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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali Wins Tour de France

Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali Wins Tour de France


Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali Wins Tour de France

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 10:35 AM PDT

PARIS — Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali has won the Tour de France, becoming the first Italian to win cycling’s greatest race in 16 years by chiselling a lead over his main rivals a few seconds at a time and dominating them in the mountains.

The 29-year-old Sicilian, who called himself “a flag-bearer of anti-doping” during the race, finished in the main pack behind Marcel Kittel, who won Sunday’s Stage 21 in a sprint finish.

Nibali’s victory comes after the pre-race favorites — 2013 champion Chris Froome and two-time winner Alberto Contador — crashed out with injuries in the first half of the race.

Nibali is only the sixth rider to win all three Grand Tours — France, Italy and Spain— and is the first Italian to win the Tour de France since Marco Pantani in 1998.

 

The Average American Family Is Poorer Than It Was 10 Years Ago

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 10:19 AM PDT

The typical American household was significantly poorer in 2013 than it was ten years earlier as a result of the Great Recession, a new study shows, an effect that is compounded by growing wealth inequality in the United States.

The net worth of the typical American household in 2003 was $87,992, adjusting for inflation. Ten years later, it was just $56,335, a decline of 36 percent, according to a study by the Russell Sage Foundation.

But even as the average American household’s wealth declined, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially. The average wealth of the American household in the 95th percentile was $1,192,639 in 2003, and $1,364,834 ten years later, an increase of 14 percent.

The authors of the study said the reason for the disparity was that affluent households were able to ride the success of the surging stock market after the 2008 crash, while middle class families were severely impacted by the decreasing value of their homes.

Wealth declined for everyone in the aftermath of the Great Recession, but better-off families were able to rebound. Households at the bottom of the wealth distribution, on the other hand, lost the largest share of their wealth.

‘The American economy has experienced rising income and wealth inequality for several decades, and there is little evidence that these trends are likely to reverse in the near term,” wrote the authors of the study.

Spider-Man Caught on Camera Punching Times Square Cop

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 09:05 AM PDT

Spider-Man — or at least a man dressed as him — punched a police officer in the face while resisting arrest Saturday at New York City’s Times Square, the latest episode of dressed-up crowd-pleasers acting, well, out of character.

The man, dressed as Spider-Man in a black skintight suit and mask, posed with another man and a woman who offered him $1 in exchange for the photo on Saturday, the New York Times reports. When Spider-Man told the couple the bill was too small, an officer intervened and said she could give whatever amount of money she wanted.

"Mind your own business," Spider-Man said. The officer asked Spider-Man for identification, and Spider-Man, later identified as Junior Bishop, 25, said he had none. The officer moved to arrest him.

In a video taken by a passerby and posted by the New York Post, Bishop can be seen struggling with the officer and punching him in the face. The officer was treated at New York University Medical Center for a swelling of the eye and a cut.

Characters in Times Square, who are allowed to collect donations but not demand money, have gotten into a number of altercations with tourists in recent months. A different Spider-Man was fined earlier this month for harassing a tourist, and an Elmo known for using anti-Semitic language went to jail for an unrelated offense.

[NYT]

 

U.S.: Satellite Imagery Shows Russians Shelling Eastern Ukraine

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 08:39 AM PDT

U.S. officials released satellite images Sunday they say offer proof that Russian forces have been shelling eastern Ukraine in a campaign to assist rebel groups fighting Ukraine’s government in Kiev. Obama administration officials said as early as last week that the Russians were launching attacks in eastern Ukraine.

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which released the civilian-taken satellite images Sunday, said they show visual evidence that Russia has been firing shells across the border at Ukrainian military forces. Officials also said the images show that Russia-backed separatists have used heavy artillery, provided by Russia, in attacks on Ukrainian forces from inside Ukraine.

