December 4, 2008
It was hard to miss the message that Barack Obama was sending with the powerful tableau lined up behind him onstage in Chicago. “I assembled this team because I’m a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions,” the President-elect said of his national-security picks. The top three members of that team certainly fit the description. In Hillary Clinton, Obama is getting a Secretary of State who battled him to the bitter end of a Democratic primary season focused largely on the question of who was better equipped to be Commander in Chief. In bringing in retired Marine general James Jones as his National Security Adviser and retaining Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama is turning to two men who might have seemed more obvious choices had John McCain won the White House. And all three were on the opposite side from Obama on the defining foreign policy decision of the past decade: whether to invade Iraq.
What Obama calls strength might sound like a formula for contentiousness or even failure, especially when you consider what happened with George W. Bush’s first foreign policy team, which had its share of big personalities too. So fraught with palace intrigue was that arrangement that then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to attend key meetings called by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for all his star power, was all but frozen out of the real decision-making—and the foreign leaders he visited knew it. And Vice President Dick Cheney was a power center unto himself. “You look at the team that George W. Bush brought in, and they also were very talented and experienced people,” says Stephen Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It turned into a disaster because the President did a very poor job managing his staff and couldn’t resolve disputes among his people.”
The potential for disputes would seem to be even greater for Obama’s team, given how its members have disagreed with the President-elect and one another on not only the Iraq war but also a range of other policy fronts that include Iran, Afghanistan, missile defense and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whatever their differences in the past, however, Obama insists they can work together: “They would not have agreed to join my Administration and I would not have asked them to be part of this Administration unless we shared a core vision.”
An improving situation in Iraq has helped bring about that convergence, especially between the incoming President and his future Defense Secretary. During the presidential campaign, Gates criticized Obama’s 16-month withdrawal timetable, but now that proposal doesn’t look very different from the security agreement the Bush Administration has since signed with the Baghdad government. Nor has Gates offered any resistance to Obama’s plan to install his own loyalists in the upper echelon of the Pentagon bureaucracy, which is now staffed largely by Rumsfeld holdovers. “Every new President traditionally fills civilian positions at the Department of Defense,” Gates said. “It will be no different now.”
As for the future, both Obama and Gates share a belief that there should be less emphasis on military power and more on using diplomacy and foreign aid to bend other nations toward U.S. interests. One thorny question at a time of economic crisis will be how much of the money for that reorientation will have to come from the Pentagon’s budget.
This emphasis on “soft power” would suggest an even greater role for the new Secretary of State. But while she is well known overseas, Clinton understands she will have real influence abroad only if she is seen as having it within the Obama inner circle at home. One of her demands was assurance that she would have a direct line of communication to the President whenever she felt she needed it. She has also insisted on picking her own team at the State Department, though it helps that she and Obama reportedly have agreed that her deputy should be James Steinberg, an Obama confidant who was also Deputy National Security Adviser in the Clinton White House.
The key to making all this work is most likely to be the man who is the least familiar of the triumvirate. Jones, the 6-ft. 5-in. retired general who will be the chief conduit of foreign policy advice to the new President, was the first Marine to serve as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and has an Eisenhower-like appeal to both parties. But he was not part of Obama’s circle of campaign advisers and reportedly resisted initial overtures to take the job, fearing he could get caught in the kind of infighting that Rice faced when she was Bush’s National Security Adviser. Obama promised Jones both the power and the access he needs.
Jones is known for having sharp political skills of his own, which is one reason William Cohen recruited him to be his senior military assistant when Cohen, a Republican, was Defense Secretary in the Clinton Administration. “I wanted Jim because he knew where the bodies were buried,” Cohen says. “And I wanted to make sure that mine wasn’t among them.” What could make Jones’ job easier is the fact that both Clinton and Gates respect him. Clinton knows him through her tenure on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Gates, though he’s never worked with Jones, knows him by reputation from their years at the Pentagon. Still far from clear is what role Joe Biden will play in this delicate arrangement. It was largely on the strength of his foreign policy credentials that Obama picked him to be Vice President. And the fact that he will be close at hand in the White House means Biden will certainly have the opportunity to weigh in on important policy questions. But no one expects him to be as big a force behind the scenes as Cheney has been or to seize entire portions of the portfolio for himself.
