Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Nightowl Newswrap

Nice try, but half-assing it isn't even going to win you your base on this issue: Sen. John McCain plans to call Tuesday for lifting the ban that prevents offshore oil and gas drilling along much of the U.S. coastline — but would give states like Florida veto power over opening up their shores. McCain, who plans to unveil his proposal in detail Tuesday, said Monday that lifting the decades-old moratorium should be a "very high priority'' with gasoline prices soaring. He said that allowing states to explore for gas and oil "and perhaps providing additional incentives for states to permit exploration off their coasts … would be very helpful in the short term in resolving our energy crisis.'' House Republicans are waging an increasingly aggressive push to lift both a congressional and a presidential ban that prevent exploration of the coastline. An effort to lift the ban was defeated along partisan lines last Wednesday in a House subcommittee meeting, but its sponsor plans to try again this week. Democrats assailed McCain's proposal. Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for Barack Obama, said McCain's "plan to simply drill our way out of our energy crisis is the same misguided approach backed by President Bush that has failed our families for too long and only serves to benefit the big oil companies.'' Florida lawmakers have long opposed any efforts to open the coastline to drilling and Sen. Bill Nelson said "any approach to weaken the moratorium on coastal oil drilling is irresponsible." "There isn't enough oil in the U.S. to make even the smallest dent in world oil prices, which largely are being run-up by unregulated traders and speculators, including the oil companies,'' the Democratic senator said.

Thank God we have at least one diplomat left: US envoy Christopher Hill is to travel this week to Japan and China, a US official said Tuesday amid a new flurry of talks aimed at scrapping North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. Hill will meet both Japanese and South Korean officials during his talks in Japan before he visits China for consultations with his Chinese counterparts, acting State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters. "He will be departing tomorrow, Wednesday, arriving in Japan on Thursday, where he will do six-party talk consultations with the government of Japan as well as some South Korean officials," Gallegos said.

Another levee breached: The rising Mississippi River broke through a levee Tuesday, forcing authorities to rescue about a half-dozen people by helicopter, boat and four-wheeler as floodwaters moved south into Illinois and Missouri. But even as the water jeopardized scores of additional homes and businesses, officials said the damage could have been worse if the federal government had not taken steps to clear flood-prone land after historic floods in 1993. On Tuesday, the flooding halted car travel over two bridges linking Illinois and Iowa and threatened to cover areas near tiny Gulfport with 10 feet of water. "I'm not going back after this one," 83-year-old Lois Russell said as she watched water surround her house near Gulfport. It was the third time she had fled her home because of flooding since 1965. "It was a good placed to raise my seven kids," she said, crying. "I know I haven't lost anything that feels important because I have a big family." The area was inundated after a levee broke near Gulfport. The details of the rescues were unclear because of discrepancies in the numbers of people involved and the circumstances described by state and local officials. But authorities agreed that boats and helicopters were involved in the efforts.

Why is it an issue in the first place? Four years after it burst onto the national stage, same-sex marriage is back as an election-year issue, thanks to its court-ordered legalization in California. It could help Republican presidential candidate John McCain. The potential boost comes from social conservatives, who've been lukewarm about the Arizona senator but might become energized by the issue of marriage and turn out to vote. They're more likely to vote for McCain than Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent. "It probably helps McCain," independent pollster Brad Coker said. "It probably increases the chances he'll get some additional conservative votes out of it." Yet it's not as solid a boost as it was for President Bush in 2004, when more Americans opposed gay marriage, and social conservatives surged to polling places to approve constitutional amendments banning it in 13 states, including such pivotal presidential election battlegrounds as Missouri and Ohio. "This year is very different than 2004," said Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest advocacy group for gays, lesbians and transgenders. He said that other issues such as Iraq, the economy and rising gasoline and food prices had pushed marriage down on the national priority list. And Americans have grown somewhat more tolerant of same-sex marriage, he said. In other words, the usual Republican bullshit isn't going to fly this year.

