ScienceDaily (Jan. 25, 2012) — Researchers in the US have, for the first time, cloaked a three-dimensional object standing in free space, bringing the much-talked-about invisibility cloak one step closer to reality.
Whilst previous studies have either been theoretical in nature or limited to the cloaking of two-dimensional objects, this study shows how ordinary objects can be cloaked in their natural environment in all directions and from all of an observer's positions.
Published Jan. 26 in the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society's New Journal of Physics, the researchers used a method known as "plasmonic cloaking" to hide an 18-centimetre cylindrical tube from microwaves.
Some of the most recent breakthroughs in the field of invisibility cloaking have focussed on using transformation-based metamaterials -- inhomogeneous, human-made materials that have the ability to bend light around objects -- however, this new approach uses a different type of artificial material -- plasmonic metamaterials.
When light strikes an object, it rebounds off its surface towards another direction, just like throwing a tennis ball against a wall. The reason we see objects is because light rays bounce off materials towards our eyes and our eyes are able to process the information.
Due to their unique properties, plasmonic metamaterials have the opposite scattering effect to everyday materials.
"When the scattered fields from the cloak and the object interfere, they cancel each other out and the overall effect is transparency and invisibility at all angles of observation.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6046 on: Jan 26th, 2012, 09:01am »
New drone has no pilot anywhere, so who's accountable?
The Navy is testing an autonomous plane that will land on an aircraft carrier. The prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.
By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times January 26, 2012
The X-47B drone, above, marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone’s ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently. (Chad Slattery, Northrop Grumman / January 25, 2012)
The Navy's new drone being tested near Chesapeake Bay stretches the boundaries of technology: It's designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of aviation's most difficult maneuvers.
What's even more remarkable is that it will do that not only without a pilot in the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.
The X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone's ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.
Although humans would program an autonomous drone's flight plan and could override its decisions, the prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.
"Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability," said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. "This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military's acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?"
Sharkey and others believe that autonomous armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the group tasked by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, is already examining the issue.
"The deployment of such systems would reflect … a major qualitative change in the conduct of hostilities," committee President Jakob Kellenberger said at a recent conference. "The capacity to discriminate, as required by [international humanitarian law], will depend entirely on the quality and variety of sensors and programming employed within the system."
Weapons specialists in the military and Congress acknowledge that policymakers must deal with these ethical questions long before these lethal autonomous drones go into active service, which may be a decade or more away.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said policy probably will first be discussed with the bipartisan drone caucus that he co-chairs with Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita). Officially known as the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, the panel was formed in 2009 to inform members of Congress on the far-reaching applications of drone technology.
"It's a different world from just a few years ago — we've entered the realm of science fiction in a lot of ways," Cuellar said. "New rules have to be developed as new technology comes about, and this is a big step forward."
Aerial drones now piloted remotely have become a central weapon for the CIA and U.S. military in their campaign against terrorists in the Middle East. The Pentagon has gone from an inventory of a handful of drones before Sept. 11, 2001, to about 7,500 drones, about one-third of all military aircraft.
Despite looming military spending cuts, expenditures on drones are expected to take less of a hit, if any, because they are cheaper to build and operate than piloted aircraft.
All military services are moving toward greater automation with their robotic systems. Robotic armed submarines could one day stalk enemy waters, and automated tanks could engage soldiers on the battlefield.
"More aggressive robotry development could lead to deploying far fewer U.S. military personnel to other countries, achieving greater national security at a much lower cost and most importantly, greatly reduced casualties," aerospace pioneer Simon Ramo, who helped develop the intercontinental ballistic missile, wrote in his new book, "Let Robots Do the Dying."
The Air Force wrote in an 82-page report that outlines the future usage of drones, titled "Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047," that autonomous drone aircraft are key "to increasing effects while potentially reducing cost, forward footprint and risk." Much like a chess master can outperform proficient chess players, future drones will be able to react faster than human pilots ever could, the report said.
And with that potential comes new concerns about how much control of the battlefield the U.S. is willing to turn over to computers.
There is no plan by the U.S. military — at least in the near term — to turn over the killing of enemy combatants to the X-47B or any other autonomous flying machine. But the Air Force said in the "Flight Plan" that it's only a matter of time before drones have the capability to make life-or-death decisions as they circle the battlefield. Even so, the report notes that officials will still monitor how these drones are being used.
"Increasingly humans will no longer be 'in the loop' but rather 'on the loop' — monitoring the execution of certain decisions," the report said. "Authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions is contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical questions."
Peter W. Singer, author of "Wired for War," a book about robotic warfare, said automated military targeting systems are under development. But before autonomous aerial drones are sent on seek-and-destroy missions, he said, the military must first prove that it can pull off simpler tasks, such as refueling and reconnaissance missions.
That's where the X-47B comes in.
"Like it or not, autonomy is the future," Singer said. "The X-47 is one of many programs that aim to perfect the technology."
The X-47B is an experimental jet — that's what the X stands for — and is designed to demonstrate new technology, such as automated takeoffs, landings and refueling. The drone also has a fully capable weapons bay with a payload capacity of 4,500 pounds, but the Navy said it has no plans to arm it.