Of all of them, Gates probably has the best sense of what lies in store. After all, Obama will be the eighth President he has served. “There will no doubt be differences among the team,” says Gates, “and it will be up to the President to make the decisions.” A powerful team can succeed, but only if everyone agrees who is in charge.
December 4, 2008
The title of the spectrally beautiful Swedish vampire movie “Let the Right One In” comes from a song by Morrissey, a romantic fatalist who would surely appreciate this darkly perverse love story. “Let the right one in,” he sings in “Let the Right One Slip In.” I’d say you were within your rights to bite/The right one and say, ‘What kept you so long?’ ” These may sound like words to live by, though in the case of a film about a boy and the girl next door who may just be a vampire, they could easily turn out to be words to die for.
I’m not sure if the director Tomas Alfredson is a Morrissey fan, even if, like the singer, his movie smoothly and seemingly without effort works through a canny amalgamation of cool and hot, diffidence and passion. (John Ajvide Lindqvist, who adapted the screenplay from his horror novel, openly borrowed the title from Morrissey, a favorite.) The film’s cool is largely expressed in visual terms, in the enveloping snow, the wintry light and the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s meticulously and steadily framed compositions. There is a remarkable stillness to many of the film’s most indelible images, particularly the exteriors, which are so carefully photographed, and without the usual tiresome camera jiggling, as to look almost frozen. It’s no wonder that pale, pale little Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) looks so cold.
Pale and strange: with his light blond hair and alabaster skin, the 12-year-old Oskar appears not quite of this world, an alienation of body and spirit that causes him enormous pain but proves his salvation. The seemingly friendless only son of divorced, emotionally remote parents, he is also an outcast at school. The other children taunt him, particularly a pint-size sadist who grows crueler the more Oskar retreats into himself. But there are few other places he can go, which is how he ends up alone at night outside his apartment building thrusting a knife into a tree as if stabbing his tormentor. It’s an uneasy revenge fantasy that attracts the notice of a girl even paler than he is, Eli (Lina Leandersson), an outcast of a deadlier kind.
The bedraggled Eli drops into Oskar’s life like a blessing, though initially she seems more like a curse. Mr. Alfredson has an elevated sense of visual beauty, but he knows how to deliver the splattery goods. One of the earliest scenes features Eli’s guardian or slave (it’s never clear which), a defeated-looking middle-aged man named Hakan (Per Ragnar), headed into the night with a little black kit, the contents of which — a knife, a plastic container, a funnel (ick) — are soon put to deadly use on a strung-up victim. The ensuing stream of red is all the more gruesome for being so matter-of-fact, though the sudden and comical appearance of an inquisitive poodle quickly eased at least one violently churning stomach.
There are other interested animals in this story, and many more unsettling excuses to laugh. Yet while Mr. Alfredson takes a darkly amused attitude toward the little world he has fashioned with such care, he also takes the morbid unhappiness of his young characters seriously. Both are achingly alone, and it is the ordinary fact of their loneliness rather than their extraordinary circumstances that makes the film more than the sum of its chills and estimable technique. Eli seizes on Oskar immediately, slipping her hand under his, writing him notes, becoming his protector, baring her fangs. “Are you a vampire?” he asks tremulously at one point. Her answer may surprise you, but it’s another of his questions — “Will you be my girlfriend?” — that will floor you.
“Let the Right One In” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Dripping and gushing blood, as well as some knife work.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Directed by Tomas Alfredson; written (in Swedish, with English subtitles) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel of the same name; director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema; edited by Dino Jonsater and Mr. Alfredson; music by Johan Soderqvist; production designer, Eva Noren; produced by John Nordling and Carl Molinder; released by Magnet Releasing. In Manhattan at the Angelika Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes.
WITH: Kare Hedebrant (Oskar), Lina Leandersson (Eli), Per Ragnar (Hakan), Henrik Dahl (Erik), Karin Bergquist (Yvonne) and Peter Carlberg (Lacke).
December 4, 2008
Liverpool striker Fernando Torres looks set for an increased injury lay-off because of a damaged hamstring.
