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Archive for December 2011

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Oil Addiction Without a Plan

Iran Bluffing with Threat to Block Oil Passageway, Military Analysts Say

December 31st 2011

Iran - Strait of Hormuz

Iranian officials have been bluffing when they threaten to shut down the Strait of Hormuz so that “not even a drop of oil” would go through the key passageway, military analysts say. In reality, Iran has little ability to successfully blockade the strait - a gateway for nearly one-fifth of the world’s oil - and the U.S. Navy would overpower Iran’s military if it tried. “It’s a little bit hard to imagine when you start looking at nuts and bolts of how oil gets in and out of the area,” said Caitlin Talmadge, a George Washington University assistant professor who has studied the Strait of Hormuz.

Even if Iran did manage to close the strait, it would pay a heavy price, as doing so would also devastate the country’s own economy, which is heavily reliant on oil exports. Analysts say Iran can still cause problems in the strait that would cause oil prices to shoot upwards, even if the disruption would be small and short-lived. The threat of military escalation also could push oil prices higher even if no military action occurs. Read more ..

Palestine and Israel

What Would a Hamas-Fatah Agreement Mean?

December 31st 2011

Palestine Topics - Hamas-Fatah handshake

There are repeated efforts to forge a unity agreement of some sort between Hamas and Fatah, leading to a new “unity government” for the Palestinian Authority. Such a coalition was briefly in force in 2007 after the Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement. It quickly broke down into violence and led to the Hamas coup in Gaza. What would it mean today?

One immediate effect of such an agreement would be a new PA cabinet in which Salam Fayyad would no longer be prime minister. Fayyad’s presence has meant, first, transparency and a struggle against corruption. His departure almost guarantees that the integrity of the PA’s books and finances will decline. But Fayyad as prime minister not only oversees the books; he also oversees the security forces. What were once thirteen armed gangs reporting to Yasser Arafat is an increasingly professional sector, keeping order in the West Bank and working well with the Israeli army and police against terror. With Fayyad gone, it is predictable that the PA services, including the American-trained police, will tend to become more corrupt and more political, serving the interests of Fatah or of certain Fatah leaders. Read more ..

The 2012

Unlimited Presidential Fundraising: The Curse Of Steve Forbes

December 31st 2011

Money - Dollar Bills

It all started with Steve Forbes. Up until 1996, there were practical restraints on fundraising for a presidential race. In the primaries, the Federal Election Commission provided matching funds to candidates if they stuck to spending limits, both per-state and overall. Any candidate who wanted an influx of public funding had to limit the outflow, too.

In the general election, each major party's nominee took public funding with the proviso that he couldn't raise any money on his own. Sounds like a good deal, but the candidates haven't always been happy about it. They felt hamstrung by the spending limits in small but important early-voting states as well as the overall primary spending restrictions. Still, as recently as 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole ran for president while raising a mere $35 million each in campaign contributions. However, during the same election, Forbes refused matching funds so he could reach into his very deep pockets during the GOP primary. The billionaire put more than $37 million of his own money into his campaign. Read more ..

How Can Israeli Boycotters Remain Silent About Carnage in Syria

December 31st 2011

How can these Israeli boycotters remain silent about the carnage in Syria and instead seek to divert the world's attention from where it is needed the most to where it matters the least--at least for right this moment (see U of Penn Rejects Boycott of Israel, Distances School From Upcoming Boycott Conference, Slices, December 24, 2012). Unless these boycotters can loudly speak up for the Syrian people now, murdered daily in the streets, they have lost all legitimacy in my mind. History will portray them for what they are. Part of the problem not part of the solution.

The Defense Edge

An Unacceptable Squeeze on Defense Modernization

December 31st 2011

Military - F-22s at Sunset

Following the enactment of the Budget Control Act earlier this year, the budget for the core defense program is already operating under stringent spending caps. At the same time, per capita expenditures for paying military personnel and operating the force are high and growing rapidly.

Under these circumstances, funding for the procurement of new weapons and equipment and for research and development on new defense technologies will be squeezed to a dangerous degree. Both the Obama Administration and Congress will be tempted to leave the defense spending caps in place—if not to go to even lower caps—now that the sequestration process could be applied to the defense budget under the Budget Control Act. This is a result of the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (“super committee”) to agree on an alternative deficit-reduction plan and adopt a policy of “people over platforms” in slicing up the defense budget pie. Given the uncertainties in the application of the sequestration process, it is impossible to calculate precisely how much more the modernization accounts will be squeezed if that process kicks in. Suffice it to say that the problem is likely to become dramatically worse. Read more ..

China and Latin America

China Seeks to Drive the Industrialization of Latin America

December 31st 2011

Latin American Topics - ollanta humala peru
Peruvian President Ollanta Humala speaks at China/Latinamerican Summit

On November 21, the Peruvian capital, hosted the fifth China – Latin America Summit, in which for two days were discussed a roster of urgent topics involved in order to achieve further development in terms of commerce and trade between China (PRC) and Latin America.  The Summit was attended by over a thousand business leaders and public officials from the PRC and from all of the Latin American countries.  Since the world financial crisis of 2008, Chinese corporations have devoted special attention to diversify their investment potential throughout South America in particular.
According to Mr. Zhang Wei, the Vice President of the Chinese Council of International Trade Promotion (CCPIT), in 2010 China and Latin America, reached record levels of USD 183 billion in inter-regional trade and commerce.  In the coming years, Chinese business hope to have a wider grasp and a more comprehensive investment expansion strategy in high production areas such as energy, infrastructure, mining and telecommunications.  It is believed that with the help of this year’s end gathering, Chinese business activists will reach a record level of their investments thrust, with growth pointed at an upwards of USD 22.7 billion.  Read more ..

