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Russia on Edge

Stalin Era: Misplaced Nostalgia

April 9th 2012

Stalin notebook cover
“Great Russians” notebook cover (credit: Alt Publishing)

In Moscow, adults are snapping up school notebooks for children. Why? The cover has a heroic image of Stalin.

The Stalin notebook is part of a “Great Russians” series. On one level, it is depressing that the art director of the Alt publishing house does not seem to know that “Stalin” was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a Georgian. But far more importantly, Russia’s amnesia towards its Stalinist past is dangerous.

Winston Churchill, no friend of his wartime ally, once noted that Stalin dragged Russia from the wooden plow to the H-bomb. Similarly, many Russians prefer to focus on this “positive” of Stalin’s three decades of rule. As to the sinister side, Stalin’s close collaborators called him “Genghis Khan with a telephone.”

Those telephone calls led to the deaths of millions of people through executions, famines, and mass jailings. Add to that his criminally poor preparation for the Nazi attack in World War II, a war that cost the lives of almost 15 percent of the Soviet population.

Those telephone calls led to the deaths of millions of people through executions, famines, and mass jailings. Add to that his criminally poor preparation for the Nazi attack in World War II, a war that cost the lives of almost 15 percent of the Soviet population.

“When children see this magnificent cover with handsome mustachioed Stalin, they perceive him as a hero,” Nikolai Svanidze, a television historian, wrote this week about the Soviet leader in his marshal’s uniform, with military medals covering his chest. Read more ..

Egypt and The West

Brotherhood Launches PR Offensive in Washington

April 9th 2012

Khairat al-Shater
FJP presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater

A delegation from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) made its first official visit to the United States last week, where it spent time in New York and Washington, DC talking to think tank experts and White House officials about the Brotherhood’s growing role in Cairo.

"The purpose of the visit is to engage the American people on issues of mutual concern in international relations, reassure [the] business community of the prospects of investments and economic growth in democratic Egypt, and boost American tourism to Egypt," the Muslim Brotherhood’s English language website reported. In other words, the FJP is trying to assuage American fears regarding its political ambitions and depict itself as a moderate group that has the interest of all Egyptians at heart.

The delegation arrived in the U.S. after ruffling feathers by fielding a candidate for president in Egypt—after stating earlier that it wouldn’t do so. That candidate, Khairat al-Shater, this week declared that introducing sharia law would be his "first and final project and objective" as president, and that he would create a special entity to assist parliament in the process. Walking back from that announcement, at an event at Georgetown University, FJP lawmaker Abdul Mawgoud Dardery said that the party is dedicated to the objectives of sharia law rather than its specific practice. "The principles are universal: freedom, human rights, justice for all," he said. Read more ..

Labor on Edge

On-call Employment: Good for Business But Bad for Workers

April 8th 2012

Retail Sales Target Cashier

Like generations of college students, Caprice Taylor needed a job to help pay her school and living expenses. For the 24-year-old student of fashion merchandise management at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, sales work at a retail clothing shop seemed like a good option.

Taylor was hired last year at Club Monaco, a high-end clothing and apparel retailer owned by Polo Ralph Lauren. But her scheduled shifts at the Manhattan store were not guaranteed. Instead, she was given call-in shifts, which required her to call the store two hours before she was scheduled to arrive to see if she was needed.

Most often, she was not.

For months, Taylor said, she arranged her personal life around work days, waiting in her apartment, only to call in and learn the store wasn’t busy enough. On some weeks, Taylor logged as few as six hours, not earning enough to keep up with her living expenses. “It puts your day on complete hold,” Taylor said. “It pressures you.”

After four months of unpredictable paychecks, Taylor quit. She later found work at a Polo Ralph Lauren store that does not have on-call shifts. She was lucky to find it. Retail watchers say big-box stores and shopping-mall stalwarts are increasingly hiring workers for on-call shifts, a trend that cuts labor costs for employers, but leaves workers like Taylor struggling to get by.


Fixing Broken Government

Delaware Lawmakers Move to Address Low State Grades

April 6th 2012

Delaware Legislative Hall

Delaware lawmakers have launched a new legislative effort designed in part to improve the C- grade the state received on lobbying disclosure from the State Integrity Investigation. The First State’s grade put it 22nd among the 50 states in that category.