One image dated July 25/26 shows what DNI claims is “ground scarring” on the Russian side of the border from artillery aimed at Ukrainian military units in Ukraine, as well as the resultant ground craters on the Ukrainian side of the border:

DNI 1
DigitalGlobe via DNI

A slide from a day earlier is said to show self-propelled artillery on the Russian side of the border oriented toward Ukraine, with impact areas near Ukrainian military units:

DNI 2a
DigitalGlobe via DNI

Russian officials denied on Friday allegations of involvement in eastern Ukraine, calling it a U.S.-led “smear campaign,” the New York Times reports.

The Ukrainian military said Saturday it was poised to reclaim Donetsk, the city at the heart of the pro-Russian insurgency, even as Russian forces numbering around 15,000 amassed on the border, the Washington Post reports.

Hamas Agrees to Cease-Fire, But Rockets Keep Flying

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 07:50 AM PDT

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Hamas is “continuing all its operations” despite agreeing to a temporary cease-fire extension after it initially refused to do so. The continued hostilities call into question whether the latest cease-fire between Israeli forces and Hamas in the Gaza Strip will hold up.

“We’re faced with a very ruthless terrorist enemy,” Netanyahu told CNN on Sunday, accusing Hamas of hiding behind “civilians as human shields.”

Hamas’ latest call for a cease-fire follows fast-changing negotiations over the weekend. On Saturday, after intense efforts by the U.S. and U.N., Hamas and Israeli agreed to a 12-hour lull, which allowed medics to collect close to 150 bodies and Palestinians to return to neighborhoods reduced to rubble, the Associated Press reports.

That cease-fire officially ended at 8 p.m. on Saturday, the New York Times reports, after which Israel announced it would hold fire for another 24 hours at the request of the United Nations. Hamas, however, rejected Israel’s cease-fire extension on the grounds that Israeli forces would remain in Gaza. Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said that Hamas fired 25 rockets and mortar shells into Israel. In response, Israel resumed its operations Sunday morning.

Now, on Sunday afternoon, Hamas has backtracked on its earlier rejection of the temporary cease-fire.

Hamas’ decision came “in response to the intervention of the United Nations,” said a Hamas official in Gaza, and to aid the people of Gaza in preparation for Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that marks the end of the Ramadan holy month. A spokesman for Hamas said the truce would go into effect at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

The latest cease-fire deal comes ten days after Israel launched a ground and aerial operation against Hamas targets in Gaza following several days of rocket and bombing attacks from both sides of the conflict. More than 1,050 Palestinians have been killed in the 20-day bombing and subsequent invasion, the vast majority of them civilians, according to Palestinian health officials. Two Israeli civilians and 43 Israeli soldiers have died.

[CNN]

The Bodies in the Bogs: An Eerie Gift From the Iron Age

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 07:00 AM PDT

There are cold cases and there are cold cases, but it’s hard to beat the one that came to light on May 6, 1950, in Silkeborg, Denmark. The local folks were already on edge after reports that a schoolboy from Copenhagen had recently gone missing, and when two brothers from the nearby town of Tollund went digging for peat in a Silkeborg bog, they made a gruesome discovery: a buried body with a rope around its neck showing no signs of decomposition. This was a murder — and it was clearly a fresh one.

Except it wasn’t. The body wore no clothes other than a pointed, leatherized, sheepskin cap that seemed not of this era. The rope was handwoven, not machine-made. And the face of the victim was covered with stubble — clearly not belonging to a young boy. All that, plus the noose, plus the ancient history of the site, suggested that this was not a body from the early years of the space age, but the latter years of the Iron Age. Carbon dating confirmed that — placing the man’s death somewhere between 375 B.C. and 210 B.C.

The extraordinarily well-preserved state of what became known as the Tollund Man was due to the unique chemistry of the bog, with its lack of oxygen, cool temperatures and bacteria-unfriendly acidic environment. The fact that there were remains to unearth at all suggested that, despite the noose, this man was not technically murdered or hanged as a criminal. If he had been, he would have been cremated. Rather, he was probably ritually hanged as a spiritual sacrifice.