Drug Wars

Caribbean is a Basin of Narcotrafficking and Increasing Use of Narcotics

December 31st 2011

Caribbean - Ganja man Jamaica mon
Jamaican marihuana production

The 1970s marked the dawning of the drug trafficking phenomenon in the Caribbean. Since then, the tentacles of this multibillion-dollar illegal industry has plagued the West Indian islands with expanding drug cartel ramifications from Central and South America which continue to make use of the islands as a channel to deliver supplies to high-demand markets in the United States and Europe. Drug cartels use the Caribbean as a mode of transit, mainly because of its geographic layout.

The cartographic projection of the Caribbean islands provides an advantage to drug cartels which make good use of its long coastlines to transport narcotics by means of fishing boats, speedboats, freighter shipments, yachts, and other modes of small commercial, as well as private sea transportation conveyances, along with light aircraft. For instance, the Bahamas is a favored transit point for Jamaican marijuana and South American cocaine cultivated and processed specifically for sale in the United States. Due to the far-flung Caribbean archipelago that contains over 700 islands spread across some 15,000 square miles, only thirty or forty of which are inhabited, thus making it difficult to regulate and detect such illegal activities taking place in such waters. In addition, “small commercial and private conveyances along short-distance maritime and aerial routes” also contribute to what has become a security dilemma. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Empowering Patients as Key Decision Makers in the Face of Rising Health Care Costs

December 31st 2011

Health/Medicine - nurse w/stethoscope

Health care costs are consuming ever larger portions of the gross domestic product (GDP). There is broad bipartisan agreement on the need to control these rising costs and to control federal entitlement spending in general, including spending on the giant health care entitlements Medicare and Medicaid. However, the standard approach to limiting federal health care spending is to limit federal payments for medical goods and services. This limitation, in itself, is a form of health care rationing. In fact, rationing of one form or another is already a routine feature of public and private health insurance arrangements, although it is often covert, opaque, or subtle in its implementation.

For policymakers and the public, the basic question is not whether there should be rationing in health care: It already exists. Economics itself is an exercise in rationing among goods and services because limited resources cannot purchase unlimited goods. The crucial question is: Who should make the rationing decisions? Read more ..

Edge on Terrorism

Nigerian Security Chiefs 'Worried' about Boko Haram Terror as Christians Hunker Down

December 30th 2011

Nigeria - Nigerian church burnt out by Boko Haram
Christian church bombed out by Boko Haram

There are conflicting reports that explosions rocked a mosque in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, even while local authorities claim that there were no explosions. Authorities did however report that there was a robbery that caused the deaths of at least three people, possibly attributable to the violent Boko Haram Islamic religious sect. The apparently false bomb report stunned the already jangled nerves of Nigeria that is still reeling after the fatal Christmas Day bombings that killed scores. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has summoned the Service Chiefs and other heads of the country’s security agencies to emergency meetings at the State House in Abuja, the capital city.

According to Air Chief Marshall Oluseyi Petinrin said that the president had been key decisions about national security. Inspector-General of Police Hafiz Ringim said the security chiefs and President Johnson reviewed the current security challenges and the way forward. Ringim said the security agencies were worried about the terrorist attacks in the county, “Well, we are all worried. Read more ..

The Edge of Cyber-Warfare

The Internet and Latin America: The Rise of the Virtual World

December 30th 2011

Latin American Topics - internet cafe

Throughout the world, many regions have embraced the internet as a vital communication and business tool, and Latin America has been no exception. While demonstrably the expansion of internet usage has not rivaled that of the United States, Europe, or some Asian states like South Korea and Japan, the growth of the internet in the region continues at a steady tempo. Additionally, we are witnessing a rise in the importance of cyber security as cases of hacking and other cybercrimes proliferate.

Growth of the Internet in Numbers

In terms of numbers, the level of internet use in Latin America is certainly not as widespread as it has been in Europe or other highly developed regions, given constraints such as adverse economic indicators, poverty levels, and even geography, but the number of internet users in Latin America has grown over the past decade. Currently, the countries with the most internet users among Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America are Chile, Argentina and Venezuela. According to a June 2011 report by AMPARO, a project managed by the Latin American and Caribbean internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC), there are currently over 200 million users in Latin America and the Caribbean. Read more ..

Living With Verizon

Verizon Wireless, Pummeled by Mass Protests, Will Not Institute Single Payment Fee

December 30th 2011

Corporate Logos - Verizon Wireless Store

After receiving some 50,000 petition cancellation warnings in just two hours, VerizonWireless has decided it will not institute a $2 fee for online or telephone single payments as it announced earlier this week. The reviled fee rankled and astonished the nation. It triggered the type of instant consumer backlash that cost Bank of America billions in cash withdrawals, Netflix more than a million subscription cancellations, and Go-Daddy tens of thousands of domain transfers.

