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The Race for Solar

Solar on Saudi Sands Could Export Energy for Decades

April 17th 2012

Rub al Khali Saudi Empty Quarter

Every square meter of Saudi Arabia produces an extraordinary 7 kilowatt hours of energy daily in each 12 hours of sun power. If the Saudis were to use up each days solar energy supply, or 12,425 TWh of electricity, it would be a 72 year supply. Put another way, in just one day, enough solar energy hits Saudi sands to power the kingdom for 72 years, according to a study made by the World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology.

That is an extraordinary resource. It is significantly more than the rest of the world. For example: as a Californian who used a typical 15 kilowatt hours of energy a day, this means my entire home could have been fully solar powered by just 2 square meters – or about 3 feet by 6 feet – of solar panels in Saudi Arabia! And Saudi Arabia has about 2 trillion square meters able to produce 14 trillion kilowatt hours of solar energy every sunny day – that is enough to power the world. Read more ..


The Afghan War

Aussie Troops to Pull Out Early from Afghanistan

April 17th 2012

Aussies going home

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced on April 17 that most of her nation's troops will return by the end of 2013, one year ahead of their scheduled departure. Now numbering 1,500 troops, Australia's contingent among the allied forces in Afghanistan is the largest provided by any non-NATO country.

Aussie troops have been mainly engaged in training an Afghan National Army brigade to take responsibility for security in Oruzgan Province in the Central Asian country. Some 32 Austrailian troops have lost their lives in the Afghan conflict, while 100 more have been wounded. Public pressure in Australia to bring the Diggers home has steadily increased.

The announcement comes just two days after the Taliban launched a series of attacks across Afghanistan. The U.S. embassy in Kabul was hit by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades in what the Pentagon admitted was a failure of military intelligence. Pentagon spokesmen have averred that 'gaps' in intelligence must be plugged. Read more ..


The Sudan on Edge

The Two Sudans Collide Again Because of Oil

April 17th 2012

Sudan oil

News that forces of the nascent Government of South Sudan have occupied the Heglig Oil Field operated by the Government of the Sudan in its South Kordofan region is but the most recent chapter in a sad history that stretches back for more than a quarter-century.

Approached rationally, the distribution of oil wealth might have worked miracles in uniting the two Sudans whose fissiparous political and cultural tendencies were quite apparent even prior to its achieving independence in 1956.  Predictably, the Sudanese Muslim majority that held power in Khartoum reacted selfishly, assuming a proprietary interest in the resource and giving short shrift to Southern claims.

Jaafar Numayri, President of the Sudan from 1969-1985, dealt the oil card to create divisions among Sudan's southern politicians, and in doing so he also expanded the growing breech between North and South. For most Muslims of the North, especially the politically powerful riverine Arabs, an impoverished Southern Sudan -- which comprised Bahr al-Ghazal, Upper Nile and Equatoria provinces -- really wasn't worth bothering about. Sudan had already suffered through one civil war (1955-1972), and the battle to maintain national cohesiveness was expensive; it would not have been worth the effort had it not been for the fact that had they been allowed to secede the Southern provinces could then tap the Upper Nile water resource which was crucial to Sudan and Egypt. Read more ..


Election Edge

New Scrutiny for Industries Backing Voter ID Laws

April 16th 2012

beer delivery

Some of America’s best known brands are dropping their membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council at least partly in response to controversy over the group’s backing of voter ID laws. Coca-Cola quit on April 4 and Pepsi, Kraft Foods, Intuit, McDonalds and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation followed them out after a coalition of left-wing groups launched pressure campaigns. Nine states have passed strict voter ID requirements just since 2011, which opponents say could result in millions being unable to cast ballots in November.

But there’s been little attention paid to one major ALEC-affiliated sector behind several state legislators pushing these measures: the beer and wine industry.

Major players in beer and wine sit on an ALEC task force that crafted and approved voter ID model legislation in 2009. The industry’s major trade associations — the National Beer Wholesalers Association and Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America — are among them. Since 2007, the wholesalers have also pumped substantial cash into the campaigns of several ALEC politicians who have been authors or primary sponsors of voter ID bills in their states. Read more ..


Macedonia On Edge

Murders Have Macedonia Nervous

April 14th 2012

Macedonia Police

Ethnic tensions have resurfaced in Macedonia following the announcement of the murder of the five men on the outskirts of the capital, Skopje. The killings have aggravated relations between Macedonians and the ethnic Albanian minority. Police said the five men were shot dead execution-style near a lake outside Skopje and their bodies found by fishermen late on April 12. All of the victims were reportedly ethnic Macedonians. Angry Macedonians blocked several streets in the area on April 13, and police were deployed to prevent clashes. Authorities have so far made no statement about a possible motive for the killings. Residents of the village of Smiljkovci, where the bodies were found, expressed fears the murders could be a sign a worsening relations between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. "What happened last night was very tragic -- young people, I feel very sorry for their families," Violeta Mitreska, of Smiljkovic, said. "I don't know what to say. I hope that this will not endanger coexistence between Macedonians and Albanians in Macedonia." Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Thawing Permafrost May Have Led To Extreme Global Warming Events

April 14th 2012

Arid Desert

Scientists analyzing prehistoric global warming say thawing permafrost released massive amounts of carbon stored in frozen soil of Polar Regions exacerbating climate change through increasing global temperatures and ocean acidification.

