Saturday, December 31, 2011

Moon countdown: NASA probe enters lunar orbit

PASADENA, California (AP) — A NASA spacecraft fired its engine and slipped into orbit around the moon Saturday in the first of two back-to-back arrivals over the New Year's weekend.
Ground controllers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in cheers and applause after receiving a signal that the Grail-A probe was healthy and circling the moon. An engineer was seen on closed-circuit television blowing a noisemaker to herald the New Year's Eve arrival.
"This is great, a big relief," deputy project scientist Sami Asmar told a roomful of family and friends who gathered at the NASA center to watch the drama unfold.
The celebration was brief. Despite the successful maneuver, the work was not over. Its twin Grail-B still had to enter lunar orbit on New Year's Day.
The Grail probes — short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory — have been cruising independently toward their destination since launching in September aboard the same rocket on a mission to measure lunar gravity.
Hours before Earth revelers counted down the new year, Grail-A flew over the south pole and slowed itself to get captured into orbit. Deep space antennas in the California desert and Madrid tracked every move and fed real-time updates to ground controllers.
Grail is the 110th mission to target the moon since the dawn of the Space Age including the six Apollo moon landings that put 12 astronauts on the surface. Despite the attention the moon has received, scientists don't know everything about Earth's nearest neighbor.
Why the moon is ever so slightly lopsided with the far side more mountainous than the side that always faces Earth remains a mystery. A theory put forth earlier this year suggested that Earth once had two moons that collided early in the solar system's history, producing the hummocky region.
Grail is expected to help researchers better understand why the moon is asymmetrical and how it formed by mapping the uneven lunar gravity field that will indicate what's below the surface.
"It seems that the answer is not on the surface," said chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We think that the answer is locked in the interior."
Previous lunar missions have attempted to study the moon's gravity — which is about one-sixth Earth's pull — with mixed results. Grail is the first mission devoted to this goal.
Once in orbit, the near-identical Grail-A and Grail-B spacecraft will spend the next two months refining their positions until they are just 34 miles (55 kilometers) above the surface and flying in formation. Data collection will begin in March.
The $496 million mission will be closely watched by schoolchildren. An effort by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will allow middle school students to use cameras aboard the probes to zoom in and pick out their favorite lunar spots to photograph.
Despite the latest focus on the moon, NASA won't be sending astronauts back anytime soon. The Obama administration last year nixed a lunar return in favor of landing humans on an asteroid and eventually Mars.
A jaunt to the moon is usually speedy. It took the Apollo astronauts three days to zip there aboard the powerful Saturn V rocket. Since NASA wanted to economize by launching on a small rocket, it took Grail a leisurely 3 1/2 months to make a roundabout trip.
NASA's last moonshot occurred in 2009 with the launch of a pair of spacecraft — one that circled the moon and another that deliberately crashed into the surface and uncovered frozen water in one of the permanently shadowed lunar craters.
                                                                              

Cuba's culture of poverty persists: Op-ed

Archbishop Wenski To Head Back To S. Fla. From Cuba

 LA ROSA BLANCA, ESPERANZA DE CUBA 


Moon countdown: Hours until 1st NASA probe arrives

LOS ANGELES (AP) — NASA is counting down the seconds until its twin spacecraft bound for the moon make back-to-back arrivals over the New Year's weekend.
The washing machine-size probes have been cruising independently toward their destination since launching in September aboard the same rocket on a mission to measure lunar gravity.
Approaching the moon from the south pole, the Grail spacecraft — short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory — won't land on the surface, but will survey from orbit.
On New Year's Eve, Grail-A was poised to fire its engine for more than a half hour to slow itself and get captured into orbit. Grail-B will follow suit on New Year's Day.
Deep space antennas in the California desert and Madrid will track the tricky maneuvers and feed real-time updates to ground controllers.
"The anxiety level is heightened," project manager David Lehman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said earlier this week.
Grail is the 110th mission to target the moon since the dawn of the Space Age including the six Apollo moon landings that put 12 astronauts on the surface. Despite the attention the moon has received, scientists don't know everything about Earth's nearest neighbor.
Why the moon is ever so slightly lopsided with the far side more mountainous than the side that always faces Earth remains a mystery. A theory put forth earlier this year suggested that Earth once had two moons that collided early in the solar system's history, producing the hummocky region.
Grail is expected to help researchers better understand why the moon is asymmetrical and how it formed by mapping the uneven lunar gravity field that will indicate what's below the surface.
"It seems that the answer is not on the surface," said chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We think that the answer is locked in the interior."
Previous lunar missions have attempted to study the moon's gravity — which is about one-sixth Earth's pull — with mixed results. Grail is the first mission devoted to this goal.
Once in orbit, the near-identical spacecraft will spend the next two months refining their positions until they are just 34 miles above the surface and flying in formation. Data collection will begin in March.
The $496 million mission will be closely watched by schoolchildren. An effort by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will allow middle school students to use cameras aboard the probes to zoom in and pick out their favorite lunar spots to photograph.
Despite the latest focus on the moon, NASA won't be sending astronauts back anytime soon. The Obama administration last year nixed a lunar return in favor of landing humans on an asteroid and eventually Mars.
A jaunt to the moon — about 250,000 miles away from Earth — is usually speedy. It took the Apollo astronauts three days to zip there aboard the powerful Saturn V rocket. Since NASA wanted to economize by launching on a small rocket, it took Grail a leisurely 3 1/2 months to make the trip covering 2 1/2 million miles.
NASA's last moonshot occurred in 2009 with the launch of a pair of spacecraft — one that circled the moon and another that deliberately crashed into the surface and uncovered frozen water in one of the permanently shadowed lunar craters.
___
Online:
Mission: http://grail.nasa.gov
___
Follow Alicia Chang's coverage at http://www.twitter.com/SciWriAlicia

