese skies.
IAF flights over Lebanon are vital for surveillance during times of ceasefire between Israel and the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah. During times of direct conflict, the flights are vital for the mission of obliterating Hezbollah's rocket arsenal and command and control centers. Read more ..
North Korea on Edge
|Guita Aryan & Jeff Seldin||February 14th 2013|
North Korea’s nuclear test this week is also putting the spotlight on Iran, which has been moving forward on its nuclear program despite Western and U.S. opposition. There were celebrations in North Korea, where the country's latest nuclear test is being publicly hailed.
But as worldwide condemnation pours in, there is also the recognition that the test goes beyond the saber-rattling of Pyongyang. "This is about proliferation and this is also about Iran," noted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. "Because they're linked."
Experts say tough talk alone is unlikely to resonate in Iran, so what Tehran does next may very well depend on how the world backs up similar talk to North Korea. “If you want to prevent Iran from getting the bomb you have to take a hard line against North Korea,” stated Raymond Tanter, former U.S. National Security Council member. He says that so far, Western resolve has not been strong enough. Read more ..
The Toxic Edge
|David Heath & Ronnie Greene||February 13th 2013|
The Center for Public Integrity
In September 2010, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency came to a startling conclusion: Even a small amount of a chemical compound commonly found in tap water may cause cancer.
The compound, hexavalent chromium, gained infamy in the Oscar-winning film Erin Brockovich, based on the David-vs.-Goliath legal duel between desert dwellers in Hinkley, Calif., and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. The film ends in Hollywood fashion, with the corporate polluter paying $333 million to people suffering from illnesses.
But in real life, the drama continues. More than 70 million Americans drink traces of chromium every day, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization. And now, more than a decade after the film, EPA scientists cite “clear evidence” that the chemical compound, also known as chromium (VI), can cause cancer. The federal agency was poised to announce its findings in 2011, a step almost certain to trigger stricter drinking-water standards to prevent new cancers and deaths. Read more ..
The Saudi Succession
|Simon Henderson||February 13th 2013|
The Washington Institute
Speculation about who will rule Saudi Arabia in the future is mounting after the surprise February 1 appointment of Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as second deputy prime minister, a post long viewed as "crown prince in waiting." The unexpected move puts a spotlight on the complicated politics and procedures surrounding Saudi succession.
Prince Muqrin is the youngest surviving son of the late Ibn Saud (a.k.a. King Abdulaziz), the founder of Saudi Arabia. He is now the third most powerful person in the kingdom, behind King Abdullah (who also serves as prime minister) and Crown Prince Salman (the deputy prime minister). Both of these men are ailing, however: Abdullah (age 90) is rarely seen standing upright and has a limited attention span, and Salman (77) has dementia. In comparison, Muqrin (70) appears to be in good health. Read more ..
North Korea's Nukes
|Martin Barillas||February 12th 2013|
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent
North Korea defied international warnings on February 12 and carried out its third nuclear test, drawing immediate condemnation from leaders around the globe. Pyongyang said the "successful" test was in response to what it called the "reckless hostility" of the United States, which has led the global charge toward expanding sanctions against the communist state.
State media said the underground test used a lighter, smaller nuclear bomb with greater explosive force than previous tests - raising fears Pyongyang has achieved a breakthrough in miniaturizing the technology.
Following the test, the North's Foreign Ministry defiantly warned of unspecified additional measures. South Korea has already placed its military on alert and hinted at the possibility of additional North Korean nuclear tests or missile launches on Tuesday. The U.N. Security Council is holding an emergency meeting later today in New York to discuss the test, which prompted an outpouring of global criticism. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon immediately condemned the "deeply destabilizing" test, calling it a "clear and grave violation" of international sanctions. Read more ..
Catholic Church on Edge
|Martin Barillas||February 11th 2013|
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent
There is no clear front-runner among the various contenders to occupy the papacy once the current occupant of the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI, leaves on February 28 at 8 pm local time in Rome. Generally, candidates are chosen from among the College of Cardinals. One of these is Cardinal Archbishop Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, who serves as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. If elected, Cardinal Turkson would be the first known black African to occupy the chair once held by St Peter himself.
Pope Benedict XVI announced on February 11 that he will step down at the end of the month, being the first to do so in nearly 600 years. A conclave of cardinals would then have to elect a new leader of the worldwide Church before the end of March. A Vatican said that the interval between resignation and election will be "as brief as possible". The pontiff announced his decision in Latin during a consistory of cardinals while emphasising that his duties require “both strength of mind and body”. His brother, Rev. Georg Ratzinger, told the German press that the Pope had been considering the move for several months, due to declining health.
In his statement, translated from the original Latin, the Pope said “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” adding, “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering.” Read more ..
|Cameron Joseph||February 10th 2013|
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that the looming sequestration is "a bad idea all around" and called for a balance of spending cuts and closing tax loopholes in order to avoid it. "It is almost a false argument to say we have a spending problem. We have a budget deficit problem that we have to address," she told Fox News's Chris Wallace on Sunday.
The Democratic House leader said she backed a “big, bold proposal,” to curb long-term spending, and, short of that, a plan that ended subsidies for large oil companies and eliminated loopholes in the tax code. "It isn't as much a spending problem as much as it is priorities," she said at another point, arguing that tax subsidies were a better target than cuts to programs such as education. Read more ..
Obama's Second Term
|Justin Sink||February 9th 2013|
President Obama warned in his weekly address that the sequester would deal a "huge blow to middle-class families and our economy as a whole" and urged Congress to strike a compromise deal to avert the $85 billion in automatic cuts.
"There’s certainly no reason that middle-class families and small businesses should suffer just because Washington couldn’t come together and eliminate a few special-interest tax loopholes, or government programs that just don’t work," Obama said. "At a time when economists and business leaders from across the spectrum have said that our economy is poised for progress, we shouldn’t allow self-inflicted wounds to put that progress in jeopardy."
The president devoted a significant amount of his address to outlining the real-world consequences that would result if the sequester was implemented. On Friday, top administrative aides warned the cuts would hamper law enforcement, hurt federal education programs, withhold mental health services and furlough thousands of workers. Read more ..
Tunisia on Edge
|Mark Snowiss||February 8th 2013|
Clashes between police and protesters have broken out in Tunis during the funeral of a slain secular opposition leader. Tens of thousands of mourners converged on the main cemetery in the Tunisian capital on February 8 for the funeral procession of Chokri Belaid, who was gunned down earlier this week outside his home.
VOA reporter Lisa Bryant in Tunis says police used tear gas at the cemetery to make way for the funeral procession. "Hundreds and thousands of people just ran from the tear gas. It was everywhere. One of the reasons is because there [were] just too many people, and [another] reason is that people were apparently setting cars on fire outside. So it's really hard to say what the exact story was," Bryant reported. Mourners scaled walls and tombstones in the rain and wind to get a glimpse of the open army truck carrying Belaid's coffin. Witnesses say some protesters threw stones at the police. Read more ..
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