July 21, 2010 Obama Faces New Doubts on Pursuing Afghan War By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON — When President Obama announced a new strategy for Afghanistan in December, he argued that by setting a deadline of next summer to begin drawing down troops he would create a sense of urgency for the Afghan government to take the lead in the fight, while acknowledging the limits of America’s patience with the longest war in its history.
But over the past two weeks — on Capitol Hill, in Kabul and even in conversations with foreign leaders — Mr. Obama has been reminded how the goal has become what one senior American military commander called a “double-edged sword,” one that hangs over the White House as surely as it hangs over President Hamid Karzai.
The absence of serious progress this year has sown new doubts, here and abroad, that Mr. Obama will be able to reach even the scaled-down goals he set for America’s mission in the time he laid out in his speech at West Point seven months ago. The result is that the fierce debate over whether the war is worth the cost — a debate that Mr. Obama did not want to join until the Taliban suffered some losses — is unwinding one summer earlier than he had hoped.
Mr. Obama has begun losing critical political figures and strategists who are increasingly vocal in arguing that the benefits of continuing on the current course for at least another year, and probably longer, are greatly outweighed by the escalating price.
For two months, Democrats in Congress have been holding up billions of dollars in additional financing for the war, longer than they ever delayed similar requests from President George W. Bush. Most Republican leaders have largely backed a continued commitment, but the White House was surprised the other day when one of Mr. Obama’s mentors on foreign policy issues in the Senate, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, argued that “the lack of clarity in Afghanistan does not end with the president’s timetable,” and that both the military and civilian missions were “proceeding without a clear definition of success.”
“We could make progress for decades on security, on employment, good governance, women’s rights,” he said, without ever reaching “a satisfying conclusion.”
The allies, voicing similar concerns, have abandoned most talk of a conditions-based withdrawal in favor of harder timetables. Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron, did his best to sound as though he and Mr. Obama were on the same page during his first visit to the White House on Tuesday, but he also told a BBC interviewer while in Washington, “We’re not going to be there in five years’ time.”
The Dutch leave this fall, and the Canadians say they intend to follow suit by the end of 2011.
As one of Mr. Obama’s top strategists said this week, with some understatement, “There are signs that the durability of this mission has to be attended to.”
All this has made it harder than ever for Mr. Obama to convince the Afghans and the Pakistanis that the West’s commitment is enduring. “Politically, the support is absolutely crumbling,” said David Gordon, a former top official on the National Intelligence Council and at the State Department who is now at the Eurasia Group. “You can’t hide that from the players in the region, and when they see it, it makes them hedge even more, preparing for the post-American era.”
In public, White House officials continue to argue that Mr. Obama struck the right balance last December, and sent the right signals, when he called for a short-term troop increase followed by a drawdown. “America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan,” he said then, quoting President Eisenhower about the importance of balancing America’s foreign commitments with its domestic needs.
But when granted anonymity, some senior White House officials who a few months ago said that this would be “the year of Kandahar” — referring to plans to retake control of the city that was the spiritual center of the Taliban — now acknowledge that the chances of progress there are growing more remote.
From the start of Mr. Obama’s review of the war’s strategy last year, he and his advisers debated the debilitating effects of what one called “the weariness factor.” Their calculation was that the withdrawal from Iraq, combined with the 18-month limit on the troop increase established by Mr. Obama, would quiet critics in his own party. That assessment proved optimistic. Earlier this month, 153 Democrats, including the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, voted in favor of an amendment that would have required a clear timetable for withdrawal. Only 98 Democrats joined Republicans in defeating it.
But over the long term, what may be more damaging is the fact that members of the foreign policy establishment, even those who vigorously supported ousting the Taliban in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, are gaining traction with arguments that the White House has simply failed to make the case that the rising cost is worth it.
“After nearly nine years of war,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior official in Mr. Bush’s State Department, wrote over the weekend in Newsweek, “continued or increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan isn’t likely to yield lasting improvements that would be commensurate in any way with the investment of American blood and treasure. It is time to scale down our ambitions there and both reduce and redirect what we do.”
July 21, 2010 4 Oil Firms Commit $1 Billion for Gulf Rapid-Response Plan By JAD MOUAWAD
Four of the world’s biggest oil companies said on Wednesday that they were committing $1 billion to create a rapid-response system to deal with deepwater oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, seeking to restore public confidence in the industry after the BP disaster painfully exposed how unprepared the industry was for a major accident.
The voluntary effort, which involves building a set of modular containment equipment that would be kept on standby for emergency use, comes as oil companies seek to persuade the Obama administration to lift a temporary ban on deepwater drilling. The moratorium was imposed after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20 and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the gulf.
