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 veryhotthread  Author  Topic: Stuff & Nonsense  (Read 127767 times)
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« Reply #1560 on: Oct 16th, 2010, 08:29am »

New York Times

October 15, 2010
Rum Battle in Caribbean Leaves Tax Hangover
By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI

Rum and politics have made a fiery mix since America’s earliest days, when a young politician named George Washington won election to the House of Burgesses in colonial Virginia with the help of spiked punch at the polls.

There have been rum wars involving pirates and slave traders, and rumrunners who made a mockery of Prohibition.

Now the spirit once called Kill-Devil has set off a bitter dispute between two United States islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, over a tax that the federal treasury collects on rum.

The fight began when the Virgin Islands persuaded the world’s largest distiller, which said it was leaving Puerto Rico, to move to St. Croix by offering a staggering $2.7 billion in tax incentives. The new distillery, for Captain Morgan spiced rum, will provide no more than 70 permanent jobs on the south shore of St. Croix — but it will entitle the Virgin Islands to collect billions in rum tax revenue from Washington.

That bounty comes at the expense of Puerto Rico, where 90 percent of the revenue from the rum tax had been used for public projects and social services rather than corporate incentives. The Virgin Islands has promised to give nearly half its tax revenue back to the distiller, the British company Diageo, prompting a series of charges and countercharges between neighbors roughly 50 miles apart in the Caribbean.

The aftershocks could even change what people drink in the United States. The tax incentives are so generous that Virgin Island producers might ultimately try to use highly subsidized sugar cane to make blended whiskeys, vodka and gin, distillers on the mainland say. That could threaten the jobs of grain farmers and distilleries in the American heartland.

The deal could also cost American taxpayers. With Puerto Rico’s economy reeling and its government budget already strained, some island officials say they cannot rule out needing to ask Washington for aid to cover basic expenses once covered by the rum tax.

“We’d have to make it up one way or another,” said Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Pedro R. Pierluisi, the island’s nonvoting delegate to Congress. “It’s not going to be pretty.”

The billions of dollars at stake are the result of a quirk in the tax code that was intended to aid the islands while preventing their offshore distilleries from gaining an unfair advantage over competitors in the states.

Because rum producers in the islands are exempt from federal excise taxes, the government imposed an “equalization tax” on Puerto Rican rum producers in 1917 and gave the money to the commonwealth. In 1954, the United States extended the arrangement to the Virgin Islands.

For half a century, the program allowed the islands to replenish their depleted treasuries and pay for infrastructure, schools and social services. Puerto Rico used less than 10 percent of the $450 million it received last year to provide marketing support and production subsidies to rum companies, according to government officials, leaving the rest for the island.

In 2007, Diageo explored a possible move of its Captain Morgan production to Honduras or Guatemala, where labor costs and supplies were cheaper.

At the same time, Diageo approached the governor of the Virgin Islands, John P. de Jongh Jr., about moving to St. Croix. The two signed a deal the following year. It requires Diageo to stay in the Virgin Islands for 30 years in return for incentives so rich they are double the cost of actually producing the rum.

Diageo, based in Britain, will get a new plant built at taxpayer expense, exemption from all property and gross receipt taxes for the length of the deal, a 90 percent reduction in corporate taxes, plus marketing support and production incentives totaling tens of millions a year.

The generous subsidies have led to charges by some Puerto Rican officials and Virgin Islands residents that the governor was misled into using public money for corporate welfare.

“We’re not against big businesses,” said Michael J. Springer Jr., a candidate for the Virgin Islands Senate, “but for the government of the Virgin Islands to give that much money to a foreign corporation when it was intended to help the residents and their communities, is outrageous. In the meantime, the government is borrowing to pay its operating expenses.”

But officials for Diageo said it had no intention of staying in Puerto Rico, and Mr. de Jongh asserts that the concessions were needed to keep the company from moving out of the United States entirely.

Even after the incentives, the Virgin Islands will gain a stable source of revenue for 30 years, he said, with rum tax proceeds projected to climb to more than $230 million by 2038, from $90 million in 2008.

The infusion of cash has already helped the government retain 2,000 employees, Mr. de Jongh said. “We will strengthen the government pension fund, build schools, fix and construct roads, and continue to move the U.S. Virgin Islands toward fiscal self-reliance,” he said.

Jennifer Nugent-Hill, a trustee at the University of the Virgin Islands and vice president at a shipping company, said the infusion of rum tax revenue would be one of the most significant economic developments in the island’s history, empowering its residents “to control our own destiny.”

On Puerto Rico, government officials have little hope of replacing the $120 million in annual revenue that will leave with Diageo in 2012. It will cost the island 340 jobs, as well. Mr. Pierluisi has pushed a bill in Congress that would forbid either entity from offering more than 10 percent of its rum tax revenue as subsidies.

But the measure has languished, in part because of opposition by Donna M. Christensen, the delegate for the Virgin Islands. Others accuse Puerto Rico of opposing the deal to favor its biggest distillery, Bacardi, which has government ties.

Roberto Serralles, whose family distillery stands to lose millions in business, called the moves by the Virgin Islands an underhanded raid.

