Posts Tagged ‘Current Events’

LA deputy accused in drug case once failed academy

Friday, January 13th, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A deputy charged with smuggling heroin inside a burrito into a courthouse jail was initially kicked out of the Sheriff's Department training academy after a bumbling performance that was captured by Fox TV cameras for a reality show, a newspaper reported Friday.

Henry Marin later returned to the academy and became a deputy. But during his first attempt in 2007, he was quickly tagged as the class slacker on the show "The Academy" after supervisors caught him sleeping during orientation, the Los Angeles Times said (http://lat.ms/w95Lfl ).

"If he doesn't have the discipline to come here on Day 1 and show some respect, he's certainly not gonna have the discipline to work in the field of law enforcement," a drill sergeant said on the show.

"What is wrong with you recruit?" another drill sergeant said when Marin showed up with a backward tie.

Marin's arrest on Wednesday was the latest of many misconduct allegations against the Los Angeles County department, including brutality against inmates and contraband smuggling. The department, the FBI and others are investigating.

During a training exercise filmed by Fox, Marin failed to call for help and forgot the radio code for an emergency after a suicidal woman pulled a gun. A similar mishap led to his dismissal.

"You seem to have no knowledge or understanding of the laws that guide you and allow you to do certain things," a sergeant on the show told Marin after his ouster.

He was later allowed to enroll again and graduated, sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said.

Anti-Bain hits on Romney may take root in SC race

Friday, January 13th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

BLUFFTON, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina may be fertile ground for attacks on Mitt Romney's corporate takeover record.

The state has suffered a long string of shuttered textile plants and other workplaces. At 9.9 percent, it has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates. And like its fellow Deep South states, its Republican electorate has a disproportionate number of blue-collar workers and noncollege graduates.

That combination could make South Carolina a good test of efforts by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to paint the GOP presidential front-runner as a heartless venture capitalist who fired workers while reaping big profits during his time at Bain Capital in the 1980s and `90s. Those attacks may be starting to resonate.

"I don't like it," said Rhonda Jones, 50, a Republican who showed up here Friday to see Perry at the Squat 'n 'Gobble cafe. The stay-at-home mom talked about how Romney's record at Bain "is what concerns me" and said she will vote for either Perry or Gingrich. Romney is a nonstarter.

"He was money-hungry himself," Jones said, adding that she knows several unemployed people. "He wasn't looking out for people."

South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary may mark the last real chance for his rivals to stop Romney's drive to the nomination.

President Barack Obama's aides have made it clear they will hammer Romney on Bain if he becomes the nominee. Obama won't try to win GOP-heavy South Carolina in November. But independent voters' reaction to the Bain-related attacks may give his campaign some hints of the issue's potency nationwide.

An array of conservative leaders and party officials are denouncing Gingrich and Perry for the Bain attacks, saying they sound like Democrats attacking free enterprise. Stung, the two candidates softened their criticisms in campaign stops throughout South Carolina this week.

But they didn't drop them altogether. And a well-financed group backing Gingrich is airing a foreboding TV ad here that shows displaced workers blaming Romney and Bain Capital for their job losses.

If enough GOP voters like Jones see it, Romney may face rougher sledding here than he did in Iowa and New Hampshire, says Merle Black of Emory University, who has written extensively on Southern politics.

"This is really going to be a challenge for him," Black said. When low-income and low-education Republicans hear the criticisms of Bain's record, he said, "it might repel them from Romney."

Generally speaking, Republicans are far more inclined than Democrats to accept capitalism's rough edges. These can include the so-called "creative destruction" of plant closings and fired workers in the drive for greater efficiency, which can lead to long-term growth and eventual hiring.

"Capitalism without failure isn't capitalism," said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, another presidential hopeful, as he defended Romney's record at Bain this week.

Mexico City fights trash pileup after closing dump

Friday, January 13th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Christian Palma

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Mounds of debris piled up at illegal dumping sites around the city in recent weeks as the metropolis grappled with an avalanche of refuse after closing one of the world's largest landfills.

Garbage trucks queued up for more than six hours to dump loads at transfer stations, while overstuffed bags and other trash piled up even on the toniest streets over the holidays, when dumps in surrounding Mexico state refused to take the city's trash.

This week, city officials were caught in a front-page photograph dumping tons of trash at the same landfill they claimed to have closed in December, promising a better, greener waste management system for the city of 8.8 million.

"We're seeing a confusion obviously now in the handling of garbage," said Pierre Terras, who coordinates the toxins campaign for Greenpeace Mexico. "You can see it in the streets."

Like other mega-cities around the world, Mexico City is struggling to move from the informal garbage collection systems of the past to modern waste management designed to drastically cut the volume of material that ends up in landfills.

Mexico City officials count some 1,000 illegal dumping sites in a metropolis that generates more than 12,000 tons of trash a day. That includes some trash that is trucked in from neighboring towns in this sprawling metro area of more than 21 million - one of the world's largest.

The Latin American capitals of Bogota and Buenos Aires, which face similar problems, have committed to Zero Trash, a campaign supported by environmental groups to manufacture reusable goods and materials, recycle and ideally cut the amount of unusable trash to zero. Greenpeace is pushing such a plan for Mexico City.

Everyone agreed that the Bordo Poniente landfill had to close as scheduled on Dec. 31, a move that could mean a drop in greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Built on a dry lake bed partly to handle the rubble from the devastating 1985 earthquake, it had taken in more than 76 million tons of garbage.

Critics say the city was unprepared, and it wasn't clear why there wasn't a solid alternative waste system in place after earlier plans to build four new garbage processing plants were abandoned.

Meanwhile an interim plan to take refuse to smaller dumps outside the city fell apart almost immediately.

Last week residents of Ixtapaluca in Mexico state blocked a federal highway to prevent Mexico City garbage trucks from unloading at a dump in their neighborhood, while other communities staged similar revolts.

Mexico City has required its residents to separate trash since 2003, but without enforcement or the necessary recycling equipment. Despite public service campaigns, there is no culture for recycling.

Residents still rely on an old collection system in which trucks roam the streets daily, with a garbage man ringing a bell to alert neighbors who come running with their trash cans and bags.

The small amount of recycling is done at the trucks, as garbage workers open bags to separate out glass, plastic and cardboard.

Dumping on the street brings heavy fines. But trash routinely piles up on Mexico City street corners under the cover of night from households where people can't wait around during the day for the trash bell.

Weaker Europe starts to lose appetite for US goods

Friday, January 13th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A sign that Europe's crisis has begun to weigh on the U.S. economy emerged Friday from a report that exports to the continent sank in November - far more than overall U.S. exports did.

Europe, which consumes nearly one-fifth of America's exports, may already be in a recession. A weakening Europe could further shrink demand for American goods and slow the U.S. economy just as the job market has started to strengthen.

"The decline in our sales to Europe was fairly large and may be the start of a longer-term trend in declining exports to the continent," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.

The U.S. trade deficit rose 10.4 percent in November to $47.8 billion, the Commerce Department said.

Higher oil prices were the main reason the deficit widened. Oil rose above $100 per barrel in November. It had been as low as $75 a barrel the previous month. More expensive oil drove the value of imports up 1.3 percent, to a record $225.6 billion.

Overall exports dropped 0.9 percent to $177.8 billion. American exports to Europe fell much more sharply - nearly 6 percent.

Economic growth weakens when exports decline because factories tend to produce fewer goods. And U.S. companies earn less. Friday's trade report led some economists to cut their growth estimates for the October-December quarter.

Many economists had expected growth to be stronger after seeing more hiring, an increase in company stockpiles and faster production at U.S. factories. Most had been predicting that the economy would grow this quarter at an annual rate of roughly 3 percent.

But Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist for Capital Economists, said he now expects growth to be closer to 2 percent, in part because of the weaker trade report and also because of December's disappointing retail sales.

"The widening in the U.S. trade deficit in November ... is perhaps the first real sign that the crisis in Europe and the more general global slowdown is starting to take its toll on the U.S.," Dales said.

With time, money running out, SC often turns nasty

Friday, January 13th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/MICHAEL JUSTUS

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- In mailboxes across South Carolina in 2007, likely Republican voters received a Christmas card signed by "The Romney Family" with a quotation from a 19th century Mormon leader suggesting God had several wives.

Mitt Romney's campaign, just a few weeks away from the 2008 presidential primary in a state where evangelicals look skeptically on the former Massachusetts governor's Mormon faith, condemned the bogus card as politics at its worst. The sender never took credit. And it was just another anonymous shot in the endless volleys of nasty campaigning in South Carolina.

While attack politics happen in every state, South Carolina's reputation for electoral mudslinging and bare-knuckled brawling is well-earned.

Why there? Largely because of the high stakes. South Carolina has always picked the GOP's eventual nominee since the primary's inception in 1980. And money, nerves and time are usually running out for almost everyone but the front-runner after Iowa and New Hampshire, often leading challengers to go for the jugular.

"The ghost of Lee Atwater hangs over South Carolina like a morning fog and permeates every part of the state's politics," says Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor. Atwater, who died 20 years ago, was South Carolina's most famous political operative and a master of slash-and-burn politics.

Given the dynamics of this year's Republican presidential race, it's safe to expect under-the-radar attacks over the next week as challengers work to derail front-runner Romney before the Jan. 21 primary. The rise of super PACs - outside groups aligned with but independent from the candidates - means some of the attacks could be more public this time, but still nasty.

"You've got four guys that are make or break,' said Warren Tompkins, a veteran South Carolina political consultant advising Romney. "Desperate men do desperate things."

Romney says he's ready for whatever comes his way.

"Politics ain't beanbags, and I know it's going to get tough," the GOP front-runner said as he headed south after his New Hampshire victory. "But I know that is sometimes part of the underbelly of politics."

The lore of negative attacks here includes a whisper campaign against Republican John McCain in 2000 that included rumors that the daughter his family adopted from Bangladesh was the Arizona senator's illegitimate black child.

Those were desperate times for George W. Bush's campaign. McCain had just stunned the establishment's choice with a blowout win in New Hampshire, and Bush had just 18 days to turn the momentum around in South Carolina. Publicly, Bush took a few shots at McCain, but mostly stressed he was the true conservative. But plenty of ugliness was happening behind the scenes.

People who attended rallies or debates found flyers on their car windshields with the accusations about McCain's daughter and raising questions about his mental stability. Callers, pretending to be pollsters, would ask loaded questions of voters about whether they could support a man who had homosexual experiences or a Vietnam hero who was really was a traitor. The sponsors of the false attacks were careful to leave no trail.

Russia says its spacecraft may crash into Atlantic

Friday, January 13th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/STR

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia's space agency has adjusted its forecast for the crash of a failed spacecraft, saying it may shower its fragments into the south Atlantic.

Roscosmos said the unmanned Phobos-Ground probe could plummet to Earth Sunday or Monday anywhere along a broad swath between 51.4 degrees north and 51.4 degrees south.

It said Friday that the mid-point in the two-day window would have the craft crashing into the ocean about 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of the coast of Chubut province in southern Argentina. It said the precise time and place of the uncontrolled plunge can only be clarified later as the probe draws closer to Earth.

Scientists say cut soot, methane to curb warming

Thursday, January 12th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/Toby Talbot

WASHINGTON (AP) -- An international team of scientists says it's figured out how to slow global warming in the short run and prevent millions of deaths from dirty air: Stop focusing so much on carbon dioxide.

They say the key is to reduce emissions of two powerful and fast-acting causes of global warming - methane and soot.

Carbon dioxide is the chief greenhouse gas and the one world leaders have spent the most time talking about controlling. Scientists say carbon dioxide from fossil fuels like coal and oil is a bigger overall cause of global warming, but reducing methane and soot offers quicker fixes.

Soot also is a big health problem, so dramatically cutting it with existing technology would save between 700,000 and 4.7 million lives each year, according to the team's research published online Thursday in the journal Science. Since soot causes rainfall patterns to shift, reducing it would cut down on droughts in southern Europe and parts of Africa and ease monsoon problems in Asia, the study says.

Two dozen scientists from around the world ran computer models of 400 different existing pollution control measures and came up with 14 methods that attack methane and soot. The idea has been around for more than a decade and the same authors worked on a United Nations report last year, but this new study is far more comprehensive.

All 14 methods - capturing methane from landfills and coal mines, cleaning up cook stoves and diesel engines, and changing agriculture techniques for rice paddies and manure collection - are being used efficiently in many places, but aren't universally adopted, said the study's lead author, Drew Shindell of NASA.

If adopted more widely, the scientists calculate that would reduce projected global warming by 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius) by the year 2050. Without the measures, global average temperature is projected to rise nearly 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 degrees Celsius) in the next four decades. But controlling methane and soot, the increase is projected to be only 1.3 degrees (0.7 degrees Celsius). It also would increase annual yield of key crops worldwide by almost 150 million tons (135 million metric tons).

Methane comes from landfills, farms, drilling for natural gas, and coal mining. Soot, called black carbon by scientists, is a byproduct of burning and is a big problem with cook stoves using wood, dung and coal in developing countries and in some diesel fuels worldwide.

Reducing methane and black carbon isn't the very best way to attack climate change, air pollution, or hunger, but reducing those chemicals are among the better ways and work simultaneously on all three problems, Shindell said.

And shifting the pollution focus doesn't mean ignoring carbon dioxide. Shindell said: "The science says you really have to start on carbon dioxide even now to get the benefit in the distant future."

It all comes down to basic chemistry. There's far more carbon dioxide pollution than methane and soot pollution, but the last two are way more potent. Carbon dioxide also lasts in the atmosphere longer.

A 2007 Stanford University study calculated that carbon dioxide was the No. 1 cause of man-made global warming, accounting for 48 percent of the problem. Soot was second with 16 percent of the warming and methane was right behind at 14 percent.

But over a 20-year period, a molecule of methane or soot causes substantially more warming then a carbon dioxide molecule.

2012: year of the environment

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

 
If you open a famous search engine and look for those keywords: plans for environment 2012, (more…)

The Icebergs that Threaten the Fed REO to Rent Program

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke
 
Real Estate Owned homes continually add sludge to an economy struggling to recover. (more…)

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.

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.

The ‘Price Tag’ of Angering the Extreme Right, and who is Paying

Saturday, January 7th, 2012


 
A continuing spate of hate crimes claimed two Arab owned vehicles in Jerusalem this week, which were torched while parked overnight.  (more…)

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.