Although the amounts of carbon involved in the ancient soil-thaw scenarios was likely much greater than today, the implications of this ground-breaking study are that the long-term future of carbon deposits locked into frozen permafrost of Polar Regions are vulnerable to climate warming caused as humans emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels for energy generation. Researchers in centers across America, Italy and the University of Sheffield, analyzed a series of sudden, and extreme, global warming events - called hyperthermals - that occurred about 55 million years ago, linked to rising greenhouse gas concentrations and changes in Earth's orbit, which led to a massive release of carbon into the atmosphere, ocean acidification, and a five degrees Celsius rise in global temperature within just a few thousand years. It was previously thought that the source of carbon was in the ocean, in the form of frozen methane gas in ocean-floor sediments but now the experts believe the carbon released into the atmosphere millions of years ago came from the Polar Regions.

Professor David Beerling, of the University of Sheffield's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: "For the first time, we have linked these past global warming events with a climatically sensitive terrestrial carbon reservoir rather than a marine one. It shows that global warming can be amplified by carbon release from thawing permafrost." Read more ..


Islam's War against Christianity

Libyan Muslims Destroy WWII British Christian-Jewish Cemetery in Methodical Rampage

April 13th 2012

A disturbing video has emerged which depicts a group of Libyan men and boys, apparently Muslims, destroying a cemetery where lie the remains of Christian and Jewish soldiers of the British Empire who died in the region during the Second World War.

Some of the marauders wielded sledgehammers to break up the simple white headstones of the servicemen, while others toppled them with kicks from boots besmeared with the barren red clay in the final resting place of the British and allied service members.

The fury occurred on March 2, and apparently came as retribution for the burning of retired copies of the Koran by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Muslims worldwide were offended by the burning, despite efforts by the United States to allay offended sentiments. President Barack Obama found himself apologizing, once more, for alleged American desecration of Islam’s holy book, conveying his apologies to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the unintentional burning of the Korans at NATO's main Bagram air base after Afghan laborers found charred copies while collecting rubbish. White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to further express White House contrition, saying “It is wholly appropriate, the sensitivities to this issue, the understandable sensitivities.” Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Is Turkey Considering Military Intervention in Syria?

April 13th 2012

Turkish Military

Several recent developments have put the possibility of military action in Syria on Turkey's agenda. On April 9, Syrian forces opened fire at a refugee camp on the Turkish side of the border, killing two Syrian refugees and wounding two Turks. The number of such refugees crossing into Turkey has increased sharply, reaching some 25,000. In response, Ankara is hinting at creating a buffer zone inside Syria to defend the civilian population and contain the crisis on its border. On April 10, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that although Turkey does not want to enter Syria, "if anybody were to force [Ankara] to do that, it would be the Syrian regime itself."

What are the most likely signs that Turkey is planning military action aimed at creating such a safe haven? Both domestic and regional political dynamics would no doubt shape Ankara's decisions in this regard, as would the military's level of preparedness. The following early indicators could help predict imminent Turkish military action. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

How Moscow is Helping Solve the Iran Problem

April 12th 2012

Iranian clerics

Though news reports generally give a very different impression, Russia is actually playing a constructive role in dealing with the multifaceted issue of Iran's nuclear program. One hint came last month, when Russia's second-largest financial institution closed the accounts of Iran's Embassy in Moscow. While given little attention by the media on either side of the Atlantic, this move signals the Kremlin's willingness to confront Iran on its march toward nuclearization.

Russia's irritation with Iranian policy was underlined by the manner in which the management of VTB 24 — the retail banking arm of the state-controlled behemoth, VTB — dismissed these particular clients. Teheran's diplomats were reportedly given three hours to physically withdraw or wire out their funds or their "accounts would be blocked and money confiscated." Explaining itself, the bank's top management is said to have informed Iranian Ambassador, Seyed Mahmoud-Reza Sajjadi that the embassy's business was no longer profitable and that his credit card would also be blocked. Read more ..


North Korea Nukes

North Korea Dares World with Rocket Launch

April 11th 2012

North Korea Rocket Launch Pad

North Korean officials said Wednesday they have begun injecting fuel into a rocket for an imminent space launch, raising the stakes in an escalating standoff with its regional neighbors and the United States. Paek Chang Ho, chief of North Korea's launch command center, announced the action to a visiting group of international reporters, saying fuel was being loaded into the rocket as he spoke. The journalists, who visited the launch site Sunday, were able to view the activity by video, which was fed live to the remote command center Wednesday. Paek also said a weather satellite has been installed on the rocket, which is set for launch sometime between Thursday and Monday, depending on weather conditions. The video showed a tarpaulin draped over the top of the rocket, making that claim impossible to confirm.

The scheduled launch has angered many of North Korea's neighbors, which see the action as ploy to test a ballistic missile that could later be fitted with a nuclear warhead. Ryu Gum Chol, deputy director of North Korea's space program, told a reporter from VOA's Korean service that the only purpose of the launch is space exploration.

"It seems to me that your worries are unfounded. I reckon that the timing is important now, and you will know everything once you attend the April 15 centenary of the birth of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung," he said. "The rocket we have developed is only for the purpose of space exploration, so to claim it is for ballistic missile development is illogical." But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that the launch has raised doubts about North Korea's claims that it wants to improve ties with its neighbors and the United States. Read more ..