“If Tennessee got G.M. to relocate by offering a subsidy that was more than the cost of making a car, wouldn’t the people in Michigan be upset?” asked Mr. Serralles, whose family has produced rum on Puerto Rico for six generations. “And you have to wonder — why is the government in the business of using federal funds to guarantee profits of a huge multinational corporation?”

The dispute extends beyond Caribbean sands. Distillers on the mainland are concerned about a $1 billion subsidy the Virgin Islands recently awarded Fortune Brands, the American company that makes Cruzan Rum, Jim Beam Bourbon and other spirits.

Fortune will receive an assortment of tax-financed incentives, including $100 million for improvements to its distillery on the island and a wastewater treatment program. The agreement also ensures that the company will pay no more than 16 cents a gallon for molasses, the main ingredient of rum, now selling for more than $2 on the open market.

According to Treasury records, the company won approval to bottle three blended whiskeys using molasses-based cane spirits rather than grain spirits.

A Fortune spokesman said the company merely wanted to preserve its “flexibility” and had no plans to use cane spirits in other products. Some distillers worry, though, that cane spirits — filtered into a nearly flavorless alcohol — may be used to make vodka, gin and other liquors.

“If our own federal government is also letting its taxes subsidize foreign corporations and offshore producers, it makes it harder to survive,” said Philip E. Prichard, whose independent distillery in Tennessee makes rum and bourbon. “It flies in the face of entrepreneurship.”


http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/business/16rum.html?ref=world

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« Reply #1561 on: Oct 16th, 2010, 08:34am »

New York Times

October 15, 2010
Chinese Christians Barred From Conference
By SHARON LaFRANIERE

BEIJING — More than 100 Chinese Christians seeking to attend an international evangelical conference in South Africa have been barred from leaving the country, some in the group said, because their churches are not sanctioned by the state.

Organizers say that more than 4,000 Christians from around the world will discuss faith, poverty, the AIDS epidemic and other issues at the nine-day conference, which begins Saturday in Cape Town. But members of the Chinese delegation said that they could get no farther than the passport control at international airports in China before officials confiscated their documents.

“They said it is illegal to attend this conference, and they sent me home,” said Liu Guan, 36, a Protestant evangelical leader who tried to fly out of Capital International Airport in Beijing last Sunday. “The explanation was ‘for your own good.’ ”

China’s policy toward Christians is more relaxed now than a decade ago. Although only government-sanctioned churches are considered legal, millions of Chinese — some say tens of millions — worship in unregistered house churches.

While believers often complain of harassment, officials in much of China turn a blind eye to the activities there. But Chinese house churches are one matter; global conferences are another.

The Chinese authorities said that the government intervened to prevent people from attending the conference because Cape Town organizers failed to honor China’s policy of domestic control over religious activities. In a statement on Friday, Ma Zhaoxu, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that instead of inviting the legal representatives of China’s Christians, the organizers “secretly extended multiple invitations to Christians who privately set up meeting points.”

“This action publicly challenges the principle of independent, autonomous, domestically organized religious associations, and therefore represents a rude interference in Chinese religious affairs,” his statement said.

Officials of the conference, the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, have protested. In a statement, Doug Birdsall, the executive chairman, said that China’s official Christian representatives had been invited but had declined to attend. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement — China’s state-sanctioned Protestant Church — was also involved in the process of selecting participants, he said.

In an open letter released Friday, the Chinese delegation said China was home to tens of millions of Christians, most of whom worshiped in unregistered churches. Pastors and elders were eager for the chance to discuss the growth of Christianity in China and to build ties with religious leaders from other countries at the Cape Town conference, the letter said.

The conference is the third worldwide gathering since a committee led by the evangelist Billy Graham drew 2,700 religious leaders to Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. Organizers say most of the speakers are from Africa, South America and Asia because that is where two-thirds of evangelicals live today.

Beginning in July, Chinese officials began individually contacting every Chinese citizen who had been invited and pressuring them not to attend, church leaders said. Some had to give up their passports, some suffered government reprisals against their churches and some were detained, the letter said. Most were turned away at airport passport control checkpoints, according to the letter. “This series of blocking actions violated their right of religious freedom” spelled out in the Chinese Constitution, it stated.

There is precedence for the government’s interference. In accordance with China’s policy against foreign oversight of religion, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which officially represents Chinese Catholics, does not recognize the authority of the pope. Ignoring that, Pope Benedict XVI invited four Chinese bishops to attend a church conference in Rome in 2005. Government authorities rejected the invitation.

Mr. Liu, the Beijing evangelical leader, said a half-dozen police officers and government officials met him and four other Christians at the Beijing airport about an hour before their Sunday flight was scheduled to board. He said that his passport was confiscated and that he was ordered not to speak to the foreign media. A 25-year-old Beijing education worker, who asked to be identified only by his English first name of David in order not to call attention to his church, was sent home along with Mr. Liu. He said he later demanded a written explanation of why his passport was seized. The letter he received was brief, he said. It stated that he had volunteered to give his passport to the police.