In a first, gas and other fuels are top US export

NEW YORK (AP) — For the first time, the top export of the United States, the world's biggest gas guzzler, is — wait for it — fuel.
Measured in dollars, the nation is on pace this year to ship more gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel than any other single export, according to U.S. Census data going back to 1990. It will also be the first year in more than 60 that America has been a net exporter of these fuels.
Just how big of a shift is this? A decade ago, fuel wasn't even among the top 25 exports. And for the last five years, America's top export was aircraft.
The trend is significant because for decades the U.S. has relied on huge imports of fuel from Europe in order to meet demand. It only reinforced the image of America as an energy hog. And up until a few years ago, whenever gasoline prices climbed, there were complaints in Congress that U.S. refiners were not growing quickly enough to satisfy domestic demand; that controversy would appear to be over.
Still, the U.S. is nowhere close to energy independence. America is still the world's largest importer of crude oil. From January to October, the country imported 2.7 billion barrels of oil worth roughly $280 billion.
Fuel exports, worth an estimated $88 billion in 2011, have surged for two reasons:
— Crude oil, the raw material from which gasoline and other refined products are made, is a lot more expensive. Oil prices averaged $95 a barrel in 2011, while gasoline averaged $3.52 a gallon — a record. A decade ago oil averaged $26 a barrel, while gasoline averaged $1.44 a gallon.
— The volume of fuel exports is rising. The U.S. is using less fuel because of a weak economy and more efficient cars and trucks. That allows refiners to sell more fuel to rapidly growing economies in Latin America, for example. In 2011, U.S. refiners exported 117 million gallons per day of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other petroleum products, up from 40 million gallons per day a decade earlier.
There's at least one domestic downside to America's growing role as a fuel exporter. Experts say the trend helps explain why U.S. motorists are paying more for gasoline. The more fuel that's sent overseas, the less of a supply cushion there is at home.
Gasoline supplies are being exported to the highest bidder, says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. "It's a world market," he says.
Refining companies won't say how much they make by selling fuel overseas. But analysts say those sales are likely generating higher profits per gallon than they would have generated in the U.S. Otherwise, they wouldn't occur.
The value of U.S. fuel exports has grown steadily over the past decade, coinciding with rising oil prices and increased demand around the globe.
Developing countries in Latin America and Asia have been burning more gasoline and diesel as their people buy more cars and build more roads and factories. Europe also has been buying more U.S. fuel to make up for its lack of refineries.
And there's a simple reason why America's refiners have been eager to export to these markets: gasoline demand in the U.S. has been falling every year since 2007. It dropped by another 2.5 percent in 2011. With the economy struggling, motorists cut back. Also, cars and trucks have become more fuel-efficient and the government mandates the use of more corn-based ethanol fuel.
The last time the U.S. was a net exporter of fuels was 1949, when Harry Truman was president. That year, the U.S. exported 86 million barrels and imported 82 million barrels. In the first ten months of 2011, the nation exported 848 million barrels (worth $73.4 billion) and imported 750 million barrels.

