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Defense on Edge

More than $2 Billion for Financial Software—And Few Results

March 30th 2012

Military Accountant

A costly and lengthy effort by the Pentagon to bring its financial ledgers up to modern standards continues to encounter serious problems, according to a new General Accountability Office report that spotlights shortcomings in accounting software now being tested by the Army and the Air Force.

The software, on which the Pentagon has spent $2.665 billion since 2003, was meant to streamline archaic, hand-written ledger accounting practices and enable the services to meet a 2017 legal deadline for producing their first, auditable financial statements. But the GAO’s report, released on March 29, cites a series of weaknesses that have produced inaccurate data, “an inability to generate auditable financial reports, and the need for manual workarounds.”

The GAO based its assessment on its own research as well as internal Army and Air Force reviews that it said had confirmed problems existed in “data quality, data conversion, system interfaces, and training.” The troubles were evident in trials that so far involve only a fraction of the estimated 529,000 Army and Air Force employees that are slated to use the software while monitoring $471 billion worth of spending or inventory every year. Read more ..


Edge on Environment

Extreme Water Shortages Plague the Northern Tier of Mexico

March 29th 2012

Mexico dry river bed

If the violence that’s killed hundreds of people and displaced thousands of others isn’t enough, residents of the rural Juarez Valley on the Mexico-U.S. border now confront an additional problem: extreme water shortages. Dependent on Rio Grande irrigation water guaranteed by a 1906 agreement with the United States, farmers in the valley will receive the proverbial drop in the bucket this year thanks to the drought clobbering the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico.

Jose de Jesus Luevano, member of the Mexican Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, told the Ciudad Juarez daily Norte that a U.S. water delivery which is expected to be only a small fraction of the 60,000 acre-feet of Rio Grande water reserved for Mexico under the 1906 Convention will make growing crops in the beleaguered valley very difficult this year. Read more ..


Mexico on Edge

While Mexico Burns, U.S. Foreign Policy Elites turn a Blind Eye

March 28th 2012

Mexican soldiers on the march

While the foreign policy elite in Washington focuses on the 8,000 deaths in a conflict in Syria -- half a world away from the United States -- more than 47,000 people have died in drug-related violence since 2006 in Mexico. A deeply troubled state as well as a demographic and economic giant on the United States' southern border, Mexico will affect America's destiny in coming decades more than any state or combination of states in the Middle East. Indeed, Mexico may constitute the world's seventh-largest economy in the near future.

Certainly, while the Mexican violence is largely criminal, Syria is a more clear-cut moral issue, enhanced by its own strategic consequences. A calcified authoritarian regime in Damascus is stamping out dissent with guns and artillery barrages. Moreover, regime change in Syria, which the rebels demand, could deliver a pivotal blow to Iranian influence in the Middle East, an event that would be the best news to U.S. interests in the region in years or even decades.

Nevertheless, the Syrian rebels are divided and hold no territory, and the toppling of pro-Iranian dictator Bashar al Assad might conceivably bring to power an austere Sunni regime equally averse to U.S. interests -- if not lead to sectarian chaos. In other words, all military intervention scenarios in Syria are fraught with extreme risk. Precisely for that reason, that the U.S. foreign policy elite has continued for months to feverishly debate Syria, and in many cases advocate armed intervention, while utterly ignoring the vaster panorama of violence next door in Mexico, speaks volumes about Washington's own obsessions and interests, which are not always aligned with the country's geopolitical interests. Read more ..


The Geological Edge

Scientists Suggest New Age for East African Rift

March 27th 2012

Great Rift Valley
Great Rift Valley (credit: NASA)

The Great Rift Valley of East Africa—the birthplace of the human species—may have taken much longer to develop than previously believed, according to a new study published this week in Nature Geoscience that was led by scientists from James Cook University and Ohio University.

The team’s findings suggest that a major tectonic event occurred in East Africa as far back as 25–30 million years ago, rearranging the flow of large rivers such as the Congo and the Nile to create the unique landscapes and climates that mark Africa today. “The findings have important implications for understanding climate change models, faunal evolution, and the development of Africa’s unique landscape,“ said lead author and geologist Eric Roberts of the James Cook University in Australia. The Rift is an example of a divergent plate boundary, where the Earth’s tectonic forces are pulling plates apart and creating new continental crust. The East African Rift system is composed of two main segments, the eastern branch that passes through Ethiopia and Kenya, and a western branch that forms a giant arc from Uganda to Malawi, interconnecting the famous rift lakes of eastern Africa. Read more ..


The Obama Edge

Toobin: Obama Healthcare Reform Law 'In Grave, Grave Trouble'

March 27th 2012

Justice

A top legal analyst has predicted that the Obama administration's healthcare reform legislation seemed likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court. Jeffrey Toobin, a lawyer and legal analyst, who writes about legal topics for The New Yorker said the law looked to be in "trouble." He called it a "trainwreck for the Obama administration."

"This law looks like it's going to be struck down. I'm telling you, all of the predictions, including mine, that the justices would not have a problem with this law were wrong," Toobin said on CNN. "I think this law is in grave, grave trouble." Toobin's observation came on the second day of oral arguments at the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Earlier that day, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who could be the deciding vote on whether to uphold the law, told Solicitor General Donald Verrilli that there appeared to be a "very heavy burden of justification" on aspects of the law, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Toobin described Kennedy as "enormously skeptical" during the arguments Tuesday. Read more ..


The Human Edge

Human Noise Has Ripple Effects on Plants

March 27th 2012

black-chinned hummingbird
Black-chinned hummingbird (credit National Park Service)

A growing body of research shows that birds and other animals change their behavior in response to human noise, such as the din of traffic or the hum of machinery.

But human clamor doesn’t just affect animals.

Because many animals also pollinate plants or eat or disperse their seeds, human noise can have ripple effects on plants, too, finds a new study reported in the March 21, 2012, issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In cases where noise has ripple effects on long-lived plants like trees, the consequences could last for decades, even after the source of the noise goes away, says lead author Clinton Francis of the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.

In previous studies, Francis and colleagues found that some animals increase in numbers near noisy sites, while others decline. But could animals’ different responses to human noise have indirect effects on plants, too?

To find out, the researchers conducted a series of experiments from 2007 to 2010 in the Bureau of Land Management’s Rattlesnake Canyon Wildlife Area in northwestern New Mexico. Read more ..


Edge of Terrorism

Federal Investigation of Iranian Dissident Group Bypasses K Street Firms

March 26th 2012

Maryam Rajavi - MeK Leader
MeK Leader Maryam Rajavi

A federal investigation of an Iranian dissident group that has targeted a number of former government officials seems to have bypassed K Street.

Lobby firms and clients who have been working to remove the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK)—otherwise known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran—from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations stated that they have not been subpoenaed by federal authorities.

Former government officials such as Ed Rendell, the Democratic former governor of Pennsylvania, and Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have come under scrutiny from federal investigators over the speaking fees they were paid to deliver speeches supporting MEK, according to press reports.

Subpoenas have reportedly been issued for Rendell, Shelton, and others. But lobby firms that have worked to legitimize MEK in the United States said the investigation hasn’t reached them. Victoria Toensing, a founding partner of diGenova & Toensing, said her firm has not received a subpoena and doesn’t expect to. “Why would I receive a subpoena?” Toensing said. “I was paid by individuals who are Americans and live in Texas. They are not on the terrorist list.” Read more ..


Elections 2012

Slow Jobs Growth for Women could Cost Big for Obama in November

March 25th 2012

Obama and female voters

Women aren't faring as well as other groups in the job market's recovery and that could put a dent into their support for President Obama. While female workers largely held their own through the recession, job gains have slowed since the downturn ended in June 2009, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data on the demographics of the labor market recovery. 

Female voters are a much-needed bloc for Obama to win in November. Still, women are likely to consider a broad range of health and economic issues beyond just job growth figures in casting their vote for president. "The job market may not be recovering as well but that doesn't mean Democrats are in trouble with women," said Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster and head of Momentum Analysis.  "Ultimately, Democrats fortunes will rise on how clearly they can contrast themselves with Republicans across a range of health and economic issues," she said. "The women I talk to are concerned about day-to-day pocketbook issues, they are feeling the squeeze uniquely." Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Super PACs Cast Long Shadow Over 2012 Race

March 25th 2012

Dollar Bills

New fundraising reports show a handful of super PACs continuing to cast a long shadow over the volatile 2012 presidential contest, raising and spending millions of dollars on behalf of preferred candidates, and in some cases propping them up entirely.

Campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on March 20 show that donors winnowed the field to three candidates in February: Barack Obama, who flexed his incumbent muscle to raise $21.3 million (combined with an additional $15 million for the Democratic National Committee); Mitt Romney, who brought in about $12 million; and Rick Santorum, who raised just over $9 million during a month when his poll numbers, and performance in some states, soared.

The Romney and Santorum hauls significantly bested their January fundraising totals. But the reports showed the candidates burned through cash at breakneck speed, as well. Romney spent about $12.4 million, more than he took in, and ended the month with $7.2 million cash on hand. Santorum meanwhile spent $7.8 million, leaving him with a little less than $2.6 million in the bank at the end of February, and an additional nearly $922,400 in debt. But both Republicans have not-so-secret weapons working on their behalf. The pair of super PACs supporting Romney and Santorum—Restore Our Future and Red White and Blue Fund, respectively—have spent nearly $43 million combined so far this cycle, much of it on negative advertising. Restore Our Future has spent $2.6 million opposing Santorum’s candidacy since March 8th alone, according to the data. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Sen. Jim DeMint Donates $500,000 to Club for Growth’s Super PAC

March 24th 2012

Jim DeMint
Sen Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina)

In his quest to remake the Senate Republican caucus in his own image, Tea Party kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has thrown some serious cash at a conservative super PAC that has attacked a Republican House member and other GOP candidates for office.

In February, DeMint’s campaign committee donated $500,000 to Club for Growth Action, a super PAC committed to electing “pro-free market” Republicans. DeMint’s donation accounted for 28 percent of the $1.8 million that the super PAC collected in February, according to Federal Election Commission documents released Monday.

To date, Club for Growth Action has reported spending more than $560,000 on political advertisements, all of them negative. The group has attacked House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), as well as U.S. Senate candidates Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, the state’s former GOP governor, and Republican David Dewhurst in Texas, the Lone Star State’s current lieutenant governor.

DeMint’s leadership PAC has already endorsed Thompson’s opponent in Wisconsin, Mark Neumann of Wisconsin, and Dewhurst’s opponent in Texas, Ted Cruz. It has also endorsed Don Stenberg of Nebraska and Josh Mandel of Ohio—both of whom have also been endorsed by the Club for Growth.

“Senator DeMint strongly supports several of the candidates the Club for Growth is backing this year, and this contribution will help the Club push them on to victory,” DeMint spokesman Matt Hoskins says. Read more ..


