20 April 2012 Secret Service ousts three more in Colombia scandal By David Nakamura and Ed O’Keefe
The repercussions from the burgeoning Colombia prostitution scandal continued to mount Friday as the U.S. Secret Service forced out three more employees, while agency director Mark Sullivan gave his first briefing to President Obama on the alleged misconduct of those in charge of protecting him.
Sullivan met with Obama in the Oval Office, a week after revelations first surfaced of heavy drinking, visits to strip clubs and payments to prostitutes on April 11 by members of the president’s advance security team, who were preparing for his trip to an international summit.
In his daily briefing at the White House, which occurred before Obama met with Sullivan, press secretary Jay Carney said the president is confident his security was “never compromised,” even though the Secret Service replaced at least 11 agents and officers just hours before Obama arrived in the city of Cartagena on April 13.
Obama has “faith in the Secret Service, and high regard for the agency and the job that they do protecting him, his family, protecting his predecessors,” Carney said.
The three Secret Service personnel forced out Friday have chosen to resign, the agency said in a statement, bringing to six the total number who have lost their jobs in the wake of the incident.
That total includes two supervisors, David Randall Chaney and Greg Stokes, who were pushed out Wednesday after careers that spanned nearly two decades each. Chaney has elected to retire, while Stokes has been recommended for termination for cause and will be given a chance to contest the charges.
In all, 22 men from the Secret Service and military are now suspected of having participated in the carousing. The military said Friday that 11 of its members have been implicated, one more than previously reported.
Six are from the Army, two from the Marine Corps, two from the Navy and one from the Air Force, according to Col. Scott Malcom, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command.
The Army personnel are from the 7th Special Forces Group; the Marines and sailors work in San Diego; and the airman is based in Charleston, S.C., Malcom said in a statement. The service members have returned to their home bases pending a separate investigation by the Defense Department.
Also, the Secret Service announced that one of its 11 employees originally under investigation has been cleared of “serious misconduct” but will face administrative action. However, the agency said a 12th man has been implicated.
Asked if there was a cultural problem within the service, Carney said the White House would “wait for the conclusion of the investigation into this specific incident” before determining if a deeper review is necessary.
Investigators for both the Secret Service and the military are interviewing workers at two hotels in Cartagena — the Hotel Caribe, where most of Obama’s advance team were staying, and the Hilton, where the president and his staff were guests.
The investigators have sought to interview some of the 21 women alleged to have been brought by the Americans to the Hotel Caribe. The men have given conflicting accounts of what took place, with some saying they did not know the women were working as prostitutes, according to people briefed on the investigation.
The discovery of an apparent DNA-RNA hybrid virus blurs the boundaries between two major groups, and shows that recombination could be an important route of virus evolution.
By Helen Thompson and Nature News Blog Friday, April 20, 2012
In the hostile environment of a bubbling volcanic hot spring, a team of researchers at Portland State University in Oregon has discovered a new viral genome that seems to be the product of recombination between a DNA virus and an RNA virus — a natural chimaera not seen before. Their findings appeared on 19 April in the journal Biology Direct.
“It’s a mythological beast of a virus, but it actually exists,” says virologist Ken Stedman, who presented his lab’s findings at NASA’s Astrobiology Conference on 17 April in Atlanta, Georgia.
In the bacterial communities that populate the acidic waters of Boiling Springs Lake in northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, “viruses are the only predators”, Stedman says. To get a better handle on what types of viruses are present there, he and his colleagues performed a metagenomic analysis of hundreds of thousands of viral sequences from a lake sample. The results included something unexpected: a piece of DNA coding for a protein that until now has only been seen in the capsid or ‘head’ of RNA viruses. By comparing the sequence with those of other genetic fragments, they were able to arrive at a complete viral genome. In the genome, the RNA-like sequence sat adjacent to another sequence for a replication protein that is unique to DNA viruses.
The resultant single-stranded circular genome, dubbed BSL RDHV (short for Boiling Springs Lake RNA–DNA hybrid virus), seems to be the result of a recombination event between two completely unrelated virus groups. The RNA gene did not come from a virus that could produce reverse transcriptase, the enzyme required to change RNA into DNA, so it’s unclear how the RNA gene ended up in the DNA genome. “We have no idea how it happened, but we know it happened,” says Stedman.