Friday, December 30, 2011

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Some crew still aboard burning Russian nuclear sub

MOSCOW (AP) — A major fire aboard a docked Russian nuclear submarine that injured seven crew members with toxic fumes and left others stuck inside the vessel appeared to be brought under control on Friday, and officials said the blaze had caused no radiation leaks.
The fire began Thursday at an Arctic shipyard where the submarine Yekaterinburg was in drydock. At midday Friday, Russian state television showed the rubber-coated hull of the submarine still smoldering, with firefighters gathering around it and some standing on top to douse it with water.
An unspecified number of crew have remained inside the submarine, Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. He insisted there was no danger of fire spreading inside the sub and said the crew has reported that the conditions on board have remained normal. Konashenkov's statement left it unclear whether the crew were trapped there or ordered to stay inside.
The Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry said there has been no radiation leak from the fire.
The Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority said it has received information from both civil and military authorities in Russia that there was no radioactive leak. The Norwegian agency said it has not measured any increased radioactivity, adding it is following the situation closely.
However, the governor in Finnmark, Norway's northeastern province that borders Russia's Murmansk Oblast, told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that he was disappointed with Russia's response. "There have been problems to get clear information from the Russian side," Gunnar Kjoennoey was quoted as saying. "We have an agreement to exchange information in such cases, but there has been no information from the Russian side so far."
Russia's military says the blaze started on wooden scaffolding and then engulfed the sub's outer hull. It said the vessel's nuclear reactor had been shut down and its nuclear-tipped missiles and other weapons had been unloaded before the repairs.
Toxic fumes from the blaze had spread to the town of Roslyakovo where the shipyard is located, but officials said there was no need to evacuate local residents.
It would take a few more hours to fully extinguish the smoldering outer hull, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a midday meeting. He said seven members of the submarine crew have been hospitalized after inhaling poisonous carbon monoxide fumes from the fire.
The Yekaterinburg is a Delta-IV-class nuclear-powered submarine that normally carries 16 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was built in 1984.
Most modern submarines' outer hulls are covered with rubber to make them less noisy and more difficult for an enemy to detect.
The chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, led a team of senior military officials to Roslyakovo to oversee the rescue efforts.
Military prosecutors have launched an investigation into a possible breach of safety regulations that led to the fire. President Dmitry Medvedev summoned top Cabinet officials to report on the situation and demand a punishment for any culprits.
The Interfax news agency reported Friday that the damage from the fire could be so massive that the submarine would need to be scrapped. But Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of the nation's military industries, said after the meeting that the submarine will rejoin the navy after repairs.
The Russian navy suffered its worst accident in August 2000, when the Kursk nuclear submarine exploded and sank during naval maneuvers, killing all 118 crew members aboard.
A 2008 accident at the Nerpa nuclear-powered submarine killed 20 Russian seamen and injured 21 others when its fire-extinguishing system activated in error and spewed suffocating Freon gas.
___
Jan Olsen contributed to this report from Copenhagen.
                                                                      

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North Korea vows no softening under its new leader

