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China on Edge

Is China's Economy Headed for Slowdown?

July 14th 2012

The East is Red

As the United States and Europe work to recover from their own economic crises, China has been one of the world's bright spots. But recent figures show that the country's fast economic growth is slowing. Days ago, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signaled that the country's top leadership is concerned about an impending economic slowdown. He urged the government to implement policies to offset the “huge downward pressure” on the Chinese economy. His comments foreshadowed China's second quarter growth figures for this year, which were announced Friday by National Bureau of Statistics spokesman Sheng Laiyun.

Sheng says China's economy grew by 7.8 percent for the first half of this year. Meanwhile, he says the economic growth rate for the second quarter of this year slowed from 8.1 percent in the first quarter to 7.6 percent. He acknowledges that this is the first time in three years that China's GDP growth rate has dipped below eight percent, but adds he does not think it is a bad thing. According to Sheng, people should not only focus on the numbers, but also take into account unspecified domestic and external factors. From this perspective, he says China's economy has maintained what he described as steady growth. Read more ..

The Edge of Crime

London Olympics Spark Intense Anti-gang Operations

July 13th 2012

British bus

Besides anti-terrorism operations by Scotland Yard and MI5 to make London safer for the anticipated throngs of 2012 Olympic Games athletes, staff and spectators, the Yard is also attempting to prevent the city from being overrun by street gangs, a federal law enforcement source stated today. This month scores of suspected gang members were targeted in a series of coordinated operations as part of a major crack down on by the Metropolitan Police Service, according to the Home Office this week. The operation was spearheaded by a newly formed Trident Gang Crime Command. It's seen as the beginning of a step change in how the MPS tackles gang crime in the capital and forms a key part of the Met Commissioner's total war on crime.

Hundreds of police officers took part in this month's operation, which saw suspected gang members being pursued for a series of crimes, including assault, robbery and drugs supply in a refreshed approach to help stop young people getting killed or seriously injured. One thousand officers are specifically dedicated to tackling gang crime in London with the creation of a central Trident Gang Crime Command as well as the introduction of local task forces across London. Read more ..

Faster and More Furiously

The Other Consequences of Fast and Furious

July 12th 2012

Guns for sale

On the night of Dec. 14, 2010, U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was shot and killed while on patrol in an Arizona canyon near the U.S.-Mexico border. Two guns found at the scene were linked to an investigation being run by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) called “Operation Fast and Furious,” sparking a congressional inquiry into the program and generating considerable criticism of the ATF and the Obama administration. Because of this criticism, in August 2011 ATF acting director Kenneth Melson was reassigned from his post and the U.S. attorney for Arizona was forced to resign.

Currently, the congressional inquiry is focused on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been accused of misleading Congress about what he knew about Fast and Furious and when he learned it. The Obama administration has invoked executive privilege to block the release of some of the Department of Justice emails and memos sought by Congress pertaining to the operation. The controversy escalated June 28 when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to hold Holder in contempt of Congress for ignoring its subpoenas. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Romney Booed at NAACP Convention for Vowing to Repeal ‘ObamaCare’

July 11th 2012

Ask Mitt

Mitt Romney was booed on Wednesday at the NAACP for vowing to repeal President Obama's signature healthcare law.

"I will reduce government spending," Romney told the civil rights group during an address at their national convention in Houston. "Our high level of debt slows GDP growth and that means fewer jobs. If our goal is jobs, we must, must stop spending over a trillion dollars more than we earn. To do this, I will eliminate expensive non-essential programs like ObamaCare."

The remark drew a chorus of "boos" from the crowd. He paused to acknowledge them, and then deviated from his prepared remarks to double down on his pledge to repeal the legislation. “I say again, if our priority is jobs, and that’s my priority, that’s something I’d change,” Romney said, referring to a study indicating that the legislation makes employers less likely to hire.  Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Astronomers Discover Vanishing Act

July 10th 2012

Planet-forming disk
Artist's conception of a planet-forming disk similar to the one around
TYC 8241 2652—which vanished. (Credit: NASA JPL/CalTech)

Astronomers report a baffling discovery never seen before: An extraordinary amount of dust around a nearby star has mysteriously disappeared.

“It’s like the classic magician’s trick—now you see it, now you don't,” said Carl Melis, a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Diego and lead author of the research. “Only in this case, we're talking about enough dust to fill an inner solar system, and it really is gone!”

“It's as if the rings around Saturn had disappeared,” said co-author Benjamin Zuckerman, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. “This is even more shocking because the dusty disc of rocky debris was bigger and much more massive than Saturn's rings. The disc around this star, if it were in our solar system, would have extended from the sun halfway out to Earth, near the orbit of Mercury.”

The research on this cosmic vanishing act, which occurred around a star some 450 light years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Centaurus, appeared in July the journal Nature. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Voters Say Obama has Changed Things for the Worse

July 9th 2012

Obama pensive with flag

Two-thirds of likely voters say President Obama has kept his 2008 campaign promise to change America — but it’s changed for the worse, according to a sizable majority.

A new poll for The Hill found 56 percent of likely voters believe Obama’s first term has transformed the nation in a negative way, compared to 35 percent who believe the country has changed for the better under his leadership.