Demanding Release of Dissident

BEIJING — More than 100 Chinese intellectuals and dissidents signed and posted a letter online Friday, asking that the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, be released from prison and that government security officers stop harassing his wife, Liu Xia. The signers also asked that government leaders “make good on their oft-repeated promise to reform the political system,” in line with Charter 08, the pro-democracy manifesto of which Mr. Liu was a writer and that led to his imprisonment.

The letter added, “This will require it to guarantee the rights of Chinese citizens as they work to bring about peaceful transition toward a society that will be, in fact and not just in name, a democracy and a nation of laws.”

A leading dissident and supporter of Mr. Liu, Ding Zilin, meanwhile, was reported to have vanished, last heard from in the Yangtze River Delta town of Wuxi on Oct. 8, days after Mr. Liu’s prize was announced.


http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/world/asia/16china.html?ref=world

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« Reply #1562 on: Oct 16th, 2010, 08:39am »

Science Daily

What Did Tyrannosaurus Rex Eat? Each Other
ScienceDaily (Oct. 15, 2010) —

It turns out that the undisputed king of the dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex, didn't just eat other dinosaurs but also each other. Paleontologists from the United States and Canada have found bite marks on the giants' bones that were made by other T. rex, according to a new study published online Oct. 15 in the journal PLoS ONE.

While searching through dinosaur fossil collections for another study on dinosaur bones with mammal tooth marks, Yale researcher Nick Longrich discovered a bone with especially large gouges in them. Given the age and location of the fossil, the marks had to be made by T. rex, Longrich said. "They're the kind of marks that any big carnivore could have made, but T. rex was the only big carnivore in western North America 65 million years ago."

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It was only after discovering the bite marks were from a T. rex that Longrich realized the bone itself also belonged to the behemoth. After searching through a few dozen T. rex bones from several different museum fossil collections, he discovered a total of three foot bones (including two toes) and one arm bone that showed evidence of T. rex cannibalism, representing a significant percentage.

"It's surprising how frequent it appears to have been," Longrich said. "We're not exactly sure what that means."

The marks are definitely the result of feeding, although scientists aren't sure whether they are the result of scavengers or the end result of fighting, Longrich said, adding that if two T. rex fought to the death, the victor might have made a meal out of his adversary. "Modern big carnivores do this all the time," he said. "It's a convenient way to take out the competition and get a bit of food at the same time."

However, the marks appear to have been made some time after death, Longrich said, meaning that if one dinosaur killed another, it might have eaten most of the meat off the more accessible parts of the carcass before returning to pick at the smaller foot and arm bones.

While only one other dinosaur species, Majungatholus, is known to have been a cannibal, Longrich said the practice was likely more common than we think and that closer examination of fossil bones could turn up more evidence that other species also preyed on one another.

The finding is a big clue into the obscure eating habits of these enormous predators. While today's large carnivores often hunt together in packs, T. rex likely acted on their own, Longrich said. "These animals were some of the largest terrestrial carnivores of all time, and the way they approached eating was fundamentally different from modern species," he said. "There's a big mystery around what and how they ate, and this research helps to uncover one piece of the puzzle."

Other authors of the paper include John Horner (Montana State University), Gregory Erickson (Florida State University) and Philip Currie (University of Alberta).


http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101015185836.htm

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« Reply #1563 on: Oct 16th, 2010, 08:48am »

Wired

Cold, Dead Stars Could Help Limit Dark Matter
By Lisa Grossman October 15, 2010 | 2:43 pm | Categories: Physics, Space

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Hunting for cold stellar corpses near the center of the galaxy or in star clusters could put new limits on the properties of dark matter.

“You can exclude a big class of theories that the experiments cannot exclude just by observing the temperature of a neutron star,” said physicist Chris Kouvaris of the University of Southern Denmark, lead author of a paper in the Sept. 28 Physical Review D. “Maybe by observations, which come cheaper than expensive experiments, we might get some clues about dark matter.”

Dark matter is the irritatingly invisible stuff that makes up some 23 percent of the universe, but makes itself known only through its gravitational tug on ordinary matter.

There are several competing theories about what dark matter actually is, but one of the most widely pursued is a hypothetical weakly interacting massive particle (WIMP). Physicists in search of WIMPs have placed experimental detectors deep underground in mines and mountains, and are waiting for a dark matter particle to hit them.

Others have proposed looking for the buildup of dark matter in stars like the sun or white dwarfs. But both subterranean and stellar-detection strategies will light up only for WIMPs larger than a certain size. That size is miniscule — about a trillionth of a quadrillionth of a square centimeter — but dark matter particles could be smaller still.

One way to rule out such diminutive particles is to look to neutron stars, suggest Kouvaris and co-author Peter Tinyakov of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

Neutron stars are the cold, dense remnants of massive stars that died in fiery supernova explosions. They tend to have masses similar to the sun, but in diameter they would barely stretch from one end of Manhattan to the other. This extreme density makes neutron stars exceptionally good nets for dark matter.

“For their size and their temperature, they have the best efficiency in capturing WIMPs,” Kouvaris said. Particles up to 100 times smaller than the ones underground experiments are sensitive to could still make a noticeable difference to neutron stars.