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea warned the world Friday there would be no softening of its position toward South Korea's government after Kim Jong Il's death as Pyongyang strengthened his son and heir's authority with a new title: Great Leader.
North Korea's powerful National Defense Commission said the country would never deal with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who stopped a no-strings-attached aid policy toward the North in 2008.
The stern message also said North Korea was uniting around Kim Jong Un, referring to him for the first time with the title Great Leader — previously used for his father — in a clear message of continuity. It was the latest incremental step in a burgeoning personality cult around the son following the Dec. 17 death of Kim Jong Il.
The younger Kim on Thursday was pronounced Supreme Leader of the ruling party, military and people at a massive public gathering on the final day of official mourning for his father.
The top levels of government appear to have rallied around Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s, in the wake of his father's death. Still, given his inexperience and age, there are questions outside North Korea about his leadership of a nation engaged in delicate negotiations over its nuclear program and grappling with decades of economic hardship and chronic food shortages.
"We declare solemnly and confidently that the foolish politicians around the world, including the puppet group in South Korea, should not expect any change from us," the National Defense Commission said. "We will never deal with the traitor group of Lee Myung-bak."
In a bellicose voice, a female news anchor for state TV read the National Defense Commission statement, saying the "evil misdeeds" of the Lee administration reached a peak when it prevented South Koreans from visiting North Korea to pay respects to Kim Jong Il, except for two delegations led by a former first lady and a business leader, both of whose husbands had ties to North Korea.
North Korea had said foreign official delegations would not be allowed at the funeral but that it would welcome any South Koreans who wanted to travel to pay respects to Kim.
"Even though we lost Kim Jong Il, we have the dear respected Kim Jong Un," Kang Chol Bok, a 28-year-old officer of the Korean People's Internal Security Forces, told The Associated Press. "We will turn our profound sorrow into strength and courage."
In a newly released postage stamp, Kim Jong Un was featured alongside Kim Jong Il against the backdrop of sacred Mount Paektu, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said. It appeared to be the first time that the son has been featured on a postage stamp. North Korea has often depicted Kim Jong Il and his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, together in official artworks.
The North's statement is a warning for Seoul not to take the new leadership lightly, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
"It is also raising the stakes in case the South wants better relations so Pyongyang can extract greater concessions" during any later talks, Koh said. He added that it's "too early to say the North is dashing hopes for reforms."
While blasting the South's leader, the North also offered a bit of hope for improved ties with the South, saying it "will continue to push hard toward the path of improved relations."
But it added that any better ties won't be "based on the deceitful ploys South Korea is employing by mixing 'toughness' and 'flexibility.'" Seoul has signaled a change in its approach toward Pyongyang in recent months, saying it will be more flexible in dealing with the North.
South Korea's Unification Ministry will maintain its North Korea policy and not react to every statement out of Pyongyang, according to a ministry official who declined to be identified citing the sensitivity of the relations between the countries.
On Thursday, a somber Kim Jong Un stood with his head bowed at the Grand People's Study House, overlooking Kim Il Sung Square, named for his grandfather, who founded modern North Korea. A huge crowd of mourners gathered below.
Kim Jong Un was flanked by top party and military officials, including Kim Jong Il's younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband, Jang Song Thaek, who are expected to serve as mentors of their young nephew.
"The father's plan is being implemented," Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank, said of the transfer of power. "All of these guys have a vested interest in the system and a vested interest in demonstrating stability. The last thing they want to do is create havoc."
Titles are important in North Korea and part of the myth-building surrounding the Kim family legacy.
Kim Il Sung, the country's first and only president, retains the title Eternal President even after his death.
Kim Jong Il held three main positions: chairman of the National Defense Commission, general secretary of the Workers' Party and supreme commander of the Korean People's Army. According to the constitution, his position as chairman of the National Defense Commission made him Supreme Leader of North Korea.
Kim Jong Un was made a four-star general last year and appointed a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party. Since his father's death, North Korean officials and state media have given him a series of new titles: Great Successor, Supreme Leader and now Great Leader.
___
Associated Press writers Foster Klug, Scott McDonald and Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report. Follow AP's North Korea coverage at twitter.com/APklug and twitter.com/samkim_ap.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

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Keeping Anderson Cooper Honest

Thursday, December 29, 2011
CNN's Anderson Cooper should be commended for his coverage of the Arab Spring.

In his nightly show, Anderson Cooper 360, he has a segment entitled "Keeping Them Honest," where he's continuously provided a space for pro-democracy activists from Libya to Syria to discuss the realities on the ground and expose the propaganda stemming from those country's dictatorial regimes.

Thus, this month, when Cooper traveled to Cuba (albeit on assignment for CBS's 60 Minutes), we frankly expected a similar opportunity for the island's courageous pro-democracy activists to counter the Castro dictatorship's propaganda.

Sadly, that was not the case.

Instead, Cooper spent his time in Cuba exploring lionfish off the island's coast with the Castro regime's minders (and even gave a nod to Fidel).

So much for keeping them honest.

More Shameless "Purposeful" Cuba Trips

Wednesday, December 28, 2011
By Elliott Abrams in The Weekly Standard:

The Park Avenue Synagogue's Cuba Vacation

The Cuban regime has just announced a prisoner release, at the very end of 2011. This is partly an effort to get some positive publicity before the scheduled visit of the Pope, and partly a cold-blooded move by the regime to release older prisoners who are a burden on their prison system.

Not included in the group to be released is Alan Gross. Here is what the State Department said about that:

We have seen reports that the Council of State of Cuba has announced the release of 2,900 prisoners and Alan Gross is not among them. If this is correct, we are deeply disappointed and deplore the fact that the Cuban government has decided not to take this opportunity to extend this humanitarian release to Mr. Gross this holiday season, especially in light of his deteriorating health, and to put an end to the Gross family's long plight. We continue to call on the Cuban authorities to release Alan Gross and return him to his family, where he belongs.”

Who is Alan Gross? He is a Jewish American social worker, a long-time USAID contractor who was jailed in December 2009. He now completes two years in a Cuban prison. His wife responded to the news that he would not be released:

To receive news in the middle of Hanukkah that the Cuban authorities have once again overlooked an opportunity to release Alan on humanitarian grounds is devastating. Our family is simply heartbroken.”

What was Gross’s crime? What was he doing in Cuba? His job was to connect the tiny Cuban Jewish community to the Internet, and thereby to the global Jewish community.

How has the American Jewish community responded to his two years in prison? There have been repeated protests, for example, from the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Or perhaps one should be more precise: from some parts of the community have come protests. From other parts has come tourism.

