Archive for the ‘AP’ Category

In elections, jobless trend matters more than rate

Saturday, January 7th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/(AP PHOTO/DARREN HAUCK)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Unemployment is higher than it’s been going into any election year since World War II.

But history shows that won’t necessarily stop President Barack Obama from reclaiming the White House.

In a presidential election year, the unemployment trend can be more important to an incumbent’s chances than the unemployment rate.

Going back to 1956 no incumbent president has lost when unemployment fell over the two years leading up to the election. And none has won when it rose.

The picture is similar in the 12 months before presidential elections: Only one of nine incumbent presidents (Gerald Ford in 1976) lost when unemployment fell over that year, and only one (Dwight Eisenhower in 1956) was re-elected when it rose.

Those precedents bode well for Obama. Unemployment was 9.8 percent in November 2010, two years before voters decide whether Obama gets to stay in the White House. It was down to 8.7 percent in November 2011, a year before the vote. It fell to 8.5 percent in December and is expected to fall further by Election Day.

Obama can take comfort in President Ronald Reagan’s experience. In November 1982, the economy was in the last month of a deep recession, and unemployment was 10.8 percent, the highest since the Great Depression. A year later, unemployment was down to 8.5 percent. By November 1984, it was still a relatively high 7.2 percent, but the downward trend was unmistakable. Reagan was re-elected that month in a 59-41 percent landslide.

“A sense that things are on the mend is really important to people,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. The trend holds up even when the changes in unemployment are slight. President Bill Clinton was re-elected handily even though the unemployment rate was only 0.2 percentage points lower in November 1996 than it had been two years earlier and was the same as it had been a year before.

Under Obama, unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October 2009, nine months into his presidency, before it began coming down in fits and starts. Along the way it stayed above 9 percent for 21 straight months.

But unemployment has now dropped four months in a row. And the economy added 1.6 million jobs in 2011, the most since 2006.

Cargo drone makes debut in Afghanistan

Saturday, January 7th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Justin M. Boling

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. military is testing a revolutionary new drone for its arsenal, a pilotless helicopter intended to fly cargo missions to remote outposts where frequent roadside bombs threaten access by road convoys.

Surveillance drones for monitoring enemy activity and armed versions for launching airstrikes have become a trademark of America’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. But this is the first time a chopper version designed for transport has ben used operationally.

Two unmanned models of the Kaman K-MAX helicopters and a team of 16 company technicians and 8 Marines are conducting a 6-month evaluation program for the new craft at Camp Dwyer, a Marine Corps airfield in the Garmsir district of southern Helmand Province.

The craft have flown 20 transport missions since the inaugural flight on Dec. 17, said Maj. Kyle O’Connor, the officer in charge of the detachment. They have delivered nearly 18 tons of cargo, mainly thousands of Meals Ready to Eat and spare parts needed at the forward operating bases.

“Afghanistan is a highly mined country and the possibility of improvised explosive devices is always a problem moving cargo overland in a convoy,” O’Connor said.

“Every load that we can take off of a ground convoy reduces the danger and risk that our Marines, soldiers, and sailors are faced with,” he said. “With an unmanned helicopter, even the aircrew is taken out of harm’s way.”

The Marines from Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 lead the missions and deliver the cargo into combat drop zones, while contractors operate and maintain the two aircraft.

The craft’s onboard computer uploads the mission plans, enabling them to fly on autopilot. But an operator at base control monitors progress and can step in and override the autopilot for manual operation if any problems occur, or if the drone must be redirected in mid-flight.

The K-MAX is the latest in a series of Kaman synchronized twin-rotor helicopters dating from the 1950s. The unusual arrangement, with two side-by-side pylons on the helicopter’s roof supporting counter-rotating blades, results in exceptional stability while hovering and allows pinpoint cargo delivery.

Second Tunisian man sets self on fire in 2 days

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A middle-aged man with a history of mental illness set himself on fire Saturday in northern Tunisia, two days after a similar case in the south.

Hedia Khemiri of Bougatfa hospital says 50-year-old Daoud Bouhli poured gasoline over himself and then ignited it in front of Bizerte town hall in the country’s north.

Self-immolation has enormous resonance in the country that last year overthrew its long ruling dictator in an uprising sparked by fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire after being harassed by police.

His actions set in motion a number of similar incidents across North Africa and self-immolation became a symbolic protest for people who had lost all hope, and were usually unemployed.

A year after the uprising, Tunisia has elected a new government but still suffers from serious unemployment and a flagging economy as tourists stay away and labor unrest strikes industries.

On Thursday, Ammar Gharsalli, a 45-year-old father of three, set himself on fire in front of the town hall in Gafsa – a center for phosphate mining in southern Tunisia.

Iran welcomes US rescue of sailors from pirates

Saturday, January 7th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s government on Saturday welcomed the U.S. Navy’s rescue of 13 Iranian fishermen held by pirates, calling it a positive humanitarian gesture.

U.S. officials announced Friday that the fishermen had been rescued by a U.S. Navy destroyer on Thursday, more than 40 days after their boat was commandeered by suspected Somali pirates in the northern Arabian Sea. The rescue came just days after Tehran warned the U.S. to keep the same group of warships out of the Persian Gulf in a reflection of Iran’s fear that American warships could try to enforce an embargo against Iranian oil exports.

“The rescue of Iranian sailors by American forces is considered a humanitarian gesture and we welcome this behavior,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted as saying by state TV’s Al-Alam Arabic channel.

Iran’s hard-line Fars news agency had a different take, calling the rescue operation a Hollywood dramatization of a routine event.

The Fars report noted that attacks by Somali pirates in the region are common and said that Iran’s navy has itself freed many mariners held by pirates in recent years without seeking to highly publicize it.

Amid escalating tension with Iran over its nuclear program, the Obama administration reveled in delivering Friday’s announcement and highlighted the fact that the rescuing ships were the same ones Iran’s army chief had just said were no longer welcome in the Persian Gulf.

“Basically, rescuing trading and fishing boats from the hands of pirates in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden is considered a completely normal issue,” Fars said. “A U.S. helicopter filming the rescue operation from the first minute makes it look like a Hollywood drama with specific locations and actors. It shows the Americans tried to publicize it through the media and present the American warship as a savior.”

The semiofficial Fars news agency is considered close to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard military force.

Fars reported in April that Iranian naval commandos had driven off pirates attempting to hijack a supertanker off Pakistan’s southwestern coast.

“Iran’s navy has rescued various foreign ships from the hands of pirates … but never publicized that,” it said.

NASA questions Apollo 13 commander’s sale of list

Friday, January 6th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo

MIAMI (AP) — NASA is questioning whether Apollo 13 commander James Lovell has the right to sell a 70-page checklist from the flight that includes his handwritten calculations that were crucial in guiding the damaged spacecraft back to Earth.

The document was sold by Heritage Auctions in November for more than $388,000, some 15 times its initial list price. The checklist gained great fame as part of a key dramatic scene in the 1995 film “Apollo 13” in which actor Tom Hanks plays Lovell making the calculations.

After the sale, NASA contacted Heritage to ask whether Lovell had title to the checklist. Greg Rohan, president of Dallas-based Heritage, said Thursday the sale has been suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry. The checklist, he said, is being stored for now in the company’s vault.

Rohan said Lovell provided a signed affidavit that he had clear title to the ring-bound checklist, which is standard procedure. Heritage does robust business in space memorabilia and this is the first time NASA has ever raised questions about ownership of its items, he added.

“It’s one that is near and dear to our hearts,” Rohan said of the space collectibles business. “We, like a lot of people, consider these astronauts to be national heroes.”

The latest inquiry follows a federal lawsuit NASA filed last year in Miami against Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell seeking return of a camera he brought back from his 1971 moon mission. That lawsuit was settled in October when Mitchell agreed to give the camera to NASA, which in turn is donating it to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said the lawsuit and Lovell inquiry do not represent an aggressive, broad new agency effort to recover space items.

“It’s a challenge to continually monitor the growing auctions community, which is usually how these items come to light,” he said in an email. “This latest issue demonstrates a need to reach out to former astronauts and other former agency personnel who may have these kind of items.”

Lovell, 83, lives near Chicago and owns a restaurant bearing his name in Lake Forest, Ill. In an email Friday to The Associated Press, the former astronaut said he is “seeking a meeting with NASA administration to clear up this misunderstanding.” He did not elaborate.

The Apollo 13 moon mission was aborted about 200,000 miles from Earth when an oxygen tank exploded on April 13, 1970, causing another tank to fail and seriously jeopardizing the three-man crew’s ability to return home. Astronaut Jack Swigert famously said “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” after the explosion.

The crew was forced to move from the command ship into the attached lunar landing module for the return flight. Lovell’s calculations on the checklist were key in transferring navigation data from the command craft to the lunar module.

NASA has raised questions about title rights for three other space items Heritage had sold in the same November auction. Two were from Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart: a lunar module identification plate that brought more than $13,000 and a hand controller that received a $22,705 bid. The space agency also targeted a fourth item, a hand glove worn by Alan Shepard during training for Apollo 14, that brought more than $19,000.

In an email to Heritage, NASA Deputy Chief Counsel Donna M. Shafer said there was no indication the agency had ever transferred ownership of any of the items to the astronauts.

Now you see it, now you don’t: Time cloak created

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Heather Deal

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s one thing to make an object invisible, like Harry Potter’s mythical cloak. But scientists have made an entire event impossible to see. They have invented a time masker.

Think of it as an art heist that takes place before your eyes and surveillance cameras. You don’t see the thief strolling into the museum, taking the painting down or walking away, but he did. It’s not just that the thief is invisible – his whole activity is.

What scientists at Cornell University did was on a much smaller scale, both in terms of events and time. It happened so quickly that it’s not even a blink of an eye. Their time cloak lasts an incredibly tiny fraction of a fraction of a second. They hid an event for 40 trillionths of a second, according to a study appearing in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature.

We see events happening as light from them reaches our eyes. Usually it’s a continuous flow of light. In the new research, however, scientists were able to interrupt that flow for just an instant.

Other newly created invisibility cloaks fashioned by scientists move the light beams away in the traditional three dimensions. The Cornell team alters not where the light flows but how fast it moves, changing in the dimension of time, not space.

They tinkered with the speed of beams of light in a way that would make it appear to surveillance cameras or laser security beams that an event, such as an art heist, isn’t happening.

Another way to think of it is as if scientists edited or erased a split second of history. It’s as if you are watching a movie with a scene inserted that you don’t see or notice. It’s there in the movie, but it’s not something you saw, said study co-author Moti Fridman, a physics researcher at Cornell.

The scientists created a lens of not just light, but time. Their method splits light, speeding up one part of light and slowing down another. It creates a gap and that gap is where an event is masked.

“You kind of create a hole in time where an event takes place,” said study co-author Alexander Gaeta, director of Cornell’s School of Applied and Engineering Physics. “You just don’t know that anything ever happened.”

This is all happening in beams of light that move too fast for the human eye to see. Using fiber optics, the hole in time is created as light moves along inside a fiber much thinner than a human hair. The scientists shoot the beam of light out, and then with other beams, they create a time lens that splits the light into two different speed beams that create the effect of invisibility by being too fast or too slow. The whole work is a mess of fibers on a long table and almost looks like a pile of spaghetti, Fridman said.

Bits of Russia space probe set to fall Jan. 15

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — Fragments of a failed Russian space probe are now expected to fall to Earth on Jan. 15, officials said Wednesday.

The unmanned Phobos-Ground probe was launched Nov. 9 on what was supposed to have been a 2 1/2-year mission to the Mars moon of Phobus to take soil samples and fly them back to Earth, but it became stuck in Earth’s orbit and attempts to send commands that could propel it toward the Mars moon were unsuccessful.

As the probe’s orbit slowly deteriorated, space officials predicted it would come crashing down between late December and late February.

A precise date was given Wednesday by a spokesman for the air and space defense troops, who said any fragments that do not burn up in the atmosphere are expected to fall to Earth on Jan. 15.

The date could still be affected by external factors and Defense Ministry troops are monitoring changes in the probe’s orbit, Russian state news agencies quoted Alexei Zolotukin as saying.

Berlin film festival to honor Meryl Streep

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

BERLIN (AP) — Meryl Streep is to be honored for her wide-ranging career at this year’s Berlin film festival.

Festival organizers said Monday that the 62-year-old Streep will be presented with an honorary Golden Bear, the event’s top award, on Feb. 14.

Festival director Dieter Kosslick says that “Meryl Streep is a brilliant, versatile performer who moves with ease between dramatic and comedic roles.”

Holocaust survivors blast Nazi garb at protest

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Holocaust survivors and political leaders expressed outrage Sunday over a Jerusalem demonstration in which ultra-Orthodox Jews donned Star of David patches and uniforms similar to those the Nazis forced Jews to wear during World War II.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered Saturday night to protest what they say is a nationwide campaign directed against their lifestyle. The practices, which call for strict separation of the sexes, are rejected by mainstream Israelis as religious coercion.

Ultra-Orthodox extremists have been under fire for their attempts to ban mixing of the sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces. In one city, extremists have jeered and spit at girls walking to school, saying they are dressed immodestly. These practices, albeit by a fringe sect, have unleashed a backlash against the ultra-Orthodox in general.

At Saturday’s protest, children with traditional sidelocks wore the striped black-and-white uniforms associated with Nazi concentration camps. One child’s hands were raised in surrender – mimicking an iconic photo of a terrified Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial called the use of Nazi imagery “disgraceful,” and several other survivors’ groups and politicians condemned the acts.

Six million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. About 200,000 aging survivors of the Holocaust live in Israel.

Turkey: Air raids kill 35 civilians

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish warplanes aiming for suspected Kurdish rebels hiding in Iraq instead killed 35 civilians – most of whom are believed to be cigarette smugglers, a senior official said Thursday.

It was one of the largest one-day civilian death tolls incurred during Turkey’s 27-year-old drive against militant Kurds seeking autonomy in the country’s southeast. It also is the latest instance of violence to undermine the Turkish government’s efforts to grant cultural and other rights to aggrieved Kurds.

Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, said authorities were still trying to identify the dead, but that most were youngsters from an extended family in the mostly Kurdish-populated area that borders Iraq.

“According to the initial information, these people were not terrorists but were engaged in smuggling,” Celik said. All of the victims were under the age 30 and some were the sons of village guards who have aided Turkish troops in their fight against rebels, he said.

Celik suggested Turkey was ready to compensate the victims. “If there was a mistake, if there was a fault, this will not be covered up, and whatever is necessary will be done,” he said.

Earlier, the Turkish military confirmed the Wednesday night raids, saying its jets struck an area of northern Iraq frequently used by rebels to enter Turkey after drones detected a group approaching the often unmarked mountainous border.

Border troops had been placed on alert following intelligence indicating that Kurdish rebels were preparing attacks in retaliation for a series of recent military assaults on the guerrillas, the military said.

Marvel wins NYC dispute over Ghost Rider rights

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) — Comic book publisher Marvel Entertainment owns the rights to the Ghost Rider character in the fiery form that originated in the early 1970s, a federal judge ruled Wednesday as she rejected the claims of a former Marvel writer seeking to cash in on lucrative movie rights.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest tossed out 4-year-old claims brought by Gary Friedrich, who said he created the motorcycle-driving Ghost Rider with the skeletal head that sometimes had fire blazing from it. A Ghost Rider of the 1950s and ’60s was a Western character who rode a horse.

The judge said Friedrich gave up all ownership rights when he signed checks containing language relinquishing all rights to the predecessor companies of Marvel Entertainment LLC.

“The law is clear that when an individual endorses a check subject to a condition, he accepts that condition,” the judge wrote.

Forrest said her finding made it unnecessary to “travel down the rabbit hole” to decide whether the character was created separate and apart from Marvel, whether the company hired Friedrich to create the character and whether he had thoughts about what rights he wanted to retain from the outset.

She said he also signed an agreement with Marvel in 1978 relinquishing rights in exchange for the possibility of additional future freelance work. He had worked for Marvel prior to that year as both an employee and as a freelance writer.

Telephone messages left with lawyers on both sides of the dispute were not immediately returned. Friedrich’s phone number in Columbia, Illinois, was unpublished.

Forrest said Friedrich began seeking legal representation when he realized about a dozen years ago that there were plans for new uses of the Ghost Rider character, including in movies. In April 2004, his lawyers began asserting rights to try to get him a financial cut of the first of two motion pictures. They failed.

In 2007, when the film “Ghost Rider” starring actor Nicolas Cage as stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze came out, Friedrich sued Marvel in East St. Louis, Illinois, seeking to assert his rights and gain compensation for use of the character in movies, video games, toys and promotional products.

The lawsuit was moved to New York. The movie credited Marvel as the author of the Ghost Rider characters and story. A movie sequel, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” is scheduled to be released in February.

Romney’s ride stays remarkably smooth in GOP race

Thursday, December 29th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Chris Carlson

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Regardless of whether Mitt Romney wins the Iowa Republican caucus Tuesday, he has enjoyed a remarkably easy presidential race so far.

When his rivals have stopped battering each other long enough to criticize him, they’ve often done so tentatively and ham-handedly. Romney’s injury-free journey is all the more surprising because, despite some obvious campaign skills, he has well-known vulnerabilities ripe for attack.

The turn of events has astonished campaign pros in both parties, who expected Romney to be more bloodied. And it has dismayed President Barack Obama’s allies, who assumed Republicans would at least soften up the man they viewed as the likeliest nominee from the start.

“By all rights, Romney should have spent the last six months with a target painted on his back,” said Dan Schnur, a former GOP adviser who teaches politics at the University of Southern California. “But he has been able to keep his head low,” Schnur said, while a series of rivals have taken turns quarreling, surging and falling.

New polls show Romney heading into Tuesday’s caucus as the front-runner in a state that seems ill-suited to his background, and which snubbed him four years ago. The Iowa Republican caucus is usually dominated by evangelical voters, home-schoolers and other social conservatives. Yet his rivals have done little here to turn those dynamics against Romney, a Mormon who supported legalized abortion and mandatory health insurance as governor of liberal Massachusetts.

Romney began this year’s campaign de-emphasizing Iowa. But his rivals’ inability to produce a clear leader has opened a possible path for him to seize the prize.

A Romney win in Iowa, which is far from certain, would make him the clear favorite to win the nomination. Next up is the Jan. 10 primary in New Hampshire. Romney has a second home there, and the GOP voters’ greater emphasis on financial matters is better suited to his politics.

Romney’s luck stems largely from his opponents’ early conclusion that he had enough money and experience to go deep into the nominating contest, and only one viable alternative could emerge. They’ve been competing for that spot, and attacking each other, ever since.

“If you have modest resources, you’re going to spend your time differentiating yourself from the rest of the non-Romney crowd,” said GOP lobbyist and strategist Mike McKenna.

Campaign attack ads in Iowa underscore the point. When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich surged in polls earlier this month, he was quickly pilloried by TV ads and mailings financed by groups associated with Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

In two weeks in Iowa, a PAC that supports Romney dumped $2.6 million into the effort, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Having little money to respond, Gingrich has plummeted in the polls.

A far smaller sum was spent on anti-Romney ads, mostly by a pro-Obama group trying to fill the vacuum.

Campaign veterans say Perry had the best chance to establish himself early as the Romney alternative. That could have positioned him to hammer away at his Massachusetts rival. A proven fundraiser with 10 years as Texas governor, Perry rocketed to the top of GOP polls when he announced his candidacy in mid-August.

Bugs may be resistant to genetically modified corn

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

One of the nation’s most widely planted crops – a genetically engineered corn plant that makes its own insecticide – may be losing its effectiveness because a major pest appears to be developing resistance more quickly than scientists expected.

The U.S. food supply is not in any immediate danger because the problem remains isolated. But scientists fear potentially risky farming practices could be blunting the hybrid’s sophisticated weaponry.

When it was introduced in 2003, so-called Bt corn seemed like the answer to farmers’ dreams: It would allow growers to bring in bountiful harvests using fewer chemicals because the corn naturally produces a toxin that poisons western corn rootworms. The hybrid was such a swift success that it and similar varieties now account for 65 percent of all U.S. corn acres – grain that ends up in thousands of everyday foods such as cereal, sweeteners and cooking oil.

But over the last few summers, rootworms have feasted on the roots of Bt corn in parts of four Midwestern states, suggesting that some of the insects are becoming resistant to the crop’s pest-fighting powers.

Scientists say the problem could be partly the result of farmers who’ve planted Bt corn year after year in the same fields.

Most farmers rotate corn with other crops in a practice long used to curb the spread of pests, but some have abandoned rotation because they need extra grain for livestock or because they have grain contracts with ethanol producers. Other farmers have eschewed the practice to cash in on high corn prices, which hit a record in June.

“Right now, quite frankly, it’s very profitable to grow corn,” said Michael Gray, a University of Illinois crop sciences professor who’s tracking Bt corn damage in that state.

A scientist recently sounded an alarm throughout the biotech industry when he published findings concluding that rootworms in a handful of Bt cornfields in Iowa had evolved an ability to survive the corn’s formidable defenses.

Similar crop damage has been seen in parts of Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska, but researchers are still investigating whether rootworms capable of surviving the Bt toxin were the cause.

University of Minnesota entomologist Kenneth Ostlie said the severity of rootworm damage to Bt fields in Minnesota has eased since the problem surfaced in 2009. Yet reports of damage have become more widespread, and he fears resistance could be spreading undetected because the damage rootworms inflict often isn’t apparent.

Without strong winds, wet soil or both, plants can be damaged at the roots but remain upright, concealing the problem. He said the damage he observed in Minnesota came to light only because storms in 2009 toppled corn plants with damaged roots.