The Edge of Counter-Terrorism

The EU’s Silence on the US Targeted Killing Policy in Pakistan

April 10th 2012

MQ-1 Predator Drone
MQ-1 Predator UAV

Following the attacks of 11 September 2001, the cooperation between the European Union and the United States on counterterrorism increased substantially. In 2004 the EU and US adopted a Declaration on Combating Terrorism that spelled out the objectives of their counterterrorism cooperation.1 In this declaration it is stated that USEU counterterrorism cooperation would be in keeping with human rights and the rule of law.

However, the US has over time expanded its counterterrorism tactics beyond what many in the EU would consider the limits of international law. US practices that have proven to be particularly controversial include the maintenance of the US detention centre in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where suspect terrorists have been held on an often dubious legal basis; the use of interrogation systems bordering torture, such as waterboarding, the so-called extraordinary renditions, whereby terrorist suspects abducted in third countries were then transferred to states where no guarantee against torture or inhuman treatment was in place; and targeted assassinations of suspect terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan through Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), better known as drones. Read more ..


North Korea's Nukes

N. Korea Prepares 'Space Launch' Amid Reports of Plans for Nuclear Test

April 9th 2012

North Korean Rocket

North Korea has placed a three-stage rocket on the launch pad at a new, more sophisticated facility facing the Yellow Sea. It plans to launch what it calls an earth observation satellite as early as Thursday. There are also indications the reclusive and impoverished country is preparing for a third nuclear weapons test, as well. Satellite imagery, taken last week, shows piles of dirt near a newly excavated tunnel entrance at North Korea's nuclear test site. A summary of a South Korean intelligence report accompanying the photos says the excavation at the Punggye-ri test site is in its final stages. Analysts say Pyongyang wants to demonstrate to the world that it is capable of carrying out a nuclear test at any time.

Meanwhile, North Korea, at a separate site, has placed on the launch pad what it is calling the Unha-3 rocket. It appears virtually identical to the three-stage liquid-fueled ballistic missile it fired over Japan three years ago. The United States, South Korea, the European Union and Japan are condemning the planned launch, saying it will clearly violate United Nations sanctions forbidding Pyongyang from utilizing ballistic missile technology. Jang Myong Jin, the general manager of the launch site, says North Korea has a sovereign right to carry out a space launch. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

Western Sanctions on Iranian Banks Make Trade Harder

April 8th 2012

iran bank notes

The European Union's expulsion of 30 sanctioned Iranian banks from a global financial messaging service last month has made it significantly harder for Iranians using those banks to do business with foreign partners.

The head of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce in Hamburg, Michael Tockuss, said that hundreds of German exporters are owed $4.7 billion by Iranians who received goods before the EU move, but now cannot use their banks to pay for them.

His comments reflect Western contentions that a variety of mostly U.S. and European sanctions relating to Iran's controversial nuclear program are having crippling effects on the Iranian economy. The Belgium-based organization SWIFT disconnected 30 Iranian banks from its network on March 17, on the orders of EU nations who sanctioned those banks for having links to Iran's nuclear program.  The United States also has sanctions against 23 Iranian banks. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

No Claims of Ignorance, Please

April 7th 2012

Sat photos of damage
credit: US State Department Human Rights Bureau

In 1995, U.S. spy satellites photographed telling moments in the massacre over four days of an estimated 7,800 Bosnians by Bosnian Serb forces near the town of Srebrenica. But these photographs were not publicized by U.S. officials until nearly four weeks after the massacre had ended. Intelligence analysts did not circulate the evidence to senior officials for 22 days, even though two U.S. diplomats had picked up and circulated warnings about the killings on the first day and again 12 days later (“New Proof Offered of Serb Atrocities,” The Washington Post, Oct. 29. 1995).

It was an embarrassing disconnect between top policymakers and officials in the U.S. intelligence community, which jointly missed the chance to sound an alarm about a horrific, genocidal crime—the largest mass killing in Europe since World War II—while it was still under way.

In 2012, the public picture of what’s happening in Syria—where more than 9,000 people have been killed so far, according to the UN—literally looks different, due to an unusual agreement brokered by White House aides between the intelligence community and the State Department. For more than a month, U.S. intelligence analysts have been declassifying satellite photos depicting the movement of Syrian armor and the destruction of Syrian villages so the department’s Human Rights Bureau can plaster them on its website. Read more ..


The Obama Edge

Treasury Department Review of Solyndra Loan Was Rushed

April 5th 2012

Solyndra HQ 02

The Energy Department kept Treasury Department officials in the dark until late in the government's review of the $535 million loan to now-bankrupt solar panel maker Solyndra, triggering a rushed consultation that may have left concerns unresolved, a new audit released April 4 found.

The audit by the Treasury Department’s inspector general found that Treasury officials had raised serious concerns about the terms of the loan, but there was no documentation of whether they were addressed. The report’s findings of hurried reviews and ignored warning signs echo previous reporting on Solyndra.

The loan, originally touted as a model of President Obama’s green energy program, has become a political weapon. “The Treasury report echoes what our investigation has shown over and over; Solyndra was a bad bet from the beginning that was rushed out the door while every red flag was ignored,” Republican Reps. Fred Upton and Cliff Stearns said in a statement Wednesday. Read more ..


The Arab Winter in Egypt

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Pursues a Political Monopoly

April 4th 2012

Qaradaqi in Cairo

On Saturday, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) announced the nomination of Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater for president, cementing a critical shift in its political strategy. Although the group initially tried to manage Egypt's post-Mubarak transition by cooperating with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and secularist parties, it is now pursuing outright political dominance. The MB's reversal of its oft-repeated pledge not to run a presidential candidate also suggests that it cannot be trusted if it decides there is an advantage to be won. More broadly, the Brotherhood's pursuit of a political monopoly undermines prospects for democracy in Egypt and threatens to intensify political instability -- a scenario that should deeply alarm U.S. policymakers.