It is bad enough to think of any Americans, Jewish or Christian, frolicking in the sun on the Castro brothers’ prison island, drinking rum on the beach while ignoring the truth of what Freedom House calls “one of the world’s most repressive societies” with “the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas.”

But Jews touring Cuba while Alan Gross sits in prison now for what would be his third year—precisely for working with the Cuban Jewish community? Yet the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, one of the richest and most prestigious congregations in the country, is sponsoring a trip to Cuba in late January. Of course, it is not for mere tourism; the synagogue website calls it an “adult learning trip,” and “an educational and religious mission to learn about how the once-vibrant Cuban Jewish community has sustained itself.”


Now, don’t think Spartan: among the reviews of the Hotel Parque Central, where the Park Avenue synagogue members will stay, we learn that “the hotel has a lovely reception and a roof top swimming pool and bar which boast lovely views of Havana Room was nice and clean and staff friendly. The breakfast buffet has a huge choice of foods and we always ended up eating too much!” and that it’s “the place to spoil yourself and enjoy life.”

Even today, when the Obama administration has liberalized travel to Cuba -- and failed to reverse that liberalization when Alan Gross was imprisoned -- there are limits. So the Park Avenue Synagogue travelers have to check the box on their application that says they aren’t just on a jaunt; instead they must swear that “I am a member or staff of a U.S. religious organization, and my travel is for participation in a full-time program of religious activities in Cuba.” So of course there cannot be time for mere tourism, and that pool at the Parque Central must remain off limits even if the wonderful breakfast buffet is not. Right?

Would it not send a far stronger message to the Cuban regime if all those signed up for this trip -- and the synagogue website reports that “The trip is now sold out” --cancelled and instead marched to the Cuban mission to the United Nations on Lexington Avenue and 38th Street, there to toss their visas into the trash? Judy Gross, Alan’s wife, said this week that “Alan is 62 years old, has lost 100 pounds in captivity, is increasingly mentally weak and depressed, and is losing all hope that he will ever see his mother again.” Will the synagogue group demand to see Gross? Will they march to the prison while in Havana? Or will they forget him?

It is perhaps unfair to pick on the Park Avenue Synagogue, which joins many other college and church groups in touring Cuba nowadays under the looser travel rules. But the Park Avenue group will be going there on January 25, just weeks after those heartbreaking words from Judy Gross and after the Castro regime once again refused to free her husband. So it is seems reasonable to ask, have they no shame at all? 
Capitol Hill Cubans

Turkish official says Iraq air strike killed civilians

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's ruling party spokesman said on Thursday initial reports into a Turkish air strike in northern Iraq overnight showed the 35 people killed were smugglers whom the military mistook for armed militants.
AK Party spokesman Huseyin Celik called the incident "saddening" and said reports from local government officials showed most of those killed were cigarette smugglers under the age of 30.
"It has been determined from initial reports that these people were smugglers, not terrorists," Celik told a news conference on live television.
"If mistakes were made, if there were flaws and if there were shortcomings in the incident that took place, by no means will these be covered up."
(Reporting by Pinar Aydinli Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Louise Ireland)

