30 Thousand Troops Going to Iraq

June 28, 2008

The Pentagon is preparing to order approximately 30,000 troops to Iraq early next year in a move that would allow the U.S. to maintain 15 combat brigades in the country through 2009, according to sources via the Associated Press. This deployments would replace troops currently there. This could all change quickly though is Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, decides in the fall to further reduce troop levels in Iraq.

Several officials familiar with the deployments spoke on condition of anonymity because the orders have not yet been made public.

According to the officials, three active-duty Army brigade combat teams, one Army National Guard brigade and two Marine regimental combat teams are being notified that they are being sent to Iraq in early 2009. Officials would not release the specific units involved because the soldiers and Marines and their families have not all been told except the Army National Guard unit who were told last October that they should be prepared to deploy to Iraq early in 2009. They are the 56th Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division from the Pennsylvania National Guard which is a large brigade with heavily armored Stryker vehicles.

Overall, there are about 146,000 forces in Iraq, and that number is expected to dip to about 142,000 by mid-July when that last unit is all out. That total is at least 7,000 more than the number of troops in Iraq before the buildup began early last year.

Petraeus told Congress in May that he is likely to recommend further troop reductions in Iraq, but he did not provide any details. If he decides in the Fall that fewer brigades will be needed in Iraq during the next year, there is the chance that brigades could simply be directed to the war in Afghanistan instead.

There is a broad consensus that more troops are needed in Afghanistan, to both train the security forces and fight the insurgents. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Bush, earlier this year, told NATO allies that they would increase troop levels in Afghanistan in 2009 in response to the growing violence.

Overall, as seems to be the plan of the current administration and its potential Republican successor, the war is not ending, the occupation is not ceasing, and troops are not coming home.

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Amsterdam’s Weed Shops Face New Challenge

June 28, 2008


This city’s famed marijuana bars have weathered many challenges over the years and are still smoking. But now they face an unwelcome blast of fresh air: On July 1, the Netherlands will be one of the last European countries to ban smoking in bars and restaurants in compliance with EU law.

The Health Ministry says the ban will apply to cafes that sell marijuana, known as coffee shops. But this being Holland, which for centuries has experimented with social liberalism, there’s a loophole: The ban covers tobacco but not marijuana, which is technically illegal anyway.

But that still leaves coffee shops and their customers in a bind. Dutch and other European marijuana users traditionally smoke pot in fat, cone-shaped joints mixed with tobacco.

“It’s the world upside down: In other countries they look for the marijuana in the cigarette. Here they look for the cigarette in the marijuana,” said Jason den Enting, manager of coffee shop Dampkring.

Shops are scrambling to adapt. One alternative is “vaporizer” machines, which incinerate weed smokelessly. Another is to replace tobacco with herbs like coltsfoot, a common plant that looks like a dandelion and that smokers describe as tasting a bit like oregano.

But most shops are just planning to increase their sales of hash brownies and pure weed – and are hoping the law isn’t enforced.

Michael Veling, owner of the 4-20 Cafe and a board member of the Cannabis Retailers’ Union, said he expected a small decline in sales as smokers are forced to separate their nicotine addiction from their marijuana habit.

But he expects the long-term effects to be minimal. “It’s absurd to say that coffee shops will go bankrupt in the second week of July. Nonsense,” he said.

Veling is instructing his staff to send tobacco smokers outside, but he doesn’t expect all coffee shops to do the same. He said some owners will ignore the ban – and will probably get away with it, at least for a while.

But “if obeying the smoking ban becomes a condition of renewing your business license, just watch how fast it will happen,” he said. “That’s the way things work.”

Chris Krikken, spokesman for the Food and Wares Authority, charged with enforcing the ban, said his agency won’t be targeting coffee shops in particular.

“For the first month we’ll just be gathering information about compliance in a wide range of hospitality businesses. Depending on what we find, we may focus more squarely on a sector that’s lagging,” he said.

But he said individual businesses caught allowing customers to smoke will be warned and definitely checked again. “Repeat offenders will face escalating fines,” he said.

Marijuana possession is illegal in the Netherlands, but smokers are not prosecuted for holding up to 5 grams. Around 750 cafes – half of them in Amsterdam – are licensed to have up to 500 grams in stock at any one time.

The Dutch “tolerance” policy recognizes that some people will smoke pot regardless of laws, so it might as well happen in an orderly way. Critics complain this encourages substance abuse.

But cannabis abuse in Holland ranks somewhere in the middle compared to other nations and is lower than in the U.S., France and England, according to statistics compiled by the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime.

At the same time, the levels of THC – the main active chemical in marijuana – have soared in the past decade and are now at 16 percent in Dutch weed.

The U.S. government sounded the alarm earlier this month because THC in American marijuana has doubled to 9.6 percent since 1983, and it warned of recent scientific findings linking the drug to mental problems.

The Dutch government, currently led by a conservative coalition with a religious bent, is slowly squeezing back the number of coffee shops by not renewing licenses when shops close.

Growers are arrested, leaving coffee shop owners struggling to obtain their main product.

“The rules are being set to pester us out of business one by one, slowly but surely,” said Richard van Velthoven, manager at The Greenhouse, who said he feared being shut down for tobacco violations.

“I’ve taken the cigarette machines out, I’m putting Coltsfoot on the tables, I’ve bought extra vaporizers, the staff is watching out – what more can I do?” he said.

German tourist Lars Schmit said lamented the possible end of an era.

Without coffee shops, he said, “a little bit of Amsterdam will die.”