The bill would require lobbyists to disclose the number of each bill or resolution on which they lobbied. The measure also calls for electronic filing of expenditures and registration forms by lobbyists, and requires the state’s Public Integrity Commission to post reports online “to allow [the] public to review such information organized by bill, resolution, lobbyist, employer, and subject.”

In a press conference Wednesday, Senate President Pro Tem Anthony DeLuca (D-Varlano), called the proposed legislation a “big step” for public accessibility. “If you look overall at what we’re trying to accomplish, and you look at the electronics involved in this and the fact that we’re going to be getting an updated system that the public can easily access, that is a major thing,” DeLuca said.

But the bill does not address several areas in which Delaware lost points in the State Integrity Investigation. Delaware lobbyists would still not be required to disclose their salary or overall compensation—only expenses related to food, travel, gifts, and entertainment. And oversight would apparently not be affected. On a scorecard question about effective monitoring of lobbying disclosure, Delaware scored only 16 percent. Read more ..

Breaking News!

Exclusive Coverage of Exodus: Children of Israel Flee Egyptian Bondage

April 5th 2012

Edwin Black

EDITORS NOTE: All details of Edwin Black’s Passover coverage are taken faithfully from Exodus chapters 5-15, plus Rashi’s Commentary.

Approximately two million Children of Israel are now encamped in the Sinai following their extraordinary exodus from Egypt yesterday. Just days ago, they were slaves to Pharaoh. Today, they are free men and women, destined for self-determination in a land of their own. Only now are the details of their fantastic experience coming to light.

The dramatic sequence of events began some weeks ago with the unexpected return of exiled prince Moses, who previously fled Pharaoh's wrath after slaying a taskmaster. In his daring appearance at the Palace, the inarticulate Moses, speaking through his brother Aaron, declared himself to be the personal emissary of a powerful new “God,” previously unknown to the Royal Court. Moreover, Moses asserted that his God was the protector of the Children of Israel, who have been in bondage for more than four centuries in Egypt.

The entire Royal Court was aghast as Moses demanded that the Children of Israel be permitted to travel three days into the desert for an unprecedented “feast and sacrifice” to their God. Making clear that he was not asking a Court indulgence, Moses looked straight at Pharaoh, stamped his roughhewn staff and issued the ultimatum that would be his rallying call during the coming days: “Let my people go.”

Laughter echoed throughout the hall as Pharaoh sneered, “Who is your 'God?' I know him not. Nor will I let Israel go!” Showing little patience, Pharaoh cited reports that Moses had been “disturbing the people from their works” in various building projects wholly dependent upon slave labor. As a punitive measure, Pharaoh proclaimed that henceforth slaves would be compelled to gather their own straw, even as their daily brick quota was maintained. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Israel's Friend on Iran's Border

April 5th 2012

Israeli Jets Parked

According to a report out this week in Foreign Policy magazine, Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to its southern airbases on Iran's northern border from which it could potentially launch airstrikes against Iran. "The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior administration official reportedly said in early February, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."

Azerbaijan quickly denied the claims, and a senior official said that the allegations were "aimed at damaging relations between Azerbaijan and Iran." Azeri-Iranian ties have been strained in recent months over the former's relations with Israel. At the end of February, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi called a meeting with the Azerbaijani Ambassador to Tehran and warned him not to let Israel use Azerbaijan to stage an attack. In a later meeting, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev confirmed that his country would not do so.

But according to Foreign Policy, Baku could still keep its word and provide Israel with essential support, such as allowing search-and-rescue units inside Azerbaijan or for Israeli bombers to land there after a strike, eliminating Israel's problem of refueling its jets midflight to ensure a safe return home. According to the report, an intelligence officer noted that Washington is "not happy about" Israel's alleged colluding with Azerbaijan. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

The Danger Zone

April 5th 2012

USS Abraham Lincoln Flight Deck
USS Abraham Lincoln

U.S. President Barack Obama recently said that "all elements of American power" remain on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The USS Abraham Lincoln -- a nearly 100,000-ton supercarrier with a crew of around 4,800 and 50-plus aircraft -- is one of these elements. Steaming just 30 miles off the coast of Iran while launching F/A-18 Hornet strike aircraft, it is one of the most visibly impressive demonstrations of American military might.