The Navy is now testing two of the aircraft, which were built behind razor-wire fences at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s expansive complex in Palmdale, where the company manufactured the B-2 stealth bomber.
Funded under a $635.8-million contract awarded by the Navy in 2007, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program has grown in cost to an estimated $813 million.
Last February, the first X-47B had its maiden flight from Edwards Air Force Base, where it continued testing until last month when it was carried from the Mojave Desert to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland. It is there that the next stage of the demonstration program begins.
The drone is slated to first land on a carrier by 2013, relying on pinpoint GPS coordinates and advanced avionics. The carrier's computers digitally transmit the carrier's speed, cross-winds and other data to the drone as it approaches from miles away.
The X-47B will not only land itself, but will also know what kind of weapons it is carrying, when and where it needs to refuel with an aerial tanker, and whether there's a nearby threat, said Carl Johnson, Northrop's X-47B program manager. "It will do its own math and decide what it should do next."
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6047 on: Jan 26th, 2012, 09:05am »
Bernanke has "finger on trigger" for new bond buys
By Ann Saphir and Jonathan Spicer CHICAGO/NEW YORK | Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:03am EST
CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve has moved closer to embarking on a new round of its controversial money-pumping after the central bank and its chairman Ben Bernanke highlighted a grim outlook for the U.S. economy.
Bernanke on Wednesday opened the door a bit wider for the Fed to return to buying securities in the months ahead to buttress a weak recovery and keep inflation from slipping too far below its newly adopted 2-percent target.
"It sounds like the finger is on the trigger," said Thomas Simons, a money market economist at Jefferies & Co.
The Fed's announcement that it was unlikely to raise interest rates until at least late 2014, more than a year beyond its previous guidance, immediately pushed down Treasury bond yields and Bernanke's comments to the media raised expectations of a further round of so-called quantitative easing, or QE3.
It remains to be seen if the potential political backlash proves too daunting.
The prospect of the Fed pumping yet more money into the U.S. economy was seized upon by Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich to slam President Barack Obama's record. That highlighted the political pitfalls for the Fed in an election year.
Barring an unexpected pick-up in inflation or the U.S. economy suddenly kicking into a higher gear, Bernanke said it was logical that the Fed should look at ways to do more to help.
"The framework makes very clear that we need to be thinking about ways to provide further stimulus if we don't get improvement in the pace of recovery and a normalization of inflation," he told a quarterly news conference.
"Probably the main take-away from the press conference is the sense conveyed by Bernanke that it would not take much of a disappointment in growth or inflation to get the Fed to start another round of QE," said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan.
"In fact, from his answers it's not even clear any disappointment would be necessary to see more QE," Feroli wrote in a note, adding he was not forecasting another round of asset purchases even if the bar for action was low.
The Fed in late 2008 slashed interest rates to near zero and has since bought $2.3 trillion in long-term securities in an unprecedented drive to spur growth and revive the economy after the worst recession in decades.
Yet the recovery has been slow and the outlook issued by the Fed on Wednesday was bleak.
With core inflation now at 1.7 percent and Fed officials forecasting unemployment to stay above 8 percent this year, many analysts took Bernanke's comments to mean QE3 is all but inevitable.
The Fed has trained its sights on the stalled housing market in recent months, so any move to QE3 is most widely expected to involve buying mortgage securities to help bring down further already record-low mortgage interest rates.
Some economists said Bernanke may wait until the end in June of the Fed's "Operation Twist", which involves selling short-term bonds and buying longer-term ones in its $2.9 trillion portfolio to push down long-term interest rates further.
Bernanke may also want to wait until the market has absorbed his sweeping changes in communications policy which included the Fed adopting an explicit inflation target and releasing the interest rate projections of its policymakers for the first time on Wednesday.
Buying more mortgage-backed securities would drive down longer-term rates on mortgages with a view to countering what remains a drag on a U.S. economy still struggling to emerge from the worst recession in generations.
"I think it could happen any time now, based on the language that we saw today," said Eric Stein, a portfolio manager at Eaton Vance in Boston.
"I would think the first thing would be squarely focused on purchasing mortgage-backed securities, partially because Treasury yields are already so low, and housing is one of the major issues."
The blowback from a heavy round of MBS purchases could be just as fierce as that provoked by the Fed's second round of quantitative easing which was announced in November 2010.
QE2, which targeted Treasuries, attracted sharp criticism from Republicans who warned it could fuel inflation and crimp the Fed's ability to tighten policy eventually, and who accused Bernanke of going beyond the central bank's mandate.
"People are now expecting more QE, and that would be in mortgages," said John Canally, investment strategist and economist at LPL Financial in Boston. "I think economically they (the Fed) would want to do that, but I don't know if politically they can withstand the forces against it."
Republican presidential candidates have repeatedly criticized the Fed and Bernanke on the campaign trail. Asked about the Fed's latest statement, Gingrich said it was "a sign of the failure of the entire Obama program" that Bernanke is bracing for such weak economic growth that he will have to keep rates low for so much longer.