Officials said the spill served as a wake-up call for the industry, which had invested billions of dollars to develop oil and gas resources in ever-deeper waters offshore but neglected to devise spill-response technology that could be effective in thousands of feet of water.
Environmentalists, members of Congress and federal and state officials have already made it clear that the industry will face tougher regulations when drilling resumes. The emergency response plan is part of the oil industry’s effort to show it can improve its safety procedures and shape the inevitable rules of conduct that will be imposed.
The plan — which was put together by Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell — incorporates many of the lessons that BP was forced to learn the hard way in trying to cap a gushing oil well 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.
The four companies said their initiative would seek to include all the companies involved in offshore drilling in the gulf, including BP. Their initial financing of $250 million each will be used to build a set of containment equipment, like underwater systems and pipelines, that will be able to deal with a variety of deepwater problems and can be deployed rapidly in the event of a spill.
The partners said it would take six months to get all the elements in place. The companies expect the system will be able to contain spills in water as deep as 10,000 feet and capture up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day, although that capacity could be increased if needed.
“It’s doubtful we will ever use it, but this is a risk-management gap we need to fill in order for the government and the public to be confident to allow us to get back to work,” Rex W. Tillerson, the chairman of Exxon, said in an interview.
Critically, the new system is expected to be deployed within 24 hours of an offshore spill, and to be able to fully contain the oil spilled within weeks, said Sara Ortwein, a vice president of engineering at Exxon, which has taken the lead in setting up the spill plan.
A new nonprofit entity, called the Marine Well Containment Company, will be created and be in charge of operating and maintaining this emergency capability. The entity, modeled in part after the Marine Spill Response Corporation, which was set up after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, will also finance research to look into new ways of tackling an underwater spill.
It has taken BP nearly three months to finally cap its gushing oil well in the gulf, after repeated failures to plug the well using a series of jury-rigged devices. While drilling two relief wells to permanently seal its damaged well, BP has relied on inflatable booms, chemical dispersants, containment vessels and controlled burning to address the spill.
“One thing that has become clear is that we need to have a system that is flexible, adaptable and available for rapid response,” Ms. Ortwein said in an interview.
Oil companies hope the initiative, the product of four weeks of intensive efforts involving 40 engineers from the four companies, will help persuade government regulators and the administration to allow them to resume offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico as soon as possible.
Oil companies are also seeking to deflect a series of bills being considered in Congress — including one proposal that would force companies to drill a second well, called a relief well, alongside any new exploration well. Oil executives argue that such a proposal would not enhance safety offshore, but instead would double the risk because a relief well would be just as likely to blow up as an exploration well.
The Interior Department agency that oversees deepwater drilling said Wednesday that the industry’s new response plan was a “move in the right direction.”
“The BP oil spill has made it clear that oil and gas companies did not have the sufficient containment capacity to respond to a major spill,” Michael R. Bromwich, the director of the department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, said in a statement. “We are encouraged that a number of companies recognize this issue and are taking steps to correct it.”
However, oil companies still face considerable skepticism about their ability to operate safely in the gulf. Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, one of the industry’s most vocal critics, described the plan as “BP’s current apparatus with a fresh coat of paint.”
When top oil executives appeared before Congress several weeks ago, Mr. Markey and other lawmakers forced them to admit that their spill response plans were outdated and woefully inadequate.
Senator Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who has opposed the drilling moratorium, said Wednesday that the industry’s initiative was badly needed. “It is clear that we simply cannot afford three months of trial and error ever again,” she said in a statement.
The initiative is the first product of a larger discussion within the industry on how to improve safety in the gulf. Oil companies have set up an industrywide task force to consider new safety standards for offshore drilling, more frequent rig inspections, new requirements and certification for blowout preventers and improvements in well design.
July 21, 2010 Star May Be Heaviest Ever Discovered By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
A huge ball of brightly burning gas drifting through a neighboring galaxy may be the heaviest star ever discovered — hundreds of times more massive than the sun, scientists said Wednesday after working out its weight for the first time.
Those behind the find say the star, called R136a1, may once have weighed as much as 320 solar masses. Astrophysicist Paul Crowther said the obese star — twice as heavy as any previously discovered — has already slimmed down considerably over its lifetime.
In fact, it’s burning itself off with such intensity that it shines at nearly 10 million times the luminosity of the sun.
“Unlike humans, these stars are born heavy and lose weight as they age,” said Crowther, an astrophysicist at the University of Sheffield in northern England. “R136a1 is already middle-aged and has undergone an intense weight loss program.”
