What’s Up May 31, 2013?

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· Asteroid fly-by on Friday sparks debate over readiness for ‘Armageddon’-style event

The passage close to Earth of a mountain-sized asteroid expected Friday has reignited discussions among scientists about how to deal with the improbable — but definitely possible — circumstance of an asteroid predicted to hit the planet.

1998 QE2, as the asteroid is designated, will pass Earth at what NASA calls a “safe distance” of about 3.6 million miles — 15 times the distance to the moon, but nonetheless a near miss in astronomical terms — at just before 5 p.m. Eastern on Friday.

The asteroid is not named for the Cunard cruise line’s famous transatlantic ship the Queen Elizabeth II, but rather according to a naming convention based on the year it was discovered.

The asteroid, which is estimated to be 1.7 miles long, but whose shape is still undetectable, will be closely examined by radar telescopes as it passes, NASA said in a statement.

The agency is planning a variety of social media events to mark the passage, and allow the public to listen in to scientists as they debate and discuss what they are learning from the fly-by.

NASA says it “places a high priority on tracking asteroids and protecting our home planet from them” through its Near-Earth Object program.

For more than a decade the program has run Sentry — a computer system that automatically analyses constantly updated astronomical data, looking for asteroids or other objects that might be on a collision course with Earth.

In 2016, NASA will launch a robotic space-probe to one of the most potentially dangerous of the objects in the Sentry database — asteroid (101955) Bennu. The OSIRIS REx probe will enable scientists to study the asteroid and even bring a small sample of it back to Earth for study.

Without years of observation and exact knowledge of an asteroid’s size and shape, it is hard to predict the exact future course they will take as their orbits are erratic, but (101955) Bennu is one of a group of such bodies known as Apollo asteroids which have an orbit that intersects with the Earth’s — creating a small but hard to calculate risk of a collision.

Recent calculations by NASA scientists show a 1 in 1,800 chance that Bennu will collide with Earth in the year 2182. Story Continued

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· SYRIA’S ASSAD ‘CONFIDENT IN VICTORY’ IN CIVIL WAR

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Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast Thursday that he is “confident in victory” in his country’s civil war, and he warned that Damascus would retaliate for any future Israeli airstrike on his territory.

Assad also told the Lebanese TV station Al-Manar that Russia has fulfilled some of its weapons contracts recently, but he was vague on whether this included advanced S-300 air defense systems.

The comments were in line with a forceful and confident message the regime has been sending in recent days, even as the international community attempts to launch a peace conference in Geneva, possibly next month. The strong tone coincided with recent military victories in battles with armed rebels trying to topple him.

The interview was broadcast as Syria’s main political opposition group appeared to fall into growing disarray.

The international community had hoped the two sides would start talks on a political transition. However, the opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said earlier Thursday that it would not attend a conference, linking the decision to a regime offensive on the western Syrian town of Qusair and claiming that hundreds of wounded people were trapped there.

Assad, who appeared animated and gestured frequently in the TV interview, said he has been confident from the start of the conflict more than two years ago that he would be able to defeat his opponents.

“Regarding my confidence about victory, had we not had this confidence, we wouldn’t have been able to fight in this battle for two years, facing an international attack,” he said. Assad portrayed the battle to unseat him as a “world war against Syria and the resistance” — a reference to the Lebanese Hezbollah, a close ally.

“We are confident and sure about victory, and I confirm that Syria will stay as it was,” he said, “but even more than before, in supporting resistance fighters in all the Arab world.”

Assad has said he would stay in power at least until elections scheduled in 2014, but he went further in the interview, saying he “will not hesitate to run again” if the Syrian people want him to do so.

Taking a tough line, he also warned that Syria would strike back hard against any future Israeli airstrike.

Earlier this month, Israel had struck near Damascus, targeting suspected shipments of advanced weapons purportedly intended for Hezbollah. Syria did not respond at the time.

Assad said he has informed other countries that Syria would respond next time. “If we are going to retaliate against Israel, this retaliation should be a strategic response,” he said.

Russia’s S-300 missiles would significantly boost Syria’s air defenses and are seen as a game-changer, but Assad was unclear whether Syria has received a first shipment.

Earlier Thursday, Al-Manar had sent text messages to reporters with what it said was an excerpt from the interview.

The station quoted Assad as saying Syria had received a first shipment of such missiles. The Associated Press called Al-Manar after receiving the text message, and an official at the station said the message had been sent based on Assad’s comments.

In the interview, Assad was asked about the S-300s, but his answer was general.

He said Russia’s weapons shipments are not linked to the Syrian conflict. “We have been negotiating with them about different types of weapons for years, and Russia is committed to Syria to implement these contracts,” he said.

“All we have agreed on with Russia will be implemented and some of it has been implemented recently, and we and the Russians continue to implement these contracts,” he said.