Stedman suggests two possible explanations. In one scenario, an RNA virus, a DNA virus and a retrovirus infected the same cell at the same time; the retrovirus used its reverse transcriptase enzyme to translate the RNA gene into a DNA copy, which got lumped in with the DNA virus genome. Such a scenario might also work if there was free-floating reverse transcriptase present in the environment. Alternatively, a special kind of viral ligase protein — which glues nucleic acids together — may have joined the dissimilar DNA and RNA strands, with the resultant hybrid code then replicated into DNA. Both scenarios are possible, if a bit far-fetched, says Stedman.
To see whether similar viruses exist in other environments, the team screened the Global Ocean Survey’s sequence database, and found three virus sequences containing the same two genes. “There were lots of cases that matched the sequence for either the DNA protein or the RNA protein, so there could actually be quite a few out there,” says Stedman. “But we can’t link them together, so we can’t say for sure.”
Metagenomic analyses can give researchers a picture only of the virus’s genome, not the virus itself or its host. “The downside of the approach is that little can be inferred about the biology of viruses discovered in environmental samples,” says Cédric Feschotte, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Texas at Arlington. “It is unclear whether these viruses are good representatives even of their own group of viruses.” Stedman acknowledges these limitations, and now plans to investigate these questions with further sampling.
But, the fact that the unique virus exists suggests that recombination can happen between lineages that diverged billions of years ago. “It has been hypothesized that a key aspect of the earliest stages in the evolution of genetic systems involved rampant recombination and fusion between small, diverse — to the point of having different strategies of replication and expression — virus-like genetic elements,” says Eugene Koonin, an evolutionary geneticist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. “Stedman’s findings show that such recombination between diverse viruses indeed takes place and could be an important route of virus evolution.”
“The discovery of an apparent hybrid between DNA and RNA viruses blurs the traditional boundaries between two major viral groups, further highlighting the plasticity of the viral world and the seemingly unlimited possibilities of chimaerism among viral entities,” says Feschotte. If so, there could be more chimeras out there, just waiting for virologists to find them.
This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on April 19, 2012.
Sailor Matt Rutherford welcomed home in Annapolis after sailing solo around the Americas
By Dave Sheinin, Published: April 21 The Washington Post
Within minutes of his placing his first bare, calloused foot on dry land, they whisked Matt Rutherford away from his joyful family and led him to a makeshift stage in the center of Annapolis’s City Dock, where, clad in a crusty floppy hat, a pungent pair of black mesh shorts and the same vintage Popeye T-shirt he had worn at his departure 10 months earlier, he took a seat next to the governor and his wife and gazed out at the hundreds of faces suddenly staring at him.
The incongruity of it all was not lost on him. For 10 months, as he completed a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the Americas aboard a 27-foot sailboat — a feat certified as unprecedented by the U.S. Sailing Hall of Fame — Rutherford had scarcely had any human contact.
But now, on a gorgeous, breezy Saturday, at the end of a spirited ceremony replete with a Dixieland jazz band, a drum and bugle corps, a bagpiper and speeches by Gov. Martin O’Malley and a half-dozen others, someone was handing him a microphone and — as the crowd roared for the man one speaker called “our hero” — asking him to say a few words.
“Long time, no see,” Rutherford, 31, said into the mike, with the same familiar combination of awkwardness and comedic timing that those who know him best had missed these last 309 days. He was still barefoot, his toenails brown and gnarled, and thick shocks of dark orange hair spilled out below his hat.
“Being here is like a dream,” he said. “Any minute I’m going to wake up and be in the middle of the ocean.”
Some 40 feet to his right, tied off to a dock for the first time since June 11, 2011, and looking every bit as tired and weathered as her captain, sat the 36-year-old, Swedish-built Albin Vega sailboat — christened the St. Brendan in honor of a 6th-century explorer — that had carried Rutherford across the fabled Northwest Passage, through the Bering Sea, around Cape Horn and up the Atlantic Coast. Barnacles covered her stern, and a greenish-brown slime coated the entire hull.
“When you’ve been out there alone as long as I was,” Rutherford said, “even a barnacle can be nice to hang out with.”
The 27,077-mile journey had been officially completed on Wednesday, when Rutherford crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel outside of Norfolk — the start and finish line — and he had whiled away the last few days slowly cruising up the bay. He spent Friday night, his final night at sea, holed up in a cove off Annapolis known as Lake Ogleton — as anyone who followed his blog, www.solotheamericas.org, could tell by checking the GPS map at the top.