After the fires of their birth, neutron stars slowly cool over millions of years as they radiate photons. But if WIMPs annihilate each other whenever they meet — like a particle of matter meeting a particle of antimatter — as some models suggest they should, dark matter could reheat these cold stars from the inside.

Kouvaris calculated the minimum temperature for a WIMP-burning neutron star, and found it to be about 100,000 kelvins [about 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit]. That’s more than 10 times hotter than the surface of the sun, but more than 100 times cooler than the sun’s fuel-burning interior. It’s also much cooler than any neutron star yet observed.

Dark matter and ordinary matter are thought to clump up in some of the same places, like the center of the galaxy or globular clusters of stars. So Kouvaris and Tinyakov suggest that astronomers try to find a neutron star colder than the minimum temperature in a region with a lot of dark matter floating around.

“If you observe a neutron star with a temp below the one we predict, that excludes a whole class of dark-matter candidates,” Kouvaris said. It could mean the WIMPs are extra-small, or that they don’t annihilate when they meet each other — a property of WIMPs that experiments can’t get at.

“It’s an intriguing idea,” said observational astronomer David Kaplan University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “But I’m a little skeptical that it can be done immediately, or even in the near future.”

The center of the galaxy is dusty and difficult to observe, and most globular clusters are so far away that a cold, tiny neutron star hiding inside them would be beyond today’s telescopes. The next generation of ultraviolet telescopes could be up to the task, Kaplan suggests. “But that’s not to say that it will be easy.”

Astronomer Bob Rutledge of McGill University suggests an alternative approach: Rather than squinting for neutron stars’ dim light, astronomers could find them through ripples in space-time called gravitational waves. When two neutron stars merge, they are expected to throw off massive amounts of these waves, and Earth-based detectors like LIGO are already in place to catch them — although no waves have actually shown up yet.

“It would be technically hard, but a sound approach,” Rutledge said. “This sort of thing could become possible in the more distant future.”

Image: Artist’s impression of a neutron star with a powerful magnetic field, called a magnetar. Credit: NASA

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/10/dark-matter-neutron-star/

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« Reply #1564 on: Oct 16th, 2010, 08:53am »

Hollywood Reporter

It's official: 'Hobbit' greenlighted
October 15 2010
by Borys Kit


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The announcement, made jointly by New Line president and COO Toby Emmerich, Warner Bros. president and COO Alan Horn, and MGM co-CEO Steve Cooper, says the "the two films based on 'The Hobbit' are now greenlit and will begin principal photography in February 2011, under the direction of Peter Jackson."

The announcement does not mean, however, that the labor issue acting as a hurdle for the production has been resolved. And it's the resolution of that dispute which will determine where the movie will shoot.

The dispute lies between Jackson and an array of unions, including New Zealand Actors’ Equity and SAG. A “do not work” order is in place on the production, which has refused to recognize union jurisdiction for local actors. Discussions in New Zealand are being facilitated by that country’s government, with little progress reported to date. SAG would not comment on whether it is involved in negotiations.

If the movie does not shoot in New Zealand, the country where Jackson made his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the filmmaker said Warners are looking at five different locales around the world to host the project.

- Borys Kit


http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/blogs/heat-vision/its-official-hobbit-greenlighted-30856

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« Reply #1565 on: Oct 16th, 2010, 6:03pm »

CNN
16 October 2010

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(CNN) -- Barbara Billingsley, who wore a classy pearl necklace and dispensed pearls of wisdom as America's quintessential mom on "Leave it to Beaver," has died at age 94, a family spokeswoman said Saturday.

The actress passed away at 2 a.m. (5 a.m. ET) Saturday at her home in Santa Monica, California, after a long illness, spokeswoman Judy Twersky said. A private memorial is being planned.

"She was as happy as a lark being recognized as America's mom," actor Tony Dow, who played Wally Cleaver, told CNN. "She had a terrific life and had a wonderful impact on everybody she knew, and even people she didn't know."

Actor Jerry Mathers, who played Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver, spoke of Billingsley's talent during a 2000 appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"Barbara was always a true role model for me. She was a great actress," he said. "And in a lot of ways ... we kind of stifled her, because her true talent didn't really come out in 'Leave it Beaver.' She was like the straight man, but she has an awful lot of talent."

The actress won a new legion of fans in a brief, but memorable scene in the 1980 send-up movie "Airplane."

"Oh, stewardess. I speak jive," Billingsley said in her role as a passenger comforting an ill man on the flight.

From the moment its catchy theme song sounded in black-and-white TV sets of the 1950s, "Leave it to Beaver" enthralled Americans during a time of relative prosperity and world peace. Its characters represented middle-class white America.

June Cleaver dutifully pecked her husband, Ward (played by the late Hugh Beaumont), when he came home to learn about the latest foibles -- nothing serious -- committed by Beaver and Wally.

The parents would dispense moralistic advice to their sons. The boys' friends included Lumpy and the obsequious Eddie Haskell, who avoided trouble and often buttered up Ward and June.

"That's a lovely dress you're wearing, Mrs. Cleaver," Eddie would typically say to Billingsley's character.

Perhaps fittingly, "Leave it to Beaver" was canceled in 1963 on the eve of the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War and the tumult of the 1960s.

In the 1980s, Dow appeared with Billingsley in "The New Leave it to Beaver." She shifted from being a mom figure to a good friend who supported his directing and artistic endeavors, Dow said.

"She always had a positive thing to say," said Dow, 65.

Born December 22, 1915, in Los Angeles, Billingsley began her career as a model in New York City in 1936.

She was under contract to MGM in 1945 before becoming a household name with the launch of "Leave it to Beaver" in 1957.

Billingsley is related by marriage to actor/producer Peter Billingsley, known for his starring role as Ralphie in the seasonal TV-movie classic "A Christmas Story," according to the Internet Movie Database. Peter Billingsley's mother, Gail Billingsley, is the cousin of Barbara's first husband, Glenn.


more after the jump
http://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/celebrity.news.gossip/10/16/obit.barbara.billingsley/?hpt=T2

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« Reply #1566 on: Oct 16th, 2010, 6:07pm »

"Skyline"



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« Reply #1567 on: Oct 16th, 2010, 6:19pm »

sighting 15 October 2010


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« Reply #1568 on: Oct 17th, 2010, 09:04am »

New York Times

October 16, 2010
Critical Assault by Allies Begins Near Kandahar
By CARLOTTA GALL

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Hundreds of Afghan and American troops on Saturday made an air assault into the horn of Panjwai, a wide area that has served as the main base for the Taliban threatening Kandahar city, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, said.

The assault, involving about 800 Afghan soldiers, is the most critical part of the Kandahar operation, a movement progressing since August to push the Taliban out of the city and surrounding districts, and to cut infiltration routes.

Troops moved Saturday morning just after midnight into the village of Mushan, which has served as a Taliban headquarters, General Carter said in an interview at his headquarters at the Kandahar airfield. Hundreds more went into the village of Zangabad farther to the east on Friday morning, he said.

A third Taliban stronghold in the center of the area, in the village of Taluqan, remains in Taliban hands.

“So far, it is a work in progress,” General Carter said. “There is not a huge amount of population there and there have been a few minor engagements, a few caches have been found. And I don’t think we will know how successful it has been for probably another 24 to 48 hours.”

But in the center of the city of Kandahar, The Associated Press reported, a motorized rickshaw carrying explosives was detonated behind police headquarters, said Zelmai Ayubi, spokesman for the provincial governor. One bystander was killed and three others were wounded, Mr. Ayubi said.

On the eastern side of the city, insurgents attacked an oil tanker with gunfire, causing it to explode. One civilian was killed and at least two others were wounded.

And in the city’s west, a rocket fired by militants slammed into a prison compound, the police said, according to The A.P. No casualties were immediately reported.

American troops have been moving steadily through the adjoining district of Zhare, securing the main highway and squeezing the Taliban from three sides as they progress south toward the horn. The forces have encountered heavy fighting and heavily mined areas for over a month.

“It is a deliberate performance,” General Carter said. The success of the operation has shown itself on the main highway, which had been the scene of constant attacks by insurgents but has not had an attack in 23 days, he said.

Canadian troops based in eastern Panjwai are trying to block any Taliban from escaping through the orchards and vineyards toward the city. They have dug a wide tank trench at Sperwan Ghar to block any traffic and forcing the Taliban through checkpoints on the roads.

More troops are deployed in Registan to block Taliban fleeing south through the red-colored desert that stretches toward the border with Pakistan. They have already captured a few fighters, General Carter said.

The air campaign has been carried out mostly with Afghan forces, General Carter said. About 400 Afghan troops, with 70 American members of an air assault unit, dropped into Mushan, and another 400 Afghan Army troops, with American mentors, went into Zangabad, the general said.

The districts of Panjwai and Zhare, rich agricultural areas along the Argandab River, are the original home base of many of the Taliban leaders, including Mullah Muhammad Omar.

The districts have been largely under Taliban control for the past four years, and clearing and securing them is expected to change the entire balance of security in Kandahar Province.

The operation comes on the heels of another largely successful operation by American and Afghan forces two weeks ago to clear Taliban from the district of Argandab north of the city of Kandahar.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/world/asia/17kandahar.html?_r=1&ref=world

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« Reply #1569 on: Oct 17th, 2010, 09:07am »

New York Times

October 16, 2010
Who Needs Cash (or Borders)?
By VIKAS BAJAJ and ANDREW MARTIN
MUMBAI, India

A DAY after the Indian government started a campaign to give identification numbers to all its 1.2 billion citizens, Ajay Banga, the newly minted chief executive of MasterCard, arrived in town, eager to lend a hand.

The program will identify people based on fingerprints and retina scans, and could make it easier for the government to route food stamps and other payments to people below the poverty line.

Mr. Banga says he believes he has a simple way to process the payments: via the MasterCard network.

“I wasn’t educated in the U.S.; I was educated in India. I understand what you are trying to do,” he said during a news conference at the Trident Hotel, in the financial center here. “I think it’s a huge opportunity for our government and people and companies like ours.”