North Korea hails nuclear, military feats of Kim Jong-il

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea lauded the military might built up by deceased leader Kim Jong-il on Thursday, likely tying his young successor to the same policies that have set Northeast Asia on edge as the impoverished state inches closer to nuclear weapons capability.
A gathering of 100,000, soldiers in uniform and bare-headed civilians, gathered in silence in wintry sunlight in the capital Pyongyang to mourn the passing of the man who had led the country for 17 years until his death on December 17.
Kim Jong-un, a jowly man in his late 20s who will become the third of his line to lead North Korea, took center stage overlooking the central square named after his grandfather to listen to tributes to the "great revolutionary."
"Great Leader Kim Jong-il ... laid the foundation for our people to live on as autonomous people of a world-class military power and a proud nuclear state," parliament chief Kim Yong-nam said in the eulogy.
The North has conducted two nuclear tests.
Larry Niksch, who has tracked North Korea for the non-partisan U.S. Congressional Research Service for 43 years, believes it could take as little as one to two years to have a working nuclear missile once it produced enough highly-enriched uranium for the warhead's core fuel.
That could threaten regional security and give the North a powerful bargaining tool in extracting aid for its economy.
North Korea's state television footage showed the young Kim flanked to his right by the country's top military general Ri Yong-ho on the balcony of the Granc People's Study House. Also nearby him were Defense Minister Kim Yong-chun, and his uncle and the key power-broker in the transition, Jang Song-thaek.
Jang, 65, is believed to be the regent heading a select group of caretakers, as the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il who survived purges to become his closest confidant who oversaw the power succession before his death of a heart attack.
He stood behind the younger Kim in Wednesday's mass funeral parade, escorting the hearse carrying the coffin.
Solemn and grimacing, the younger Kim, believed to be born in early 1984, stood motionless throughout the ceremony. He only came to the forefront of the North's dynastic succession last year by taking on key military and ruling party posts.
"Comrade Kim Jong-un is the highest leader of the party and people who takes on Great Leader Kim Jong-il's philosophy and leadership, personality and morals, courage and audacity," Kim Yong-nam said.
CRUEL AND CUNNING ENOUGH TO SUCCEED?
Mourners, their heads bowed as the ceremony concluded, spilled over to both sides of the Taedong River as temperatures stood at about minus 10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit). Boats moored on the river and trains in their yards blew their whistles for three minutes to mourn Kim Jong-il's passing.
The eulogies were short on boasts about economic achievements from a strongman who used his Songun, or "military first," policy to divert resources to build a conventional and weapons of mass destruction program.
The North's economic output is now smaller than in the 1990s under the rule of his father Kim Il-sung, who founded the state in 1948, and it has been squeezed harder under international sanctions for its missile and nuclear tests.
Gyorgy Toloraya, a Russian expert who is Director of Korean Programs at the Institute of Economy at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who met Kim Jong-il for the first time in 2000 described him as "fast and witty and having "a remarkable memory" on any subject.
"...one exclusion might be modern economics, in which he, it seemed, was not so very interested, regarding it just as a tool for rich Westerners to extract profits from their fellow compatriots and poor countries," Tolaraya wrote on 38North, a website published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Most Korea-watchers do not expect the North to stage a repeat of the attacks it undertook in 2010 when it killed South Korean civilians with an artillery barrage and, according to most observers, sank a South Korean naval vessel. It denied sinking the vessel and says it was provoked into the barrage.
It may take Kim Jong-un some months to assume the full panoply of official titles held by his father.
"The real question is whether the new Kim has the cruelty and cunning, qualities that his father and grandfather Kim Il-sung possessed in plenty, to preserve in the long run the essential engine of the destitute dynasty he inherits," wrote Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University, a leading North Korea watcher.
(Editing by Ron Popeski and Ed Lane)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Did Cheetah from 1930s Tarzan flicks die?

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — A Florida animal sanctuary says Cheetah, the chimpanzee sidekick in the Tarzan movies of the early 1930s, has died at 80. But other accounts call that claim into question.
Debbie Cobb, outreach director at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, said Wednesday that her grandparents acquired Cheetah around 1960 from "Tarzan" star Johnny Weissmuller and that the chimp appeared in Tarzan films between 1932 and 1934. During that period, Weissmuller made "Tarzan the Ape Man" and "Tarzan and His Mate."
But Cobb offered no documentation, saying it was destroyed in a 1995 fire.
Also, some Hollywood accounts indicate a chimpanzee by the name of Jiggs or Mr. Jiggs played Cheetah alongside Weissmuller early on and died in 1938.
In addition, an 80-year-old chimpanzee would be extraordinarily old, perhaps the oldest ever known. According to many experts and Save the Chimps, another Florida sanctuary, chimpanzees in captivity generally live to between 40 and 60, though Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Fla., says it has one that is around 73.
A similar claim about another chimpanzee that supposedly played second banana to Weissmuller was debunked in 2008 in a Washington Post story.
Writer R.D. Rosen discovered that the primate, which lived in Palm Springs, Calif., was born around 1960, meaning it wasn't oldest enough to have been in the Tarzan movies of Hollywood's Golden Age that starred Olympic swimming star Weissmuller as the vine-swinging, loincloth-wearing Ape Man and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane.
While a number of chimpanzees played the sidekick role in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s and '40s, Rosen said in an email Wednesday that this latest purported Cheetah looks like a "business-boosting impostor as well."
"I'm afraid any chimp who actually shared a soundstage with Weissmuller and O'Sullivan is long gone," Rosen said.
Cobb said Cheetah died Dec. 24 of kidney failure and was cremated.
"Unfortunately, there was a fire in '95 in which a lot of that documentation burned up," Cobb said. "I'm 51 and I've known him for 51 years. My first remembrance of him coming here was when I was actually 5, and I've known him since then, and he was a full-grown chimp then."
Film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osbourne said the Cheetah character "was one of the things people loved about the Tarzan movies because he made people laugh. He was always a regular fun part of the movies."
In his time, the Cheetah character was as popular as Rin Tin Tin or Asta, the dog from the "Thin Man" movies, Osbourne said.
"He was a major star," he said.
At the animal sanctuary, Cheetah was outgoing, loved finger painting and liked to see people laugh, Cobb said. But he could also be ill-tempered. Cobb said that when the chimp didn't like what was going on, he would fling feces and other objects.
___
Associated Press writers Ben Nuckols in Washington and Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.
___
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Cuba making good on pledge to free prisoners