By 11 a.m. Saturday, as the crowd began to gather at City Dock for the ceremony, a flotilla of a couple dozen boats — tiny dinghies and huge yachts, sailboats and speedboats, even a U.S. Coast Guard patrol — converged to escort Rutherford to town.
As he approached the dock, the band launched into “It’s a Small World After All” — a song whose premise Rutherford might not necessarily agree with — and at precisely 12:10 p.m., he stepped onto the dock and into the arms of his mother, Marlowe MacIntyre. His father, Doug Rutherford, and sister, Rachel Rutherford, and a half-dozen other family members lined up for their hugs.
“Mostly just relieved,” Doug Rutherford said a few moments earlier, when asked how he was feeling. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”
The audacious journey was conceived as a two-fold endeavor — one part charity, and one part self-exploration. The first part is measurable, and as of Saturday afternoon Rutherford had raised $79,393 for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, an organization that provides sailing opportunities for the disabled. Nearly half of that, however, was spent on a pair of emergency resupplies during Rutherford’s trip, after critical equipment failed.
As for the self-exploration, it will all be there in the book Rutherford is planning to write about the trip. When someone asked what else he planned to do, Rutherford shrugged and said, “Go back to being a vagabond, I guess.”
After the ceremony, dozens of people converged on Rutherford with cellphone cameras and hearty backslaps. “I just wanted to shake your hand,” more than one man remarked.
There was a hot shower and some cold beer in Rutherford’s immediate future. Anything else he would like? “Maybe talking to a nice lady,” he answered sheepishly. “It’s up there with the shower and the beer.” Saturday evening, there was a small, private reception and dinner planned at the nearby Fleet Reserve Club. By request, ribs, chicken wings and cole slaw were to be served. The organizers opted for an indoor table with air conditioning.
Rutherford lives on a boat in Annapolis, but that wasn’t going to do on Saturday, so someone had the good sense to get him a hotel room — with a balcony, for smoking cigars. The forecast called for an overnight storm, but after 309 fitful nights in a soggy sleeping bag, in a cabin too small for him to stand up in, it is safe to assume Rutherford wouldn’t even wrinkle the sheets on his bed.
By Marcus George DUBAI | Sun Apr 22, 2012 5:01am EDT
Iran's military has started to build a copy of a U.S. surveillance drone captured last year after breaking the software encryption, Iranian media reported on Sunday.
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guards aerospace division, said engineers were in the final stages of decoding data from the Sentinel aircraft, which came down in December near the Afghan border, Mehr news agency reported.
Iran said the unmanned aircraft was shot down, but Washington disputes that and says the security systems mean Iran is unlikely to get valuable information from the Lockheed Martin Corp drone.
"The Americans should be aware to what extent we have infiltrated the plane," Fars news agency quoted Hajizadeh as saying. "Our experts have full understanding of its components and programmes."
Iran's military regular announces defense and engineering developments, but some analysts are skeptical as to how reliable those reports are.
The RQ-170 Sentinel has been widely used since 2010 in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It played a role in the capture of Osama bin Laden last year, analysts say.
An Iranian defense official said recently that Tehran has received numerous requests for information on the craft and that China and Russia have shown most interest.
The loss of the plane sparked some concerns that sophisticated technology could fall into the hands of countries developing their own unmanned planes. The main worry centers on the special coatings on the craft's surface.
(Reporting By Marcus George; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)
Up for Bids: Classic Soviet Space Propaganda Posters By Betsy Mason April 20, 2012 | 7:18 pm Categories: Space
The Path For Humans Is Now Cleared, 1960
Science and communism are inseparable! That is the basic message of this amazing collection of Soviet space propaganda posters that will be auctioned off on Apr. 22.
Featuring Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov, the first and second humans to reach space, along with Krushchev, and of course Lenin, these posters glorify the the Soviet Union's technological prowess and importance in the world, and in the universe. Many of the posters focus on the role the workers played in the space race, and the ordinary citizen's duty to feel immensely proud of Mother Russia's accomplishments.
The posters have messages such as "Comrades! Soviet Land Has From Now On Become the Shore of the Universe!" or "The Tenth Planet Symbolizes the Victory of Communism!" and "Be Proud, Soviet, You Opened a Path from the Earth to the Stars!" One of my favorites is "Lenin Is With Us, Immortal and Majestic, the Thoughts, Words and Deeds of Ilyich Are Propagating Through the Universe."