At the same time the Fed is "putting in future inflation expectations," Gingrich told reporters in Florida on Wednesday. "It's more of Bernanke laying down a very bad future."
Foreign countries slammed the Fed's previous bond-buying programs, saying they artificially weakened the U.S. dollar and hurt their exporters. Brazil's finance minister talked of a "currency war."
Some economists say the political pressure on the Fed may prove too heavy.
"A third round of QE is still beyond them - or maybe the chairman simply doesn't have the stomach for the congressional mauling that further asset purchases would have precipitated....," said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.
Nonetheless, many others expect that the Fed will act again.
Economists at 12 of 18 primary dealers, the large financial institutions that do business directly with the Fed, believe the central bank will undertake further quantitative easing, according to a Reuters poll after Bernanke's news conference.
Some top investors have placed their bets, too.
Bill Gross, who runs the world's largest bond fund, has ramped up purchases of mortgage-backed securities which at the end of November accounted for 43 percent of his holdings. The self-styled "bond king" said last month that any QE3 would likely be focused on the housing sector.
Keith Wirtz, chief investment officer at Fifth Third Asset Management, with $18 billion in assets, said the Fed had gone "all in" with its promise to keep rates low through late 2014, and predicted that any rise in long-term borrowing costs would push the Fed to buy more bonds.
"Brace for QE3 if rates start to move higher on the long end," he said.
(Reporting by Ann Saphir and Jonathan Spicer; Additional reporting by Jennifer Ablan, Sam Youngman, Rodrigo Campos and Karen Brettell; Editing by Kim Coghill)
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6048 on: Jan 26th, 2012, 09:18am »
'The Office' Spin-off Being Considered at NBC 7:53 PM PST 1/25/2012 by Lacey Rose
A source confirmed that the network is considering a spin-off centered on Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute and his life on his family beet farm.
There may be more life left at The Office.
Reports of NBC eyeing a potential spin-off centered around Rainn Wilson’s quirky Dwight Schrute character are indeed true, according to a well-placed source. The idea would be to further explore the Shrute family farm, with multiple generations of Schrutes involved. The comedy concept could get a test of sorts on an episode of The Office later this season.
Wilson, along with actor/showrunner Paul Lieberstein and executive producer Ben Silverman, are believed to be involved, with Greg Daniels sitting out this iteration as he’s devoted to too many other projects at the network. Among them: his adaptation of British series Friday Night Dinner, which got a pilot order from NBC earlier this week.
While Wilson’s character has long had something of a cult following, the idea is not without risk. One need only look at Friend’s short-lived spinoff Joey for a cautionary tale. Making the potential move that much more risky is the current state of the original, which is no longer the ratings or buzz driver it once was.
The news of a potential spin-off comes mere months after the long-running NBC staple was forced to undergo a substantial casting change in the wake of Steve Carell’s departure. The series came back last September with new hire James Spader and Ed Helm’s Andy Bernard assuming the role of regional manager.
The Office has not been picked up for a ninth season, though given the show's legacy and younger male appeal as well as the health of the network, a renewal seems very likely.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6049 on: Jan 26th, 2012, 09:25am »
The Raw Story
Three dead, 16 missing in Rio high-rises collapse By Agence France-Presse Thursday, January 26, 2012 9:58 EST
Three people were confirmed dead and 16 were still missing early Thursday after three office buildings, one of them 20 stories high, collapsed in downtown Rio de Janeiro, authorities said.
Officials in Brazil’s second largest city said the three bodies were retrieved as rescue teams with search dogs and heavy clearing equipment sifted through the rubble.
Rio state security officials said six people were hurt, including a woman who sustained head injuries and required surgery.
The collapse, apparently caused by structural problems, occurred late Wednesday as Brazil races to prepare to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, events which it hopes will highlight the country’s emerging economic and political prowess.
It took place near the municipal theater on the city’s Cinelandia square, in a historic district bustling by day but nearly deserted at night.
Witnesses reported hearing an explosion and described scenes reminiscent of September 11, 2001, with walls of dust and debris.
A special team was set up in the Rio municipal assembly office to assist relatives of the missing.
“Three buildings collapsed: a 20-story building, a 10-story building and a smaller building of three or four floors,” Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes told reporters late Wednesday, adding that “giving a total number of victims would be pure speculation.”
Health Secretary Sousa Aguiar said the office buildings would have been largely deserted during the night-time collapse.
Paes said the cause was not yet known, but that it was likely “structural problems.”
But police spokesman Rodrigo Pimentel told reporters Thursday that “illegal” work had been taking place in the 20-story building.
“This may have affected the structure of the building.
Construction material was also stored inside and this could ave caused a breakup of the structure,” he added. “The breakup occurred suddenly, without early sign of cracks.”
Civil defense teams inspected nearby buildings, and area metro stations which had been closed reopened Thursday after thorough checks, officials said.
However a nine-story building in an adjacent street was evacuated as a precautionary measure.
Allesandro da Silva Fonseca, who was briefly trapped in an elevator while he tried to escape with four other construction workers, said he almost suffocated from the dust.
