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The Robotic Edge

Will Robots be Enabled to Disguise Themselves

August 20th 2012

Terminator Robot

A team of researchers led by George Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, has already broken new engineering ground with the development of soft, silicone-based robots inspired by creatures like starfish and squid.

Now, they're working to give those robots the ability to disguise themselves.

As demonstrated in an August 16 paper published in Science, researchers have developed a system – again, inspired by nature – that allows the soft robots to either camouflage themselves against a background, or to make bold color displays. Such a "dynamic coloration" system could one day have a host of uses, ranging from helping doctors plan complex surgeries to acting as a visual marker to help search crews following a disaster, said Stephen Morin, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Chemistry and Chemical Biology and first author of the paper.

"When we began working on soft robots, we were inspired by soft organisms, including octopi and squid," Morin said. "One of the fascinating characteristics of these animals is their ability to control their appearance, and that inspired us to take this idea further and explore dynamic coloration. I think the important thing we've shown in this paper is that even when using simple systems – in this case we have simple, open-ended micro-channels – you can achieve a great deal in terms of your ability to camouflage an object, or to display where an object is." Read more ..


Japan on Edge

China-Japan Island Dispute Has Long History

August 19th 2012

Senkaku Islands
Senkaku Islands

The chain of uninhabited islands at the center of a territorial dispute between China and Japan sits on top of what are thought to be vast oil deposits, and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds.

But the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, have a long history of straining relations and inspiring nationalist resentment between the two Asian neighbors, long before the issue of oil resources in the area came up.

China says the islands have been considered part of its territory since the 14th century, when it says they first appeared on Chinese maps during the Ming Dynasty. Beijing says Chinese fishermen have used the islands since ancient times.

But Japan disputes that claim, saying it discovered the islands in 1884. After determining the islands were uninhabited, Japan annexed them in 1895 after winning the First Sino-Japanese War. China objects, saying it was forced to sign the post-war treaty that effectively handed the islands over to Japan. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Asia Flood Disasters a Warning Signal for City Planners Everywhere

August 18th 2012

Sumatra village after tsunami

Recent flooding disasters in Asian capitals are a warning of worse problems to come for city planners. The Asian Development Bank says rapid urbanization is straining city infrastructure, leading to worse pollution, and putting millions in Asia at risk. 
Heavy monsoon rains this month left a third of the Philippine capital, Manila, under water. In July, the Chinese capital, Beijing, saw the worst flooding in 60 years. And last year, the Thai capital, Bangkok, was partly swamped by historic floods that killed over 800 people.

Asian Development Bank chief economist Changyong Rhee says although weather-related tragedies are common in Asia, it is not because of bad luck. “This kind of natural disaster, especially flooding in Asia, is a result of the combination of growing risk of global warming and climate changes together with rapid and massive urbanization in Asia without proper infrastructure,” says Rhee. Rhee was speaking to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand for the release of an ADB study titled Green Urbanization in Asia. The ADB says carbon emissions, believed to be a major cause of climate change, grew five times as fast in Asian cities as the world average and are set to triple by 2050. Read more ..


The Humanitarian Edge

World Humanitarian Day: It's Personal

August 17th 2012

Humanitarian aid

Four years ago, the UN General Assembly designated August 19 as World Humanitarian Day, choosing this particular date in commemoration of the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in which 22 people lost their lives. The idea is to set aside one day a year to remember humanitarian workers who have been killed or injured while carrying out their work. The theme for this year’s World Humanitarian Day is an upbeat ‘People Helping People’ and the commemorations actually kicked off last week in New York with a new song ‘I was here’ by Beyoncé and a video message from UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon.

Encouraging people to reach out to those in need is a good message. But it’s also important to pay tribute to those who have given their lives in humanitarian service. I still vividly remember that August day in 2003 when news began to trickle out that there had been an explosion at UN headquarters in Baghdad. The reports came in dribs and drabs – through emails and phone calls. Read more ..


South Africa on Edge

S. African Police Claim Self-Defense in Mine Shootings

August 17th 2012

Police miners

South African police say 34 people were killed in a shootout between police and angry miners at a troubled platinum mine. But police, unions and the presidency have stopped short of saying who is at fault.

South Africa’s police commissioner on Friday visited the scene of a deadly shootout between police and strikers at the Lonmin platinum mine in the nation’s northwest. A confrontration Thursday between striking miners and police turned into a gunbattle. Police spokesman Capt. Dennis Adraio said Friday that in addition to the deaths, 78 people were wounded. Police have arrested 259 people. Adraio said police did everything they could to avert a shootout - and have video to prove it. “The South African service national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega showed footage, which highlighted that police have exhausted all possible methods of crowd management using minimum force before having to resort to self-defense," said Adraio. Read more ..


The Archaeological Edge

Ancient Seal May Add Substance to the Legend of Samson

August 16th 2012

Samson seal, Beth Shemesh
The “Samson seal” found at Beth Shemesh
(credit: Raz Lederman/Tel Beth Shemesh Excavations)

Tel Aviv University researchers recently uncovered a seal, measuring 15 millimetres (about a ½l") in diameter, which depicts a human figure next to a lion. The artifact was found at the archaeological site of Beth Shemesh, located between the Biblical cities of Zorah and Eshtaol, where Samson was born, flourished, and was finally buried, according to the book of Judges. The scene engraved on the seal, the time period, and the location of the discovery all point to a probable reference to the story of Samson, the legendary heroic figure whose adventures famously included a victory in hand-to-paw combat with a lion.