Crowther said the giant was identified at the center of a star cluster in the Tarantula Nebula, a sprawling cloud of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy about 165,000 light-years away from our own Milky Way.
The star was the most massive of several giants identified by Crowther and his team in an article in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
While other stars can be larger, notably the swollen crimson-colored ones known as red giants, they weigh far less.
Still, the mass of R136a1 and its ilk means they’re tens of times bigger than the Earth’s sun and they’re brighter and hotter, too.
Surface temperatures can surpass 40,000 degrees Celsius (72,000 degrees Fahrenheit), seven times hotter than the sun. They’re also several million times brighter, because the greedy giants tear through their energy reserves far faster than their smaller counterparts.
That also means that massive stars live fast and die young, quickly shedding huge amounts of material and burning themselves out in what are thought to be spectacular explosions.
“The biggest live only 3 million years,” Crowther said. “In astronomy that’s a very short time.”
Small lifespans are one of several reasons why these obese stars are so hard to find. Another is that they’re extremely rare, forming only in the densest star clusters.
Astronomers also have a limited range in which to look for them. In clusters that are too far away, it isn’t always possible to tell if a telescope has picked up on one heavyweight star or two smaller ones in close proximity.
In this case, Crowther’s team re-examined previously known stars to see if they could find an accurate measurement of their weight. The team reviewed archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope and gathered new readings from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope at Paranal in Chile.
Scientists who weren’t involved in the find said the results were impressive, although they cautioned it was still possible, although unlikely, that scientists had confused two very close stars for a bigger, single one.
“What they’re characterizing as a single massive star could in fact be a binary system too close to be resolved,” said Mark Krumholz, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Both he and Phillip Massey, an astronomer with the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, also cautioned that the star’s weight had been inferred using scientific models and that those were subject to change.
But both scientists said the authors had made a strong case, arguing that the solar material being thrown off from feuding stars in a binary system would produce much more powerful X-rays than have been detected.
Crowther acknowledged that R136a1 could have a partner, but he said it was likely to be a much smaller star, meaning that the star’s birth weight was still considerable — perhaps 300 solar masses instead of 320.
begin quote - I am a Marine Corps. infantry veteran that served my country faithfully in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. As a result of my service, I am service-connected and Social Security disabled for traumatic brain injury, tinnitus, spinal disc injury, and post traumatic stress disorder. As a result of the conditions that I now suffer from as a result of my faithful service, I experience severe headaches, dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity, seizures, ear pain, chronic ringing in the ears, night terrors, daymares, isolation, intrusion, severe irritability, hypervigilance, and lack-of-concentration/memory among many other symptoms. From Fall 2005 to Summer of 2008, I received treatment at the Cincinnati Veteran Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. I participated in the PTSD program and attended group therapy twice a week. During this time, I also enrolled as a student at the University of Cincinnati. As a student, I served as the treasurer for my college's student tribunal, a senator for the University Undergraduate Senate, and treasurer for my fraternity. I also volunteered for the Cincinnati Veteran Medical Center, Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, among many other philanthropies. I also participated in the UC Honors program and earned a 3.9/4.0 GPA. I have no record or incidents at the Veteran Medical Center or anywhere else of being violent. To be sure, I am NOT a violent person! In the Winter of 2008, my wife and I moved to Aliso Viejo, California. Shortly thereafter, around Spring 2009, I began to seek treatment from the Long Beach Veteran Medical Center. Several times, my case managers at the Long Beach Veteran Medical Center assured me transportation to medical appointments when none was provided. Afterwards, I called and emailed and emphatically- if not angrily- informed them of their incompetence. I NEVER threatened my safety or anyone else's. However, the Long Beach Veteran Medical Center has falsely reported to the Orange County Sheriff's Department several times that I was suicidal and/or homicidal. This has resulted in my being assaulted, battered, and falsely imprisoned on several occasions. On Friday, 14 August 2009, I went to the Long Beach Veteran Medical Center for regularly scheduled group therapy. After therapy, I went to the travel office to receive my travel pay as per 38 C.F.R. 70. However, I was informed by the travel personnel that the "systems were down". Because I had no money, and my gas tank was on empty, I went to the Patient's Advocate office to request assistance. After several hours, and speaking to several people, the Long Beach Veteran Medical Center could not find it possible or reasonable to give me just $2.00 so that I may have enough gasoline to get home from treatment- treatment that I now have to receive as a result of my service to our country. So, I decided to try and make it home on the fuel I had. My motorcycle ran out of gas in the middle of the 73 toll road. I had to walk to a gas station and beg several people for assistance. In frustration, I called the Patient's Advocate Office and informed them, again, of their incompetence and I said that the "reason the suicide rate is so high among veterans is because of shit like this". I did NOT threaten my safety or anyone else's. However, when the Long Beach Veteran Medical Center finally received this message on Monday, 17 August 2009, they sent the Orange County Sheriff's Department to my home again. Believing that my Fourth Amendment and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 rights were being blatantly and grossly violated, I refused to exit my home for several hours. However, after the SWAT team threatened to enter my home with assault weapons, under duress, I agreed to voluntarily admit myself into the L-1 Psychiatric Ward at the Long Beach Veteran Medical Center. At NO time during this incident did I behave violently or threaten anyone's safety including my own. I also had to drop my college courses because of my stay at L-1. - end quote
Film executives scoff at notion of '3D fatigue' Boxoffice share is falling, but that's due to screen crunch By Carl DiOrio
July 21, 2010, 07:49 PM ET
"Toy Story 3"
The sky isn't falling, but theatrical 3D may be finding its natural water level.