Iran welcomes U.S. rescue of sailors

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

TEHRAN, Iran — 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,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, according to 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 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.

Obama to promote insourcing of jobs

Saturday, January 7th, 2012
AP Photo
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is highlighting companies that have returned jobs to the U.S. and he says that's one more way of putting people back to work.

The White House plans a forum Wednesday, called "Insourcing American Jobs," that will bring together business leaders who shifted work back home. The president said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address that the event will discuss ways business leaders can return more jobs to the country.

"We're heading in the right direction. And we're not going to let up," Obama said on the heels of the government reporting Friday that the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent in December.

Obama noted that the jobs report showed the economy added more than 200,000 private sector jobs last month and that more than 3 million private sector jobs had been added during the past 22 months. He said the nation was "starting 2012 with manufacturing on the rise and the American auto industry on the mend."

The president said the U.S. couldn't return "to the days when the financial system was stacking the deck against ordinary Americans," citing his decision to install former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as the director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while the Senate was on break, circumventing Republican opposition to the appointment.

Mitt a safe bet for N.H. Hill GOP

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

For all the differences between the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses, one stands out: Two of New Hampshire’s Capitol Hill Republicans didn’t hesitate to endorse Mitt Romney.

No one in Iowa’s Hill delegation endorsed anyone.

The New Hampshire lawmakers’ willingness to weigh in reflects a simple reality: Mitt Romney is a virtual lock to win there, presenting Republicans looking to protect their own political interests with a safe, easy choice.

But it goes further than that. Win or lose, backing Romney won’t come back to haunt them. There were no such safe choices in Iowa, and plenty of strong incentives not to endorse.

Two of the three Republicans in New Hampshire’s delegation, Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Rep. Charlie Bass, are backing Romney. A third, freshman Rep. Frank Guinta, has said he is still weighing his options and could endorse in the final days before the primary.

It’s a stark contrast from Iowa, where, after months of pleading and lobbying from White House hopefuls, ultimately not one of the state’s three delegation members endorsed for fear of alienating the voters who were deeply split among those in the field. In the final caucus tally, none of the top three finishers won more than 25 percent.

Obama talks of ‘insourcing’ jobs

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

President Barack Obama hailed improving job-creation numbers Saturday in a weekly address devoid of the usual caveats that the latest statistics might be just a blip and that a distressing number of Americans are still hurting economically.

“We just learned that our economy added 212,000 private sector jobs in December. After losing more than 8 million jobs in the recession, we’ve added more than 3 million private sector jobs over the past 22 months. And we’re starting 2012 with manufacturing on the rise and the American auto industry on the mend,” Obama said in the pre-recorded statement broadcast on radio and TV stations and via the Internet. “We’re heading in the right direction. And we’re not going to let up.”

In a speech Friday afternoon, just hours after the release of a Bureau of Labor Statistics report showing unemployment dipped to 8.5 percent in December, Obama tempered his remarks with a series of statements showing his sensitivity to the ongoing economic pain.

“There are a lot of people that are still hurting out there,” the president said in remarks at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The bureau’s director, Richard Cordray, got a recess appointment from Obama earlier in the week.

“The American people I think rightly understand that there are still a lot of struggles that people are going through out there. A lot of families are still having a tough time. A lot of small businesses are still having a tough time. But we’re starting to rebound,” Obama said at the CFPB.

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.

Thousands flee South Sudan tribal conflict

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Tens of thousands of villagers in South Sudan are hiding in the bush, waiting for United Nations and government troops to stop a tribal conflict, which officials fear may have left scores of people dead over the weekend.

Armed youths from the Lou Nuer tribe marched on the remote town of Pibor in Jonglei state, home to the rival Murle people, who they blame for cattle raiding.

On Tuesday morning, the government claimed that the South Sudanese army was in "full control" of Pibor, and that Lou Nuer tribesmen were vacating it.

"Pibor is under the full control of the government, and the Lou Nuer have been ordered to return to their homes, and they are starting to do so," Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the country's information minister, said.

Thatched huts have been burned and, according to Parthesarathy Rajendran, the head of Doctors without Borders (known by its French name Medicines sans Frontieres, or MSF) in South Sudan, thousands have been displaced, including his own staff.

"Many of our staff are in the bush and we also heard an MSF clinic has been damaged and looted," he told Al Jazeera.

"MSF is the only medical health care in the whole region, and the population is very vulnerable for all kinds of medical issues. So we are very concerned about those fleeing into the bush. They don't have access to water, medical care or food."

The government and the UN, which has said the violence could lead to a "major tragedy", were strengthening their forces in the area.

"We are worried about their conditions. They are without water, shelter and food. They are hiding in the bush. I think it
is between 20,000 and 50,000. This is an estimate only," Lise Gande, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for South Sudan, told the Reuters news agency.

Grande said on Sunday that the number of government forces heading to Pibor was estimated at 3,000 troops and 800 police.

'Village deserted'

Al Jazeera's Haru Mutasa, reporting from a village belonging to the Murle tribe, said the situation was tense, with deserted streets.

"All you see is soldiers and guns, lots and lots of guns," she said. "It doesn't feel like a normal place. The UN here is trying by all means to reassure the few that are left that it's safe to return."

She reported there was particular concern for those who had fled the violence and were currently in the bush. "They have no food and no water, and the longer they stay out there the concern is that they could start dying," she said.

Haru Mutasa reports from Pibor town

Reverend Mark Akec Cien, head of the Sudan Council of Churches, an umbrella organisation with members across the area, said they had reports of many killed and wounded in the clashes.

Banks borrow €14.8bn in emergency funds from ECB

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Acute tensions in the eurozone banking system have been highlighted by a continued surge in emergency borrowing from the European Central Bank.

A total of €14.8bn was drawn from the ECB’s “marginal lending facility” on Monday night. That was down from the €17.3bn borrowed last Thursday, which was the highest since June 2009, but remained exceptionally high even by standards set during the turbulent past few months for the continental European financial system.

Because its use incurs a penal 1.75 per cent interest rate, the facility is only tapped by banks facing sudden difficulties and usually only for a day or two. The latest surge suggests at least one bank faced serious problems at the year end, which have still not been resolved. The ECB gave no details of how many banks used the facility or where they were based.

One or more banks may have tapped the emergency ECB facility to show stronger balance sheets at the end of 2011 but, if the use of the facility does not fall in coming days, worries could spread about a possible banking crisis somewhere in the 17-country eurozone.

Egypt holds third round of elections

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012
Al Jazeera's Jamal Elshayyal reports from Mahalla

Egyptians have flocked to the polls for the third round of the country's parliamentary election, the first election since the uprising that unseated Hosni Mubarak from the presidency in February last year.

Queues began to form around schools that had been turned into polling stations at 8am local time (06:00 GMT) on Tuesday. Al Jazeera's correspondents in El-Arish and Shubra El-Khaima reported good voter turnouts.

The final round takes place over two days in the Nile Delta provinces of Qaliubiya, Gharbiya and Daqahliya; the New Valley province; the southern governorates of Minya and Qena; the border province of Matruh; and in North and South Sinai.

The run-up to this round of polls has been overshadowed by the deaths of 17 people last month in clashes between the army and protesters demanding the ruling military step aside immediately.

But the military generals have insisted the election process will not be derailed by violence.

Islamist groups came late to the uprising but have so far won the biggest share of seats in the previous rounds of the first free and fair elections in six decades.

Pakistan the Unreal – by Aatish Taseer

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

A son's tale of a death ripped from the headlines -- and the novel that foretold it.

BY AATISH TASEER | DEC/JAN 2012

In December 2010 I sent off the changes to my first work of fiction set in Pakistan. I should say work because really I was concluding a writing cycle that, having begun 10 years before with a failed novel, had led me to nonfiction and memoir before bringing me full circle back to the novel. The looping lessons of this journey were what formed my earliest ideas of fiction and nonfiction in the special context of writing about Pakistan, a place where reality often dwarfs the best efforts of the imagination.

My relationship to the country has always been a complicated one. My father was Pakistani, but I had grown up away from him in New Delhi with my mother and had known neither him nor his country until the age of 21, when I first went to Lahore to seek him out. That time of great personal upheaval coincided with my first wish to be a writer, and knowing next to nothing about the mechanics of fiction but seduced by its glamour, I sat down to write a novel about the experience.

It was an abysmal failure, a baggy black hole of a book. I tried to calm my well-founded fears about it by taking comfort in the urgency and relevance of the real-world circumstances that had inspired the novel. But no outside reality, no matter how compelling, can rescue a work of fiction that doesn't work on its own terms. A writer needs distance if he is to create an autonomous fictional world in which the complexities of lived experience are distilled; he cannot still be in the throes of the experience he is writing about.

And I, age 22 or 23, was still very much consumed by the great drama of seeking out my father in adult life. It had not gone quiet; its overarching lines were yet to reveal themselves. In the end, after a considerable amount of self-delusion, I abandoned the novel , I think it was aptly called -- and from its salvageable remains I wrote and published in 2009 my first book, a travel memoir, , which was the story of my relationship with my father, interwoven with the account of an eight-month journey from Istanbul to Lahore.

TRUE TO LIFE

From Vietnam to Pakistan, writers have long turned to fiction to make sense of the news, often yielding uncanny portraits of real-life war, revolution, and cultural change. Here, Foreign Policy offers a sampler of novels that could have been straight out of the newspapers -- and sometimes even made them.


Rudyard Kipling, 1901
In what is often considered his best novel, the Bombay-born Kipling unfolds the "panorama of India," as a review said at the time, exposing the forces of Hinduism and imperialism in the British-ruled subcontinent.


Pearl S. Buck, 1931

For its depiction of a rural family in pre-communist China, this book won a Pulitzer, became a bestseller, and helped make Buck, who grew up in the village of Zhenjiang, the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature. Some argue the novel later helped Americans empathize with their Chinese allies during World War II.

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."

GoDaddy Exodus — Stop SOPA and Bad Hosting Boycott

Sunday, January 1st, 2012


 
Go Daddy got a well deserved Christmas present this year. Between Monday December 19th and Friday, two days before Christmas 2011, Go Daddy lost 72,354 Hosting Accounts. People are leaving in troves! The reason every one is jumping ship is even better! Ever heard of SOPA?

On December 29th the GoDaddy boycott begins in earnest, and if your hosting with Godaddy read on to see if you’ve had similar experiences.

Go Daddy’s unparalleled losses equals payback for notorious cyber-bully.

Here’s the scoop GoDaddy, kissing up to Capital Hill, appeared on a list of corporations that supportSOPA, along with the likes of Time Warner, MasterCard and Viacom.

SOPA, is actually an acronym for ‘Stop Online Piracy. However, as you’ll discover a more suitable alternative would be “Stop Online Private Association”

What SOPA really is, is an insidious attempt by Multi-National Corporations and their political pundits to control the internet in the same way that they control the main stream global media.

“Imagine a world in which any intellectual property holder can, without ever appearing before a judge or setting foot in a courtroom, shut down any website’s online advertising programs and block access to credit card payments.”  Nate Anderson

SOPA is dressed up in the righteous speak of America Nazi styled nationalism, the same kind of hyperbola that pours out of Washington daily, and then goes on to fill the corroded sewers of main stream media with the waste that they would like us to believe is news.

Here’s an example straight from the horses mouth. Many people can now see through this kind of blatant manipulation. As you’ll see, it’s little more than a rallying words, psychologically loaded sound bites. The same terms in the following quote are endlessly reppeaed by the corporate media and politicians so that they can be drilled into our subconscious minds and influence our beliefs and actions.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.):  “As a co-chair of the Congressional Anti Piracy Caucus, I know how hard it is to safeguard our Intellectual Property from foreign rogue websites, and as a Representative from Los Angeles, I know what it costs us in terms of well-paying jobs.”Committee on the Judiciary

The problem is that we’re just not buying it anymore. The exodus of customers from GoDaddy is a sign that people, the 99% of us are waking up. The multi-national robber barons are getting desperate, they’re shaking in their boots, because we have the power to hit them where it counts, in the bank and in the streets.

In fact, we should be grateful that GoDaddy was spotted on the list the corporate elite who back the bill, because it has brought to our collective attention, something that was never meant to happen.

You know, general protocal goes something like this; corporations see a threat or opportunity. Then theymobalize the monkeys in Congress, who are told what to bury, what to hide in cryptically worded sections of Legislative bills that make Oxford Dictionary look like an afternoon read.

The cats out of the bag and we all need to join together to occupy the airways and get this bogus piece of legislation defeated, because if we don’t who knows what could:

“Sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, Wikipedia, or any sites that allow user generated content CANNOT exist under these laws. Immediately after this bill is passed, you will see the media mafia (MPIAA, RIAA, etc) replacing websites like Wikipedia with commercialized encyclopedia software. Mainstream media outlets will not cover this bill because they are the ones lobbying for it…

This bill isn’t designed to eliminate piracy, it is designed to give them control of the internet, the pesky free speech tool that has crippled their obsolete business model.”  SOPA for Dummies

Go Daddy got what it deserves, and showed it’s true colors that’s why they’re going to see many more of their clients move to better hosting companies. After Go Daddy realized how much this was going to hurt their one and only, their precious profit, they withdrew their support and initiated a PR campaign to neutralize the fall out.

GoDaddy’s Bag of Crooked Tricks

I have to admit that I have a particular grudge against hosting corporations like GoDaddy. They have their own built in system to take advantage of the unwary, and that includes all but the techno savy.

Who want’s to have to learn Mysql or deal with phpmyadmin just to have their website function properly? Well I certainly didn’t and that’s what happened to me.

What generally occurs is that Hosting providers like GoDaddy, reel in you in with cheap prices on your first hosting package. Then you get hit by the control panel, which often isn’t designed to help you, no is designed to up-sell you on slew of things you don’t don’t really need.

Now that they got your money they don’t care what happens to your website. This isn’t conjecture. I’ve had more than my fair share of bad hosting companies like ipage, StartLogik, Nine Dot Systems to deal with.They actually torment their users with outsourced, undertrained and scripted customer support, whose real job it seems to waste your time, and frustrate you to the point of giving up.

The reason chose not to ever, excuse the pun, go with GoDaddy, is because I heard about how bad their support is. Actually GoDaddy is renowned for it’s horrific customer service. If you want to find out for your self, just do a Google search on “bad web hosting +go Daddy”. You’ll end up with more than 1,940,000 results.