“The analogy I often use with growers is that we’re looking at an iceberg and all we see is the tip of the problem,” Ostlie said. “And it’s a little bit like looking at an iceberg through fog because the only time we know we have a problem is when we get the right weather conditions.”

Seed maker Monsanto Co. created the Bt strain by splicing a gene from a common soil organism called Bacillus thuringiensis into the plant. The natural insecticide it makes is considered harmless to people and livestock.

Scientists always expected rootworms to develop some resistance to the toxin produced by that gene. But the worrisome signs of possible resistance have emerged sooner than many expected.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently chided Monsanto, declaring in a Nov. 22 report that it wasn’t doing enough to monitor suspected resistance among rootworm populations. The report urged a tougher approach, including expanding monitoring efforts to a total of seven states, including Colorado, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The agency also wanted to ensure farmers in areas of concern begin using insecticides and other methods to combat possible resistance.

NASA probes to arrive at the moon over New Year’s

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/NASA

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The New Year’s countdown to the moon has begun.

NASA said Wednesday that its twin spacecraft were on course to arrive back-to-back at the moon after a 3 1/2-month journey.

“We’re on our way there,” said project manager David Lehman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $496 million mission.

The Grail probes – short for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory – won’t land on the lunar surface. Instead, they were poised to slip into orbit to study the uneven lunar gravity field.

Grail-A was scheduled to arrive on New Year’s Eve, followed by Grail-B on New Year’s Day.

Lehman said team members won’t celebrate until both probes are safely in orbit.

It’s been a long voyage for the near-identical Grail spacecraft, which traveled more than 2.5 million miles since launching in September. Though the moon is relatively close at about 250,000 miles away, Grail took a roundabout way to save on costs by launching on a small rocket.

Once at the moon, the probes will spend the next two months tweaking their positions before they start collecting data in March. The pair will fly in formation at an altitude of 34 miles above the surface, with an average separation of 124 miles.

The mission’s chief scientist, Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said many aspects of the moon remain a mystery despite being well studied.

No votes, but things seem to be going Romney’s way

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

KEENE, N.H. (AP) — The stars may be aligning for Mitt Romney – and at just the right time.

Four years after his failed White House bid, the former Massachusetts governor’s strategy in the 2012 Republican presidential race has long been premised on a respectable finish in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses followed by a decisive New Hampshire victory to drive momentum heading into South Carolina, Florida and beyond.

To be sure, no one has voted yet. The outcome in Iowa will shape the race, the contest has been mercurial and Romney still faces hurdles, not the least of which is his failure to become the chosen one in GOP circles after running for president for the better part of five years.

Still, his preferred scenario is looking more plausible now, thanks to Ron Paul’s helpful ascent, Newt Gingrich’s slide and fractures among conservatives who have not rallied behind an alternative to Romney. There’s a growing sense inside and outside of Romney’s campaign that his path to the nomination is clearer than it has been in weeks.

“Barring a tornado, things are starting to line up for Romney at the right time,” said Dave Roederer, an unaligned Republican who served as Sen. John McCain’s Iowa campaign chairman in 2008.

Indeed, with voting set to begin in just 12 days, polling suggests that the latest candidate to challenge Romney’s place atop the field, Gingrich, is slipping in Iowa and elsewhere under the weight of negative advertising fueled by Romney allies and other campaigns. And Romney has begun to display a confidence of sorts as he expands what is already a mammoth political machine in early voting states and other places across the country.

Perhaps illustrating his newfound optimism after weeks of concern inside his campaign, Romney went after Gingrich in uncharacteristically sharp language Wednesday for complaining of repeated attack ads.

“If you can’t stand the relatively modest heat in the kitchen right now, wait until Obama’s Hell’s Kitchen shows up,” Romney told supporters in Keene, the first stop in a multi-day bus tour showcasing his growing bench of New Hampshire political backers.

Among them: two of the three Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation as well as former Sen. Judd Gregg and former Gov. John H. Sununu. More than 100 current and former elected officials are backing Romney in New Hampshire.

In a later campaign stop in the state’s largest city, Gingrich shot back, shortly after having announced the support of state House speaker Bill O’Brien, who declared that Romney was taking New Hampshire for granted.

“If he wants to test the heat, I’ll meet him anywhere in Iowa next week,” Gingrich said. “If he wants to try out the kitchen, I’ll be glad to debate him anywhere. We’ll bring his ads and he can defend them.”

Political observers suggest that even if Romney doesn’t win Iowa – which has never warmed to him, and dealt him a blow in 2008 – he’s on safer ground in New Hampshire’s Jan. 10 primary.

France ponders removing recalled breast implants

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Michel Euler

PARIS (AP) — Emmanuelle Maria’s breasts were burning and globules of silicone gel were protruding into her armpits. Her implants had ruptured. Yet her doctors, she says, told her nothing was wrong.

Now she and a group of leading plastic surgeons want the French government to tell 30,000 women to get their implants removed – at the state’s expense.

Prompted by the calls, French health authorities are considering an unprecedented move: recommending that all women with the now-banned breast implants undergo surgery to remove them. Investigators say the implants were made with cheap industrial silicone whose medical dangers remain unclear.

Governments around Europe are awaiting France’s decision Friday. Tens of thousands more women in Britain, Italy, Spain and other European nations are walking around with the same implants, made by the now-defunct French company Poly Implant Prothese, or PIP.

The main concern in France is the risk of rupture, as well as uncertainty over what risks the suspected industrial silicone gel could pose when it leaks inside the body. Of the more than 30,000 women who have the implants, more than 1,000 have suffered ruptures, according to the French health safety agency AFSSAPS.

Eight cases of cancer among women with the implants, including one who died in November, have heightened pressure on the government to act, and Friday’s decision will depend partly on guidance from the French National Cancer Institute.

The implants in question were not sold in the United States, where concerns about silicone gel implants overall led to a 14-year ban on their use. Silicone implants were brought back on the market in 2006 after research ruled out cancer, lupus and some other concerns.

All implants – not just this brand – have a risk of rupture. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends regular MRI checks for ruptures and French health officials also recommend regular screening.

PIP implants were taken off the market last year after French authorities discovered the company misreported the type of silicone used.

British health officials say they see no reason so far to have the French-made implants systematically removed, and have said there is not enough evidence of a link between silicone implants and cancer. Italy’s Health Ministry is holding a meeting Thursday to discuss the French-made implants.

Boxer Mayweather gets 90 jail days in Vegas case

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. was sentenced Wednesday to 90 days in a Las Vegas jail after pleading guilty to a reduced battery domestic violence charge and no contest to two harassment charges.

The 34-year-old Mayweather also was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service and pay a $2,500 fine.

The plea deal avoids trial on felony allegations that the undefeated prizefighter hit his ex-girlfriend and threatened two of their children during an argument at her home in September 2010.

Prosecutor Lisa Luzaich told Justice of the Peace Melissa Saragosa that Mayweather has been in trouble before and hasn’t been punished.

“He just continually gets himself into trouble and he is able to get himself out of it as well,” she said. “Essentially it is because he is who he is and is able to get away with everything.”

“The only thing that’s going to get this man’s attention is incarceration,” the prosecutor said.

Mayweather stood still in a striped olive vest and showed no reaction when the judge imposed the sentence and told him he must report to the Clark County jail on Jan. 6.

Mayweather’s lawyer, Karen Winckler, said she may appeal what she called an unusual sentence.

Mayweather would likely serve most of the 90-day sentence, but could serve several weeks less if he gets credit for good behavior, said Officer Bill Cassell, a Las Vegas police spokesman.

Mayweather and his manager, Leonard Ellerbe, declined comment outside the courtroom.

Winckler had argued that the public would benefit more if Mayweather performs 100 hours of community service with children.

Dawn spacecraft beams back new images of asteroid

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

LOS ANGELES (AP) — NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been a fervent photographer, snapping more than 10,000 pictures of the asteroid Vesta since it slipped into orbit around the giant space rock last summer.

The views were taken from a distance away – until now. On Wednesday, the space agency released new images of the hummocky surface as Dawn circled from an average altitude of 130 miles above the surface – the closest it’ll get.

From this low orbit, scientists can count numerous small impact craters and see textured grooves and outcrops in sharp detail.

“We’re totally thrilled with the data we’re getting. It seems to get better,” said mission deputy principal investigator Carol Raymond of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $466 million mission.

By inching this close to Vesta, Dawn will use other instruments to measure the gravity field and determine its chemical makeup to better understand its origins.

Dawn will spend the next 2 1/2 months at the current altitude before moving higher to take another round of pictures. By that time, the sun will hit Vesta at a different angle and illuminate sections of the northern hemisphere that had been shrouded earlier.

Michael Douglas’ son gets 4 1/2 more years in prison

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

NEW YORK (AP) — A judge called the imprisoned son of actor Michael Douglas reckless and irresponsible as he nearly doubled his prison sentence Wednesday from five years to 9 1/2 years for repeated drug offenses.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan cited Cameron Douglas’ “history of reckless behavior” as he imposed a new punishment that was more than double what prosecutors were seeking for Douglas’ guilty plea to drug charges that arose from his successful efforts to smuggle drugs into prison.

Berman added 4 1/2 years to the five-year term he gave Douglas last year for his guilty plea in connection with his sales of methamphetamine in July 2009 from a high-end Manhattan hotel.

The judge said he had never had a case before in which a defendant “has so recklessly, wantonly, flagrantly and criminally acted in such a destructive and manipulative fashion as Cameron Douglas has.”

Berman reminded Douglas’ lawyers that he had warned at the earlier sentencing that it was the defendant’s last chance to turn around a life derailed by drugs and mental troubles stretching into his teenage years.

The judge also criticized the government for being too lenient on Douglas after he repeatedly violated prison rules by arranging to get drugs. The judge said the violations included four instances in which a lawyer smuggled anti-anxiety prescription drugs into prison for Douglas in her bra. The lawyer entered into a deferred prosecution agreement that enabled the charges against her to be dropped if she stayed out of trouble for six months.

The 33-year-old Douglas asked the judge to give him another chance at treatment.

“I cannot seem to find comfort within my own skin,” he said. “I feel ashamed. I feel defeated. … I know that I bear in my heart what it will take to overcome this plague.”

Sinaloa cartel OK’s Mexico’s newest drug ballads

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

NAUCALPAN, Mexico (AP) — Trumpets and trombones blast across a rodeo ring where women in miniskirts dance with men in cowboy hats and gold chains. Some fans try to climb onto the stage while others whoop to the deafening music and sing along to an outlaw ballad about one of the most-wanted criminal suspects in North America, an alleged drug kingpin.

“We take care of El Mayo

“Here no one betrays him…

“We stay tough with AK-47s and bazookas at the neck

“Chopping heads off as they come

“We’re bloody-thirsty crazy men

“Who like to kill.”

At the microphone is Alfredo Rios, whose stage name is “The Komander.” He’s a singer of Movimiento Alterado – “Altered Movement” in English – a new commercial brand of “narcocorrido” ballads that bluntly describe drug violence to the oompah beat of Mexico’s norteno music.

The songs are filled with unusually explicit lyrics about decapitations and torture, and praise for one drug gang in particular: the Sinaloa cartel and its bosses, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The increasingly popular music is banned on radio stations in parts of Mexico but is heavily promoted over the Internet. It is the brainchild of twin brothers based in Burbank, California, who have long turned to the Sinaloa cartel for artistic inspiration. They won a Grammy award in 2008 for producing an artist who goes by the name of “El Chapo de Sinaloa.”

Omar Valenzuela says the music not only tells of the violent world of the Sinaloa cartel, but has received its blessing at least once, when the producers worried about the group’s reaction to a song about Manuel Torres, allegedly a top hit man for Zambada.

“We looked for them and asked for permission,” Valenzuela said. “We sent them the song and they told us it was OK to release the song. We were afraid. They told us through their people that we were authorized to release any song. Sometimes people can get offended. We didn’t want any problems.”

The song since then has been downloaded 5 million times from the company website, Valenzuela said, and the accompanying video, which tells of how much gunmen working for Torres enjoy killing, has been watched more than 13 million times on YouTube.

Rios and Valenzuela deny any direct relationship with any cartel, and say they don’t receive any money from the gangs. “I wish they were putting in money to promote (the music),” Valenzuela said with a laugh.

For Jose Manuel Valenzuela, an expert on narcocorridos at Mexico’s College of the Northern Border, the success of the Movimiento Alterado’s music shows that drug traffickers have become more socially acceptable in many circles.

“The social presence of drug trafficking helps this music circulate, and this is also made easier by the easy access to it through the Internet,” said Valenzuela, who is not related to the twins.

The new music was born in Culiacan, capital of the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. The fact that the bands Valenzuela promotes sing exclusively about the Sinaloa cartel has mostly to do with geography, he said.

“In Culiacan, you can’t sing about anyone else because they are from here,” he said referring to the Sinaloa cartel. “Singing about the Zetas it’s not even something you think about. Someone could complain. Nobody wants any trouble.”

The Zetas gang, which had its beginning in the border state of Tamaulipas, across the border from Texas, is fighting the Sinaloa cartel for control of drug traffic routes. The battle has caused many of the roughly 40,000 drug war deaths since Mexican President Felipe Calderon ramped up the military offensive on cartels as he took office in 2006.

Some Movimiento Alterado musicians wear camouflage and bulletproof vests on stage and some have names clearly alluding to the Sinaloa cartel, such as Los Mayitos, referring to Zambada’s nickname, or The Buchones, as the new rich who made their fortunes in drug trafficking are called in Sinaloa.

Soyuz bound for space station blasts off

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky

MOSCOW (AP) — A Soyuz spacecraft carrying a Russian, an American and a Dutchman to the International Space Station blasted off flawlessly from Russia’s launch facility in Kazakhstan on Wednesday.

Mission commander Oleg Kononenko and his colleagues, American Don Pettit and European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers are to dock with the space station on Friday.

The blastoff from the snowy launchpad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, took place without a hitch and the spacecraft reached Earth orbit about nine minutes later. Video from inside the craft showed the three crew members gripping each others’ hands in celebration as the final stage of the booster rocket separated.

The three aboard the Russian spacecraft will join three others already on the ISS, NASA’s Dan Burbank and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin. The six are to work together on the station until March.

The launch came amid a period of trouble for Russia’s space program, which provides the only way for crew to reach the space station since the United States retired its space shuttle program in July.

The launch of an unmanned supply ship for the space station failed in August and the ship crashed in a Siberian forest. The Soyuz rocket carrying that craft was the same type used to send up Russian manned spacecraft, and the crash prompted officials to postpone the next manned launch while the rockets were examined for flaws. The delayed mission eventually took place on Nov. 14.

Just five days before that launch, Russia sent up its ambitious Phobos-Ground unmanned probe, which was to go to the Phobos moon of Mars, take soil samples and return them to Earth. But engineers lost contact with the ship and were unable to propel it out of Earth orbit and toward Mars. The craft is now expected to fall to Earth in mid-January.

2 Earth-size planets spotted around distant star

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

NEW YORK (AP) — Scientists have found two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star outside the solar system, an encouraging sign for prospects of finding life elsewhere.

The discovery shows that such planets exist and that they can be detected by the Kepler spacecraft, said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. They’re the smallest planets found so far that orbit a star resembling our sun.

Scientists are seeking Earth-sized planets as potential homes for extraterrestrial life, said Fressin, who reports the new findings in a paper published online Tuesday by the journal Nature. One planet’s diameter is only 3 percent larger than Earth’s, while the other’s diameter is about nine-tenths that of Earth. They appear to be rocky, like our planet.

But they are too hot to contain life as we know it, with calculated temperatures of about 1,400 degrees and 800 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.

Any life found on another plant may not be intelligent; it could be bacteria or mold or some completely unknown form.

Since it was launched in 2009, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler telescope has found evidence of dozens of possible Earth-sized planets. But Fressin’s report is the first to provide confirmation, said Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington. He’s a member of the Kepler science team but not an author of the paper.

The researchers ruled out a possible alternative explanation for the signals that initially indicated the planets were orbiting the star Kepler-20. The star is 950 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Lyra.

The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are part of a five-planet system around the star, and their location challenges current understanding of how planets form, scientists said. In our own solar system, the small rocky planets are closest to the sun, while gaseous giants are on the periphery. But the five-planet system has no such dividing line; big and small planets alternate as one moves away from the star.

That’s “crazy,” and unexplained by current understanding of how planets form around stars, said study co-author and Harvard scientist David Charbonneau.

Havel, hero of anti-communist revolution, dies

Sunday, December 18th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Petr David Josek

PRAGUE (AP) — The end of Czechoslovakia’s totalitarian regime was called the Velvet Revolution because of how smooth the transition seemed: Communism dead in a matter of weeks, without a shot fired. But for Vaclav Havel, it was a moment he helped pay for with decades of suffering and struggle.

The dissident playwright spent years in jail but never lost his defiance, or his eloquence, and the government’s attempts to crush his will ended up expanding his influence. He became a source of inspiration to Czechs, and to all of Eastern Europe. He went from prisoner to president in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and communism crumbled across the region.

Havel died Sunday morning at his weekend home in the northern Czech Republic. The 75-year-old former chain-smoker had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his time in prison.

Shy and bookish, with a wispy mustache and unkempt hair, Havel helped draw the world’s attention to the anger and frustration spilling over behind the Iron Curtain. While he was president, the Czech Republic split from Slovakia, but it also made dramatic gains in economic might.

“His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon,” said President Barack Obama. “He also embodied the aspirations of half a continent that had been cut off by the Iron Curtain, and helped unleash tides of history that led to a united and democratic Europe.”

Mourners laid flowers and lit candles at Havel’s villa in Prague. A black flag of mourning flew over Prague Castle, the presidential seat, and Havel was also remembered at a monument to the revolution in the capital’s downtown. “Mr. President, thank you for democracy,” one note read.

Lech Walesa, former Polish president and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder of the country’s anti-communist Solidarity movement, called Havel “a great fighter for the freedom of nations and for democracy.”

“Amid the turbulence of modern Europe, his voice was the most consistent and compelling – endlessly searching for the best in himself and in each of us,” said former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who is of Czech origin.

Havel was his country’s first democratically elected president, leading it through the early challenges of democracy and its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, though his image suffered as his people discovered the difficulties of transforming their society.

He was an avowed peacenik who was close friends with members of the Plastic People of the Universe, a nonconformist rock band banned by the communist regime, and whose heroes included rockers such as Frank Zappa. He never quite shed his flower-child past and often signed his name with a small heart as a flourish.

“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred,” Havel famously said. It became his revolutionary motto, which he said he always strove to live by.

“It’s interesting that I had an adventurous life, even though I am not an adventurer by nature. It was fate and history that caused my life to be adventurous rather than me as someone who seeks adventure,” he once told Czech radio.

Havel first made a name for himself after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek and other liberally minded communists in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Havel’s plays were banned as hard-liners installed by Moscow snuffed out every whiff of rebellion. But he continued to write, producing a series of underground essays that stand with the work of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov as the most incisive and eloquent analyses of what communism did to society and the individual.

Iraq: A war of muddled goals, painful sacrifice

Saturday, December 17th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

BAGHDAD (AP) — In the beginning, it all looked simple: topple Saddam Hussein, destroy his purported weapons of mass destruction and lay the foundation for a pro-Western government in the heart of the Arab world.

Nearly 4,500 American and more than 100,000 Iraqi lives later, the objective became simply to get out – and leave behind a country where democracy has at least a chance, where Iran does not dominate and where conditions may not be good but “good enough.”

Even those modest goals may prove too ambitious after American forces leave and Iraq begins to chart its own course. How the Iraqis fare in the coming years will determine how history judges a war which became among the most politically contentious in American history.

Toppling Saddam was the easy part. Television images from the days following the March 20, 2003, start of the war made the conflict look relatively painless, like a certain type of Hollywood movie: American tanks speeding across the bleak and featureless Iraqi plains, huge blasts rattling Baghdad in the “shock and awe” bombing and the statue of the dictator tumbling down from his pedestal.

But Americans soon collided with the complex realities of an alien society few of them knew or understood. Who were the real power brokers? This ayatollah or that Sunni chief? What were the right buttons to push? America had its own ideas of the new Iraq. Did most Iraqis share them?

Places most Americans had never heard of in 2002, like Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, became household words. Saddam was captured nine months after the invasion. The war dragged on for eight more years. No WMD were ever found. And Iraq drained billions from America’s treasury and diverted resources from Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida rebounded after their defeat in the 2001 invasion.

In the early months, America’s enemy was mostly Sunnis angry over the loss of power and prestige when their patron Saddam fell. In September 2007, the bloodiest year for U.S. troops, Shiite militias – part of a community that suffered terribly under Saddam – were responsible for three-quarters of the attacks in the Baghdad area that killed or wounded Americans, according to the then-No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno.

Saddam had not tolerated al-Qaida. With Saddam gone and the country in chaos, al-Qaida in Iraq became the terror movement’s largest and most dangerous franchise, drawing in fighters from North Africa to Asia for a war that lingers on through suicide bombings and assassinations, albeit at a lower intensity.

As American troops prepare to go home by Dec. 31, they leave behind a country still facing violence, with closer ties to the U.S. than Saddam had but still short of what Washington once envisioned. Iranian influence is on the rise. One of the few positive developments from the American viewpoint – a democratic toehold – is far from secure.

In 20-20 hindsight, the U.S. probably should have seen it coming. By 2003, communal rivalries and hatreds, fueled by years of Saddam’s suppression of Kurds and Shiites, were brewing beneath the lid of a closed society cobbled together from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Saddam’s rule of terror kept all these passions in the pot. Lift the lid and the pot boils over. Remove Saddam and a new fight flares for the power that the ousted ruler and his Baath Party had monopolized for decades.