Though Mr. Banga has risen to the top ranks of American business, the roots of his success are firmly planted in India, where he was born, raised and got his start in business. His success at MasterCard may well depend on India, too.

Observing that 85 percent of the world’s transactions are still in currency, he has declared a “war on cash” to nudge as many consumers as possible toward electronic payments, preferably processed by MasterCard. Although competition to handle payments is intense in the United States, the wider battlegrounds are in countries like India and Brazil, which have vast numbers of people without bank accounts, and a growing middle class.

Capturing only a small fraction of those customers — with prepaid debit cards, mobile payment systems or credit cards — could exponentially expand MasterCard’s business and profits. “Whether it’s 200 million or 400 million, it’s a lot of millions,” says Mr. Banga, referring to estimates of the size of the emerging global middle class over the next five years or so.

Nevertheless, Mr. Banga, 50, is taking over MasterCard as it faces huge challenges, from new rules governing credit and debit cards in the United States to nimble new rivals offering online and wireless transactions. And, of course, there’s Visa, its much larger rival.

“Visa and MasterCard are going to have to generate new business, and that’s overseas,” says David Robertson, publisher of The Nilson Report, an industry newsletter. “What you want to do is find new virgin territory where the margins aren’t compromised by competition.”

In Mr. Banga, MasterCard believes it has found an ideal, if unconventional, candidate for tackling such tasks. A Sikh with a jet-black mustache and beard, Mr. Banga says he loves fine wine, the New York Mets, Lady Gaga, Elvis Presley and Sikh spirituals, in no particular order.

During a recent dinner of Southeast Asian food at the luxurious Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, he teased Vicky S. Bindra, a regional MasterCard manager, for ordering khichdi, a simple Indian dish of rice and lentils. Mr. Banga ordered the $90 tasting menu and a $300 bottle of Tuscan wine. “It’s a $70 bottle in New York,” he noted.

His globe-trotting identity and animated personality are in jarring contrast to previous MasterCard chief executives, who were typically buttoned up, American and, often, Ivy League-educated.

“He brings a different vibe, a different sense of urgency to the company,” says Adam Frisch, an analyst at Morgan Stanley. “I expect MasterCard’s velocity to change.”

For example, Mr. Banga shook up the company by declaring that any request to headquarters not acted upon in two weeks would be automatically approved — a directive meant to speed decision-making.

For its first four decades of existence, MasterCard — originally known as MasterCharge — was owned by the nation’s banks and was a reliable cash cow for them. Visa was also owned by the same banks, so there wasn’t much head-to-head competition between the two.

Nonetheless, MasterCard developed a reputation for being more conservative and flat-footed than Visa. Not only was Visa more aggressive in pursuing the debit card market in the United States, which it has come to dominate, but it pushed ahead of MasterCard in the nascent prepaid-card market and in pursuing new business in developing countries in Latin America and Asia.

The differences became apparent when both companies went public — MasterCard in 2006 and Visa in 2008. Mr. Frisch says investors believed that MasterCard had a “phenomenal” business model and a well-known brand. Indeed, MasterCard’s stock price has risen more than fivefold since the company went public.

But when Visa went public in 2008, investors found that Visa’s execution in important growth areas was even better. Visa’s market capitalization is now nearly twice that of MasterCard.

Last year, MasterCard reported profit of $1.5 billion on $5.1 billion in revenue, compared with Visa’s $2.4 billion in profit on revenue of $6.9 billion in the fiscal year ended in September 2009.

“Visa was perceived as a faster, more entrepreneurial company,” Mr. Frisch says. “It appeared that MasterCard was more satisfied with maintaining the status quo.”

Mr. Banga’s hiring was a bold, though perhaps belated, effort by MasterCard’s board to change all that.

MR. BANGA has made a long, circuitous journey to the leafy confines of Purchase, N.Y., where MasterCard’s campus-like headquarters sits across the road from regal estates.

more after the jump
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/business/global/17banga.html?ref=world

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« Reply #1570 on: Oct 17th, 2010, 09:14am »

LA Times

Mexico convoy threads its way through strange drug war in Sonora state
A heavily armed convoy heads off to deliver pensions to people caught behind the siege line as one drug cartel tries to starve out another in a sinister battle for trafficking routes into Arizona.
By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times

8:42 PM PDT, October 16, 2010

Reporting from Altar, Mexico

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With an escort of 60 officers with assault rifles, a convoy heads off to deliver pensions to people caught behind the siege line as one drug cartel tries to wait out another in a sinister battle for scores of human and drug trafficking routes into Arizona.

The police chiefs met in the dusty plaza with a federal official clutching a black bag filled with pesos: $40,000 in government pensions for the senior citizens living in the pueblos of the nearby foothills.

A convoy of seven vehicles rumbled into the plaza, the trucks squeezing between taco and T-shirt vendors who gawked at the 60 or so federal and state police officers toting assault rifles.

The crack squad had captured drug cartel kingpins and battled gangs from Baja California to Michoacan. On this day they slipped on their ski masks to escort the police chiefs on a mission of mercy to a lost corner of Mexico.