The estimated values of the posters range from $400 to $1,500, and for some of these, I think that is a bargain. If you'd like to hang one of these posters on your wall, check out the auction online. (Space-themed posters are toward the end of the list.) Bidding starts at 10 a.m. PDT on Apr. 22 by Mercer & Middlesex Auctions.
Lectures and the literary scene in Marin County, April 22 through 29, 2012
Compiled by Nick Bensen Posted: 04/22/2012 06:20:00 AM PDT
BEST WESTERN NOVATO OAKS INN — 215 Alameda del Prado, Novato; 717-6800; 650-349-2651; www.rahmgroup.org. 6:30 p.m. April 22: Stephen Bassett speaks about "Countdown to UFO/ET Disclosure and Consequences of a Post-Disclosure World." $10 to $25.
Israeli forces are carrying out more special operations beyond the country's borders and will be ready to attack Iran's nuclear sites if ordered, the chief-of-staff said in an interview on Sunday.
In an extract from an interview with the top-selling Yediot Aharanot daily, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz said that 2012 would be a critical year in efforts to halt what Israel and much of the international community believe is an Iranian nuclear arms programme.
"We think that a nuclear Iran is a very bad thing, which the world needs to stop and which Israel needs to stop -- and we are planning accordingly," Gantz said.
"In principle, we are ready to act.
"That does not mean that I will now order (air force chief) Ido (Nehushtan) to strike Iran," he added in the interview which will be published in full on Wednesday, on the eve of Israel's 64th anniversary as a state.
The United States says it does not believe Iran has so far taken a decision to develop a nuclear weapon, or that the time is right for military action, preferring to give international sanctions time to work.
But Israel, which sees a nuclear Iran as a threat to its very existence, claims Tehran may be on the cusp of "breakout" capability -- when it could quickly build a nuclear weapon -- and it does not rule out staging a pre-emptive strike of its own.
Gantz said he had increased the number of Israeli special operations in other countries but did not give details.
"I do not think you will find a point in time where there is not something happening, somewhere in the world," he said. "The threat level is also higher."
"I'm not taking the credit," he added. "I'm just accelerating all those special operations."
Darpa to Troubled Soldiers: Meet Your New Simulated Therapist By Katie Drummond April 20, 2012 | 6:30 am Categories: DarpaWatch
The Pentagon hasn’t made much progress in solving the PTSD crisis plaguing this generation of soldiers. Now it’s adding new staff members to the therapy teams tasked with spotting the signs of emotional pain and providing therapy to the beleaguered. Only this isn’t a typical hiring boost. The new therapists, Danger Room has learned, will be computer-generated “virtual humans” programmed to appear empathetic.
It’s the latest in a long series of efforts to assuage soaring rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD that afflict today’s troops. Military brass have become increasingly willing to try just about anything, from yoga and reiki to memory-adjustment pills, that holds an iota of promise. They’ve even funded computerized therapy before: In 2010, for example, the military launched an effort to create an online health portal that’d include video chats with therapists.
But this project, funded by Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research arm, is way more ambitious. Darpa’s research teams are hoping to combine 3-D rendered simulated therapists — think Sims characters mixed with ELIZA — with sensitive analysis software that can actually detect psychological symptoms “by analyzing facial expressions, body gestures and speech,” Dr. Albert Rizzo, who is leading the project alongside Dr. Louis-Philippe Morency, tells Danger Room.
For now, the system, called SIM Sensei, is being designed for use at military medical clinics. A soldier could walk into the clinic, enter a private kiosk, and log on to a computer where his or her personal simulated therapist — yes, you can pick from an array of different animated docs — would be waiting. Using Kinect-like hardware for motion sensing, a microphone and a webcam, the computer’s software would take note of how a patient moved and how they spoke. The video above offers a demonstration of what a SIM Sensei would look like, and how they’d interact with a patient.
SIM Sensei won’t replace human clinicians. Instead, it’ll supplement them, and help military clinics prioritize which patients need care most acutely, and which can wait to see a flesh-and-blood doctor. If a soldier talking to the SIM exhibits minor symptoms, the Sensei might help him or her schedule an appointment to see a human therapist in two weeks’ time. But if the Sensei detects “red flags” in an individual’s behavior — vocal patterns that signal depression, for example — the SIM could schedule that patient to see a doctor immediately.