Here’s a couple of fairly recent reviews that I picked out to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

“This host is terrible. Just search in Google for Godaddy Complaints and see for yourself how many others have complaints about them. We wanted to leave them after we heard that they outsource their support to low salary countries, which is one of the many Godaddycomplaints.” Godaddy Complaints

“This post is about another bad customer service experience I had with GoDaddy support. Every time I asked for the support expert (ha) to check to see if something had gone wrong on their end he said, “nothing has gone wrong, your site is scripted wrong.”
Even after explaining that I had not touched my site in ages and the other was install by GoDaddy… he continued to disregard any my suggestion/queries has to what might have gone wrong.  In the end all I wanted was the sites up and not to point a finger…After writing this I will still keep the sites mention with them because moving the sites will be such a hassle and their prices are one of the lowest for Windows hosting.” Thuan V. Ngugen

“GoDaddy sucks… their dashboard is completely un-navigable, their shared hosting has repeated errors, their VPS hosts are so poorly configured that they can’t even run updates on themselves, their CEO murders elephants for his own amusement, and they think that a few Superbowl ads featuring Danica Patrick will somehow make us forget how bad they suck.” Evert Tipfor.us

Granted GoDaddy does have a large number of positive reviews, and they also have a huge PR budget. Actually it wouldn’t even cost that much to hire a virtual army of Amazon Turks to spam the net with phony reviews. The best place to look for real reviews is on professional forums like WordPress of Warrior, because the online pro’s see through the smoke and mirrors.

Once these Hosts’ from hell have you in their clutches, they realize that most people are stuck with them. They know it’s not easy for non-technical perople to migrate their website to another hosting company. It can be a royal pain the preverbal arse to move your website. Don’t you think it’s odd in a funny kind of way,  that their terrible customer support  works in their favor, making it nearly impossible for most people to move their website?

After suffering through nearly a dozen horrific Hosting companies I learned the ropes and found one company that is absolutely awesome. I actually found two, one Tiger Technologies is apparently whoGoogle’s Matt Cuts uses to host his personal blog. They are fantastic. However, because they’re geared towards more advanced users, I’d only recommend them to you know what your doing and what you want.

The Hosting Company that I recommend for everyone, is a perfect alternative to GoDaddy. You may have guessed it, I’m talking about Hostgator. From my experience they offer the best customer support I’ve ever had. I’ve even had their technicians call me on two occasions to help solve a couple sticky problems. The reson that I like them so much is that, their customer support won’t quite, or cop out until helped solve your problem. I believe that this is what a corporation should be like, for the people.

Hostgator not only helps migrate a site, they do it for you, and for free. So if you’ve been stuck withGoDaddy or any other hosting company, Hostgator makes it easy to move. The’ll do all the work for you. Now, keeping with the spirit of transparency if you use this Hostgator link to set up you account, I make a commission.

However, that’s not why I’m recommending them, it does help me continue writing, but if for some reason you find find this troubling then just use this Hostgator link instead, and I won’t make a dime. Either way you’ll be glad you did.

No matter what you decide, if you enter this coupon code gowiththebest when you sign up with Hostgator you’ll get 25% off the package that you choose. All you have to do is look for the coupon field when your setting up your account, and type in gowiththebest Its valid until January 31st 2012

I could write a book about the do’s and don’ts of Hosting but I won’t bore you any longer with my war stories. But to really help defeat SOPA and take your power back from corporations like GoDadddy, then keep keep up with the latest and join in Twitters Protest.

Iran ‘tests homegrown’ nuclear fuel rods

Sunday, January 1st, 2012
The war games aim to display Iran's military capabilities amid increasing pressure over its atomic programme [Reuters]

Iran has successfully produced and tested fuel rods for use in its nuclear power plants, state television reported.

The rods were made with uranium ore deposits mined in Iran and have been inserted into the core of Tehran's research nuclear reactor, the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation said on Sunday.

Nuclear fuel rods contain small pellets of fuel, usually low-enriched uranium, patterned to give out heat produced by nuclear reaction without melting down.

Iran said last month that it planned to insert domestically produced uranium fuel into the Tehran research reactor, which produces isotopes for medical purposes and currently runs on a nearly depleted stock of nuclear plates bought from Argentina in 1993.

"This great achievement will perplex the West, because the Western countries had counted on a possible failure of Iran to produce nuclear fuel plates," the newspaper said.

The Tehran reactor requires uranium enriched to 20 per cent, a far higher level than that needed for Iran's Russian-built nuclear power plant in Bushehr, on the Gulf coast, which uses Russian fuel that is returned when spent.

The atomic energy organisation did not specify the level of enrichment of the trial fuel rod but Iran's programme to enrich uranium to the higher level has been at the centre of growing Western concerns about the goals of its nuclear programme.

John Large, an independent nuclear consultant, told Al Jazeera the reported developments would mean that Iran "can now produce key radioactive elements" and has moved "steps forward on the nuclear path".

Arab body wants withdrawal of Syria monitors

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

An advisory body to the Arab League has called for the immediate withdrawal of the group's observer mission in Syria, saying its monitors are inadvertently helping the government cover up continued violence.

The Arab Parliament, an 88-member advisory committee of delegates from each of the League's member states, said on Sunday that the violence in Syria was continuing to claim victims despite the presence of Arab League monitors.

The monitors are on a month-long mission to ensure the government of President Bashar al-Assad complies with the terms of the League's plan to end the crackdown on dissent.  

 

But the parliament called on the League's Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby to convene a meeting of Arab foreign ministers to adopt a resolution to withdraw the mission immediately.

"For this to happen in the presence of Arab monitors has roused the anger of Arab people and negates the purpose of sending a fact-finding mission," Ali al-Salem al-Dekbas, the Arab Parliament's chairman said.

"This is giving the Syrian regime an Arab cover for continuing its inhumane actions under the eyes and ears of the Arab League," he said.

The Arab Parliament was the first body to recommend freezing Syria's membership in the organisation in response to Assad's crackdown.

An Arab League official, commenting on the parliament's statement, told the Reuters news agency that it was too early to judge the mission's success, saying it was scheduled to remain in Syria for a month and that more monitors were on their way.

Contradictory statements

In yet another sign of cracks among the observer mission, disputes emerged on Sunday over the reported appearance of government snipers across Syria.

Activists have accused the government of posting snipers on rooftops as part of their brutal crackdown on dissent, in which government forces have also been accused of firing tear gas, stun grenades and on Friday "nail bombs".

In a video released by activists, a man wearing an orange vest with the Arab League logo said in Deraa: "There are snipers; we have seen them with our own eyes."

"We ask the authorities to remove them immediately; if they don't remove them within 24 hours there will be other measures," the unnamed speaker in the video, which was dated Friday, told a crowd of people.

But veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, who is heading the observer mission, said the official seen in the video was making a hypothetical remark.

"This man said that if he saw - by his own eyes - those snipers he will report immediately," Dabi told the BBC's Newshour programme. "But he didn't see (snipers)."

Divisions within opposition

Amid the controversy, divisions within Syria’s opposition hoping to topple Assad hampered efforts towards a transitional plan for a new Syria.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), the leading opposition group in exile, on Sunday quashed reports that it signed a deal with the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC), a group whose majority is inside Syria and which had disagreed with the SNC's earlier calls for foreign intervention.

BlackRock’s Bob Doll sees hopeful signs in 2012

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

It's a bittersweet way for investors to begin a new year.

On the one hand, economic news in the U.S. has been getting steadily better. This holiday shopping season is shaping up to be the best since the Great Recession; the housing market is showing signs of life and even the job market is on the mend.

Then, there's Europe. The region's leaders have failed again to convince investors that they will be able to prevent a breakup of their 17-nation currency union. Greece could still default on its debt, causing huge losses for banks in France and elsewhere that hold Greek bonds. Investors fear that could cause a financial panic to spread around the world, like what happened in 2008 after the U.S. brokerage Lehman Brothers collapsed.

In the U.S., too, there are plenty reasons for investors to be cautious. Many companies are still wary of hiring, and banks are afraid to turn on the lending spigots.

Who better to guide investors during these uncertain times than Bob Doll, who helps oversee $3.6 trillion in assets as chief investment officer at the world's biggest money manager, BlackRock.

Doll recently spoke with The Associated Press about how 2011 worked out for investors, what he's optimistic about in 2012 and what he's worried about. He's hopeful that Europe can stick to its goal of greater fiscal austerity. But he acknowledges that - like his own New Year's resolution of losing 15 pounds - enforcing the outcome is the tricky part.

Here are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity.

Q: How does 2011 stack up for you?

A: We entered the year hopeful. Global economies were looking better. But the tsunami disaster in Japan cast a bigger shadow on global growth than a lot of people initially thought. Then there were big political upheavals in the Middle East with the Arab Spring. Those political and social issues contributed to a rise in oil prices that didn't help the fledgling U.S. economic recovery. Then Europe kept coming back as problem. All the wild cards that showed up were on the negative side. The year started high on hopes that were dashed.

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.

It’s never been safer to fly; deaths at record low

Saturday, December 31st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

NEW YORK (AP) -- Boarding an airplane has never been safer.

The past 10 years have been the best in the country's aviation history with 153 fatalities. That's two deaths for every 100 million passengers on commercial flights, according to an Associated Press analysis of government accident data.

The improvement is remarkable. Just a decade earlier, at the time the safest, passengers were 10 times as likely to die when flying on an American plane. The risk of death was even greater during the start of the jet age, with 1,696 people dying - 133 out of every 100 million passengers - from 1962 to 1971. The figures exclude acts of terrorism.

Sitting in a pressurized, aluminum tube seven miles above the ground may never seem like the most-natural thing. But consider this: You are more likely to die driving to the airport than flying across the country. There are more than 30,000 motor-vehicle deaths each year, a mortality rate eight times greater than that in planes.

"I wouldn't say air crashes of passenger airliners are a thing of the past. They're simply a whole lot more rare than they used to be," says Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing and director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.

The improvements came even as the industry went through a miserable financial period, losing $54.5 billion in the past decade. Just to stay afloat, airlines eliminated meals and added fees for checked luggage.

But safety remained a priority. No advertisement of tropical beaches can supplant the image of charred metal scattered across a field.

There are still some corners of the world where flying is risky. Russia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia have particularly high rates of deadly crashes. Russia had several fatal crashes in the past year, including one that killed several prominent hockey players. Africa only accounts for 3 percent of world air traffic but had 14 percent of fatal crashes.

Still, 2011 was a good year to fly. It had the second-fewest number of fatalities worldwide, according to the Flight Safety Foundation, with 507 people dying in crashes. Seven out of 28 planes in fatal crashes were on airlines already prohibited from flying into European Union because of known safety problems. (There were fewer fatalities in 2004 - 323 - but there were also fewer people flying then.)

There are a number of reasons for the improvements.

- The industry has learned from the past. New planes and engines are designed with prior mistakes in mind. Investigations of accidents have led to changes in procedures to ensure the same missteps don't occur again.

- Better sharing of information. New databases allow pilots, airlines, plane manufactures and regulators to track incidents and near misses. Computers pick up subtle trends. For instance, a particular runway might have a higher rate of aborted landings when there is fog. Regulators noticing this could improve lighting and add more time between landings.

- Safety audits by outside firms. The International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, started an audit program in 2003. Airlines prove to the industry and each other that they have proper maintenance and safety procedures. It's also a way for airlines to seek lower insurance premiums, which have also dropped over the past 10 years.

Turkey admits mistake in deadly air strike

Thursday, December 29th, 2011
Local officials said the victims may have been mistaken for Kurdistan Workers' Party fighters [AFP]

A Turkish air raid that killed at least 35 people in a Kurdish-dominated village in the country's southeast mistakenly hit a group of smugglers rather than separatist fighters as was intended, the ruling party says.

Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party, said that those killed in the strike on Thursday "were not terrorists" and that officials are now investigating possible intelligence failures which led to the incident.

He expressed regret for the deaths and suggested that the government could compensate the victims.

"If it turns out to have been a mistake, a blunder, rest assured that this will not be covered up," he told reporters, adding that it could have been an "operational accident" by the Turkish military.

The air strike prompted a protest by about 2,000 ethnic Kurds in Istanbul, which was broken by police using tear gas and water cannon. Several hundred of the protesters had thrown stones at the police and smashed vehicles during the demonstration in the city's main Taksim square.

Ertugrul Kurkcu, a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) told Al Jazeera that the air strike was an "inhuman" and "unacceptable" act, and that it was "part of the government's crackdown project on the Kurdish movement".

"What I saw today in the heart of Taksim [square] was a great rage and great hatred not only against the government but also against the society as a whole. These kind of attacks ... make it almost impossible to bring together the people of different ethnic origins, particularly the Kurds," he said.

Strike killed 'smugglers'

Local security officials said earlier on Thursday that they had found the bodies of the victims at Ortasu village in Sirnak province.

Ertan Eris, a local councillor belonging to the BPD, said that the victims were smuggling gas and sugar into Turkey from northern Iraq and may have been mistaken for Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters.

Celik also suggested that the victims had been involved in smuggling.

The strike took place near the country's border
with the Kurdistan area of Iraq

A crisis centre was set up in the area following the strikes, and prosecutors and security officers have been deployed, the Sirnak provincial government said in a statement.

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.

New violence taints Syria mission

Thursday, December 29th, 2011
Anti-government protesters in in Amuda. 27 Dec 2011Protests have continued throughout the country to mark the monitors' visit

Arab League monitors overseeing compliance with a peace plan for Syria have been visiting the capital, Damascus, and other cities but killings show no sign of abating.

Activists say at least 29 people were killed by security forces on Thursday, mostly in areas where monitors are visiting, including a Damascus suburb.

The activists have called for massive street protests on Friday.

The UN says more than 5,000 civilians have died in 10 months of unrest.

The Arab League peace plan calls for a complete halt to the violence, the withdrawal of all armed forces and the release of all detainees.

However, after two days of monitoring, more questions were being asked about the head of the Arab League mission, Sudan's Gen Mustafa al-Dabi, who Amnesty International said was responsible for "torture" and "disappearances" in 1990s Sudan.

'Only God can help us'

After starting in the flashpoint city of Homs on Tuesday, the Arab League monitors have moved to Idlib in the north, Deraa in the south, and Damascus.

