Special thanks go to Magnifico for starting this venerable series.
Lead Off Story
Obama Arrives For Summit, To Assure Security Ties Are Solid
U.S. President Barack Obama arrived Wednesday evening at Haneda airport at the start of a seven-day Asia tour in which he is expected to reaffirm America’s commitment to maintaining regional security.
Obama is scheduled to hold a 105-minute summit Thursday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and is expected to issue a joint statement reaffirming the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance as a stabilizer in the Asia-Pacific region.
Obama will stay in Tokyo for 2½ days before moving on to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines to meet with other top leaders. The cancelation of a previous Asia tour last October raised doubts about U.S. credibility as a regional partner. This trip is seen by many as a test of Obama’s ability to recover his reputation among Asian leaders.
Obama, who has been portrayed by his critics as weak in his responses to international crises in Syria and Crimea, will be scrutinized closely by regional powers keen to gauge Washington’s willingness to take a proactive role in his administration’s “rebalancing” strategy, ostensibly designed to counter a resurgent China.
“We’d like to use (the Obama-Abe meeting as) an opportunity to send out a signal that the Japan-U.S. alliance is playing a leading role to contribute to peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a daily news conference Wednesday morning.
Palestinians' Hamas And Fatah Factions Say They Have A Unity Deal
Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas on Wednesday announced a reconciliation deal to end their seven-year schism, in a further blow to U.S.-led efforts to broker a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Leaders of the groups said they will form a unity government within five weeks, solicit a vote of confidence from the Palestinian parliament, then schedule elections in six months.
The militant Islamist Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, have failed repeatedly to overcome differences. Because of that history, the announcement was greeted with wide skepticism.
If a deal is signed, it could halt the teetering Israeli Palestinian talks and create obstacles to even minimal dealings between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist group. The U.S. government says it won't deal with any government that includes Hamas unless the group shifts its position by recognizing Israel, forswearing violence and adhering to Palestinian agreements with Israel.
South Sudan Rebels Claim Capture Of Renk But Military And MPs Deny
Conflicting reports emerged on Wednesday evening as rebels loyal to Riek Machar claimed have seized Renk in Upper Nile state while the army and legislators said a small revolt had been quelled.
“Yes, reports from the field confirm that our gallant forces this morning [Wednesday] liberated Renk town. Salva Kiir’s soldiers and their foreign allies are on the run and in disarray after suffering painful defeat in the area,” said Machar’s spokesperson, James Gatdet Dak, on Wednesday when reached by Sudan Tribune.
Dak further added that in the clashes the government’s forces suffered heavy casualties in terms of human and material losses, they were running towards Maban and Paloich areas to the southeast.
“A number of tanks and other military vehicles were destroyed or captured in the clashes,” he added, without giving further details.
Renk is the main town north of the country’s important oilfields of Paloich. Observers say its capture by the rebels could expose the oilfields to imminent attacks.
Rebels earlier said they wanted to control all the country’s oilfields "in order to deny Salva Kiir from using the oil revenues to finance his war and hire foreign mercenaries."
Putin Learning What U.S. Didn’t
After America’s ignominious defeat and hurried departure from Vietnam in 1973 — when the world’s richest and mightiest nation was humbled by the stolid determination of ill-equipped, ideologically inspired peasants — it was generally assumed the United States would not wage war again until the lessons of the Viet Cong victory were taken to heart.
When Soviet forces hastily retreated with a bloody nose from their nine-year occupation of Afghanistan in 1989, similar lessons were suggested about the impossibility of militarily holding a country with a universally hostile population. In his stealth occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin of Russia appears to have learned the lessons of both Vietnam and Afghanistan. Successive U.S. presidents, however, seem to have failed to understand how military strategy was forever changed by what happened in those two chastening conflicts. Rather, they have gone on to repeat their predecessors’ mistakes.
That’s not all. The fleet of U.S. stealth bombers ($810 million each) and the fleet of nuclear submarines ($8.2 billion each) armed with Trident nuclear missiles ($31 million each) are of little use against Russian intelligence agents provocateurs disguised as Ukrainian protesters arriving by civilian airliner.
Neither the United States nor the European Union nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has a military solution for the creeping warfare that Putin is putting into chilling effect.
A question should be asked: Has the Pentagon’s decades-long high-tech spending spree — the delight of the domestic war-materials industries — left the West’s defense fit for a purpose? The obvious answer — no! — plays into the hands of American libertarians who are now joining with liberals to demand substantial defense cuts.
Ex-Deputies Allegedly Cut Power, Cameras To Plant Guns In Pot Clinic
Two former L.A. County sheriff's deputies allegedly turned off the electricity and a security camera system inside a medical marijuana dispensary as they planted guns they used to justify two arrests, according to court documents.
Julio Cesar Martinez, 39, and Anthony Manuel Paez, 32, have been charged with two felony counts of conspiring to obstruct justice and altering evidence, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Martinez faces two additional felony counts of perjury and filing a false report. Prosecutors said the men, who are scheduled to be arraigned June 17, each face more than seven years in state prison if convicted. The Sheriff's Department did not immediately comment on the allegations.