The results signal broad voter unease with the direction the nation has taken under Obama’s leadership and present a major challenge for the incumbent Democrat as he seeks reelection this fall.

Conducted for The Hill by Pulse Opinion Research, the poll comes in the wake of last month’s Supreme Court decision that upheld the primary elements of Obama’s signature healthcare legislation. Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

Clinton Admits Tough Task Winning Aid for Afghanistan

July 7th 2012

Hillary Clinton 2

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Tokyo this weekend for a key conference with 70 countries, where the United States and its allies hope to nail down aid to Afghanistan for a decade to come.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has said he’s seeking international aid of $4 billion annually for Afghanistan after 2014, when NATO troops are set to hand off security control to the Afghan security forces.

That development aid, which would help with things like healthcare and education, would come in addition to the $4.1 billion in military aid pledged to Afghanistan’s army and police force after NATO troops withdraw in 2014.
The conference comes on the heels of Clinton’s unannounced visit to Kabul Saturday to announce the designation of Afghanistan a ‘major non-NATO ally.” But donor countries are growing increasingly wary about giving with corruption still rampant in the Afghanistan government. Analysts call corruption one of the biggest roadblocks to a successful transition in Afghanistan. In addition, some analysts argue that the pledges being collected in Japan won’t wind up being kept amid the uncertainty in Afghanistan, particularly with elections there set to occur in 2014. Read more ..

The Battle for Lebanon

Sunni Islamism Stirs In Lebanon

July 4th 2012

Lebanese Opposition

As the civil war in Syria grinds on and assumes an increasingly sectarian character, echoes of the strife are being heard across the border in Lebanon.

The main beneficiary of the Arab uprisings of the last year has been Sunni Islamism. In Syria, Sunnis are playing an increasingly important role in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad. In Lebanon, too, individuals and movements of this type are emerging to prominence and issuing a challenge to the dominant political force in the country – Hezbollah. Sunni northern Lebanon, in particular the town of Tripoli, is a center both of Sunni Islamism and of support for the Syrian rebellion. The town has become a gathering point for foreign jihadi fighters on their way to fight the Assad regime.

The fate of Lebanon has always been acutely influenced by events in its larger neighbor, to the sorrow of many Lebanese. Currently, too, the Assad regime and Hezbollah are members of the same Iran-led regional bloc. Read more ..

Broken Government

Compromise 2012 Farm Bill Plows Rift into House Dem Lawmakers

July 3rd 2012

wheat fields

Liberal Democrats are fuming over $16 billion in cuts to food stamp programs included in the House farm bill set for a markup on Wednesday.

Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, agreed to the cuts as a pragmatic way of moving forward with legislation important to rural lawmakers. He said much of the cuts would be restored in a conference with the Senate. Yet the move has led to anger on the left, while raising questions over whether the farm bill can pass the House given opposition among Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) issued a scathing statement after the bill’s release that called it immoral and inhumane. “This bill increases subsidies to millionaires. This is a bill that robs the poor to pay the rich,” she told the Hill Friday. “This bill is an outrage.” Read more ..

Israel and Lebanon

Ready for War

July 2nd 2012

IDF Soldiers

As violence escalates in Syria, the Israel Defense Forces are getting ready for the coming conflict with Lebanon, reports Haaretz.

“We understand that there is more than one factor, whether this is Lebanese, or whether it will come from somewhere else, that can ignite the border here,” Brigardier-General Hertzi Halevy told reporters on Thursday.

The fear that the collapse of the Assad regime might usher in a vacuum of power that jihadists will take advantage of, or the spillover of violence into Lebanon and then into Israel, drives the IDF to preparedness. The IDF reports that the border between the two Arab states is a veritable “lawless zone” and that in the six years since the Jewish state went to war with Lebanon, ten times more missiles – totaling 60,000 – are now ready for launch against Israel from home base of Hezbollah. Read more ..

Turkey and Syria

Syria and Turkey Mass Troops and Tanks Along Border

June 29th 2012

Turkish Military

Turkish troops were deployed to the border on Thursday as a precaution against the encroaching Syrian threat, the Jerusalem Post reports. The new rules of engagement, issued by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, come just days after Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet, flying over international airspace.

Erdogan was reported as issuing orders which would allow Turkish troops to react to any perceived threat by neighboring Syria. More then 33,000 refugees and rebels have crossed the border in recent months to escape the violent crackdown by the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Reuters published an unconfirmed report that Syria is following suit, amassing close to 200 tanks on its side of the border. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

In-Car Information Deluge Raises Concerns of Driver Distraction

June 29th 2012

HTC thunderbold droid phone

The ubiquitous presence of Smartphones has led to a demand for comparable functionalities to be present inside cars. Technologies such as touch screens and large displays have become a commodity in the automotive infotainment domain. As vehicles rely more and more on sophisticated forms of technology, the requirements for onboard information displays are becoming increasingly comprehensive and diverse. Driver distraction is becoming a challenge, concludes a study from Frost & Sullivan.