Activists have reported violence and killings in all those areas.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least three people were killed when security forces opened fire outside a mosque in Douma, a suburb of the capital.

Monitors were arriving at the city hall there when security forces fired on "tens of thousands" of protesters outside the Grand Mosque, the UK-based group said.

It reported more deaths in other suburbs of the capital, Aarbin and Kiswah, as well as in Idlib and the central city of Hama.

Casualty figures and other information are hard to verify as most foreign media are barred from Syria.

The BBC's Jim Muir, in neighbouring Lebanon, says that far from diminishing the violence, it seems the presence of the observers may actually be causing it to increase, because of the large number of people they are attracting who are desperate to vent their grievances.

One activist in Hama told Reuters: "People really hope to get to reach them. We do not have much access to the team. The people stopped believing anything or anyone now. Only God can help us now."

Our correspondent says virtually none of the peace plan's objectives have yet been met, although Syria on Wednesday did release 755 of the 14,000 people the UN says have been detained during the uprising.

Activists have been using social media to call for massive protests on Friday - the traditional day of demonstration.

Syrian activists criticise Arab monitors

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Arab League observers in Syria are preparing to visit more cities that have been at the heart of the anti-government uprising, amid accusations by opposition activists that the mission is not doing enough to stop the violence in the country.

Monitors were working in the Damascus suburbs, Syrian state television reported, as activists said that 24 people were killed across the country on Thursday.

The observers were also due to go on to the city of Deraa, the cradle of the uprising, as well as Hama, which have experienced massive protests followed by a brutal crackdown, and Idlib, which witnessed clashes between army forces and military deserters.

 

The Arab League mission got off to a controversial start when its leader, Mustafa al-Dabi, said he had seen "nothing frightening" on his first trip to Homs on Tuesday, the deadliest city in uprising.

During their second visit to the central city on Wednesday, the monitors faced angry crowds, gunfire and explosions, as fresh violence flared just a few miles away from where they were gathering accounts about the government's crackdown on dissent.

One of the monitors who spoke to Al Jazeera from Syria on the condition of anonymity said the situation in Homs is "very dangerous" and that it is under constant shelling.

He said that some areas are under the control of the so-called Free Syrian Army, a group of soldiers who defected from the regular army to side with pro-democracy protesters.

Activists sceptical

Against this backdrop of violence, some activists called the Arab League mission a farce and accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of trying to bide time and avoid more international condemnation.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Hadi Abdullah, an activist in Homs, said that the mission experienced first hand the crackdown on protests, but he is suspicious it will report what it saw or act upon it.

"The observers saw a lot of violence in the city. They saw how security forces shoot at protests. They also saw the bodies of dead people," he said.

"The monitors also saw destruction in the city. One of the observers asked residents of Baba Amr neighbourhood ‘how can you live in this place."

Another activist, Aram al-Dumi, from Douma, told Al Jazeera that there is a lack of coordination between activist and the observers.

"The delegation is relying solely on street signs when visiting the cities, they should rely on satellite images in order to locate the areas.

"There has been reports of security forces changing the street signs, this has been the case in Douma, today we went to the grand Mosque square after a funeral procession to demonstrate and greet the observers but the army fired at us."

Observers plan to visit protests hubs in the country

In Baba Amr, residents refused to allow observers in because they were accompanied by an army officer, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The standoff only ended when the officer withdrew.

"We want to fully co-operate with the mission," Abdullah, the activist, said. "But we believe the officer that was accompanying the mission was responsible for massacres in the city."

Activists also charged that the army had pulled back heavy armour from Baba Amr in advance of the monitors' visit, accusing the government of deception.

Al-Dabi, the mission head accused by activists of undermining the situation in Homs, has said the 20 observers will remain in Homs "for a long time".

Stocks rise as unemployment claims remain modest

Thursday, December 29th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Richard Drew

NEW YORK (AP) -- Stocks rose Thursday morning after the government reported that the number of claims for unemployment benefits remained at a level consistent with modest job growth. Contracts to buy homes rose to the highest level in a year and a half.

The four-week average of unemployment claims fell to a three-and-a-half-year low of 375,000, an indication that hiring could pick up.

The National Association of Realtors says its index of sales agreements jumped 7.3 percent last month. The news sent stocks of home builders sharply higher. PulteGroup Inc., Lennar Corp. and Masco Corp. all rose close to 4 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 75 points at 12,227 at 10 a.m. It fell nearly 140 points the day before.

The S&P 500 was up 7 points at 1,257, and is at breakeven for the year. The Nasdaq composite index rose 6 at 2,596.

Europe's debt woes weighed on currency markets. The euro fell to its lowest level against the dollar this year and a decade-low against the Japanese yen. At one point the euro's value against the dollar hit $1.28, the lowest level since September 2010.

Italy’s Monti warns of ongoing market turbulence

Thursday, December 29th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito

ROME (AP) -- Italy's borrowing costs fell for a second day Thursday but the country's new premier said his government has more to do before it convinces financial markets it can manage the heavy debts that have made it the focus of the eurozone crisis.

Mario Monti said he was encouraged by the bond auctions at which the interest costs paid out by Italy to bond investors eased. He said his government of technocrats, in office for just a month and a half following the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi, was preparing a package of measures to get the Italian economy moving again, including efforts to boost competition and liberalize the labor market.

"Yesterday and today went pretty well, this is encouraging," Monti said at a news conference after the Italian treasury tapped investors for around euro7 billion ($9.2 billion). "But we absolutely don't consider the market turbulence to be over."

The amount raised, however, was less than the euro8.5 billion ($11 billion) maximum sought and contributed to ongoing weakness in the euro, which fell to a 15-month low against the dollar of $1.2866.

The most keenly awaited result from Thursday's batch of auctions was the euro2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) sale of ten-year bonds at an average yield of 6.98 percent. That's lower than the record 7.56 percent it had to pay at an equivalent auction last month, when investor concerns over the ability of the country to service its massive debts became particularly acute.

However, the country's borrowing rate on the key 10-year bond remains uncomfortably close to the 7 percent level widely considered to be unsustainable in the long run. Greece, Ireland and Portugal all had to request financial bailouts after their 10-year bond yields pushed above 7 percent. In the secondary markets, Italy's yield continues to hover around the 7 percent mark.

"Investors are still waiting for more progress on the reform front to ensure Italy can improve its muted growth and productivity performance since the adoption of the euro," said Raj Badiani, a senior economist at IHS Global Insight.

Unemployment claims rise after steady declines

Thursday, December 29th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose last week after three weeks of decline.

Even with the gain, applications remained at a level consistent with modest hiring. And the broader trend over the past month suggests job growth could pick up further in the new year.

Weekly applications increased by 15,000 to a seasonally adjusted 381,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped for the fourth straight week to 375,000. That's the lowest level since June 2008.

"Despite the rise in the weekly claims data, the longer-term trend ... suggests that the recovery in the labor market is maintaining its momentum," said Michael Gapen, an economist at Barclays Capital, in a note to clients.

Applications generally must fall below 375,000 - consistently - to signal that hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate.

While layoffs have fallen sharply since the recession officially ended two and a half years ago, many companies have been slow to add jobs.

Economists caution that the figures can be volatile around the holidays. The data for seven states, including California and Virginia, were estimated because of the Monday holiday, a Labor Department spokesman said. Those estimates have in the past proven reliable, the spokesman said, and haven't required major revision.

Hiring has improved in recent months. Employers have added an average of 143,000 net jobs a month from September through November. That's almost double the average for the previous three months.

Next year should be even better. A survey of 36 economists by the Associated Press this month found that they expect the economy will generate an average of about 175,000 jobs per month in 2012.

More small businesses plan to hire than at any time in three years, a trade group said earlier this month. And a separate private-sector survey found more companies are planning to add workers in the first quarter of next year than at any time since 2008.

Walker punts on 2012 question

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, facing a recall election, ducked the question Thursday of which Republican presidential candidate he supports.

Walker refused to get pinned down on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” but told the hosts there are three candidates he thinks could beat President Barack Obama in November. The Republican governor pointed to Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich as the three candidates who have best articulated plans to boost jobs.

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“My hope is that there are candidates who stand up and say, ‘I’ve got a plan to get people off of the government payrolls and more on the private sector payrolls,’” Walker said.

“Certainly, Gov. Romney has private sector experience and has done that, Gov. Perry has done that in Texas,” Walker added. “Certainly, Speaker Gingrich has talked about that in the past. Which of them can break through, not only in this caucus but in the upcoming primary season, I think will be largely dependent on which makes the best case for the issue.”

When pressed to narrow down his choice to one candidate who best fit his criteria, Walker balked.

Arnold’s green road back

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Arnold Schwarzenegger, hot off a seven-year run as California governor, went underground in May after it was revealed he had fathered a child with a household employee.

The White House, which worked with him on events like Solyndra’s factory groundbreaking in 2009, cut off contact. A “world tour” to promote green policies was derailed. Polls showed that most of the support he had left among his former constituents was gone.

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But in recent weeks, Schwarzenegger has begun to return to the spotlight, making public appearances at renewable energy and climate change events, advocating for green technology and touting his energy achievements in the Golden State.

“I promise you I will be your cheerleader and carry our message around the world. I will do everything in my power to make this happen,” Schwarzenegger told the American Council On Renewable Energy on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C. “I feel as passionate about this as I did about bodybuilding, about fitness and weight training, all those things.”

Having spent six months out of the spotlight, Schwarzenegger is easing back into public life.

Besides his energy-related activities, Schwarzenegger is penning a memoir and starring in a sequel to the 2010 action flick “The Expendables,” as well as a Western.

Whether his shift back into the world of policy will ingratiate him again with the public is unclear.

Schwarzenegger — the star of Hollywood hits such as “The Terminator” and “Total Recall” — is both enigmatic and appealing, strategists say.

“The normal rules that you would apply to a politician just really have never applied to him because he’s an iconic figure beginning with sports and then entertainment and then politics,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the White House counsel’s office during President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“He’s just never been perceived — even as governor — as a politician. He was his own separate brand that transcended politics, that transcended entertainment, that was a very unique brand,” Lehane added.

Schwarzenegger was well-known in politics, inside and outside of California, for his energy and environmental efforts, including: passing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, fostering the solar industry and mandating that utilities have energy storage capacity for when the wind doesn’t blow.

He even converted two of his Hummers to run on biofuel and hydrogen.

But any post-gubernatorial plans were postponed when news broke in May that he had fathered a child with an employee and kept it secret for more than a decade. Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, left him and has filed for divorce.

A June poll found that three-quarters of California voters said they viewed their former governor unfavorably, while 20 percent expressed support.

Monti: ‘Unite to save eurozone’

Thursday, December 29th, 2011
Mario MontiMr Monti said Italy had "dug in its heels" to avoid a debt crisis

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has called for a "united response" to the eurozone debt crisis, as he announced plans to get Italy out of recession.

He added that despite the two recent successful Italian bond auctions, he did not think that the phase of financial turbulence had finished.

On Thursday the government raised about 7bn euros ($8.96bn; £5.86bn) of debt.

Interest rates on Italian 10-year bonds remained high at 6.98%, a barely sustainable level.

Mr Monti, speaking at the prime minister's traditional end-of-year press conference, stressed that problems for Italy on the markets were linked to wider difficulties on the European level which required a "united, joint and convincing response" that could also boost growth.

He said his new government was working intensively on preparing a package of measures to get the Italian economy moving again. He will present details of his economic plan to EU leaders on 23 January.

The plan would focus on boosting competition and liberalising the Italian jobs market, Mr Monti said.

'Vultures circling'

He said Italy had been sliding towards a debt crisis like the one seen in Greece, but had "dug in its heels" at the precipice and did not fall.

"We're not very close to Greece's situation," he said. "We were heading south-east [toward Greece] and we put on the brakes."

He added that until the government took action, "there were many vultures circling in the skies of the European and international markets".

Italy is the eurozone's third largest economy, but investors worry about its mix of low growth, high debt and spiralling borrowing costs.

It is feared the country might need a bailout like fellow eurozone members Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

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.

All I want for Christmas is Mariah and Justin

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber
 
I really agree with the one who said their favourite version of this song was the one in “Love Actually,” even though the competition is broad. (more…)

All the Companies Supporting SOPA, the Awful Internet Censorship Law–and How to Contact Them (Sam Biddle/Gizmodo)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

All the Companies Supporting SOPA, the Awful Internet Censorship Law—and How to Contact ThemWho's officially on the record backing what could be the worst thing to ever happen to the internet? All of these companies listed below. Don't take our word for it—this list comes straight from Congress. Just FYI.

If you want to get in touch, we've provided a contact list below. Maybe you want to let them know how you feel about SOPA.