That in an extra-dimensional nutshell is how film distribution execs feel about recent signs that the ratio of 3D-to-2D grosses for pics has settled into a range just below that marked by early 3D releases when the format was a consumer novelty. They scoff at the notion of "3D fatigue" floated in a spate of media reports while acknowledging pricing may have outpaced demand for some family pics.
Some first took note of the situation when Disney's "Toy Story 3" -- which has rung up $635 million in worldwide boxoffice -- opened last month with a studio-estimated 60% 3D contribution. Just a few months earlier, Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" and DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon" had rung up a lustier two-thirds of their boxoffice in 3D auditoriums.
" 'Toy Story 3' may gross up to $400 million domestically," a top distribution exec at a rival studio noted. "To suggest anything is wrong with that makes no sense."
More Chicken Littles surfaced when Universal's July 9 opener "Despicable Me" bowed with an estimated 45% of its first-frame coin coming from 3D venues. But few industryites expected anything else in light of the pic's modest number of 1,551 3D theaters, a result of too many 3D pics in the marketplace and too few 3D screens available in the nation's movie theaters.
"Despite any lower 3D percentage, there's still considerable incremental gross advantage to both distributors and exhibitors," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said. "But I do love offering moviegoers the option of seeing a picture in either format. Having audiences be able to make a choice for the family is a good thing."
Paramount's July 1 release "The Last Airbender" boasted a similarly modest number of 3D locations while marking a 3D share of 55%. It's worth noting that the family fantasy bowed among broadly derisive reviews that were hardly an encouragement for parents to shell out extra for the pic's extra-dimensional version.
The 3D-to-2D gross decline follows the phenomenal 82% average 3D share marked by "Avatar" during its record theatrical run. But the Fox blockbuster -- virtually the only 3D release in the market for much of its run -- was an unusual mix of motion-capture animation and live action, and word quickly spread following its December debut that 3D was the way to see the epic fantasy.
World's tallest train set built at St Pancras station By Henry Whittingdale Published: 1:10PM BST 22 Jul 2010
Former British servicemen have built the tallest model railway track in the world at London St Pancras station. At 10ft tall the train track is already attracting much interest from passengers since it was unveiled on Wednesday.
The project was sponsored by Royal British Legion Industries, a charity that helps put ex-servicemen back in work, after they were approached by toy manufacturers Tomica.
The Japanese company is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary and it is now looking to break the UK market. The model railway will be exhibited at St Pancras until 7pm tonight.
The display follows in a long tradition of record breaking at the station.
Ben Ruse, a spokesman for St Pancras Station, said: "St Pancras is a unique station and we try to do things that have never been done before.
"We have the longest champagne bar in Europe, we have the record for the most people standing in their underpants and now we have the tallest toy train track.
Archaeologists have made a new find near Stonehenge — another ceremonial monument only a few hundred yards (meters) from the stone circle.
Scientists from Britain as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden made the new discovery at the start of a new project to map the site.
They found a second henge-like structure — a circular area thought to have once held a wooden structure.
Professor Vince Gaffney of the University of Birmingham said Thursday the new find will completely change the way we think about the landscape around Stonehenge.
The origins of Stonehenge are unclear, but the ancient stone circle in southern England is one of the country's biggest tourist draws. The World Heritage site is particularly popular during the summer and winter solstices
"Their songs were sometimes frenzied like the dances in which they whirled to syncopated rhythms, but more often muffled and sad with the inenarrable misery of their bondage." (Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County)