A day after Saddam’s statue was hauled down in Baghdad, the U.S. arranged what was supposed to be a reconciliation meeting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, bringing together prominent clerics from the majority Shiite sect eager for a dominant role in Iraq after the collapse of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated rule.

One of them was Abdul-Majid al-Khoie, son of a revered ayatollah. Al-Khoie had fled to Britain during Saddam’s crackdown against Shiites after the 1991 Gulf War. Now he and the other clerics were back in Iraq, freed from Saddam’s yoke.

As al-Khoie approached a mosque, a crowd swarmed around him. He was hacked to death in an attack widely blamed on Muqtada al-Sadr, a fellow Shiite cleric.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, mobs looted and burned much of the city as bewildered U.S. soldiers stood by.

“Stuff happens,” then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld famously said at the time. “And it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes, and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

Within months, angry Sunnis had taken up arms to resist what they saw as a Shiite takeover on the coattails of the Americans. Their ranks were bolstered by former soldiers whose livelihood was taken away when the Americans, in a bid to appease Shiite and Kurdish leaders, abolished Saddam’s military.

In August 2003, a massive truck bomb devastated the U.N. headquarters, killing the chief of mission, his deputy and 20 other people. Two months later, rockets slammed into the U.S.-occupied Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone, killing an American lieutenant colonel and wounding 17 people. One of the architects of the war, visiting Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, barely escaped injury.

By then it was clear: America was in for a long and brutal fight. The triumphant scene of Saddam’s statue falling would be replaced by new iconic images: the bodies of butchered Americans hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, military vehicles engulfed in flames, terrified hostages staring into a video camera moments before decapitation, and flag-draped caskets resting at open graves as aging parents and young widows wept for their loved ones.

The Americans arrived with their own agenda for the new Iraq. That didn’t always mesh with what the Iraqis had in mind.

Phillip J. Dermer, a now-retired U.S. colonel who has returned to Iraq as a businessman, spent the summer of 2003 helping set up a city council in Baghdad.

The idea was to give Iraqis a quick taste of democracy while issues like a constitution and national elections were being worked out.

After months of preparation, the council was elected and got down to its first order of business: To the Americans’ surprise, an al-Sadr representative came forward to change the name of the Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad from Saddam City to Sadr City in honor of the cleric’s father, who was assassinated by the deposed regime. The measure passed unanimously.

Dermer and his colleagues had been expecting a vote for something like a new budget for water. For Dermer it was a signal. The Iraqis had their own priorities.

Lowe’s pulls ads from Muslim show, sparks protest

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — About 100 people are at a Michigan Lowe’s store protesting the home improvement chain’s decision to pull ads from a reality TV show about U.S. Muslims.

The protesters in Allen Park showed up in response to a call from a coalition of Christian, Muslim and civil rights groups and are chanting “God Bless America and shame on Lowe’s.” Protesters say they want people to boycott the chain.

But 15 to 20 counter-protesters also showed up Saturday morning, saying they came to support Lowe’s.

Executives of the Mooresville, N.C.-based company say TLC’s “All-American Muslim” became a “lightning rod” for complaints. They acted after complaints from the conservative Christian group the Florida Family Association.

Grammy-winning singer Cesaria Evora dies at age 70

Saturday, December 17th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Armando Franca

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Cesaria Evora, who started singing as a teenager in the bayside bars of Cape Verde in the 1950s and won a Grammy in 2003 after she took her African islands music to stages across the world, died Saturday. She was 70.

Evora, known as the “Barefoot Diva” because she always performed without shoes, died in the Baptista de Sousa Hospital in Mindelo, on her native island of Sao Vicente in Cape Verde, her label Lusafrica said in a statement on its website. It gave no further details.

Evora retired in September because of health problems. In recent years she had had several operations, including open-heart surgery last year.

She sang the traditional music of the Cape Verde Islands off West Africa, a former Portuguese colony. She mostly sang in the version of creole spoken there, but even audiences who couldn’t understand the lyrics were moved by her stirring renditions, her unpretentious manner and the music’s infectious beat.

Her singing style brought comparisons to American jazz singer Billie Holiday. “She belongs to the aristocracy of bar singers,” French newspaper Le Monde said in 1991, adding that Evora had “a voice to melt the soul.”

Evora’s international fame came late in life. Her 1988 album “La Diva Aux Pieds Nus” (“Barefoot Diva”), recorded in France where she first found popularity, launched her international career.

Her 1995 album “Cesaria” was released in more than a dozen countries and brought her first Grammy nomination, leading to a tour of major concert halls around the world and album sales in the millions.

She won a Grammy in the World Music category of the 2003 awards for her album “Voz D’Amor”.

Evora, known to her close friends as Cize (pronounced see-ZEH), was the best-known performer of “morna,” Cape Verde’s national music. It is a complex, soulful sound, mixing an array of influences arising from the African and seafaring traditions of the 10 volcanic islands.

Romney predicts tea party will turn on Gingrich

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Mitt Romney is mocking Newt Gingrich’s long record in Washington and says conservative tea party voters eventually will reject the former House speaker who’s Romney chief presidential rival.

Romney tells reporters in South Carolina that he thinks the state’s tea party voters will turn on Gingrich because of his work for the mortgage company Freddie Mac and his consulting time in Washington.

Romney, who’s been endorsed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, isn’t sure whether the work Gingrich did after he left the House is considered lobbying. But Romney says that “when it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, typically it’s a duck.”

South Carolina holds its first-in-the-South primary Jan. 21. Gingrich leads Romney in South Carolina polls and has emphasized his tea party support.

Santorum pursues Iowa crown old-fashioned way

Saturday, December 17th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Chris Carlson

URBANDALE, Iowa (AP) — In a presidential campaign marked by sharp rises and falls, Republican Rick Santorum has experienced neither.

“I’m counting on the people of Iowa to catch fire for me,” the former Pennsylvania senator, who described himself as a “strong conviction conservative,” said Thursday during a debate with his rivals. “Iowans are beginning to respond.”

His dogged courting of Iowans the old-fashioned way – campaigning in living rooms, coffee shops and town squares – may be starting to pay off and at just the right time, as Iowa’s Jan. 3 presidential caucuses approach.

“Rick Santorum is the best-kept secret in the campaign,” said Tom Clark, a West Des Moines Republican and one of about 150 people who came to hear the candidate at a suburban Des Moines restaurant this past week. Clark left the event as a Santorum supporter prepared to volunteer for him, despite this concern: “I just don’t know if he can win.”

That worry could be why Santorum remains near the back of the pack in national GOP surveys. He also trails former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul in Iowa even though he has been the most aggressive campaigner in the leadoff caucus state. He’s visited all 99 counties and held 350 campaign events.

Santorum acknowledges that not all gatherings have been as lively as the recent one at the Machine Shed restaurant in Urbandale.

He recalls the September day in quiet Red Oak when exactly one GOP activist, the Guthrie County chairwoman, showed up to meet him. He compared his Iowa effort to his underdog campaign in 1990 for the U.S. House, when he knocked on thousands of doors. He won.

“I’m sort of the guy at the dance, when the girls walk in they sort of walk by, and they take a few turns at the dance hall with the guys that are a little better looking, a little flashier, a little more bling,” he told about 300 Nationwide Insurance employees in Des Moines this past week. “But at the end of the evening, old steady Eddie’s there. He’s the guy you want to bring home to mom and dad.”

Steady is right. Santorum has survived where others have not.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, once viewed as a serious candidate to win the caucuses, and businessman Herman Cain, who led in Iowa polls in October, have dropped from the race. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry enjoyed sharp rises in support upon entering the contest, only to plummet later. They’re now trying to claw their way back up.

Santorum’s struggle has been to expand his steady base.

It’s not been easy.

He lacks the national standing of Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 2008, and the grass-roots libertarian-leaning network that’s backing Paul.

Rapper Slim Dunkin slain in Atlanta music studio

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta police say the rapper Slim Dunkin was gunned down Friday evening in a city music studio as he was preparing to record a video.

Police Maj. Keith Meadows said the rapper, whose real name is Mario Hamilton, was fatally shot in the chest after getting into an argument with another individual.

He was transported to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Meadows told The Associated Press late Friday that police have not been able to identify the shooter. He said investigators have been interviewing those who were inside the studio. He said as many as 20 people were inside the small office-type building at the time of the shooting, which took place around 5:30 p.m., but they were in different places.

Police have not recovered the handgun that was used. Investigators remained at the scene late Friday evening.

“Right now we’re just trying to….identify who may have seen what, really just trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together,” Meadows said. “It seems everybody witnessed something very different. We’re just trying to go back and make sense of everything.”

Slim Dunkin had appeared on a number of songs with the rapper Waka Flocka Flame. The website Mtv.com reported that the Brick Squad Monopoly rapper was on a solo track and had recently released a 20-track mix tape that featured Gucci Mane, Roscoe Dash and Pastor Troy.

“It appears the victim was scheduled to do a photo shoot,” Meadows said of Friday’s events. “Before the video shoot took place, it appears the victim and suspect got involved in a verbal altercation. We don’t know what that altercation was about.”

Comet defies death, brushes up to sun and lives

Friday, December 16th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

WASHINGTON (AP) — A small comet survived what astronomers figured would be a sure death when it danced uncomfortably close to the broiling sun.

Comet Lovejoy, which was only discovered a couple of weeks ago, was supposed to melt Thursday night when it came close to where temperatures hit several million degrees. Astronomers had tracked 2,000 other sun-grazing comets make the same suicidal trip. None had ever survived.

But astronomers watching live with NASA telescopes first saw the sun’s corona wiggle as Lovejoy went close to the sun. They were then shocked when a bright spot emerged on the sun’s other side. Lovejoy lived.

“I was delighted when I saw it go into the sun and I was astounded when I saw something re-emerge,” said U.S. Navy solar researcher Karl Battams.

Lovejoy didn’t exactly come out of its hellish adventure unscathed. Only 10 percent of the comet – which was probably millions of tons – survived the encounter, said W. Dean Pesnell, project scientist for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which tracked Lovejoy’s death-defying plunge.

And the comet lost something pretty important: its tail.

“It looks like the tail broke off and is stuck” in the sun’s magnetic field, Pesnell said.

Comets circle the sun and sometimes get too close. Lovejoy came within 75,000 miles of the sun’s surface, Battams said. For a small object often described as a dirty snowball comprised of ice and dust, that brush with the sun should have been fatal.

Astronomers say it probably didn’t melt completely because the comet was larger than they thought.

The frozen comet was evaporating as it made the trip toward the sun, “just like you’re sweating on a hot day,” Pesnell said.

“It’s like an ice cube going by a barbecue grill,” he said.

Russian customs seize Iran-bound radioactive metal

Friday, December 16th, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s customs agency announced Friday it has seized pieces of radioactive metal from the luggage of an Iranian passenger bound for Tehran from one of Moscow’s main airports.

It was not immediately clear if the substance could be any use to Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

Iran’s semi-official news agency ISNA confirmed that material had been seized from the luggage of an Iranian passenger in Moscow about a month ago, but denied it was radioactive.

Russia’s Federal Customs Service said in a statement that agents found 18 pieces of metal, packed in steel pencil cases, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after a radiation alert went off. It said the gauges showed that radiation levels were 20 times higher than normal.

Spokeswoman Kseniya Grebenkina told The Associated Press the luggage was seized some time ago, but did not specify when. The Iranian wasn’t detained, she said, and it was not clear whether he was still in Russia or not. She did not give his name. The pieces contained Sodium-22, she said, a radioactive isotope of sodium that could be produced in a particle accelerator.

Kelly Classic, a health physicist at the United States’ renowned Mayo Clinic, said: “You can’t make a nuclear bomb or dirty bomb with it.”

“You’d certainly wonder where it came from and why,” Classic told The Associated Press. “It’s prudent to be a little leery considering where the person’s going.”

Classic said the isotope can be used in devices that determine the thickness of metals.

Another expert, Michael Unterweger, group leader for the radioactivity group at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, said it can be used as a calibration source for radiation instrumentation.

Unterweger said “it’s really strange” that so much Sodium 22 was in the luggage, but if he were the Russian authorities “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Iran’s ISNA news agency quoted an official at the Iranian Embassy in Moscow as denying that radioactive materials were seized from the luggage of an Iranian passenger bound for Tehran.

“About a month ago, a misunderstanding arose in connection with (an Iranian) student who was carrying some materials for dentistry uses. The issue was quickly resolved and apologies were offered to him,” ISNA quoted the official as saying Friday.

ISNA didn’t name the official but quoted him as blaming Western media for publishing incorrect information, although the reports first came from the Russian customs service.

“These reports seek to damage Iran-Russia relations,” the official was quoted as saying.

Grebenkina said prosecutors have launched a probe into the incident but insisted that the material seized is not highly radioactive.

It was not immediately clear why the agency chose to make the announcement on Friday. Russia, which built the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran, has aimed to show the international community that its nuclear cooperation with Iran is not connected to Iran’s alleged aim of building nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and Israel have not ruled out a military option against Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Iran denies the charge, saying its program is geared toward generating electricity and producing medical radioisotopes to treat cancer patients.

Delhi’s air as dirty as ever despite some reforms

Friday, December 16th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Saurabh Das

NEW DELHI (AP) — A decade ago, plans for a metro and clean-fuel buses were hailed as New Delhi’s answer to pollution. But air in the Indian capital is as dirty as ever – partly because breakneck development has brought skyrocketing use of cars.

Citywide pollution sensors routinely register levels of small airborne particles at two or sometimes three times its own sanctioned level for residential areas, putting New Delhi up with Beijing, Cairo and Mexico City at the top of indexes listing the world’s most-polluted capitals.

Sunrises in India’s capital filter through near-opaque haze, scenic panoramas feature ribbons of brown air and everywhere, it seems, someone is coughing.

“My family is very worried. Earlier, the smoke and dust stayed outside, but now it comes into the house,” said 61-year-old shopkeeper Hans Raj Wadhawan, a one-time smoker now being treated for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the Delhi Heart and Lung Institute.

“I can see the air is bad again, and I can feel it in my chest.”

New Delhi could lay some of the blame on its own success. Its recently minted middle class adds 1,200 cars a day to the 6 million on roads already snarled with incessantly honking traffic. Generous diesel subsidies promote the use of diesel-powered SUVs that belch some of the highest levels of carcinogenic particles, thanks to their reliance on one of the dirtiest-burning fuels and low Indian emissions standards.

“The city has lost nearly all of the gains it made in 2004 and 2005,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research at the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment.

New Delhi has undergone head-spinning expansion as Indian economic reforms in the 1990s ushered in two decades of record growth. Once a manageable capital of 9.4 million where cows, bicycles and bullock carts ruled the road, New Delhi today is a gridlocked metropolis and migrant mecca now home to 16 million. Authorities have scrambled to deal with everything from rocketing real estate prices to overflowing garbage dumps.

Efforts to clean the air, it seems, have only just begun.

The capital saw some success after a 1998-2003 program removing power plants from the city center and adopting compressed natural gas, CNG, for running buses and rickshaws. The buses had run on diesel, and the rickshaws on gasoline and highly polluting kerosene. Of all possible fuels, CNG releases the smallest amounts of particulate matter.

But just a few years later pollution levels are back up, with levels of airborne particles smaller than 10 micrometers – called PM10s – often near 300 per cubic meter, three times the city’s legal limit of 100 – and well above the World Health Organization’s recommended limit of 20.

The tiny particulate matter, sometimes called black carbon or soot, is small enough to lodge in people’s lungs and fester over time. WHO says the stuff kills some 1.34 million people globally each year.

Studies on the Indian capital put the number of such deaths in the thousands.

It worsens in the dry winters, as winds die down and pollution pools over the Delhi plains. Vehicular smog mixes with smoke from festival-season fireworks as well as countless illegal pyres of garbage burned by homeless migrants to stay warm as temperatures near freezing. And the booming construction scene, free for a few months from monsoons, sends up clouds of dust.

“Our biggest challenge is the vehicles, but building roads is not the answer,” Roychowdhury said. “We badly need second-generation action to restrain this increasing auto dependence.”

Iran says it’s almost done decoding US drone

Monday, December 12th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/STR

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian experts are in the final stages of recovering data from the U.S. surveillance drone captured by the country’s armed forces, state TV reported Monday.

Tehran has flaunted the drone’s capture as a victory for Iran and a defeat for the United States in a complicated intelligence and technological battle.

Lawmaker Parviz Sorouri, who is on the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, said Monday the extracted information will be used to file a lawsuit against the United States for the “invasion” by the unmanned aircraft.

Sorouri also claimed that Iran has the capability to reproduce the drone through reverse engineering, but he didn’t elaborate.

The TV broadcast a video on Thursday of Iranian military officials inspecting what it identified as the RQ-170 Sentinel drone. Iranian state media have said the unmanned spy aircraft was detected and brought down over the country’s east, near the border with Afghanistan. U.S. officials have acknowledged losing the drone.

Officers in the Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s most powerful military force, have claimed the country’s armed forces brought down the surveillance aircraft with an electronic ambush, causing minimum damage to the drone.

American officials have said that U.S. intelligence assessments indicate that Iran neither shot the drone down, nor used electronic or cybertechnology to force it from the sky. They contend the drone malfunctioned. The officials spoke anonymously in order to discuss the classified program.

U.S. officials are concerned others may be able to reverse-engineer the chemical composition of the drone’s radar-deflecting paint or the aircraft’s sophisticated optics technology that allows operators to positively identify terror suspects from tens of thousands of feet in the air.

They are also worried adversaries may be able to hack into the drone’s database, although it is not clear whether any data could be recovered. Some surveillance technologies allow video to stream through to operators on the ground but do not store much collected data. If they do, it is encrypted.

Sorouri racheted up the anti-U.S. rhetoric in Monday’s remarks.

“The extracted information will be used to file a lawsuit against the United States over the invasion,” he told state TV.

Russian billionaire tycoon announces election bid

Monday, December 12th, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia’s richest tycoons and New Jersey Nets basketball team owner, says he will challenge Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in next March’s presidential election.

While he was cautious not to cross Putin’s path in the past, Prokhorov may pose a serious challenge to Putin, whose authority has been dented by the Dec. 4 parliamentary election and massive protests against vote fraud.

Prokhorov said Monday that a decision to run for president was “the most important decision” in his life.

Jon Corzine (MF Global) vs. Martha Stewart (ImClone)

Monday, December 12th, 2011

In 2004 Martha Stewart was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements.  Though her sentence was light, the conviction wore all of the appearances of bigotry based on a random act of genetics. She was born female.   (more…)

Backlash for Lowe’s as ads pulled from Muslim show

Monday, December 12th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/PAUL SAKUMA

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lowe’s Home Improvement has found itself facing a backlash after the retail giant pulled ads from a reality show about American Muslims.

The retail giant stopped advertising on TLC’s “All-American Muslim” after a conservative group known as the Florida Family Association complained, saying the program was “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.”

The show premiered last month and chronicles the lives of five families from Dearborn, Mich., a Detroit suburb with a large Muslim and Arab-American population.

A state senator from Southern California said Sunday he was considering calling for a boycott.

Calling the Lowe’s decision “un-American” and “naked religious bigotry,” Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, told The Associated Press he would also consider legislative action if Lowe’s doesn’t apologize to Muslims and reinstate its ads. The senator sent a letter outlining his complaints to Lowe’s Chief Executive Officer Robert A. Niblock.

“The show is about what it’s like to be a Muslim in America, and it touches on the discrimination they sometimes face. And that kind of discrimination is exactly what’s happening here with Lowe’s,” Lieu said.

The Florida group sent three emails to its members, asking them to petition Lowe’s to pull its advertising. Its website was updated to say that “supporters’ emails to advertisers make a difference.”

The North Carolina-based Lowe’s issued a statement apologizing for having “managed to make some people very unhappy.”

“Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views,” the statement said. “As a result we did pull our advertising on this program. We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.”

The apology doesn’t go far enough, Lieu said. The senator vowed to look into whether Lowe’s violated any California laws and said he would also consider drafting a senate resolution condemning the company’s actions.

“We want to raise awareness so that consumers will know during this holiday shopping season that Lowe’s is engaging in religious discrimination,” Lieu said.

Besides an apology and reinstatement of the ads, Lieu said he hoped Lowe’s would make an outreach to the community about bias and bigotry.

Lieu’s office said a decision was expected Wednesday or Thursday on whether to proceed with the boycott.

Lowe’s said company officials are trying to make arrangements to talk directly to Lieu about his concerns and clarify the company’s position.

Japan launches its 2nd spy satellite this year

Monday, December 12th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

TOKYO (AP) — Japan successfully put a spy satellite into orbit on Monday and expects to complete its network of intelligence-gathering satellites with another launch next year.

Japan’s space agency, JAXA, said the launch from the remote southern island of Tanegashima went off without a hitch and the radar-equipped satellite is functioning properly. It was the second launch of the year, following a successful liftoff in September.

Officials refused to provide details of the satellite’s capabilities.

Japanese media reports say it will augment the optical satellites Japan has already launched by providing data of what is happening on the ground at night or through cloud cover.

Japan launched its first pair of spy satellites in 2003, prompted by concerns over North Korea’s missile program. It currently has four optical information-gathering satellites in orbit, though the latest of those is not fully operational yet.

It previously launched two radar intelligence satellites, but both malfunctioned.

The satellite launched Monday is expected to begin gathering intelligence in a few months, an official with the Cabinet Satellite Information Center told The Associated Press. He requested anonymity because details of the program are classified.