Originally found @ AssociatedPress.com

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Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Watch Out For The Atom Smasher

June 28, 2008

In Meyrin, Switzerland, the most powerful atom-smasher ever built could make some bizarre discoveries, such as invisible matter or extra dimensions in space, after it is switched on in August.
But some critics fear the Large Hadron Collider could exceed physicists’ wildest conjectures: Will it spawn a black hole that could swallow Earth? Or spit out particles that could turn the planet into a hot dead clump?

Ridiculous, say scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French initials CERN – some of whom have been working for a generation on the $5.8 billion collider, or LHC.

“Obviously, the world will not end when the LHC switches on,” said project leader Lyn Evans.

David Francis, a physicist on the collider’s huge ATLAS particle detector, smiled when asked whether he worried about black holes and hypothetical killer particles known as strangelets.

“If I thought that this was going to happen, I would be well away from here,” he said.

The collider basically consists of a ring of supercooled magnets 17 miles in circumference attached to huge barrel-shaped detectors. The ring, which straddles the French and Swiss border, is buried 330 feet underground.

The machine, which has been called the largest scientific experiment in history, isn’t expected to begin test runs until August, and ramping up to full power could take months. But once it is working, it is expected to produce some startling findings.

Scientists plan to hunt for signs of the invisible “dark matter” and “dark energy” that make up more than 96 percent of the universe, and hope to glimpse the elusive Higgs boson, a so-far undiscovered particle thought to give matter its mass.

The collider could find evidence of extra dimensions, a boon for superstring theory, which holds that quarks, the particles that make up atoms, are infinitesimal vibrating strings.

The theory could resolve many of physics’ unanswered questions, but requires about 10 dimensions – far more than the three spatial dimensions our senses experience.

The safety of the collider, which will generate energies seven times higher than its most powerful rival, at Fermilab near Chicago, has been debated for years. The physicist Martin Rees has estimated the chance of an accelerator producing a global catastrophe at one in 50 million – long odds, to be sure, but about the same as winning some lotteries.

By contrast, a CERN team this month issued a report concluding that there is “no conceivable danger” of a cataclysmic event. The report essentially confirmed the findings of a 2003 CERN safety report, and a panel of five prominent scientists not affiliated with CERN, including one Nobel laureate, endorsed its conclusions.

Critics of the LHC filed a lawsuit in a Hawaiian court in March seeking to block its startup, alleging that there was “a significant risk that … operation of the Collider may have unintended consequences which could ultimately result in the destruction of our planet.”

One of the plaintiffs, Walter L. Wagner, a physicist and lawyer, said Wednesday CERN’s safety report, released June 20, “has several major flaws,” and his views on the risks of using the particle accelerator had not changed.

On Tuesday, U.S. Justice Department lawyers representing the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation filed a motion to dismiss the case.

The two agencies have contributed $531 million to building the collider, and the NSF has agreed to pay $87 million of its annual operating costs. Hundreds of American scientists will participate in the research.

The lawyers called the plaintiffs’ allegations “extraordinarily speculative,” and said “there is no basis for any conceivable threat” from black holes or other objects the LHC might produce. A hearing on the motion is expected in late July or August.

In rebutting doomsday scenarios, CERN scientists point out that cosmic rays have been bombarding the earth, and triggering collisions similar to those planned for the collider, since the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.

And so far, Earth has survived.

“The LHC is only going to reproduce what nature does every second, what it has been doing for billions of years,” said John Ellis, a British theoretical physicist at CERN.

Critics like Wagner have said the collisions caused by accelerators could be more hazardous than those of cosmic rays.

Both may produce micro black holes, subatomic versions of cosmic black holes – collapsed stars whose gravity fields are so powerful that they can suck in planets and other stars.

But micro black holes produced by cosmic ray collisions would likely be traveling so fast they would pass harmlessly through the earth.

Micro black holes produced by a collider, the skeptics theorize, would move more slowly and might be trapped inside the earth’s gravitational field – and eventually threaten the planet.

Ellis said doomsayers assume that the collider will create micro black holes in the first place, which he called unlikely. And even if they appeared, he said, they would instantly evaporate, as predicted by the British physicist Stephen Hawking.

As for strangelets, CERN scientists point out that they have never been proven to exist. They said that even if these particles formed inside the Collider they would quickly break down.

When the LHC is finally at full power, two beams of protons will race around the huge ring 11,000 times a second in opposite directions. They will travel in two tubes about the width of fire hoses, speeding through a vacuum that is colder and emptier than outer space.

Their trajectory will be curved by supercooled magnets – to guide the beams around the rings and prevent the packets of protons from cutting through the surrounding magnets like a blowtorch.

The paths of these beams will cross, and a few of the protons in them will collide, at a series of cylindrical detectors along the ring. The two largest detectors are essentially huge digital cameras, each weighing thousands of tons, capable of taking millions of snapshots a second.

Each year the detectors will generate 15 petabytes of data, the equivalent of a stack of CDs 12 miles tall. The data will require a high speed global network of computers for analysis.

Wagner and others filed a lawsuit to halt operation of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state in 1999. The courts dismissed the suit.

The leafy campus of CERN, a short drive from the shores of Lake Geneva, hardly seems like ground zero for doomsday. And locals don’t seem overly concerned. Thousands attended an open house here this spring.

“There is a huge army of scientists who know what they are talking about and are sleeping quite soundly as far as concerns the LHC,” said project leader Evans.

Originally found @ AssociatedPress.com

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Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.