Earlier this week, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel considered the S-300s in Syrian hands a threat and signaled it was prepared to use force to stop delivery. Israel had no comment Thursday.

The S-300s have a range of up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) and can track and strike multiple targets at once. Syria already possesses Russian-made air defenses.

The U.S. and Israel had urged Russia to cancel the sale, but Russia rejected the appeals.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week that the U.S. is concerned about Moscow’s continued financial and military support for the Assad regime, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Meanwhile, Assad dismissed Syria’s political opposition as foreign-directed exiles who don’t represent the people of Syria.

The Syrian National Coalition has been meeting for more than a week in Istanbul to expand its membership, elect new leaders and devise a strategy for possible peace talks.

Coalition members got bogged down in personnel issues for much of the time. On Thursday, they announced that under current circumstances, they will not attend peace talks.

In the interview, Assad reiterated that the Syrian government is ready to attend in principle, though he said any agreement reached there would have to be put to a referendum.

“We will go to this conference as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. Whom do they represent?” he said of the opposition.

“We know that we are going to negotiate with the countries that stand behind it (the opposition) and not to negotiate with them. When we speak with the slave, we are indirectly negotiating with the master,” he added.

The coalition’s decision not to attend the talks could torpedo the only peace plan the international community has been able to rally behind, although prospects for its success appeared doubtful from the start.

Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said she hoped it was not the coalition’s final word on the Geneva conference. She said Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, is in Istanbul trying to help the opposition sort through its internal problems. Once members have decided on issues such as expanded membership and leadership, the U.S. hopes they will recommit to peace talks, Psaki said.

Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accused the coalition of trying to set preconditions, by demanding that Assad’s departure from office must be the focus of any peace talks. He called such a demand “unrealistic.”

He urged the U.S. and Europe to “restrain those who are encouraging such unacceptable and aggressive approaches on the part of the National Coalition.”

If the diplomatic option is now off the table, following the opposition’s decision, the West, including the U.S., will have to come up with a new approach. President Barack Obama could face renewed pressure to help the rebels militarily.

The opposition linked its decision to stay away from the conference to an ongoing battle for the strategic town of Qusair and the role of Hezbollah in helping Assad.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah is heavily involved in the 12-day-old push to drive rebels from the town. Coalition officials said Thursday that hundreds of peopled wounded in the fighting were trapped in the town.

“The talk about the international conference and a political solution to the situation in Syria has no meaning in light of the massacres that are taking place,” coalition spokesman Khalid Saleh told reporters. He said the group will not support any international peace efforts in light of the “invasion” of Syria by Iran and Hezbollah.

Both sides value Qusair, which lies along a land corridor linking two of Assad’s strongholds — Damascus and an area along the Mediterranean coast. For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon, just 10 kilometers (6 miles) away.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the 26-month-old Syrian conflict that has had increasingly sectarian overtones. Members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority dominate the rebel ranks and Assad’s regime is mostly made up of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam. Story Continued

· Lawyer: Zimmerman prosecutor withheld evidence

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A court employee who retrieved photos and deleted text messages from Trayvon Martin’s cellphone has been placed on administrative leave after an attorney testified that prosecutors didn’t properly turn over the evidence to the defense, an attorney said Wednesday.

Former prosecutor Wesley White said he was ethically obligated to reveal that Fourth Judicial Circuit Information Technology Director Ben Kruidbos retrieved the data that weren’t turned over.

Kruidbos was placed on leave shortly after White testified during a hearing in George Zimmerman’s second-degree murder case on Tuesday. White said Kruidbos was interviewed by state attorney investigators twice before the action was taken.

White said he wasn’t surprised of possible evidence violations by Zimmerman prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda.

“I was saddened by it, but I’m not surprised,” he said.

White first learned about the evidence through Kruidbos more than a month ago, he said.

Phone and email messages left at the office of Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Angela Corey were not immediately returned.

Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in 17-year-old Martin’s killing and has pleaded not guilty, saying he acted in self-defense. Circuit Judge Debra Nelson has denied a defense motion to delay the trial, which scheduled to begin on June 10.

White led the Nassau County state attorney’s office before resigning in December, citing differences of opinion with Corey. He is now in private practice.

White said the photos Kruidbos retrieved were of a hand holding a gun and one depicted drugs. The content of the text messages wasn’t specified.

“I’m an officer of the court and I’m obliged to inform the court of any misconduct or any potential misconduct coming before the court. Whether it’s by the defense or prosecution,” White said.

The defense released photos of a gun, marijuana plant and Martin’s text messages publicly, saying that if prosecutors planned to paint Zimmerman as the aggressor and Martin as the innocent bystander, they wanted the information to defend him. Attorneys won’t be able to mention the teen’s drug use, suspension from school and past fighting during opening statements at the trial, Nelson ruled Tuesday.