FACT CHECK: Plenty to question in GOP debate

Monday, December 12th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

WASHINGTON (AP) — When Michele Bachmann accused Newt Gingrich in the latest Republican debate of once supporting a cap-and-trade program to curb global warming, he huffily denied it and told her she should get her facts straight.

Actually, she did.

As recently as 2007, Gingrich “strongly supported” the idea.

Viewers did not always get the straight goods Saturday night from other presidential hopefuls, either.

Mitt Romney erred in saying Barack Obama was the only president to cut Medicare. If Rick Perry had been a betting man, he probably would have lost the $10,000 wager Romney wanted to make with him to settle competing assertions.

A look at how some of the claims from the Saturday night debate and Sunday talk show aftermath compare with the facts:

BACHMANN: “If you look at Newt-Romney, they were for cap-and-trade.”

GINGRICH: “Well, Michele, a lot of what you say just isn’t true, period. I have never – I oppose cap-and-trade. I testified against it the same day that Al Gore testified for it. I helped defeat it in the Senate through American Solutions. It is simply untrue. … You know, I think it’s important for you, and this is a fair game and everybody gets to pick fights. It’s important that you be accurate when you say these things. Those are not true.”

THE FACTS: Bachmann’s suggestion that Gingrich and Romney are in lockstep was oversimplified. But she was right that Gingrich once backed the idea of capping carbon emissions and letting polluters trade emission allowances.

Asked in a 2007 PBS “Frontline” interview about President George W. Bush’s endorsement of mandatory carbon caps in his 2000 campaign, Gingrich said: “I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there’s a package there that’s very, very good. And frankly, it’s something I would strongly support.”

To be sure, Gingrich opposed a Democratic version of cap-and-trade when it was adopted by the House. It died in the Senate. Many Republicans considered it a market-distorting cap-and-tax plan.

Although most candidates disavow the idea now, cap-and-trade once enjoyed substantial Republican support because it sought to use market mechanisms, not the heavy hand of government, to control pollution. Congress in 1990 passed a law with overwhelming bipartisan support that set up a trading system for sulfur dioxide, the main culprit behind acid rain.

ROMNEY: “Let’s not forget, only one president has ever cut Medicare for seniors in this country and it’s Barack Obama. We’re going to remind him of that time and time again.”

THE FACTS: Obama is at least the third president to sign cuts in Medicare that were passed by Congress.

The 1990 budget law signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush raised premiums paid by Medicare beneficiaries and cut payments to hospitals, doctors and other providers.

The 1997 balanced budget law signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton scaled back Medicare payments to hospitals, home health agencies, nursing homes and other providers, as well as raising monthly premiums paid by older people. It reduced projected payment rates for doctors, putting in place automatic cuts that Congress routinely has waived ever since.

The law signed by Obama strengthens traditional Medicare by improving preventive care and increasing payments to primary care doctors and nurses serving as medical coordinators, but reduces subsidies to private insurance plans that have become a popular alternative to Medicare.

Is Europe’s $1T firewall enough?

Friday, December 9th, 2011

Europe’s newly reinforced $1 trillion firewall might not be strong enough to stem a sovereign debt crisis that could yet plunge the United States back into recession, a senior administration official said Friday.

It’s an open question if the financial markets will find the scale and capacity of the financial commitment credible, the official said, adding that European leaders had made some progress at a summit ending Friday.

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As part of the summit, European Union members agreed to raise as much as 200 billion euros, or $267 billion, for loans the International Monetary Fund could offer to debt-wracked nations on the continent. But European officials failed to increase the 500 billion euro, or $689 billion, cap on their own bailout lending funds.

Initial signs from the U.S. stock market were positive, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing up 187 points, or 1.55 percent.

All of this came as conservative groups ramped up pressure to limit U.S. involvement in settling the crisis. Rooted in the debt loads of Greece, Italy and elsewhere, the problems have intensified despite austerity budgets, and bulwarks such as Germany and France are now also showing signs of distress.

Americans for Prosperity and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform on Thursday called on Congress in a joint letter with 18 other organizations to rescind a special borrowing arrangement worth more than $100 billion that the federal government provided to the IMF in 2009.

The United States joined 37 other countries in providing a total of $500 billion in supplemental backing for the IMF.

Using the special arrangement would require approval of the IMF board, which counts the United States — with a 17 percent stake — as its largest shareholder, the administration official said.

Eliminating the $100 billion would hurt the ability of the IMF to fix economic crises and stop them from spreading globally, the administration has said.

Pakistan truckers back NATO supply route blockade

Friday, December 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Fareed Khan

CHAMAN, Pakistan (AP) — Sleeping in a freezing cab, running out of money and worried about militant attacks, Ghulab is one of thousands of truck drivers stranded as a result of Pakistan’s blockade of the Afghan border to NATO and U.S. war supplies.

But they and the businessmen who run what has been a lucrative trade for most of the last decade say they support the decision to shut the frontier in retaliation for coalition airstrikes almost two weeks ago that killed 24 Pakistani troops in two remote border outposts.

“We risk our lives and take these supplies to Afghanistan for NATO, and in return they are killing our soldiers,” said Jan, whose fuel truck is parked in a terminal in the dusty, dangerous border town of Chaman in southwestern Baluchistan.

“This is unacceptable, and we unanimously support the government over closing the border.”

Given the current anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan, drivers might not want to call publicly the border to reopen. Even so, their stance illustrates the depth of anger in this country over the attack and the challenge the U.S. faces in repairing a relationship that is critical to its hopes of ending the Afghan war.

“I hope Allah grants my prayer that this NATO supply ends permanently, said Ghaza Gul, a 45-year-old driver who has been in the trucking profession since was he was 10 years old, when he washed the vehicles and made tea. “I would rather die of hunger than carry these shipments,” he said, sitting on a dirty mat with other drivers at a terminal in Karachi, the port city where the supplies are unloaded.

Pakistan closed its two Afghan crossings in Chaman and Torkham, in the northwest Khyber tribal area, almost immediately after NATO aircraft attacked two army posts along the border on Nov. 26. The supply lines account for 40 percent of the fuel, clothes, vehicles and other “non lethal” supplies for the Afghan war.

President Barack Obama and other American officials have expressed their condolences for the deaths and promised a full investigation into what they have said was an accident. But this has done little to assuage anger in Pakistan, where the military has continued to describe the attack as a deliberate act of aggression.

The government, needing to show a firm response to placate critics who have long protested its alliance with Washington, has also retaliated by demanding that the U.S. vacate an air base used for CIA drones and by boycotting an international conference aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan.

Many analysts believe Pakistan and the U.S. want to avoid a total rupture of their difficult relationship because of its mutual strategic importance. Pakistan needs American aid and cannot afford diplomatic isolation; Washington wants Islamabad’s help with Afghanistan.

For that reason, most people believe the trucks will start rolling again soon, likely within a few weeks.

The trucks are currently parked at terminals close to the border, some in large towns in the area. The drivers have remained with the vehicles, suggesting that the trucking companies believe the stoppage will be temporary.

“It won’t be much longer,” said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. “They can’t sustain it indefinitely. It would alienate the whole world,” he said, referring to the many countries that have troops in the coalition.

NATO officials have said the coalition has built a stockpile of military and other supplies that could keep operations in Afghanistan running at their current level for several months even if the route through Pakistan remains closed.

Turkish president criticizes EU ‘negligence’

Friday, December 9th, 2011

VIENNA (AP) — European Union “negligence” is to blame for the financial crisis roiling the continent, said Turkey’s president Friday, contrasting the EU’s malaise with his country’s economic and political dynamism.

Gul also called for a revamping of the U.N. Security Council, suggesting its permanent members no longer reflected the shift in influence from the postwar equation when the five nuclear powers effectively steered world policy. His comments, to the World Policy Conference’s three-day session, were a restatement of Turkey’s claim to prominence – in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and beyond.

His blunt criticism of the EU – a group Turkey has been prevented from joining mainly due to years of German and French opposition – also suggested that the Turkish government was increasingly disenchanted with the failure of its efforts.

Sentiment has been growing in Ankara to give up on EU membership hopes – fueled by the eurozone’s struggles to get a handle on the immense debts of member countries that threaten the future of their common currency.

Some progress appeared to be made Friday, with the EU saying that 26 of its 27 member countries are open to joining a new treaty tying their finances together to solve the euro crisis. But while Gul wished the EU good luck, his comments brimmed with self-satisfaction as he compared Turkey’s robust economic state to that of some of the European countries most at risk.

“At a time when euro member states are not able to abide by the criteria that they put for themselves, we are at the stage where we can meet those criteria,” he said, noting that Turkey’s budget deficit was at only 2.5 percent – well below the benchmark set for themselves by eurozone nations.

NY Occupy protest shuts down ‘Law & Order’

Friday, December 9th, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) — A protest by about 100 Occupy Wall Street members in New York City shut down production of an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

The Daily News ( http://nydn.us/s0QDN6 ) reported Friday that the protesters arrived around midnight at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan. The show was making an episode with an Occupy theme.

About 100 police officers appeared as the protesters roamed around the park, inspecting tents and signs built by the production company.

A protester from Brooklyn Heights, Drew Hornbein, says the movement is “not part of corporate TV America.”

UN climate talks on edge heading into final hours

Friday, December 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) — The United States, China and India could scuttle attempts to save the only treaty governing global warming, Europe’s top negotiator said Friday hours before a 194-nation U.N. climate conference was to close.

After two weeks of negotiations, talks went through the night Thursday with delegates struggling to keep Durban from becoming the graveyard of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

“If there is no further movement from what I have seen until 4 o’clock this morning, then I must say I don’t think that there will be a deal in Durban,” said Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action.

Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo led dozens of activists chanting, “Climate justice now!” and singing outside the main session Friday. U.N. police blocked them from the hall as delegates lined a staircase and balcony overlooking the protest, snapping pictures with small cameras and mobile phones.

The protest was meant to “inject some urgency into the process,” Naidoo told The Associated Press, accusing governments of “playing political poker with the future of our planet.”

Greenpeace announced later that Naidoo, who had been an observer at the talks, had been barred from the conference after leading the largest protest since it opened nearly two weeks ago. Earlier this week, an American college student heckled U.S. delegate Todd Stern as he delivered a speech. She was ejected from the hall and banned from the conference. Six Canadians also had their conference credentials lifted after staging a demonstration during an address by their environment minister, Peter Kent.

On Thursday at a meeting along the sidelines of the summit attended by South African President Jacob Zuma, scuffles broke out between his supporters and environmentalists holding up posters reading, “Zuma stand with Africa, not with USA,” and “Zuma don’t let Africa fry.”

Super PACs now a force in the presidential race

Friday, December 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt

NEW YORK (AP) — The special political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited campaign money while operating independently of candidates have jumped into the presidential contest with an unmistakable message: Game on.

A super PAC supporting Mitt Romney is out with a hard-hitting ad against Newt Gingrich. Another has run ads for weeks for Rick Perry. Spending by a super PAC in New Hampshire may be the only thing keeping Jon Huntsman’s struggling campaign afloat.

Nearly two years after the Supreme Court eased restrictions on corporate money in political campaigns, super PACs have become a major force in the presidential contest. They can attack or support individual candidates as long as they don’t coordinate directly with the campaigns themselves.

Conservative-leaning groups spent millions to help Republicans wrest control of the House and pick up several Senate seats in 2010. The 2012 campaign is the first to test the groups’ influence on presidential politics.

Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College who studies campaign finance, said super PACs are likely to outspend the candidates themselves in the early contests.

“They have substantial amounts of money, they can raise money quickly, and they have every incentive to spend it in the early states,” Corrado said. “For a super PAC supporting a particular candidate, now is the time to spend money. It doesn’t do any good to wait until April.”

Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is set to start running a harsh attack on Gingrich as part of an enormous, $3.1 million advertising buy in Iowa less than four weeks before the state’s kickoff caucuses.

The 60-second ad says Gingrich’s “baggage,” including $1.6 million he took in fees from the mortgage company Freddie Mac before the 2008 housing meltdown, would make him an easy target for President Barack Obama in the general election.

Make Us Great Again, which backs Perry, has spent more than $2 million on ads over several weeks in Iowa, supplementing the campaign’s own substantial advertising buy there. The group has also run ads supporting Perry in South Carolina.

The pro-Perry spending hasn’t helped the Texas governor much. He still lags badly in Iowa, trailing Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul in recent polls.

The pro-Huntsman Our Destiny PAC has spent about $1.3 million in New Hampshire. They’ve been the only TV ads airing that support the former Utah governor, whose cash-strapped campaign has lacked the money to run its own ads.

The pro-Romney PAC started soft.

Restore Our Future’s first ad, which debuted Thursday, goes after Obama while stressing Romney’s background as a governor and successful businessman. But the new, negative ad aims to slow Gingrich’s surging momentum in Iowa and elsewhere.

Prime Indonesian jungle to be cleared for palm oil

Friday, December 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Heri Juanda

ACEH, Indonesia (AP) — The man known as Indonesia’s “green governor” chases the roar of illegal chainsaws through plush jungles in his own Jeep. He goes door-to-door to tell families it’s in their interest to keep trees standing.

That’s why 5,000 villagers living the edge of a rich, biodiverse peat swamp in his tsunami-ravaged Aceh province feel so betrayed.

Their former hero recently gave a palm oil company a permit to develop land in one of the few places on earth where orangutans, tigers and bears still can be found living side-by-side – violating Indonesia’s new moratorium on concessions in primary forests and peatlands.

“Why would he agree to this?” said Ibduh, a 50-year village chief, days after filing a criminal complaint against Aceh Gov. Irwandi Yusuf.

“It’s not just about the animals,” he said, men around him nodding. “Us too. Our lives are ruined if this goes through.”

Irwandi – a former rebel whose life story is worthy of a Hollywood film – maintains the palm oil concession is by the book and that he would never do anything to harm his province.

But critics say there is little doubt he broke the law.

The charges against him illustrate the challenges facing countries like Indonesia in their efforts to fight climate change by protecting the world’s tropical jungles – which would spit more carbon when burned than planes, automobiles and factories combined.

Despite government promises, what happens on the ground is often a different story. Murky laws, graft and mismanagement in the forestry sector and shady dealings with local officials means that business often continues as usual for many companies.

Alec Baldwin kicked off LA flight for playing game

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Alec Baldwin says he was kicked off a plane Tuesday at Los Angeles International Airport after having words with a flight attendant over an “addicting” word game he was playing on his cellphone.

The “30 Rock” actor was asked to get off a New York City-bound flight for playing “Words with Friends” while the plane idled at a gate Tuesday, said Baldwin’s spokesman, Matthew Hiltzik.

“He loves `Words with Friends’ so much that he was willing to leave a plane for it,” said Hiltzik, who added that Baldwin boarded another American Airlines flight to New York.

Baldwin, a prolific Twitter user, took to the social media site to vent, saying a “flight attendant on American reamed me out 4 playing Words With Friends while we sat at the gate, not moving.”

It wasn’t clear if passengers had been asked to turn off their cellphones, which is typical before a flight backs away from the terminal.

American Airlines spokesman Ed Martelle declined comment, citing customer privacy concerns.

Airport police Sgt. Belinda Nettles said officers did not respond to the incident.

Baldwin tweeted that it would be his last flight with American, despite the fact that they show “30 Rock” for in-flight entertainment. He mocked American Airlines flight attendants on Twitter, saying the airline is “where Catholic school gym teachers from the 1950’s find jobs as flight attendants.”

Restraining order granted against Terrence Howard

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Dan Steinberg

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Terrence Howard was ordered Tuesday to stay 100 yards away from his estranged wife after she claimed the Oscar-nominated actor repeatedly threatened and hit her during their marriage.

The star denies the allegations.

Superior Court Judge Scott Gordon granted the stay-away order sought by Michelle Howard after she filed a lengthy declaration alleging abuse began within a week of the couple’s January 2010 marriage.

Michelle Howard filed for divorce a year later.

The restraining order remains in effect until a Jan. 17 court hearing.

She claims Howard, 42, has repeatedly hit her and threatened her in a text message last week. She stated in a sworn declaration that she is in constant fear of Howard and has chronic health issues caused by the actor’s treatment.

Howard in his own sworn declaration wrote that he has never threatened his wife and that she has repeatedly vowed to ruin his reputation and release private details.

“I live in constant fear of Michelle’s endeavors to ruin my reputation; even providing this declaration may well lead to my being subjected to a paparazzi blitz which would not be good for my career,” Howard wrote.

Study faults partial radiation for breast cancer

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — New research casts doubt on a popular treatment for breast cancer: A week of radiation to part of the breast instead of longer treatment to all of it.

Women who were given partial radiation were twice as likely to need their breasts removed later because the cancer came back, doctors found.

The treatment uses radioactive pellets briefly placed in the breast instead of radiation beamed from a machine. At least 13 percent of older patients in the U.S. get this now, and it is popular with working women.

“Even women who aren’t working appreciate convenience,” but they may pay a price in effectiveness if too little tissue is being treated, said study leader Dr. Benjamin Smith of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Results were to be reported Wednesday at a conference in San Antonio along with a more positive development: a new test that may help show which women need only surgery for a very early type of breast cancer called DCIS. The results suggest that about three-fourths of the 45,000 women diagnosed with DCIS annually in the U.S. could skip the radiation and hormone-blocking pills usually recommended to prevent a recurrence.

About 230,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S., most in an early stage. Typical treatment is surgery to remove the lump, followed by radiation every weekday for five to seven weeks. That’s tough, especially for older women and those in rural areas.

Doctors hoped that a shorter approach, called brachytherapy, would be just as good with fewer side effects. To do it, they temporarily place a thin tube into the cavity where the tumor was.

“You come in twice a day and there’s a machine that puts in a radiation seed that stays there a few minutes and then you go home,” Smith explained.

Treatment takes only five days and the total radiation dose is comparable to the longer method. But a smaller area – just around the lump – gets treated instead of the whole breast.

Although at least three companies sell equipment for brachytherapy, no big studies have tested its safety and effectiveness.

Researchers looked at Medicare records on 130,535 women who had lumps removed and radiation. Less than 1 percent chose brachytherapy in 2000 but that rose to 13 percent by 2007.

After accounting for differences in age, tumor size and other factors, researchers found that within five years, 4 percent of brachytherapy patients needed surgery to remove the breast where the original tumor had been versus only 2 percent of those given traditional radiation. Hospitalization, infections, broken ribs and breast pain also were more common with brachytherapy.

It remains experimental, and women who want it should join a more rigorous study of it going on now, said Dr. Peter Ravdin, breast cancer chief at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio.

“I’m putting patients on the trial” and not recommending it otherwise, he said.

Brachytherapy costs about twice as much as standard radiation, estimated at $10,000 to $20,000.

Biologists monitor crocodiles at nuclear plant

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — An unexpected but fruitful relationship has blossomed between two potent forces in the swamps of South Florida: the American crocodile, and a nuclear power plant.

The reptile has made it off the endangered species list thanks in part to 168 miles of manmade cooling canals surrounding Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant in the southeastern corner of the Florida peninsula. It turns out that Florida Power and Light was building prime croc habitat just as virtually every other developer was paving it over.

Federal wildlife officials give the state’s largest public utility part of the credit for a five-fold increase in the species’ population in Florida. There are only two other sanctuaries for the crocodiles, which are still considered threatened.

“The way the cooling canal system was designed actually turned out to be pretty good for crocodile nesting,” said John Wrublik, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It wasn’t designed for crocodiles, but they’ve done a very good job of maintaining that area.”

Hundreds of crocodiles, as long as 15 feet and as heavy as one ton, roam the swampland surrounding the power plant. They’re monitored by wildlife biologists hired by the utility, who sometimes need quick reflexes to keep all their fingers.

On one recent nighttime survey, Mario Aldecoa jumped from an airboat in total darkness and darted into the bushes to grab a 13-pound crocodile to mark it for identification.

“It’s usually just adrenaline and instinct,” he said.

The American crocodile is often confused with its plentiful cousin, the alligator. Alligators are black, have broad, rounded snouts and are found throughout the deep South. Crocodiles are grayish, have narrow tapered snouts and are so sensitive to cold that their only U.S. habitat is in South Florida.

South Florida’s rampant development eroded the crocodile’s habitat over decades of booming growth. By the 1970s, there were less than 300 in the state. The federal government had classified the species as endangered, meaning it was in danger of becoming extinct.

In 1977, Florida Power employees stumbled upon a crocodile nest in the plant’s cooling canal system. A monitoring program set up a year later was originally intended to ensure the plant did no harm to the species, but ended up recording the facility’s role in the crocodile’s rebound. Dozens of other protected species, including the manatee and loggerhead turtle, also are found on the utility’s properties across the state.

There are more than 1,500 American crocodiles in South Florida today. An opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 2006 noted that the increase in has been attributed to Florida Power’s management activities in its cooling canals.

Canals and berms such as those found at the power plant site provide nesting habitat that has “to some extent compensated for the loss of habitat elsewhere,” explained Frank Mazzotti, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida.

The recirculating water system at Turkey Point works somewhat like the closed cooling system in a car. Eight large, powerful circulating water pumps take cooling water from canals at Turkey Point and circulate it through a condenser. The water then flows back to the closed-loop canal network, which essentially serves as a giant radiator.

Romney, Gingrich focus of GOP race with Cain exit

Sunday, December 4th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Jim Cole

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — With the implosion of Herman Cain’s campaign amid accusations of adultery and sexual harassment, the once-crowded 2012 Republican presidential field appears to be narrowing to a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

GOP voters have one month before the leadoff Iowa caucuses. Gingrich is showing strength in the latest Iowa poll, while Romney is strong in New Hampshire, site of the first primary.