They would be heading deep into the scrublands of the Sonora Desert where hundreds of cartel gunmen controlled the pueblos and ambushed intruders on hillside roads that have become blood-spattered shooting galleries.

The convoy was outmanned, outgunned and probably didn't even have the element of surprise. Cartel lookouts — they could be anybody: taxi drivers, store owners, fellow cops — had no doubt already tipped off the organized crime groups. Cellphone conversations were routinely intercepted.

"I'm talking here and the mafia is listening," said one commander who, like many police, residents and officials, spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concern. "They already know we're coming."

The convoy turned past the small church and the local newspaper office, its windows blasted out, and ran every red light and stop sign leaving town.

----

This is Mexico's hidden drug war.

Ciudad Juarez and other violence-torn urban areas may rack up large body counts and capture headlines and presidential visits. But here in the northern part of the state of Sonora, two of Mexico's strongest drug cartels are waging a battle for scores of human and drug trafficking routes into Arizona that may be just as sinister.

One of the gangs is using a slow, bloodless strategy of patience over confrontation: It's trying to starve out its rivals.

The result is a siege of medieval proportions that has cut off a region about the size of Rhode Island from government services, and severed a lifeline to thousands of ranch hands, storekeepers and retirees. Few dare leaving on the roads, and even fewer brave going in.

"Nobody will guarantee my security," said Juan Alberto Lopez, a consultant who was supposed to drive up into the foothills for meetings with pueblo officials. "They told me they would come down to Altar," he said. "But they haven't shown up."

The war escalated this summer when Beltran-Leyva cartel gunmen took over the string of pueblos and ranch lands stretching 50 miles from Altar to the Arizona border. Their foes in the Sinaloa drug cartel have since surrounded them. They patrol the four main winding roads leading in and out of the hills and block almost all food and gasoline shipments.

There have been massacres and scores of kidnappings, but the war has gone largely unnoticed because of its remoteness, intimidation of journalists and the slow-motion tactics.

"The problem is that one gang is hiding out, very well concealed," said a high-level Sonora state law enforcement official. "And the other group wants to get them out, to restore control over that area."

Caught in the middle are an estimated 5,000 people who every day wake up with questions: Were there any kidnappings overnight? Have the gunmen taken over another ranch? Are there any tortillas in the store?

One grandmother in Saric, grief-stricken over the kidnapping of three sons, said she tried to get help from the mayor, but he hasn't been seen in days.

She's losing hope: "Our town is dying."

----

Before heading out on its 40-mile journey into the foothills, the convoy took over all the pumps at a Pemex gasoline station. The officers bought sodas and chips, and stuffed them into their bag lunches; food might be scarce along the way.

The police chiefs shook hands with some of the officers. It wasn't clear whether they were greetings or wishes of good luck.

Few reporters have ventured into the area, and public officials refuse to provide much information, fearing retaliation. Since September, two mayors, a police chief and at least 11 officers have fled, joining hundreds, perhaps thousands, of residents who had abandoned the region because of the tightening siege.

Hungry, encircled gunmen have invaded ranches to slaughter cattle. They roam pueblos in large convoys, kidnapping people and tossing their tortured bodies into the road. Many residents stay indoors when night falls, avoiding contact with the Beltran-Leyva gunmen, and stay off the roads for fear of being stopped at highway checkpoints set up by the Sinaloa gang.

"We're living desperate times here. They're not letting supplies through.... We're down to basics, beans and potatoes," said one longtime female resident of Tubutama, a pueblo perched on a mesa and known for its white-washed mission church and plaza, where locals and visiting Americans on mission tours once sipped drinks and listened to bands on summer nights.

----

The two cartels are warring over Mexico's most valuable region for smuggling people into the United States, with an infrastructure of drivers, guides, suppliers and fleabag hotels that has pumped millions of immigrants across the border. Each cartel has allied itself with local gangs with names like the Wild Boars and the Masked Ones.

In the scorching valley south of the foothills, most residents appear to have sided with the Sinaloa group, saying they at least have brought order to the messy business of smuggling drugs and people across the border.

Cartel toll takers monitor the Altar-Sasabe highway leading toward the frontier, making sure each immigrant-loaded van has paid the $100 fee for each. Rogue gangs that preyed on vulnerable immigrants have been chased out by the cartel, say some residents and immigrant safety groups.

Life in the valley follows a relatively secure, if hyper-vigilant, routine. When a pair of reporters walked through the town of Pitiquito a day before the convoy hit the road, a pack of teenagers and men wielding a club and a baseball bat descended on them.

"Whose side are you on? What are you doing here?" one of them asked.

A middle-aged woman walking with her teenage daughter later explained that the town was controlled by a young Sinaloan crime boss greatly respected by residents. Two of his gunmen had joined hundreds that afternoon in a funeral procession for a popular musician killed in an accident. The crime boss probably paid for the funeral, she said.

"He's the one on our side" of the war, one woman said. "He is a generous man and protects us. Nobody is even allowed to sell drugs here. Everybody loves him here."

In the sparsely populated foothill towns known as the pueblos de arriba, the towns up above, expressing such sentiments can be lethal.

-----

The government force began its steady ascent on the two-lane road and passed through the pueblo of Atil, where many residents avoid using telephones, believing the cartels can listen in.