Nelson has set a full hearing on the turning over of evidence for next week.

Defense attorney Mark O’Mara has previously brought a handful of motions alleging that the state attorney’s office had been slow to turn over other evidence.

White said his disclosure to the defense isn’t sparked by any animosity toward his former employer.

“It has to do with the rule of law,” White said. “When Mr. Kruidbos testifies next week, it will be his testimony and not my own.”

O’Mara said Tuesday that he felt compelled to bring this matter to the attention of the judge after a hearing earlier this month in which De la Rionda was emphatic that he’d turned over all evidence related to Martin’s cellphone.

“(Kruidbos) knew information that nobody else would know about what (the state attorney’s office) didn’t give us,” O’Mara said. “The picture of the gun in the hand, for example, had not been turned over to us. But that had been created back in late January within the state attorney’s office.

“That inquiry, if in fact it continues and it certainly should, could lead to some very dire consequences for those who made presentations to the judge that were not accurate.”

O’Mara reported on the defense team’s website Wednesday that Zimmerman’s defense fund had less than $5,000 left. The fund had raised almost $315,000 by January.

His attorneys are calculating that Zimmerman needs another $120,000 to put on a good defense, or even another $75,000 to give him a fighting chance. Story Continued

· May 30, 2013 – American Voters 4-1 Want Special Prosecutor For IRS, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; But Fixing Economy Is More Important, Voters Say 3-1 –  American voters say 76 – 17 percent, including 63 – 30 percent among Democrats, that a special prosecutor should be appointed to investigate charges the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today.

President Barack Obama gets a negative 45 – 49 percent job approval rating, compared to 48 – 45 percent positive in a May 1 survey by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University, conducted before the IRS allegations surfaced.

The president’s biggest drop is among independent voters, who give him a negative 37 – 57 percent score, compared to a negative 42 – 48 percent May 1. He gets a negative 9 – 86 percent from Republicans and a positive 87 – 8 percent from Democrats, both virtually unchanged. Women approve 49 – 45 percent while men give a negative 40 – 54 percent score.

Americans are divided 49 – 47 percent on whether Obama is honest and trustworthy, down from 58 – 37 percent, the last time Quinnipiac University asked the question September 1, 2011.

Support for an independent prosecutor to probe the IRS issue is 88 – 6 percent among Republicans and 78 – 17 percent among independent voters, 78 – 17 percent among men and 74 – 18 percent among women.

“There is overwhelming bipartisan support for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Voters apparently don’t like the idea of Attorney General Eric Holder investigating the matter himself, perhaps because they don’t exactly think highly of him. Holder gets a negative 23 – 39 percent job approval rating.”

American voters say 43 – 32 percent that congressional criticism of the Obama Administration’s handling of the terrorist attack in Libya is ‘just politics.’ Voters say 44 – 33 percent, however, that members of Congress who criticize the way the Obama Administration handled the IRS are raising ‘legitimate concerns.’ Criticism of the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records also raises ‘legitimate concerns,’ voters say 37 – 24 percent.

Of the three controversies, 44 percent of voters see the IRS probe as the most important, with 24 percent citing Benghazi and 15 percent picking the AP records seizure.

But voters say 73 – 22 percent that dealing with the economy and unemployment is a higher priority than investigating these three issues.

“The fact that voters say 34 – 25 percent that the economy is getting better also may be a reason the president’s job approval numbers have not dropped further,” Brown added.

American voters disapprove 66 – 24 percent of the job the IRS is doing.

A total of 68 percent of American voters are “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the way things are going in the nation today, while 32 percent are “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied.” Voters also have negative opinions of political parties:

47 – 42 percent unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party;

50 – 35 percent unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party;

38 – 28 percent unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party.

Only 3 percent of voters trust the federal government to do the right thing almost all the time, while 12 percent say they trust it most of the time; 47 percent say some of the time and 36 percent hardly ever. That compares to results of a Quinnipiac University poll in July 2010, four months before the Republican sweep that year on the back of anti-government sentiment, when 2 percent said almost always, 16 percent said most of the time; 50 percent said some of the time and 31 percent said hardly ever.

“All of these investigations may be having a negative effect on voters’ willingness to trust the federal government.to do the right thing,” said Brown.

From May 22 – 28, Quinnipiac University surveyed 1,419 registered voters with a margin of error of +/- 2.6 percentage points. Live interviewers call land lines and cell phones.

The Quinnipiac University Poll, directed by Douglas Schwartz, Ph.D., conducts public opinion surveys in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa and the nation as a public service and for research. Story Continued and to include the data from the poll

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Filed under Left - Off Base, Politics from Just Right of Center - I want Balance!, Right - too Religous for me

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