“I was out of air. I could not breathe,” he told AFP by mobile phone. All five workers later managed to escape, but it was not immediately clear if they were the same victims referred to by health officials.
A mountain of rubble filled the street, and thick dust covered nearby cars. The tallest building had housed several law offices, and construction work was being carried out on two separate floors.
A bank branch and a restaurant were located on the first floor of one of the buildings, but it was not immediately clear if the two businesses were open at the time of the collapse.
Brazilian authorities are racing to build or renovate 12 stadiums in time for the 2014 World Cup, one of the world’s premier sporting events.
Last month football’s ruling body FIFA warned Brazil about delays in the progress of construction projects expected to be ready for the four-yearly extravaganza.
The Getulio Vargas Foundation and consultancy Ernst & Young have said Brazil needs more than $11 billion in investment to fix roads, boost hotel capacity, reinforce security and develop its telecom network ahead of the World Cup.
Brazil hopes the events will showcase its rising power. The Latin American giant surpassed Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy last year, but its standard of living lags behind that of the United States and Europe.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6051 on: Jan 26th, 2012, 5:09pm »
Posted: Thu., Jan. 26, 2012, 4:00am PT
Pic reunites Monty Python members
'Absolutely Anything' will be sci-fi comedy
By Dave McNary
Members of Monty Python's Flying Circus are reteaming for "Absolutely Anything," a sci-fi farce combining CGI and live action, with Terry Jones to direct and Mike Medavoy to produce.
Plans are for filming to begin in the U.K. this spring, with the Pythons voicing key roles as a a group of aliens who endow an earthling with the power to do "absolutely anything" to see what a mess he'll make of things -- which is precisely what happens. There's also a talking dog named Dennis who seems to understand more about the mayhem that ensues than anyone else does. Robin Williams will voice the character.
"It's not a Monty Python picture, but it certainly has that sensibility," Jones told Variety.
"Anything" is based on a script developed by Jones and Gavin Scott over the past two decades. Medavoy, a producer on the Pythons' "Life of Brian," is producing along with David Thwaites and Chris Chesser, in conjunction with U.K. partners Bill and Ben Prods.
Jones co-directed 1974's "Monty and the Holy Grail" with Terry Gilliam and was the sole director on "Life of Brian" and "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life." He said Gilliam and Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin have agreed to perform and added that producers are attempting to sign Eric Idle.
The five surviving troupe members last appeared together in 1998 at the Aspen Comedy Festival along with an urn that allegedly contained the ashes of late member Graham Chapman.
Medavoy, whose recent producing credits are for "Black Swan" and the upcoming "What to Expect When You're Expecting," noted that he's had plenty of experience with films like "Absolutely Anything" dating back to the 1970s, when he headed production at United Artists.
"Terry and Gavin have crafted a classic farce -- something I feel I know a little bit about after all the 'Pink Panther' pictures we did with Blake Edwards at United Artists," Medavoy said. "In fact, the movie even has a pompous Frenchman reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau -- but there the similarity ends. Like all projects originated by any of the Monty Python guys, 'Absolutely Anything' delightfully defies a logline."
Medavoy said producers are in discussions with Williams to play the Frenchman and are actively casting the other leads.
Jones last directed 1996's "Wind in the Willows," in which he starred with Cleese, Idle, Palin, Steve Coogan and Nicol Williamson. Despite strong reviews, "Wind" received only a limited release from Sony at 65 locations at widest -- which discouraged Jones from directing features again for many years.
Jones has remained active in recent years, penning several books and directing "The Doctor's Tale," an opera he co-wrote with Anne Dudley as part of the Royal Opera House's "OperaShots." It's a Python-esque story of a doctor -- who happens to be a dog -- whose devoted patients rush to the rescue after he is forced to stop practicing.
He's also working on a heavy metal version of "The Nutcracker" with Jim Steinman and teaming with Dudley on an opera based on "The Owl and the Pussycat," to be presented on barges during the London Summer Olympics.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6052 on: Jan 27th, 2012, 08:46am »
Crisis takes toll on Syria economy
Months of unrest, increasing sanctions and questionable fiscal policies are all playing a role. Yet the effect on President Bashar Assad's grip on power remains unclear.
By Alexandra Zavis and Alexandra Sandels, Los Angeles Times 9:02 PM PST, January 26, 2012 Reporting from Damascus, Syria, and Beirut
In the maze of alleyways that makes up the Old City of Damascus, traders finger worry beads and stare dejectedly from deserted shops that sell handicrafts, clothing and spices.
"This market is based on tourists," said Abu Adnan, who works in one of the many fabric emporiums.
But the tourists stopped coming when antigovernment protests erupted across Syria in March, prompting a violent crackdown. Now, even local homemakers no longer stop by to purchase bolts of imported cotton and silk.
"People are focused on getting food on the table, they aren't buying extras," said the store's owner, Abu Mohammed, who like his employee asked to be identified by a traditional nickname for fear of displeasing Syrian authorities.
In some parts of the capital, long lines form to buy scarce heating and cooking oil, with fights breaking out as people try to cut in front of others.
Months of unrest, increasing international sanctions and questionable fiscal policies — as Syria lurches toward outright civil warfare — are taking a heavy toll on the nation's economy. Yet it remains unclear what effect this will have on President Bashar Assad's grip on power.
Frustration is mounting among the business elite and the merchant class — key supporters of Assad since he took power in 2000 — particularly in Damascus and in Aleppo, the country's second city.
Some have begun quietly donating money to opposition groups for medicine, food and blankets in neighborhoods besieged by security forces — "playing for the future," as one Damascus businessman put it.
Western officials believe the financial pain could prove the undoing of a government that has ruled through fear for four decades under the leadership of Assad and before that, his father, Hafez. Embassies in Damascus have of late been fielding inquiries from individuals wanting to avoid asset freezes and travel bans, one Western official said.
Many Syrians, however, take a more jaundiced view of the future.
"I think the business community will do like anyone who has interests at stake: sit on the sidelines, wait and see who emerges and switch sides," said Jihad Yazigi, who edits the Syria Report, a business newsletter based in Damascus.
Others point to the example of neighboring Iraq, where the late Saddam Hussein and his ruling coterie continued to live luxuriously in the years before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, despite the ravages of years of international economic sanctions and war with Iran.
"The [Assad] regime hasn't felt a thing from these sanctions," said Mohammed, a Damascus wholesaler who imports electronic goods from China. "It just steals from its people."
Assad's promise of a more open and modernized economy, with greater opportunities for private enterprise, has been a pillar of his support among middle-class Syrians even though the primary beneficiaries have been members of the country's close-knit leadership. In the last few years, tourism has boomed, foreign investment has poured in, and a consumer culture has developed, especially in the larger cities.
As recently as April, the International Monetary Fund was predicting that Syria's economy would grow by 3% in 2011.
By September, the fund was saying the economy would contract by 2%. With reliable figures hard to come by, local economists speculate that the actual loss in gross domestic product may have been up to 10 times higher.
Foreign investment is drying up, and the national currency has lost about a third of its value on the black market, where it is trading at about 70 pounds to the dollar. The official exchange rate has also fallen, from 47 pounds to 57.9 pounds.
As recently as October, Syrian officials were saying the country had $18 billion in foreign currency reserves, enough to secure imports for two years. But economists question the assertion, saying billions of dollars may have been spent trying to prop up the pound.
Mohammed, the importer, said he is forced to buy dollars at the black market rate because Syrians are hoarding hard currency and banks have been instructed to restrict sales. The weak currency and disruptions to supply lines are driving up prices for everything from eggs and cooking gas to refrigerators and television sets.
"Business is down between 25% and 50% overall because people are only buying the most basic necessities," he said.
The tourism industry, a major foreign currency earner that brought in as much as $8 billion in 2010, has been decimated. A stroll through old Damascus shows that boutique hotels and restaurants operating out of beautifully restored homes are almost empty on many nights, and that some have been forced to shut down.
Staff at a hotel in Aleppo that was once popular with European tour groups said they had slashed their rates by 40%. But only seven of the 40 rooms were booked for New Year's Eve, a night when the hotel would usually be full.
U.S. and European oil embargoes have cost Syria about $2 billion since September, Oil Minister Sufian Alao said last week.
Europe accounts for the vast majority of Syrian oil exports, and the government is struggling to find alternative buyers. Not many countries are in a position to refine the heavy crude produced in Syria, economists say. Although India and China have been suggested as potential markets, the shipping and insurance costs could prove prohibitive.
Financial sanctions are making it increasingly difficult for business owners to operate in a global economy. Credit cards are rejected and money transfers are blocked, they say.
Layoffs have become rampant, particularly in opposition strongholds, which have borne the brunt of the government's crackdown.
"I had 40 people working in my furniture factory. Now I have zero," said a manufacturer from the Damascus suburb of Saqba who also asked to be identified only as Mohammed. "Seven months ago, I was forced to close down my factory and the showroom where I displayed my furniture."
Security forces repeatedly stormed the area, he said, costing him an estimated $200,000 in lost business and property damage.
"I was forced to take part of my wife's gold jewelry and sell it," he said, "and I was a big merchant."
Because of fuel shortages, more people are using electricity to heat their homes, overburdening the supply. Daily power cuts last up to 16 hours in some areas.
Syrian officials have blamed the economic pain on the opposition at home and abroad. In a speech this month, Assad asked if being a revolutionary meant depriving people of "the cooking gas they need on a daily basis to avoid hunger, or the heating fuel they need to avoid catching their death from the cold?"
But analysts and Western officials say the government's own fiscal policies have contributed to the crisis.
Soon after the protests began, the government increased fuel subsidies by 25% and state salaries by up to 30% in a bid to quell public anger. Then, in September, the government unveiled a $26.5-billion budget, a 58% increase over the previous year.
Analysts questioned where the money would come from. Three months later, Prime Minister Adel Safar instructed public authorities to reduce overheads by 25% with the exception of salaries.
To protect foreign currency reserves, the government banned imports of many consumer products, causing immediate price hikes and shortages. But the outcry from the private sector was so great that the government reversed its decision in less than two weeks.
When Turkey, a major trading partner and longtime ally, followed the Arab League's lead and imposed a raft of sanctions late last year, Syria retaliated with a 30% tariff on all Turkish imports, a move that could drive some prices even higher, a Western official said.
Syrian officials say the country has withstood decades of sanctions and retains staunch allies, including Russia, China and Iran. They portray the latest international measures as an opportunity to stimulate domestic production.
But among those who frequent the capital's chic new cafes and shops, few relish the prospect of a return to the kind of isolationist economy built by Hafez Assad in the 1980s, a time when even tissue paper and diapers were in short supply.
Back in the Old City bazaar, Abu Mohammed peered hopefully from the door of his fabric store. "Today there is nice weather, so maybe we will get a customer or two," he said.
Asked how long he could keep going, he shrugged and laughed. "We are like camels in the desert," he said. "We can keep going for a long time."
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6053 on: Jan 27th, 2012, 08:51am »
Robert Hegyes, Juan Epstein of 'Welcome Back Kotter' dead at 60
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2012, 4:11 PM Updated: Thursday, January 26, 2012, 5:28 PM By Vicki Hyman/The Star-Ledger
Robert Hegyes, the Jersey-born actor who played Jewish Puerto Rican wheeler-dealer Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein on the 1970s classic "Welcome Back Kotter," died from an apparent heart attack after suffering chest pains at his Metuchen home this morning. He was 60.
Hegyes, who also co-starred on "Cagney and Lacey" and taught occasional master classes at his alma mater, Rowan University, was best known for his work on "Kotter," in which he performed alongside a young John Travolta as one of the tough remedial students known at the Sweathogs. Hegyes and nearly all of the original cast members reunited last year at the TV Land Awards to recognize the show's 35th anniversary.
On his website, Hegyes wrote that he modeled the swaggering, skirt-chasing Epstein after Chico Marx, whom he played in a national touring production of "A Night With Groucho." He was a big fan of the Marx Brothers: "They were immigrant Jews, and I was an immigrant Italian. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo were intellectuals ... They all played the piano and took music lessons, and they were all juvenile delinquents; I could definitely relate."
Hegyes had suffered a heart attack a couple of years ago and was not in good health, his brother Mark Hegyes of Montana said. Metuchen police responded to a call for medical assistance from Hegyes' home at 9:02 a.m., and Hegyes, who was experiencing chest pains, was taken to JFK Medical Center in Edison, police said. By the time he arrived at the emergency room at 9:40 a.m., he was in full cardiac arrest and died, according to hospital spokesman Steven Weiss.
Hegyes, whose father was Hungarian-American and whose mother was Italian-American, was born in Perth Amboy and grew up in Metuchen. He was one of the kids equally at home on the gridiron and in the footlights. His nickname: Chico. He wrote that his mother, a big Broadway musical and Frank Sinatra fan, stoked his theatrical ambitions, making him sing along with Ol' Blue Eyes and "incessantly" to "Maria" from "West Side Story."
He graduated from Rowan University (then Glassboro State College) with a bachelor's degree in speech/theater and secondary education -- Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona called him a "great friend" of the school, noting that he sported a Rowan shirt while co-starring as Det. Esposito on "Cagney and Lacey" -- and quickly found work in New York, co-starring Off-Broadway in "Naomi Court" and in the Broadway drama "Don't Call Back." He was then cast as Epstein, a role he played for "Kotter"'s four-season run on ABC.
Following "Kotter" and "Cagney & Lacey," he continued to act on television, mostly in guest-starring roles including "NewsRadio," "Diagnosis Murder" and "The Drew Carey Show," and made occasional films, including "Bob Roberts" with Tim Robbins. He also taught at Brooks College of Long Beach, Calif., and wrote screenplays. Peter Loewy, who runs the Forum Theatre Arts Center in Metuchen, says he planned to work with Hegyes on a one-man show a year or so ago, but Hegyes' health problems -- he needed a hip replacement, among other things -- put it on hold indefinitely. "He was a gentle guy," Loewy remembers. "He had, ironically, a big heart."
Hegyes was retired but still talked about directing and getting more involved in local arts efforts, Mark Hegyes said. "He always had these great schemes," his brother said, "but last week he said I'm not going to do that anymore."
Hegyes leaves behind three siblings, two children, Cassie and Mack, and two step-children, Sophia and Alex.
Visitation will be at Flynn & Son Funeral Home at 23 Ford Ave., Fords, on Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The funeral will take place during the evening visiting hours.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6054 on: Jan 27th, 2012, 08:56am »
A Team Of Divers Seem To Have Discovered A 'UFO' At The Bottom Of The Baltic Sea
by Sanya Khetani | 20 minutes ago 27 January 2012
A team of Swedish salvage divers have discovered an unexplained object at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, Yahoo News reports.
"My first reaction was to tell the guys that we have a UFO here on the bottom," said Peter Lindberg, head of the Ocean Explorer team.
According to sonar readings, the object is about 60 meters across, the size of a jumbo jet. And the plot thickens. Nearby is another, smaller object with a similar shape. Both have "drag marks" behind them on the sea floor, stretching back more than 400 feet.
The most obvious explanation would be that they were shipwrecks. But Lindberg says that theory doesn't hold water because of the large size of the objects. "Of course it would be something from another ship but it's quite big," he told CNN.
Another theory doing the rounds is that they may be Russian warships built around the end of the 1800s. Lindberg debunks this as well, saying that not only were those ships much smaller, they were not patrolling the Baltic during that time.
The team first found the objects in August of last year, and had no plans to return to the scene, but the spike in interest from the public has led them to begin planning a return trip. But Lindberg will have to wait for calmer waters, possibly in May, before going back down for a closer look.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6055 on: Jan 27th, 2012, 08:58am »
Following Genetic Footprints out of Africa: First Modern Humans Settled in Arabia ScienceDaily (Jan. 26, 2012)
A new study, using genetic analysis to look for clues about human migration over sixty thousand years ago, suggests that the first modern humans settled in Arabia on their way from the Horn of Africa to the rest of the world.
Led by the University of Leeds and the University of Porto in Portugal, the study is recently published in American Journal of Human Genetics and provides intriguing insight into the earliest stages of modern human migration, say the researchers.
"A major unanswered question regarding the dispersal of modern humans around the world concerns the geographical site of the first steps out of Africa," explains Dr Luísa Pereira from the Institute of Molecular Pathology and Immunology of the University of Porto (IPATIMUP). "One popular model predicts that the early stages of the dispersal took place across the Red Sea to southern Arabia, but direct genetic evidence has been thin on the ground."
The international research team, which included colleagues from across Europe, Arabia and North Africa, analysed three of the earliest non-African maternal lineages. These early branches are associated with the time period when modern humans first successfully moved out of Africa.
Using mitochondrial DNA analysis, which traces the female line of descent and is useful for comparing relatedness between different populations, the researchers compared complete genomes from Arabia and the Near East with a database of hundreds more samples from Europe. They found evidence for an ancient ancestry within Arabia.
Professor Martin Richards of the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, said: "The timing and pattern of the migration of early modern humans has been a source of much debate and research. Our new results suggest that Arabia, rather than North Africa or the Near East, was the first staging-post in the spread of modern humans around the world."
The research was funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, the Leverhulme Trust, and the DeLaszlo Foundation.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6056 on: Jan 27th, 2012, 3:40pm »
Uploaded by camillasdo on Jan 27, 2012
This video was taken by the crew of Expedition 30 on board the International Space Station. The sequence of shots was taken January 3, 2012 from 15:01:30 to 15:08:17 GMT, on a pass from the Indian Ocean, just west of Australia, to south of Australia, west of Tasmania. The pass begins looking eastward toward southern Australia at the Aurora Australis. The crew captures the aurora just before the sun begins to come up in this short video. A few orbiting satellites pass by throughout the video as well.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6057 on: Jan 28th, 2012, 08:59am »
India's biometric ID number plan divided by bureaucracy
The prime minister decides the two agencies fighting to collect and control fingerprints, retinal scans and other data will share in the duties.
By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times January 28, 2012 Reporting from New Delhi
India's plan to issue each of its citizens a biometric identity number, an ambitious program aimed at cutting corruption, mismanagement and red tape, may yet founder on the very bureaucracy it was designed to minimize.
On Friday, after a battle between two agencies over who would collect and control the fingerprints, retinal scans and other information before issuing the 12-digit numbers,India'sprime minister resolved the issue: Both bureaucracies will collect the information "with suitable provisions to eliminate avoidable overlap."
Though the program may eventually provide some of the benefits envisioned for India's citizens, many of whom are so poor and illiterate that there's no official trace of their existence, analysts say this is hardly a promising start.
"I think the turf war … has been settled by giving 50-50," said R. Ramakumar, associate professor with Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences. "It looks more like ego massaging."
It also underscores the entrenchment and power of India's infamous bureaucrats, the systemic barriers to reform and fighting corruption.
"It's not going to end with this truce," said Charan Wadhva, an analyst and former president of Delhi's Center for Policy Research. "There are vested interests that don't want it to succeed. But at least it's one step short of open war."
On one side of the dispute is Nandan Nilekani, a billionaire who left a comfortable position as co-founder of outsource giant Infosys to head the Unique Identification Authority of India.
Sitting in his government office in New Delhi near a large flat-screen TV, Nilekani — who famously gave author Thomas Friedman the title for his 2005 bestseller, "The World is Flat" — explained why he took on this challenge: "I've made plenty of money. I wanted to do something for India."
Supporters of his ID program say it will weed out welfare fraud and duplication, deter illegal migration, boost counter-terrorism efforts and provide access to banking, telecom accounts and government agencies for India's poorest. (Barely 20% of Indians have bank accounts.)
They also believe it could spur direct government cash transfers, bypassing corrupt local officials. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once said that only 15% of government funds reach the poor.
Partnerships between the private sector and India's rigid bureaucracy are rare, and Nilekani has ruffled feathers by ignoring protocol, moving quickly and sparring with the National Population Register, the competing agency with its own biometric ID project.
The NPR, overseen by powerful Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, has argued that data collected for Nilekani's universal ID isn't secure, costs too much at about $3 per record and should be under its control.
Under Friday's compromise, both agencies will enroll citizens to their respective programs simultaneously, with the universal ID program authorized to register up to 600 million people. The two agencies are supposed to share captured data and figure out ways to cooperate, though funding for Nilekani's program will be the topic of a separate process later.
The universal ID program has also faced critics outside the government, who argue that it undermines privacy, could see foreign governments gain access to sensitive information and uses a fingerprint recognition system that can be fooled by a bit of wax and glue.
Nilekani counters his critics with well-practiced answers: Their fears are misguided, the system is secure and interagency differences are the "usual cacophony."
The challenges, logically, technologically and socially, are huge. If every one of India's 1.2 billion citizens is registered, the system will need 10 times more data than the biggest existing biometric database covering visitors to the United States.
More than 120 million numbers have been issued under the program, with a goal of 200 million by March and 600 million by 2014 (compared with about 50,000 population registry cards). Some place the ultimate cost of India's universal ID program at $25 billion.
Unemployed worker Palash Hazara is a testament to some of the troubles that plague the program. Hazara, who migrated to New Delhi in 2007 from West Bengal state, registered late last year for his number, providing his name, gender, age, address, fingerprints, photograph and eye scan.
"For me, it's more than proving my identity for a job," he said. "It's proof that I'm an Indian."
But his hope of joining the army in Delhi, which would require him to show proper identification, have been undermined by a demanded $1,400 bribe for the job, he said. Even securing his "free" universal ID number cost him $4 in graft, he said — more than a day's wages — despite its promise to help fight fraud.
And although it's been months since he registered, the number still hasn't arrived. Now he is considering a return to his ancestral community, where he's known and doesn't need an ID number.
"I came to Delhi to earn my own livelihood, but I've been out of work for weeks," he said. "I wouldn't mind going back. This place is so expensive and people are hostile."
Vinod Kumar, a former chemistry professor and director of the civic group MotivOcean, has many concerns of his own about the program, from privacy to security to the integrity of information.
But he acknowledges the potential if Nilekani's system can track payments through officials' sticky fingers in a country that is 132 out of 183 economies in an International Finance Corp. ranking in terms of doing business, and 95 out of 182 countries in Transparency International's corruption perception index.
"We're spending all this money when nearly half the country doesn't even have access to a toilet," he said. "It's hugely expensive. But if he can pull this off, he's a god to us."
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6058 on: Jan 28th, 2012, 09:02am »
Toddler chews head off snake
A 13-month old Israeli toddler chewed the head off a snake.
7:04PM GMT 27 Jan 2012
Thirteen-month-old Imad Aleeyan, who has six teeth, was found chewing on the head of the 12 inch snake by his mother, who alerted the neighbourhood with her screams.
"I was making his milk and I looked over and saw he had a snake in his mouth," said his mother, Ghadir Aleeyan who lives in the Arab Israeli town of Shefa'Amr, 9 miles east of the port city of Haifa.
"I started to scream. I couldn't believe my eyes," she told AFP. "I nearly died of fright."
Her screams brought the rest of the family – and the neighbourhood – running.
"We rushed in and found the baby with a snake in his mouth, chewing it. It was really scary, just horrible," the boy's aunt, Yasmin Shahin, said.
A neighbour who had rushed to see what was going on yanked the half-dead reptile out of the boys mouth and killed it, she said.
"When he pulled it out, Imad started crying," she said, describing the snake's head as "very badly chewed" when it emerged from the boys mouth.
They immediately checked the child for any bite marks but found none, with doctors at Rambam hospital in Haifa confirming he was unharmed.
"Doctors at the hospital told us the snake was really poisonous but that we were very lucky because they release less venom in the winter," she said.
Dr Boaz Shacham, an expert on amphibians and reptiles, told AFP that from looking at images of the smashed-up serpent online, it appeared to be a coin-marked snake (hemorrhois nummifer), a non-venomous species which resembles a viper.
Such snakes grow up to three feet in length, he said suggesting it was a "very young" specimen.
"It probably didn't bite the child because of the cold," said Dr Shacham who is the head of the herpetology collection at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #6059 on: Jan 28th, 2012, 09:10am »
Fran Drescher - Fran Drescher Happily Admits To Alien Abduction 27 January 2012 19:58
Fran Drescher is a bit of a character, if you weren't quite believing of that then just listen to what she's been saying recently. The actress has claimed to the Huffington Post that she and her husband were abducted by aliens.
"You know, it's funny, because Peter and I both saw (aliens) before we knew each other, doing the same thing, driving on the road with our dads", the 'The Nanny' and 'Happily Divorced' star said in reference to her husband Peter Marc Jacobson. Continuing she said "We were both in junior high. A few years later, we met, and we realized that we had the same experience. I think that somehow we were programmed to meet. We both have this scar. It's the exact same scar on the exact same spot."
Well that explains it! Her husband was clearly a fool to suggest that maybe she had got the scar on her hand from a drill bit or pouring hot water on it by accident, as she stated "I said to him, that's what the aliens programmed us to think. But really, that's where the chip is".