Torres, 24, had been expected to be out of action for two weeks but has now been told by specialists that he will be out for at least four weeks.
The Spaniard suffered the injury during the Champions League victory against Marseille at Anfield on 26 November.
“We first said two to three weeks but do not want to put a time on it now,” said Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez.
“He will come back when he is ready. We will not rush him back.
“We want to resolve this problem once and for all and we will make sure we do that.”
Torres has been plagued by hamstring problems over the past 18 months, suffering the injury five times in that period.
Liverpool are currently analysing his training schedule with both club and country in an attempt to resolve the problem.
Benitez had questioned the Spain training regime and believes it could be the cause of his injury.
“He has been injured now three times while with the national team and it is something we have to analyse,” he stated.
“We knew they were doing something that is maybe not the best for the player.”
It had been hoped he would return by mid December but Torres will now miss Premier League games against Blackburn, Hull, Arsenal and Bolton and Tuesday’s Champions League tie against PSV Eindhoven.
He could return for the trip to Newcastle on 28 December.
Liverpool have struggled in recent weeks in the absence of last season’s top scorer, with new signing Robbie Keane still finding his form since his £20m move from Tottenham in the summer.
The Reds currently top the Premier League but have drawn their last two home games without scoring a goal.
Torres himself is committed to returning to the side to boost their title credentials.
He said: “The only thing to do is to get on with the rehabilitation and make sure that I come back when I am ready and not too soon.”
December 4, 2008
One of the many mysteries of Earth’s nearest planetary neighbour Venus has been cracked, Nature journal reports.
Scientists have long puzzled over conspicuous patches in the Venusian clouds that appear dark at ultraviolet (UV) light wavelengths.
They now think these are solid particles or liquid droplets that get transported from deep in the atmosphere up to the planet’s cloud tops.
But a riddle remains: scientists still don’t know what they are made up of.
The features are distributed within the thick clouds of sulphuric acid and sulphur dioxide that shroud the hothouse planet.
“These (UV features) have been observed since 1929. We see them in images from the Pioneer Venus probe and in ground-based observations,” said Dr Dmitri Titov, from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany.
It had previously been unclear whether these were caused by differences in the height of the cloud tops, temperature differences or variation in composition of the clouds.
Darkness and light
Data from the European Space Agency (Esa) spacecraft show that areas near Venus’ equator which appear dark in ultraviolet light are regions of relatively high temperature.
The scientists think this is where intense convection brings up the mysterious dark material from below.
Bright regions at Venus’ mid-latitudes are areas where the temperature in the atmosphere decreases with depth, which prevents air from rising. The effect is most extreme in a wide belt around the poles, which has been dubbed the “cold collar”.
At low and mid-latitudes, the cloud top is located at a constant altitude of about 72km in both the dark and light regions, which suggests the light and dark patches do not result from changes in elevation.
Although the exact chemical species that creates the high-contrast zones remains elusive, a complex compound of sulphur is now a favourite.
But a full answer may have to wait for a subsequent Venus mission.
“It seems that Venus Express will not completely solve this,” Dr Titov told BBC News.
“This species is very strange because it doesn’t have particular features – just very broad ones. So we can’t say exactly what it is made of. It’s probably some kind of chemical hidden inside cloud droplets.”
He added: “We need to send balloons (to Venus). The balloons will be ideal because they will be flying in this region. And if we have a chemical laboratory… on board the balloon we will really understand what this is.”
Balloons were deployed in the Venusian atmosphere during the Soviet-French Vega 1 mission in 1985. And both the US and Europe have carried out technical studies on a next-generation Venus mission which could feature a balloon or lander.
Some researchers have even speculated whether Venusian microbes could survive high in the planet’s atmosphere, where the temperature and pressure are quite Earth-like.
Here, they say, the ultraviolet-absorbing chemical could act as an “umbrella” to shield life forms from the destructive UV rays coming from the Sun.
Further down, conditions are quite different. The planet’s surface is heated to an average temperature of 467C (872F) – hot enough to melt lead.
And the dense atmosphere generates a surface pressure 90 times greater than that on Earth.