SOPA Supporters

60 Plus Association: info@60plus.org

ABC: http://abc.go.com/site/contact-us

Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP): 703-539-ASOP (2767)

American Federation of Musicians (AFM): presoffice@afm.org

American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA): (212) 532-0800

American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP): atoczylowski@ascap.com

Americans for Tax Reform: ideas@atr.org

Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States: iatsepac@iatse-intl.org

Association of American Publishers (AAP): asporkin@publishers.org

Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies: bob@mcconnell.net

Association of Talent Agents (ATA): rnoval@agentassociation.com

Baker & Hostetler LLP: dholcombe@bakerlaw.com or rokada@bakerlaw.com

Beachbody, LLC: http://beachbody.custhelp.com/app/ask

BMI: newyork@bmi.com

BMG Chrysalis: info@bmg.com

Capitol Records Nashville: ann.inman@emimusic.com and brent.jones@emimusic.com

CBS: http://www.bctd.org/Contact-Us.aspx

Cengage Learning: (800) 354-9706

Christian Music Trade Association: 615-242-0303

Church Music Publishers' Association: (615) 791-0273

Coalition Against Online Video Piracy (CAOVP): (212) 485-3452

Comcast/NBCUniversal: info@comcast.com

Concerned Women for America (CWA): (202) 488-7000

Congressional Fire Services Institute: update@cfsi.org

Copyhype: http://www.copyhype.com/contact/

Copyright Alliance: info@copyrightalliance.org

Coty, Inc.: http://www.coty.com/#/contact_us

Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB): (703) 276-0100

Council of State Governments: membership@csg.org

Country Music Association: communications@CMAworld.com

Country Music Television: info@cmt.com

Covington & Burling LLP: http://www.cov.com/contactus/

Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP: info@cdas.com

Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman, P.C.: law@cll.com

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP: davebaca@dwt.com

Directors Guild of America (DGA): (310) 289-2000 or (800) 421-4173

Disney Publishing Worldwide, Inc.: (212) 633-4400

Elsevier: T.Reller@elsevier.com

EMI Christian Music Group: (615) 371-4300

EMI Music Publishing: (212) 492-1200

ESPN: http://espn.go.com/espn/contact?lang=EN&country=united%20states

Estée Lauder Companies: (212) 572-4200

Fraternal Order of Police (FOP): pyoes@fop.net

Go Daddy: (480) 505-8800

Gospel Music Association: service@gospelmusic.org

Graphic Artists Guild: president@gag.org

Hachette Book Group: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/customer_contact-us.aspx

HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide: feedback2@harpercollins.com or (212) 207-7000

Hyperion: http://www.hyperionbooks.com/contact-us/

Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA): http://www.ifta-online.org/contact

International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees: See Artists and Allied Crafts

International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC): iacc@iacc.org

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW): (202) 833-7000

International Brotherhood of Teamsters: http://www.teamster.org/content/contact-us

International Trademark Association (INTA): customerservice@inta.org or
communications@inta.org

International Union of Police Associations: iupa@iupa.org

Irell & Manella LLP: info@irell.com

Jenner & Block LLP: (312) 222-9350

Kelley Drye & Warren LLP: http://www.kelleydrye.com/contacts/index

Kendall Brill & Klieger LLP: (310) 556-2700

Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert LLP: info@kwikalaw.com

L'Oreal: (212) 818-1500

Lathrop & Gage LLP: http://www.lathropgage.com/contact.html

Loeb & Loeb LLP: http://www.loeb.com/Firm/Contact/

Lost Highway Records: (615) 524-7500

Macmillan: (646) 307-5151

Major County Sheriffs: jrwolfinger@mcsheriffs.com

Major League Baseball: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/help/contact_us.jsp

Majority City Chiefs: dstephens@carolina.rr.com

Marvel Entertainment: (212) 576-4000

MasterCard Worldwide: (800) 622-7747

MCA Records: communications@umusic.com

McGraw-Hill Education: customer.service@mcgraw-hill.com

Minor League Baseball (MiLB): customerservice@website.milb.com or
webmaster@minorleaguebaseball.com

Minority Media & Telecom Council (MMTC): info@mmtconline.org

Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP: http://www.msk.com/contact/

Morrison & Foerster LLP: eking@mofo.com

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA): contactus@mpaa.org

Moving Picture Technicians: See Artists and Allied Crafts

MPA – The Association of Magazine Media: mpa@magazine.org

National Association of Manufacturers (NAM): manufacturing@nam.org

National Association of Prosecutor Coordinators: (518) 432-1100

National Association of State Chief Information Officers: svaughn@AMRms.com

National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA): webmaster@ncta.com

National Center for Victims of Crime: http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc/main.aspx?
dbID=DB_Contact764

National Crime Justice Association: info@ncja.org

National District Attorneys Association: (703) 549-9222

National Domestic Preparedness Coalition: info@ndpci.us

National Football League: http://www.nfl.com/contact-us

National Governors Association, Economic Development and Commerce Committee:
webmaster@nga.org

National League of Cities: http://www.nlc.org/about-nlc/contact-nlc

National Narcotics Offers' Associations' Coalition: rmsloan626@verizon.net or http://www.natlnarc.org/default.aspx?page=1011

National Sheriffs' Association (NSA): http://sheriffs.org/content/contact-us

National Songwriters Association: http://members.nashvillesongwriters.com/
webform.php?ViewForm=1

National Troopers Coalition: info@ntctroopers.com

News Corporation: web.queries@computershare.com

Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP: http://www.pbwt.com/contact/

Pearson Education: http://www.pearsoned.com/contacts

Penguin Group (USA), Inc.: ecommerce@us.penguingroup.com

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America: newsroom@phrma.org

Phillips Nizer, LLP: http://www.phillipsnizer.com/about/contact.cfm

Pfizer, Inc.: https://www.pfizer.com/contact/mail_general.jsp

Proskauer Rose LLP: info@proskauer.com

Provident Music Group: (615) 261-6500

Random House: ecustomerservice@randomhouse.com

Raulet Property Partners: http://www.raulet.com/HTM%20Stuff/ContactUs.htm

Revlon: http://www.revlon.com/Revlon-Home/Revlon-General/Contact.aspx

Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP: http://www.rkmc.com/Contact.aspx

Scholastic, Inc.: http://scholastic.custhelp.com/app/ask

Screen Actors Guild (SAG): saginfo@sag.org

Shearman & Sterling LLP: website.administration@shearman.com

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP: (212) 455-2000

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP: info@skadden.com

Sony/ATV Music Publishing: info@sonyatv.com

Sony Music Entertainment: http://hub.sonymusic.com/about/feedback.php or http://
www.sonyatv.com/index.php/contact

Sony Music Nashville: http://www.sonyatv.com/index.php/contact

State International Development Organization (SIDO): sido@csg.org

The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO): nato@natodc.com

The Perseus Books Groups: (800) 343-4499

The United States Conference of Mayors: info@usmayors.org

Tiffany & Co.: http://press.tiffany.com/Customer/Request/ContactUs.aspx

Time Warner: https://www.timewarnercable.com/SoCal/about/contactus.ashx

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC): info@ufc.com

UMG Publishing Group Nashville: (615) 340-5400

United States Chamber of Commerce: http://www.uschamber.com/about/contact/submit-
question

United States Tennis Association: https://forms.usta.com/usta/form325815541/
secure_index.html or memberservices@usta.com

Universal Music: communications@umusic.com

Universal Music Publishing Group: umpg.newmedia@umusic.com

Viacom: http://www.viacom.com/contact/Pages/default.aspx

Visa, Inc.: https://corporate.visa.com/utility/contactus.jsp

W.W. Norton & Company: (212) 354-5500

Warner Music Group: http://www.wmg.com/contact

Warner Music Nashville: http://www.warnermusicnashville.com/contact

White & Case LLP: http://www.whitecase.com/ContactUs.aspx

Wolters Kluewer Health: customerservice@lww.com

Word Entertainment: wordtech@wbr.com

[US House of Representatives via Reddit]

The End of the Chinese Dream – by Christina Larson

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

As China's economy continues to trend downward, Beijing's elites are sparking a new, palpable frustration in the general population.

BY CHRISTINA LARSON | DECEMBER 21, 2011

BEIJING – In June, a Chinese friend of mine who grew up in the northern industrial city of Shenyang and recently graduated from university moved to Beijing to follow his dream -- working for a media company. He has a full-time job, but the entry-level pay isn't great and it's tough to make ends meet. When we had lunch recently, he brought up his housing situation, which he described as "not ideal." He was living in a three-bedroom apartment split by seven people, near the Fourth Ring Road -- the outer orbit of the city. Five of his roommates were young women who went to work each night at 11 p.m. and returned around 4 a.m. "They say they are working the overnight shift at Tesco," the British retailer, but he was dubious. One night he saw them entering a KTV Club wearing lots of makeup and "skirts much shorter than my boxers" and, tellingly, proceeding through the employee entrance. "So they are prostitutes," he concluded. "I feel a little uncomfortable."

But when he tallied his monthly expenses and considered his lack of special connections, or g, in the city, either to help boost his paycheck or to find more comfortable but not more expensive housing, he figured he'd stick out the grim living situation. "I have come here to be a journalist -- it is my goal, and I do not want to go back now. But it seems like it's harder than it used to be."

When I asked how his colleagues and former classmates were getting along, he thought about it for a moment and then replied that some were basically in the same lot as him, "but many of my friends have parents in Beijing, and they can save money to live with them. If your family is already established here, it helps a lot." After a moment, he added: "And some of them have rich parents who have already bought them their own apartments -- and cars."

Despite China's astonishing economic growth, it has gotten harder for people like my friend to get by in the big city. His is not a particularly lucrative profession. Like many in Beijing, he cannot count on his annual pay to keep pace with China's official rates of inflation -- which many economists suspect are lowballed anyway. (The consumer-price-index inflation rate is considered so sensitive that the State Council approves it before it is released publicly.) Even so, every month this year consumer-price-index inflation has exceeded the official average monthly target of 4 percent. Last month state media hailed it as good news that it was, officially, just 4.2 percent.

Anyone in Beijing can point to examples of friends who see rents hiked 10 percent or more in one year. The prices at restaurants keep going up, even as portions are getting noticeably smaller. Throw in the loss of intangibles that money can't buy -- like air quality and food safety -- and you begin to understand the grumbling among some of Beijing's non-wealthy folks that their standard of living seems to be diminishing, even as the national GDP surges ahead at a heady 9 percent.

Could it possibly be true that a swath of people in China's big cities is mobile, if one compared wages with living expenses? I asked Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing. Alas, he told me, it's difficult to find much clarification in China's famously fudgeable official statistics. (For instance, the official unemployment rate only includes individuals with urban , or permanent residency permits -- which excludes the most economically vulnerable.) Still, he noted: "If you perceive that you're losing buying power -- or have rising but unmet expectations -- that's when people get upset.… And this country, for a country growing at over 9 percent, is in a foul mood."

Indeed, there is a palpable sense of frustration in Beijing, especially compared with the last time I lived here in 2008. You can see it on the dour faces on the metro, hear it in raspy voices at dinner conversations, and especially sense it in the new gruffness of taxi drivers, who no longer think ferrying people around town for 10 yuan, about $1.60, is such a good deal for them (their base fare hasn't been raised). Still, it's hard to rage against abstractions. It's a lot easier to fume at obnoxious people.

No wonder, then, that in 2011 the Chinese media and Sina Weibo (China's version of Twitter) buzzed nearly every month with salacious reports of China's Paris Hilton-types -- the sons and daughters of the wealthy and political elite, dangling opulent accessories and impoverished judgment -- behaving badly in BMWs and Audis and typically expecting to get away with it, to boot.

The year began with the trial of Li Qiming, a university student in Hebei province who in October 2010 was drunk-driving and slammed into two other college students out skating, killing one of them. When he saw what had happened, he tried to speed away, but the campus guard stopped his vehicle. When questioned, the first thing he is widely reported to have blurted out was, "My father is Li Gang." Li Gang is the district's deputy police chief.

Then there was 15-year-old Li Tianyi, the son of a high-ranking army official, who had no license when he got behind the wheel of a BMW in September. While carousing the streets of Beijing, he grew frustrated when another car was blocking his path. He reportedly got out of the car and assaulted the other driver while either he or a friend shouted, "Who will dare call the police?" Behind his car's windshield was a temporary driving pass for the Great Hall of the People, China's parliament building.

And earlier this month, a student at Beijing Film Academy got into a fight over where he could park his Audi, the telltale car of choice of Chinese officials. After a brawl in the parking lot, a cleaner, a 43-year-old migrant worker from nearby Hebei province, was taken to a hospital, where he died.

Perhaps the closest female equivalent was the lightning-rod saga of Guo "Meimei," a petite 20-year-old with a heart-shaped face and big brown eyes who took to posting photos of herself driving her "little horse" (a white Maserati) and her "little bull" (an orange Lamborghini) on her Weibo microblog. On her account, she claimed to be a general manager at the Red Cross of China, one of the country's largest and most politically connected charities. Her luxury goods, not to mention horrible judgment, were widely taken by readers as signs of corruption at the charity. (In the months following the scandal, which reached its zenith in June, donations to the charity dropped off precipitously). Later, it came out that she held no such position and was rumored instead to be either a mistress or relative of someone at the Red Cross.

The anger in China at such dilettantes misbehaving runs deeper than, say, America's love-hate relationship with Lindsay Lohan. As Michael Anti, a popular Chinese blogger and political commentator, told me, "The rich are becoming a dynasty." Now people in China recognize that "you get your position not by degree or hard work, but by your daddy." Anti added that though corruption and guanxi are hardly new concepts in China, there was previously a greater belief in social mobility through merit. "Before, university was a channel to help you to ruling class. Now the ruling class just promote themselves."

Iraq’s Maliki urges Kurds to hand over VP

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, has called on authorities in the autonomous Kurdish region to hand over Tariq al-Hashimi, the country's vice president who is wanted on allegations of running a death squad.

"We call for the government of the Kurdistan region to take its responsibility and hand over Hashimi to the justice system," Maliki told a news conference in Baghdad on Wednesday. "We do not accept any interference in Iraqi justice."

Maliki also rejected Hashimi's calls for Arab League representatives to monitor the investigation and any questioning, telling reporters, "This is a criminal case, and there is no need for the Arab League and the world to have a role in this".

Follow in-depth coverage of the nation in flux

Officials issued the warrant for Hashimi's arrest on Monday, after earlier banning him from leaving the country. The accusations date back to the height of the war in 2006 and 2007, when neighbours turned on neighbours and whole sections of Baghdad were divided along sectarian lines.

Hashimi has rejected the charges against him, while the US has urged calm in a row that has raised questions about the stability of the country and reignited sectarian tensions just days after the final withdrawal of US troops.

Joe Biden, the US vice president, who visited Iraq earlier this month ahead of the pullout, said the US was monitoring conditions in Iraq closely and remained committed to a long-term strategic partnership.

"The vice president also stressed the urgent need for the prime minister and the leaders of the other major blocs to meet and work through their differences together," the White House said in a statement.

The latest intrigue has raised suspicions that Maliki, a Shia, ordered the arrest of the vice president as part of a campaign to consolidate his hold on power.

Northern safe haven

Kurdish leaders have been trying to work out a solution, sheltering Hashimi from arrest in their semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

It is unlikely they will agree to hand over the vice president, said Al Jazeera's Omar al-Saleh, reporting from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

"Kurdish officials in the region said that they will never hand the vice president back to Baghdad because, as things stand now, he is a suspect and he's not convicted of any crime. And he came in his capacity as vice president of this country, so he is a guest in other words," our correspondent said.

Stocks end mixed; Oracle miss drags down tech

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Richard Drew

Technology stocks fell Wednesday, dragged down by a weak earnings report from the business software maker Oracle Corp.

Broad market indexes were flat. The Dow Jones industrial average eked out a gain of 4 points after having been down 104 points at midday.