“Let’s say you have a more serious case, where it becomes evident to the Sensei that a patient is exhibiting major depression or might be a suicide risk,” Dr. Rizzo tells Danger Room. “The computer could immediately call for a human doctor to come take over.”
The initiative is a collaborative effort between the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and Cogito Health, a spin-off company developed by MIT researchers. It’s also the next phase of an ongoing Pentagon-funded project, called SIM Coach, that’s designed for soldiers to use within the privacy of their own homes but doesn’t incorporate any analysis of a soldier’s body language or vocal tone.
ICT has deep experience with virtual therapy. Under Rizzo’s leadership, the institute was the first to develop immersive programs that allowed patients afflicted with PTSD to revisit combat scenarios. The programs have been widely lauded, and are now used by more than 60 military medical clinics across the country.
Cogito’s role, on the other hand, raises something of a red flag. The company was developed out of the lab of MIT scientist Alex Pentland. He’s the number-cruncher whose “reality mining” spurred Darpa to throw millions into a dubious program to mine social data and then yield conclusions about U.S. progress in Afghanistan, known as Nexus 7. The initiative, as Danger Room reported exclusively last year, has been something of a disaster.
Cogito is also grounded in data mining. But the company’s aim is to evaluate a single person’s well-being, rather than an entire community’s. The company will incorporate its bespoke software suite, called “Honest Signals,” into the new Darpa program. It “assesses cues in an individual’s natural speech and social behavior” to spot potential mental health problems, according to a statement that Cogito e-mailed to Danger Room. The company declined to offer studies on the efficacy of “Honest Signals,” but did point to a book — co-written by Pentland — on that very subject.
Rizzo acknowledges that pulling accurate data out of an individual’s face, voice and other such metrics remains a challenge. “We’ve got some heavy lifting ahead of us,” he says. But he’s also extremely confident that Pentland and Cogito are well equipped with data that can turn SIM Sensei into a success. “These guys are bright as hell,” he says. “They’re pioneers in the field, and they’ve got an amazing capacity to detect the smallest problems that pop up in someone’s behavior.”
That said, the SIM Sensei idea is also bogged down by another downside. Computer-based therapy, in comparison to face-to-face treatment, is inevitably impersonal.
Studies on the efficacy of telemedicine (therapy via video chat with a human therapist), where PTSD or depression are concerned, have been mixed. But in an interview with PBS published last year, Stars and Stripes reporter Megan McCloskey summed up the shortcomings of such therapy for mental health conditions. “Many of those who need more intensive counseling … don’t like the impersonal nature of talking to a TV screen,” she says. “For some, telemedicine doesn’t meet their needs and adds to their sense of isolation.”
Cyber therapy would be even more vicarious. Soldiers will talk to a videogame character, rather than a real person, through their computer screen.
But a robust virtual option would give soldiers, many of whom still shy away from face-to-face mental health treatment, the option to seek solace in a more anonymous alternative. Eventually, Rizzo and his colleagues hope to see SIM Sensei available for soldiers within the comforts of their own home, rather than a military clinic.
“A lot of people still don’t want to stop by the clinic and meet with a real person,” he says. “Technology is ripe for us to leverage. I’m extremely confident that we can use it, leverage it, to help people who otherwise wouldn’t get better.”
22 April 2012 Fears of extremism taking hold in Syria as violence continues By Liz Sly
BEIRUT — As Syria’s revolution drags into its second year amid few signs that a U.N.-mandated cease-fire plan will end the violence, evidence is mounting that Islamist extremists are seeking to commandeer what began as a non-ideological uprising aimed at securing greater political freedom.
Activists and rebel soldiers based inside Syria say a small but growing number of Islamist radicals affiliated with global jihadi movements have been arriving in opposition strongholds in recent weeks and attempting to rally support among disaffected residents.
Western diplomats say they have tracked a steady trickle of jihadists flowing into Syria from Iraq, and Jordan’s government last week detained at least four alleged Jordanian militants accused of trying to sneak into Syria to join the revolutionaries.
A previously unknown group calling itself the al-Nusra Front has asserted responsibility for bombings in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo using language and imagery reminiscent of the statements and videos put out by al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations in Iraq, although no evidence of the group’s existence has surfaced other than the videos and statements it has posted on the Internet.
Syrian activists and Western officials say the militants appear to be making little headway in recruiting supporters within the ranks of the still largely secular protest movement, whose unifying goal is the ouster of the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
But if the United Nations’ peace plan fails to end the government’s bloody crackdown and promises of Western and Arab help for the rebel Free Syrian Army do not materialize, activists and analysts say, there is a real risk that frustrated members of the opposition will be driven toward extremism, adding a dangerous dimension to a revolt that is threatening to destabilize a wide arc of territory across the Middle East.
“The world doing nothing opens the door for jihadis,” said Lt. Abdullah al-Awdi, a Free Syrian Army commander who defected from the regular army in the summer and was interviewed during a visit he made to Turkey. He says that he has rebuffed several offers of help from militant groups in the form of arms and money and that he fears the extremists’ influence will grow.
“This is not a reason for the international community to be silent about Syria. It should be a reason for them to do something,” Awdi said.
Flow of jihadis reported
U.S. officials and Western diplomats in the region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, say they have seen several indications that al-Qaeda-like groups are trying to inject themselves into the Syrian revolution, although they stress that the Islamist radicals’ impact has been limited. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on “mujaheddin” to head to Syria in support of the rebels earlier this year, and Western diplomats are convinced that operatives affiliated with al-Qaeda carried out a string of bombings in Damascus and Aleppo between December and March.
The diplomats say dozens of jihadis have been detected crossing the border from Iraq into Syria, some of them Syrians who had previously volunteered to fight in Iraq and others Iraqi. There may also be other foreign nationals among them, reversing the journey they took into Iraq years ago when jihadis flowed across the border to fight the now-departed Americans.
The Syrian government facilitated the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq for many years, and there are widespread suspicions that it may be covertly reactivating some of those networks to discredit the revolutionaries, deter international support for the opposition and create conditions under which the harsh crackdown by authorities will appear justified.
The regime portrayed the uprising as the work of radical Islamists in its earliest days, and the reports that extremists are surfacing in Syria only play into the official narrative, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
“This drip, drip, drip of extremists across the border . . . there are signs the regime is aiding and abetting it,” Shaikh said. “And it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It is also plausible that these groups, adherents of a radicalized form of Sunni Islam, have turned against their former benefactors and are making their way back to Syria motivated by religious and sectarian zeal. Although many Syrian opposition activists insist that their revolution is not sectarian, a majority of Syrians are Sunnis, while Assad, along with most leading figures in the regime and in the security forces, belongs to the Shiite-affiliated Alawite minority, lending a sectarian dimension to the populist revolt.
Syrian activists and rebels insist that the extremists are not welcome in communities that have long prided themselves on their tolerance of the religious minorities in their midst, including Christians, Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Ismaili Shiites.
A rebel leader in northern Syria who asked to be identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Mustafa, described how he and his men drove out a group of about 15 radicals, all of them Syrian but none of them local, who arrived in a northern village in January. Led by a commander who identified himself as Abu Sulaiman, the group tried to recruit supporters for an assault on the nearby town of Jisr al-Shughour.
Abu Sulaiman “had money, he had weapons, and he sent a guy to negotiate with me, but I refused,” Abu Mustafa recalled in an interview in Turkey. “We asked him to leave, but he didn’t, so we attacked him. We killed two of them, and one of our men was injured. Then he left, but I don’t know where he went.”
“The good thing is that Syrians are against giving our country to radicals,” Abu Mustafa added. “But these groups have supporters who are very rich, and if our revolution continues like this, without hope and without result, they will gain influence on the ground.”
A largely secular revolt
There is a distinction between the naturally conservative religiosity of Syrians who come from traditional communities and the radicalism of those associated with the global jihadi movement, said Joseph Holliday, who is researching the Free Syrian Army at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington and believes extremists are a small minority.
“While there are elements [in the opposition] that are very conservative, they are not the driving force,” he said. “There is definitely an argument to be made that this will increase over time, because insurgencies often become more extremist over time, but for now the driving force behind this revolution is secular.”
Adherents of the strict Salafi school of Islam have emerged in many Syrian communities and are playing a role in the opposition, but they, too, are to be distinguished from the jihadis, said Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“People who are local and pious and moving in an Islamist direction and are taking up guns don’t have the same organization and are not necessarily the same thing as jihadists, who are not necessarily al-Qaeda,” he said. “There’s a range of different directions and trends.”
Many activists fear, however, that the influence of the extremists is growing as Syrian rebels who have for months appealed in vain for Western military intervention look for help elsewhere.
“Of course it is growing, because no one is doing anything to stop it,” said a Syrian activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears retribution from some of the radicals he has encountered while attempting to organize the opposition in many northern communities.