Another key question for the mission is whether Venus is still volcanically active. Venus Express has found a highly variable quantity of the volcanic gas sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere.
Some observers think this could be to do with recent volcanic activity on the surface.
But others say the lack of rain on Venus to scrub the atmosphere clean of sulphur dioxide means Venus Express could be detecting events that happened millions of years ago.
“We’re only halfway through the mission, so we’re not ready to say definitively one way or another on the basis of this evidence before we analyse all the data,” said Fred Taylor, Venus Express interdisciplinary scientist at the University of Oxford.
He told the Oxford Science Blog: “However, there’s plenty of indirect evidence for volcanic activity on Venus so, in my opinion, it’s about how much activity is going on and the role it plays in the planet’s climate. I think it’s probably just a matter of time before we ‘see’ a volcano erupting.”
December 4, 2008
In 1572, a “new star” appeared in the sky which stunned astronomers and exploded ancient theories of the universe.
Now the supernova recorded by Tycho Brahe has been glimpsed again, by Max Planck Institute scientists.
They used telescopes in Hawaii and Spain to capture faint light echoes of the original explosion, reflected by interstellar dust.
This “fossil imprint” of Tycho’s famous supernova is reported in Nature.
The study will help solve a 400-year-old mystery over the nature of the celestial event which captivated observers across the globe.
In early November 1572, the brilliant “new star” appeared in the constellation Cassiopiea, and was even visible during daylight.
Among those who marvelled was the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who recorded its precise position in his book, “Stella Nova”.
His measurements revealed the “new star” was located far beyond the Moon – contradicting the Aristotelian tradition that such stars were unchangeable – which had dominated western thinking for nearly 2000 years.
This set the stage for the work of Kepler, Galileo, Newton and others.
“The supernova of 1572 marked a milestone in the history of science,” said Oliver Krause, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany.
“It ultimately led to the abandonment of the notion of the immutability of the heavens.
“But its classification has been controversial.
“The determination of the exact supernova type has not been possible, without spectroscopic information.”
Based on historic records, Tycho’s supernova [SN 1572] has traditionally been interpreted as a type Ia supernova.
Such supernovas are believed to occur when a white dwarf star undergoes a titanic, thermonuclear explosion.
Material from the star is ejected at up to 18,000 miles per second – or one-tenth of the speed of light.
The debris from Tycho’s supernova has expanded over the last 400 years into a cloud of gas and dust with a diameter of more than 20 light years.
But the nature of the original explosive event which created this remnant has remained unresolved.
To elucidate, Dr Krause and his team conducted a “post-mortem”, by training their telescopes on faint light echoes from the original event.
A supernova explosion acts like a cosmic flashbulb – producing light that propagates in all directions.
The first direct light wave from the explosion swept past Earth in 1572, observed by Brahe.
But even today, further waves of light from the original explosion continue to reach Earth indirectly – reflected in the “mirror” of interstellar dust particles.
These “light echoes” contain a kind of “fossil imprint” of the original supernova, and are used by astronomers to “time travel” back to witness ancient cosmic events.
Dr Krause and his team were able to detect an optical spectrum of Tycho’s supernova at near maximum brightness, using telescopes at the Calar Alto observatory, Spain, and at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
“We find that it belongs to the majority class of normal type Ia supernovae,” said Dr Krause.
“An exciting opportunity now would be to use other [light echoes] to construct a three-dimensional spectroscopic view of the explosion.”
The new measurements may also shed light on important, unsolved questions about how type Ia supernovae arise.
In one model, a white dwarf star accumulates (accretes) material from a companion star until it reaches a critical mass and undergoes a thermonuclear explosion.
In another, the accretion occurs by the merging of two white dwarfs.
The proximity of Tycho – which lies in the Milky Way – makes it an ideal candidate for more detailed studies.
“The technique of observing light echoes from supernovae is a remarkable observational tool,” said Dr Andrea Pastorello, of Queens University, Belfast.
“It will allow astrophysicists to characterise other supernova remnants in our galaxy and in nearby galaxies.
“This will hopefully clarify the relationship between supernova relics and their explosion mechanisms.