If strategic power can be measured in decibels, the flight operations of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier must rank at the top. Even if one wears earplugs as well as ear protectors, the noise on the flight deck is overwhelming. Depending on the aircraft type and the payload it is carrying, each F/A-18 is catapulted off either at full power or with the additional fiery blast of afterburners. Similarly on landing, the throttles are opened in case the aircraft's hook does not catch on one of the four arrestor wires stretched across the deck. An aircraft that misses is labeled a "bolter" and has only yards to once again become airborne and fly round for another attempt. In several hours of watching, there were few "bolters." Most pilots caught their target, the third wire. Read more ..

Egypt on Edge

Muslim Brotherhood Changes Tactics, Fields Presidential Candidate

April 4th 2012

Khairat al-Shater
Khairat el-Shater

The decision by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to field Khairat el-Shater as its presidential candidate marks the latest reversal in the group’s tactics during the nation’s political transition. Brotherhood politicians already dominate both houses of parliament, after initially pledging to contest a minority of seats. The prospect of an executive branch under the group’s control raises fears the country ousted an authoritarian government only to replace it with something equally monolithic, and secular, Christian, and even other Muslim groups have been quick to denounce the move.

Political analysts are split over whether this will help or hurt the Islamist cause.

Political sociologist Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo says it is no surprise the Brotherhood went back on its promise to stay out of the race. “The Muslim Brotherhood is like any totalitarian, ideological movement,” Sadek said. “They have objectives. They have an ideology and tactics, and the tactics are very flexible to changing circumstances.”

Similarly, the Brotherhood went back on its word on writing a new constitution. After promising to include a wide array of voices, the drafting committee is dominated by Islamists, with liberal and Christian groups as well as Islamic scholars withdrawing from the very limited role they were offered. Read more ..

Broken Banking

Tribal Payday Lender Sued by Federal Trade Commission

April 3rd 2012

Scott Tucker
Scott Tucker (credit: Level 5 Motorsports)

The Federal Trade Commission today took up a case that had thwarted state authorities for years, accusing an Internet payday lender with ties to Indian tribes of illegally deceiving borrowers.

The agency is asking a federal judge in Nevada to order AMG Services of Overland Park., Kan., to stop the deceptive practices and pay back borrowers who its says got cheated.

“The defendants have deceived consumers about the cost of their loans and charged more than they said they would, said Malini Mithal, the FTC’s assistant director of financial practices. “The FTC is trying to stop this deception and get refunds for consumers.”

While the company has won arguments in state courts that it has tribal sovereign immunity, allowing it to make loans even in states that restrict or forbid payday loans, that protection doesn’t apply to the federal courts. Court records suggest the business has made more than $165 million, charging interest rates as high as 800 percent on small loans. Borrowers have complained in droves about the lender’s tactics. Law enforcement authorities have received more than 7,500 complaints about the business, the FTC says. Read more ..

Religious Tolerance

Argentine Soldiers in Falklands/Malvinas War Endured Horrifying Antisemitism

April 2nd 2012

Silvio Katz of Argentina 1982
Silvio Katz (second from left) and fellow Argentine troops in 1982.

Three months after returning from the war with Great Britain that would prove disastrous for the Argentine Republic, Silvio Katz – a 19-year-old Argentine soldier – observed from the window of a bus in Buenos Aires a terrifying sight that would immediately recalls the horrors of combat and prejudice. 

In 1982, the combined forces of Argentina’s military descended on the islands due east of the South American republic, over which sovereignty had been disputed with the United Kingdom for over a century. Negotiations, threats and appeals by Argentina were unavailing for decades. Argentina and the United Kingdom could not even agree on the name of the little windswept archipelago where sheep still outnumber people. For Argentina, and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, the islands are known as Las Malvinas – in tribute to sailors from St Malo, France, while Anglo-Saxons still insist on the name Falklands. Read more ..

Inside Cuba

A Papal Visit and Cuba's Repression of the Ladies in White

April 1st 2012

Cuba's Ladies in White

The Cuban government, the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban humanitarian group, the Ladies in White (Las Damas de Blanco), all formidable entities in their own right, found themselves thrust upon the world stage together this week as a result of Pope Benedict XVI’s first trip to Latin America in five years. Ahead of the papal’s three-day visit to Cuba,many of the Ladies in White were held by Cuban officials; a series of detainments that were initially prompted by the occupation of a local church in Cuba by members of the Republican Party of Cuba. The anti-Castro demonstrators were attempting to influence the Pope before his impending arrival to directly address the human rights abuses leveled against the Castro regime.