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba appeared to be making quick progress in meeting a pledge to free 2,900 pardoned prisoners, most of them convicted of minor crimes, even as a top human rights official on the island criticized the year-end amnesty as a "media show."
Human rights official Elizardo Sanchez and dissidents on the Communist-run island said Wednesday that authorities had released more than 2,500 inmates. The government has published a list of names of those pardoned in the Official Gazette, but has not said how the liberations announced by President Raul Castro on Friday are going. Castro said he was granting the pardons in connection with an upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI.
One freed prisoner, Jose Menendez, told The Associated Press that it was a complete and welcome surprise when he heard his name over a prison loudspeaker and was told he was on the list.
"If I could talk to President Raul and the Pope, I would shake their hand and say that I am immensely grateful for this opportunity for life that they have given me," an emotional Menendez said from his small Havana apartment, his wife at his side.
Menendez, 46, was imprisoned in the late 1980s on gun charges, and subsequently convicted of other crimes committed while behind bars. He was not due to be released until 2029.
Castro announced the amnesty in a speech to lawmakers on Friday, and noted that most of those pardoned were first-time offenders, youths, women, inmates over 60 or those suffering from illness.
Sanchez, the head of the independent Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said only five prisoners convicted of political crimes appeared to be among those pardoned, including a doctor convicted of revealing state secrets, and another prisoner sentenced in connection with a hijacking. He said the overall number of inmates freed was dwarfed by Cuba's prison population.
"It's evident that this is a media show," Sanchez said. "When there are 70,000 prisoners, releasing 3,000 of them is a very small thing."
The government has not said how many people it holds in its jails. While it tolerates Sanchez's activities, it considers all dissidents to be mercenaries sent by Washington to undermine the revolution.
Among those freed in Castro's amnesty were 86 foreigners, many convicted of drug trafficking or prostitution.
One high-profile inmate left off the list was American subcontractor Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year jail term for crimes against the state. Gross' supporters acknowledge he was on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested in 2009, but insist the 62-year-old Maryland native was simply trying to improve Internet connections for Cuba's small Jewish community. Havana says the programs are aimed at regime change.
The case has shredded any hope of improved ties between Washington and Havana, which had briefly been on the upswing after the election of President Barack Obama. U.S. officials have said repeatedly no progress can be made while Gross remains jailed.
Earlier this year, Cuba freed the last of 75 intellectuals, activists and social commentators jailed since a notorious 2003 sweep. While others convicted of politically motivated crimes remain jailed on the island, most were found guilty of violent acts such as hijacking or armed assault.
The human rights group Amnesty International no longer includes any Cuban inmates on its global list of "prisoners of conscience," though it stresses that the harassment and brief detention of dissidents continues.
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Paul Haven can be reached at www.twitter.com/paulhaven/
                                                                                                    