Technology stocks in the Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2 percent. Oracle plunged 12 percent after the business software company said it was struggling to close deals.

The rare earnings miss by Oracle seemed to reinforce worries that businesses and the government may cut back on technology spending. Especially worrying was a weak 2 percent gain in new software licenses, a key sign of demand from other businesses. Oracle had predicted gains of as much as 16 percent.

Those worries hurt other big technology companies. IBM Corp. was by far the biggest loser in the Dow, falling 3.1 percent to $181.47. A bright spot was the BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd., which jumped 10 percent to $13.78 on rumors that it might be a takeover target.

Investors also had more to worry about from Europe. New data showed extensive lending from the European Central Bank to European banks. The initial reaction to the $639 billion in lending by the ECB was positive, but then worry set in that Europe's banks needed so much help in the first place.

"Long-term, people were a little bit concerned that banks needed more money than we thought they did," said Joe Bell, a senior equity analyst with Schaeffer's Investment Research.

The Dow edged up 4.16 points, less than 0.1 percent, to close at 12,107.74. On Tuesday the Dow jumped 337 - its biggest gain this month - on a strong bond sale in Spain and a surge in new home construction in the U.S.

The Standard & Poor's 500 rose 2.42 points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,243.72. Outside of the 2 percent decline for technology companies, prices rose or were flat in the rest of the S&P 500's 10 sectors.

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.

Newt courts Iowa with judicial rants

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Newt Gingrich, scrambling to regain ground in Iowa, has worked to keep his crusade against federal judges alive — talking up the issue for the fourth straight day in an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Tuesday night.

In a field of judicial-branch haters, Newt Gingrich has become the courts’ loudest and fiercest critic — a distinction that has angered some establishment Republicans but is playing well in socially conservative Iowa, a state with a well-known disdain for activist judges.

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Gingrich received a robust response to a lengthy tirade against courts in last week’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa, and since then has gone full-speed ahead with his anti-judge rhetoric. He doubled down on his critiques on a Saturday conference call, and in a Sunday appearance on “Face the Nation,” in which he suggested sending U.S. marshals to arrest certain judges and haul them before Congress to explain their positions. He kept going when he hit the trail on Monday, telling Iowa voters why he thinks judges are overstepping their bounds. He fended off critiques on his stance in a Tuesday interview from Iowa with Bill O’Reilly.

Gingrich’s suggestions for reining in the judiciary have drawn fire from his fellow candidates, including Rick Perry, who has urged imposing term limits on judges but said Gingrich’s ideas were a bridge too far.

“Just because Congress doesn’t agree with a ruling, I don’t agree that you snatch them up and bring ’em up in front of Congress,” Perry told The Wall Street Journal this week.

Mitt Romney also expressed uneasiness with Gingrich’s proposals to the Journal. They would, Romney said, “change the very constitutional rule-of-law basis of our nation, and, by the way, encourage enterprises of all kinds to see America without the rule of law and not worthy of investment.”

In provoking his rivals, Gingrich might have established himself as the most conservative candidate when it comes to the courts, a title that can help him in Iowa, where a PPP poll released earlier this week found support for his candidacy slipping. Iowa ousted three of its own state Supreme Court judges in 2010 after they ruled in favor of gay marriage — an effort Gingrich helped secure financial backing for — and many conservatives there are cheering on his latest anti-court offensive.

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.

Many Americans brace for loss of payroll tax cut

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Some say they'll spend less on groceries. Others expect to cut back on travel. For many, there would be fewer meals out.

Across the country, Americans are bracing for another financial hardship: smaller paychecks starting in January, if Congress doesn't break a deadlock and renew a Social Security tax cut.

The tax cut, which took effect this year, benefits 160 million Americans - $1,000 a year, or nearly $20 a week, for someone making $50,000, as much as $4,272 or $82 a week for a household with two high-paid workers.

The tax cut is set to expire Jan. 1. If lawmakers don't renew it for 2012, analysts say the economy would slow as individuals and families looked for ways to spend less.

"Of course, it changes my plans," said Craig Duffy, an information-technology worker from Philadelphia and new father of twins. Duffy said his family already has tightened spending, so "we'll have to find a way to cut back."

That might mean canceling a planned trip to visit the twins' grandparents in Wisconsin, Duffy said.

The tax cut is part of legislation that would also renew benefits for the long-term unemployed. If the unemployment benefits aren't renewed, starting in January nearly 6 million people would lose weekly checks averaging about $300 - the main source of income for most of them.

House Republicans have rejected a Senate-passed bill that would extend the payroll tax cut for two months and let the long-term unemployed continue to receive benefits during that time. That plan would give lawmakers time to work on a yearlong extension.

But most lawmakers have left Washington, and no negotiations are scheduled before the year ends.

If Congress doesn't renew the two measures for 2012, analysts say the economy's growth would slow by as much as 1 percentage point.

Less money in paychecks means less consumer spending, which powers the U.S. economy. Many people who say they already depend on each paycheck for living expenses say they can't cut spending deeply. Instead, they'll trim at the edges, wherever they can.

"It will limit my spending from week to week," said Jennifer Stempel, an office manager from Denver.

Stempel said that could mean making fewer impulse buys at the grocery store, packing her lunch each day and rejoining a carpool she quit after gas prices declined this year.

"I was starting to relax about (travel expenses), but now I don't know," Stempel said.

Michael Allara of Raleigh, N.C., said a higher tax would further pressure his family, which includes three small children.

"I'm already trying to save as much as I can to pay for college," Allara said. "I don't know where the money would come from."

The tax cut lowered the Social Security tax on incomes of up to $106,800 from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. It's meant a maximum savings of $2,136 for an individual.

Without a deal, Americans would begin 2012 facing a tax increase just as an election year begins.

Smaller paychecks and reduced spending would coincide with a still-vulnerable period for the U.S. economy. Though growth has strengthened in the final months of 2011, some analysts say the gains might be hard to sustain. Workers' pay isn't rising much. And Europe may be on the verge of a recession that would undermine the American economy.

"A failure to extend the payroll tax holiday and the extended unemployment benefits would be a serious hit to the economy," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "The risk of a recession would rise and be uncomfortably high, particularly early next year, when the fallout from Europe's troubles will be the greatest."

Population surging in 5 battleground states

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Five battleground states are among the nation’s fastest growing, according to newly released Census data.

Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina all expanded their populations by more than 1 percent from July 2010 to July 2011, the Census bureau estimated.

All are states that will play large roles in determining the winner of the 2012 presidential election. All but Georgia are included in five possible electoral paths outlined earlier this month by President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina.

Though Republican John McCain won his home state of Arizona in 2008, Democrats contend it will be in play this time around.

“There are a variety of pathways to 270 electoral votes and Arizona is definitely in the mix,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said at a fundraiser earlier this month.

Republicans, meanwhile, believe Obama’s sliding poll numbers in Florida, Colorado and North Carolina will be key to their candidate’s march to the White House.

The numbers provide a glimpse at where new voters will most shape 2012, and where campaigns’ efforts to reach first-timers can have maximum impact in next year’s election.

Population growth drives both voter registration and ballots cast. Since 2000, states with surging populations — including Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida — have seen double-digit growth in the number of ballots cast in successive presidential cycles.

Floyd Mayweather — 90 Days in Jail for Beating Up Baby Mama

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
Floyd Mayweather 90 Days in Pokey for Beating Up Baby Mama


Floyd Mayweather in court
Floyd Mayweather Jr. got hammered by a judge, who just sentenced him to serve 90 days in jail for beating up his baby mama in front of their kids.

Floyd was sentenced to 6 months in jail, but 3 months of that sentence was suspended.  He also gets 3 days credit for time he has already served.

TMZ broke the story ... the boxer was arrested in September 2010 -- after his ex-girlfriend accused him of striking her "multiple times in the head with his fist" and then threatening to kill her.

Economy ends tough 2011 on a surprising upswing

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Vickie D. King

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The economy is ending 2011 on a roll.

The job market is healthier. Americans are spending lustily on holiday gifts. A long-awaited turnaround for the depressed housing industry may be under way. Gas is cheaper. Factories are busier. Stocks are higher.

Not bad for an economy faced with a debt crisis in Europe and, as recently as this summer, scattered predictions of a second recession at home. Instead, the economy has grown faster each quarter this year, and the last three months should be the best.

"Things are looking up," says Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ.

When The Associated Press surveyed 43 economists in August, they pegged the likelihood of another recession at roughly one in four. The Dow Jones industrial average was lurching up or down by 400 points or more some days.

There was plenty of reason for gloom. A political standoff over the federal borrowing limit brought the United States to the brink of default and cost the nation its top-drawer credit rating.

Most analysts now rule out another recession. They think the economy will grow at an annual rate of more than 3 percent from October through December, the fastest pace since a 3.8 percent performance the spring of 2010.

Many economists still worry that the year-end surge isn't sustainable, in part because the average worker's pay is barely rising. And Europe may already be sliding into a recession that will infect the United States.

The outlook could darken further if Congress can't break the impasse blocking an extension of a Social Security tax cut for 160 million Americans and emergency unemployment benefits.

Yet for now, the economy is on an upswing that few had predicted:

- JOBS: The number of people applying for unemployment benefits came in at 366,000 last week, down from a peak of 659,000 in March 2009. Even in good economic times, the figure would be between 280,000 and 350,000.

Employers have added at least 100,000 jobs five months in a row, the longest streak since 2006. And the unemployment rate fell from 9 percent in October to 8.6 percent last month, the lowest since March 2009.

Small businesses are hiring again, too, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

Business is up at AG Salesworks in Norwood, Mass., which helps technology companies like Motorola find new customers. The firm has hired 26 workers to restore its staff to 56, erasing the job cuts from the recession. CEO Paul Alves plans to add an employee or two a month as long as growth continues.

"I do see more confidence than I saw 12 months ago," Alves says. "But it's good, not great. Robust isn't the word I'd use."

- SPENDING: The holiday shopping season has turned out better than anyone expected. Sales from November through Saturday were up 2.5 percent. Americans have spent $32 billion online, 15 percent more than a year ago. Retails sales were up in November for the sixth month in a row. People are spending, in particular, on clothes, cars, electronics and furniture.

- CONSUMER CONFIDENCE: Americans felt better about the economy in November than they had since July, according to the Conference Board, a business group that tracks the mood of consumers.

The board's consumer confidence index climbed 15 points to 56 in November, the biggest one-month jump since April 2003. During the Great Recession, the index fell as low as 25.

"It seems like the confidence of the traditional American consumer is higher right now," says Jim Newman, executive vice president of operations at the digital marketing company Acquity Group, which has added 100 jobs since summer.

- GAS: Falling prices at the pump have freed more money for consumers to spend on appliances, furniture, vacations and other things that help drive the economy. The national average for regular unleaded has sunk to $3.21 a gallon since peaking at $3.98 in May, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge.

- INVENTORIES: Businesses are restocking shelves and warehouses, more confident that customers will buy their products. In October, their inventories were up 8.7 percent from a year earlier. An increase in inventories is expected to account for perhaps a third of growth this quarter.

The battered housing market might be showing signs of recovery. Home construction rose more than 9 percent in November from October, driven by apartment building. And the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday that sales of previously occupied homes rose 4 percent in November.

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.

Syria ‘massacre’: UN urged to act

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
Burning rubbish in street

The BBC's Jim Muir: "It certainly seems there is a big flare-up of violence"

Syria's main opposition coalition has called for emergency meetings of the UN Security Council and the Arab League to discuss the intensifying violence in the north-west of the country.

The Syrian National Council, which is based outside Syria, says about 250 people have been killed since Monday.

A human rights group has accused the Syrian authorities of carrying out an "organised massacre" in Idlib province.

Arab League monitors are due in Syria on Thursday under a peace initiative.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was "extremely concerned about the escalating crisis and the mounting death toll in Syria", his spokesman said.

He urged the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give its "full co-operation" to the Arab League plan.

Washington said it was "deeply disturbed" by the reports of escalating violence.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Assad regime had "flagrantly violated" its earlier pledges to end violence.

'Protected zone' plea

The latest wave of violence is taking place in the Jabal al-Zawiya area, not far from the border with Turkey.

Photo of Free Syrian Army courtesy Javier Espinosa

Journalist Javier Espinosa went undercover with the Free Syrian Army and said they were poorly equipped

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, said that on Tuesday security forces killed more than 110 people, most of them army defectors, around the village of Kansafra.

The previous day, up to 70 defectors were shot dead when they attempted to flee a nearby base, it added.

The Observatory also said that on Wednesday, at least 22 people - six army deserters, a civilian and 15 members of government forces - were killed in clashes in the southern Deraa province.

Another activist organisation, the Local Co-ordination Committees, said 15 people had been killed so far on Wednesday, in Hama, Idlib, Homs and Deraa.

Journalists are not allowed to report freely in Syria so details are hard to verify.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), which is the main opposition umbrella group, said on Wednesday that it wanted the UN Security Council to declare a "protected zone" in the areas under attack by the army.

It also urged both the Security Council and the Arab League to act to protect people in those areas.

France, which is a permanent member of the Security Council, has backed the call for action.

"There was a massacre of an unprecedented scale in Syria on Tuesday," said French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.

"It is urgent that the UN Security Council issues a firm resolution that calls for an end to the repression."

'Unfinished business'

The fighting involves armed opposition groups, made up largely of army defectors, who have been taking on the Syrian security forces.

Reports from Idlib province suggest that army reinforcements are arriving and that clashes are continuing, with the number of casualties rising.

The BBC's Jim Muir, who is monitoring events from neighbouring Lebanon, says it may be no coincidence that the surge in violence comes ahead of the arrival of Arab League monitors.

He says the Syrian authorities might be "clearing up unfinished business" ahead of the arrival of the monitors, with reports suggesting the security services are acting against army deserters and civilians trapped in a valley.

A photo released by the Sana news agency, showing a missile launch during military exercises in Syria Syria's armed forces said they were ready to repulse any foreign aggression

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.

China backs stable transition in North Korea

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
The late Kim Jong-il, left, has been grooming his son Kim Jong-un, right, as his heir since 2009 [EPA]

China has thrown its diplomatic weight behind North Korea in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il's death by telling Russia and Japan that peace and stability in the Korean peninsula is in the interests of all parties in the region.