Romney has maintained a political network since his failed 2008 presidential bid, especially in New Hampshire. Gingrich, whose campaign nearly collapsed several months ago, is relying on his debate performances and the good will he built up with some conservatives as a congressional leader in the 1980s and 1990s.

Gingrich’s efforts appear to be paying off in Iowa. A Des Moines Register poll released late Saturday found the former House speaker leading the GOP field with 25 percent support, ahead of Ron Paul at 18 percent and Romney at 16.

Cain’s suspension of his campaign Saturday, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s continued struggles to make headway with voters, have focused the party’s attention on Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Gingrich, a one-time congressman from Georgia. They offer striking contrasts in personality, government experience and campaign organization.

Their political philosophies and differences are a bit harder to discern. Both men have changed their positions on issues such as climate change. And Gingrich, in particular, is known to veer into unusual territories, such as child labor practices.

Romney has said he differs with Gingrich on child labor laws. Gingrich recently suggested that children as young as nine should work as assistant school janitors, to earn money and learn work ethics.

Cain’s announcement in Atlanta offered a possible opening for Romney or Gingrich to make a dramatic move in hopes of seizing momentum for the sprint to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus. Neither man did. They appear willing to play things carefully and low-key for now.

At a town hall meeting in New York sponsored by tea party supporters, Gingrich declined to characterize the race as a direct contest between himself and Romney. Any of the remaining GOP contenders could stage a comeback before the Iowa caucuses, he said. “I’m not going to say that any of my friends can’t suddenly surprise us,” Gingrich said.

But once high-flying contenders such as Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota have not managed to bounce back so far, despite weeks of trying.

In an interview Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Bachmann said she was the “consistent conservative” in the race and her campaign would benefit most from Cain’s departure.

Ex-UN climate chief to AP: talks are rudderless

Sunday, December 4th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) — Yvo de Boer said he left his job as the U.N.’s top climate official in frustration 18 months ago, believing the process of negotiating a meaningful climate agreement was failing. His opinion hasn’t changed.

“I still have the same view of the process that led me to leave the process,” he told The Associated Press Sunday. “I’m still deeply concerned about where it’s going, or rather where it’s not going, about the lack of progress.”

For three years until 2010, the Dutch civil servant was the leading voice on global warming on the world stage. He appeared constantly in public to advocate green policies, traveled endlessly for private meetings with top leaders and labored with negotiators seeking ways to finesse snags in drafting agreements.

In the end he felt he “wasn’t really able to contribute as I should be to the process,” he said.

Today he can take a long view on his years as a Dutch negotiator in the 1990s and later as a senior U.N. official with access to the highest levels of government, business and civil society. He is able to voice criticisms he was reluctant to air when he was actively shepherding climate diplomacy.

Negotiators live “in a separate universe,” and the ongoing talks are “like a log that’s drifted away,” he said. Then, drawing another metaphor from his rich reservoir, he called the annual 194-nation conferences “a bit of a mouse wheel.”

De Boer spoke to the AP on the sidelines of the latest round of talks in this South African port city, which he is attending as a consultant for the international accounting firm KPMG.

World leaders have failed to become deeply engaged in efforts to reach an international accord to control greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming, he said. In recent years, their inattention has been compounded by their preoccupation with the economic and Eurozone crises.

Negotiators have been at the job so long – since the 1992 climate convention – that they have lost touch with the real world, he said. But it wasn’t their fault.

“I completely understand that it is very difficult for a negotiator to move if you haven’t been given a political sense of direction and the political space to move,” he said, chatting on a hilltop terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Rather than act in their own national interests, many leaders look to see what others are willing – or unwilling – to concede.

“You’ve got a bunch of international leaders sitting 85 stories up on the edge of a building saying to each other, you jump first and I’ll follow. And there is understandably a reluctance to be the first one to jump,” he said.

The 2009 Copenhagen summit was a breaking point. Expectations soared that the conference would produce an accord setting firm rules for bringing down global carbon emissions. When delegates fell short, hopes remained high that President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, most of Europe’s heads of government and more than 100 other top leaders would save the day at the last minute.

De Boer said he spent the last 24 hours of the summit in “a very small and very smelly room” with about 20 prime ministers and presidents, but the time was not ripe for the hoped-for international treaty.

Pakistani model’s nude photo causes fury

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Shakil Adil

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Pakistani actress who posed in the nude for an Indian magazine with the initials of Pakistan’s feared and powerful intelligence agency on her arm has triggered fury across this conservative nation.

Veena Malik’s photo on the website of FHM India, in advance of its publication in the magazine’s December issue, has been lighting up social network websites since earlier this week.

Many here anticipate a backlash, as nationalists and Islamists regularly stage rallies against anything they deem an insult to Islam or to the national honor. India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency or ISI has been accused of sponsoring terrorist attacks inside India.

Malik has broken Pakistani religious and national taboos in the past. She is a target for conservative ire and a heroine to some Pakistani liberals.

Conservative cleric Maulana Abdul Qawi declared on Aaj TV on Saturday that her latest venture into controversy was a “shame for all Muslims.”

In an interview with Pakistani Geo television broadcast Saturday, however, Malik said the nude photo was published in violation of her agreement with FHM India and she was considering legal action against the magazine.

Malik acknowledged having been photographed for a “bold but not nude shot.” She said the editor of the magazine had promised that he would cover most of the photo with the ISI initials.

The photo was intended to poke fun at the Indian fear of Pakistani spies, she said, adding “whatever happens (in India), people say ISI is behind that.”

Magazine editor Kabeer Sharma said Malik had given full consent for the shoot and the picture.

“We have all the record(s),” he told the Pakistani television station. “Veena was very excited about that ISI idea.”

Zubair Khan, a 40-year-old shopkeeper in the northwestern city of Peshawar, agreed, saying the photo had given rival India another opportunity to insult Pakistan.

“She has earned a bad name for the entire Pakistan nation,” he said.

Ex-Panamanian dictator to be extradited in weeks

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

PARIS (AP) — Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega will be extradited to his homeland in the next few weeks, the French Justice Ministry said Thursday.

France and Panama have been working out the details of the extradition, Justice Ministry spokesman Bruno Badre told The Associated Press by telephone. A French court ruled on Nov. 23 that Noriega can be handed over to serve time for past crimes, more than 20 years after being ousted and arrested in a U.S. invasion.

Badre said “the judicial conditions have now been filled” for extradition and “this will occur in the next few weeks.”

The elderly former strongman has been behind bars in Florida, on drug charges, and in France, for money laundering. Panama wants Noriega returned to serve prison terms handed down after he was convicted in absentia for embezzlement, corruption and murder.

The court decision came after months of legal procedures. Friends and foes alike feared that Noriega might die in a French prison – notably Panamanians who fought against human rights abuses during his 1983-1989 regime.

Noriega, a one-time CIA asset, turned into an embarrassment for the U.S. after he sidled up to Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel and turned to crime.

Romney visits former President George H.W. Bush

Thursday, December 1st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

HOUSTON (AP) — Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney met with former President George H.W. Bush Thursday, but Romney aides say no endorsement is coming.

The former Massachusetts governor ventured onto the turf of a rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, to meet with Bush and his wife, Barbara, in the living room of their Houston home.

Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said Romney and the nation’s 41st president are friends, but added that the visit doesn’t mean Bush will endorse Romney.

Bush spokesman Jim McGrath said the meeting was a courtesy visit, noting that Bush has met with other GOP presidential hopefuls, including Jon Huntsman.

Bush endorsed Perry during a tight race for lieutenant governor in 1998, giving Perry a winning boost.

Bush’s son George won the governor’s race that year.

Ferrell’s ‘Billion Dollar Movie’ heads to Sundance

Thursday, December 1st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Peter Kramer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Here’s a dream come true for cash-strapped filmmakers: A billion-dollar movie budget.

Next month’s Sundance Film Festival, the top showcase for independent cinema, includes the comedy “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.” It’s the story of two filmmakers who get the most colossal budget ever, only to have it all go wrong.

The movie, one of dozens announced Thursday by Robert Redford’s Sundance festival, features Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Zach Galifianakis. Its writer-directors are Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, a comedy duo whose credits include the TV series “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”

“Billion Dollar Movie” is part of the festival’s popular midnight section of horror, over-the-top comedy and other high-energy films.

Among other midnight titles are director Jon Wright’s horror comedy “Grabbers,” starring Richard Coyle and Ruth Bradley in the tale of villagers in an Irish fishing town who learn that staying drunk might be their only protection against blood-sucking sea monsters.

They also will include Nicholas McCarthy’s “The Pact,” with Casper Van Dien and Caity Lotz in the story of a woman whose childhood home is beset by a mysterious presence after her mother’s death; “Black Rock,” with director Katie Aselton, Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth in a thriller about three friends fighting for survival during a weekend getaway; and Dylan Southern and Joe Swanberg’s “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” a documentary following LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy for two days amid the band’s farewell concert in April.

Sundance programming director Trevor Groth said he aimed to rev up the midnight lineup this time, “so I did a lot of outreach into the pockets of filmmakers making the kind of films we want.”

“It’s actually going to be one of the most exciting collections of films in the midnight section we’ve ever had. Something for everyone, as long as they like it kind of crazy,” Groth said. “Hopefully, it’ll keep you awake. For me, it’s the stuff that really pushes the envelope. The more outrageous it is for me, the better. I really want to be shocked or surprised or laugh so hard that I pass out.”

Al-Qaida says it is holding US hostage in Pakistan

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Al-Qaida claimed responsibility Thursday for the kidnapping of a 70-year-old American aid worker in Pakistan in August, and issued a series of demands for his release.

In a video message posted on militant websites, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri said Warren Weinstein would be released if the United States stopped airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. He also demanded the release of all al-Qaida and Taliban suspects around the world.

“Just as the Americans detain all whom they suspect of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban, even remotely, we detained this man who is neck-deep in American aid to Pakistan since the 1970s,” al-Zawahri said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant messages.

Weinstein was abducted by armed men from his house in the eastern city of Lahore on Aug. 13. Police and U.S. officials have not publicly said who they believed was holding him, but Islamist militant groups were the main suspects.

Weinstein, who has a home in Rockville, Maryland, worked in Pakistan for several years and spoke Urdu.

EU foreign ministers fail to agree on Iran oil ban

Thursday, December 1st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

BRUSSELS (AP) — EU foreign ministers failed Thursday to reach an agreement to impose an oil embargo against Iran – a measure that some argued would have choked off funding for Iran’s alleged program to develop nuclear weapons.

But the ministers, incensed by the attack Tuesday by an angry mob on the British embassy in Tehran, did impose a new round of sanctions targeting dozens of people, groups and businesses in the country.

The ministers also imposed new sanctions on Syrian individuals and businesses in hope of pressuring the regime there to halt its deadly crackdown on anti-government protests.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the two issues are related, accusing Iran of supporting the violence in Syria. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates Sryian President Bashar Assad’s regime has killed more than 4,000 people over the past several months.

“There is a link between what is happening in Iran and what is happening in Syria,” Hague said.

In Iran, EU sanctions were imposed on 37 people and 143 “entities” – companies or organizations. The sanctions include a freeze on assets held in the European Union and a ban on traveling to EU countries.

The full list of names of those targeted will not be known until they are published in the official journal of the EU on Friday. But the official conclusions of the meeting said they include the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line and members of, and entities controlled by, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that Greece, which relies on Iranian oil, had objected to a ban on buying it. But he said work toward an embargo would continue.

“Greece has put forward a number of reservations,” Juppe said. “We have to take that into account. We have to see with our partners that the cuts can be compensated by the increase of production in other countries. It is very possible.”

Iran has denied it is pursuing nuclear weapons. The attack on the British embassy is believed to have begun as a state-approved protest over Western sanctions linked to the country’s nuclear program.

Britain pulled its diplomats out of Iran after its embassy was stormed. Germany, France and the Netherlands have recalled their ambassadors in solidarity.

With regard to Syria, the EU foreign ministers imposed sanctions on 12 people and 11 entities, adding to the list of those previously sanctioned by the EU. The bloc is working with the Arab League to halt the violence, and the league’s chief, Nabil Elaraby, attended Thursday’s meeting.

A statement from the foreign ministers said the crackdown by the Syrian government “risks taking Syria down a very dangerous path of violence, sectarian clashes and militarization.”

Federal report: Arctic much worse since 2006

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal officials say the Arctic region has changed dramatically in the past five years – for the worse.

It’s melting at a near record pace, and it’s darkening and absorbing too much of the sun’s heat.

A new report card from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rates the polar region with blazing red stop lights on three of five categories and yellow cautions for the other two. Overall, these are not good grades, but it doesn’t mean the Arctic is doomed and it still will freeze in the winter, said report co-editor Jackie Richter-Menge.

The Arctic acts as Earth’s refrigerator, cooling the planet. What’s happening, scientists said, is like someone pushing the fridge’s thermostat much too high.

“It’s not cooling as well as it used to,” Richter-Menge said.

The dramatic changes are from both man-made global warming and recent localized weather shifts, which were on top of the longer term warming trend, scientists said.

The report, written by 121 scientists from around the world, said statistics point to a shift in the Arctic health in 2006. That was right before 2007, when a mix of weather conditions and changing climate led to a record loss of sea ice, from which the region has never recovered. This summer’s sea ice melt was the second worst on record, a tad behind 2007.

“We’ve got a new normal,” said co-author Don Perovich, a geophysicist at the Army Corps of Engineers Cold Research and Engineering Lab. “Whether it’s a tipping point and we’ll never recover, who’s to say?”

Britain orders Iran’s diplomats to leave UK

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Mehdi Marizad

LONDON (AP) — Britain ordered all Iranian diplomats out of the U.K. within 48 hours and shuttered its ransacked embassy in Tehran on Wednesday, in a significant escalation of tensions between Iran and the West.

The ouster of the entire Iranian diplomatic corps deepens Iran’s international isolation amid growing suspicions over its nuclear program. At least four other European countries also moved to reduce diplomatic contacts with Iran.

The British measures were announced by Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said Britain had withdrawn its entire diplomatic staff after angry mobs stormed the British Embassy compound and a diplomatic residence in Tehran, hauling down Union Jack flags, torching a vehicle and tossing looted documents through windows.

The hours-long assault Tuesday was reminiscent of the chaotic seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Protesters replaced the British flag with a banner in the name of a 7th-century Shiite saint, Imam Hussein, and one looter showed off a picture of Queen Elizabeth II apparently taken off a wall.

“The idea that the Iranian authorities could not have protected our embassy or that this assault could have taken place without some degree of regime consent is fanciful,” Hague told lawmakers in the House of Commons.

The diplomatic fallout from the attack quickly spread to other Western countries with embassies in Iran. Norway announced it was temporarily closing its embassy as a precaution, and Germany, France and the Netherlands all recalled their ambassadors for consultations. Italy said it was considering such a recall.

Iran currently has 18 diplomats in Britain. About 24 British Embassy staff and dependents were based in Tehran.

The White House condemned the attacks and spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. backed Britain’s ejection of Iranian diplomats.

European Union foreign ministers were to meet Thursday to consider possible new sanctions against Tehran.

France’s budget minister, Valerie Pecresse, said the EU should consider a total embargo on Iranian oil or a freeze on Iranian central bank holdings. British officials said the U.K. would likely support new measures against Iran’s energy sector.

Muslim Brotherhood’s machine helps in Egypt vote

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky

CAIRO (AP) — First-time voter Hassan Abdel-Hamid had no idea who to vote for in Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, so he followed the guidance of the friendly activist from the Muslim Brotherhood who handed him a flyer outside the polling station.

The fundamentalist Brotherhood was emerging as the biggest winner in partial results Wednesday from the first voting this week in Egypt’s landmark election in which voters turned out in unexpected droves.

That strength is not necessarily testimony to widespread Egyptian support for its Islamist ideology. More crucial were two other major factors: the Brotherhood’s history of helping the poor and a highly disciplined organization of activists, who on the two days of voting seemed to be everywhere.

Outside polling stations around the country, Brotherhood activists were set up with laptop computers in booths, helping voters find their district and voter numbers – which they wrote on cards advertising the party’s candidates. Elsewhere, they posted activists outside to wave banners, pass out flyers or simply chat up voters waiting in line.

And in a marked change from previous elections, when Brotherhood members running as independents touted their Islamic credentials, this time their campaign focused on promises to improve services, to appeal to poor voters.

“Do you think any of these guys prays when it’s not a holiday?” said Yasser Dawahi, pointing to four friends hanging out in his auto garage in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Zawiya al-Hamra before the vote. All said they’d vote for the Brotherhood.

“It’s all about services, clean streets, jobs and hospitals. That’s what’s important,” he said.

For decades, the Mubarak regime suppressed the Brotherhood, which was banned but still established a vast network of activists and charities offering free food and medical services. It transformed this into a potent campaign machine, holding rallies and wallpapering neighborhoods with banners for its Freedom and Justice Party. After voting closed in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria on Tuesday night, Brothers even lined up to protect the road while ballot boxes were moved to the counting center.

During the voting Monday and Tuesday, many parties violated a legal ban on campaigning during elections, but the Brotherhood’s operation was by far the slickest and most widespread. The campaigning at the polls is particularly effective because so many parties are new and most Egyptians know almost nothing about them.

Abdel-Hamid, the first time voter, said he received the flyer telling him how to vote from “the guys with the computer.”

They sat across the street in front of a huge Freedom and Justice Party banner, punching voters’ ID numbers into their computer to get their voter numbers and make sure they were in the right place.

One of them, 25-year-old Essam Ahmed, acknowledged he was a party activist, but denied the group was campaigning. “Here I’m just a volunteer for all citizens,” he said.

Shortly after an Associated Press reporters arrived, the men took down the party banner and wrote voter information on plain white paper instead of party brochures.

The election is likely to be the best indicator of Egyptians’ political sentiments after decades of elections under Mubarak that were so rigged that few people even bothered to vote. The parliament it seats will play a role in determining if Egypt’s new government remains secular or moves in a profoundly Islamist direction.

The Obama administration on Wednesday hailed the vote as Egypt’s freest and fairest ever. This week’s voting took place in nine of Egypt’s 27 provinces, including the capital Cairo. In subsequent rounds, other provinces will take their turn in a process that will last till March.

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World’s central banks act to ease market strains

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Michael Probst

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — The central banks of the wealthiest countries, trying to prevent a debt crisis in Europe from exploding into a global panic, swept in Wednesday to shore up the world financial system by making it easier for banks to borrow American dollars.

Stock markets around the world roared their approval. The Dow Jones industrial average rose almost 500 points, its best day in two and a half years. Stocks climbed 5 percent in Germany and more than 4 percent in France.

The action appeared to be the most extraordinary coordinated effort by the central banks since they cut interest rates together in October 2008, at the depths of the financial crisis.

But while it should ease borrowing for banks, it does little to solve the underlying problem of mountains of government debt in Europe, leaving markets still waiting for a permanent fix. European leaders gather next week for a summit on the debt crisis.

The European Central Bank, which has been reluctant to intervene to stop the growing crisis on its own continent, was joined in the decision by the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the central banks of Canada, Japan and Switzerland.

“The purpose of these actions is to ease strains in financial markets and thereby mitigate the effects of such strains on the supply of credit to households and businesses and so help foster economic activity,” the central banks said in a joint statement.

China, which has the largest economy in the world after the European Union and the United States, reduced the amount of money its banks are required to hold in reserve, another attempt to free up cash for lending.

The display of worldwide coordination was meant to restore confidence in the global financial system and to demonstrate that central banks will do what they can to prevent a repeat of 2008.

That fall, fear gripped the financial system after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a storied American investment house. Banks around the world severely restricted lending to each other. Investors panicked, resulting in a meltdown in stocks.

In October 2008, the ECB, the Fed and other central banks cut interest rates together. That action, like Wednesday’s, was a signal from the central banks to the financial markets that they would be players, not spectators.

This year, investors have been nervously watching Europe to see whether they should take the same approach and dump stocks. World stock markets have been unusually volatile since summer.

The European crisis, which six months ago seemed focused on the relatively small economy of Greece, now threatens the existence of the euro, the common currency used by 17 countries in Europe.

There have also been signs, particularly in Europe, that it is becoming more difficult to borrow money, especially as U.S. money market funds lend less money to banks in the euro nations because of perceived risk from the debt crisis.

European banks cut business loans by 16 percent in the third quarter. And no one knows how much European banks will lose on their massive holdings of bonds of heavily indebted countries. Until the damage is clear, banks are reluctant to lend.

Banks are also being pressed by European governments to increase their buffers against possible losses. That helps stabilize the banking system but reduces the amount of money available to lend to businesses.

“European banks are having trouble borrowing in general, including in dollars,” said Joseph Gagnon, a former Fed official and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The Fed did the Europeans a favor.”

The central banks are reducing by half a percentage point – to about 0.6 percent – the rate they charge banks for short-term dollar loans. The lower rate is designed to get credit flowing again. Dollars are the No. 1 currency for international trade.

The Fed had offered dollar swaps from December 2007, when world financial markets were weakening because of fear about subprime mortgages, until February 2010. It reopened the program in May 2010, as European debt concerns grew, and planned to end it Aug. 1, 2012.

Wednesday, in addition to lowering the interest rate on dollars borrowed, the Fed extended the program to Feb. 1, 2013. If it works, the rates on dollar loans will drop, and stock and bond markets will calm down.

“It shows that policymakers are on the case,” said Roberto Perli, managing director at the International Strategy & Investment Group, an investment firm. He said it has symbolic value even if it does not have a big impact on credit markets.

The decision to cut the interest charged on the dollar swaps was taken by the Federal Reserve following a videoconference held by Fed officials on Monday morning. The Fed’s policy-setting panel approved it 9-1. The president of the Fed’s regional bank in Richmond, Va., voted no.