The United States, a long time advocate of the Ladies in White, naturally glommed onto the public protest and, unsurprisingly, Havana was quick to accuse Washington of propping up the “subversive” movement. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council said the detainments revealed “the disdain of the Cuban authorities” for civilian rights and critiqued “the acts of those who are standing in the way of the basic aspirations of the Cuban people.” Read more ..

Environmental Edge

Water Scarcity in California's Bay-Delta Region Requires Hard Decisions

April 1st 2012

California Bay Delta

Simultaneously attaining a reliable water supply for California and protecting and rehabilitating its Bay-Delta ecosystem cannot be realized until better planning can identify how trade-offs between these two goals will be managed when water is limited, says a new report from the National Research Council. Recent efforts have been ineffective in meeting these goals because management is distributed among many agencies and organizations, which hinders development and implementation of an integrated, comprehensive plan. Additionally, it is impossible to restore the delta habitat to its pre-disturbance state because of the extensive physical and ecological changes that have already taken place and are still occurring, including those due to multiple environmental stressors.

The delta region receives fresh water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries, and ultimately flows into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Water-pumping stations divert water from the delta, primarily to supply Central Valley agriculture and metropolitan areas in southern California, the Bay Area, and the delta itself. An increasing population and the operation of the engineered water-control system have substantially altered the delta ecosystem, including its fish species. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

ADHD is Over-Diagnosed

April 1st 2012


What experts and the public have already long suspected is now supported by representative data collected by researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) and University of Basel: ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is over-diagnosed. The study showed that child and adolescent psychotherapists and psychiatrists tend to give a diagnosis based on heuristics, unclear rules of thumb, rather than adhering to recognized diagnostic criteria. Boys in particular are substantially more often misdiagnosed compared to girls.

These are the most important results of a study conducted by Prof. Dr. Silvia Schneider and Prof. Dr. Jürgen Margraf (both from RUB) and Dr. Katrin Bruchmüller (University of Basel) as reported in the American periodical "Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology". 

Leon has ADHD, Lea doesn't

The researchers surveyed altogether 1,000 child and adolescent psychotherapists and psychiatrists across Germany. 473 participated in the study. They received one of four available case vignettes, and were asked to give a diagnoses and a recommendation for therapy. In three out of the four case vignettes, the described symptoms and circumstances did not fulfil ADHD criteria. Only one of the cases fulfilled ADHD criteria based strictly on the valid diagnostic criteria. In addition, the gender of the child was included as a variable resulting in eight different case vignettes. As the result, when comparing two identical cases with a different gender, the difference was clear: Leon has ADHD, Lea doesn't. Read more ..

Edge of Obamacare

Five Questions for the Supreme Court to Consider in the Healthcare Debate

March 31st 2012

US Supreme Court

A handful of specific questions from last week's oral arguments could help shape the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on President Obama’s healthcare law.

The over-arching question before the court is whether the law’s individual mandate is constitutional. But that’s a complicated question, and the two sides of the case don't even agree about how best to ask it.

A decision is expected to come in June — just months before the presidential election.

The biggest takeaway from last week’s arguments was that the mandate is very much in jeopardy. That doesn’t mean, however, that the court is sure to strike it down, and the oral arguments helped illuminate several areas the justices will likely consider in their private deliberations. Here are five questions that could shape the court’s ruling:

A handful of specific questions from last week's oral arguments could help shape the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on President Obama’s healthcare law. Read more ..

The Edge of Disaster

Staying Ahead of Asia’s Next Natural Disaster

March 31st 2012

Sumatra village after tsunami
Sumatran coastal village after tsunami
(credit: PM2 Philip A. McDaniel, US Navy)

This week’s moderate earthquake in Japan, one of the Asian countries best prepared for natural disasters, was a stark reminder of the value of readiness in a region disproportionately targeted by the forces of nature. While Japan continues to dig out from last year’s triple disaster, Thailand is scrambling to avert a repeat of last year’s historic floods.

Since then, Thai authorities have set aside billions of dollars for a long-term water resource management plan that they say will ensure that the disaster will not be repeated.