Yang Jiechi, China's foreign minister, spoke with his Russian and Japanese counterparts on Wednesday to discuss the situation in North Korea amid international concern over the possible consequences of Kim's death for the peninsula's fragile balance of power.

In Depth

Yang told Koichiro Gemba, his Japanese counterpart, that "preserving the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula is in the common interests of all sides," according to a report by China's Xinhua news agency.

"China is willing to work with Japan to continue making efforts to together protect the peace and stability of the peninsula and the region," Yang said.

Yang has already made similar overtures in phone calls to Kim Sung-hwan, South Korea's foreign minister, and to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state.

Beijing's comments underscore its desire to avoid uncertainty over North Korea after the death of Kim, whose successor-son, Kim Jong-un, is an untested and largely unknown leader in his late twenties.

Largely ostracised by the West over its nuclear programme, China is North Korea's only major economic and diplomatic supporter

Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan reporting from Beijing, the Chinese capital, said: "China is concerned that the succession plan in North Korea goes smoothly, there is a strong show of support from the Chinese leadership to support North Korea."

The situation in North Korea is also likely to be discussed when Yoshihiko Noda, the Japanese prime minister, visits Beijing over the weekend.

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.

A Return to Rosa Parks? Women in Israel must also fight for their place on the bus

Monday, December 19th, 2011

A Return to Rosa Parks? Women in Israel must also fight for their place on the bus.
 
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently commented that the status of Israel as a democracy is in danger, due mostly to its increasingly worrisome treatment of women. (more…)

Israel frees 550 Palestinian prisoners

Sunday, December 18th, 2011
A man decorates the house of a Palestinian prisoner set to be freed in the West Bank city of Bethlehem [AFP]

Israel has released 550 Palestinian prisoners in the second stage of a deal with Hamas, with nearly all of the prisoners passing through a crossing into the West Bank where they were greeted by thousands of Palestinians.

Though Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, had reached the deal with Israel, most of the crowd on Sunday waved flags from the rival Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the dominant party in the West Bank.

Hours before the release got underway, hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint. They were among the crowd gathered at Beitunia, southwest of Ramallah, anxiously awaiting their relatives who were being freed.

Tempers ran high and when youths began pushing the nearby security fence and throwing rocks, soldiers fired tear gas and stun grenades, witnesses said.

Sunday's release completes the Egyptian-brokered deal to exchange a total of 1,027 prisoners for Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Gaza fighters in June 2006. Shalit returned home on October 18 when Israel freed the first batch of 477 prisoners.

Al Jazeera's Cal Perry, reporting from Ramallah where thousands had gathered to greet the prisoners, pointed out that Sunday's group was "very unlike" the first round of released prisoners.

"That batch was released after very, very difficult negotiations [with Hamas]. This was a list picked by the Israelis," said Perry.

'Great achievement'

The prisoners that Israel freed in the first round included dozens of fighters serving life sentences for involvement in deadly attacks. Their releases set off ecstatic celebration in the Palestinian territories, particularly Hamas' Gaza stronghold.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the movement welcomed the release of all prisoners, regardless of their political affiliation.

GOP candidates make pitch in tea party forum

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Continuing the push to gain support from tea party members, four of the Republican presidential candidates participated in a tele-forum Sunday night.

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum were each featured separately for an equal amount of time — about 10 minutes — and were asked the same set of questions on debt reduction and undoing the health care bill.

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In a poll of audience participants, Bachmann generated the most enthusiasm as a potential nominee, with 36 percent saying they would be “very enthusiastic” if she were the nominee. Gingrich won the second-highest level of enthusiasm. The poll was conducted after the candidates spoke and was conducted using an automatic touch process.

Faring the worst were two candidates who didn’t participate in the forum — Ron Paul, whom 64 percent of participants said they wouldn’t be enthusiastic about at all, and Jon Huntsman, who received that reaction from 65 percent of participants.

The group that hosted the forum, the Tea Party Patriots, will release straw poll preference numbers Monday morning.

There was little disagreement among the candidates, who all railed against “ObamaCare,” and promised to balance the federal budget and axe federal regulations.

On reversing health care legislation, Bachmann and Santorum attempted to distinguish themselves from Romney, contending that it wouldn’t be enough to issue an executive order to stop its implementation.

“The only way we can get rid of it is repealing it,” Bachmann said. “Don’t count on the Supreme Court taking care of it, we need to do it in Congress.”

The candidates and tea party members who questioned them all focused on the theme of “consistency.”

Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin described the forum as an opportunity for tea party members to learn more about the candidates and decide for themselves who to support.

Havel, leader of "Velvet Revolution," dies

Sunday, December 18th, 2011
A man places a candle in tribute to late former Czech President Vaclav Havel at Wenceslas Square in Prague December 18, 2011. Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who was jailed by Communists and then went on to lead the bloodless ''Velvet Revolution'' and become Czech president, died at 75 on Sunday.  The words on the placard (bottom L) reads: ''We thank you''.    REUTERS/David W Cerny

PRAGUE | Sun Dec 18, 2011 7:06pm EST

(Reuters) - Vaclav Havel, an anti-Communist playwright who became Czech president and a worldwide symbol of peace and freedom after leading the bloodless "Velvet Revolution," died at the age of 75 on Sunday.

The former chain smoker died at his country home in Hradecek, north of Prague, of a long respiratory illness after surviving operations for lung cancer and a burst intestine in the late 1990s that left him frail for more than a decade.

The diminutive playwright, who invited the Rolling Stones to medieval Prague castle, took Bill Clinton to a smoky Prague jazz club to play saxophone and was a friend of the Dalai Lama, rose to fame after facing down Prague's Communist rulers.

"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," President Barack Obama said in a statement.

"He played a seminal role in the Velvet Revolution that won his people their freedom and inspired generations to reach for self-determination and dignity in all parts of the world."

His plays were banned for two decades and he was thrown into prison three times after launching Charter 77, a manifesto demanding the Communist government adhere to international standards for human rights.

"I am extremely moved," an emotional Prime Minister Petr Necas told Czech Television when told of Havel's death.

"He was a symbol and the face of our republic, and he is one of the most prominent figures of the politics of the last and the start of this century. His departure is a huge loss. He still had a lot to say in political and social life."

Just six months after completing his last jail sentence, Havel led hundreds of thousands of protesters in Prague's cobblestone streets in a peaceful uprising in November 1989 that ended Soviet-backed rule.

Just over a month later, he was installed in Prague Castle as president of Czechoslovakia.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter: "Vaclav Havel was one of the greatest Europeans of our age. His voice for freedom paved the way for a Europe whole and free."

RELUCTANT PRESIDENT

Dismayed at the looming breakup of Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak states, he quit as president in 1992, but soon became leader of the newly-created Czech Republic.

As a symbol of peaceful transition to democracy, he helped the small country of 10 million to punch well above its weight in international politics.

"Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred" was Havel's trademark slogan that many Czechs recall from the revolution.

In later years, those words were often quoted in sarcasm as Czechs' early enthusiasm towards free market democracy collided with the reality of economic reforms and corrupt politics.

Havel lost some of his allure in the later years of his time at the castle. As president-philosopher, he struggled to uphold morality in a tumultuous era of economic transformation and murky business deals.

House GOP revolt leaves payroll tax cut up in air

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Republican congressional leaders are squaring off for one last battle of the year against President Barack Obama and the Democrats, with both House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urging House-Senate negotiations on the payroll tax cut.

But the White House and top Senate Democrats show no inclination for compromising on the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut and federal unemployment benefits passed by the Senate on Saturday. Democrats have, for now, taken on the GOP’s my-way-or-the-highway approach used during much of this first session of the 112th Congress.

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The Senate passed the bipartisan measure in an 89-10 vote on Saturday with McConnell and the rest of Senate GOP leadership backing the agreement. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), now says House Republicans should accept the bill and further negotiations can come only after the House adopts it.

All of which means in Washington, the week before Christmas will go as the rest of year has — with each party angrily blaming the other for Congress’s failure to act and Obama blaming everybody else.

The House will return to session on Monday, following a rebellion over the weekend by rank-and-file House Republicans against the Senate proposal.

During a GOP conference call on Saturday, Boehner initially praised the Senate’s inclusion of language calling on Obama to make a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days. Boehner said the Senate package “isn’t perfect, but Keystone is a victory.” The House should pass it, the Ohio congressman said, adding that Republicans will live to fight another day, GOP sources said.

But his members angrily shot that down. They raged against the Senate for failing to take up a yearlong extension and vowed to vote against the measure on the House floor. By Sunday morning, Boehner had changed his position, and he now rejects the Senate bill.

“I believe that two months is just kicking the can down the road,” he said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“What I’m suggesting is this: The House has passed its bill; the Senate has passed its bill,” Boehner added. “Under the Constitution, when we have these disagreements, there could be a formal conference between the House and Senate.” The House package, which includes a provision on Keystone and other high-profile policy riders, calls for a full-year extension of the payroll cut.

At the White House, Boehner’s remarks drew a harsh response.

“It’s time House Republicans stop playing politics and get the job done for the American people,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement.

Iran state TV airs "confession" of detained CIA spy

Sunday, December 18th, 2011
A man, who identifies himself as Amir Mirzayi Hekmati and described as a CIA-spy by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, is seen speaking about his mission on Iranian state television in an unknown location in Iran, in this still frame taken from a video acquired December 18, 2011. REUTERS/IRIB/via REUTERS TV/Handout

A man, who identifies himself as Amir Mirzayi Hekmati and described as a CIA-spy by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, is seen speaking about his mission on Iranian state television in an unknown location in Iran, in this still frame taken from a video acquired December 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/IRIB/via REUTERS TV/Handout

TEHRAN | Sun Dec 18, 2011 5:27pm EST

(Reuters) - Iranian state television on Sunday aired what it described as the confession of an Iranian man detained for spying for the CIA.

State television broadcast a taped interview with Amir Mirza Hekmati, in which he said he had received training by the U.S. intelligence services. The channel said he had been sent to Iran to provide misinformation to Iranian intelligence.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry said Saturday it had captured a CIA spy of Iranian origin who had received training in the U.S. Army's intelligence units and spent time at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

State television showed Hekmati seated, wearing an open-necked shirt.

"They (U.S. agents) told me, 'If you are successful at this mission we can train you further, we can give you other missions ... This mission requires that you travel to Iran,'" he said, appearing calm.

In a video with a voice-over in the channel's main news bulletin, pictures of Hekmati were shown in what seemed to be U.S. military bases.

"I was in a spying center in Bagram (a major U.S. base in Afghanistan) ... I went to Dubai and then ... I flew to Tehran," Hekmati said, without mentioning the date.

"They told me, 'You will become a source of military and intelligence information for the Iranians for three weeks and we will give you money for this and then you will return.'"

Iran's state television has in the past broadcast confessions from those accused of threatening state security.

In May, Tehran announced the arrest of a network of 30 CIA-backed spies involved in sabotage and espionage.

Tuesday 15 people were indicted for spying for Washington and Israel. Under Iran's Islamic law, espionage can be punishable by death.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Peter Graff)

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.

Melissa Rivers — Porn Boyfriend, Porn Offer

Sunday, December 18th, 2011
Melissa Rivers Porn Boyfriend, Porn Offer

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Dating a porn king has brought Melissa Rivers into the adult film universe -- and now one company wants her to take it a step further, and make an adult tape of her own!

Last U.S. troops leave Iraq, ending war

Sunday, December 18th, 2011
Specialist Christopher Conner smiles with Specialist Dante Battle (R) as their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle approaches the Kuwaiti border with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division as part of the last U.S. military convoy to leave Iraq December 18, 2011. The last convoy of U.S. soldiers pulled out of Iraq on Sunday, ending nearly nine years of war that cost almost 4,500 American and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and left a country still grappling with political uncertainty.    REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

K-CROSSING, Kuwait | Sun Dec 18, 2011 3:25pm EST

(Reuters) - The last convoy of U.S. soldiers pulled out of Iraq on Sunday, ending nearly nine years of war that cost almost 4,500 American and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and left a country grappling with political uncertainty.

The war launched in March 2003 with missiles striking Baghdad to oust President Saddam Hussein closes with a fragile democracy still facing insurgents, sectarian tensions and the challenge of defining its place in an Arab region in turmoil.

As U.S. soldiers pulled out, Iraq's delicate power-sharing deal for , Sunni and Kurdish factions was already under pressure. The Shi'ite-led government asked parliament to fire the Sunni deputy prime minister, and security sources said the Sunni vice president faced an arrest warrant.

The final column of around 100 mostly U.S. military MRAP armoured vehicles carrying 500 U.S. troops trundled across the southern Iraq desert from their last base through the night and daybreak along an empty highway to the Kuwaiti border.

Honking their horns, the last batch of around 25 American military trucks and tractor trailers carrying Bradley fighting vehicles crossed the border early on Sunday morning, their crews waving at fellow troops along the route.

"I just can't wait to call my wife and kids and let them know I am safe," Sgt. First Class Rodolfo Ruiz said as the border came into sight. Soon afterwards, he told his men the mission was over, "Hey guys, you made it."

For U.S. President Barack Obama, the military pullout is the fulfilment of an election promise to bring troops home from a conflict inherited from his predecessor, the most unpopular war since Vietnam and one that tainted America's standing worldwide.

For Iraqis, though, the U.S. departure brings a sense of sovereignty tempered by nagging fears their country may slide once again into the kind of sectarian violence that killed many thousands of people at its peak in 2006-2007.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government still struggles with a delicate power-sharing arrangement between Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni parties, leaving Iraq vulnerable to meddling by Sunni Arab nations and Shi'ite Iran.

The extent of those divisions was clear on Sunday when Maliki asked parliament for a vote of no confidence against Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, and security sources and lawmakers said an arrest warrant had been issued for Tareq al-Hashemi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents.

Migrants feared drowned off Indonesia

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

A boat believed to be carrying more than 250 migrants, many of them from the Middle East, has sunk off Indonesia's main island of Java, rescuers say.

The vessel, which survivors said was headed for Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, went down in bad weather and heavy seas about 40 nautical miles off the coast of Java on Saturday.

Police blamed the accident on overloading, telling the country's official news agency Antara that the vessel appeared to have been carrying more than twice its capacity.

So far only 33 people have been rescued, Sahrul Arifin, the head of emergency and logistics at the East Java Disaster Mitigation Centre, said.