America on Edge

A Parent's Nightmare Sparks Nettlesome National Debate on Racism

March 23rd 2012

Trayvon Martin RIP
Trayvon Martin

It’s any parent’s nightmare: Getting a call with the news that your child has been killed. So it’s not hard to imagine the anguish being experienced by the parents of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.  

Deeply disturbing information is emerging about the course of events leading up to a man’s Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon, a Florida high school student, after the man called police and then failed to heed a dispatcher’s request for him not to follow a “suspicious” person. “We don’t need you to do that,” the dispatcher in Sanford, north of Orlando, replied when George Zimmerman, an aggressive neighborhood-watch volunteer, told the dispatcher he was following a “black male” who looked like “there was something wrong with him.”

Trayvon was black, unarmed, wearing a “hoodie.” His shooting and the aftermath — no arrest of 28-year-old Zimmerman — has triggered outrage nationwide. Late Monday, March 19, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into this case, which has exposed a current of distrust and fury at police in Sanford. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Health Effects Found with Low Doses of Some Chemicals

March 23rd 2012

BPA molecule model
Molecular Model of Bisphenol A

Small doses can have big health effects.

That is a main finding of a report, three years in the making, published Wednesday by a team of 12 scientists who study hormone-altering chemicals.

Dozens of substances that can mimic or block estrogen, testosterone and other hormones are found in the environment, the food supply and consumer products, including plastics, pesticides and cosmetics. One of the biggest, longest-lasting controversies about these chemicals is whether the tiny doses that most people are exposed to are harmful.

In the new report, researchers led by Tufts University’s Laura Vandenberg concluded after examining hundreds of studies that health effects “are remarkably common” when people or animals are exposed to low doses of endocrine-disrupting compounds. As examples, they provide evidence for several controversial chemicals, including bisphenol A (BPA), found in polycarbonate plastic, canned foods, and paper receipts; and the pesticide atrazine, used in large volumes mainly on corn.

The scientists concluded that scientific evidence “clearly indicates that low doses cannot be ignored.” They cited evidence of a wide range of health effects in people—from fetuses to aging adults—including links to infertility, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, and other disorders. “Whether low doses of endocrine-disrupting compounds influence human disorders is no longer conjecture, as epidemiological studies show that environmental exposures are associated with human diseases and disabilities.” Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Keeping Terrorism in Perpective is Good Policy

March 22nd 2012

NYPD and flag

By design, terrorist attacks are intended to have a psychological impact far outweighing the physical damage the attack causes. As their name suggests, they are meant to cause terror that amplifies the actual attack. A target population responding to a terrorist attack with panic and hysteria allows the perpetrators to obtain a maximum return on their physical effort. Certainly, al Qaeda reaped such a maximum return from the Sept. 11 attacks, which totally altered the foreign policy and domestic security policies of the world's only superpower and resulted in the invasion of Afghanistan and military operations across the globe. Al Qaeda also maximized its return from the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, which occurred three days before the 2004 Spanish general elections that ousted the ruling party from power.
 
One way to mitigate the psychological impact of terrorism is to remove the mystique and hype associated with it. The first step in this demystification is recognizing that terrorism is a tactic used by a variety of actors and that it will not go away, something we discussed at length in our first analysis in this series. Terrorism and, more broadly, violence are and will remain part of the human condition. The Chinese, for example, did not build the Great Wall to attract tourists, but to keep out marauding hordes. Fortunately, today's terrorists are far less dangerous to society than the Mongols were to Ming China. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

GOP Super PAC Men Seek To Overturn Donation Limits

March 21st 2012

money changing hands

As unlimited contributions flow into super PACs this year, one man is at the center of a new effort to allow people to donate more money, to more candidates, at the national stage.

“I don’t believe government is there to limit us,” says Shaun McCutcheon.

McCutcheon is a 44-year-old general contractor in Alabama. He’s the owner, founder and president of Coalmont Electrical Development. He’s a member of the Republican Party who admits he may have a bit of a libertarian streak. And he’s also the treasurer of a super PAC called the “Conservative Action Fund.”

That's a group that spent more than $43,000 opposing House Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) in his GOP primary in Alabama, although it has mostly targeted Democrats with its attacks.

In one advertisement it produced last fall, the super PAC accused President Barack Obama of implementing “draconian laws and regulations.” And it aired another ad that featured a “surfing rabbi” and computer-animated versions of the president along with New York Democrats Anthony Weiner and David Weprin, dancing in hot dog costumes—all while successfully encouraging voters to support Republican Bob Turner in the special election to replace Weiner after his sexting scandal. Read more ..


Israel on Edge

Under Fire in Israel: A Special Report

March 20th 2012

Attacks in Ashdod

Ashdod, March 15, 3:30 PM: I had just parked my car in the Southern Israeli city of Ashdod, near where a Palestinian rocket had earlier smashed into a main street, when the air raid siren went off again.
 
No matter how many times one has heard it, when the siren goes off to warn of rockets heading your way, survival instincts take control.
 
I found myself running into the closest residential building, where I gathered with a group of random passers-by at an entrance to a bomb shelter, far from the building's entrance. The IDF's Home Front Command would be pleased; this was the textbook response, in line with instructions passed on to civilians. The sirens wailed, before falling silent. Now we had entered the quiet and most tense phase of the attack, after the sirens cease, and before the arrival of the rockets sent by terrorists in Gaza to kill and maim Israeli civilians indiscriminately. 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 ..


Iran's Nukes

Israelis, Iranians Agree Via Facebook: 'We Don't Want War'

March 20th 2012

Shadowy Computer User

Amid the drumbeat of war between Iran and Israel, an Israeli couple has launched an online peace campaign in an effort to reach out to Iranians and say no to a military conflict. Forty-one-year-old graphic designer Ronny Edry and his partner, 36-year-old Michal Tamir, launched the initiative last week by posting pictures of themselves with their children on a Facebook page with a simple message: "Iranians, we love you. We don't want to bomb your country." Edry wrote, "To the Iranian people, to all the fathers, mothers, children, brothers, and sisters. For there to be a war between us, first we must be afraid of each other. We must hate. I'm not afraid of you. I don't hate you. I don't even know you. No Iranian ever did me harm." When he sometimes sees "an Iranian" on television talking about war, he wrote, "I'm sure he does not represent all the people of Iran… If you see someone on your TV talking about bombing you… be sure he does not represent all of us. To all those who feel the same, share this message and help it reach the Iranian people." Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

Hunger Strike Revives Allegations Of Mistreatment At Afghan Prisons

March 19th 2012

jail door closeup

The notorious Pul-e Charkhi prison outside Kabul has long been a byword for torture and violence. During the Soviet invasion, prison guards were accused of executing thousands of opposition political figures. In the past decade, inmates have alleged widespread abuse and mistreatment at the hands of Afghan officials. Those allegations of prisoner mistreatment resurfaced this week after prison officials at Pul-e Charkhi confirmed that at least 100 inmates had gone on hunger strike and sewed their lips together in protest at what they say are inhumane conditions. The protest comes at a time when lawmakers and rights activists are becoming increasingly concerned about the Afghan government's preparations to take full control of another notorious prison located on the grounds of Bagram air base.

Naimatullah Ghafari, the second deputy speaker of parliament, claims current conditions at Afghan prisons are worrying, with inmates suffering from a lack of clothing and other shortages. "There are problems there [in Pul-e Charkhi]," he says. "The electricity is cut off and there are also shortages in water and food supplies." Ghafari adds that a delegation will be sent to investigate the situation in Pul-e-Charkhi, which is run by the Afghan government and houses over 3,000 inmates, many of them ex-Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters as well as convicted murderers and drug smugglers. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

World Bank Urges Greater HIV Prevention Efforts

March 19th 2012

HIV/AIDS

The World Bank says significantly better HIV prevention efforts are needed in Africa. It says a slow global economy and uncertain donor aid make preventing new infections a necessity. A new World Bank report says the world’s economic woes are causing “anxiety about maintaining and expanding AIDS treatment programs in low income countries.” Co-author Elizabeth Lule said concerns about tight budgets coincide with much progress being made against the disease. “HIV prevalence, especially among young people, is going down in southern Africa. In countries where there’s highest burden, young people have better knowledge. They’re using condoms consistently. They’re reducing partners. So there is a lot of progress,” she said.

Also in recent years, studies have shown that giving antiretroviral drugs to HIV negative people can protect them from becoming infected. And there’s been progress in vaccine research, although an effective vaccine is still considered years away. “We shouldn’t just be looking at HIV/AIDS as a health problem, but also as an economic problem because of the huge costs that are incurred in treating people as well as prevention. And we highlight the importance of continuing to use effective prevention in order to contain future costs,” she said. The report is called The Fiscal Dimension of HIV/AIDS in Botswana, South Africa, Swaziland and Uganda. “There’s been very limited analysis on the fiscal dimension of HIV/AIDS for countries to understand the future liability that they take on, especially if they do not reduce new infections. They would only be adding to the burden,” she said. Read more ..

Elections 2012

Democrat Congressional Candidate Opposes Super PACs but Takes their Money Anyway

March 18th 2012

Barack Obama and Raja Krishnamoorthi 2002
Barack Obama and Raja Krishnamoorthi in 2002.

Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois has said he “detest[s]” super PACs, but his friends and family don’t appear to share that opinion. They have provided all of the money to a super PAC called “Suburban Voters for Choice,” which has spent $17,600 on a TV ad trying to give his campaign a last-minute boost.

Kalikathan Krishnamoorthi, the candidate’s father, a professor at Bradley University, donated $9,000 to Suburban Voters for Choice earlier this month, according to an iWatch News review of paperwork filed voluntarily by the group to the Federal Election Commission this week. The candidate’s brother, Venkatesan “Ram” Krishnamoorthi, a doctor, donated an additional $2,400, and Glen Tullman, who is identified as both a “friend of Raja” and the president of healthcare information technology Allscripts, donated $10,000.

The three men are the only donors to the nascent super PAC, which was formed just three weeks ago by Michael Vainisi, who served as the finance director of Krishnamoorthi’s 2010 campaign for state comptroller. The group’s assistant treasurer, J.B. Mantz, also previously served as a senior advisor to Krishnamoorthi during that unsuccessful race. The group expressed a desire to disclose the names of its donors before Tuesday’s primary election in the spirit of “transparency,” according to its filing with the FEC. Because of the group’s late formation, it was not legally required to disclose any of its donors prior to the election. “We are going beyond what election law requires to disclose our donors now ahead of time, instead of waiting until after the election,” Mantz stated. “We think that that’s the more honest and ethical approach.” Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Increase in Arctic Shipping Poses Risk to Marine Mammals

March 18th 2012

marine mammals

A rapid increase in shipping in the formerly ice-choked waterways of the Arctic poses a significant increase in risk to the region's marine mammals and the local communities that rely on them for food security and cultural identity, according to an Alaska Native groups and the Wildlife Conservation Society who convened at a recent workshop.

The workshop, which ran from March 12-14, examined the potential impacts to the region's wildlife and highlighted priorities for future management of shipping in the region. The meeting included participants from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, Eskimo Walrus Commission, Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Ice Seal Committee, Indigenous People's Council for Marine Mammals, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Other participants included the University of Alaska, government agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Arctic Research Commission, and the Marine Mammal Commission, and regional Alaska Native groups such as Kawerak Inc., North Slope Borough, Northwest Alaska Borough, and Association of Village Council Presidents.

At issue is the effect of climate change on Arctic waters, which over the last few decades have become increasingly ice-free during the summer and fall. The lengthening of the open-water season has led to new industrial developments, including oil and gas activities and a rising number of large maritime vessels transiting either the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Arctic from Europe, or the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic. Whichever route is being used, the only gateway to the Pacific is through the Bering Strait - an important migratory pathway for marine mammals. In spring and fall for example, almost the entire bowhead whale and walrus populations migrate through this narrow strait. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

Iran Reportedly Removes World AIDS Day From State Calendar

March 18th 2012

AIDS ribbon

The Iranian government body that sets the country's official cultural policy has reportedly removed World AIDS Day from the state calendar. The move has prompted concern among those fighting the spread of AIDS in the Islamic republic, where the disease is highly stigmatized. The reputable Iranian "Etemad" daily reported on March 14 that new regulations approved by the Supreme Council of the Revolution permit only occasions "of importance to different layers of the nation" and that strengthen "Iranian national identity" to be included in the official state calendar. Occasions that do not meet those standards are relegated to the calendar's appendix. The ruling was reportedly approved at a meeting of the council in August 2009 and signed by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is also the council's chair.

The change, however, appears to have gone unnoticed until "Etemad" broke the news this week. The newspaper claims that the decision was made without the knowledge of or consultation with the Health Ministry. Hamid Hosseini, the ministry's public relations manager, was quoted as saying officials from his office would ask the Council of the Revolution for an explanation. "The reason for the elimination is not clear to us," Hosseini said. "If the need for AIDS prevention is not well understood by the council's members, then we need to remind them about it so that the occasion is again included in the calendar." In 1988 the United Nations General Assembly declared AIDS to be a global pandemic and established December 1 as a worldwide day of awareness of the disease. According to official figures released by the Health Ministry, some 23,000 Iranians are infected with HIV/AIDS. Reza Yaghoubi, a deputy at the Council of Public Culture, another body involved in decision-making about the state calendar, told "Etemad" that that the number of HIV/AIDS cases in the country was likely deemed not significant enough for World AIDS Day to be considered generally relevant. Arash Alaei says the real number of infected Iranians is likely about 100,000. ​​Independent experts believe the real number of infected persons is much higher.
Read more ..


Sudan on Edge

S. Sudan Agrees to Release Child Soldiers

March 18th 2012

Kids with Guns

The United Nations says a new deal signed with South Sudan's army could lead to the newest country being delisted from nations which use and recruit child soldiers. Special Representative to the U.N. Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, announced in Juba Friday that the deal signed this week could lead to 2,000 more children being released soon. The SPLA - a former guerrilla movement that fought Sudan for decades and secured South Sudan's independence in July - has released 3,000 children since a 2005 peace agreement ended the civil war. On Monday, South Sudan's army formally signed an agreement with the United Nations to release all children within its ranks. U.N. Special Representative Radjika Coomaraswamy says swift implementation is important as the army has many more children to release due to the military absorbing many child combatants from rebel groups who responded to a government amnesty offer. "If you're a violator that's been persistent, there's the possibility of sanctions against the party," said Coomaraswamy. "So the purpose of this visit was because the SPLA has been on this list since 2006. And it's very important that we delist them as soon as possible, and now they are a national army, it becomes extremely important." Read more ..

The Water's Edge

Rising Seas Threaten Millions of US Homes

March 17th 2012

Stormy Seas

Small island nations, such as the Maldives and Kiribati, raised the alarm first. Now larger and more populated places are assessing their vulnerability to sea level rise caused by climate change. A new study suggests millions of American homes could be inundated over the next century. Recognizing the change is one thing, though, and taking action and deciding who pays is another matter. The latest projections of the impact sea level rise will have on coastal communities appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The study authors - from the non-profit Climate Central and University of Arizona - calculated how many people in the United States live less than one meter above the high tide line. And how many is that? Close to 2 million homes sheltering 3.7 million Americans could be flooded by rising seas. The biggest concentrations of vulnerable homes are in Florida, followed by Louisiana, coastal California, and then New York and New Jersey.

Nate Mantua is co-director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. He was not involved in the Climate Central study. He said the study’s authors used a novel combination of high resolution elevation, population, and tidal datasets - but didn’t factor in that the rate of sea level rise can differ from place to place. "They didn't actually consider any specific future sea level rise scenario. Instead, they are using a one-meter increase as a reference and asking how many people would be vulnerable to a sea level rise of one meter. They didn't actually say that's our scenario for 2100." Read more ..


The Edge of Education

New Federal Discipline Data has More Bad News for Kern County schools

March 17th 2012

Education - Child at Blackboard

A newly released pool of federal data reveals that Kern County, California — whose schools were the subject of a recent Center for Public Integrity story — has exceptionally high rates of suspension and expulsions for minority students. The new federal information dovetails with the findings of the Center’s investigation last December, which showed that Kern County, an oil and farm region in the Central Valley, is California’s expulsion capital. In 2010-2011, Kern’s schools had four times the state average for expulsions and more than seven times the last known national average in 2006. The raw number of students expelled in sparsely populated Kern was even greater than the number expelled in Los Angeles, which has nine times the student body.

Parents in Kern complained about high rates of removal for children and about the process for challenging decisions, and some black parents told the Center they felt schools were too quick to oust their children. California state data analyzed by the Center demonstrated that the vast majority of Kern expulsions were not for “zero tolerance” violations that require expulsion, such as gun possession. The analysis showed that most of Kern’s expulsions were discretionary, and that the schools had unusually high rates of expulsion for defiance, disruption and obscenity. More than one in four expulsions statewide for obscenity or vulgarity took place in Kern. Read more ..


Moldova on Edge

Moldova Adopts 'Chemical Castration' To Stem Tide Of Pedophilia, Sex Tourism

March 15th 2012

jail door closeup

In May 2009, U.S. citizen Anthony Mark Bianchi was sentenced to 25 years in prison for traveling to Moldova and Romania for the purpose of having sex with minors. "Sex tourists are a special breed of predatory pedophile," said Michael Levy, the U.S. prosecutor who handled the Bianchi case at the time. "They have the means to travel to foreign places where they think the law cannot reach them and where no one will care about their crimes."
Since its independence from the Soviet Union two decades ago, Moldova has been one of the places such predators visit. With its combination of poverty and weak governance, Moldova is particularly vulnerable to this kind of exploitation. In addition to being Europe's poorest country, Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region has been de facto independent since 1992 and is a notorious haven for trafficking of all kinds.

Lawmakers in the country, alarmed by scandalous cases in recent years, many of which involved citizens of Western European countries and the United States, have voted to punish sexual assault against children under the age of 15 with compulsory "chemical castration." In addition, the law makes the treatment -- which involves the injection of drugs that reduce testosterone levels and, hence, sexual desire -- permissible on a case-by-case basis in cases of rape. Read more ..

Iraq on Edge

Iraqi Gay, 'Emo' Youth Targeted For Killings

March 15th 2012

Holding Hands

Roby Hurriya holds up two pictures of his friend, which tell the story of what it now means to be gay in Iraq. One is a portrait of a handsome youth with a stylish haircut. The other shows the body of the same young man lying sprawled in the back of a white pickup truck, his head disfigured by blunt trauma. According to a police report, Saif Asmar was found bludgeoned to death on February 17. "In popular neighborhoods gays can be easily recognized because the one who has sex and who sells his body is known to 10 or 12 [people], unlike the one who has sex with him. He can be easily picked up." says Hurriya -- a pseudonym used by the 25-year-old doctor's assistant and gay activist. "They called me at sunset and told me that they laid him down on the pavement and smashed his head with a cement block." Homosexuals have lived in fear in Iraq for years, notably since religious militias claimed control of the streets in the sectarian warfare that followed the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein. But Hurriya says a surge in killings in the past two months is by far the worst he has seen.

Since the start of this year, death squads have been targeting two separate groups -- gay men, and those who dress in a distinctive, Western-influenced style called "emo," which some Iraqis mistakenly associate with homosexuality. At least 14 young men have been bludgeoned to death in the last three weeks in east Baghdad, an area dominated by Shi'ite Muslims, according to local security and medical sources who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Looking for Interplanetary Defense Work?

March 15th 2012

Asteroid

We were shocked to read on Discover magazine’s website last week that an asteroid 450 feet across, lurking just now on the other side of the sun, stands a (remote) chance of smacking us — or someone else on earth — in about 29 years. Scientists presently judge the probability to be around 1 in 625, which seems like a substantial upgrade from the usual estimate of a one in 5,000 chance that a major asteroid will hit Earth in the next century. More will be known next year, after new calculations, and everything hinges on the asteroid — with the mild name of AG5 — passing through what astronomers are calling a space “keyhole” that could bend its orbit toward earth sometime in 2023. So there will be some time to prepare. But frankly we can see the opportunity for some defense industry contracts right now, and it’s not hard to pick out a front-runner.

With uncanny foresight, some scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory prepared a video that was uploaded to YouTube in the middle of last month extolling how their newest Cray supercomputer can model the impact of an “energy source” on an asteroid. Robert P. Weaver, identified only as an R&D scientist at the New Mexico lab, narrates how the shock wave from a one-megaton-sized explosion — he never mentions the “n” word, for the nuclear weapons at the heart of the lab’s work — would blast a much larger asteroid into smaller bits of rock. Read more ..


Fukushima--One Year later

Reflections on the Devastation of Japan's Major Earthquake

March 14th 2012

It is still difficult to grasp the enormity of Japan's disastrous 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami and to realize how close the nation came to an unimaginable evacuation of Tokyo.

The overall tally from the natural disaster is sobering: 20,000 people killed - most by the tsunami - more than a quarter of a million buildings destroyed, and nearly 400,000 people made homeless.

The human tragedy has been heartrending.  Some parents are still hunting for the bodies of their children.  More than 1,500 children have lost at least one of their parents.

The unprecedented physical destruction has also left Japan with piles of debris, known as gareki.  What to do with all of that gareki is still a question the country is grappling with. Some rebuilding has commenced, but a major frustration is that too many people are languishing in temporary housing.  Read more ..


The Political Edge

Candidates Weigh Family's Privacy vs. Political Gain in Campaigns

March 13th 2012
Barbara Perry was surprised to see President Obama’s recent campaign advertisement featuring a photo of his wife and two young daughters.

“I had seen their official Christmas picture,” said Perry, a senior fellow and associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which focuses on presidential studies. “And then, all of a sudden, it just appeared in this ad.”

The Internet ad features a smiling first couple, their hands clasped with their two young daughters, Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10. But it wasn’t a politician’s use of his children in campaign imagery that startled Perry. It was seeing the Obamas do it after they had fought for so long to shield their children from the spotlight. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the Obama girls were kept largely out of the media glare. The then-Illinois senator granted one interview with his daughters on “Access Hollywood,” a move he later publicly lamented. “I think that we got carried away in the moment,” Obama said days after the interview aired. “We were having a birthday party and everybody was laughing, and suddenly this thing cropped up, and I didn’t catch it quickly enough, and I was surprised by the attention it got. “I don’t think it’s healthy, and it’s something that we’ll be avoiding in the future,” he told reporters Read more ..


Edge of the Mideast

Netanyahu Explains to Obama: Israel has Sovereign Right to Self-Defense

March 12th 2012

Obama and Netanyau

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Obama at the White House on March 5 to discuss Iran's nuclear program. The two-hour meeting, which took place in the Oval Office, came amid rising concerns in the international community that Israel will launch a preemptive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

While PM Netanyahu denied that Israel already made the decision to launch a preemptive strike against Iran, he warned President Obama that Iran's leaders view the U.S. as the "Great Satan" and Israel as the "Little Satan." "We are you, and you are us. We are together," said the Prime Minister, who also offered Obama a gift of the biblical Book of Esther, which tells the story of an evil Persian king who ultimately fails in his attempt to annihilate the Jewish people. Read more ..


Edge on Paleontology

Feathered Dinosaur Fossils Yield New Behavior Clues

March 11th 2012

Microraptors
Art courtesy of Jason Brougham/University of Texas

Paleontologists say winged dinosaurs with glossy feathers likely used their flashy plumage to attract a mate in the same way as their modern descendants—birds. Researchers from the U.S. National Science Foundation teamed up with experts from China’s Beijing Museum of Natural History to study a newly-discovered dinosaur fossil they say is the earliest known record of iridescent color in feathers.

The fossil is that of a four-winged, pigeon-sized dinosaur called a Microraptor that lived about 120 million years ago during the height of the Cretaceous period. The bird-like dinosaur’s long, narrow tail was adorned with a pair of “streamer feathers.” After comparing the detailed pattern and color of dinosaur feathers to those of modern birds, the scientists believe the Microraptor’s plumage was an iridescent black, with the same glossy sheen as the feathers of a modern crow. Read more ..


Inside Washington

House Speaker Boehner Admits some of America's 'Dumbest' Serve in Congress

March 11th 2012

Capitol Building at night

Congress includes some of the “dumbest” and “raunchiest” people in the country — but also some of the smartest — House Speaker John Boehner said in a report published this weekend.

Boehner (R-Ohio) told the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan that it can be difficult to wrangle misbehaving members of Congress, while arguing that the chamber is not uniquely corrupt or scandal-prone.

"We got 435 members. It's just a slice of America, it really is,” he said. “We got some of the smartest people in the country who serve here, and some of the dumbest. We got some of the best people you'd ever meet, and some of the raunchiest. We've got 'em all."

Boehner also downplayed tensions with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "Eric and I have never disagreed on strategy, ever,” he said. “From time to time there's been some disagreement on tactics, not usually between Eric and I, usually on the staff level." Read more ..


The Gourmet Edge

It's Not All About Cabernet or Merlot

March 10th 2012

Israeli Wines

It's a sign of the times: A country once synonymous with pioneering farmers and cloying sacramental wine is now associated with high-tech and fine wines. "Israeli wines are now considered quality wines," says premier wine connoisseur Haim Gan.

Gan organizes the annual International Wine Exhibition in Israel, held this year over two days in February. IsraWineExpo was the fourth such event at the Israel Trade Fairs and Convention Center in Tel Aviv. The first modern winery in Israel, the award-winning Carmel Winery, was founded by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild in Zichron Yaakov in 1882. Since the 1990s and especially in the past 15 years, the industry has become state-of-the-art. 

"You can see the change everywhere -- in the service, the presentation, greater public awareness of wines, wine lists in restaurants. A vintner is no longer a farmer -- he's an expert in his field. The best of our youth are now studying winemaking all over the world, instead of law or medicine." IsraWineExpo has become a fixture on the worldwide circuit, says Gan. "About 18,000 visitors passed through in three days. There were dozens of exhibitors, representatives of wine importers from abroad, buyers and critics from all over the world." Several new wines were launched at the expo, he adds. "The first day was devoted to the professionals -- buyers, barmen, exporters, importers, restaurateurs, critics, etc. The other two days we opened to the general public," he explains. Read more ..


Edge of Justice

Deportation of Salvadorean General on Murder Charges Signals Changes for Central America

March 10th 2012

Carlos Vides Casanova (center) 1979
Carlos Vides Casanova (center) in 1979.

On February 23, Judge James Grim of Florida’s Immigration Court set a legal precedent whose impact is destined to reverberate across Central America in years to come. Judge Grim found Salvadoran General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova legally responsible for numerous counts of torture and murder committed under his direct orders, and thus under provisions of a 2004 anti-terrorist law, he is now awaiting deportation from the U.S.

Vides is recognized as culpable for some of the most heinous crimes committed during the Salvadoran Civil War, including the rape and assassination of four American church women in 1980—a notorious event which brought attention to the growing conflicts in Central America. However, ironically, Vides was once the recipient of the Legion of Merit award given to him by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan before he became a permanent resident of Florida in 1989. Once back in El Salvador, Vides is unlikely to have to face further judicial proceedings due to a controversial but longstanding amnesty. Nevertheless, the prosecution affirms that deportation is a strong symbolic act that shows some form of justice has been served. Read more ..


Energy vs Environment

Fukushima Disaster Anniversary Finds US Nuclear Regulation Debate Still Hot

March 9th 2012

Rad monitor Japan

One year ago on Sunday, an earthquake off the coast of Japan and the resulting tsunami triggered a month-long partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. In the days leading up to the anniversary of the crisis, advocates and opponents of nuclear power are squaring off in a fight over the lessons U.S. regulators should learn from the disaster.

But both sides are making policy recommendations without a full accounting of the facts. The most definitive, independent study of the disaster isn’t due to be released for months. In one corner, and at one press conference this week, advocates at the industry-funded Nuclear Energy Institute were eager to highlight the “diverse and flexible” response operators of America’s 104 reactors are taking to improve their disaster preparedness. NEI is touting the $100 million the industry is investing in some 300 additional emergency pumps, generators, and batteries that it says could be used to keep the pools that spent fuel rods are kept in from overheating like they did in Japan. Read more ..


Edge of Architecture

Sleek Prefab LoftCube in Lebanon is the Ultimate Home for Nomads

March 5th 2012

Cube for Nomads

Nearly a decade ago Werner Aisslinger aspired to design a temporary, minimalist domicile that would suit the nomadic lifestyle while still retaining all of the aesthetics that contemporary society seeks. Voila! the 420 square foot LoftCube was born. Since 2004, the ultimate home for nomads has popped up in gardens and on rooftops all over the world: in Spain, Belgium, Canada, and now in Lebanon. Mark Doumet’s sleek home has 360 degree views of the Mediterranean Sea and is installed just a short ride north of Beirut. And as the country’s official LoftCube distributor, he encourages visitors. Prefab construction has become increasingly popular in the last decade or so.

By manufacturing modular pieces in the factory and then transporting the intact structure to its destination site, designers significantly reduce waste materials and also cut down on carbon emissions associated with shipping. The LoftCube can be transported in either two truck loads or in two shipping containers. It is wrapped in glazing that permit all kinds of light and ventilation and most of the interior is finished in Corian to create a breezy, comfortable home. Read more ..


The Arab Winter in Libya

New Fighting May Emerge in Libya as its Eastern Region seeks Autonomy

March 5th 2012

Abdul-Jalil of Libya
Abdul-Jalil, leader of National Transitional Council of Libya

Eastern Libya will declare itself as an autonomous province, according to a report from the London-based Exclusive Analysis, thus increasing the risk of further war and risks to global oil prices.

The region – called Barqa – will become a self-governing state within a federal Libya. The new state will extend beyond historical Cyrenaica to include part of oil-rich Fazzan in the Gulf of Sirte. Eastern Libya has 65 percent of Libya’s oil production but only 25 percent of its population.

The report from Exclusive Analysis reported that 'Barqa' (Arabic for Cyrenaica) and its territory will stretch from the Egyptian border in the east to the city of Sirte in the west. It was Sirte that served as a stronghold of the rebels who eventually brought down the government of Muammar Gaddaffi. The declaration will stipulate that Barqa will have its own parliament and separate oil, defence and finance ministries, and its own army. The report noted that a so-called 'Barqa Army' has already been formed out of former eastern-based units of Gaddafi's Army and the rebels’ eastern militias. Read more ..


Edge of Mexico

Mexico's High-Tech Maquiladora Workers Demand Dignity and Improved Conditions

March 5th 2012

Mexican maquilador high tech worker

The two high-tech workers laughed when asked if they could afford the smartphones made by their colleagues on Mexican production lines. “No, no, no,” chuckled Maria and Alma, two Guadalajara workers who have labored for years in Mexico’s Silicon Valley. A cheap $20 cell phone has to make do for Maria, while Alma uses a similarly low-priced contraption she won on a five-dollar raffle ticket. “It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity, especially when you have kids,” Alma said.

The two women, who asked that their real names not be used because of possible employer retaliation, recently sat down to discuss their jobs and lives as factory workers in Mexico’s second largest city and one of the world’s most important centers in the electronics industry supply chain. An assembly-line worker, Maria makes about $10 for an eight hour shift six days a week. Although Maria said she gets all the benefits afforded by Mexican law, she must renew her work contract every two months. A quality control specialist, Alma has more responsibilities than Maria but gets the same amount of pay. A third woman who joined the conversation worked in the local high-tech industry until she was fired two years ago. Unlike Maria and Alma, the friend completed higher education training for a technician’s career but still maxed out her earnings at approximately $500 monthly after a dozen years in the industry. Read more ..


Middle East on Edge

Obama Tells Israel: I've Got your Back, But Chill Out

March 5th 2012

Barack Obama Israel speech

President Obama reaffirmed his staunch commitment to Israel on March 4, making clear in no uncertain terms that “I have Israel’s back.” But, at the same time, he urged Israel and its supporters to allow time for diplomacy and “crippling” sanctions on Iran to take hold to halt Tehran’s nuclear program.

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby group, Obama tried to reassure the crowd of 13,000 people, who initially greeted him with a lukewarm response, by saying that if Iran fails to meet its obligations and the problem remains, “we must accomplish our objective.”

“Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment, I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said, drawing hearty applause from the crowd. “And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.” During his address, which comes one day before he sits down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama sought time and again to reassure Israel and its supporters that he will do whatever it takes to help defend the country. Read more ..



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