The study, titled "Strategic Analysis of European and North American Markets for Display and Instrument Clusters", finds that in Europe, the market size for central displays, touch screens and head up displays is estimated to reach 9.5 million, 2 million and 0.5 million units, respectively, by 2017. In North America, the market size for central displays, touch screens and head up displays is anticipated to reach 6 million, 3 million and 0.4 million units, respectively, by 2017. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

The Supremes Validate Obama's Healthcare Reform

June 28th 2012

US Supreme Court

The Supreme Court on June 28 upheld the insurance mandate in President Obama’s healthcare law, a stinging defeat for conservatives who had insisted the law is unconstitutional. The decision vindicates Obama and congressional Democrats, who maintained throughout the legal challenge that even this court, with its conservative majority, would have to break with decades of precedent to overturn the healthcare law.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the court in the 5-4 decision on the mandate, ruling that Congress has the authority to enforce the healthcare law’s individual mandate, which will require most U.S. taxpayers to buy insurance or pay a penalty.

Roberts said the mandate could survive as a tax. "Nothing in the Constitution guarantees that individuals may avoid taxation by inactivity," Roberts said from the bench. Roberts tacitly acknowledged the passionate opposition to the healthcare law, but he said policy decisions belong to the elected branches of government, not the court. "It is not our job to save the people from the consequences of their political decisions," he said.

The decision allows Roberts — whose legacy will depend in large part on this case — to avoid the severe repercussions that both sides of the case had feared. The court did not strike down the signature domestic achievement of a sitting president, nor did it give its approval to an expansion of Congress's powers to regulate commerce.

House Republicans, in reaction, announced they would vote on repealing the full law on July 11. Read more ..

Broken Government

Congressional Democrats Defecting over AG Holder's Contempt Vote

June 28th 2012

Eric Holder gesturing
Attorney General Eric Holder

Several Democrats on June 27 said they would vote to place Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, giving Republicans an opportunity to tout bipartisan support for the effort against President Obama’s attorney general. At least four Democrats in GOP-leaning districts said they’d side with Republicans and back the contempt measure in the wake of the National Rifle Association’s decision to score the vote.

The support from Reps. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and John Barrow (D-Ga.) is key for Republicans as they try to defend the legitimacy of the contempt measure to voters and parry counterattacks from Democrats stating that they are leading a “witch hunt.” The contempt measure is expected to pass mostly along partisan lines, but there is intense pressure on Democrats in conservative-leaning districts to side with the NRA against Obama’s chief law enforcement officer. Read more ..

Vatican on Edge

The Vatican Guards the Most Secret Bank in the World

June 27th 2012

Ettore Gotti Tedeschi - fmr Vatican banker
Former Vatican Bank president Ettore Gotti Tedeschi

Italian prosecutors have now detained the former head of the Vatican's bank after searching his home and former office for suspected criminal behavior. Catholics and followers of the Holy See will be disappointed to learn that the Vatican's bank appears to be embroiled in yet another financial scandal. After a number of very embarrassing episodes in recent years, the Pope pledged to comply with international standards on illicit finance and clean up the bank's image. The European Union has an important role to play in helping the Vatican mitigate risk and come into full compliance; the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), set up by the G-7 to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, has a responsibility as well.

The Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), commonly referred to as the Vatican Bank, is a privately held financial institution located inside Vatican City. Founded in 1942, the IOR's role is to safeguard and administer property intended for works of religion or charity. The bank accepts deposits only from top Church officials and entities, according to Italian legal scholar Settimio Caridi. It is run by a president but overseen by five cardinals who report directly to the Vatican and the Vatican's secretary of state. Because so little is known about the bank's daily operations and transactions, it has often been called "the most secret bank in the world." Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Putin's Visit to Israel seeks to Bolster Russia's Image as a Powerhouse

June 26th 2012

Putin in Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel on June 25 for his first state visit since retaking the presidency. The visit was arranged in mid-May, and so at least part of the agenda was set, given events in Syria and Egypt. The interesting thing about Israel and Russia is that while they seem to be operating in the same areas of interest and their agendas seem disconnected, their interests are not always opposed. It is easy to identify places they both care about but more difficult to identify ways in which they connect. It is therefore difficult to identify the significance of the visit beyond that it happened.

An example is Azerbaijan. Russia is still a major weapons provider for Azerbaijan, but the Israelis are now selling it large amounts of weapons and appear to be using it as a base from which to observe and, according to rumors, possibly attack Iran. Russia, which supports Armenia, a country Azerbaijan fought a war with in the late 1980s and early 1990s and technically still is at war with, ought to oppose Israel's action, particularly since it threatens Iran, which Russia does not want attacked. At the same time, Russia doesn't feel threatened by Israeli involvement in Azerbaijan, and Israel doesn't really care about Armenia. Both are there, both are involved and both think Azerbaijan is important, yet each operates in ways that ought to conflict but don't.

The same is true in the more immediate case of Syria, where its downing of a Turkish plane has created an unexpected dynamic for this visit. To think about this we need to consider Russian and Israeli strategy and its odd lack of intersection in Syria. Read more ..

The New Egypt

New Egyptian President Promises 'Death in the Name of Allah is our Goal'

June 26th 2012

Mohamed Morsi - Vivat Rex

The new president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, said in May 2012 – just a month before being confirmed in his office – reportedly said “The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.” Morsi’s remarks were made in a May 13 election speech before Cairo University students. Never before, said Morsi, has Egypt been as close as it is now to the triumph of Islam at all the state levels. “Today we can establish Sharia law because our nation will acquire well-being only with Islam and Sharia. The Muslim Brothers and the Freedom and Justice Party will be the conductors of these goals,” he said.

Morsi leads the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has some 2 million members in Egypt and has been linked to Iran. Even while Morsi hinted in a televised speech on June 24 that his government would abide by international accords already signed by his predecessor, there remains doubt that he will adhere to the historic 1979 Camp David Accord that brought about 33 years of peace between Egypt and Israel. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Planetrise: Alien Planet Looms Large in its Neighbor’s Sky

June 26th 2012

Kepler 36-c from Kepler 36-b
Artist’s conception of Kepler-36c rising over Kepler-36b’s horizon
(credit: David A. Aguilar, CfA)

Few nighttime sights offer more drama than the full Moon rising over the horizon. Now imagine that instead of the Moon, a gas giant planet spanning three times more sky loomed over the molten landscape of a lava world. This alien vista exists in the newly discovered two-planet system of Kepler-36.

“These two worlds are having close encounters,” said Josh Carter, a Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “They are the closest to each other of any planetary system we've found,” added co-author Eric Agol of the University of Washington.

Carter, Agol, and their colleagues report their discovery in June in Science Express. They spotted the planets in data from NASA's Kepler satellite, which can detect a planet when it passes in front of, and briefly reduces the light coming from, its parent star.

The newly discovered system contains two planets circling a subgiant star much like the Sun except several billion years older. The inner world, Kepler-36b, is a rocky planet 1.5 times the size of Earth and weighing 4.5 times as much. It orbits about every 14 days at an average distance of less than 11 million miles. The outer world, Kepler-36c, is a gaseous planet 3.7 times the size of Earth and weighing 8 times as much. This “hot Neptune” orbits once each 16 days at a distance of 12 million miles. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Supreme Court Split Verdict Puts Immigration Center Stage in 2012

June 25th 2012


The Supreme Court scrapped much of Arizona’s immigration law Monday, intensifying the national debate on the issue and making it more likely to be a big factor in November’s presidential election.

With both parties vying for a larger piece of the Hispanic vote, President Obama quickly praised the ruling while his GOP rival Mitt Romney criticized it, saying he would have preferred that the court give more latitude to Arizona.

In a 5-3 ruling, the court rejected key provisions of the 2010 immigration law, but let stand a central provision allowing police to check the legal status of those stopped on suspicion of unrelated offenses. The split decision gave something for both sides to vaunt, though the advantage clearly tilted toward the White House.

In upholding the state's controversial “show-me-your-papers” authority, the court granted a win for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and other conservatives who have urged a tougher approach to illegal immigration. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Supreme Court Rejects Montana's Election Spending Law

June 25th 2012

US Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision to allow unlimited corporate and union spending in federal elections, upheld Monday, also effectively wiped out similar prohibitions in 24 states.

Most states bowed to the original high court ruling, but Montana’s Supreme Court backed its own century-old law banning such expenditures in a 5-2 vote in December, thumbing its nose at the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Monday, the nation’s highest court hit back, reversing Montana’s law in a 5-4 vote, sending a clear message to the 23 other states that had similar bans in place at the time of the decision. “The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law. There can be no serious doubt that it does,” the court said in a brief opinion.

The 24 affected states have scrambled to address the fallout from the Citizens United decision. Nineteen have crafted new laws, some requiring disclosure of spending by outside groups, to address the formerly banned flow of corporate dollars, according to the Corporate Reform Coalition. Read more ..

Broken Government

Issa Confident House Will Vote to Place Eric Holder in Contempt

June 24th 2012

Darrell Issa and Eric Holder

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) predicted Sunday that Republicans and Democrats would vote to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress this week.

“I believe they will, both Republicans and Democrats will vote that,” Issa said on Fox News Sunday. “There are a number of Democrats, 31, who wrote to the administration asking them to be forthcoming. Many of them will stay with us now that the administration has not been.”

Issa has previously said as many as 31 Democrats could vote to place Holder in contempt, but no Democrats on his committee last week voted with Republicans. Issa said it was still possible for Holder to avoid a contempt charge. He said if President Obama and Holder “would simply start producing the documents they know they could produce to us that are not by any means going to be covered by executive privilege, this could be delayed or even eliminated.” Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Iran Threatens to 'Collapse' Israel

June 23rd 2012

Iran holy missiles

On June 23, an Iranian general said that any military action by Israel on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program would lead to a collapse of the Jewish state, according to the Fars news agency. This followed the failure of multilateral talks in Moscow, in which Iran and interlocutors such as the U.S. and Russia failed to come to an agreement on the nuclear program.

Fears were thus heightened that Israel might take unilateral military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, which is feared to be bent on producing nuclear weapons. However, agreement was reached for a follow-up meeting of technical experts on July 3, saving the process from outright failure.

Iranian Brigadier-General Mostafa Izadi, who serves as Iran’s deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, said of Israel, "They cannot do the slightest harm to the (Iranian) revolution and the system," according to Fars. "If the Zionist regime takes any (military) actions against Iran, it would result in the end of its labors," he added. He also said, "If they act logically, such threats amount to a psychological war but if they want to act illogically, it is they who will be destroyed." Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Warplane May Have Crossed Syrian Border

June 23rd 2012

Abdullah Gul

Syria says it shot down a Turkish fighter jet because it trespassed on Syria's territorial waters. In Turkey, the government has reacted carefully and cautiously to this potentially explosive incident; the prime minister says Turkey will respond once all the facts are known. A search is still under way for the two pilots from the downed plane.

Syrian authorities said they downed the Turkish fighter jet in accordance with laws that govern such situations. They said Syria's defense systems shot a jet flying fast and low, close to the Syrian coast.

Turkish president Abdullah Gul says the incident cannot be ignored.  He says it is not possible to cover over a thing like this, and adds that whatever is necessary will no doubt be done,

Gul acknowledged that Turkey's warplane could have violated Syrian airspace. He says, jets flying fast often briefly cross into other countries' airspace. He adds that this is nothing unusual, and promises that a full investigation will be carried out, "with nothing hidden."

The president's measured approach follows that of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said Friday that Turkey will act once the full facts are known. Observers say this is a restrained approach, uncharacteristic for Erdoghan, who has in the past few months launched withering attacks on the violent tactics used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in its assault on protesters. Relations between Syria and Turkey are extremely tense, since Ankara has given strong backing to anti-regime forces in Syria. But the air action on Friday has complicated the situation.

Opposition political figures in Turkey have questions about the downed plane's mission, and they are asking why the jet was flying so close to Syria or even entered Syrian airspace at such a tense time. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Obama administration Admits Egyptian from Designated Terrorist Group for Washington D.C. Tour

June 22nd 2012

Omar abdel Rahman blind sheikh
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman

Egyptian parliamentarian Hani Nour Eldin, a member of a Gamaa Islamiya (Egyptian Islamic Group) – U.S.-designated terrorist group – was invited to join a delegation of lawmaker to visit Washington D.C., according to a story originally reported by Eli Lake at the Daily Beast. The spiritual leader of Gamaa Islamiya, Omar Abdel-Rahman – who is known as ‘the blind sheik’ – is currently serving a life sentence in the U.S. for plotting terrorist attacks in New York City. Gamaa Islamiya was banned under the government of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, but is now a recognized Islamist political party in the North African country. Eldin is officially a member of the Building and Development party in the Egyptian parliament, which some have linked to Gamaa Islamiya, according to the Daily Beast article.

As a member of designated terrorist organization, Eldin would normally be barred from obtaining a visa for entry into the U.S. Nonetheless, Eldin said he was granted a visa from the State Department. A State Department spokesman said, “We have no information suggesting that he or anyone else in the delegation is a member of the Egyptian Islamic Group.” Senior Obama administration officials met with Eldin and other members of the parliamentary delegation, according to the Daily Beast article. Read more ..

Broken Banking

Moody's Downgrades 15 of the World's Biggest Banks

June 21st 2012

I Bailed Out a Bank

Moody's Investors Service issued downgrades to 15 of the world's biggest banks Thursday, saying that they all had "significant exposure" to volatility and risk inherent in their global trading activities.

Banks such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America were among the firms downgraded by the rating agency — a move that could require the banks to pony up billions in additional collateral to cover their derivatives transactions, and also make it more expensive for them to borrow.

"All of the banks affected by today’s actions have significant exposure to the volatility and risk of outsized losses inherent to capital markets activities", said Greg Bauer, the firm's global banking managing director. "However, they also engage in other, often market leading business activities that are central to Moody’s assessment of their credit profiles. These activities can provide important ‘shock absorbers’ that mitigate the potential volatility of capital markets operations, but they also present unique risks and challenges." Read more ..

The Edge of Space

A Close Look at the War and Peace Nebula

June 21st 2012

NGC 6537
VLT image of NGC 6537 (credit: ESO)

Deep in the Milky Way in the constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion) lies the War and Peace Nebula, or NGC 6357, a region of space where new stars are being born of chaotic clouds of gas and dust. The name, which has no link to Tolstoy's great novel, was given to this object by scientists working on the Midcourse Space Experiment. They noted that the bright, western part of the nebula resembled a dove, while the eastern part looked like a skull in their infrared images. Unfortunately, this effect cannot be seen in the visible-light image presented here.

NGC 6357, also occasionally nicknamed the Lobster Nebula, was first recorded visually by John Herschel in 1837, but he only recorded the brightest central parts. The full scale of this huge nebula was only seen in photographs much later, and the outer parts of this vast nebula have now been imaged by ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT). Read more ..

Islam's War Against Christianity

Islamists Launch Religious Cleansing of Northern Nigeria with Church Bombings

June 20th 2012

bomb in kaduna nigeria

A curfew has been imposed by Nigerian authorities in the city of Damaturu, following deadly clashes between Boko Haram islamist terrorists and the army in the northeastern state of Yobe. Violence swelled on June 18 and grew overnight in Damaturu. It is believed that at as many 52 deaths came about. Damaturu lies approximately 80 miles east of Maiduguri, a Boko Haram stronghold. Speaking in the name of Pope Benedict, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi condemned the attacks.

The surge in fatalities follows suicide bombing attacks on Sunday, June 17, on five Christian churches in Kaduna and Zaria in the state of Kaduna, central Nigeria. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the bombings. A statewide ban on movement has been reinstated there, while a 24-hour curfew is in effect for the city of Kaduna. The shattered and barely-recognizable remains of one of the bombers were found near the Shalom church in Kaduna.

The Christian Association of Nigeria said in a statement that the car bombings in Kaduna are a clear indication of “religious cleansing” perpetrated by the Boko Haram religious sect. According to the Christian group, Boko Haram "has declared war on Christians and Christianity in Nigeria." In a statement, the group said "The pattern of bombings and gun attacks suggests to us a systematic religious cleansing which reminds Christians of the genesis of a Jihad." It also criticized the federal government’s response, saying that it had “cast a hallmark of weakness” upon President Goodluck Jonathan’s leadership. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Russian Ship Suspected of Carrying Arms to Syria Turns Back

June 19th 2012

Russian cargo ship

A cargo ship believed to be carrying Russian-made attack helicopters has been halted on its way to Syria after its insurance coverage was withdrawn.  Some analysts say the nature of the cargo was what kept the vessel from reaching its destination. The cargo ship, the MV Alaed, is said to have had its policy cancelled by insurers in London.

Britain says the vessel is now heading home. "I am pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has turned back apparently towards Russia," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons. A statement by the British-based ship insurance company Standard Club said it was told about the nature of the vessel's cargo and it consequently informed the ship's owners that their "insurance coverage ceased due to the nature of the journey." The Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported that the ship is thought to be carrying refurbished Russian Mi-25 attack helicopters as well as coast-based anti-ship missiles.  Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Dems Say GOP Willing to Sacrifice the Country to Defeat Obama in '12

June 19th 2012

Barack Obama in Thought

House Democratic leaders this week are intensifying accusations that Republicans want to sink the economy simply to defeat President Obama in November.

The Democrats say House GOP leaders are sitting on a host of proposals – some of them with broad bipartisan support – that could create jobs immediately. Republicans are refusing to bring those bills to the floor, the Democrats charge, because an improved economy could play to Obama's advantage in the polls.

"We have enormous tasks in front of us and an obstructionist Congress that refuses to deal with these realities. This is creating a perfect storm for November," Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday. "Time and again they [Republicans] would rather see Obama fail than the country succeed." Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Democratic whip, piled on later in the morning. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

New Evidence Supports Theory of Extraterrestrial Impact

June 17th 2012

gaseous ring on star

An 18-member international team of researchers that includes James Kennett, professor of earth science at UC Santa Barbara, has discovered melt-glass material in a thin layer of sedimentary rock in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Syria. According to the researchers, the material –– which dates back nearly 13,000 years –– was formed at temperatures of 1,700 to 2,200 degrees Celsius (3,100 to 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit), and is the result of a cosmic body impacting Earth.

These new data are the latest to strongly support the controversial Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) hypothesis, which proposes that a cosmic impact occurred 12,900 years ago at the onset of an unusual cold climatic period called the Younger Dryas. This episode occurred at or close to the time of major extinction of the North American megafauna, including mammoths and giant ground sloths; and the disappearance of the prehistoric and widely distributed Clovis culture.

"These scientists have identified three contemporaneous levels more than 12,000 years ago, on two continents yielding siliceous scoria-like objects (SLO's)," said H. Richard Lane, program director of National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. "SLO's are indicative of high-energy cosmic airbursts/impacts, bolstering the contention that these events induced the beginning of the Younger Dryas. That time was a major departure in biotic, human and climate history." Read more ..

The Massacres in Syria

Syrian Government Forces Escalate Attacks

June 17th 2012


Syrian government forces stepped up their attacks across the country Sunday, employing artillery barrages in the flashpoint city of Homs, as well as the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo, and the towns of Rastan, Telbiseh and Deir ez Zor.

Webcam images showed thick plumes of smoke rising from artillery strikes across the besieged city of Homs Sunday, as shells crashed into apartment blocks and other buildings. Witnesses report increasingly desperate conditions, with little respite in the shelling. A veiled woman with two small daughters explained in an amateur video that she was not afraid, but worried about what would happen to her children.

She says that there is no water, no electricity and that she has no milk for her children. She pleads with the outside world to help her save her children, saying she fears for their safety. In an interview with Agence France Presse one resident of Homs called the siege by government forces “suffocating.” Other activists reported that many neighborhoods have been completely isolated from one other, amid worries of an imminent government onslaught. Read more ..

The Afghanistan War

Army's Mishandling of Afghanistan Police Contract Added Millions of Dollars

June 16th 2012

Afgan Police

As the U.S. military heads for the door in Afghanistan, one of its most important tasks is to train Afghan police to take control of the nation’s security. But a billion-dollar Afghan police training contract, now being administered by the Army, has encountered some troubles, according to a new report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General’s office.

In just the first four months after the contract was signed in December 2010, its cost shot up $145 million, or 14 percent. A series of late revisions has slowed the training process for Afghan police, the IG report said, and the contract has been written in a way that allows new costs to accumulate without penalty.

The IG blamed the Army for the early cost hike, asserting that those overseeing the work by the lead contractor, DynCorp International, should have anticipated that its scope would be greater than initially estimated. Read more ..

Broken Borders

Obama Grants Legal Status to Young Illegal Immigrants

June 15th 2012


The Obama administration said Friday it will stop deporting most illegal immigrant students and young adults in a campaign-year move that escalates the immigration debate to the fore. For years the administration had said it didn’t have the authority to make such a move, saying it couldn’t decide to stop deporting wide categories of people on its own without approval from Congress.

But on Friday Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she now interprets the law to give her this discretion. “Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner,” she said in a statement announcing the move. “But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case. Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language. Discretion, which is used in so many other areas, is especially justified here.”

Her move grants “deferred action” — meaning the department will no longer pursue deportations for those who qualify. The decision is an effort to go around Congress, which has repeatedly failed to pass a bill granting legal status to this category of illegal immigrants. That type of legislation is usually called the Dream Act, though details vary depending on the version.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said the new amnesty will become “a magnet for fraud,” and will end up letting jobs go to current illegal immigrants. “How can the Administration justify allowing illegal immigrants to work in the U.S. when millions of Americans are unemployed?” Mr. Smith said. “President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people.”  Read more ..

The War Next Door

'Dark Angel' and Mexican Meth Manufacturers' Financial Network in the U.S.

June 14th 2012

FBI sting

In a U.S. operation dubbed "Dark Angel," local and federal law enforcement officers on May 30 arrested 20 individuals involved in methamphetamine trafficking across five states. Authorities confirmed that the leader of the trafficking network, Armando Mendoza-Haro, has links to Mexico, where the methamphetamine was likely produced. The group appears to have used legitimate companies to transport methamphetamine from California to the Denver area and elsewhere in the Western and Midwestern United States. The group then sent the profits back to California, where the cash was wired to banks in China and the Cayman Islands.

Mexico's methamphetamine trade seems to be booming these days. Earlier in 2012, the Mexican military made the largest single seizure of methamphetamine ever (15 tons, worth around $1 billion) outside Guadalajara. As the United States increased its restrictions on the pharmaceutical chemicals used to produce methamphetamine, Mexican producers stepped in to meet the growing demand. Details from Operation Dark Angel provide insight into how traffickers in the United States are getting their product to market and, more interestingly, how they are laundering their profits. Read more ..

The Race for Water

Big Uncertainties About the Global Water Budget

June 13th 2012

Arid Desert

No life without water. Catastrophes like droughts or strong rains reflect our dependence on the water cycle and climate system. Hence, it is important to understand details of the water cycle among the atmosphere, oceans, and land. A study in the Journal of Hydrometeorology now outlines significant differences of global models and measurement data sets. As the network of measurement stations worldwide is shrinking dramatically, uncertainties are increased.

“Climate change and the associated change of water availability are facts and will require partly significant adaptation,” emphasize Harald Kunstmann and Christof Lorenz of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, who are the authors of the said study. “This is the reason why we have to better understand interactions of evaporation, clouds, and precipitation also on the regional level.” To check the reliability of various global analyses, the hydrologists and climate researchers reevaluated three of the most modern global coupled atmosphere and ocean models with respect to the water budget and compared the results with measurement data of the years 1989 to 2006.

“We found very big uncertainties in the global water budget estimates,” says Kunstmann. The mean precipitations analyzed in some regions deviate by up to four liters per square meter and day. For comparison: In Germany, about two liters of rain fall per day and square meter on the average. Hence, these models do not allow for a reliable derivation as to when and where how much precipitation occurs. The models do not even provide simple relationships, such as that between the evaporation surplus above the oceans and precipitation above the continents. “Models will continue to tell us with very big uncertainties how much precipitation and, hence, permanently renewed freshwater is available on earth.” Read more ..

The Defense Edge

Loss of Supply Lines in Pakistan Costs $100M a Month

June 13th 2012

Leon Panetta

The continued closure of Pakistani supply routes to U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan is costing the Pentagon nearly $100 million a month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress on Wednesday.

American military planners have been forced to use supply lines in Central Asia, known as the Northern Distribution Network, to move men and materiel to and from Afghanistan since last November, after an errant U.S. airstrike ended in the deaths of Pakistani troops. Transiting troops and equipment out of Afghanistan through Central Asia has been an extremely pricey endeavor, compared to using the cheaper, more direct land routes through Pakistan, Panetta told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. As a result, the Pentagon is losing "$100 million a month because of the closure of those [ground lines]" in Pakistan, Panetta said.

Washington and Islamabad were reportedly close to a deal in May to reopen the lines, which have been closed to American and NATO forces since Pakistan shut the routes in retaliation for the airstrike deaths. But Pakistan's decision to increase the price-per-truck cost to the United States and its allies to move supplies through the country eventually scuttled the deal. Islamabad also continues to demand a formal administration apology for the incident.

U.S.-Pakistani talks on the issue have since been suspended and the U.S. negotiators were pulled from the country on Monday. During Wednesday's hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) pressed Panetta on whether an official White House apology would be enough to break the impasse. "The apology is all-important ... and I think the position is that the national security of this nation is best served if we can develop a positive relationship with Pakistan," Feinstein said. Read more ..

Spain on Edge

As Spain Wobbles, Europe's Creditor Nations Capitulate to Crisis

June 12th 2012

Euro Bills

Eurozone countries on June 9 agreed to lend Spain up to 100 billion euros ($125 billion) to stabilize the Spanish banking system. Because the bailout dealt with Spain's financial sector directly rather than involving the country's sovereign debt, Madrid did not face the kind of demands for more onerous austerity measures in exchange for the loan that have led to political instability in countries such as Greece.

There are two important aspects to this. First, yet another European financial problem has emerged requiring concerted action. Second, unlike previous incidents, this bailout was not accompanied by much melodrama, infighting or politically destabilizing threats. The Europeans have not solved the underlying problems that have led to these periodic crises, but they have now calibrated their management of the situation to minimize drama and thereby limit political fallout. The Spanish request for help without conditions, and the willingness of the Europeans to provide it, moves the European process to a new level. In a sense, it is a capitulation to the crisis.

This is a shift in the position of Europe's creditor nations, particularly Germany. Berlin has realized that it has no choice but to fund this and other bailouts. As an export-dependent country, Germany needs the eurozone to be able to buy German products. Moreover, Berlin cannot allow internal political pressures to destabilize the European Union as a whole.

For all the German bravado about expelling countries, the preservation and even expansion of the existing system remains a fundamental German interest. The cycle of threats, capitulation by creditors, political unrest and then German accommodation had to be broken. It was not only failing to solve the crisis but also contributing to the eurozone's instability. In Spain, the Germans shifted their approach, resolving the temporary problem without a fight over more austerity. Read more ..

Pakistan on Edge

US Pulls Negotiators, Suspends Supply Route Talks with Pakistan

June 11th 2012


American negotiators working with Pakistan to reopen critical supply routes into Afghanistan have been called back to the United States, casting further doubt on whether the lines will ever be reopened to U.S. and coalition forces.

Defense Department spokesman George Little told reporters on Monday that several members of the U.S. negotiation team had already left Islamabad, with the remaining members scheduled to depart the country within days. The team had been in Pakistan for the past six weeks, attempting to hammer out a deal to open the supply lines that had been closed to American and NATO forces since last November, according to recent news reports.

The team's withdrawal was a "U.S. decision," according to Little, who added that getting the supply lines reopened remained a top priority for the Pentagon and the White House. Military officials at the American embassy in Pakistan will continue informal talks on the issue with their counterparts in Islamabad, Little said.  Read more ..

The Massacres in Syria

Assad uses Chemical Weapons on Civilians--Israel offers Humanitarian Assistance to Victims

June 10th 2012

Syria Damascus fighting injured baby

According to Ayoub Kara, Israel’s Deputy Minister for Development of the Negev and Galilee, the Assad regime in Syria has used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in its struggle to control the country. Photos Kara has seen, according to Times of Israel, led him to believe that the embattled government is using such weapons against Syrian men, women and children. Kara, who is a member of Israel’s Druze community, noted that Israeli medical times are working on the border between Syria and Turkey to save lives and treat people injured by the deadly clashes between Syria’s government forces and the insurgent groups arrayed against them. Kara is a member of the Likud party in the Knesset, which is currently in power and led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Speaking at gathering of Druze community leaders in the Golan Heights, Kara said that Israel is primed to accept Syrians wounded during the now 15-month long conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives. Speaking about Israel’s humanitarian assistance, Kara said the Jewish state is also willing to go to Jordan to treat the wounded. “Israel is ready to receive casualties who are evacuated from Syria to Israel, and alternatively we are ready to send medical assistance through Jordan to those unfortunate children and babies whose families have been annihilated by the shabiha of the Syrian regime,” Kara said. The shabiha are pro-government militia who have been accused of some of the worst atrocities against civilians recently. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Obama Campaign Kick-Starts Unprecedented Data Mining Campaign

June 10th 2012

Barack Blackberry Obama

Barack Obama’s re-election campaign will set a new standard for social media usage and technology, even after it raised the bar for the political use of data mining and networking during his 2008 campaign. According to a June 9 report in Politico, Obama’s political headquarters in Chicago has brought in 150 technicians to strip as much of voters’ personal information that they can from social media and other websites. Surpassing any kind of similar research seen before in American politics, "They know what you read and where you shop, what kind of work you do and who you count as friends. They also know who your mother voted for in the last election," the report said. Obama’s techies are seeking to mine every bit of data available about voters in an effort to get their Blackberry-wielding leader a secure seat in the White House. Read more ..

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