According to a complaint filed by prosecutors last week, Martinez claimed he saw a man take part in a drug deal and reach for a gun in his shorts pocket. The deputy said he then saw the man discard the gun near a trash bin inside the dispensary. Before he got a search warrant, Martinez kicked a wall outlet and shut down power to the room, according to the complaint. Paez then allegedly opened a drawer, pulled out a gun and put it on a chair.
The complaint alleges Paez also planted a gun on top of an office desk, next to some ecstasy pills. At some point, Paez allegedly crawled under the desk and disabled the security camera system. Prosecutors said the deputies claimed in their report of the incident they found one gun near the trash can and the other on the desk. The deputies arrested two men: one for possession of an unregistered gun and the second for possession of a controlled substance while armed with a gun. Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said charges were filed against the men but later dropped.
The sheriff's Internal Criminal Investigation Bureau began investigating the incident a year later and discovered video from inside the dispensary that was "inconsistent" with the report filed by the deputies, prosecutors said on Wednesday. Robison referred questions about the inquiry to the Sheriff's Department.
Disciplined IRS Workers Got Bonuses, Time Off
More than 2,800 Internal Revenue Service workers who had been disciplined recently received millions of dollars in bonuses and time off as part of an employee recognition program, a new government audit shows.
The IRS has a program that rewards its employees for a job well done, but a report released Tuesday by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that, between October 1, 2010, and December 31, 2012, more than 2,800 recently disciplined IRS workers got more than $2.8 million in monetary awards and more than 27,000 hours in time-off awards. The employee infractions included not paying their taxes.
“While not prohibited, providing awards to employees who have been disciplined for failing to pay federal taxes appears to create a conflict with the IRS’ charge of ensuring the integrity of the system of tax administration,” J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, said in a statement.
The watchdog conducted the audit because of new federal guidance issued in fiscal year 2011 that requires agencies to reduce spending on awards programs beginning in fiscal year 2012.
The inspector general recommends that the tax agency’s personnel chief institute a policy requiring management to consider conduct issues resulting in disciplinary actions, particularly the nonpayment of taxes, before awarding bonuses and paid time off. The inspector general said he has been assured by the IRS personnel chief that, by the end of June, the agency will study establishing a policy requiring management to consider disciplinary actions before giving out performance awards.
Science and Technology
Brain Circuits Involved In Emotion Discovered By Neuroscientists
Neuroscientists have discovered a brain pathway that underlies the emotional behaviours critical for survival.
New research by the University of Bristol, published in the Journal of Physiology, has identified a chain of neural connections which links central survival circuits to the spinal cord, causing the body to freeze when experiencing fear.
Understanding how these central neural pathways work is a fundamental step towards developing effective treatments for emotional disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks and phobias.
An important brain region responsible for how humans and animals respond to danger is known as the PAG (periaqueductal grey), and it can trigger responses such as freezing, a high heart rate, increase in blood pressure and the desire for flight or fight.
Dr Stella Koutsikou, first author of the study and Research Associate in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Bristol, said: "There is a growing consensus that understanding the neural circuits underlying fear behaviour is a fundamental step towards developing effective treatments for behavioural changes associated with emotional disorders."
Secret Military Test, Coming Soon to Your Spanish Class
Imagine a test that could tell you how good you can ultimately get in any foreign language, from Hindi to Welsh, from Igbo to Spanish, before you’ve even learned how to say “hello” or “please pass the butter.” Tres alléchant, no? Most adults would have to put in 10 years or more of dedicated work to find out if they have what it takes to end up with the vocabulary, accent, and grammatical sensibilities of a near-native speaker. This test could direct them from the début. And it may be coming your way soon.
Called the Hi-LAB (or “High Level Language Aptitude Battery”), it was developed by University of Maryland researchers working on a government contract in order to predict a person’s ability to learn a language to a very high level. Since its release in 2012, the Hi-LAB has been rolled out to government agencies and military training schools and will eventually be available for civilians as well. (Details of the Hi-LAB were only recently released to the public.) In the same way that America’s space program and the Cold War created spin-off products and technologies that altered civilian life, the Hi-LAB could become one of the first civilian benefits to come out of America’s war on terror.
Scientists who study second language acquisition have long been fascinated by the difficulty that adults have in becoming native-like in a language they begin learning after puberty. Most adults have no problem picking up modest amounts of vocabulary and grammar, assuming they’re motivated to put in sustained effort. But to become highly skilled in a second language, simply devoting the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell made famous in Outliers isn’t enough. It turns out that a person needs high-performing cognitive hardware, too.
The Hi-LAB provides feedback about who has this ability from the get-go, before the armed services invest any money in them. Cathy Doughty, the director of the team that developed the Hi-LAB, says: “Research has shown both focused motivation and personality factors to be necessary… [but they] don’t guarantee success, because the outcomes are limited by aptitude.” Will education eventually follow this model too?