Bangkok resident Suthi Sun remembered the floods like a bad dream. When the waters reached his residence, he said in an e-mail interview that “this was the first time I found the high level of flooding. The highest level was 1.5 meter[s]. Meanwhile my ceiling is about 2.2 to 2.5 meters.”

Sun said the Thai government tried to do its best but had no “clear or certain policy.” Ruengrawee Pichaikul, Senior Program Coordinator for the Asia Foundation in Thailand, agreed, saying in an e-mail interview that some believed the scale of the flooding was beyond the government’s capacity. When responding to similar charges leveled against the government during the flood, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said, “I tell you the truth, we have done everything to the best of our ability. … We are facing the most severe flooding ever. We need encouragement, support, and cooperation from all sectors and from all the people as well.” Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Beware: Peppers, Pears, and Grapes From Turkey Are Most Toxic Produce In Europe

March 31st 2012

produce stand in urla
Credit: Peggy Suada Oz

Of 76 different fruits and vegetables recently evaluated, Turkish peppers contained the most excessive and dangerous amounts of pesticide chemicals, according to Food Without Pesticides, a new 26-page guide (currently only available in German) to European food released this week by Greenpeace Germany.

Turkish peppers topped the list of “most contaminated” produce in the guide, with an average of 24 chemical substances found in the specimens analyzed. In second place, with an average of 10 chemical substances, were Turkish pears. Nine chemical substances were found in Turkish pears, on average, putting them at third place.

Eleven different Turkish crops were rated, using 582 samples. The guide used a green/yellow/red light system to show its ratings, with a red light meaning that more than one-third of the samples had dangerous levels of chemicals in them.

Of all 23 major fruit-and-vegetable-exporting countries that were evaluated in the report, Turkey had the highest number of crops in the “red light” category. The study was conducted using fruit taken from retail and wholesale stores in Europe in 2009 and 2010, but it is unlikely that pesticide use has declined significantly in Turkey since then. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Super Donor Friess Skips Super PAC to Help Santorum

March 31st 2012

Foster Friess
Foster Friess (credit: Gage Skimore)

Ahead of Tuesday’s GOP presidential primary in Wisconsin, wealthy investor Foster Friess is giving his preferred candidate, Rick Santorum, a boost. This time though, rather than contributing to a pro-Santorum super PAC, he’s taking matters into his own hands. Friess has personally spent $8,675 to help his friend win, including roughly $1,000 each for a radio ad touting the former Pennsylvania senator and a newspaper ad, both in Friess’s hometown of Rice Lake, Wis.

Citizens have long been free to spend their personal funds directly on independent expenditures, which cannot be coordinated with candidates’ campaigns, but such spending is exceedingly rare. In fact, Friess is just the third individual to make personal independent expenditures this election cycle, according to an analysis of filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Typically, people tend to give money to existing organizations like super PACs, which can pool resources, produce more efficient ad buys and “capitalize on the expertise” of the people running the group, said attorney Paul Ryan, of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. Ryan commended Friess for being willing to attach his name to these advertisements. If you are willing to spend money on a political advertisement, Ryan said, “you should stand by its content.” Read more ..

Religious Tolerance

Chief Rabbinate of Israel and Vatican Agree on the Moral Ramifications of the Financial Crisis

March 30th 2012

Rabbi Cohen of the Rabbinate of Israel
Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel

Religious perspectives on the current financial crisis: vision for a just economic order" was the theme of the eleventh meeting of the Bilateral Commission of the Delegations of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, which was held in Rome. The March 27-29 event was presided by Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, and by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

In an English-language joint statement issued at the end of the meeting, the two sides highlight that, "while many factors contributed to the financial crisis, at its roots lies a crisis of moral values in which the importance of having, reflected in a culture of greed, eclipsed the importance of being; and where the value of truth reflected in honesty and transparency was sorely lacking in economic activity."

"At the heart of Jewish and Catholic visions for a just economic order is the affirmation of the sovereignty and providence of the Creator of the world with Whom all wealth originates and which is given to humankind as a gift for the common good", the text adds. Therefore "the purpose of an economic order is to serve the well being of society, affirming the human dignity of all people, each created in the divine image." This concept "is antithetical to egocentricity. Rather, it requires the promotion of the well being of the individual in relation to community and society". It also "posits the obligation to guarantee certain basic human needs, such as the protection of life, sustenance, clothing, housing, health, education and employment". Read more ..

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


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


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.

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