The $2 payment fee, which the company was unable to justify even to its own customer service staff, was particularly ironic since VerizonWireless's most advanced phones, such as the 4G Thunderbolt, don't work in most of the country, and even in the 40 isolated zones where they do work, services is spotty at best. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

High-Tech Advances Reveal Mummy Secrets

December 30th 2011

Egypt - Mummy

Mummies seem to be all the rage in the United States these days. Not only are Americans flocking to see treasures from King Tut’s tomb, they are also finding mummies in other museums. In 1932, movie audiences were introduced to “The Mummy” for the first time. Mummies have been a part of popular culture ever since, but Egyptologist Salima Ikram says the ancient culture has mesmerized people for thousands of years. “Even the Greeks and Romans were coming there as tourists.”

Ikram, who teaches at the American University in Cairo, helped curate the new “Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt” exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History here in Washington. “I’m hoping that people will engage with ancient Egypt, not just as a bunch of dead people, but a bunch of people who were living just like you and I are.” Mummies had been on display at the museum for decades, but for the past year, they were in storage. Curator Melinda Zeder says the public demanded their return.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is the only US venue for an exhibit of artifacts from the British Museum that includes four mummies. “We had a real outpouring from our fans from across not only Washington, but the country, wanting to know when we were going to bring the mummies back.” Now there are more mummies on display, and more information about how they lived and who they were in life, discovered in part from CT scans. The images reveal a wealth of information, says anthropologist Bruno Frohlich, who conducts scans in his lab. “We can determine the age of death. We can determine the sex. And we can determine the strength and composition of bone tissue," he says. "That can help scientiests determine what the person was doing while alive.” Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Elderly Can be as Fast as Young in Some Brain Tasks, Study Shows

December 30th 2011

Social Topics - walking-cane

Both children and the elderly have slower response times when they have to make quick decisions in some settings. But recent research suggests that much of that slower response is a conscious choice to emphasize accuracy over speed. In fact, healthy older people can be trained to respond faster in some decision-making tasks without hurting their accuracy – meaning their cognitive skills in this area aren’t so different from younger adults. “Many people think that it is just natural for older people’s brains to slow down as they age, but we’re finding that isn’t always true,” said Roger Ratcliff, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and co-author of the studies. “At least in some situations, 70-year-olds may have response times similar to those of 25-year olds.”

Ratcliff and his colleagues have been studying cognitive processes and aging in their lab for about a decade.  In a new study published online this month in the journal Child Development, they extended their work to children. Ratcliff said their results in children are what most scientists would have expected: very young children have slower response times and poorer accuracy compared to adults, and these improve as the children mature. But the more interesting finding is that older adults don’t necessarily have slower brain processing than younger people, said Gail McKoon, professor of psychology at Ohio State and co-author of the studies. “Older people don’t want to make any errors at all, and that causes them to slow down.  We found that it is difficult to get them out of the habit, but they can with practice,” McKoon said. Read more ..

Inside Latin America

The United States Defines Democracy in Latin America

December 30th 2011

Nicaragua - Daniel Ortega
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega

In 2003, Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica, appealed to the Constitutional Court (Sala IV), claiming that the article that prohibited the re-election of a president and vice-president was in violation of basic human rights guaranteed by the same Constitution, which declares that all laws must apply equally to every citizen.  The Constitutional Court ruled 5-2 in favor of Arias, who was subsequently re-elected by a suspicious margin in a controversial election. In 2009, Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, as a result of an election staged in 2006, appealed to the Supreme Court of Nicaragua, asking it to revoke the article that prohibited his re-election, where he used the same arguments as Arias.  After studying the case, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court followed the example of Costa Rica and declared the article unconstitutional, thereby opening the way for Ortega to be a candidate for re-election in 2011. Read more ..

The Gender Edge

Study Finds Most Paramedics are Victims of Abuse in the Workplace

December 29th 2011

Health/Medicine - Paramedics

More than two-thirds of paramedics surveyed have experienced verbal, physical or sexual abuse on the job, new research has found. Verbal abuse by patients and their friends or relatives, Emergency Medical Service (EMS) co-workers or bystanders, was the most commonly reported, followed by intimidation and physical abuse, the study found. "EMS providers can experience violence in the workplace as they perform their jobs in unpredictable environments and near people in crisis," said Blair Bigham, the lead investigator. "Anecdotal reports and workplace safety records have highlighted cases of verbal, physical and sexual abuse, yet until now, there has been little scientific research. More research is needed to understand the impact of this workplace violence."

Bigham is an advanced care flight paramedic for York Region EMS and Ornge, and an associate scientist at Rescu, based at S. Michael's Hospital. Rescu is part of the Resuscitations Outcomes Consortium, a large, multinational research collaboration of 10 sites across the United States and Canada, studying how promising new tools and treatments can improve survival rates among people who suffer cardiac arrest or life-threatening traumatic injury outside of hospitals. Read more ..

Inside North Korea

North Korea Hails Kim Jong Un as 'Supreme Leader'

December 29th 2011

Korea Topics - Kim Jong-Un
Kim Jong Un

With a distant siren the only sound, an ocean of people bowed silently Thursday before North Korea's Kim Jong Un. From a balcony, he looked out over hundreds of thousands gathered for a silent memorial to his father - and a pledge of unwavering loyalty to him. The North’s new leader is not yet 30-years-old, but is already referred to in state media as "Supreme Commander" and "Great Successor." As the military fired weapons in salute, senior leaders flanking the younger Kim sought to leave no doubt about a smooth power transition from father to son.

Kim Yong Nam is North Korean Supreme People's Assembly President.  He says our great comrade Kim Jong Il has solved the leadership succession matter perfectly, which is the most precious accomplishment for our country's destiny and endless prosperity of our descendants. Korean Workers' Party Secretary Kim Ki Nam says by following our party and people's supreme leader Kim Jong Un's leadership, we are going to transform today's sorrow into a thousand times more strength and courage.

Estimates of how many North Koreans died of starvation and malnutrition under Kim Jong Il's rule range from several hundred thousand to more than a million. In neighboring South Korea, experts say Kim Jong Un's very survival depends on his ability to improve the economy. "Even a strong state, shall we say, like North Korea, armed to the teeth, can only last if its economy can continue to feed its soldiers, never mind its people," said Lho Kyungsoo, a Seoul National University professor and chairman of the Asia Society Korea Center. "But in order to earn the loyalty that his father and grandfather had the young Kim Jong Un is going to have to find the means to feed his people. And in order to do that he is going to have to change the makeup of the system to a certain degree and cooperate peacefully with its neighbors - especially South Korea." Read more ..

Broken Banking

Whistleblowers Ignored, Punished by Lenders, Dozens of Former Employees Say

December 29th 2011

Finance - Wells Fargo

Darcy Parmer ran into trouble soon after she started her job as a fraud analyst at Wells Fargo Bank. Her bosses, she later claimed, were upset that she was, well, finding fraud. Company officials, she alleged in a lawsuit, berated her for reporting that sales staffers were pushing through mortgage deals based on made-up borrower incomes and other distortions, telling her that she didn’t “see the big picture” and that “it is not your job to fix Wells Fargo.” Management, she claimed, ordered her to stop contacting the company’s ethics hotline. In the end, she said, Wells Fargo forced her out of her job.

Parmer isn’t alone in claiming she was punished for objecting to fraud in the midst of the nation’s home-loan boom. iWatch News has identified 63 former employees at 20 financial institutions who say they were fired or demoted for reporting fraud or refusing to commit fraud. Their stories were disclosed in whistleblower claims with the U.S. Department of Labor or court documents. “We did our jobs. We had integrity,” said Ed Parker, former fraud investigations manager at now-defunct Ameriquest Mortgage Co., a leading subprime lender. “But we were not welcome because we affected the bottom line.” Read more ..

Edge on Solar

North American Development Bank to Fund Solar Energy Projects on US-Mexico Border

December 29th 2011

Energy Topics - solar power plant

The Board of Directors of the North American Development Bank (NADB) has approved more than $136 million in new financing for environmentally-related initiatives on both sides of the US-Mexico borderline. In an announcement this month, the San Antonio-based bank listed four new projects that will receive NADB loans and grants.

More than half of the new money, or a $88.5 million loan, is set aside for a 20-megawatt solar energy park that will generate electricity for approximately 3,500 homes in the Tucson metropolitan area. The loan recipient will be the privately-owned SunEdison utility company.

Bank directors approved an $11 million loan for the city of Mexicali, Baja California, which plans to use the funding to pave roads and upgrade water and wastewater lines. The officials likewise gave the okay to a third loan of $36.6 million for infrastructure development of the Valle de las Palmas housing project near Tijuana, Baja California. Also in Mexico, a US Environmental Protection Agency grant of $549,488 will be channeled through the NADB to provide 600 residential potable water hookups and related necessities in the municipality of Praxedis Guerrero, Chihuahua, a violence-torn area located in the Juarez Valley across from Texas. Read more ..

Broken Banking

Ex-WaMu Worker Claims he was Shunned for Refusing to Push Toxic Loans on Borrowers

December 29th 2011

Corporate Logos - Washington Mutual

In the case of the salesman who wouldn’t sell, the two sides have starkly different tales to tell. Greg Saffer says conscience and common sense prevented him from pushing the product his bosses wanted him to sell – “Option ARM” home loans that, he says, put homeowners at risk. “I’m not going to steer people into a loan program that might not be good for them just because it’s more profitable for the company,” he says.

JP Morgan Chase Bank counters that Saffer didn’t sell because he didn’t have the chops to close deals. “Rather than a paragon of virtue, Saffer was simply a guy who could not sell loans in an increasingly tough market,” the bank’s lawyers say in legal papers. JP Morgan is matched against Saffer because it bought Saffer’s ex-employer, Seattle-based Washington Mutual Bank, in September 2008, after regulators seized WaMu in what was the largest bank failure in U.S. history. Saffer charged in a lawsuit filed in 2009 in Los Angeles Superior Court that he was forced out of his job for refusing to take part in “fraudulent schemes.” In testimony in the lawsuit and in documents in  arbitration proceedings, he claims WaMu retaliated against him because he refused to push “toxic” Option ARMs and mislead borrowers about how the loans worked and how much they would cost. Read more ..

Inside the Brain

Human Brain's Connective Cells Are Much More Than Glue

December 29th 2011

Science - glia cells

Glia cells, named for the Greek word for "glue," hold the brain's neurons together and protect the cells that determine our thoughts and behaviors, but scientists have long puzzled over their prominence in the activities of the brain dedicated to learning and memory. Now Tel Aviv University researchers say that glia cells are central to the brain's plasticity — how the brain adapts, learns, and stores information.

According to Ph.D. student Maurizio De Pittà of TAU's Schools of Physics and Astronomy and Electrical Engineering, glia cells do much more than hold the brain together. A mechanism within the glia cells also sorts information for learning purposes, De Pittà says. "Glia cells are like the brain's supervisors. By regulating the synapses, they control the transfer of information between neurons, affecting how the brain processes information and learns."

De Pittà's research, led by his TAU supervisor Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob, along with Vladislav Volman of The Salk Institute and the University of California at San Diego and Hugues Berry of the Université de Lyon in France, has developed the first computer model that incorporates the influence of glia cells on synaptic information transfer. Detailed in the journal PLoS Computational Biology, the model can also be implemented in technologies based on brain networks such as microchips and computer software, Prof. Ben-Jacob says, and aid in research on brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

As Thousands March against Dictator Assad, Syrian Security continues to Kill Civilians

December 29th 2011

Syrian Issues - Syria death

As thousands protested across Syria against the government, activists say Syrian security forces killed at least 19 people on December 28, including some in an area visited by Arab League monitors.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least four of the deaths were in the Damascus suburb of Douma. It says security forces opened fire after thousands of people began protesting outside a mosque.  Some residents said Arab League observers were in the area at the time.

Earlier, the observers announced plans to visit the Daraa, Hama and Idlib regions to check on government pledges to halt the deadly crackdown and release political detainees. The monitors also said they will make unannounced visits.

On Decenber 27, activists and rights groups said government forces had killed at least 39 people since the monitors arrived on December 25, including six people shot in Hama. Government snipers currently rule entire neighborhoods, shooting at anyone who dares to cross into the open. Snipers seriously wounded a young woman in Damascus, who was seven months pregnant. Residents have resorted to throwing food and merchandise across conflictive city intersections in order to avoid snipers' bullets. Read more ..

Why Don't Anti-Israel Boycotters Work to Stop the Bloodbath in Syria?

December 29th 2011

The true colors of the Israeli boycotters are oh so clear (see U of Penn Rejects Boycott of Israel, Distances School From Upcoming Boycott Conference, Slices, December 24, 2012). Look at Syria. Every day we hear about massacres, with dozens killed, and wounded. CNN just showed how people must throw bread across a street because anyone walking will be shot be government snipers. Anti-Israel boycotters should hang their head in shame for spending so much time and energy on Israel when they should be trying to stop the bloodbath in Syria. Nor to my knowledge did they try to stop the bloodbath in Libya or Yemen. No wonder the University of Pennsylvania has rejected them as hypocrites. They should immediately organize a boycott of Syrian oil and merchandise. If they do not, they have lost all moral legitimacy. I doubt anyone will listen.

Inside Washington

Hollywood, Pro-Israel lobby, Unions Seek Exemptions from Ban on Lobbyist Gifts

December 29th 2011

Money - US Paper Money

Associations representing Hollywood studios and the pro-Israel lobby are among the powerful Washington groups seeking exemptions from a new ethics rule prohibiting federal workers from attending events sponsored by lobbyists.

The proposed rule takes aim at Washington’s influence industry by prohibiting all federal workers—career and political appointees of the executive branch—from going to widely attended gatherings sponsored by lobbyists or groups registered to lobby. In addition, they wouldn’t be able to accept social invitations or small gifts from those on K Street.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) argued that the rule could prevent federal workers from attending its movie screenings, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) argued it could keep people from visiting its popular annual meeting. A major union for public workers argued that unions should be exempt because the law would otherwise depress union membership. Read more ..

Oil Addiction Without a Plan

If Iran Moves, the USA Has No Plan for an Oil Interruption

December 29th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black
Edwin Black

This story is adapted from The Plan: How to Save America When the Oil Stops—or the Day Before (Dialog Press). Buy it here.

It will come as a shock to most Americans, but no presidential candidate -- nor any candidate, nor any local, state or federal government -- has developed a contingency plan in the event of a protracted oil cut-off. It is not even being discussed. Government has prepared for hurricanes, anthrax, terrorism, and every other disaster, but not the one threatened daily -- a protracted oil stoppage, whether caused by terrorism or Iranian intervention in the Persian Gulf.

It is like seeing a hurricane developing without a disaster plan or evacuation route. Our allies have oil shortage interruption contingency plans, but America does not.

The crude realities: America uses approximately 19 to 20 million barrels of oil per day, almost half of which is imported. If we lose just 1 million barrels per day, or suffer the type of damage sustained from Hurricane Katrina, the government will open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which offers a mere 6 to 8 week supply of unrefined crude oil. If we lose 1.5 million barrels per day, or approximately 7.5 percent, we will ask our allies in the 28-member International Energy Agency to open their SPRs and otherwise assist. If we lose 2 million barrels per day, or ten percent for a protracted period of time, government crisis monitors say the chaos will be so catastrophic they cannot even model it. One government oil crisis source told me hours ago, "We cannot put a price tag on it. If it happens, just cash in your 401k."

Exactly how could America be subjected to a protracted oil interruption, that is, a 10 percent shortfall lasting longer than several weeks? It will not come from hurricane action in the Gulf of Mexico, or even major refinery accidents or other oil infrastructure damage. Such damage would be repaired within days and the temporary losses absorbed by the small half million barrel per day global cushion available. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

White House Casts Obama as Warrior for the Middle Class

December 29th 2011

Presidential - Obama Campaign 2012

President Obama’s latest makeover casts himself as a middle class warrior, a campaign theme his team thinks will resonate with voters in 2012.

After struggling to find a winning message, Obama has amped up his role as defender of the middle class and been rewarded with his highest bounce in the polls in months.

Just this week, for example, a Gallup poll revealed that more people viewed him favorably than unfavorably for the first time since July.

Observers say it’s no coincidence, crediting Obama’s sharpened populist pitch-- where he unveiled the American Jobs Act and stood his ground during the payroll tax extension stalemate – as a major part of his spike in popularity.

To be sure, congressional Republicans who bickered and botched that end-of-year debate deserve some credit for the president’s bounce. Read more ..

No Plan for Oil Interruption

Nuclear Sub Equipped with Cruise Missiles Bound for Iran

December 29th 2011

Military - ohio class sub

This story is part of continuing coverage of the threat of an oil interruption as detailed in The Plan: How to Save America When the Oil Stops—or the Day Before (Dialog Press). Buy it here.

According to operational-level military sources, an Ohio-class nuclear submarine is on its way to the Gulf of Hormuz. Rotation and leave were cancelled for the cruise-missile carrying sub, which is based at the US Navy base in Bremerton, Washington.

Additionally, according to the source, on-shore resupply was cancelled and any necessary supplies will be delivered by helicopter. The crew was told to expect a deployment of at least six month’s time, with a possible intermediate stop at the US base at Diego Garcia – an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, which is a British possession. A rendezvous with a SEAL team before reaching the vicinity of Iran was also expected.

In a December 28 press conference, the US appeared to promise a significant response to Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which vital oil supplies emerge from the Arabian Peninsula to the world through a narrow sea passage. “This is not just an important issue for security and stability in the region, but is an economic lifeline for countries in the Gulf, to include Iran,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said. “Interference with the transit or passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated.” A spokesperson for the US Navy 5th Fleet reportedly said that the United States is prepared to ensure freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. Read more ..

No Plan for Oil Interruption

U.S. Promises to Counter 'Malevolent Actions' by Iran in the Gulf of Hormuz

December 29th 2011

Iran - Iranian Admiral Habibullah
Iranian Adm. Habibollah Sayyari

For the second time in two days, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.  Iranian officials warned they would shut down the world’s strategic oil passageway if the West imposes sanctions on Iran's oil shipments.  Now the U.S. has responded that it would answer any blockade forcefully.  The controversy revolves around Iran’s nuclear capabilities. 

More than a third of the world's oil flows through this narrow passageway called the Strait of Hormuz. But now, the channel is emerging as a bargaining chip in a war of threats, increasing in intensity.  The latest, the U.S. military says it will not tolerate any Iranian disruptions of oil shipments in the Strait of Hormuz.  The Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet stated that the navy is ready to "counter malevolent actions" to ensure freedom of navigation.

The threats and counterthreats come at a time when the Iranian navy is conducting war exercises in the strait and inevitably coming close to U.S warships.  Saeed Leilaz, a political analyst based in Tehran, says that magnifies the threat. "Two years ago, Iran's Supreme Leader had the Revolutionary Guards protect the Strait of Hormuz.  But regular naval forces are conducting the current war games," he said.  Read more ..

Inside Brazil

Brazil Surpasses Britain as Sixth-Largest Economy in the World

December 29th 2011

Brazil - Brazil slum baby

A leading economic research group says Brazil has overtaken Britain as the world's sixth-largest economy. The London-based Center for Economics and Business Research says Britain lost out to the South American country in 2011 and will likely slide further as faster-growing economies such as Russia and India surge ahead.

After a tough recession and a banking crash, Great Britain has fallen to 7th place, behind larger and faster-growing Brazil. The South American country expanded at a three percent rate in 2011 and is projected to grow five percent in 2012. Economist Armando Castelar says the new ranking is unimportant, but he adds it is a confidence builder for Brazil. "The position is more about statistics than economics," he says.  "The economy is what really matters.  "But," he adds, "it has a psychological effect that helps with attracting investments," Castelar said. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Arab Observers Visit Syria's Flashpoint City of Homs

December 28th 2011

Syrian Issues - Tanks Leaving Homs ahead of Ispectors
Tanks Leaving Homs ahead of Inspectors

Reports from the Syrian city of Homs say government forces have withdrawn some, but not all, of their tanks and armored personnel carriers from a flashpoint district as Arab League monitors visit parts of the city. Activists say 70,000 people took to the streets to welcome the observers.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into the central square in Homs, shouting slogans against the government. The protesters came out in droves as Arab League observers visited parts of the city, including the embattled district of Bab Amr.

Witnesses reported that sporadic shooting and shelling continued in the district. A video posted on opposition websites showed vehicles accelerating to avoid gunfire. It is impossible to confirm the authenticity of such videos. Most foreign journalists are not being allowed into Syria. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Test-tube Testes Offer Possible Breakthrough for Infertile Men

December 28th 2011

Health/Medicine - Mahmoud Huleihel
Professor Mahmoud Huleihel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Sperm banks may have solved the problem of male infertility for some couples, but not for those men who want to see their grandmother’s smile or father’s eyes in their future offspring.

Environmental pollution, testicular warming, and even radiation treatments can radically alter the course of a man’s fertility—to the point where not even a single viable sperm can be used in the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process, where a woman’s egg is joined with sperm in the lab to make a fertilized egg and implanted in the uterus.

Now, scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have created an artificial testis that promises to be a breakthrough in male infertility. In this Petri dish experiment, the researchers cultured a live sperm from mice, using the germ cells of a man’s sperm—the proto-cells that create sperm. Results were published recently in the Asian Journal of Andrology. Read more ..

Israel and Palestine

Hamas Says Talks are Just a Stage to Total Step-by-Step Israeli Destruction

December 28th 2011

Palestine Topics - Abbas Haniyeh

At a ceremony marking the 24th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniyeh said that Hamas may work for the “interim objective of liberation of Gaza, the West Bank, or Jerusalem,” but that this “interim objective” and “reconciliation” with Fatah will not change Hamas’s long-term “strategic” goal of eliminating all of Israel:

“The armed resistance and the armed struggle are the path and the strategic choice for liberating the Palestinian land, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, and for the expulsion of the invaders and usurpers [Israel] … We won’t relinquish one inch of the land of Palestine.”

In his speech, Haniyeh also promised that Hamas will “lead Intifada after Intifada until we liberate Palestine—all of Palestine, Allah willing. Allah Akbar and praise Allah.” Read more ..

Religious Extremism

Israeli Police to Crack Down on Haredi Extremists in Beit Shemesh

December 28th 2011

Israel Topics - israeli protesters

The Israeli Police plan to deploy hundreds of additional officers in the central city of Beit Shemesh, the scene of rioting by Haredi extremists who have waged a months-long campaign against a Modern Orthodox girls school that has included violence and intimidation.

Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld says the additional police will be making on-the-spot arrests for anyone engaging in verbal or physical abuse.

“According to the law, verbal abuse and spitting are considered assaults,” Rosenfeld told The Jerusalem Post. “We’ve stepped up our presence around Beit Shemesh and will continue to work against illegal conduct.”

In addition, police will continue to take down signs calling for gender segregation on the city's sidewalks. Read more ..

Edge on the Environment

A Fish so Ugly that Only Mother Nature can Love it

December 28th 2011

Animals - pancake fish

The Tortilla fish, also known as the Louisiana pancake batfish, Halieutichthys intermedius, belongs to the Ogcocephalidae family of batfish. A native of the Gulf of Mexico, it was discovered in 2010. The range of this hideous creature is  covered by the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, courtesy of BP.
Originally thought to be a single species, these fish were determined in 2010 to be divided into three distinct species, the others being Halieutichthys aculeatus and Halieutichthys bispinosus. While the other batfish are found along the Atlantic coast from Louisiana to North Carolina, the Tortilla fish (a.k.a. Louisiana pancake batfish) is only found in the Gulf of Mexico at depths of up to 1,300 ft (400 metres) The population of these fish is not known: in an initial trawl (that is to say, steel nets that scraped the bottom of the sea, catching fish willy-nilly and indiscriminately) of 100,000 fish, only three were Tortilla fish (a.k.a. pancake batfish). Read more ..

Pakistan on Edge

Probe of November Airstrike Reveals Deep Mistrust between US, Pakistan Forces

December 28th 2011

PakistanTopics - Pakistani military brass

A deadly U.S. airstrike that killed nearly 30 Pakistani troops revealed a deep mistrust between American and Pakistani forces that permeates both militaries.

A month-long investigation into the incident uncovered several “miscommunications” between the two countries’ forces up and down their respective chains of command, Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, of Air Force Special Operations Command, who led the investigation, said on December 22.

The strike, which occurred during the overnight hours of Nov. 25–26 when U.S. ground forces were attempting to raid a village when they came under fire, killed nearly 30 Pakistani troops at a border post in the northwestern part of that nation. The posts, which were still being erected, were located in the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

Clark told reporters at the Pentagon via telephone that his investigation found fault on both sides. Read more ..

The Edge of Physics

"God Particle" Higgs Boson Mystery Could Be Solved Soon

December 28th 2011

Science - cern-atlas nov 2006
ATLAS experiment under construction at CERN

A definitive answer on whether or not the so-called “God Particle” exists could come in 2012, according to a scientist involved in solving the mystery.

The search for the subatomic particle called the Higgs boson went into overdrive in 2008, when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in Switzerland, switched on its Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Results of two CERN experiments, known as ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) and CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), were announced recently at a seminar Rumor was that the Higgs boson had finally been found. Instead, the teams revealed they’d found tantalizing hints of where the Higgs boson may be found, if it exists at all.

Dr. Pierre Savard, associate professor of physics at the University of Toronto, is currently involved in the ATLAS experiments to track down the elusive particle. He says that before each experimental team revealed its findings, neither knew the other’s results. Read more ..

The Race for Wind

Wind Industry Sees Good Prospects for Tax Credit Extension

December 28th 2011

Energy Topics - Wind Turbine

The wind industry sounded an optimistic note Tuesday about the prospects of extending a key tax credit next year, pinning its hopes on legislation that has won bipartisan backing in the House.

“The year is wrapping without the all-important extension of the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC), wind power’s primary policy driver, which expires at the end of 2012,” the American Wind Energy Association, the wind industry's trade group, said Tuesday in a statement. “But the PTC movement gathered momentum heading into next year.”

AWEA expressed disappointment that an extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind energy, which expires at the end of 2012, was not included in the package to extend the payroll tax cut. President Obama signed the payroll tax package last week after weeks of disagreement among Republicans and Democrats over the details of the legislation. The industry says an extension of the production tax credit, which provides a credit for each kilowatt-hour of electricity that is produced, is essential for wind power to flourish. AWEA touted House legislation to extend the tax credit by four years, sponsored by Reps. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). The bill has the support of 25 Democrats and 11 Republicans. “The clock is ticking, business decisions are being made and some damage is certain,” AWEA CEO Denise Bode said in a statement earlier this month. “However, when Congress addresses extenders next year, we are very confident that continuing the wind manufacturing success story will be a prominent objective.”

A study commissioned by AWEA released earlier this month says that expiration of the production tax credit could cost as many as 37,000 jobs. “American manufacturing jobs are coming back, with tens of thousands of new jobs from wind power,” Bode said. "But these jobs could vanish if Congress allows the Production Tax Credit to expire, in effect enacting a targeted tax increase, and sending our jobs to foreign countries." Read more ..

Edge on Atomic Science

Egg Carton of Laser Light Traps Atoms and Advances Computing and Imaging

December 28th 2011

Science - Rydberg atom trap

In an egg carton of laser light, University of Michigan physicists can trap giant Rydberg atoms with up to 90 percent efficiency, an achievement that could advance quantum computing and terahertz imaging, among other applications.

Highly excited Rydberg atoms can be 1,000 times larger than their ground state counterparts. Nearly ionized, they cling to faraway electrons almost beyond their reach. Trapping them efficiently is an important step in realizing their potential, the researchers say.

Here's how they did it:

"Our optical lattice is made from a pair of counter-propagating laser beams and forms a series of wells that can trap the atoms, similar to how an egg carton holds eggs," said Georg Raithel, a U-M physics professor and co-author of a paper on the work published in the current edition of Physical Review Letters. Other co-authors are physics doctoral student Sarah Anderson and recent doctoral graduate Kelly Younge. The paper is titled "Trapping Rydberg atoms in an optical lattice." Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Cold War Films Reflected Shifting US Attitudes

December 28th 2011

Film - Hunt for Red October

In 1946 speech, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the physical and symbolic wall separating East and West across Europe. Churchill's speech signaled the beginning of the Cold War.

It ended 20 years ago, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, during the Cold War, American films reflected the changing mood of the United States towards the USSR.

Few movies have captured the history of early Communist Russia as well as David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago.” The film was an epic love story between Yuri Zhivago and Lara, the wife of a communist leader. But it was also a bleak treatise on communist Russia.

Peter Rollberg, professor of film studies at George Washington University, says David Lean’s human treatment of Russians in "Doctor Zhivago" was the exception rather than the rule in Cold War films. “The Cold War created a field of tension that made for well-motivated good stories."

Some of these films, such as “The Manchurian Candidate,” explored the Communist threat on American soil. In the film, war hero Raymond Shaw is brainwashed into assassinating the president of the United States. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

On Iran, Pressure Works

December 28th 2011

Iran - Iran Nuclear Equipment

President Barack Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, has stated that it would be unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons. Recently, Mr. Obama has taken this a step further by declaring that he is determined to prevent the Iranians from acquiring the bomb.

Does that mean that the use of force against the Iranian nuclear program is inevitable? No, nor should it be. I don't say this because I believe we can live with a nuclear-armed Iran; I do not. An Iran with nuclear weapons would confront the world with many dangers, including the very real danger that it will trigger a nuclear war in the Middle East.

Consider that once Iran has nuclear weapons, nearly all of its neighbors will seek them as well to counter Iranian power and coercion. Israel, given Iranian declarations that it should be wiped off the map, will feel it has no margin for error and cannot afford to strike second in the event of a war.

But Israel won't be the only country operating on a hair trigger. Each country, lacking the ability to absorb a nuclear strike, will adopt a launch-on-warning posture in a region that has many local triggers for conflict and enormous potential for miscalculation. Containment does not address that risk. Even the offer of a nuclear umbrella, with its implicit promise to obliterate the Iranians after a strike, can provide small comfort for any country in the Middle East, particularly Israel. Read more ..

The Race for CNG

The ABCs of CNG: Converters vs Bureaucrats

December 28th 2011

Energy / Environment - CNG fueled vehicle

During the summer of 2008, it seemed to me that the simplicity of the solution seemed like something anyone could understand. As the price of gasoline climbed towards $4.00 and the pain at the pump increased, the solution of a low cost fuel seemed to be more and more desirable. The first time I saw a CNG pump and CNG vehicle was about 6 years ago, at a gas station/mini mart in Orem, Utah. This particular station is now out of business due to highway reconstruction but I remember sitting there fascinated as I watched a Questar Gas truck filling up using a high pressure hose which looked like something out of a science fiction movie. I went over and looked at the pump. It seemed like a rocket refueling station. I noticed the price of $0.64 and thought, “Those lucky Questar guys.” Why was it they got cheap fuel and I didn’t?

Before then, I hadn’t even considered a CNG vehicle; the price of gasoline was still under $2.00 and information about CNG conversions was non-existent. It wasn’t until June of 2008 when regular peaked at $4.12 that people started to look for another alternative. George Bush was still president and the economy seemed to be chugging along, but the high gasoline prices seemed like a hot poker up the tailpipe of anyone driving a gasoline vehicle. There seemed to be very few alternatives. Read more ..

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