One former resident, a middle-aged woman, said her son was kidnapped and killed this year, and that the family had to flee with a mattress strapped to their pickup truck. Though she's concerned for family members left behind in Atil, she won't call them.

Her son, she said, was slain execution-style and left on the side of the road.

"We haven't taken sides. We're not with one group or the other," said the woman, who asked that her identity and new home not be disclosed. "That's why I don't understand what happened. There are no answers."

more after the jump
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-sonora-convoy-20101017,0,2660678.story

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« Reply #1571 on: Oct 17th, 2010, 09:20am »

Telegraph

Health and safety spells the end for cobblestones
Councils have ripped up or paved over acres of traditional cobblestones from streets across Britain, amid fears of compensation claims from people who trip over on them.

By Jasper Copping
Published: 9:30AM BST 17 Oct 2010

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It is the great cobblestone compensation controversy.

Although cobbles can be difficult to walk on - especially in high heels - they are treasured as part of the nation's heritage.

But now, many of those taking a tumble on the uneven surfaces are suing their council for damages.

New figures suggest that hundreds of thousands of pounds are being paid out to compensate people who trip over on cobbles.

Local authorities faced with the prospect of further claims are deciding that enough is enough and are ripping up or paving over the traditional surfaces.

A survey by The Sunday Telegraph has found dozens of areas, including parts of historic market towns and city centres, where cobbles or "setts" have been permanently removed or covered over with modern materials, such as Tarmac, asphalt or concrete.

In most cases, officials say the schemes are necessary for safety reasons. However, heritage groups have criticised the councils and accused them of sacrificing local history in an overzealous response to so-called "compensation culture".

Sixty-six councils across the UK admitted they had permanently removed cobblestones or resurfaced over them in the past five years, at well in excess of 100 locations, covering thousands of square metres of roads and pavements.

Thirty-seven local authorities said they had received a total of 159 applications for compensation from people claiming to have fallen over on cobblestones or to have experienced some sort of accident caused by them.

While some of these claims have been thrown out, others have are still ongoing and several have resulted in payouts totalling more than £100,000, including one of £25,000 from Worcestershire County Council.

The actual number of claims and payouts is likely to be far higher as most councils contacted were unable to provide the information.

Tony Burton, director of Civic Voice, a new umbrella organisation representing local heritage groups, said: "Cobblestones give a place a sense of history.

They are a fast-disappearing resource and we think they should be recognised for what they bring to areas, rather than something that gets in the way.

"These schemes are often being done with a lack of respect. It would be a shame if the remaining character of our streets is lost because of the growth of compensation culture."

The survey found cobbles removed from areas of traditional, terraced housing in northern towns and cities including Leeds and Barnsley, as well as in market towns such as Dumfries and Newark. In Thirsk, North Yorkshire, 110 square metres of stones in the market square were replaced with paving.

The centres of several large cities have also lost cobbled areas recently, including Dundee and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where a cobbled street running along the remains of the old city wall has been covered with Tarmac.

They have also been lost in the City of London and in the nearby Docklands area.

In Edinburgh, a new road surface has been laid over setts in Ainslie Place, which is within the city's UNESCO World Heritage site. The council say it is only a temporary measure while the road is used as a diversion, as a new tram line is built.

Cobbles have also been removed from part of Liverpool's UNESCO site. The stones were ripped out of William Brown Street - which is lined by St George's Hall, the Central Library, and the Walker Art gallery - and the holes have been filled with Tarmac.

The council said they had loosened and needed to be removed. It insisted that, once funding was found, the cobbles would be restored.

Such temporary measures, which lead to an unsightly "patchwork" effect, have led to criticism in several other locations, including historic areas of Norwich and Preston and the picturesque Herefordshire town of Ledbury.

A Local Government Association spokesman said: "Councils work hard to make their streets safe and accessible, making sure they deal with potentially dangerous defects such as cracked or uneven pavements.

"Cobbles are an important part of the character in many areas, but by their very nature they are often old and uneven. While they may look attractive, for the millions of people who may have trouble walking, use wheelchairs or mobility scooters, or have baby buggies to control, they can be difficult to navigate and even dangerous.

"Where possible, and particularly in conservation areas, councils work hard to preserve the character of an area and many resurfacing schemes replace like-with-like."

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/8068423/Health-and-safety-spells-the-end-for-cobblestones.html

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« Reply #1572 on: Oct 17th, 2010, 09:32am »

Geek Tyrant

Still don't have a costume for Halloween? Well, if your up for it you can build your own Optimus Prime costume out of cereal boxes by following this instructional video below that was put together by a very resourceful Transformers geek.

It took this guy 5 days and $20 dollars to build the costume, using lots of cardboard, cereal boxes, velcro, hot glue and superglue, among other things.


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http://geektyrant.com/news/2010/10/16/build-your-own-optimus-prime-costume-out-of-cereal-boxes.html

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« Reply #1573 on: Oct 17th, 2010, 12:43pm »




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« Reply #1574 on: Oct 17th, 2010, 12:46pm »

Now El Paso, Texas


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