Following President Hosni Mubarak's February 2011 ouster, the MB sought to allay secularist fears of an Islamist takeover by adopting a cooperative political approach and tempering its pursuit of power. Specifically, the Brotherhood made two promises: that it would contest fewer than half of the seats in eventual parliamentary elections, and that it would not run for the presidency. In June 2011, it emphasized its commitment to cooperation by joining the secularist Wafd Party in creating the National Democratic Alliance for Egypt, an electoral coalition that, at its height, included forty-three parties. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Cruising in Space at 40,000 Km/hr

April 3rd 2012

Mars and Earth comparison

he first prototype of a new, ultra-compact motor that will allow small satellites to journey beyond Earth's orbit is just making its way out of the EPFL laboratories where it was built. The goal of the micro motor: to drastically reduce the cost of space exploration.

Imagine reaching the Moon using just a tenth of a liter of fuel. With their ionic motor, MicroThrust, EPFL scientists and their European partners are making this a reality and ushering in a new era of low-cost space exploration. The complete thruster weighs just a few hundred grams and is specifically designed to propel small (1-100 kg) satellites, which it enables to change orbit around the Earth and even voyage to more distant destinations – functions typically possible only for large, expensive spacecraft. The just-released prototype is expected to employed on CleanSpace One, a satellite under development at EPFL that is designed to clean up space debris, and on OLFAR, a swarm of Dutch nanosatellites that will record ultra-low radio-frequency signals on the far side of the Moon.

The motor, designed to be mounted on satellites as small as 10x10x10 cm3, is extremely compact but highly efficient. The prototype weighs only about 200 grams, including the fuel and control electronics. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

Iranian Hit Squad Plans Attacks on Jewish and American Interests

April 2nd 2012

Iranian Revolutionary Guard

The Iranians have dispatched a network of covert assassins to hit Jewish, Israeli and Western targets in Turkey, Sky News reports. And now the surreptitious hit-squad has finally been given a name: Unit 400.

A 53-page secret study from a foreign intelligence agency obtained exclusively by Sky News reports as follows:

"Unit 400 is a top-secret "special ops" unit within the elite overseas wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF). It plans and carries out terror attacks on external targets, and provides material support to foreign militia groups, at the direct behest of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This is in accordance with the regime's core strategic considerations about how best to challenge perceived enemies in Israel and the west - through asymmetric warfare - and to cope with mounting international pressure over its nuclear programme."

The commanders of the group has been identified as Hamed Abdellahi and Majid Alavi, the former deputy minister in Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Much Faster Than A Speeding Bullet, Planets And Stars Escape The Milky Way

April 1st 2012

gaseous ring on star

Idan Ginsburg, a graduate student in Dartmouth's Department of Physics and Astronomy, studies some of the fastest moving objects in the cosmos. When stars and their orbiting plants wander too close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, their encounter with the black hole's gravitational force can either capture them or eject them from the galaxy, like a slingshot, at millions of miles per hour.

Although their origin remains a mystery and although they are invisible, black holes found at galaxy centers make their presence known through the effects they have on their celestial surroundings. The Milky Way's black hole, a monster with a mass four million times that of the Sun, feeds on some of its neighbors and thrusts others out into the intergalactic void. It's the expelled objects that "become hypervelocity planets and stars," say Ginsburg. "What we learn from these high-speed travelers has significance for our understanding of planetary formation and evolution near the central black hole."

Ginsburg, along with his doctoral adviser Professor Gary Wegner, and Harvard Professor Abraham Loeb are publishing a paper in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. It describes how the team constructed computer simulations of these hypervelocity bodies as a means to understanding the dynamics involved. "The paper is a 'call to arms' for other astronomers to join the search," Ginsburg announces. Read more ..


The Defense Edge

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

March 31st 2012

Nuclear Missile in Silo

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

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


The Toxic Edge

Illegal Ocean Dumping Persists Despite DOJ Crackdown

March 31st 2012

Coast Guard Inspection
Coast Guard Inspection

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

"GOOD MORNING SIR, I WOULD LIKE TO LET YOU KNOW THIS SHIP DISCHARGING BILGE ILEGALLY USING BY MAGIC PIPE,” the note said. “IF YOU WANT TO KNOW ILLEGAL PIPE THERE IN WORKSHOP FIVE METERS LONG WITH RUBBER.”

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

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

Read more ..

The Cost of War

Across Borders And Battle Lines, Four Mothers Affected By War

March 30th 2012

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

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

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

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


Iran's Nukes

Despite Pledges of Support, U.S. Leak Strategy Undermining Israel Strike Plans for Iran

March 29th 2012

Israeli Jet Diving

Despite pledges of support to Israel and United States Jewry, the Obama White House has undertaken a concerted campaign to undermine any possible Israeli strike on Iran.

Evidence for the campaign includes leaked information containing sensitive details, such as an article appearing Wednesday in Foreign Policy magazine that names Azerbaijan as a country from which Israel might launch an Iran attack.

While pledging repeatedly that "all options are on the table" the Obama administration is nonetheless seeking to close off operational options for Israel's military.

Ron Ben-Yishai, writing for Ynet, puts it this way: "In recent weeks the Administration shifted from persuasion efforts vis-à-vis decision-makers and Israel’s public opinion to a practical, targeted assassination of potential Israeli operations in Iran. This “surgical strike” is undertaken via reports in the American and British media, but the campaign’s aims are fully operational: To make it more difficult for Israeli decision-makers to order the IDF to carry out a strike, and what’s even graver, to erode the IDF’s capacity to launch such strike with minimal casualties. The first and most important American objective is to eliminate potential operational options available to the IDF and the State of Israel ... it is blatantly clear that reports in the past week alone have caused Israel substantive diplomatic damage, and possibly even military and operational damage." Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Casino Billionaire Expected to Move Millions to GOP Groups

March 28th 2012

Sheldon Adelson (Jun 2010)

Multibillionaire Sheldon Adelson and his family, who have kept the flagging presidential candidacy of Newt Gingrich alive, seem poised to send millions to Republican-allied groups and possibly a super PAC backing frontrunner Mitt Romney, according to fundraisers with ties to the casino owner.

Adelson along with wife Miriam and other family members has garnered notice by donating a whopping $16.5 million to a super PAC backing Gingrich for president.

A private dinner Adelson hosted on March 22 at his home in Las Vegas drew Republican bigwigs from Washington, D.C., plus some of the GOP’s best-known fundraisers and donors. The diners were in Las Vegas early for a weekend summit of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), a nonprofit advocacy group that Adelson has backed heavily.

At the dinner, the Adelson family privately sent strong signals to some Romney allies that millions would flow from them to a super PAC backing the former Massachusetts governor—perhaps on a par with what they’ve given to Gingrich, assuming the ex-House Speaker, who is trailing badly, eventually drops out of the race. Read more ..


Religious Tolerance

The Texas Sabbath Showdown: The Inside (and Still Blazing) Story

March 27th 2012

Beren BBall team

At about 8 p.m. on Feburary 27, constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin was sitting half-asleep in the aisle seat of an Amtrak train speeding south from New York to Washington, D.C. Seated next to him was his daughter and law partner Alyza Lewin. Shortly after crossing the bridge into New Jersey, as red and green track lights blurred past, his cell phone rang. Struggling against the din of a train car filled with passengers, and the exhaustion of a tiring day in Manhattan, Lewin tried to make out what was being said on the cell phone. “You are located where?” he asked. “Did you say Texas?”

From that Monday night moment and for the next four days, a tornadic frenzy of phone calls, text messages, e-mails, conference calls and voice mails was unleashed between parents and attorneys in Texas and Washington. It would all change a number of lives forever and make headlines worldwide as an international sports drama.

Beren Jewish Academy of Houston, an Orthodox Jewish high school, fielding a superb basketball team, had battled its way to the semi-finals of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS). Ironically, although TAPPS was a sports league of private and religious schools, the association was determined not to honor any Sabbath except Christian Sunday. Moreover, the semi-final playoffs were deliberately scheduled for March 2, a Friday night, which meant that Orthodox Jewish students could not participate. TAPPS angrily and steadfastly denied all requests for accommodation for Beren’s Jewish kids, refusing to move the game up just a few hours even though Covenant, the team Beren was scheduled to play, agreed to the proposed revised game time. That triggered a legal challenge in federal court which quickly led to TAPPS reversing its decision and rescheduling the Friday night game to early Friday afternoon in time for the Beren team to play. The pumped Beren team handily won the game. Headlines raced across the planet trumpeting a victory for the Beren team, for religious accommodation, for sports and for great storylines. Read more ..


The Weapon’s Edge

Will the $55 Billion Bomber Program Fly?

March 26th 2012

B-2 Bomber
B-2 Bomber (credit: Gary Ell/USAF)

When the Obama administration dispatched three B-2 bombers from a Missouri air base on March 19 last year to cross the ocean and reach Libya, it put roughly $9 billion worth of America’s most prized military assets into the air. The bat-shaped black bombers, finely machined to elude radar and equipped with bombs weighing a ton apiece, easily demolished dozens of concrete aircraft shelters near Libya’s northern coast.

The Air Force points to that successful mission, and thousands of others against insurgents in Afghanistan conducted by older B-1 bombers, while arguing that long-distance, pinpoint expressions of U.S. military power are best carried out by strategic bombers. As a result, the Air Force says, the country needs more and newer versions of them, at the cost of tens of billions of dollars.

Its claims over the last year have impressed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who called the idea “critical” to national security in February budget testimony. They also charmed Congress, which in December slipped an extra hundred million dollars into the defense budget to speed the creation of a top-secret new “Long-Range Strike Bomber.” Only that bomber—among the dozens of major new weapons systems now in development—was honored with a specific endorsement in the Pentagon’s new strategic review, released on January 5. Read more ..


The Future's Edge

Man-Made Microbes to Create the Next Generation of Fuel and Medicine

March 26th 2012

Mouse in Beaker

Just as aspiring authors often read hundreds of books before starting their own, scientists are using decades of knowledge garnered from sequencing or "reading" the genetic codes of thousands of living things to now start writing new volumes in the library of life. J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., one of the most renowned of those scientists, described the construction of the first synthetic cell and many new applications of this work today at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society, which is underway this week.

In a plenary talk titled, "From Reading to Writing the Genetic Code," Venter described a fundamental shift in his field of genomics, and its promise for producing synthetic life that could help provide 21st century society with new fuels, medicines, food and nutritional products, supplies of clean water and other resources. Venter, a pioneer in the field, led the team at Celera Genomics that went head-to-head with the government-and-foundation-funded Human Genome Project in the race to decode the human genome. This quest, in which the 23,000 human genes were deciphered, ended with the teams declaring a tie and publishing simultaneous publications in 2001.

"Genomics is a rapidly evolving field and my teams have been leading the way from reading the genetic code — deciphering the sequences of genes in microbes, humans, plants and other organisms — to writing code and constructing synthetic cells for a variety of uses. We can now construct fully synthetic bacterial cells that have the potential to more efficiently and economically produce vaccines, pharmaceuticals, biofuels, food and other products."

The work Venter described at the ACS session falls within an ambitious new field known as synthetic biology, which draws heavily on chemistry, metabolic engineering, genomics and other traditional scientific disciplines. Synthetic biology emerged from genetic engineering, the now-routine practice of inserting one or two new genes into a crop plant or bacterium. Read more ..


The Future's Edge

Designing Human-like Robots

March 24th 2012

Robonauts
NASA/GM's Robonaut2 (credit: NASA)

When we talk with someone, words aren’t the only thing that impact our listener.  Other subtle factors—such as tone of voice, body language and eye contact—also have powerful communicative potential.

Bilge Mutlu, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, understands and appreciates the power of nonverbal communication.

The professor calls himself a human-computer interaction specialist.  His work involves taking characteristics of human behavior and replicating them in robots or animatronic characters.

Mutlu is leading a team that’s developing and creating various computer algorithms based on how people communicate without words.  These algorithms are then used to program devices, like robots, to look and act more human-like, helping to bridge the gap between man and machine.

A person’s gaze is one of the facets of nonverbal communication Mutlu has found to be especially interesting. “It turns out that gaze tells us all sorts of things about attention, about mental states, about roles in conversations,” he says.

For example, if you focus your gaze on a specific individual while talking to a group of people, it communicates that what’s being said is especially relevant to that individual. Research also shows when you finish saying something in a conversation and your gaze is directed to one particular person, that person is likely to take the next turn speaking in the discussion. These nonverbal cues tell people where our attention is focused and what we mean when we direct a question or comment in a conversation. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Party of Fraud: Hizballah’s Criminal Enterprises

March 23rd 2012

Hezbollah rally

Given the growing confluence of drugs and terror, Washington needs to be more focused on Hizballah’s illicit activities, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. A long-established relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Qods Force provides Hizballah, Iran’s trusted proxy group, opportunities to build operational capacity in the global illicit drug trade.

Hizballah entered the global narcotics trade approximately seven years ago by acquiring relatively small amounts of cocaine in 15kg–20kg quantities. Trafficking the drugs from the Tri-Border Area (Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina), across the Atlantic, and into locations like Europe, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, this initial investment produced hefty profits almost overnight. Today, Hizballah is moving tons of cocaine into West Africa, onward to North Africa, and eventually into European markets.

For decades, Hizballah has been a master at identifying and exploiting existing smuggling and organized crime infrastructure. Conservatively, the DEA has linked at least half of the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations to the global drug trade. Hizballah’s illicit activity is directly linked to the group’s ability to build contacts and relationships globally. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Saudi Arabia Dumps Oil in Time for US Election Season

March 23rd 2012

Saudi Oil

A fleet of oil tankers is heading from Saudi Arabia to the US in order to drive down “unjustified” oil prices of $127 per barrel. 

Saudi Arabia’s current capacity of 9.9 million barrels per day already exceeds self-imposed OPEC quotas.  Saudi Petroleum minister Ali Naimi said production could go up another 25 percent to 12.5 million barrels per day, if necessary. 

To put this into perspective, despite the fact that Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) oil reserve has been a cornerstone of  U.S. political wrangling for decades, pumping at this rate would deplete ANWR in 21 months. Dumping oil, what does it mean? The phrase “oil dumping” can be used to describe illegal oil disposal or accidents such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.  But in the context of world trade, dumping has a special meaning.  A commodity is dumped into a market, often below production cost, in order to suppress or squeeze out competition.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) generally frowns on dumping, but enforcement is inconsistent.  U.S. officials are hypersensitive to the dumping of steel and aluminum but the U.S., E.U. and Japan protested when China stopped dumping rare earth metals.  In an overlooked bit of ironic timing, the United States Department of Commerce imposed a 2.9% to 4.73% anti-dumping tariff on Chinese photovoltaic solar panels on March 20th, the same day Ali Naimi announced his plan to force oil prices lower. Read more ..


South Carolina on Edge

South Carolina Among other States Gets a Failing Grade for Integrity

March 23rd 2012

south carolina state capitol
South Carolina State Capitol

In response to South Carolina’s failing grade from the State Integrity Investigation, House Democrats there have proposed historic ethics reforms. South Carolina was ranked 45th out of 50 states, with a score of 57 percent. “It is time for South Carolina to get serious about ethics reform,” said Rep. Boyd Brown, (D-Winnsboro), in a press release that cited the investigation’s “scathing” assessment of South Carolina. “Corruption is plaguing our great state and it’s high time we do something about it. South Carolina is ripe for another ‘Operation Lost Trust’ and I refuse to stand idly by while that happens again.” Operation Lost Trust, a vote buying scandal that involved more than two dozen lobbyists and lawmakers, sparked a major ethics overall in South Carolina in the early 1990s, severely restricting gifts and campaign contributions from lobbyists.The new proposal includes term limits, a revamping of the State Ethics Commissions and a two-year ban on the revolving door between legislating and lobbying. Read more ..


Inside Myanmar

The Opening Up of Myanmar May Profoundly Affect Asian Geopolitics

March 21st 2012

Myanmar girl and Aung son

Myanmar's ongoing liberalization and its normalization of relations with the outside world have the possibility of profoundly affecting geopolitics in Asia – and all for the better.

Geographically, Myanmar dominates the Bay of Bengal. It is where the spheres of influence of China and India overlap. Myanmar is also abundant in oil, natural gas, coal, zinc, copper, precious stones, timber and hydropower, with some uranium deposits as well. The prize of the Indo-Pacific region, Myanmar has been locked up by dictatorship for decades, even as the Chinese have been slowly stripping it of natural resources. Think of Myanmar as another Afghanistan in terms of its potential to change a region: a key, geo-strategic puzzle piece ravaged by war and ineffective government that, if only normalized, would unroll trade routes in all directions.

Ever since China's Yuan (ethnic Mongol) dynasty invaded Myanmar in the 13th century, Myanmar has been under the shadow of a Greater China, with no insurmountable geographic barriers or architectural obstacles like the Great Wall to separate the two lands -- though the Hengduan Shan range borders the two countries. At the same time, Myanmar has historically been the home of an Indian business community -- a middleman minority in sociological terms -- that facilitated the British hold on Myanmar as part of a Greater British India. Read more ..


The Defense Edge

Obama Prepares for War with Sweeping Executive Order

March 20th 2012

Barack Obama in Thought

Last Friday, March 16, President Barack Obama may have quietly placed the United States on a war preparedness footing, perhaps in anticipation of an outbreak of war between Israel, the West, and Iran. A newly-propounded Executive Order, titled "National Defense Resources Preparedness," renews and updates the president's power to take control of all civil energy supplies, including oil and natural gas, control and restrict all civil transportation, which is almost 97 percent dependent upon oil; and even provides the option to re-enable a draft in order to achieve both the military and non-military demands of the country, according to a simple reading of the text. The Executive Order was published on the White House website.

The timing of the Order -- with little fanfare -- could not be explained. Opinions among the very first bloggers on the purpose of the unexpected Executive Order run the gamut from the confused to the absurd. None focus on the obvious sudden need for such a pronouncement: oil and its potential for imminent interruption. If Iran was struck by Israel or the West, or if Iran thought it might be struck, the Tehran regime has promised it would block the Strait of Hormuz, which would obstruct some 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil, some twenty percent of the global supply, and about 20 percent of America's daily needs. Moreover, Tehran has promised military retaliation against any nation it feels has harmed it. The United States is at the top of the list. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

NASA Unveils Atlas, Catalog of Entire Infrared Sky

March 20th 2012

Galaxies

A new atlas and catalog of the entire infrared sky were unveiled recently by NASA. The atlas and catalog – which show more than a half-billion stars, galaxies and other objects – were composed from data captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. With the entire release of the sky catalog, the WISE mission has now met its fundamental objective, according to NASA The new atlas is made up with more than 18,000 images taken by the WISE mission. An accompanying catalog lists the infrared properties of more than 560 individual objects, which can be found in the images. Most of the objects listed are stars and galaxies, many of which have never been seen before. "Today, WISE delivers the fruit of 14 years of effort to the astronomical community,” said Edward Wright, WISE principal investigator at UCLA.

The WISE spacecraft launched Dec. 14, 2009. In 2010, it mapped the entire sky using equipment that was much more sensitive than that used on previous missions. Over the course of its mission, WISE collected more than 2.7 million images of everything from asteroids to distant galaxies. The mission team has also been processing more than 15 terabytes of data transmitted back to Earth by the WISE spacecraft. About a year ago, in a preliminary release, NASA offered its first bundle of WISE data to astronomers. Read more ..

Labor on Edge

Plan to Cut Benefits for Injured Federal Workers Stirs Concern

March 18th 2012

jail door blue

In the space of a minute, federal prison worker Jason Unwin was twice attacked by a furious, muscle-bound inmate on Dec. 21, 2010.

Agitated after a disciplinary hearing, the inmate first punched one of Unwin’s colleagues in the face, knocking him unconscious. He then turned to Unwin, a correctional counselor at the United States Penitentiary in Florence, Colo. “I was hit square in the face,” said Unwin, 51.

With a bloodied Unwin in pursuit, the inmate walked off. Seconds later, with Unwin briefly distracted, the inmate “blindsided me. He hit me with a closed fist, very hard, on the left side of the head. I was knocked unconscious.”

Unwin, a Federal Bureau of Prisons employee for 16 years, hasn’t worked since. He doesn’t have a full range of motion in his right shoulder, he said, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has short-term memory problems, sleeps irregularly and faces seizure risks.

The saving grace: He is covered by a 96-year-old compensation program for injured federal workers. Under the Federal Employees Compensation Act of 1916 (FECA), he receives 75 percent of his former salary, tax-free; his monthly income is within a few hundred dollars of his previous salary.

Legislation pending in the U.S. Senate, however, ultimately would cut Unwin’s benefits and could affect many other government workers—especially those with modest incomes—in the future. The measure, championed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is included in a postal reform bill that may come up for a vote this month. Collins said it would stamp out abuses while saving money. Yet officials with federal employees’ unions say the legislation would unfairly punish victims of workplace violence and other traumatic injuries—and their families.

“It’s a terrible message we’re sending to a federal law enforcement officer,” said Joe Mansour, national workers compensation representative for the Council of Prison Locals, an affiliate of the American Federation of Government Employees. “People are going to lose their homes. People are going to lose their cars.” Under the proposal, compensation would be capped at 50 percent of pre-injury pay for FECA recipients at age 65. Now, benefits range from 75 percent for those with dependents to 66 2/3 percent for those without Read more ..


The Metal's Edge

Colombia Vows to Clean up Coltan Mining

March 16th 2012

Colombian Miners

Colombia is moving to curb illegal mining of the highly sought after mineral, colten. Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, travelled to the lawless southeastern corner of the country last weekend and declared his intention to designate the coltan-rich region a “strategic reserve, for national security reasons.” The mining industry there is currently controlled by what Mines and Energy Minister Mauricio Cárdenas called “shady interests” in a tweet on March 11. A ministry official said Monday that the government eventually hopes to auction off mining permits to legitimate companies, according to the Wall Street Journal. The groups Cárdenas was alluding to are right-wing paramilitaries and rebels-turned-drug dealers in the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, the FARC. As reported earlier this month, those armed groups have coerced the native Indians who live in the region to work the mines or bought their labor with free beer, food, and brand-name athletic shoes. He said that these groups are “a national security concern for us.”

The heavy, black, conductive mineral is used in everything from sophisticated personal electronics to precision weapons. It is used to improve the ability of microchip processors to function in extremely hot or cold temperatures. Unlike diamonds, the origins of which can be determined via geo-fingerprinting, there is no accurate test to trace coltan. This has made it an attractive new source of revenue for narco-terrorist groups like the FARC. Their illicit role in the trade may also become an economic concern for the Colombian government, which claims to control 5 percent of the world’s coltan reserves.

Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Satellite Image Reveals High Explosive Test Chamber at Iran's Parchin Site

March 14th 2012

Parchin building Iran

ISIS has identified in commercial satellite imagery a building on the Parchin site in Iran that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wants to visit because it contains, or used to contain, a high-explosive test chamber.  The building is located on a relatively small and isolated compound within the Parchin military site and has its own perimeter security wall or fencing. 

A berm can be seen between this building and a neighboring one, which is consistent with a description of the compound in the November 8, 2011 IAEA Safeguards Report.  The compound is located more than four kilometers away from high-explosive related facilities also at the Parchin site which the IAEA visited in 2005.

The IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano recently noted that the IAEA has “information that that some activity is ongoing” at the Parchin site. When asked if he was concerned that Iran was cleansing the site, Amano said that the “possibility is not excluded…” and that “we have to go there.” If Iran is engaging in clean up work to hide evidence at the Parchin site then it could be occurring inside this building as well. Thus, the IAEA deserves international support to visit this site without delay to inspect the inside of this building and other locations in Parchin as well. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Personal Cloud Replaces PCs as the Center of Our Digital Lives

March 13th 2012

CG cloud

The reign of the personal computer as the sole corporate access device is coming to a close, and by 2014, the personal cloud will replace the personal computer at the center of users' digital lives, according to research from Gartner.

Gartner analysts said the personal cloud will begin a new era that will provide users with a new level of flexibility with the devices they use for daily activities, while leveraging the strengths of each device, ultimately enabling new levels of user satisfaction and productivity. However, it will require enterprises to fundamentally rethink how they deliver applications and services to users.

"Major trends in client computing have shifted the market away from a focus on personal computers to a broader device perspective that includes smartphones, tablets and other consumer devices," said Steve Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner. "Emerging cloud services will become the glue that connects the web of devices that users choose to access during the different aspects of their daily life." Read more ..


Catholic Church on Edge

Fugitive Catholic Priest Sought for Alleged Sexual Assault of Minor

March 11th 2012

Procession of Jesus

Accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old Chicago girl, the Rev. Sleeva Raju Policetti fled Illinois nearly a decade ago to his native India, where the Roman Catholic archbishop of Hyderabad soon issued an order barring him from ministry.

In 2008, after a canonical trial, the Vatican took the rare and severe step of defrocking Policetti over the allegations, meaning he is no longer a priest.

But civil justice never caught up to the fugitive ex-priest, whose lawyers in India have fought efforts to extradite him to Chicago to face 20 felony counts of criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

And now it's apparently too late.

In recent days, Policetti's case took a dramatic turn when an attorney for Policetti's alleged victim indicated to Cook County prosecutors that she was no longer willing to pursue charges — a decision that would effectively force prosecutors to dismiss the case and abandon the years-long extradition effort. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Obama and Congress Inch Toward US intervention in Bloody Syria Conflict

March 10th 2012

F15 in Afghanistan
American F-15

Talk of intervening in the conflict in Syria is escalating on Capitol Hill, though there’s little consensus on what the path forward should be.

The Obama administration is reportedly moving toward providing assistance to the Syrian opposition forces, which would open a new phase of U.S. involvement. Amid the behind-the-scenes deliberations, President Obama on Tuesday warned against involving the U.S. military in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake,” Obama said at his press conference. “The notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military — you know, that hasn’t been true in the past, and it won’t be true now.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday urged the United States to lead an airstrike against Assad’s forces, saying the conflict has reached a “decisive moment.” Following McCain’s call for military intervention, a few hawkish members of Congress expressed a willingness to consider military action. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would need to see a “target list” for proposed airstrikes against Assad before supporting them. Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, said McCain’s call for airstrikes was “right on track,” but emphasized the United States should not take the lead on any military mission. Read more ..



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