US warns Iran against closing key oil passage

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The U.S. strongly warned Iran on Wednesday against closing a vital Persian Gulf waterway that carries one-sixth of the world's oil supply, after Iran threatened to choke off traffic through the Strait of Hormuz if Washington imposes sanctions targeting the country's crude exports.
The increasingly heated exchange raises new tensions in a standoff that has the potential to spark military reprisals and spike oil prices to levels that could batter an already fragile global economy.
Iran's navy chief said Wednesday that it would be "very easy" for his country's forces to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the passage at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which about 15 million barrels of oil pass daily. It was the second such warning by Iran in two days, reflecting Tehran's concern that the West is about to impose new sanctions that could hit the country's biggest source of revenue, oil.
"Iran has comprehensive control over the strategic waterway," Adm. Habibollah Sayyari told state-run Press TV, as the country was in the midst of a 10-day military drill near the strategic waterway.
The comments drew a quick response from the U.S.
"This is not just an important issue for security and stability in the region, but is an economic lifeline for countries in the Gulf, to include Iran," Pentagon press secretary George Little said. "Interference with the transit or passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated."
Separately, Bahrain-based U.S. Navy 5th Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Rebecca Rebarich said the Navy is "always ready to counter malevolent actions to ensure freedom of navigation."
Rebarich declined to say whether the U.S. force had adjusted its presence or readiness in the Gulf in response to Iran's comments, but said the Navy "maintains a robust presence in the region to deter or counter destabilizing activities, while safeguarding the region's vital links to the international community."
Iran's threat to seal off the Gulf, surrounded by oil-rich Gulf states, reflect its concerns over the prospect that the Obama administration will impose sanctions over its nuclear program that would severely hit its biggest revenue source. Iran is the world's fourth-largest oil producer, pumping about 4 million barrels a day.
Gulf Arab nations appeared ready to at least ease market tensions. A senior Saudi Arabian oil official told The Associated Press that Gulf Arab nations are ready to step in to offset any potential loss of exports from Iran. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue.
Saudi Arabia, which has been producing about 10 million barrels per day, has an overall production capacity of over 12 million barrels per day and is widely seen as the only OPEC member with sufficient spare capacity to offset major shortages.
What remains unclear is what routes the Gulf nations could take to move the oil to markets if Iran goes through with its threat.
About 15 million barrels per day pass through the Hormuz Strait, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
There are some pipelines that could be tapped, but Gulf oil leaders, who met in Cairo on Dec. 24, declined to say whether they had discussed alternate routes or what they may be.
The Saudi official's comment, however, appeared to allay some concerns. The U.S. benchmark crude futures contract fell $1.98 by the close of trading Wednesday on the New York Mercantile Exchange, but still hovered just below $100 per barrel.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner played down the Iranian threats as "rhetoric," saying, "we've seen these kinds of comments before."
While many analysts believe that Iran's warnings are little more than posturing, they still highlight both the delicate nature of the oil market, which moves as much on rhetoric as supply and demand fundamentals.
Iran relies on crude sales for about 80 percent of its public revenues, and sanctions or even a pre-emptive measure by Tehran to withhold its crude from the market would already batter its flailing economy.
IHS Global Insight analyst Richard Cochrane said in a report Wednesday that markets are "jittery over the possibility" of Iran's blockading the strait. But "such action would also damage Iran's economy, and risk retaliation from the U.S. and allies that could further escalate instability in the region."
"Accordingly, it is not likely to be a decision that the Iranian leadership will take lightly," he said.
Earlier sanctions targeting the oil and financial sector added new pressures to the country's already struggling economy. Government cuts in subsidies on key goods like food and energy have angered Iranians, stoking inflation while the country's currency steadily depreciates.
The impetus behind the subsidies cut plan, pushed through parliament by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was to reduce budget costs and would pass money directly to the poor. But critics have pointed to it as another in a series of bad policy moves by the hardline president.
So far, Western nations have been unable to agree on sanctions targeting oil exports, even as they argue that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Tehran maintains its nuclear program — already the subject of several rounds of sanctions — is purely peaceful.
The U.S. Congress has passed a bill that penalizes foreign firms that do business with the Iran Central Bank, a move that would heavily hurt Iran's ability to export crude. European and Asian nations use the bank for transactions to import Iranian oil.
President Barack Obama has said he will sign the bill despite his misgivings. China and Russia have opposed such measures.
Sanctions specifically targeting Iran's oil exports would likely temporarily spike oil prices to levels that could weigh heavily on the world economy.
Closing the Strait of Hormuz would hit even harder. Energy consultant and trader The Schork Group estimated crude would jump to above $140 per barrel. Conservatives in Iran claim global oil prices will jump to $250 a barrel should the waterway be closed.
By closing the strait, Iran may aim to send the message that its pain from sanctions will also be felt by others. But it has equally compelling reasons not to try.
The move would put the country's hardline regime straight in the cross-hairs of the world, including nations that have so far been relative allies. Much of Iran's crude goes to Europe and to Asia.
"Shutting down the strait ... is the last bullet that Iran has and therefore we have to express some doubt that they would do this and at the same time lose their support from China and Russia," said analyst Olivier Jakob of Petromatrix in Switzerland.
Iran has adopted an aggressive military posture in recent months in response to increasing threats from the U.S. and Israel of possible military action to stop Iran's nuclear program.
The Iranian navy's exercises, which began on Saturday, involve submarines, missile drills, torpedoes and drones. A senior Iranian commander said Wednesday that the country's navy is also planning to test advanced missiles and "smart" torpedoes during the maneuvers.
The war games cover a 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) stretch off the Strait of Hormuz, northern parts of the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf of Aden near the entrance to the Red Sea and could bring Iranian ships into proximity with U.S. Navy vessels in the area.
The moderate news website, irdiplomacy.ir, says the show of strength is intended to send a message to the West that Iran is capable of sealing off the waterway.
"The war games ... are a warning to the West that should oil and central bank sanctions be stepped up, (Iran) is able to cut the lifeblood of the West and Arabs," it said, adding that the West "should regard the maneuvers as a direct message."
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El-Tablawy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Dubai and Abdullah Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed.