Special thanks go to Magnifico for starting this venerable series.
Lead Off Story
Iran, Six Powers Seek To Narrow 'Significant Gaps' In Nuclear Talks
Iran will never slow down its nuclear research program, its supreme leader said on Wednesday as negotiators from Tehran and six world powers struggled to narrow "significant gaps" that the United States warned might be insurmountable.
The stakes in a deal are high on both sides. Western powers, along with Russia and China, want to prevent chronic tensions in the Middle East from boiling over into a wider war or triggering a regional nuclear arms race. Iran, for its part, is keen to be rid of international sanctions hobbling its oil-based economy.
Clerical supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the Islamic Republic's negotiating team in Vienna should not yield to issues "forced upon them". "These negotiations should continue," he told nuclear scientists in Tehran, the official IRNA news agency reported. "But all should know that negotiations will not stop or slow down any of Iran's activities in nuclear research and development."
Tehran denies suspicions that it has used its declared civilian atomic energy program as a front for covertly developing the means to make nuclear weapons, maintaining that it seeks only electricity from its enrichment of uranium.
Negotiators from Iran and the so-called P5-plus-one - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - plan after their two days of talks in Vienna to start drafting a long-term agreement on settling their decade-old nuclear dispute by a self-imposed deadline of July 20.
First EU Peacekeeping Troops Arrive In CAR
The first EU troops have arrived in the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui, a French army spokesman told AFP Wednesday. The Eufor troops aim to help stabilise the country, which has been torn apart by months of inter-religious violence.
François Guillermet said 55 Eufor troops were conducting their first patrols in the city, with the aim of "maintaining security and training local officers".
The EU military operation, which has been approved by the UN Security Council, will be based out of Bangui and will consist of a force of up to 1,000 troops.
A statement released by the EU said the operation’s main objective will be to reinforce international efforts to protect populations most at risk by the fighting, as well as to facilitate humanitarian aid to the country.
“The launch of this operation demonstrates the EU’s determination to take full part in international efforts to restore stability and security in Bangui and right across the Central African Republic,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said earlier this month.
Japan, U.S. Fail To Move Closer Over TPP Before Obama Visit
Japan and the United States failed Wednesday to move closer over outstanding issues in their bilateral talks related to a Pacific regional trade pact, providing little hope of a breakthrough before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Tokyo scheduled for only two weeks away.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who met with his Japanese counterpart, Akira Amari, told reporters the two parties “still have gaps” over such issues as removal of Japanese tariffs on farm products and auto trade, the biggest sticking points in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.
Japan wants to protect its tariffs on five farm product categories — rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar — as an exception to tariff cuts, while the United States has called on Japan to make more concessions, pushing for the basic TPP principle of eliminating all tariffs.
Japan places the TPP at the core of the country’s growth strategy to shore up the economy, while for the United States, the multilateral trade framework is part of its strategic shift toward Asia when China is increasing its presence. But the outlook for an early conclusion of the TPP is murky as the two countries keep calling for more flexibility from each other, the observers say.
Russia To Meet EU And US For Talks Over Ukraine Crisis
The Ukrainian authorities have said they will end the occupation of administrative buildings by pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, either by negotiations or force, within 48 hours, as four-way talks between Russia, Ukraine, the US and the EU were announced for next week in an attempt to defuse the tense situation.
"A resolution to this crisis will be found within the next 48 hours," said the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, in Kiev, referring to the eastern cities of Luhansk and Donetsk where protesters remained in control of government buildings.
"For those who want dialogue, we propose talks and a political solution. For the minority who want conflict, they will get a forceful answer from the Ukrainian authorities," he said.
Kiev has claimed the protesters are directed by Russian security services, and on Tuesday, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, accused Moscow of stirring up unrest, possibly as a pretext for a Crimea-style military intervention.
Many locals in eastern Ukraine have concerns about the new government in Kiev, but unlike in Crimea support for actually joining Russia is not widespread.
Student Wielding 2 Knives Injures 21 At Pennsylvania School
A 16-year-old student wielding two knives went on a stabbing rampage in the hallways of a Pittsburgh-area high school early on Wednesday, injuring 21 people, about half of them seriously, officials said.
The attacker moved stealthily through Franklin Regional High School, stabbing his victims in the torso and slashing arms and faces before anyone realized what was happening, students and officials said. Some of the injured taken to nearby hospitals were in critical condition, doctors said.
Students described a scene of panic, with the school hastily evacuated after a fire alarm was pulled. The unidentified sophomore suspected in the attack was in police custody, said Tom Seefeld, chief of police in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.
The attacker, described by a classmate as a quiet person who kept to himself, started his rampage at around 7:13 a.m. EDT, walking along the hallways to several classrooms at the school in Murrysville, 20 miles east of Pittsburgh, officials said.
Assistant Principal Sam King tackled the boy, who was armed with two "straight knives" of about 8 to 10 inches, and an armed security officer handcuffed him with help from the principal, Seefeld said.
Bush Greets Obama At Houston Airport
When President Barack Obama arrived in Houston about 3:45 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, former President George H. W. Bush was there to greet him.
"When the president comes to your home town, you show up to meet him," said Bush, who looked hale as he chatted with Obama and the First Lady for about five minutes at the foot of the steps next to Air Force 1 at Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Obama greeted about 50 well wishers behind a barricade and chatted and shook hands for about 10 minutes before leaving for a meeting with approximately 30 members of the Democratic National Committee at the Museum District home of trial attorney Steve Mostyn.
Earlier in the day, Obama had attended a memorial service at Fort Hood, site of another mass shooting last week. He was scheduled to fly to Austin Thursday to address a civil rights gathering.
U.S. Marine Guard Shoots Fellow Soldier To Death At NC Base
A U.S. Marine standing guard shot to death a fellow soldier on Tuesday at the main gate of the Camp Lejeune in the state of North Carolina, local media reported.
The suspect used a M4 rifle to kill the other guard in the shooting which occurred at around 5:30 p.m. (0830 GMT), base spokesman Nat Fahy was quoted as saying.
There were other sentries at the gate at the time of shooting, Fahy said, without disclosing further details.
The identities of the two guards were being withheld until their families were notified. The cause of the shooting remained unknown pending the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
This was the second shooting in the past week at U.S. military camps after the Aril 2 incident at the U.S. Army base of Fort Hood in Texas, in which a soldier committed suicide after shooting to death three fellow soldiers and wounding 16 others.
Science and Technology
Patients With Paraplegia Regain Voluntary Movement After Spinal Stimulation
our people with paraplegia are able to voluntarily move previously paralyzed muscles as a result of a novel therapy that involves electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, according to a study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. The participants, each of whom had been paralyzed for more than two years, were able to voluntarily flex their toes, ankles, and knees while the stimulator was active, and the movements were enhanced over time when combined with physical rehabilitation. Researchers involved in the study say the therapy has the potential to change the prognosis of people with paralysis even years after injury.
"When we first learned that a patient had regained voluntary control as a result of spinal stimulation, we were cautiously optimistic," said Roderic Pettigrew, Ph.D., M.D., director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) at NIH, which provided support for the study. "Now that spinal stimulation has been successful in 4 out of 4 patients, there is evidence to suggest that a large cohort of individuals, previously with little realistic hope of any meaningful recovery from spinal cord injury, may benefit from this intervention."
One of the most impressive and unexpected findings of the study is that two of the patients who benefited from the spinal stimulation had complete motor and sensory paralysis. In these patients, the pathway that sends information about sensation from the legs to the brain is disrupted, in addition to the pathway that sends information from the brain to the legs in order to control movement. The researchers were surprised by the outcome; they had assumed that at least some of the sensory pathway needed to be intact for the therapy to be effective.
The Microscopic Future of Surgical Robotics
Chances are, you aren’t, and never will be, an astronaut. So the recent revelation that NASA is funding the development of a somewhat gruesome-sounding surgical bot—a fist-size contraption that would enter a patient’s gas-engorged abdomen to staunch bleeding or remove a ruptured appendix—isn’t exactly news you can use. The more relevant announcement might be from Intuitive Surgical, which announced that its newest robo-surgeon has been approved by the FDA. With thinner and more maneuverable arms, the da Vinci Xi will turn more open surgeries into minimally-invasive, robot-assisted procedures. Instead of requiring large incisions to get at various portions of a patient’s anatomy, the Xi will let surgeons reach essentially anywhere in the abdomen through smaller less traumatic punctures. With this clearance, the likelihood that you’ll one day be under the robotic knife just jumped significantly.
This is the near-term for robotic surgery, a gradual expansion of machines throughout the body, and through the full range of possible procedures. In addition to the da Vinci’s primary focus on the abdomen, bots are currently aiming drills in the brain, reshaping joints, and using lasers to correct vision. But the future of surgical bots appears be in some of the most challenging and specialized operations: microsurgery, or surgeries performed at a microscopic scale.
“Right now all of the operations we do are on the scale of human eyes and human hands,” says Catherine Mohr, director of medical research for Intuitive Surgical, referring to da Vinci-assisted procedures. “That’s because traditionally, medicine has been the laying of hands of the physician onto the patient, and trying to intervene. But we may be able to get that patient that much better an outcome because we’ve changed the scale of that interaction with robotics.”
Microsurgery wouldn’t replace traditional surgeries, but could help solve specific problems. One example—though Mohr noted that it isn’t FDA approved, or backed up with overwhelming clinical data—would be treating breast cancer patients, who often suffer severe swelling and pain in their arms and hands following the removal of lymph nodes. This condition, called lymphedema, is caused by the disruption of natural drainage channels, meaning that blood isn’t flowing properly back through the patient’s system. Redirecting blood flow is theoretically possible, but incredibly challenging, as surgeons try to sew tiny vessels that are only barely visible under a microscope. “I’m excited that, if I can change that scale, for someone who’s got this terrible edema, we could start sewing their lymphatic channels onto the local veins, and drain it,” says Mohr. “So instead of spending their lives with compression stockings on their arms, we can go in and do a small intervention and fix it.”
Elite Violinists Fail to Distinguish Legendary Violins From Modern Fiddles
If you know only one thing about violins, it is probably this: A 300-year-old Stradivarius supposedly possesses mysterious tonal qualities unmatched by modern instruments. However, even elite violinists cannot tell a Stradivarius from a top-quality modern violin, a new double-blind study suggests. Like the sound of coughing during the delicate second movement of Beethoven's violin concerto, the finding seems sure to annoy some people, especially dealers who broker the million-dollar sales of rare old Italian fiddles. But it may come as a relief to the many violinists who cannot afford such prices.
"There is nothing magical [about old Italian violins], there is nothing that is impossible to reproduce," says Olivier Charlier, a soloist who participated in the study and who plays a fiddle made by Carlo Bergonzi (1683 to 1747). However, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, a soloist who participated in the study and who until recently played a violin by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri "del Gesù" (1698 to 1744), questions whether the test was fair. "Whereas I believe that [the researchers] assembled some of the finest contemporary instruments, I am quite certain that they didn't have some of the finest old instruments that exist," she says.
The study marks the latest round in debate over the "secret of Stradivarius." Some violinists, violinmakers, and scientists have thought that Antonio Stradivari (1644 to 1737) and his contemporaries in Cremona, Italy, possessed some secret—perhaps in the varnish or the wood they used—that enabled them to make instruments of unparalleled quality. Yet, for decades researchers have failed to identify a single physical characteristic that distinguishes the old Italians from other top-notch violins. The varnish is varnish; the wood (spruce and maple) isn't unusual. Moreover, for decades tests have shown that listeners cannot tell an old Italian from a modern violin.
Still, several of the players involved in the study say they now think there is no reason to believe that a new violin cannot produce the same qualities of sound as an old one. And that's a very good thing for young musicians, they say, given the enormous expense of old Italian violins. This June, a Stradivarius viola will go to auction for $45 million, and a Guarneri del Gesú recently sold for $16 million. In contrast, the record auction price for fiddle by a living maker is $132,000. "I grew up thinking that if I am going to be a soloist, I really need to play an old Italian violin in order to be successful," says Giora Schmidt, who participated in the study. "I tell my students that's no longer true." Schmidt has played old Italians in the past but now plays a modern violin made by Hiroshi Iizuka.
Society and Culture
Britain Increasingly Invoking Power To Disown Its Citizens
The letter informing Mohamed Sakr that he had been stripped of his British citizenship arrived at his family’s house in London in September 2010. Mr. Sakr, born and raised here by British-Egyptian parents, was in Somalia at the time and was suspected by Western intelligence agencies of being a senior figure in the Shabab, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda.
Seventeen months later, an American drone streaked out of the sky in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia and killed Mr. Sakr. An intelligence official quoted in news reports called him a “very senior Egyptian,” though he never held an Egyptian passport. A childhood friend of Mr. Sakr, Bilal al-Berjawi, a Lebanese-Briton also stripped of his citizenship by the British government, was killed in a drone strike a month earlier, after having escaped an attack in June 2011.
Senior American and British officials said there was no link between the British government’s decision to strip the men of their citizenship and the subsequent drone strikes against them, though they said the same intelligence may have led to both actions.
In many Western countries, including the United States, citizenship is considered a right that cannot be taken away except in very limited cases, such as serving in another nation’s military or having obtained citizenship fraudulently. Others strip citizenship from people who take another passport. Britain, along with Israel, is one of the few countries that can revoke the citizenship of dual nationals — even if they are native born — if they are suspected or convicted of terrorist offenses or acts of disloyalty.
How Western Is Germany? Russia Crisis Spurs Identity Conflict
The only reason my German grandfather survived as a Russian prisoner of war was that he had a beautiful singing voice. He had been drafted into the Volkssturm militia in 1944, during the final phase of the war in which the Nazi party recruited most able-bodied males into the armed forces, regardless of their age. The Russians captured him during the Siege of Breslau and he was taken to a labor camp, where he was forced to work as a logger.
There was barely anything to eat and he said the men died like flies. Every now and then, the camp cook would serve my grandfather an extra portion of the water gruel or an additional bit of bread because he had such a nice voice. At night, when he would sing his songs by the fire, the Russians would sit there as well, passing round the vodka bottle, and his voice would literally bring tears to their eyes -- or at least that's the version of events passed down in the family.
Right up to this day, Germans and Russians maintain a special relationship. There is no other country and no other people with which Germans' relations are as emotional and as contradictory. The connection reaches deep into German family history, shaped by two world wars and the 40-year existence of East Germany. German families still share stories of cruel, but also kindhearted and soulful Russians. We disdain the Russians' primitiveness, while treasuring their culture and the Russian soul.
Chef Bill Granger Joins Fight To Turn City Green
Sydney's nature strips and neglected open spaces all have the potential to become productive community gardens, says restaurateur Bill Granger who believes councils could do more to support the growing trend.
While some councils, such as the City of Sydney and Marrickville, actively support their local green thumbs, others still threaten to fine residents for tilling the nature strip.
Granger has thrown his name behind a national campaign to encourage the planting of community gardens on under-utilised council land.
''Residents should be able to use the land rather than just mowing the grass every few weeks,'' he said. ''It's about getting in touch with real food, working together as part of a community and making food social.''
The Cook community garden in Redfern was established 17 years ago for the use of the nearby public housing residents. It has helped bring hundreds of people from different backgrounds together. ''It's the United Nations of community gardens,'' Granger said.
Well, that's different...
The Continuing Crisis
In February, officials in Sudan seized at least 70 female sheep that had male sexual organs sewn on--the result of livestock smugglers trying to circumvent export restrictions. (Ewes are valued more highly, and their sale is limited.) Authorities had been treating the inspections as routine until they spotted one “ram” urinating from the female posture.
Bill Moyers and Company:
All Work and No Pay
Did you know the federal minimum wage for millions of restaurant workers is $2.13 an hour? Advocate Saru Jayaraman says that’s not only unfair but unsafe.