“Finally, it is likely that precise information about the frequency of the different supernova types in our galaxy and its surroundings will shed light on the star-formation history and chemical evolution of the local group of galaxies.”
December 4, 2008
Types Of Trees
December 4, 2008
Did the jihadists who tore up Mumbai last week rely on party drugs usually associated with Western decadence to stay awake and alert throughout their three-day killing spree? Britain’s Telegraph newspaper suggests that they did, citing unidentified officials claiming physical evidence shows the assailants used cocaine and other stimulants to sustain their violent frenzy. And if the notion of self-anointed holy warriors on a coke binge sounds incongruous, the report also maintains that the killers imbibed the psychedelic drug LSD while fighting advancing security forces.
“We found injections containing traces of cocaine and LSD left behind by the terrorists, and later found drugs in their blood,” the Telegraph was told by one official, whose nationality and relation to the investigation were not specified. “This explains why they managed to battle the commandos for over 50 hours with no food or sleep.”
The hallucinogenic and sensory-distorting effects of LSD make it an unlikely combat drug, even for kamikaze assailants who were, after all, seeking to kill as many people as possible before their own inevitable death. But the suggestion that the Mumbai jihadists may have amped themselves up on stimulants typically forbidden by their strict Salafist brand of Islam strikes some experts as plausible, particularly within the twisted jihadist logic in which holy ends justify impious means.
“We’ve never seen instances of operatives using drugs in attacks before, but we’ve also never seen the kind of open-ended, insurgent-style strike of civilian targets by Islamists prior to Mumbai,” says Jean-Louis Bruguière, who retired this year as France’s chief counterterrorism investigator to take a top post in the transatlantic Terrorist Finance Tracking Program. Bruguière had no information to confirm or deny the reported cocaine binge by the Mumbai assailants, but he believes that discounting it out of hand would be naive.
“Why wouldn’t attackers do something forbidden by their religious practice — to take drugs or anything else — that could help them achieve what they consider the far more important goal of their plot in striking a blow for God?” Bruguière asks. “Adepts of the Takfir wal-Hijra sect will adopt what Islam considers impure behavior of enemy societies, like drinking alcohol, eating pork and wild living, to better prepare attacks for those same societies. That’s what Mohamed Atta and the other 9/11 attackers did while plotting in the U.S. If terrorists feel jihad justifies impious acts to prepare strikes, why wouldn’t that rationalization also apply to carrying attacks out?”
Independent French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard is a little more skeptical of the report, however, at least as far as it claimed some of the fighters had used narcotics to numb themselves to pain as death approached. Though he understands the strategic logic of assailants using stimulants to overcome fatigue as their attack wears on — conventional armies, including the U.S. military,have used stimulants to counter combat fatigue— he does not believe the stern Salafist prohibition of soporifics would be ignored as the end loomed.
“We’re talking about people who think they’re killing for God and who are certain they’ll attain paradise by slaying innocent people. The most powerful drug they could ever find is already in their head before the attack starts,” says Jacquard. “There’s a very strong antidrug culture among Salafists — most don’t even use tobacco. And extremists with any drug experience usually say Islam is what allowed them escape it.”
The Telegraph story also quotes an official saying traces of steroids had been found in the bloodstreams of Mumbai attackers — something the unnamed source says “isn’t uncommon in terrorists.” If so, it’s a well-kept secret that runs counter to jihadists’ disdain of external “impurities” being used to attain physical fitness they often extol. But for Bruguière, wrangling over those kinds of details is simply a counterproductive attempt to create a precise, predictable stereotype of a terrorist in what is, in fact, a diverse, rapidly changing, amorphous milieu of extremists.
“It’s now clear the Mumbai group was connected to the Pakistan-supported Lashkar-e-Taiba, but it takes a while before we know how close and structured that relationship was and how much autonomy the attacking unit was operating with,” Bruguière says. “LeT is keen to export its fight throughout the region and world but will do so in loose relationships with myriad extremist movements out there. Some will use car explosions, others kamikaze bombers, and others insurgent terrorists who — just maybe — decide to use drugs to keep their strike going longer. If we want to prepare for the way we may be attacked next, we have to start considering all the ways we haven’t been attacked yet, as well as the ones we know.”