While the seal does not reveal when the stories about Samson were originally written, or clarify whether Samson was a historical or legendary figure, the finding does help to “anchor the story in an archaeological setting,” says Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations. Prof. Bunimovitz co-directs the Beth Shemesh dig along with Dr. Zvi Lederman. “If we are right and what we see on the seal is a representation of a man meeting a lion, it shows that the Samson legend already existed around the area of Beth Shemesh during that time period. We can date it quite precisely,” Prof. Bunimovitz adds. Read more ..


The Edge of Food

America (Re)Discovers Hard Cider

August 16th 2012

Woodchuck cider varieties

More Americans are quenching their thirst with hard cider. In 2011, U.S. sales of the alcoholic beverage made of fermented apple juice were up 20 percent over the previous year, according to the U.S.-based Beer Institute. There were about 5.6 million cases of hard cider sold in the U.S. in 2011. At the same time, mainstream beer sales are down.While cider still makes up only a tiny fraction of the U.S. alcohol industry, small producers are sprouting up across the country, and the nation’s two largest beer companies have recently entered the cider market.

Hard cider isn’t new. In the 1700s and 1800s, it was the drink of choice for early Americans. But as German immigrants brought their beer-making skills to America, cider fell out of favor. The drink’s popularity took another blow in the 1920s, during Prohibition, when alcoholic beverages were banned in the United States. But today, hard cider is making a comeback.

Bob Caloutti, who sells beer and wine in Rutland, Vermont, carries several brands of hard cider. It is a small niche market, he says, but sales are growing fast among both men and women. “Oh, I definitely think the potential is there,” Caloutti says. “Cider has been around forever and then if you throw in the gluten-free aspect, there’re a lot of people who can’t have gluten, which is obviously a common factor in beer, so I think cider is here to stay.” Read more ..


After the Holocaust

Last Survivors of Treblinka Holocaust Death Camp Remember the Horrors

August 15th 2012

Holocaust cattle cars

The last living survivors of Nazi death camp Treblinka have spoken about the excruciating torment they suffered during World War II. Kalman Tagiman and Samuel Willenberg were both 19 years old when they arrived at the camp, where they were forced to assist in the mass murder of men, women and children.

For Samuel, now 89, it is one particular memory which haunts him to this day, 70 years later. Samuel was sifting through the belongings of another trainload of doomed innocents, this time coming from his home town, when he made a discovery so horrific he fell to the floor. A young girl’s coat, and a pleated blue skirt, lying on top of a pile of clothes, just before the entrance to the gas chambers. The coat and skirt belonged to his two younger sisters. The Treblinka 'death factory' was located in occupied Poland but was destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war as they tried to cover their tracks.

Less than 70 Treblinka prisoners survived the war – they were a small part of the slave-labour prisoners who attacked guards and escaped the camp. It is estimated that between 800.000 and 1.2million prisoners were taken to Treblinka. Prisoners arriving had only had one per cent chance of surviving the first three hours. Read more ..


The Defense Edge

Lawmakers Unhappy with Air Force Launch Monopoly

August 15th 2012

ULA Atlas V liftoff, June 2012
ULA Atlas V liftoff, June 2012 (credit: United Launch Alliance)

For six years, the Air Force has relied mostly on a single, high-cost rocket manufacturer to loft its reconnaissance, communications, and GPS satellites into space—and it is about expand that. In the fall of 2013, it plans to give the company a new $19 billion contract for all of the Air Force launches scheduled through 2017.

Some members of Congress are upset by the price tag, however, and key lawmakers—acting with the support of an array of upstart rocket firms—are starting to push back against the Air Force’s plan to reward its contractor with a five-year lock on all its launches. The latest salvo comes from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and ranking member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), who complained in an August 2 letter that the Pentagon’s largest launch project “lacks domestic competition and is unable to compete internationally due to high costs.”

The Air Force satellite project is known as the Evolved Expendable Vehicle Launch (EELV) program. The firm that the Air Force favors is United Launch Alliance, a joint project formed in 2006 by the Pentagon’s top two contractors, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The Air Force plans to award the $19 billion deal between June and October 2013. Read more ..


The Edge of Food

Replacing Red 40 with Israeli Tomato Dye

August 14th 2012

Tomatoes

Israel’s LycoRed plant-derived food coloring is the only one of its kind to win the FDA’s green light. The reds and oranges in candies don’t have to be from synthetic dyes. Look at any Israeli dining table and the humble tomato is usually there front and center, diced into a cucumber salad or sliced in big wedges drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.

No one knows fresh tomatoes like the Israelis. It makes sense, then, that the Israeli company LycoRed should corner the market for lycopene, a new super-food and natural dye extracted from the tomato. Lycopene is quickly replacing artificial and animal-based red dyes across America. Health-conscious, vegan, kosher and halal consumers are paying particular attention to this new “green” red dye.

Red food coloring is an attractive way to add a natural tint to milkshakes, red velvet cupcakes, candies and yogurts, but recent evidence on six synthetic dyes, including Red 40, links them to behavioral problems in children. As savvy parents demand better solutions for candies and snack foods, and big retailers such as Starbucks are searching for natural alternatives for their fruit shakes, all eyes are on Israel. Read more ..


The Edge of Art

Exhibit Gives Rare Glimpse of Mughal Art

August 13th 2012

Portrait of Abul Hasan from Gulshan Album

The Mughal Emperor Akbar—who is recorded as saying, “There are many that hate painting; but such men I dislike,” would probably be pleased with the curators at Washington’s Sackler Gallery. The exhibit “Worlds Within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran” shows the gallery’s love of painting, particularly the finely-detailed works commissioned by Akbar, his son Jahangir, and his grandson Shah Jahan—the builder of the Taj Mahal.

The Mughals—who reigned from 1526 to 1857—were direct descendants from Genghis Khan through Chagatai Khan and Timur (also known as Tamarlane). Eventually they controlled most of modern day Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. As the Empire expanded, the Mughals imported the finest artists and crafstmen into their court - including from neighboring Persia.

The Mughals were avid readers and collectors—with Emperor Akbar reported to have 24,000 volumes in his library. Akbar’s son Jahangir is thought of as the greatest of the Mughal patrons—with the best books, the best artists, and the best craftsmen available in his court. The Mughal’s artistic tastes embraced many styles, from Persian and Indian painting to European Renaissance styles. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Smuggling Trail Quietly Brings Arms to Syrian Rebels

August 13th 2012

Some Western and Arab Gulf powers say they are increasing humanitarian and support aid to the Syrian opposition. At the Turkey–Syria border—the main conduit for foreign aid to rebel fighters—there are signs the aid trail also may include covert arms smuggling.

The Turkish city of Antakya is now a hub for Syrian rebels and their supporters. Just 20 kilometers from the border, analysts say it’s here that most of the deals are being forged to aid the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels. But few people here will openly admit that foreign countries are arming the opposition.

Opposition supporters have posted videos on social media sites allegedly showing big caches of weapons—mainly Kalashnikov rifles—and ammunition. Their origin is unknown. Ahmad al-Kanatre Abu Hamza, commander of the Omar al-Mukhtar brigade of the FSA, said in July that most of his fighters’ weapons are taken from Syrian forces. “Almost all our weapons are confiscated from the defeated regime army. We get no help from other countries,” he said. “All our arms are light weapons and they are old.” Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

With Husband’s Selection For GOP Ticket, Janna Ryan Finds Herself In The Spotlight

August 12th 2012

Janna Ryan 8-11-12

Former Washington tax attorney Janna Ryan reportedly used to go hunting with her outdoorsman beau, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), when they first began dating in 1999. Today, both she and her husband are setting their sights on much bigger game. On Saturday, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced Ryan as his running mate, catapulting Janna Ryan into the national media spotlight as her husband vies for the White House. The pretty blonde met Ryan in 1999 during his first term in the House. At the time, Janna Christine Little was working as a tax attorney for PricewaterhouseCoopers and lived in Arlington, Va.

The Wellesley College and George Washington University Law School graduate was introduced to the eligible political bachelor by a mutual friend, according to their April 2000 engagement announcement.

Ryan was 30, Little age 31 at the time of the marriage, which took place in December 2000 in the bride’s home state of Oklahoma. Immediately following the nuptials, Ryan had to choose between his new wife and the demands of Congress, opting to forego voting on unfinished budget matters in favor of a honeymoon to the Virgin Islands. Ryan allegedly first consulted then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) before being advised there were only minor votes scheduled, according to local news reports. "I'm going to keep my first commitment to my wife, and that's to take her on a honeymoon," Ryan said, as reported by the Associated Press. The Ryans subsequently made their home in Wisconsin, and in the decade to follow had three children, daughter Liza and sons Charlie and Sam. Not much is known about Janna Ryan, who's kept a low-public profile despite her husband's political fame. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Why Do Organisms Build Tissue Structures They Seemingly Never Use?

August 12th 2012

Frog life stages

Why, after millions of years of evolution, do organisms build structures that seem to serve no purpose?

A study conducted at Michigan State University and published in the current issue of The American Naturalist investigates the evolutionary reasons why organisms go through developmental stages that appear unnecessary.

“Many animals build tissues and structures they don’t appear to use, and then they disappear,” said Jeff Clune, lead author and former doctoral student at MSU’s BEACON Center of Evolution in Action. “It’s comparable to building a roller coaster, razing it and building a skyscraper on the same ground. Why not just skip ahead to building the skyscraper?”

Why humans and other organisms retain seemingly unnecessary stages in their development has been debated between biologists since 1866. This study explains that organisms jump through these extra hoops to avoid disrupting a developmental process that works. Clune’s team called this concept the “developmental disruption force.” But Clune says it also could be described as “if the shoe fits, don’t change a thing.”

“In a developing embryo, each new structure is built in a delicate environment that consists of everything that has already developed,” said Clune, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University. “Mutations that alter that environment, such as by eliminating a structure, can thus disrupt later stages of development. Even if a structure is not actually used, it may set the stage for other functional tissues to grow properly.”

Going back to the roller coaster metaphor, even though the roller coaster gets torn down, the organism needs the parts from that teardown to build the skyscraper, he added.

“An engineer would simply skip the roller coaster step, but evolution is more of a tinkerer and less of an engineer,” Clune said. “It uses whatever parts that are lying around, even if the process that generates those parts is inefficient.”

An interesting consequence is that newly evolved traits tend to get added at the end of development, because there is less risk of disrupting anything important. That, in turn, means that there is a similarity between the order things evolve and the order they develop. Read more ..


The Geological Edge

Plate Tectonics on Mars?

August 12th 2012

Valles Marineris
Valles Marineris (Viking orbiter photomosaic
credit USGS/NASA Viking Project)

For years, many scientists had thought that plate tectonics existed nowhere in our solar system but on Earth. Now, a UCLA scientist has discovered that the geological phenomenon, which involves the movement of huge crustal plates beneath a planet’s surface, also exists on Mars.

“Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth,” said An Yin, a UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences and the sole author of the new research.

Yin made the discovery during his analysis of satellite images from NASA’s THEMIS spacecraft and from the HIRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He analyzed about 100 satellite images—and approximately a dozen were revealing of plate tectonics. Yin has conducted geologic research in the Himalayas and Tibet, where two of the Earth’s seven major plates divide. “When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology,” said Yin, a planetary geologist. Read more ..


America on Edge

Racist Internet Sites Breed Hate

August 11th 2012

Sikh Milwaukee Shooting

American Sikhs have been mourning the victims of the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin - and are trying to comprehend an act that seems senseless.  The shooter's motives are unclear, but one organization that monitors hate groups points to the Internet as a breeding ground for racial hatred.

In the Los Angeles suburb of Walnut, Sikhs and other community members gathered for a vigil to remember the victims of the Wisconsin shooting. Some also tried to understand what motivated the accused shooter, Wade Michael Page. California temple member Nachhatar Singh Bhullar calls the act senseless. "It could happen anywhere.  Somebody can come anywhere and do those things," he said. But researchers into hate groups say Page had ties to music groups with a white supremacist message and they speculate that his hatred sparked the rampage. Read more ..


Broken Borders

Homeland Security Proposes 'Expanded Border' with Mexico

August 10th 2012

Truncated border fence
Truncated U.S/Mexico border fence

In an era when border travel has become increasingly problematic, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now proposing to expand the geographic area Mexican nationals can travel within the state of New Mexico. Invoking its rule-making authority, the DHS proposed August 9 an expansion of the geographic limit in New Mexico for holders of a Border Crossing Card, or other proper documentation besides a CBP Form 1-94, from the current 25 miles north of the border to 55 miles. “This change is intended to promote commerce and tourism in southern New Mexico while still ensuring that sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent illegal entry to the U.S.,” the DHS stated in its notice of proposed rule-making.

Dating back to a system first put in place in 1953, the modern-day Border Crossing Card allows Mexican nationals to travel within certain geographic boundaries for up to 30 days. In 1999, the old Immigration and Naturalization Service expanded the geographic limit to 75 miles in Arizona but kept the 25 mile-limit for New Mexico, Texas and California. Currently, Mexican nationals can travel to Tucson for shopping and other purposes. According to the DHS, applicants for the Border Crossing Card and other appropriate travel documents are vetted by the department's personnel and/or staff from the Department of State. Read more ..


The Archaeologoical Edge

Archeologists Unearth Extraordinary Sculpture in Turkey

August 10th 2012

Suppiluliuma statue in Turkey
Credit: Jennifer Jackson

A beautiful and colossal human sculpture is one of the latest cultural treasures unearthed by an international team at the Tayinat Archaeological Project (TAP) excavation site in southeastern Turkey. A large semi-circular column base, ornately decorated on one side, was also discovered. Both pieces are from a monumental gate complex that provided access to the upper citadel of Kunulua, capital of the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Patina (ca. 1000-738 BC).

“These newly discovered Tayinat sculptures are the product of a vibrant local Neo-Hittite sculptural tradition,” said Professor Tim Harrison, the Tayinat Project director and professor of Near Eastern Archaeology in the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. “They provide a vivid glimpse into the innovative character and sophistication of the Iron Age cultures that emerged in the eastern Mediterranean following the collapse of the great imperial powers of the Bronze Age at the end of the second millennium BC.”

The head and torso of the human figure, intact to just above its waist, stands approximately 1.5 metres in height, suggesting a total body length of 3.5 to four metres. The figure’s face is bearded, with beautifully preserved inlaid eyes made of white and black stone, and its hair has been coiffed in an elaborate series of curls aligned in linear rows. Both arms are extended forward from the elbow, each with two arm bracelets decorated with lion heads. The figure’s right hand holds a spear, and in its left is a shaft of wheat. A crescent-shaped pectoral adorns its chest. A lengthy Hieroglyphic Luwian inscription, carved in raised relief across its back, records the campaigns and accomplishments of Suppiluliuma, likely the same Patinean king who faced a Neo-Assyrian onslaught of Shalmaneser III as part of a Syrian-Hittite coalition in 858 BC.

The second sculpture is a large semi-circular column base, approximately one metre in height and 90 centimetres in diameter, lying on its side next to the human figure. A winged bull is carved on the front of the column and it is flanked by a sphinx on its left. The right side of the column is flat and undecorated, an indication that it originally stood against a wall. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Wikipedia Locks Pages of VP Contenders After Excessive Edits

August 10th 2012

Wikipedia Rubio Edits

Wikipedia pages for candidates most likely to appear on Mitt Romney’s shortlist for vice president have been locked down as of Wednesday.

"This article is protected due to vandalism," reads the Wikipedia page for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Similarly, pages for Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and even CIA Director David Petraeus are in “semi-protected” mode, preventing edits from unregistered users or users who registered within the last four days.

With anticipation high for the expected announcement by Romney’s campaign — which will come sometime this month, ahead of the GOP convention — TechPresident’s Micah L. Sifry on Monday reported that monitoring the increased number of edits on the Wikipedia entries for various contenders might tip off interested observers. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Shredded Star Broadcasts its Own “Cry”

August 9th 2012

Swift J1544+57 (black hole)
Artist’s conception of Swift J1644+57 (credit: NASA GSFC)

Last year, astronomers discovered a quiescent black hole in a distant galaxy that erupted after shredding and consuming a passing star. Now researchers have identified a distinctive X-ray signal observed in the days following the outburst that comes from matter on the verge of falling into the black hole. This tell-tale signal, called a quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO), is a characteristic feature of the accretion disks that often surround the most compact objects in the universe—white dwarf stars, neutron stars and black holes. QPOs have been seen in many stellar-mass black holes, and there is tantalizing evidence for them in a few black holes that may have middleweight masses between 100 and 100,000 times the sun’s.

Until the new finding, QPOs had been detected around only one supermassive black hole—the type containing millions of solar masses and located at the centers of galaxies. That object is the Seyfert-type galaxy REJ 1034+396, which at a distance of 576 million light-years lies relatively nearby. Read more ..


The Biology Edge

How The Cell Swallows

August 9th 2012

Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, have combined the power of two kinds of microscope to produce a 3-dimensional movie of how cells “swallow” nutrients and other molecules by engulfing them. The study, published in Cell, is the first to follow changes in the shape of the cell’s membrane and track proteins thought to influence those changes. It also provides ample data to investigate this essential process further.

This “swallowing,” called endocytosis, is involved in a variety of crucial tasks. It is used by brain cells relaying information to each other, for instance, and is also hijacked by many viruses, which use it to invade their host’s cells. When a cell is about to swallow some molecules, a dent appears in the cell’s membrane, and gradually expands inwards, pinching off to form a little pouch, or vesicle, that transports molecules into the cell. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Rich Rewards: One Man's Shadow Money Network

August 8th 2012

Howard Rich
Howard Rich

Long ago, Earth Day rooted itself in the minds of many Americans as a regular annual event -- not bad for what started 42 years ago as a “teach-in” about the dangers of an industrial economy running amok.
But there have always been opponents to the environmentalist agenda, and on Earth Day 2012, they found that they had their own, modern-day "teach-in" -- a four-and-a-half minute video posted on YouTube.

The slick production, titled “If I Wanted America To Fail,” is a laundry list of libertarian grievances against big government billed as a response to the “economic suicide pact” of environmentalism.

“If I wanted America to fail, I would create countless new regulations and seldom cancel old ones,” says the narrator, black background and foreboding music adding to an apocalyptic tone. “They would be so complicated that only bureaucrats, lawyers and lobbyists could understand them. That way, small businesses with big ideas wouldn’t stand a chance.”

He goes on to mock alternative energy, the public education system and other standards of the left. “If I wanted America to fail, I would prey on the goodness and decency of ordinary Americans,” he concludes. “I would only need to convince them that all of this is for the greater good. If I wanted America to fail, I...I suppose I wouldn't change a thing." Heavily promoted by Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing commentators, the video went viral, racking up 2.3 million views since it debuted. But few, if any, of those millions of viewers understand the complicated web of secretive, densely interwoven political groups from which the video emerged.

While the network is built around nonprofits with vague names and grassroots slogans that imply the participation of many ordinary Americans, it’s primarily the handiwork of one man: Howard Rich.

Rich, 72, made his fortune in Manhattan real estate, but since at least the early 1970s, his passion has been libertarian politics. He decamped from the Libertarian Party in the 1980s to establish his own network of like-minded think-tanks and publishing companies. Rich is also prominently attached to leading national libertarian groups -- he sits on the boards of directors of the Club for Growth and the Cato Institute. Yet he remains a mysterious figure, rarely interviewed and almost always several steps removed from any direct action. Read more ..


Paraguay on Edge

The Paraguay Imbroglio: A Disconcerting Endgame

August 8th 2012

Fernando Lugo

The June 15 clash between police and campesinos in the Paraguayan region of Curuguaty sparked a political crisis that resulted in Fernando Lugo’s impeachment, Paraguay’s removal from both the Mercosur trade bloc and the Unasur customs union, as well as international condemnation. That violent encounter, which left 11 campesinos and six policemen dead, threatened to destabilize the traditional land tenure regime that had been in place in Paraguay since the War of the Triple Alliance in the 1800s. But instead of enacting change, the Curuguaty affair has enabled a return to the traditional power structure of Paraguayan politics, with the historically powerful, but corrupt, Colorado and traditional Liberal parties overthrowing the left-leaning Lugo. For the average Paraguayan, the country is no better off after the impeachment then before: corporations remain more important then the citizenry, political power remains concentrated, and corruption remains culturally ingrained. Regionally, the impeachment has jeopardized Paraguay’s economic standing; Brazil and Argentina removed Paraguay from Mercosur, replacing the soybean-producing country with the oil rich Venezuela. Internationally, the United States has failed to even comment on the impeachment, and by doing so, has implicitly supported the de facto government that was comprised of almost entirely primarily pro-U.S. politicians. For Paraguayans their political crisis nears its end as one more story of arrested development.

Paraguayan society is clearly split between those who possess land and those who do not. As detailed in previous COHA reports, the drastically unequal land concentration dates back to the 1800s and continues today, as roughly 2 percent of the Paraguayan populace still owns 80 percent of the land. For years, the campesinos have attempted to campaign for greater rights, but in recent years “King Soybean” reigned over the Paraguayan government, preventing any reform through corrupt clientele networks. On June 15, this fight turned violent. The political crisis began soon after, sweeping the land tenure issue under the rug. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Vaporizing the (Super-)Earth

August 8th 2012

Sunrise on CoRoT-71b
Artist’s conception of sunrise on CoRoT-71b (credit: ESO/L. Calçada)

In science fiction, evil overlords and hostile aliens often threaten to vaporize the Earth. At the beginning of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the officiously bureaucratic aliens called Vogons, authors of the third-worst poetry in the universe, actually follow through on the threat, destroying the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

“We scientists are not content just to talk about vaporizing the Earth,” says Bruce Fegley, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, tongue firmly in cheek. “We want to understand exactly what it would be like if it happened.”

And in fact Fegley, PhD, and his colleagues Katharina Lodders, PhD, a research professor of earth and planetary sciences who is currently on assignment at the National Science Foundation, and Laura Schaefer, currently a graduate student at Harvard University, have vaporized the Earth—if only by simulation, that is mathematically and inside a computer. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Midwestern Bank PAC Funds Kochs' Americans for Prosperity

August 8th 2012

Money Money Money

So far in the 2012 election cycle, the political action committee of TCF Financial -- a publicly traded holding company that owns Minnesota-based TCF Bank -- has given away $105,500. Most has gone to candidates and party committees. But TCF PAC's largest contribution by far -- nearly a quarter of what it has given away over the last year-and-a-half -- is the $25,000 it gave on May 31 to Americans for Prosperity, a group founded and funded by David Koch. He's one of the billionaire Koch brothers, mega-funders of the right who convene twice-a-year retreats with other wealthy Republicans to strategize and pledge money to the cause. TCF's pugnacious chairman and CEO Bill Cooper, a former Detroit street cop and head of Minnesota's Republican Party in the late 1990s, has attended at least one of the Kochs' conservative gatherings.
 
Americans for Prosperity is a 501(c)(4) organization under the framework of the U.S. tax code, which means that it's a nonprofit "social welfare" group allowed to engage in limited political activity. Groups such as these -- Stephen Colbert calls them "spooky PACs" -- don't have to disclose their donors, unlike their more famous cousins, super PACs. Increasingly, they have become the vehicles of choice for donors wanting to give six-, seven- or even eight-figure sums -- anonymously -- to political entities.
Read more ..

America and Israel

William H. Seward’s Visit to Jerusalem, 1871

August 7th 2012

Synagogue, Old Jerusalem, ca. 1900
Old City synagogue similar to the one described by Seward, ca. 1900.

William H. Seward served as President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination Seward was attacked in his home by one of Booth’s co-conspirators and was seriously wounded. But he survived, and in 1871, traveled the world and visited Jerusalem where he described the population, visited the “Wailing Wall,” and even participated in Friday night services, apparently at the Hurva synagogue.

His 1859 visit to Jerusalem may have sparked an interest in President Lincoln to visit the Holy Land, evidenced in Mary Todd Lincoln’s statement to the pastor presiding at Lincoln’s funeral that her husband said “he wanted to visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footprints of the Saviour. He was saying there was no city he so much desired to see as Jerusalem.”

Below are excerpts from Seward’s 788-page book Travels around the World, interspersed with my comments.


June 13, 1871: “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following.” [Psalms]

We have done so, and we have found it neither a short nor an easy promenade. The city occupies two ridges of a mountain promontory, with the depression or valley between them. The walls of the modern Turkish city have been so contracted with the decrease of the population, as to exclude large portions of the, ancient city. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Obama Campaign Confident about Fundraising Gap

August 7th 2012

Obama with baseball bat

The Obama campaign sought to downplay fundraising expectations on Monday as some top donors expressed exasperation that the president had been outraised for the third month in a row by Mitt Romney’s campaign.

“We know we will be outspent, that’s just the reality, ” Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for the Obama campaign told reporters as the president traveled to Connecticut for two high-dollar fundraisers — including one by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — estimated to bring in $2 million. Psaki said the campaign’s focus is on having the resources and tools needed to “build the biggest grassroots campaign in history,” and she downplayed any disadvantages Obama’s campaign might suffer from weaker fundraising.

But some donors for President Obama’s reelection bid expressed frustration on Monday that the campaign needed to be more competitive. “I keep telling people we need to step it up a bit,” said one longtime Obama donor. “Now’s the time. Not two months from now.

“We’re still winning in the overall game but we can’t be complacent,” the donor added. “We need to keep throwing in more money.” Read more ..


Mexico on Edge

Aggrieved Mexican Truckers Bring Highway Traffic to a Standstill

August 6th 2012

Mexican traffic jam

Fed up with deepening economic and security problems, Mexican truckers conducted convoy protests that brought traffic to a crawl on some of the nation’s highways this week. Thousands of independent truckers affiliated with the Mexican Alliance of Transporter Organizations (AMOTAC) participated in actions in at least 12 states.

Frustrated by earlier negotiations with federal officials, the truckers demanded a halt to the monthly price increases of diesel fuel, an end to extra-weight hauling by bigger competitors, the return of trucks confiscated by tax authorities, financial support for the small trucking sector, and a transfer of the highway division of the Federal Police from the Federal Secretariat of Public Safety to the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation (SCT). They also objected to expensive highway tolls, taxes and a host of other current policies.

“The (authorities) do not want to address the demands of the sector,” charged Lauro Rincon Hernandez, an AMOTAC regional coordinator in the state of Veracruz. “The July 31 meeting was not fruitful. That’s why we decided to do this protest, and because we’ve had enough of the abuse.” Read more ..


America and Iran

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran

August 6th 2012

Iran-US Hatred

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the United States and Iran have been engaged in a twilight war involving parallel campaigns of espionage, covert action, and military action. Although the deep-seated distrust between the two governments has been heightened by the crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program, this is only one of many issues dividing them. As a result, even if the two sides are able to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically, the next major U.S. war will still likely be against Iran. In addition, any conflict sparked by Iranian aggression would likely emerge quickly—it would be a “come as you are war” involving armed forces already on hand in the region, so the United States would not have the luxury of gradually flowing forces into the area as it has in the past. Therefore, Washington needs to maintain a robust presence in the Persian Gulf region to counter long-term hostilities and confrontations with Iran.

The history of the U.S.-Iran relationship is one of missed opportunities: when one side was ready for a rapprochement, the other was not, and vice versa. On several occasions, Iranian interlocutors offered what some in Washington thought were “grand bargains,” but such initiatives were of dubious provenance. In particular, the famous 2003 trial balloon was more likely motivated by Tehran’s desire to stall and to avert a possible U.S. invasion, with the idea of opening negotiations and giving the appearance of progress, but without addressing the fundamental divide between the two nations. Read more ..


Uzbekistan on Edge

The Uzbek House of Torture

August 6th 2012

Prison bars

Some call it the "House of Torture," others the "Place of No Return." Officially, it is Jaslyk prison -- the worst of the worst in a country whose penal system is notorious for harsh conditions and mistreatment of prisoners. Uttering the name conjures images of fear and horror, fed by stories of prisoners being boiled alive and bodies of deceased inmates being returned to their families bearing horrific scars and bruises.

Former inmates recall gruesome methods of torture being employed at Jaslyk, including electric shocks, sexual assault, the pulling out of prisoners' fingernails, and long stints of solitary confinement without food or drink. "I don't know which is worse -- Jaslyk or Nazi concentration camps during World War II," says Yusuf Juma, an Uzbek poet and dissident who spent three years at the remote prison facility.

Electric Shocks

"Jaslyk is nothing less than a death camp. It feels like there is no limit to the cruelty the prison officers there are capable of," recalls the poet, who was imprisoned in 2007 after he challenged President Karimov's right to run for a new term in office. "Every month, they would keep me in solitary confinement for 15 days. Another 15 days of each month I would spend in another facility in the town of Nukus, some 500 kilometers away," Juma says. "They would transfer me there in a small iron box -- too small to sit, too small to stand up. And it was a bumpy road and my head would bang against iron. There wasn't enough air to breathe." Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

New Romney TV Ad Hits Obama on Israel

August 5th 2012

Romney in Jerusalem 7-31-12

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney unveiled a new television ad on Sunday hitting President Obama for not visiting Israel while in office and calling Jerusalem the country’s capital. The ad titled “Cherished relationship” opens with a voiceover asking “Who shares your values?”

“As President, Barack Obama has never visited Israel and refuses to recognize Jerusalem as its capital,” the ad says. “Mitt Romney will be a different kind of president—a strong leader who stands by our allies. He knows America holds a deep and cherished relationship with Israel.”

The video shows clips from Romney’s visit last weekend to Israel, part of his six-day three country overseas trip.
“We speak the same language of freedom and justice,” says Romney in a video clip of an address he delivered in Jerusalem. “And like the U.S.,” the ad continues, “Israel respects the rights of people of all religions.” The ad then shows a clip of Romney visiting the Western Wall. Read more ..


Mali on Edge

Mali Conflict Poses Global Threat, UN HighCom Wrans

August 5th 2012

Mali Refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, says conflict in northern Mali is aggravating the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel and posing a serious threat to regional and global security. According to a UNHCR report, the conflict in northern Mali has internally displaced more than 200,000 and driven more than a quarter-million refugees into neighboring countries, compounding the situation in West Africa's Sahel region, where some 18 million people are going hungry, more than a million of whom are acutely malnourished children. While the world community focused on Syria, Guterres says, it ignores the deteriorating situation in Mali at its peril.

"If proper humanitarian assistance is not provided and if a political solution is not found, the risk of this conflict to go far beyond Mali is, in my opinion, enormous, and the implications are very serious for the whole region," he said, explaining that al-Qaida's presence in northern Mali and other countries in the region could also exacerbate crises in Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and even Yemen. Read more ..


France on Edge

Hoodie-Wearing Youths Burn a Bus after an Orgy of Violence in Paris

August 4th 2012

Nanterre bus

Paris was rocked by mob violence overnight on July 31 and August 1 when hoodie-wearing youths set a bus on fire on Pablo Picasso Avenue in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris, following hours of confrontations with police. The bus was burned to the ground near the intersection of Pablo Picasso Avenue and Fontenelles Street, leaving the pavement charred. According to local press, an eyewitness said of the torching, “This neighborhood. It’s no longer possible! In what kind of world do we live?”

It was shortly before midnight when a group of hooded youths blocked the bus travelling with passengers in the Parisian suburbs. The young men forced the driver and passengers to disembark, and then torched the bus after having primed the flames with gasoline.

Observers theorize that the assailants were acting in sympathy with Kamel Hakkar, a Muslim man who police had been seeking for days on a charge of aggravated assault. Approached by four police officers at approximately 8 PM on July 31, Hakkar resisted arrest and took refuge in a ‘taxiphone’ telephone shop.  Read more ..


Turks see Red in Obama’s Dubious Photo Holding Bat

August 4th 2012

Obama with baseball bat

Holding a baseball bat in your hand while talking on the phone about a delicate international issue means you really like the person you are talking to. At least, so says the President of the United States. ­The White House scrambled to explain the meaning behind a photo it posted online of President Obama holding a wooden club associated with either a popular American sport or mob violence, depending on personal preferences. Obama held the bat as he chatted on the phone with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday. The two were discussing the ongoing violence in Syria, in which both America and Turkey are backing the anti-regime opposition forces.

Reporters bombarded White House secretary Jay Carney on Monday with questions over possible hidden meanings in the photo of the bat-wielding Obama. Carney explained the photo by saying the president was a baseball fan and avid supporter of the Chicago White Sox. Turkish politicians were quick to seize on the picture and level harsh criticism at Turkey’s head of government. Read more ..


The Defense Edge

U.S. Nuclear Targeting Unaltered Since 2008

August 3rd 2012

Bomb blast

Behind doors that can be opened only by spins of a combination lock or an electronic scan of fingerprints or eyeballs, Defense Department officials periodically work out the details of America’s plans to drop nuclear explosives on aggressive enemies.

Not many outsiders get to peer in, particularly those dispatched from another branch of government, like Congress. But twice in the past 20 years, a few analysts at the Government Accountability Office have been allowed to get a rough sense from closed-door Pentagon briefings — not from actual documents — of the conditions and manner in which the United States could detonate its nuclear bombs.

The resulting reports to Congress have been highly classified, so they don’t offer much to a broader audience. An unclassified version, released July 31, says virtually nothing about what’s actually in the U.S. nuclear war plan. It is, in fact, even shorter and less detailed than its sketchy 1991 predecessor. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Romney Creates American-Jewish Coalition

August 2nd 2012

mitt romney

Days after returning from Israel where he declared Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital and donors pledged $1 million to his campaign for the White House, Mitt Romney has formed a Jewish American coalition to bolster his bid for the presidency.

“The Jewish community has made contributions to American society that stand in amazing disproportion to its numbers, and I am genuinely honored to have so many of its leading thinkers, diplomats, and political leaders support my campaign,” Romney said in a note to reporters on Wendesday.  “Having just visited Israel at a critical juncture in the history of the Middle East, I am persuaded that now, more than ever, America needs to stand with Israel.”

Congressman Eric Cantor, the highest ranking Jewish member of Congress in U.S. history, will serve as one of the coalition’s honorary chairmen.

“Governor Romney understands that peace in the Middle East will only be achieved when Israel is secure within its borders and not the target of violence fueled by senseless hatred,” Cantor wrote in the coalition’s opening statement. “He will leave no stone unturned in the effort to keep Israel secure.” Read more ..


Travel Safe

Have a Safe Flight, Thanks to Israel's Xsight

August 1st 2012

Runway debris costs about $14 billion in damages yearly. That’s why the FAA likes an Israeli system to detect birds and metal fragments 24/7. Debris on runways causes an estimated $14 billion in direct and indirect damages every year. Lots of people complain about airplane food, but what about FOD?

That acronym, which stands for “foreign object debris,” refers to stuff on the runway – birds, small animals and fragments that break off planes – causing far more dangerous problems than rubbery rolls on your dinner tray.

The Israeli company XSight Systems has swooped in to prevent harm in a unique way that’s already been adopted at international airports in Boston, Paris, Bangkok and Tel Aviv.

Using integrated radar and electro-optical sensors in a fixed installation on the runway, XSight’s FODetect system “was able to detect the objects of various shapes, sizes, and materials on runway surfaces and perform satisfactorily in nighttime, daytime, sun, rain, mist, fog, and snow conditions,” according to a US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report issued in June. Read more ..


Lebanon on Edge

Lebanon: Fractured Past, Bleak Present

August 1st 2012

Beirut Ruins

Barry Rubin interviewed William Harris, professor of politics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, one of the world’s leading experts on Lebanon and Syria, and author of Lebanon: A History, 600–2011.

BR: You’ve just written a comprehensive history of Lebanon. What makes Lebanon a unique country and what are its most important special features?

WH: Lebanon contains virtually the full religious diversity of the Arab world in a space the size of Connecticut. Christian, Muslim, and Islamic-derived sectarian communities with histories going back to early Medieval times are the principal identity markers in the country. The balance is unique: Sunni and Twelver Shia Muslims are about 30 percent each; Christians (all Christian sects) are approximately 35 percent; and Druze (an offshoot of Isma’ili Shia Islam) are 5 percent.

Nowhere else do Sunni, Shia, and Christians come together in such equivalence, and the demographic standoff is expressed in a unique multi-communal political system of defined shares in government, parliament, and bureaucracy for each sectarian group. The system worked best in the 1960s and has decayed in the subsequent decades of turbulence, but Lebanese remain more accustomed to freedoms than any other Arabs. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

The Brightest Stars Don’t Live Alone

August 1st 2012

Vampire star and victim
Artist’s Conception of a Vampire Star and its Victim
(credit: ESO/L. Calçada/S.E. de Mink)

The Universe is a diverse place, and many stars are quite unlike the Sun. An international team has used the VLT to study what are known as O-type stars, which have very high temperature, mass, and brightness. These stars have short and violent lives and play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. They are also linked to extreme phenomena such as “vampire stars”, where a smaller companion star sucks matter off the surface of its larger neighbour, and gamma-ray bursts. Most stars are classified according to their spectral type, or colour. This in turn is related to the stars’ mass and surface temperature. From bluest (and hence hottest and highest mass) to reddest (and hence coolest and lowest mass), the most common classification sequence is O, B, A, F, G, K and M. Our sun is a G-type.

“These stars are absolute behemoths,” says Hugues Sana (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands), the lead author of the study. “They have 15 or more times the mass of our Sun and can be up to a million times brighter. These stars are so hot that they shine with a brilliant blue-white light and have surface temperatures over 30,000° Celsius.” Read more ..


The Medical Edge

DARPA's Blue Angel - Pentagon Prepares Vaccines by Millions against Future Global Flu

July 31st 2012

blood test

The Pentagon’s DARPA lab has announced a milestone, but it doesn’t involve drones or death missiles. Scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency say they’ve produced 10 million doses of an influenza vaccine in only one month’s time.

In a press release out of the agency’s office this week, scientists with DARPA say they’ve reach an important step in being able to combat a flu pandemic that might someday decimate the Earth’s population. By working with the Medicago Inc. vaccine company, the Pentagon’s cutting edge research lab says that they’ve used a massive harvest of tobacco plants to help produce a plethora of flu-fighting vaccines.

“Testing confirmed that a single dose of the H1N1 VLP influenza vaccine candidate induced protective levels of hemagglutinin antibodies in an animal model when combined with a standard aluminum adjuvant,” the agency writes, while still noting, though, that “The equivalent dose required to protect humans from natural disease can only be determined by future, prospective clinical trials.”

Researchers have before relied on using chicken eggs to harvest compounds to use in influenza vaccines. With a future outbreak requiring scientists to step up with a solution as soon as possible, though, they’ve turned to tobacco plants to help produce the vaccines. Read more ..



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