“They have rules,” he said. “They say: If we give you money, you have to obey our orders and accept our leadership. Some of my friends drink alcohol, and they aren’t like this. But when they find no other way to cover their expenses, they join these groups and then they follow them.”
Special correspondent Ranya Kadri in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
By Andreas Cremer and Ben Klayman BEIJING | Mon Apr 23, 2012 8:23am EDT
Global car makers such as GM, Daimler, BMW and Peugeot are counting on China to maintain growth in their premium offerings, even as all the signs point to an overall slowing in the world's largest auto market.
Even conservative forecasts have China's automobile market surging to 30 million vehicles a year by 2020 from last year's 18 million. Some think volume could even reach 40 million.
Executives attending the Beijing autoshow from premium brands like Mercedes, BMW and Audi were bullish about a segment they said still has plenty of room to grow.
"We expect the premium segment to grow much more strongly than the overall market," said Audi sales chief Peter Schwarzenbauer in an interview with Reuters.
"China has 304 cities with at least 1 million population and we have so far only add dealers in 187 of them. The premium market still has extremely good growth prospects. We're all still scratching the surface in China."
France's PSA Peugeot Citroen unveiled a sleek, large coupe-styled concept sedan on Monday that prefigures the Citroen DS luxury sub-brand it plans to introduce to China from June 28, with an annual volume target of 200,000 vehicles within four years.
"I don't know whether this is the best moment to be launching or not, but it's still the world's biggest auto market," Peugeot's global marketing chief, Xavier Duchemin, told Reuters. "And premium is still the fastest growing segment."
Duchemin was confident of finding enough investors for the DS sales network planned with local manufacturing partner Changan, even as rising competitive pressure on prices and dealer margins makes the task "a little more difficult".
DOUBLE DIGIT GROWTH
China's premium car market should grow 15-20 percent this year, Daimler AG's chief executive said, adding that Daimler's sales should at least match that rate.
Speaking at a roundtable event at the auto show, Dieter Zetsche also said he expected the company's Mercedes-Benz luxury brand to post a sales increase in Europe this year. He did not elaborate.
General Motors expects sales of its Cadillac models in China to match U.S. sales levels by 2015 or 2016, the company's chief executive said.
CEO Dan Akerson said Cadillac sales in China grew 73 percent to more than 30,000 last year, and were up 20 percent in the first quarter over the year-ago period. Last year, GM sold about 152,000 Cadillac cars in the United States.
He added that the company planned to add one new Cadillac model in China each year through 2016. The XTS luxury sedan will be built in Shanghai starting in the fourth quarter of this year, Akerson said.
BMW expects sales growth in China to climb by a double-digit percentage in 2012, said Ian Robertson, sales chief at BMW, adding the company expected another record sales year worldwide.
In 2011, BMW Group sold about 1.6 million cars worldwide, and in the first quarter of this year it sold about 426,000, also a record.
"I expect the (Chinese premium) market to ease somewhat from the 30 or so percent last year, but there's still a degree of upside in the market," said Robertson
"Forecasters say that premium segment in China could double over the next 4-5 years. We have about 290 BMW dealers now and will open about 50 more in the next 12 months. That also includes third-tier and fourth-tier cities."
Audi, the luxury unit of Volkswagen, saw first-quarter sales grow 10.8 percent, and said that pace of growth was extending into April in China and globally.
Sales chief Schwarzenbauer said China should surpass the United States to become the world's largest luxury car market by 2015 and he also saw opportunities in Europe despite the region's economic woes.
"There are many markets in Europe that are developing well," he said, citing Britain, Russia and Germany, that were offsetting struggling southern European markets. "I expect us to grow in Europe this year despite the headwinds."
Nissan Motor CEO Carlos Ghosn said at a roundtable with journalists that some of its rivals' recent success in China was due to price discounting, a factor he said was holding back sales of the company's premium Infiniti brand.
Ghosn said Infiniti grew 60 percent in 2011 but only 2 percent in the first three months of 2012, but added that Nissan would not join the discounting trend.
"The definition of a luxury brand is a brand for which you're ready to pay a higher price for what it represents," he said. "If you start to be a bargain, yes, you're going to have a boost in sales in the short-term but you're going to lose the luxury halo after a while."
(Additional Reporting by Chang-ran Kim, Fang Yan and Ken Wills; Writing by Matt Driskill; Editing by Alex Richardson)
Military Wants an Arctic Knight Rider By Spencer Ackerman April 23, 2012 | 6:30 am Categories: robots
The U.S. military must be suffering massive Knight Rider nostalgia. First it signed a deal to develop an autonomous car to speed through minefields and destroy homemade bombs. Now it’s interested in another kind of KITT: this one an all-terrain vehicle for the arctic tundra.
That’s the basic idea behind a military proposal that’s barely off the ground called, adorably, KODIAK. The military wants a rugged vehicle capable of operating in sub-zero conditions. Driver strictly optional.
Northern Command, the young and relatively obscure military command responsible for the North American continent, wants information on “existing semi-autonomous ground vehicles and/or modification of commercial all terrain vehicles that can operate as manned (two person) or unmanned mode of transportation,” according to a bulletin it quietly released last week. “The platform must be commercial to facilitate ease of obtaining parts and repair in austere locations supported primarily by local commercial vendors.”
How austere? Places with “minimal vegetation,” prone to “deep snow,” and that can dip to “-50 degrees” Fahrenheit but that can hit the 90s in summertime. (So, Canada?)
The semi-autonomous KODIAK might not be a mere vehicle. Northern Command wants it to carry a sensor payload, though it’s unclear what kind of surveillance an ATV is really optimized to collect. It’s possible that the sensors are just to guide the autonomy. The Northern Command request for information about the feasibility of KODIAK describes “threat assessment; persistent stare [and] mobile surveillance” as the benefits of military robots. An ATV is far from an obvious choice for any of that.
But then comes the challenge of tricking out the ATV for an unmanned mode. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The Army has small, tracked vehicles that it controls remotely, as well as a six-wheeled robotic mule.
It’s unclear if Northern Command can get its unlikely KITT into production. (If it can, the bullet says the command wants it fielded within two years.) But if it runs into problems with making the thing autonomous, it might consult with David Bruemmer’s 5D Robotics in California. Bruemmer’s adaptive vehicular-autonomy sensors, known as a “Behavior Engine,” helped pioneer military Knight Rider cars. It might be a matter of time before KITT goes off-road into the snow.
At the time it ranked as one of the great escapes of the animal kingdom. In the dead of night three beavers managed to break out of a farm at Lifton, Devon, and begin a new life on the rampage.
By Nigel Bunyan 7:30AM BST 23 Apr 2012
Beavers were hunted to extinction in England and Wales during the 12th century and disappeared from the rest of the UK 400 years later Photo: PA
Two of the animals were quickly recaptured, but the third was sufficiently wily to outmanoeuvre those pursuing him.
But now, three-and-a-half years later, his life of freedom appears to have ended.
The Linton Beaver, or at least an animal that bears a remarkable likeness to him, has been found in a slurry pit on a farm at Roborough, close to Dartmoor.
In the end it appears to have been less a case of recapturing a fugitive and more one of rescuing an animal in extremis.
It was all a far cry from October, 2008, when the beaver, originally from Bavaria in southern Germany, broke free from the farm where was being kept under licence from Natural England.
He managed to escape because the electric fence keeping him in check had been rendered useless by flooding.
His pursuers initially followed a trail of tooth marks and fallen saplings on the banks of the River Tamar.
Later, they realised he had established a territory about a mile-and-a-half long outside the village of Gunnislake, making him one of the few wild beavers to be at large in England since the 16th century.
Realising he would be keen to find a mate with whom to share his domain, conservationists tried to set a “honey trap” for him by laying six large metal traps laced with the scent of a female beaver.
The ruse failed, with the animal perhaps sensing that his chances of finding another beaver were as remote as the terrain in which he was living.
But still he remained a free, if distinctly solo beaver.
How he found his way to a slurry pit almost 20 miles from the site of his escape remains to be seen.
His rescuers found him dishevelled and rather unhappy with life. Having captured him, they took him to Dartmoor Zoo where staff have painstakingly cleaned him up.
George Hyde, a spokesman for the zoo, said: “He’s about the size of a medium dog and he has been growling at us.
“It is possible it could be one of three beavers that escaped from a farm at Lifton on the Devon-Cornwall border in 2008."
Mr Hyde added: “He’s got a fairly substantial set of teeth he could do some damage with.”
Beavers were hunted to extinction in England and Wales during the 12th century and disappeared from the rest of the UK 400 years later.