Bad weather and waves of up to five metres hampered rescue efforts on Sunday, with 300 rescuers including navy and police officers deployed to comb the sea for bodies.

The survivors are being kept at a community hall near Prigi beach, 640km southeast of Indonesia's capital Jakarta.

Survivors interviewed by the AFP news agency and local officials said that most of the passengers came from Afghanistan or Iran, and they had paid agents between $2,500 and $5,000 to seek asylum in Australia.

Some claimed to be Iraqi, Pakistani, Turkish or Saudi nationals, and that their papers were lost at sea.

Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Jakarta, said that "chances of finding any more survivors was getting slimmer by the hour".

One of the survivors, Esmat Adine, told Antara that the vessel began rocking from side to side, which triggered widespread panic.

"The passengers were very tightly packed, and therefore had nowhere to go," said the 24-year-old Afghan migrant.

"That made the boat even more unstable and eventually it sank," he added.

'Overcrowded boat'

Adine said that he and others survived by clinging on to parts of the broken vessel until they were picked up by the local fishermen.

He estimated that more than 40 children were on the ship. It was not immediately clear if any were rescued.

The West End X-Factor

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Amelia Lily and Misha B from The X-Factor
 
I don’t follow any talent show in any country. I have nothing against them, personally. (more…)

Lindsay Lohan — Playboy Sales Are On Fire!

Sunday, December 18th, 2011
Lindsay Lohan Playboy Sales Are On Fire!

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Lindsay Lohan definitely gave Playboy their money's worth ... because the issue is selling out all across the country ...

Occupy Christmas: Protest Santa’s Workshop

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Buy More Stuff, Black Friday 2010

This holiday season many people are choosing to Occupy Christmas. (more…)

Senate OKs $1T budget bill, payroll tax cut

Saturday, December 17th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate passed legislation Saturday extending a Social Security payroll tax cut and jobless benefits for just two months, handing President Barack Obama a partial victory while setting the stage for another fight in February.

It also brought a peaceful end to a year-long battle over spending by passing a $1 trillion-plus catchall budget bill that wraps together the day-to-day budgets for 10 Cabinet departments and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House passed the measure Friday, and the White House has signaled that Obama will sign it.

The renewal of the 2-percentage-point cut in the Social Security payroll tax for 160 million workers and unemployment benefits averaging about $300 a week for the additional millions of people who have been out of work for six months or more is a modest step forward for Obama's year-end jobs agenda.

As a condition for GOP support of the payroll tax measure, Obama has to accept a provision that forces him to decide within 60 days whether to approve or reject a proposed a Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that promises thousands of jobs.

Obama didn't reference the pipeline issue in a brief appearance at the White House after the vote. He welcomed the Senate's passage of the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance extension and said it would be "inexcusable" for Congress not to extend them for the rest of 2012 when lawmakers return from their holiday break.

The budget bill, passed 67-32, heads to the White House for Obama's signature; the payroll tax measure won a 89-10 tally that send it back to the House - where many Republicans only reluctantly support it - for a vote early next week.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would not predict whether the House would accept the Senate payroll tax measure, saying GOP leaders would have to discuss it with the rank and file. But Democrats assume Senate Republicans would not have allowed the short-term measure to advance without a signal from Boehner that the House would go along.

Democratic and GOP leaders opted for the short-term extension of the payroll tax and jobless benefits measure after failing to agree on big enough spending cuts to pay for a full-year renewal. The measure also provides a 60-day reprieve from a scheduled 27 percent cut in the fees paid to doctors who treat Medicare patients.

Brazil judge allows dam construction to continue

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

SAO PAULO (AP) -- A Brazilian judge has revoked a decision that had halted some work on a massive hydroelectric dam in the Amazon jungle.

Federal judge Carlos Eduardo Martins halted construction on the $11-billion, 11,000-megawatt Belo Monte Dam in September, saying it would harm fishing on the Xingu River, which feeds the Amazon.

But on Friday, he ruled that construction could proceed because the Norte Energia consortium that is building the dam showed that the flow of the river would not be altered in a way that would harm the habitat of fish.

The judge's ruling has been posted on the court's website.

When completed, the dam would be the world's third largest behind China's Three Gorges dam and the Itaipu, which straddles the border of Brazil and Paraguay.

The government has said it will be a source of clean, renewable energy, and that it will help fuel the country's economy.

But environmentalists and indigenous groups say the dam would devastate wildlife and the livelihoods of 40,000 people who live in the area to be flooded.

Celebrities including British rock star Sting, film director James Cameron and actress Sigourney Weaver have joined activists in lobbying against the dam.

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."

Body hair: The not-so-naked ape

Thursday, December 15th, 2011
Good night. Sleep tight. Mind the bugs don’t bite

MUCH ink and many electrons have been spilled on the question of human hairlessness: why, as Desmond Morris put it in the title of a book published in 1967, Homo sapiens is “The Naked Ape”. This lack of hair has been attributed to everything from a putative aquatic period in the species’s past to the advantages of displaying a healthy skin to members of the opposite sex.

Less attention has been paid, though, to the fact that humans are not really hairless at all. Per square centimetre, human skin has as many hair follicles as that of other great apes. The difference is not in the number, but in the fineness of the hair that grows from those follicles. These fine human hairs do not seem to be performing any of the functions of their counterparts in more hirsute species (insulation and, through colouration, either signalling or camouflage). So what are they for?

That is a question addressed by Isabelle Dean and Michael Siva-Jothy of Sheffield University, in Britain, in a paper in Biology Letters. Their conclusion is that humans have fine body hair to serve as an alarm system.

Ms Dean and Dr Siva-Jothy were testing the idea that fine body hairs (known, technically, as vellus and terminal hairs) are there to alert their owner to creepy crawlies such as bed bugs, which might be intent on biting them, and that the hair may also get in the way of such arthropods’ activities, giving the owner more time to react before he is bitten.

The standard “lab rat” for this sort of experiment is the university student, and Ms Dean and Dr Siva-Jothy managed to recruit 29 eager volunteers for their study—19 men and ten women. Each had a patch of skin on one arm shaved, marked with a pen and surrounded by petroleum jelly (to fence the bed bugs in), and a commensurate patch on the other marked and surrounded, but not shaved.

The Higgs boson: Fantasy turned reality

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

WELL, they’ve found it. Possibly. Maybe. Pinning down physicists about whether they have actually discovered the Higgs boson is almost as hard as tracking down the elusive subatomic beast itself. Leon Lederman, a leading researcher in the field, once dubbed it the “goddamn” particle, because it has proved so hard to isolate. That name was changed by a sniffy editor to the “God” particle, and a legend was born. Headline writers loved it. Physicists loved the publicity. CERN, the world’s biggest particle-physics laboratory, and the centre of the hunt for the Higgs, used that publicity to help keep the money flowing.

And this week it may all have paid off. On December 13th two of the researchers at CERN’s headquarters in Geneva announced to a breathless world something that looks encouragingly Higgsy.

The Higgs boson, for those who have not been paying attention to the minutiae of particle physics over the past few years, is a theoretical construct dreamed up in 1964 by a British researcher, Peter Higgs (pictured above), and five other, less famous individuals. It is the last unobserved piece of the Standard Model, the most convincing explanation available for the way the universe works in all of its aspects except gravity (which is dealt with by the general theory of relativity).

The Standard Model (see table) includes familiar particles such as electrons and photons, and esoteric ones like the W and Z bosons, which carry something called the weak nuclear force. Most bosons are messenger particles that cement the others, known as fermions, together. They do so via electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces. The purpose of the Higgs boson, however, is different. It is to inculcate mass into those particles which weigh something. Without it, or something like it, some of the Standard Model’s particles that actually do have mass (particularly the W and Z bosons) would be predicted to be massless. Without it, in other words, the Standard Model would not work.

The announcement, by Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli—the heads, respectively, of two experiments at CERN known as ATLAS and CMS—was that both of their machines have seen phenomena which look like traces of the Higgs. They are traces, rather than actual bosons, because no Higgs will ever be seen directly. The best that can be hoped for are patterns of breakdown particles from Higgses that are, themselves, the results of head-on collisions between protons travelling in opposite directions around CERN’s giant accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Heavy objects like Higgs bosons can break down in several different ways, but each of these ways is predictable. Both ATLAS and CMS have seen a number of these predicted patterns often enough to pique interest, but not (yet) often enough to constitute proof that they came from Higgses, rather than being random fluctuations in the background of non-Higgs decays.

Global Warming by Any Other Name…

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011


 
With the conclusion of the recent climate talks in Durban, South Africa, the importance of the general public accepting global warming as a reality is of the essence. (more…)

Markets fall as mood darkens over EU crisis pact

Monday, December 12th, 2011
AP Photo
AP Photo/Richard Drew

PARIS (AP) -- Enthusiasm for riskier assets such as stocks and the euro faded Monday as investors worried that Europe's new pact aimed at fixing the continent's debt crisis would be insufficient.

Markets had rallied on Friday, when the European Union adopted a new fiscal pact meant to prevent a repeat of the financial fiasco that is now sweeping across countries that use the euro. But that optimism quickly dried up as traders sought more support for European financial markets in the short-term as well.

Credit rating agency Moody's said last week's summit "offers few new measures."

"The announced measures therefore do not change Moody's previously expressed view that the crisis is in a critical and volatile stage," Moody's said, warning that it still intends to review all EU governments' ratings for possible downgrades during the first three months of 2012.

Under the deal announced in Brussels Friday, all 17 countries that use the euro agreed to allow a central European authority to oversee their future budgets and impose tighter controls on spending. They also agreed to automatic penalties if countries spend too much.

Europe's new "fiscal compact" also calls for the launch of a permanent bailout fund for euro nations in 2012 - a year ahead of schedule - and an additional euro200 billion ($267 billion) to the International Monetary Fund for a separate emergency fund for countries in crisis. National central banks will provide the money to the IMF.

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.

FTSE 100 banks hand back gains

Monday, December 12th, 2011

London equities were back under pressure on Monday, with the FTSE 100’s financial stocks unable to keep the momentum seen in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s European Union summit on the euro crisis.

Banks’ shares were lower after the Financial Services Authority’s report into the near-collapse of Royal Bank of Scotland came as a timely reminder of the extent of the sector’s problems at the height of the last financial crisis. It highlighted the regulator’s own “flawed supervisory approach which failed adequately to challenge the judgment and risk assessments of the management of RBS”. It also blamed RBS for a lack of due diligence ahead of its takeover of Dutch peer ABN Amro which led to the collapse of the enlarged group.

Shares in Royal Bank of Scotland fell 5.3 per cent to 20.8p. Lloyds Banking Group fell 6.7 per cent to 26.4p, the biggest single loss on the benchmark index. Barclays fell 2.7 per cent to 185p. HSBC was 1.9 per cent weaker at 495.3p.

Overall, the FTSE 100 fell 0.5 per cent to 5,501.55, a loss of 28 points also driven by mining stocks as traders across global markets were reluctant to take on further risk. The fall came after an uneasy week spent tracking the twists and turns of the EU’s moves to address the eurozone debt crisis left the index 0.4 per cent lower on the week.

“The UK voted against being included in Europe’s treaty changes on the weekend, which was seen in some circles as the first shots fired in an attempt to depart the EU,” said Stan Shamu, market strategist at IG Markets.

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.

Euro slides as summit deal glow fades

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Monday 12.30 GMT. Markets are skittish as the bounce delivered by last week’s European summit deal looks to be fading.

The FTSE All-World equity index is down 0.3 per cent, supported by a positive session in Asia where investors were pleased by Friday’s better than expected reading on US consumer confidence, which boosted optimism about the global economic outlook.

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But the FTSE Eurofirst 300 is suffering a loss of 0.5 per cent and S&P 500 futures point to Wall Street starting the day down 0.5 per cent, tracking a slide by the euro.

Risk appetite is weak, with the dollar index – which tends to have an inverse correlation to investor bullishness – up 0.7 per cent. Benchmark US Treasury and Bund yields are down 3 basis point to 2.03 and 6bp to 2.06 per cent respectively as funds find their way into perceived havens.

News over the weekend that China’s raw material imports surged in November is not helping commodities. Copper is down 2.3 per cent to $3.47 a pound and Brent crude is lower by 0.9 per cent to $107.64 a barrel.

Growth-focused assets rallied late last week as many investors broadly welcomed moves by the European Central Bank and eurozone leaders to calm credit markets.

Some of that improved mood was initially carrying into today’s session, but it is clear that wariness about the eurozone’s prospects are hard to dispel.

Usenix: Google deploys IPv6 for internal network (Joab Jackson/ITworld.com)

Monday, December 12th, 2011

In a project that has taken longer than company engineers anticipated, Google is rolling out IPv6 across its entire internal employee network.

Google network engineer Irena Nikolova discussed the company-wide implementation at the Usenix Large Installation System Administration (LISA) conference, being held this week in Boston. There, she shared some lessons that other organizations might benefit from as they migrate their own networks to the next generation Internet Protocol.

From the experience, Google has learned that an IPv6 migration involves more than just updating the software and hardware. It also requires buy-in from management and staff, particularly administrators who already are juggling too many tasks. And, for early adopters, it requires a lot of work with vendors to get them to fix buggy and still-unfinished code. "We should not expect something to work just because it is declared supported," the paper accompanying the presentation concluded.

"I think everyone who has tried to migrate to IPv6 has run into the same problems we have," Nikolova said.

The project, which has been under way for about four years, turned out to be a larger endeavor than the engineering team had anticipated. It is only half way finished. But the company has made significant gains in this time. About 95 percent of Google's engineers now have IPv6 access on their desks. Eventually, the company plans to have an IPv6-only network.

The project was started in 2008 by a small group of Google engineers, some of whom worked on it in the 20 percent of their work time that Google allots for its engineers to pursue their own pet projects. The goal was "IPv6 everywhere," Nikolova said.

Part of the interest in the upgrade was practical. Even though it was a private network, Google's internal network used public IP addresses, and Google was running out of internal IPv4 addresses. Also, Google engineers were developing IPv6 versions of Google's own tools and applications and needed to test this software internally before releasing it to the public.

Lastly, Google engineers realized they faced a chicken-and-egg problem with deploying IPv6. Like many organizations, the company has been slow to adopt IPv6 due to the lack of third party applications running on IPv6, which, in turn, are scarce because few organizations run IPv6 networks.

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