Focus: Voter Model Works For US Elections
A computer simulation of voters influencing one another over time can reproduce stable statistical patterns from US presidential elections, according to a report in Physical Review Letters. The model uses population and commuting data for every US county and assumes that voters may change their political preferences based on interactions with others at home or at work. The type of model the researchers used has not been directly compared with election data before, and the researchers believe similar models could elucidate how political and cultural opinions move through a population or remain stable over time.
Voter models are meant to simulate the spread of opinions among people. In most such simulations, the “voters” are points or “nodes” in space connected to one another in a giant network, and each voter can have one of two opinions on an issue, say pro or con. At each time step, as the simulation progresses, a rule gives the likelihood that a voter will change his or her mind based on the opinions of neighbors. Researchers have developed dozens of voter models with different mathematical details, leading to stable phenomena such as “consensus,” when all voters agree, or “clustering,” when opinions are fragmented into many small regions. But researchers have rarely compared voter model results directly with real-world opinion data.
Víctor Eguíluz of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems (IFISC) in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and his colleagues have now compared voter model results with data from recent US presidential elections. As television networks’ red-blue maps have long shown, US election results follow clear geographical patterns, with Republican-leaning states in the West and South and Democratic states clustered on the coasts. Researchers have also found a long-distance correlation: the average difference in election results between two counties increases with the logarithm of their separation distance, and this correlation remains consistent over time. Another consistent pattern is the variability from county to county of the fraction of votes (“vote share”) going to either party. In other words, the national mean changes from year to year, but the degree of county-to-county fluctuations remains roughly constant.
The voter model created by Eguíluz and colleagues represents each of 3117 US counties as a node with a population based on census data. The network connects each county with the counties in which its residents’ workplaces are located. To start the simulation, the team assigned each county a number of Democrats based on the 2000 election data. At each new time step, the researchers updated the numbers based on their rules for the probability of party-switching. The probability for a Democrat who works in her home county to switch parties depends on the number of Republicans in her county who might influence her but also on the number of Republicans who work in her county but live elsewhere. The team also added some uncertainty in the form of a “random noise” term to account for all other effects that determine voting choices.
This random noise turned out to be critical for reproducing two long-term, stable trends in the election data, the logarithmic distance correlations and the county-by-county voter fraction fluctuations. Too much randomness, and the red-blue map quickly fell into chaos, with red and blue counties thoroughly mixed. But with too little randomness, the correlations grew over time, eventually coloring the whole map with one color. With the randomness term tuned to about 3% of the other effects, the simulation yielded a map whose correlations and voter fraction fluctuations remained stable over time and matched those of the US presidential election results between 1980 and 2012.
Society and Culture
Japanese Boffin EYES Up Big Bucks With Strap-On Digi-Glasses
A Japanese boffin has unveiled a novel way of catching some kip at work without your colleagues finding out – a pair of OLED “glasses” designed to act as digital eyes.
The bizarre invention, dubbed AgencyGlass, was invented by Tsukuba university researcher Hirotaka Osawa. It features two small OLED screens fixed to a spectacles frame which the user wears as per a normal pair of glasses.
However, these small panels display a pair of eyes and are linked to a built-in accelerometer, gyrometer, microphone and chip as well as an external camera. This means the digital eyes can make eye contact with people even if the user is looking elsewhere, or if their eyes are completely closed. They can also be pre-set to register different emotions.
The idea is to “extend our social skills and decrease our emotional labour” by removing the need for the user to appear interested, alert, happy etc around people when they’re not.
'Give The Unemployed Their Hope Back'
During his weekly general audience at the St. Peter’s square at the Vatican, Pope Francis called to "give the unemployed their hope back." World "crisis" and "squandering" are to blame for leaving millions without jobs, the pontiff said.
Francis’ message comes following a video he received earlier this week by a group of Italian workers from the Lucchini steelworks company that closed its doors, prompting the layoff of 1,500 people.
“I have been touched, I have been left very sad (by the video). In their faces there was sadness and the worrying of fathers who have not only lost their right to work but to the dignity of putting the bread on the table for their children,” the Argentine pope was quoted by the Efe news agency.
Amid austerity measures defended by the European leadership as the wayout to the crisis, the first Latin American pontiff in history urged “all the responsible to make all the possible efforts of creativity and generosity to give hope back to these brothers and all the unemployed that the crisis and the squandering have left.”
“Please, open your eyes, don’t remain with your arms crossed,” Francis prayed for at the Vatican today.
Well, that's different...
“Arranged” Bride Fights Back:
Ms. Fatima Mangre was granted a divorce from her husband Arjun Bakridi in India’s Uttar Pradesh state in November, becoming the youngest divorcee in the country’s recorded history. Bakridi, then age 10, had married Mangre, then age 4, but his father promised that the couple would not cohabit until she turned 18. When Bakridi tried to move up the date, Mangre’s dad filed divorce papers for his daughter. The legal age for marriage in the state is 18, but a United Nations agency said the law is still widely ignored.
Bill Moyers and Company:
What the 1% Don’t Want You to Know
Economist Paul Krugman explains how the United States is becoming an oligarchy – the very system our founders revolted against.