Interesting--unless you own stock in a bottled water company: Tap water is making a comeback. With a day's worth of bottled water - the recommended 64 ounces - costing hundreds to thousands of dollars a year depending on the brand, more people are opting to slurp water that comes straight from the sink. The lousy economy may be accomplishing what environmentalists have been trying to do for years - wean people off the disposable plastic bottles of water that were sold as stylish, portable, healthier and safer than water from the tap. Heather Kennedy, 33, an office administrator from Austin, Texas, said she used to drink a lot of bottled water but now tries to drink exclusively tap water. "I feel that (bottled water) is a rip-off," she said in an e-mail. "It is not a better or healthier product than the water that comes out of my tap. It is absurd to pay so much extra for it." Measured in 700-milliliter bottles of Poland Spring, a daily intake of water would cost $4.41, based on prices at a CVS drugstore in New York. Or $6.36 in 20-ounce bottles of Dasani. By half-liters of Evian, that'll be $6.76, please. Which adds up to thousands a year.

Do you have it? The new version of the Firefox Web browser became available as a free download Tuesday. The release was delayed as visitors checking for the update overloaded Firefox's Web servers. The site was slow or unreachable for about two hours starting about 12:45 p.m. Eastern time, 15 minutes before the scheduled release time, according to AlertSite, an Internet performance monitoring company. Performance improved later in the day. Firefox supporters organized launch parties around the world as they tried to set a world record for most software downloads in a 24-hour period. The category is new, and Guinness World Records must certify it, a process that could take a week or longer. Here's the new version of Firefox...

Watch out for the drones: The Defense Secretary and Congress have been pounding on the Army, to start showing some results from its massive modernization project, Future Combat Systems. The Army is getting the message, sending a platoon of Future Combat's flying robots to Iraq, immediately. Thirty of the Micro Air Vehicles, or MAVs, "are on their way to Baghdad two weeks from now," Future Combat Systems program manager Maj. Gen. Charles Cartwright tells Defense News. Unlike other small drones -- which fly like miniature airplanes -- the MAVs use ducted fans to float in the air. Hovering in one place, they can stare down with "electro­optical and infrared cameras, and soon will have a gimbal-mounted camera and a laser designator," Defense News notes.

Settlements completed at Virginia Tech: A judge on Tuesday approved an $11 million state settlement with families of most of the victims in last year's Virginia Tech slayings that will avoid a court battle over whether anyone but the gunman was to blame. Families of 24 victims - out of 32 killed by Seung-Hui Cho - will be compensated under the settlement approved by Circuit Court Judge Theodore J. Markow. Four families agreed to the settlement, but were not prepared to go before the judge Tuesday. Four other families did not participate: Two have filed notices of lawsuits, and two did not file claims. The settlement also covers 18 people injured, but their cases did not require court approval. "The amount the families are receiving does nothing to offset or reduce the pain that they will forever suffer," said Douglas Fierberg, an attorney representing many of the families. Peter Grenier, another family attorney, called the settlement "the most acceptable and most reasonable outcome we could expect" considering Virginia's $100,000 limit on liability in such cases.

We told you about this school a while back--and here it is in the news again: The director of a Saudi government-funded Islamic school has been arrested and charged with failing to report a child abuse allegation, adding to scrutiny of the northern Virginia academy as protesters came out Tuesday to call for a federal investigation of its teachings. Abdalla I. Al-Shabnan, director of the Islamic Saudi Academy, was also charged with obstruction of justice, according to a police report about the June 9 arrest. The misdemeanor counts come at a time when the private school is under heavy criticism from a federal commission and others over textbooks that allegedly teach violence and hate. More than a dozen protesters lined up outside the school Tuesday, waving signs that read "Saudi hate is not an American family value" and "Islamic Shariah teaches violence and hate." The protesters, including the conservative Traditional Values Coalition, want the Justice and State departments to investigate the school. The State Department last year obtained copies of the school's textbooks but has so far refused to make them public. Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the coalition, said the arrest of al-Shabnan is just further evidence of problems at the school.

Beep beep boop. Beep beep ba-boop. Boop a beep. Beep a boop.A scratchy recording of Baa Baa Black Sheep and a truncated version of In the Mood are thought to be the oldest known recordings of computer generated music. The songs were captured by the BBC in the Autumn of 1951 during a visit to the University of Manchester. The recording has been unveiled as part of the 60th Anniversary of "Baby", the forerunner of all modern computers. The tunes were played on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer, a commercial version of the Baby Machine. "I think it's historically significant," Paul Doornbusch, a computer music composer and historian at the New Zealand School of Music, told BBC News.

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