In New York, the stock market jumped at the opening bell and added to its gains throughout the day. It finished up 490.05 points, its best day since March 23, 2009, two weeks after the stock market’s post-meltdown low.

Thawing permafrost vents gases to worsen warming

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Todd Paris

WASHINGTON (AP) — Massive amounts of greenhouse gases trapped below thawing permafrost will likely seep into the air over the next several decades, accelerating and amplifying global warming, scientists warn.

Those heat-trapping gases under the frozen Arctic ground may be a bigger factor in global warming than the cutting down of forests, and a scenario that climate scientists hadn’t quite accounted for, according to a group of permafrost experts. The gases won’t contribute as much as pollution from power plants, cars, trucks and planes, though.

The permafrost scientists predict that over the next three decades a total of about 45 billion metric tons of carbon from methane and carbon dioxide will seep into the atmosphere when permafrost thaws during summers. That’s about the same amount of heat-trapping gas the world spews during five years of burning coal, gas and other fossil fuels

And the picture is even more alarming for the end of the century. The scientists calculate that about than 300 billion metric tons of carbon will belch from the thawing Earth from now until 2100.

Adding in that gas means that warming would happen “20 to 30 percent faster than from fossil fuel emissions alone,” said Edward Schuur of the University of Florida. “You are significantly speeding things up by releasing this carbon.”

Usually the first few to several inches of permafrost thaw in the summer, but scientists are now looking at up to 10 feet of soft unfrozen ground because of warmer temperatures, he said. The gases come from decaying plants that have been stuck below frozen ground for millennia.

Schuur and 40 other scientists in the Permafrost Carbon Research Network met this summer and jointly wrote up their findings, which were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

“The survey provides an important warning that global climate warming is likely to be worse than expected,” said Jay Zwally, a NASA polar scientist who wasn’t part of the study. “Arctic permafrost has been like a wild card.”

When the Nobel Prize-winning panel of climate scientists issued its last full report in 2007, it didn’t even factor in trapped methane and carbon dioxide from beneath the permafrost. Diplomats are meeting this week in South Africa to find ways of curbing human-made climate change.

Schuur and others said increasing amounts of greenhouse gas are seeping out of permafrost each year. Some is methane, which is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide in trapping heat.

In a recent video, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Katey Walter Anthony, a study co-author, is shown setting leaking methane gas on fire with flames shooting far above her head.

“Places like that are all around,” Anthony said in a phone interview. “We’re tapping into old carbon that has been locked up in the ground for 30,000 to 40,000 years.”

That triggers what Anthony and other scientists call a feedback cycle. The world warms, mostly because of human-made greenhouse gases. That thaws permafrost, releasing more natural greenhouse gas, augmenting the warming.

There are lots of unknowns and a large margin of error because this is a relatively new issue with limited data available, the scientists acknowledge.

“It’s very much a seat-of-the-pants expert assessment,” said Stanford University’s Chris Field, who wasn’t involved in the new report.

UN warns 25 pct of world land highly degraded

Monday, November 28th, 2011

ROME (AP) — The United Nations has completed the first-ever global assessment of the state of the planet’s land resources, finding in a report Monday that a quarter of all land is highly degraded and warning the trend must be reversed if the world’s growing population is to be fed.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that farmers will have to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to meet the needs of the world’s expected 9 billion-strong population. That amounts to 1 billion tons more wheat, rice and other cereals and 200 million more tons of beef and other livestock.

But as it is, most available land is already being farmed, and in ways that often decrease its productivity through practices that lead to soil erosion and wasting of water.

That means that to meet the world’s future food needs, a major “sustainable intensification” of agricultural productivity on existing farmland will be necessary, the FAO said in “State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture.”

FAO’s director-general Jacques Diouf said increased competition over land for growing biofuels, coupled with climate change and poor farming practices, had left key food-producing systems at risk of being unable to meet human needs in 2050.

“The consequences in terms of hunger and poverty are unacceptable,” he told reporters at FAO’s Rome headquarters. “Remedial actions need to be taken now. We simply cannot continue on a course of business as usual.”

The report was released Monday, as delegates from around the world meet in Durban, South Africa, for a two-week U.N. climate change conference aimed at breaking the deadlock on how to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

The report found that climate change coupled with poor farming practices had contributed to a decrease in productivity of the world’s farmland following the boon years of the Green Revolution, when crop yields soared thanks to new technologies, pesticides and the introduction of high-yield crops.

Thanks to the Green Revolution, the world’s cropland grew by just 12 percent between 1961 and 2009, but food productivity increased by 150 percent.

But the U.N. report found that rates of growth have been slowing down in many areas and today are only half of what they were at the peak of the Green Revolution.

It found that 25 percent of the world’s land is now “highly degraded,” with soil erosion, water degradation and biodiversity loss. Another 8 percent is moderately degraded, while 36 percent is stable or slightly degraded and 10 percent is ranked as “improving.”

The rest of the Earth’s surface is either bare or covered by inland water bodies.

Morocco’s Arab Spring election won by Islamists

Sunday, November 27th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — The victory of an Islamist Party in Morocco’s parliamentary elections appears to be one more sign that religious-based parties are benefiting the most from the new freedoms brought by the Arab Spring.

Across the Middle East, parties referencing Islam have made great strides, offering an alternative to corrupt, long serving dictators, who have often ruled with close Western support.

The Justice and Development Party dominated Morocco’s elections through a combination of good organization, an outsider status and not being too much of a threat to Morocco’s all-powerful king.

By taking 107 seats out of the 395 seats, almost twice as many as the second place finisher, the party ensured that King Mohammed VI must pick the next prime minister from its ranks and to form the next government out of the dozen parties in Morocco’s parliament.

It is the first time the PJD – as it is known by its French initials – will be part of the government and its outsider status could be just what Morocco, wracked by pro-democracy protests, needs.

Although it didn’t bring down the government, the North African kingdom of 32 million, just across the water from Spain, was still touched by the waves of unrest that swept the Arab world following the revolution in Tunisia, with tens of thousands marching in the streets calling for greater freedoms and less corruption.

The king responded by modifying the constitution to give the next parliament and prime minister more powers, and held early elections.

But there was still a vigorous movement to boycott the elections. There was only a 45 percent turnout in Friday’s polls, and many of those who went to vote turned in blank ballots or crossed out every party listed to show their dissatisfaction with the system.

Election observers from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute estimated that up to a fifth of the ballots they saw counted had been defaced in such a way.

In the face of such widespread distrust of politics, historian and political analyst Maati Monjib said a government led by a new political force could be the answer.

“If the PJD forms a coalition in a free and independent way and not with a party of the Makhzen,” he said referring to the catch-all phrase for the entrenched establishment around the king, “this will be a big step forward for Morocco.”

In Tunisia, Morocco, and on Monday most likely also Egypt, newly enfranchised populations are choosing religious parties as a rebuke to the old systems, which often espoused liberal or left-wing ideologies.

“The people link Islam and political dignity,” said Monjib, who describes himself as coming from the left end of the political spectrum. “There is a big problem of dignity in the Arab world and the people see the Islamists as a way of getting out of the sense of subjugation and inferiority towards the West.”

Gingrich coup: Endorsement from NH’s largest paper

Sunday, November 27th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON (AP) — New Hampshire’s largest newspaper on Sunday endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 2012 GOP presidential race, signaling that rival Mitt Romney isn’t the universal favorite and potentially resetting the contest before the state’s lead-off primary Jan. 10.

“We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing,” The New Hampshire Union Leader said in its front-page editorial, which was as much a promotion of Gingrich as a discreet rebuke of Romney.

“We don’t back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers. We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job,” the editorial said.

Romney enjoys solid leads in New Hampshire polls and remains at the front of the pack nationally. A poll released last week showed him with 42 percent support among likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire. Gingrich followed with 15 percent in the WMUR-University of New Hampshire Granite State poll.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas posted 12 percent support and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman found 8 percent support in that survey.

Those numbers could shift based on the backing of The Union Leader, a newspaper with a conservative editorial stance that proudly works to influence elections, from school boards to the White House, in the politically savvy state.

The endorsement, signed by publisher Joseph W. McQuaid, suggested that the only state-wide newspaper in New Hampshire was ready to again assert itself as a player in the GOP primary.

“We don’t have to agree with them on every issue,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial that ran across the width of the front page. “We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.”

While Romney enjoys solid support in national polls, the large pack of Republicans has shifted all year from candidate to candidate in search of an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor. That led to the rise, and fall, of potential challengers such as Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Yet with six weeks until the primary, The Union Leader’s move could shuffle the race and further boost Gingrich. In recent weeks, he has seen a surge in some polls as Republicans focus more closely on deciding which candidate they consider best positioned to take on President Barack Obama.

But a Gingrich rival, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, said the endorsement points to how changeable the New Hampshire contest is.

“A month ago for Newt Gingrich to have been in the running to capture the Manchester Union Leader endorsement would have been unthinkable,” Huntsman told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think it reflects, more than anything else, the fluidity, the unpredictability of the race right now.”

As voters started focusing more on the race, Gingrich has turned in solid debate performances and found his stride on a national stage. He has rebuilt his campaign after a disastrous summer that saw many of his top aides resign en masse and fundraising summaries report million in debt.

In New Hampshire, he brought on respected tea party leader Andrew Hemingway to lead his efforts and his team has been contacting almost 1,000 voters each day.

Hemingway’s team of eight paid staffers in New Hampshire has been adding more than 100 volunteers each day, campaign officials said. Gingrich’s team has lined up leaders in the major cities and has started identifying representatives in each ward in the state.

Gingrich has opened offices in Manchester, New Hampshire’s biggest city, along with Dover in the eastern part of the state and in the North Country’s Littleton. He plans two more.

Gingrich hasn’t begun television advertising and has refused to go negative on his opponents.

Yet The Union Leader’s backing could give him a nudge in New Hampshire and provide a steady stream of criticism.

Four years earlier, the newspaper threw its support to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s bid and used front page opinion columns and editorials to boost him and criticize chief rival Romney. In the time since, Romney has worked to court Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid, who often runs columns on the newspaper’s front page under his signature.

“The Union Leader’s style is we don’t just endorse once,” McQuaid told The Washington Post in 1999. “We endorse every damn day. We started endorsing Reagan in 1975 and never stopped.”

Romney and his wife, Ann, had dinner with the McQuaids at the Bedford Village Inn near Manchester, hoping to reset the relationship earlier this year. Yet it didn’t prove enough and McQuaid’s newspaper seemed not to appreciate the outreach.

“Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate,” McQuaid wrote. “But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running.”

Restaurants plan DNA-certified premium seafood

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Restaurants around the world will soon use new DNA technology to assure patrons they are being served the genuine fish fillet or caviar they ordered, rather than inferior substitutes, an expert in genetic identification says.

In October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially approved so-called DNA barcoding – a standardized fingerprint that can identify a species like a supermarket scanner reads a barcode – to prevent the mislabeling of both locally produced and imported seafood in the United States. Other national regulators around the world are also considering adopting DNA barcoding as a fast, reliable and cost-effective tool for identifying organic matter.

David Schindel, a Smithsonian Institution paleontologist and executive secretary of the Washington-based Consortium for the Barcode of Life, said he has started discussions with the restaurant industry and seafood suppliers about utilizing the technology as a means of certifying the authenticity of delicacies.

“When they sell something that’s really expensive, they want the consumer to believe that they’re getting what they’re paying for,” Schindel told The Associated Press.

“We’re going to start seeing a self-regulating movement by the high-end trade embracing barcoding as a mark of quality,” he said.

While it would never be economically viable to DNA test every fish, it would be possible to test a sample of several fish from a trawler load, he said.

Schindel is organizer of the biennial International Barcode of Life Conference, which is being held Monday in the southern Australian city of Adelaide. The fourth in the conference series brings together 450 experts in the field to discuss new and increasingly diverse applications for the science.

Applications range from discovering what Australia’s herd of 1 million feral camels feeds on in the Outback to uncovering fraud in Malaysia’s herbal drug industry.

Schindel leads a consortium of scientists from almost 50 nations in overseeing the compilation of a global reference library for the Earth’s 1.8 million known species.

Biden’s 2012 targets: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida

Friday, November 25th, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — A year from Election Day, Democrats are crafting a campaign strategy for Vice President Joe Biden that targets the big three political battlegrounds: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, states where Biden might be more of an asset to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign than the president himself.

The Biden plan underscores an uncomfortable reality for the Obama team. A shaky economy and sagging enthusiasm among Democrats could shrink the electoral map for Obama in 2012, forcing his campaign to depend on carrying the 67 electoral votes up for grabs in the three swing states.

Obama won all three states in 2008. But this time he faces challenges in each, particularly in Ohio and Florida, where voters elected Republican governors in the 2010 midterm elections.

The president sometimes struggles to connect with Ohio and Pennsylvania’s white working-class voters, and Jewish voters who make up a core constituency for Florida Democrats and view him with skepticism.

Biden has built deep ties to both groups during his four decades in national politics, connections that could make a difference.

As a long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden cemented his reputation as an unyielding supporter of Israel, winning the respect of many in the Jewish community. And Biden’s upbringing in a working class, Catholic family from Scranton, Pa., gives him a valuable political intangible: He empathizes with the struggles of blue-collar Americans because his family lived those struggles.

“Talking to blue-collar voters is perhaps his greatest attribute,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican political analyst. “Obama provides the speeches, and Biden provides the blue-collar subtitles.”

While Biden’s campaign travel won’t kick into high gear until next year, he’s already been making stops in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida this fall, speaking at events focused on education, public safety and small businesses and raising campaign cash. Behind the scenes, he’s working the phones with prominent Jewish groups and Catholic organizations in those states, a Democratic official said.

Biden is also targeting organized labor, speaking frequently with union leaders in Ohio ahead of last week’s vote on a state law that would have curbed collective bargaining rights for public workers. Voters struck down the measure, and Biden traveled to Cleveland Tuesday to celebrate the victory with union members.

Republican field crowded and likely to remain so

Friday, November 25th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Andy Dunaway

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — They are barely blips in presidential polls and their campaign cash is scarce. Some are running on empty, fueled mainly by the exposure that comes with the blizzard of televised debates in this election cycle and interviews they eagerly grant to skeptical reporters.

Yet the second-tier candidates for the Republican presidential nomination soldier on. They argue that the race is far from over and that anything can happen with polls showing a wide-open race in Iowa five weeks before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum is typical when he resists the conventional wisdom that only candidates with a lot of cash and a big campaign can win.

“I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I feel like I’m making a difference in the race,” said Santorum, who barely registers in state surveys despite having campaigned in Iowa for more than a year. “I absolutely believe our time will come and we’ll have the opportunity to have the spotlight turned on us.”

Santorum, who represented Pennsylvania in Congress for 16 years, frankly acknowledges the possibility of a different outcome.

“If it doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t,” he said.

Even more than energy and determination, also-ran candidates rely on particular issues, free media and prospects for the future to drive them to keep their small-scale operations going.

With polls and money putting candidates like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain atop the field of Republican rivals, there’s a crop of others likely to remain in the race until voters have their say. One force in that dynamic is the fluidity of this year’s contest.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, was among the many candidates who surged when they got into the race but then plummeted in the polls. She’s gotten feistier as her fortunes have sagged.

Gun issue represents tough politics for Obama

Friday, November 25th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Dave Weaver

WASHINGTON (AP) — They are fuzzy about some issues but the Republican presidential candidates leave little doubt about where they stand on gun rights.

Rick Perry and Rick Santorum go pheasant hunting and give interviews before heading out. Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain speak to the National Rifle Association convention. Michele Bachmann tells People magazine she wants to teach her daughters how to shoot because women need to be able to protect themselves. Mitt Romney, after backing some gun control measures in Massachusetts, now presents himself as a strong Second Amendment supporter.

President Barack Obama, on the other hand, is virtually silent on the issue.

He has hardly addressed it since a couple of months after the January assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., when he promised to develop new steps on gun safety in response. He still has failed to do so, even as Tucson survivors came to Capitol Hill last week to push for action to close loopholes in the gun background check system.

Democrats have learned the hard way that embracing gun control can be terrible politics, and the 2012 presidential election is shaping up to underscore just how delicate the issue can be. With the election likely to be decided largely by states where hunting is a popular pastime, like Missouri, Ohio or Pennsylvania, candidates of both parties want to win over gun owners, not alienate them.

For Republicans, that means emphasizing their pro-gun credentials. But for Obama and the Democrats, the approach is trickier.

Obama’s history in support of strict gun control measures prior to becoming president makes it difficult for him to claim he’s a Second Amendment champion, even though he signed a bill allowing people to take loaded guns into national parks. At the same time, he’s apparently decided that his record backing gun safety is nothing to boast of either, perhaps because of the power of the gun lobby and their opposition to anything smacking of gun control.

Mexico acknowledges 2nd Mayan reference to 2012

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s archaeology institute downplays theories that the ancient Mayas predicted some sort of apocalypse would occur in 2012, but on Thursday it acknowledged that a second reference to the date exists on a carved fragment found at a southern Mexico ruin site.

Most experts had cited only one surviving reference to the date in Mayan glyphs, a stone tablet from the Tortuguero site in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco.

But the National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement that there is in fact another apparent reference to the date at the nearby Comalcalco ruin. The inscription is on the carved or molded face of a brick. Comalcalco is unusual among Mayan temples in that it was constructed of bricks.

Arturo Mendez, a spokesman for the institute, said the fragment of inscription had been discovered years ago and has been subject to thorough study. It is not on display and is being kept in storage at the institute.

The “Comalcalco Brick,” as the second fragment is known, has been discussed by experts in some online forums. Many still doubt that it is a definite reference to Dec. 21, 2012 or Dec. 23, 2012, the dates cited by proponents of the theory as the possible end of the world.

“Some have proposed it as another reference to 2012, but I remain rather unconvinced,” David Stuart, a specialist in Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a message to The Associated Press.

Stuart said the date inscribed on the brick “‘is a Calendar Round,’ a combination of a day and month position that will repeat every 52 years.”

The brick date does coincide with the end of the 13th Baktun; Baktuns were roughly 394-year periods and 13 was a significant, sacred number for the Mayas. The Mayan Long Count calendar begins in 3114 B.C., and the 13th Baktun ends around Dec. 21, 2012.

But the date on the brick could also correspond to similar dates in the past, Stuart said.

“There’s no reason it couldn’t be also a date in ancient times, describing some important historical event in the Classic period. In fact, the third glyph on the brick seems to read as the verb huli, “he/she/it arrives.”

“There’s no future tense marking (unlike the Tortuguero phrase), which in my mind points more to the Comalcalco date being more historical that prophetic,” Stuart wrote.

Both inscriptions – the Tortuguero tablet and the Comalcalco brick – were probably carved about 1,300 years ago and both are cryptic in some ways.

JK Rowling: UK press left me feeling under siege

Thursday, November 24th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

LONDON (AP) — Writer J.K. Rowling and actress Sienna Miller gave a London courtroom a vivid picture on Thursday of the anxiety, anger and fear produced by living in the glare of Britain’s tabloid media, describing how press intrusion made them feel like prisoners in their own homes.

The creator of boy wizard Harry Potter told Britain’s media ethics inquiry that having journalists camped on her doorstep was “like being under siege and like being a hostage.” Miller said years of car chases, midnight pursuits and intimate revelations had left her feeling violated, paranoid and anxious.

“The attitude seems to be absolutely cavalier,” Rowling said. “You’re famous, you’re asking for it.”

The pair were among a diverse cast of witnesses – Hollywood star Hugh Grant, a former soccer player, a former aide to supermodel Elle Macpherson and the parents of missing and murdered children – who have described how becoming the focus of Britain’s tabloid press wreaked havoc on their lives.

Rowling said she was completely unprepared for the media attention she began to receive when her first book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” became a sensation. The seven Potter books have sold more than 450 million copies, spawned a hit movie series and propelled Rowling from struggling single mother to one of Britain’s richest people.

“When you become well-known … no one gives you a guidebook,” she said.

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the inquiry amid a still-unfolding scandal over illegal eavesdropping by the News of the World tabloid. Owner Rupert Murdoch closed down the newspaper in July after evidence emerged that it had illegally accessed the mobile phone voice mails of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims in its search of scoops.

More than a dozen News of the World journalists and editors have been arrested, and the scandal has also claimed the jobs of two top London police officers, Cameron’s media adviser and several senior Murdoch executives.

It has also set off national soul-searching about the balance between press freedom and individual privacy.

Rowling, 46, said media interest in her began shortly after the publication of her first novel in 1997 and soon escalated, with photographers and reporters frequently stationed outside her home. She eventually moved after stories and photographs revealed the location of her house.

Adwatch: Romney takes Obama out of context again

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

WASHINGTON (AP) — TITLE: “Believe in America”

LENGTH: 60 seconds

AIRING: In New Hampshire through Sunday

KEY IMAGES: The ad opens with grainy footage from a Barack Obama rally in Londonderry, N.H., in the midst of his 2008 presidential campaign against Sen. John McCain. Obama proclaims “I am confident that we can steer ourselves out of this crisis.” Text is then shown on the screen: “He promised to fix the economy. He failed.”

The ad then cuts between footage from Obama’s rally and stock video of shuttered businesses, foreclosed homes and shuffling workers. On screen, text declares: “Greatest Jobs Crisis Since Great Depression. Record Home Foreclosures. Record National Debt.”

The imagery then shifts to blue skies and Mitt Romney’s name on the side of a barn. As Romney promises to change government, the ad shows video of him speaking in Iowa, meeting with a voter – with his book “No Apology” on the table between them – and stock video of factory workers.

“I’m going to do something to government. I call it the `Smaller, Simpler, Smarter’ approach to government. Getting rid of programs, turning programs back to states and, finally, making government itself more efficient,” Romney says, using video from a Nov. 7 appearance in Dubuque, Iowa. “I’m going to get rid of Obamacare. It’s killing jobs and it’s keeping our kids from having the bright prospects they deserve.”

He then turns to the economy, voters’ top concern.

“We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in. I’ll make sure that America is a job creating machine like it has been in the past. It’s high time to bring those principles of fiscal responsibility to Washington, D.C.”

The ad closes with a photograph of Romney’s campaign announcement event in New Hampshire this spring. His campaign poster hangs on the barn behind him.

ANALYSIS: Romney’s first ad of the presidential campaign takes Obama out of context and gives the impression that the president is talking about his time in office, not that of his predecessor.

“Who’s been in charge of the economy?” Obama asked the crowd in 2008, criticizing Republicans including President George W. Bush.

The ad shows Obama saying: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose,” giving viewers with the impression that Obama does not want to talk about the dire economy.

In fact, Obama was quoting his opponent’s campaign: “Sen. McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, `If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose'”, he said.

Romney aides acknowledge they were using video of Obama quoting an anonymous aide McCain. Romney’s top communications aide Gail Gitcho disclosed that Obama is quoting someone else in a blog post and later defended the ad.

“Three years ago, candidate Obama mocked his opponent’s campaign for saying, `If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose,'” Gitcho said in an email. “Now, the tables have turned. President Obama is doing exactly what candidate Obama criticized. The White House doesn’t want to talk about the economy and continues to attempt to distract voters from President Obama’s abysmal economic record.”

GOP presidential rivals to debate foreign policy

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Winslow Townson

WASHINGTON (AP) — With new trouble appearing in the Middle East and the Pentagon facing possible budget cuts, the Republican White House contenders are debating for the second time in as many weeks how they would do better than President Barack Obama in protecting and extending America’s national security.

Six weeks to the day before the first nominating contests in Iowa, the candidates were looking to use the pre-Thanksgiving holiday debate to build or – for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the head of the pack – sustain momentum in the battle to pick a 2012 election challenger for Obama.

Businessman Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also were meeting in Tuesday night’s forum put together by CNN, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

With unemployment stubbornly high and the economy sluggish to recover from recession, the candidates also were likely to drive the foreign policy discussion back to pocketbook issues at home.

A day earlier, the congressional deficit supercommittee declared an impasse, and that could trigger deep cuts in 2013 spreading across military as well as domestic spending.

Many of the presidential candidates have called the nation’s $15 trillion government debt a national security threat, especially since China is the single largest creditor. Obama’s own defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has said big Pentagon cuts “would lead to a hollow force incapable of sustaining the missions it is assigned.”

The GOP contenders also were ready to criticize Obama on the Middle East. The administration ordered new sanctions this week aimed at forcing Iran to halt a suspected nuclear weapons program, and protests are under way again in Cairo against the military government.

The Iran sanctions target that country’s oil industry as well as companies linked to nuclear activity and Iran’s banking system.

They, however, were unlikely to satisfy the GOP contenders who are far more hawkish than Obama and have pledged to carry out military strikes against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities to defend U.S. ally Israel.

NASA launching `dream machine’ to explore Mars

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — As big as a car and as well-equipped as a laboratory, NASA’s newest Mars rover blows away its predecessors in size and skill.

Nicknamed Curiosity and scheduled for launch on Saturday, the rover has a 7-foot arm tipped with a jackhammer and a laser to break through the Martian red rock. What really makes it stand out: It can analyze rocks and soil with unprecedented accuracy.

“This is a Mars scientist’s dream machine,” said NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ashwin Vasavada, the deputy project scientist.

Once on the red planet, Curiosity will be on the lookout for organic, carbon-containing compounds. While the rover can’t actually detect the presence of living organisms, scientists hope to learn from the $2.5 billion, nuclear-powered mission whether Mars has – or ever had – what it takes to nurture microbial life.

Curiosity will be “the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever placed on the surface of another planet,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

Ten feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall at its mast, Curiosity is about twice the size of previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity, weighs 1 ton and is loaded with 10 science instruments. Its formal name: Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL.

In a spacecraft first, Curiosity will be lowered to Mars’ surface via a jet pack and a tether system similar to the sky cranes used by helicopters to insert heavy equipment in inaccessible spots on Earth. No bouncing air bags like those used for the Mars Pathfinder lander and rover in 1997 and for Spirit and Opportunity in 2004 – Curiosity is too heavy for that.

It is the kind of precision landing that officials said will benefit future human explorers on Mars.

The rover is scheduled to arrive at the mineral-rich Gale Crater next August, 8 1/2 months after embarking on the 354-million-mile voyage aboard an Atlas V rocket.

Elle Macpherson’s adviser: Hacking cost me my job

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

LONDON (AP) — Elle Macpherson fired her business adviser for leaking secrets when journalists were actually getting juicy details about the supermodel by hacking into her phone, the former aide told a British inquiry into media ethics Tuesday.

In testimony that illuminated the human costs of the illegal practice, Mary-Ellen Field described how she lost both her job for Macpherson and one at an advisory firm because of the unfounded suspicions – a double-blow that was all the more serious because she was in poor health.

“It had a very serious effect,” she told the inquiry. “I had become ill and was falling down all the time.” She didn’t identify her illness.

Field was one of several victims of press intrusion testifying Tuesday at Britain’s Royal Courts of Justice. The inquiry, headed by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron after the scandal over phone hacking and other underhanded tactics used at the News of the World, which was closed by media mogul Rupert Murdoch in July amid allegations of widespread criminality.

The inquiry plans to issue a report next year and could recommend major changes to the way the media in Britain are regulated. It has already heard several alarming tales of media abuse.

Field, with a friendly and open demeanor that showed no traces of bitterness toward the press or her former boss, said her relationship with Macpherson was once close, but it fell apart after the model’s intimate secrets began appearing in the press in 2005. Macpherson became convinced that Field, a fellow Australian, was an alcoholic and ordered her to go to an American rehabilitation clinic.

Field said she was shocked by the allegations she was a drunk who’d been blabbing about her employer, but went along with Macpherson’s recommendation because she needed her job.

“I have a severely disabled child who can never look after himself, so walking away from a high-paying position is not a good idea,” Field said.

The rehab was grueling – she described it as being “like one of those CIA renditions, except they don’t put you in chains” – but it didn’t help the situation.

Even though staff at the clinic said Field was not an alcoholic, Macpherson fired her anyway, and Field lost her job at her firm shortly afterward. She told the inquiry there was no doubt the sacking was the result of what happened with Macpherson.

Although it has since emerged that the media leaks were the result of phone hacking by the News of the World tabloid, not any indiscretions, Field said she has not heard from Macpherson in years. Macpherson’s office did not respond to emails sent by The Associated Press seeking comment.

She was the first in a daylong parade of witnesses chronicling media misdeeds.

Soccer player Garry Flitcroft told of his family’s harassment by the media after the failure of a judicial bid to block news of his extramarital affair, saying that at one point journalists used a helicopter to track his movements.

Flitcroft said journalists “wanted to make a statement to me: ‘Never take on the press again.'”

British comedian Steve Coogan claimed in his testimony that he was warned in 2002 that Andy Coulson – then deputy editor of News of the World – would be listening in on a phone conversation Coogan had with a woman in a bid to trick him into making indiscreet comments. Coulson later went on to become Cameron’s top media adviser, but he lost that job when he became embroiled in the scandal.

The parents of murdered British schoolgirl Milly Dowler and film star Hugh Grant were the first victims to testify to the panel on Monday, with Grant being particularly scathing about the Mail on Sunday tabloid, which he suggested had hacked his phone.

The Daily Mail called Grant’s allegations “mendacious smears driven by his hatred of the media,” but that response in turn sparked outrage, with lawyers at the inquiry saying it smacked of an attempt to intimidate witnesses.

David Sherborne, who represents victims of media intrusion at the inquiry, said his clients feared “the sort of intimidatory tactics that we’ve seen in the press this morning.”

Lawyer Jonathan Caplan defended The Mail, saying the paper’s comments were “a response to the fact that (Grant) was commenting freely that there was not a substratum of evidence” to support his allegation.

Leveson had limited sympathy for the Mail’s argument, noting that while the paper had defended itself, it had also accused Grant of lying under oath.

“The real issue is whether it’s appropriate to go from the defensive to the offensive in that way,” Leveson said. He added later: “I would be unhappy if it was felt that the best form of defense was always attack.”

Online:

Leveson Inquiry: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/

Raphael G. Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael

Italians want to cut debt but without sacrifices

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Luca Bruno

ROME (AP) — Ninety-three percent of Italians believe cutting the country’s hobbling public debt is a top priority, but few are willing to make personal sacrifices to do so, according to an AP-GfK poll released Tuesday.

Only about a quarter of Italians favor reforming labor laws to make it easier to fire workers, or raising the retirement age from 65 (and sometimes lower) to 67 – two of the reforms considered critical to curb Italy’s public spending and boost economic growth.

But while the European Union is demanding such reforms, 52 percent of Italians still have a favorable view of the EU, and a full 76 percent think Italy should stay in the 17-nation eurozone, according to the survey, conducted last week.

Italy has been engulfed in financial turmoil for weeks as markets woke up to the enormous size of its debt – euro1.9 trillion ($2.6 trillion), a eurozone high coming in at 120 percent of gross domestic product. The market turmoil and a loss of confidence in Italy’s ability to repay forced Premier Silvio Berlusconi to resign Nov. 12, ending his 17-year domination of Italian politics.

The AP-GfK poll was conducted Nov. 16-20, during the first days of economist Mario Monti’s new government, made up of bankers, academics and corporate executives instead of politicians. Monti is under enormous pressure to quickly rein in the debt and get the economy growing again.

Italy’s economy is hampered by high labor costs, low productivity, fat government payrolls, excessive taxes, choking bureaucracy, and low numbers of college graduates. Yet as the third-largest economy in the eurozone, Italy is too big for Europe to bail out like it did Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

Monti got high marks from the Italians surveyed after he was tapped to lead the country, garnering a 67 percent favorability rating. Only 10 percent had a negative view and 16 percent were neutral.

“Let’s say there’s hope,” said Fortunato Porcheddu, 63, as he strolled Tuesday with a friend through a piazza in Rome. “If I close my eyes and look back over the past 15 years and everything that has happened, I cringe.”

Monti has pledged to reform Italy’s pension system, re-impose a property tax annulled by Berlusconi’s government, fight tax evasion, streamline civil court proceedings, get more women and young people into the workforce and cut political costs.

But, critically, only 32 percent of Italians surveyed are strongly confident that his technocratic government can fix the country’s economic ills. Forty-two percent say they’re “moderately confident” and 22 percent say they have little or no confidence he can turn Italy’s finances around.

While there is some hopefulness about the future of the economy – 55 percent anticipate a better situation five years from now – the longer-term picture is gloomier. Only 35 percent of Italians think people will be better off in 20 years than they are today, while 43 percent anticipate a harder life for the next generation.

“Our generation always looked forward with the possibility of improvement,” said Alfonso Marozzi, 72, as he strolled in Rome. “Now, young people are resigned to wonder if they’ll be able to hold onto what their parents were able to build. There’s a lack of hope in the future.”

The survey found that Italians are especially concerned about corruption: 87 percent called it an “extremely” or “very serious” problem. Unemployment, the debt and organized crime followed.

A full 93 percent of Italians said reducing the public debt was either an “extremely” or “very important” goal for the government to tackle over the next decade. Only 2 percent said it was “not too important” or “not at all important.”

Yet only 26 percent of those surveyed favored raising the retirement age to 67 to help cut spending, while 67 percent were opposed. Parliament recently passed legislation raising the retirement age to 67 starting in 2026 and to 70 by 2050, but critics say the reforms are meaningless because any savings they produce are too far in the future.

Monti is expected to seek more reforms to the pension system and to try to make the contribution system more equitable.

Italian politicians have made few efforts to reform the labor market, and the AP-Gfk poll shows why. Seventy percent of respondents opposed deregulating the labor market to make it easier to fire workers, with only 22 percent favoring it. Of the 70 percent opposed, a full 56 percent were “strongly opposed.”

Ultimately, labor market reforms are likely to be much broader than just changes involving firing. Monti’s government is expected to open up “closed professions,” such as lawyers, notaries and taxi drivers, which in some cases restrict entry to people with connections or set standard prices that deprive the market of competition.

Monti also plans to loosen Italy’s system of collective bargaining, in which unions negotiate with entire industries rather than individual companies. Italy’s biggest carmaker, Fiat, told unions Monday that it is tossing out the old model as of Jan. 1 and will seek to negotiate new contracts plant by plant – something it has already done in four locations.

Raj Badiani, an economist at IHS Global Insight in London, said Fiat “is probably the forerunner of what we need to see.” But he cautioned: “Trade union opposition to that will be immense.”

Unions have balked at any labor market reforms, and so far the austerity measures that have been passed by Parliament haven’t touched the thorny issue.

Still, the AP-GfK survey found that labor unions in general get broadly negative ratings from Italians, with 53 percent of respondents saying they “only sometimes” or “never” trust unions to do the right thing.

Only 20 percent of Italians surveyed had a favorable opinion of Berlusconi, with 67 percent having an unfavorable view and 56 having a “strongly unfavorable” impression of the billionaire media mogul.

After Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, the leader with the most favorable ratings? President Barack Obama, with a 78 percent favorability rating.

Armando Manni, a 50-year-old who tends olive groves in Tuscany, said young Italians have to become more like their Anglo-Saxon colleagues and leave home to pursue their dreams rather than stay where their mothers cook, clean and wash their clothes until they’re well past age 40.

“A country that doesn’t have dreams is a country that is almost dead,” he said as he shopped for tomatoes.

The AP-GfK poll of 1,025 Italian adults across the country was conducted Nov. 16-20 using landlines and cell phones by GfK Eurisko Italy under direction of the global GfK Group. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

AP Poll is at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

Jennifer Agiesta in Washington, Paolo Santalucia in Rome and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.

Russia is resigned to losing Mars moon probe

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian officials on Tuesday acknowledged that the chances of fixing a space probe bound for a moon of Mars that got stuck in Earth’s orbit are close to zero, Russian news agencies reported.

The unmanned $170 million Phobos-Ground was launched two weeks ago and reached preliminary Earth orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. Russian engineers have been trying to retrieve data from the probe as it passes over their territory but haven’t established contact.

“We have to be realistic. Since we haven’t been able to get in touch with it for such a long time, chances to accomplish the mission are very slim,” Roscosmos deputy chief Vitaly Davydov said in remarks carried by the Interfax news agency.

Davydov said that Russian engineers can keep trying until the end of the month to fix the probe’s engines to steer it to its path to Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons.

Russian scientists could fix the problem if the probe failed because of a software flaw, but some experts think that the failure was rooted in hardware that’s difficult to fix.

The failure of the probe could see Russia change its priorities in space research. The Russian space agency will more likely focus on Moon research instead of studying Mars, Davydov said.

The failed spacecraft is 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons), and most of that weight, about 11 metric tons (12 tons), is highly toxic fuel.

Davydov said Tuesday that Phobos-Ground could crash to Earth some time between late December and late February. The site of the crash cannot be established more than a day in advance, he said.

Republicans seek Iowa social conservatives’ nod

Saturday, November 19th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Most of the Republican presidential candidates, with the notable exception of Mitt Romney, set their sights on early-voting Iowa for a discussion on the role of religious faith in public life, along with hot-button social issues such as marriage and abortion.

The setting was a forum Saturday night hosted by a new evangelical group trying to leave its mark on the campaign in a state where influential social conservatives have struggled to rally behind an alternative to Romney. While the former Massachusetts governor has stayed near the top of national polls, some Republican activists have misgivings about his record on cultural issues.

Romney’s six more socially conservative challenges are actively competing in Iowa to emerge as the preferred candidate among Christian conservatives with just six weeks to go until the Jan. 3 caucuses.

“People are getting close to decision time,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told The Associated Press at a campaign stop in Des Moines. “I think you’re going to see some coalescing in the next couple of weeks.”

Jobs, the economy and the deficit are voter priorities in Iowa and nationally, but it was a focus on social issues that drew the 2012 hopefuls to the event sponsored by The Family Leader, an organization started last by a former Republican candidate for governor, Bob Vander Plaats.

Egypt police clash with protesters ahead of vote

Saturday, November 19th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets stormed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square Saturday to dismantle a protest tent camp, setting off clashes that injured at least 507 people and raising tensions days before the first elections since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

The scenes of protesters fighting with black-clad police forces were reminiscent of the 18-day uprising that forced an end to Mubarak’s rule in February. Hundreds of protesters fought back, hurling stones and setting an armored police vehicle ablaze.

The violence raised fears of new unrest surrounding the parliamentary elections that are due to begin in nine days’ time. Public anger has risen over the slow pace of reforms and apparent attempts by Egypt’s ruling generals to retain power over a future civilian government.

Witnesses said the clashes began when riot police dismantled a small tent camp set up to commemorate the hundreds of protesters killed in the uprising and attacked around 200 peaceful demonstrators who had camped in the square overnight in an attempt to restart a long-term sit-in there.

“Violence breeds violence,” said Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, an engineer who joined in the protest after a call went out on Twitter urging people to come to Tahrir to defend against the police attacks. “We are tired of this and we are not leaving the square.”

Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and beat protesters with batons, clearing the square at one point and pushing the fighting into surrounding side streets of downtown Cairo. State TV, quoting the Health Ministry, reported that 507 people were injured, including 19 policemen.

Abdel-Mohsen said a friend was wounded by a rubber bullet that struck his head and that she saw another protester wounded by a pellet in his neck.

Crowds swarmed an armored police truck, rocking it back and forth and setting it ablaze. Black smoke rose over the crowd.

After nightfall, protesters swarmed back into the square in the thousands, setting tires ablaze in the street and filling the area with an acrid, black smoke screen. Police appeared to retreat to surrounding areas, leaving protesters free to retake and barricade themselves inside the square. The air was still thick with stinging tear gas.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf urged the protesters to clear the square.

Saturday’s confrontation was one of the few since the uprising to involve police forces, which have largely stayed in the background while the military takes charge of security. There was no military presence in and around the square on Saturday.

The black-clad police were a hated symbol of Mubarak’s regime.

UN bashing is popular among Republican candidates

Saturday, November 19th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Jim Cole

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Bashing the United Nations seldom fails as an applause line for Republican presidential candidates.

Mitt Romney says the U.N. too often becomes a forum for tyrants when it should promote democracy and human rights. Newt Gingrich pledges to take on the U.N.’s “absurdities.” Herman Cain says he would change some of its rules. Rick Perry says he would consider pulling the United States out of the U.N. altogether.

All that U.N. bashing has raised questions about whether a Republican victory could strain the relationship between the United Nations and its host country, the United States.

President Barack Obama’s Democratic administration considers the U.N. critical to the country’s interests, while Republicans traditionally have been disenchanted with the world body over America’s inability to reliably win support for its positions. It doesn’t help that U.N. members often criticize American policies, especially as they relate to Israel and the Palestinians.

That was reinforced last month when the U.N. cultural agency voted to approve a Palestinian bid for full membership in that body, and the U.S. responded by cutting off funding.

Yet history shows that any American president learns to get along with the United Nations “simply because there’s a lot of stuff the U.N. does that is useful to the United States,” said David Bosco, who writes the Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine.

Case in point: Even the harshest American critics were silent earlier this month when the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog concluded that Iran was probably developing nuclear arms.

Bosco, also an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service, noted that the Republican administration of George W. Bush supported a major expansion in U.N. peacekeeping despite regular sniping about the world body.

But the relationship wasn’t a smooth one. Tensions ran high between the U.S. and the world body during the Bush presidency, especially when outspoken John Bolton was the U.S. ambassador.

U.N. officials have declined to comment on the possibility that a Republican win could strain the United Nations’ relationship with the U.S.

“The United States is an important state at the United Nations and we would expect that relationship would continue under any administration,” said Martin Nesirky, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The presidential race has been dominated by the economy and other domestic issues, but foreign affairs are taking on greater importance and will be the subject of a debate by the Republican candidates Tuesday, giving them another chance to air their views on the U.N.

Whales in the desert: Fossil bonanza poses mystery

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — More than 2 million years ago, scores of whales congregating off the Pacific Coast of South America mysteriously met their end.

Maybe they became disoriented and beached themselves. Maybe they were trapped in a lagoon by a landslide or a storm. Maybe they died there over a period of a few millennia. But somehow, they ended up right next to one another, many just meters (yards) apart, entombed as the shallow sea floor was driven upward by geological forces and transformed into the driest place on the planet.

Today, they have emerged again atop a desert hill more than a kilometer (half a mile) from the surf, where researchers have begun to unearth one of the world’s best-preserved graveyards of prehistoric whales.

Chilean scientists together with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution are studying how these whales, many of the them the size of buses, wound up in the same corner of the Atacama Desert.

“That’s the top question,” said Mario Suarez, director of the Paleontological Museum in the nearby town of Caldera, about 700 kilometers (440 miles) north of Santiago, the Chilean capital.

Experts say other groups of prehistoric whales have been found together in Peru and Egypt, but the Chilean fossils stand out for their staggering number and beautifully preserved bones. More than 75 whales have been discovered so far – including more than 20 perfectly intact skeletons.

They provide a snapshot of sea life at the time, and even include what might have been a family group: two adult whales with a juvenile between them.

“I think they died more or less at the same time,” said Nicholas Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Pyenson and Suarez are jointly leading the research.

As for why such a great number perished in the same place, Pyenson said: “There are many ways that whales could die, and we’re still testing all those different hypotheses.”

The scientists have yet to publish their findings about the fossil bed and the extensive remains, which began to emerge in June last year during a highway-widening project that is now on hold.

So far, the fossils have been found in a roadside strip the length of two football fields – about 240 meters (260 yards) long and 20 meters (yards) wide.

Pyenson said the spot was once a “lagoon-like environment” and that the whales probably died between 2 million and 7 million years ago.

Most of the fossils are baleen whales that measured about 8 meters (25 feet) long, Pyenson said.

The researchers also discovered a sperm whale skeleton and remains of a now-extinct dolphin that had two walrus-like tusks and previously had only turned up in Peru, he said.

“We’re very excited about that,” Pyenson said in a telephone interview. “It is a very bizarre animal.”

Other unusual creatures found elsewhere in the fossil-rich Atacama Desert include an extinct aquatic sloth and a seabird with a 5-meter (17-foot) wingspan, bigger than a condor’s.

Erich Fitzgerald, a vertebrate paleontologist at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, emailed that the latest find is very significant.

“The fossils are exceptionally well preserved and quite complete – a rare combination in paleontology and one that will likely shed light on many facets of the … ecology and evolution of these extinct species,” Fitzgerald said.

He said it’s possible “these fossilized remains may have accumulated over a relatively long period of time.”

Russian military chief warns of nuclear war risks

Thursday, November 17th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia is facing a heightened risk of being drawn into conflicts at its borders that have the potential of turning nuclear, the nation’s top military officer said Thursday.

Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, cautioned over NATO’s expansion eastward and warned that the risks of Russia being pulled into local conflicts have “risen sharply.”

Makarov added, according to Russian news agencies, that “under certain conditions local and regional conflicts may develop into a full-scale war involving nuclear weapons.”

A steady decline in Russia’s conventional forces has prompted the Kremlin to rely increasingly on its nuclear deterrent.

The nation’s military doctrine says it may use nuclear weapons to counter a nuclear attack on Russia or an ally, or a large-scale conventional attack that threatens Russia’s existence.

Russia sees NATO’s expansion to include former Soviet republics and ex-members of the Soviet bloc in eastern and central Europe as a key threat to Russia’s security.

Makarov specifically referred to NATO’s plans to offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine as potentially threatening Russia’s security. Russia routed Georgian forces in a brief August 2008 war over a separatist province of South Ossetia. Moscow later recognized South Ossettia and another breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia as independent states and increased its military presence there.

Makarov warned that the planned pullout of NATO forces from Afghanistan could trigger conflicts in neighboring ex-Soviet Central Asian nations that could “grow into a large-scale war.”

Pakistani ambassador to US caught in controversy

Thursday, November 17th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Pakistani government said Thursday that it has not decided whether to accept a resignation offer from its ambassador to the U.S. over a reported attempt to enlist Washington’s help to rein in the country’s military after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The government has summoned Ambassador Husain Haqqani to Islamabad to question him about any role he may have played in the growing controversy, which was first disclosed in an Oct. 10 column in the Financial Times, said Farhatullah Babar, a Pakistani presidential spokesman.

Mansoor Ijaz, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, said in the column that a senior Pakistani diplomat asked him on May 9 – a week after U.S. commandos killed bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town – to pass a message from President Asif Ali Zardari to the U.S. asking for help. Ijaz did not name the diplomat.

Zardari was reportedly worried that the U.S. raid had so humiliated his government, which did not know about it beforehand, that the military may stage a coup – something that has happened repeatedly in Pakistan’s history, said Ijaz.

The memo sent to Adm. Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer at the time, reportedly offered to curb support to Islamist militants from Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI, in exchange for American assistance, Ijaz said.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry has called the Financial Times column “a total fabrication.”

But Mullen’s spokesman, Capt. John Kirby, confirmed to Foreign Policy’s website Wednesday that Mullen did receive the memo from Ijaz, but he did not find it credible and ignored it. “Adm. Mullen had no recollection of the memo and no relationship with Mr. Ijaz,” Kirby said.

Haqqani said Thursday that he did not write or deliver the memo, but offered his resignation to end the controversy.

“I do not want this non-issue of an insignificant memo written by a private individual and not considered credible by its lone recipient to undermine democracy,” Haqqani told The Associated Press.

Gingrich lugs loads of personal, political baggage

Thursday, November 17th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

WASHINGTON (AP) — Newt Gingrich is schlepping some supersized luggage along as his Republican presidential campaign takes off: He’s got trunkloads of personal and political baggage.

This week’s disclosure that a sweetheart consulting deal with housing giant Freddie Mac earned Gingrich at least $1.6 million over the past decade is only the latest potential liability to surface for the former House speaker.

Negatives that didn’t get much attention when Gingrich was an asterisk in the polls are getting a fresh look now that he’s risen to the top tier of GOP presidential candidates. Among them: policy flip-flops, inopportune moments of candor, two failed marriages, admissions of adultery, fits of petulance and a tendency to suggest he’s the smartest person in the room.

“Everybody will dig up everything they can dig up,” Gingrich said Wednesday, resigned to what’s ahead.

Businessman Donald Trump allowed of Gingrich on CNN, “Got some baggage, but everybody has some baggage.”

True, but sometimes size matters.

When Gingrich went on Fox News this week in his new role as a poll leader, he was asked about fliers distributed by evangelicals in Iowa, the leadoff caucus state, that pointed to adultery in his first two marriages. Gingrich dismissed that as old news.

“I’m very open about the fact that I’ve had moments in my life that I regret,” Gingrich said. He spoke of his current “close marriage” to third wife Callista. He offered himself as an older and wiser 68-year-old grandfather.

A day later, Gingrich’s financial dealings were in the spotlight, with reports of the huge sums he’d collected from Freddie Mac for consulting work when the federally backed housing agency was fending off attacks from the right wing of the Republican Party.

Gingrich tried to spin that as a positive, saying: “It reminds people that I know a great deal about Washington. We just tried four years of amateur ignorance and it didn’t work very well. So, having someone who actually knows Washington might be a really good thing.”

He tried a different tack last summer to explain away a six-figure shopping spree at Tiffany’s. When word surfaced that Gingrich and his wife had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at the luxury jeweler, Gingrich said he and his wife were “very frugal” and lived within their budget. But he refused to say what they’d bought, insisting it was “my private life.”

Wanted: Astronauts; Missing: US rocket to fly them

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/James Blair

WASHINGTON (AP) — Looking for a job? NASA is hiring astronauts. You can even apply online at a giant government jobs website.

There’s only one hitch: NASA doesn’t have its own spaceship anymore and is sending fewer fliers into orbit right now.

“The experience is well worth the wait,” promised NASA flight crew operations director Janet Kavandi as the space agency started a public search Tuesday for new astronauts.

There will be flights, but not many, with the space shuttle fleet retired. A handful of astronauts each year are launching on a Russian Soyuz spaceship to the International Space Station for six-month stays.

In about three to five years, NASA hopes to purchase trips for astronauts headed to the space station on American-built commercial rockets instead. And eventually, NASA hopes to fly astronauts in a government owned Orion capsule to an asteroid or even Mars, but those pioneering trips are more than a decade away.

With veteran astronauts leaving the space agency, Kavandi said NASA is afraid it will not have enough astronauts, something a National Research Council report pointed out in September.

NASA needs about 55 astronauts, and with a new class of nine graduating earlier this month, the astronaut roster is up to 58. One of those new astronauts will get to fly to the space station as early as 2013, Kavandi said.

“We’re ready to serve, we’re ready to get going,” new astronaut Serena Aunon said Tuesday at NASA headquarters.

GOP searches for voice foreign policy

Sunday, November 13th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/RICHARD SHIRO

WASHINGTON (AP) — After years of Republicans dominating the politics of national security, this year’s GOP presidential candidates are struggling to find a coherent national security argument against President Barack Obama.

In the first debate dedicated to security and foreign policy, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took issue with Obama’s plan for drawing down troops in Afghanistan but the dispute amounted to whether some forces should stay an extra few months. Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for sanctions against the Iranian central bank. Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman debated whether the World Trade Organization should investigate Chinese currency practices.

All of the candidates offered only incremental criticism of the Democrat who has racked up a string of security successes, a stark contrast to the with-us-or-against-us politics Republicans have used since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. If the debate made anything clear, it’s that Republicans have lost-their go-to national security talking points, with Osama bin Laden’s body somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drawing to a close and Obama expanding the use of unmanned spy planes to hunt terrorists.

“I don’t think there’s a very strong narrative,” said Tony Fratto, who served as a White House and Treasury Department spokesman during the Bush administration. “Is it a significant issue for a majority of Republican voters? No. It’s not.”

And it’s not hard to understand why.

The sluggish economy is at the top of voters’ concerns and, thus, dominating the campaign conversation. National security and foreign policy issues have been all but absent from the Republican primary contest and, given that the 9 percent unemployment rate is showing no sign of significant improvement, it no doubt will shape the general election, as well.

Oscars Academy honors Vanessa Redgrave in London

Sunday, November 13th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/FRANKA BRUNS

LONDON (AP) — Hollywood’s film academy is honoring acting icon Vanessa Redgrave at a star-studded ceremony in London.

Meryl Streep, Ralph Fiennes and James Earl Jones are scheduled to join Sunday’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tribute to Redgrave’s 50-year career.

A member of a famous British acting dynasty, Redgrave is also known for her left-wing political activism.

The 74-year-old actress has been nominated for six Oscars and won for her supporting role as an anti-Nazi activist in 1977’s “Julia.”

Russia still unable to communicate with Mars probe

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian space engineers are still struggling to fix a probe bound for a moon of Mars that instead got stuck in Earth’s orbit.

The Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Ground) was launched Wednesday and reached preliminary orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. The unmanned probe will come crashing down in a couple of weeks if engineers fail to fix the problem.

The ITAR-Tass news agency reported Sunday that efforts to communicate with the spacecraft have so far been unsuccessful. The agency said U.S. and European space engineers also were attempting to retrieve data from the probe as it passed over their territory.

On ‘SNL,’ Penn State scandal offends even Satan

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) — On “Saturday Night Live,” even the devil was offended by the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.

“SNL” cast member Jason Sudeikis reprised his role as Satan, appearing with red horns and pitchfork. The devil was informed by “Weekend Update” host Seth Meyers of sex charges against a former defensive coordinator and allegations that university officials failed to report the abuse.

Even he was disturbed by the news. Addressing Penn State students who protested football coach Joe Paterno’s firing, the devil spoke directly into the camera, asking, “Do you know how bad that made you look?”

A look at key moments in Republican debate

Saturday, November 12th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Key moments in Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate:

IRAN:

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney warned that only his administration could prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” Romney said. “And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you’d like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”

Herman Cain said he supports regime change in Iran, but stopped short of threatening military action. He favors moving warships to the region to deter Iran and would support the resistance to Tehran to overthrow the regime.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said America should sanction the Iranian central bank to “shut down that country’s economy. And that’s what the president needs to do.”

And rival Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas, says any use of force against Iran would require approval from Congress.

PERRY’S GAFFE:

Perry poked fun at himself again for forgetting about the Department of Energy during the last debate when he tried to name the three agencies he’d cut.

On this night, Perry said he was glad that moderator Scott Pelley of CBS News remembered to ask him about the Energy Department. The moderator said he’s had some time to think about it.

“Me too,” Perry cracked back, drawing laughs from the knowing audience.

DON’T BAIT NEWT:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – who is rising in polls – refused to take the bait when asked to evaluate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who leads the GOP field in polls.

Perry, Cain, manage crises with humor, defiance

Friday, November 11th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rick Perry and Herman Cain have chosen far different weapons in their race to recover first and best from the crises that have rocked their presidential campaigns. Humor is Perry’s choice. For Cain, defiance.

The assignment for both men: Fit the response to the predicament, with no margin for error.

Perry rushed to the talk circuit in a bid to persuade Republican voters not to take his forgetful Wednesday night debate “oops” so seriously.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about — I think things went well,” the Texas governor joked the next evening on David Letterman’s “Late Show.” “I wanted to help take the heat off my buddy Herman Cain.”

He certainly did, at least for a day, with the stunning 54-second brain freeze in which Perry tried and failed to recall a third Cabinet agency he would abolish.

Cain, a week-and-a-half into denying at least four sexual harassment accusations, finally was able to talk about something else. Facing serious allegations, he hasn’t been laughing about any of it – with the brief exception of his reaction Thursday to a question about Anita Hill, who had accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during Thomas’ confirmation hearing.

“Is she going to endorse me?” Cain replies on camera, bursting out laughing.

By Friday, he was back to explaining himself.

“He said it in a humorous way, I gave back a humorous response,” Cain said on Fred Dicker’s radio show in Albany, N.Y. “It was no way intended to be an insult to Anita Hill or anybody else.”

Cain, the former CEO of Godfathers Pizza, has opted for defiance, firmly denying all allegations as pushes his insurgent campaign toward the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.

“Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been through hell,” Cain told his supporters in Kalamazoo, Mich. “But here’s the good news: It didn’t kill me or slow me down one bit.”

Private polling suggests the harassment controversy has taken a bite out of Cain’s once-solid lead in Iowa. And a new nationwide CBS News poll out Friday indicates he has lost support among women.

The CBS News poll, conducted Nov. 6-10 during the span of both crises, suggests a three-way tie for the nomination between Cain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and a resurgent Newt Gingrich among GOP primary voters.

The other candidates are doing what they can to manage their rivals’ crises, too.

Romney’s technique? Raise his profile in Iowa, stay on message – and let advocates in Congress and elsewhere make an argument that particularly resonates now.

Tony Bennett visits New Orleans, plugs rebuilding

Friday, November 11th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Grammy-winning jazz crooner Tony Bennett is championing a rebuilding effort to help New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

At the site of the 101st and final house built by Project Home Again, the 85-year-old singer said Friday that bringing people home is important to protecting the culture and traditions of New Orleans.

Says Bennett: “The gospel music, the music that started in churches here that created the art form of jazz, that needs to be preserved.”

In SC, Romney looks to solidify campaign strength

Friday, November 11th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/John Paul Filo

MAULDIN, S.C. (AP) — Mitt Romney didn’t win in South Carolina in 2008, but he’s back in the state and looking to capitalize on his strong position atop this year’s field of Republican presidential candidates. He hopes to sway voters who were cool to him four years ago.

Romney spent part of Veterans Day with military veterans at a barbecue restaurant near Greenville. He said the best way to help service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is to fix the economy so they can find jobs once they’re home.

Romney also suggested he was open to the possibility of introducing a voluntary voucher program to the Veterans Affairs health care system. He says such a system could give veterans money to buy private insurance instead of getting care from the government.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is preparing for a higher profile in Iowa, where he possibly could land a knockout punch if two top rivals don’t quickly fix their campaign problems and back-of-the-pack contenders such as Newt Gingrich don’t move quickly to energize voters.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, recently recorded a TV campaign ad at a sheet-metal plant in Dubuque, in eastern Iowa. It’s not shocking that he would prepare such ads. But every Romney step in Iowa intrigues GOP activists.

After a crushingly disappointing loss there in 2008, he sharply lowered expectations in Iowa, whose caucus is less than two months away. If Romney airs ads soon and heavily in the state, it could signal a new strategy built on calculations that his weakened opponents handed him too tempting an opportunity.

Astronomers shed light on early stars in cosmos

Thursday, November 10th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Daniel Ceverino

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — After decades of scouring the universe, astronomers finally have found two immense clouds of gas that are pristine – free of the metals fired out into the cosmos by stars.

The findings, published in Thursday’s Science journal, provide the first solid detection of primitive, uncontaminated gas and support the long-standing theory as to how the chemical elements were formed in the early universe. It is these types of pure gas clouds that formed the first stars.

The research also suggests that stars have not succeeded at distributing metals throughout the entire cosmos; astronomers consider metals to be heavier elements like carbon, silicon, iron, even oxygen.

A separate study in the same issue of Science concludes the early stars were much smaller than thought – tens of times bigger than our sun, versus hundreds of times bigger.

“There’s kind of been this missing link in this picture of how elements form. We haven’t been able to detect what we expect to be out there, which is otherwise primordial material, stuff that would be metal-free,” said co-author J. Xavier Prochaska, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

“This is the first solid detection of such gas,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s something we expected to find at some level, but it has been challenging to find it.”

The two pristine gas clouds were formed 2 billion years after the Big Bang creation of the universe.

Prochaska, along with lead author Michele Fumagalli, a graduate student at Santa Cruz, and John O’Meara, an astronomer at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., discovered the two clouds by analyzing light from quasars. They used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Russia struggles to save Mars moon probe

Thursday, November 10th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

MOSCOW (AP) — As Russia’s space agency struggled Thursday to fix a probe bound for a moon of Mars that instead got stuck in Earth’s orbit, some experts said the chances of saving the $170 million craft looked slim.

Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov said efforts to communicate with the unmanned Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Ground) spacecraft hadn’t brought any results yet. The probe will come crashing down in a couple of weeks if engineers fail to fix the problem.

The Phobos-Grunt was launched Wednesday and reached preliminary orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. Kuznetsov said controllers on Thursday will continue attempts to fix the probe’s engines to steer it to its path to one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin, said the system that keeps the spacecraft pointed in the right direction may have failed. Other space experts suggested that the craft’s computer failure was a likely cause.

If a software flaw was the problem, scientists can likely fix it by sending new commands. Some experts think, however, that the failure was rooted in hardware and will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fix.

Republicans to debate in jobs-starved Michigan

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Matt York

ROCHESTER, Mich. (AP) — Rampant foreclosures, high unemployment and a volatile auto industry create a grim backdrop as the Republican presidential candidates debate in a state hit hard by the 2009 recession and longer-term changes in the American economy.

When they meet late Wednesday, the GOP contenders inevitably will have to contend with fallout from the furor surrounding businessman Herman Cain, who in recent days has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior by at least four women during the 1990s.

But with Detroit – the Motor City whose fortunes have fallen with the decline of the American auto industry – just a few miles away, Mitt Romney, Cain and their rivals also will have little choice but to explain their opposition to a government bailout that saved Chrysler and General Motors and the tens of thousands of jobs they provide, all on President Barack Obama’s watch.

Ahmadinejad: Iran won’t retreat from nuclear path

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Ebrahim Seyyedi

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed Wednesday that Iran won’t retreat “one iota” from its nuclear program, denying claims that it seeks atomic weapons. Key ally Russia gave the Islamic Republic a major boost, rejecting tighter sanctions despite a U.N. watchdog report detailing suspected arms-related advances.

In his first reaction to the report, Ahmadinejad strongly chided the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency – a day after it claimed Tehran was on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon – saying the IAEA is discrediting itself by siding with “absurd” U.S. accusations.

The comments, broadcast live on state TV, were a sharp rebuke to Western warnings that Iran appears to be engaged in a dangerous defiance of international demands to control the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

Russians desperately try to save Mars moon probe

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian space probe aiming to land on a Mars moon was stuck circling the Earth after equipment failure Wednesday, and scientists raced to fire up its engines before the whole thing came crashing down.

One U.S. space expert said the craft could become the most dangerous manmade object ever to hit the planet.

The unmanned Phobos-Ground craft was successfully launched by a Zenit-2 booster rocket just after midnight Moscow time Wednesday (2016 GMT Tuesday) from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It separated from the booster about 11 minutes later and was to fire its engines twice to set out on its path to the Red Planet, but never did.

Russia’s Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said neither of the two engine burns worked, probably due to the failure of the craft’s orientation system. He said space engineers have three days to reset the spacecraft’s computer program to make it work before its batteries die.

The mishap is the latest in a series of recent launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of Russia’s space industries. The Russian space agency said it will establish its own quality inspection teams at rocket factories to tighten oversight over production quality.

The $170 million Phobos-Ground was Russia’s first interplanetary mission since a botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars, which failed when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, and the latest spacecraft aimed to take ground samples on Phobos.

Biggest asteroid in 35 years swings close to Earth

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Leonard Ortiz

LOS ANGELES (AP) — An asteroid as big as an aircraft carrier zipped by Earth on Tuesday in the closest encounter by such a massive space rock in more than three decades. Scientists ruled out any chance of a collision but turned their telescopes skyward to learn more about the object known as 2005 YU55.

Its closest approach to Earth was pegged at a distance of 202,000 miles at 6:28 p.m. EST. That’s just inside the moon’s orbit; the average distance between Earth and the moon is 239,000 miles.

The last time a large cosmic interloper came that close to Earth was in 1976, and experts say it won’t happen again until 2028.

Scientists at NASA’s Deep Space Network in the California desert have tracked the quarter-mile-wide asteroid since last week as it approached from the direction of the sun at 29,000 mph.

Astronomers and amateur skygazers around the world kept watch, too.

The Clay Center Observatory in Brookline, Mass., planned an all-night viewing party so children and parents could peer through research-grade telescopes and listen to lectures. The asteroid can’t be detected with the naked eye.

For those without a telescope, the observatory streamed video of the flyby live on Ustream, attracting several thousand viewers. The asteroid appeared as a white dot against a backdrop of stars.

Woman accuses Cain of reaching for genitals

Monday, November 7th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Chris Carlson

NEW YORK (AP) — A woman says Republican presidential contender Herman Cain reached under her skirt for her genitals and pushed her head toward his crotch in July 1997.

Sharon Bialek told reporters Monday in New York that she met with Cain to ask about getting her old job back at the National Restaurant Association when the incident happened in Washington. At the time, Cain was chief of a restaurant trade group.

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