Some parts of the man’s body did not fare as well as others. His arms and hands were reduced to little more than a thin layer of toughened tissue covering bones. But his internal organs — particularly heart, lungs and liver — were very well preserved. He is thought to have been about 40 when he died and stood no taller than about 5 ft. 3 in. (1.6 m).

The Tollund Man is by no means the only bog person to have been uncovered in recent decades. About a thousand others have been found in Ireland, England, Denmark and the Low Countries. This July 27, which is, yes, International Bog Day, is a good time to tip a hat to these unglamorous mires of mud and decayed vegetation. They provide an extraordinary look into an often mysterious past — and allow the people of the Iron Age to make themselves mutely known in the modern one.

Tour de France: Determination, Dirt and Damage

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 06:55 AM PDT

Police Visit to MH17 Disaster Site Canceled

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 06:37 AM PDT

DONETSK, Ukraine — A team of international police officers that had been due to visit the site of the Malaysian plane disaster in eastern Ukraine canceled the trip Sunday after receiving reports of fighting in the area.

Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said it was too dangerous for the unarmed officers to travel to the site from its current location in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down with a surface-to-air missile over a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists on July 17, killing all 298 people on board. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say it was shot down by a missile from rebel territory, most likely by mistake.

While it was not immediately clear where precisely clashes had broken out, a Ukrainian defense official said Sunday that government forces are now undertaking efforts to clear the areas around the Boeing 777 crash site from separatist rebels.

Hug said the police mission, which is comprised of officers from the Netherlands and Australia, will reconsider resuming operations if security improves.

“We continue to reassess the situation continuously and we will start to redeploy tomorrow morning back to the site if the situation changes,” Hug said.

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott had said earlier Sunday that unarmed Australian police would be sent to the crash site as part of a Dutch-led police force to secure the area and help recover victims’ remains.

Concerns about the integrity of the site were raised further on Saturday when a couple that had flown from their home in Perth, Australia, visited the wreckage-strewn fields outside the village of Hrabove and even sat down on part of the debris.

Flights from Ukraine to the Netherlands have taken 227 coffins containing victims of the plane disaster. Officials say the exact number of people held in the coffins still needs to be determined by forensic experts in the Netherlands.

Ukraine’s National Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said that Ukrainian troops were engaging rebels in fighting at several locations Sunday, including near the town of Debaltseve, which is 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of the crash site.

There was also fighting on the outskirts of Horlivka, one of the separatists’ key strongholds, Lysenko said.

Lysenko said more than 20 rebel fighters were killed and eight of their armored vehicles destroyed during fighting in Horlivka. One government soldier has been killed over the previous day’s fighting, he said.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Sunday that a column of Ukrainian armored personnel carriers, trucks and tanks had entered the town of Shakhtarsk, 10 miles (15 kilometers) west of the site of the crash.

Shakhtarsk is a strategic town in the area. By controlling the town, the Ukrainian army would be cutting off the regional capital, Donetsk, from the highway leading to the Russian border.

The Malaysia Airlines disaster prompted some expectation in the West that Russia would scale back its involvement in the uprising in Ukraine’s east, but 10 days later the opposite seems to be the case.

Russia launched artillery attacks from its soil into Ukraine on Friday, while the United States said it has seen powerful rocket systems moving closer to the Ukraine border.

Hamas Agrees to 24-Hour Holiday Truce in Gaza War

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 05:21 AM PDT

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas on Sunday agreed to observe a 24-hour humanitarian truce after initially rejecting such an offer by Israel, as fighting resumed and the two sides wrangled over the terms of a lull the international community hopes can be expanded into a more sustainable truce.

Between the rival announcements Palestinian militants fired rockets deep into Israel, prompting it to resume an offensive aimed at destroying rocket launchers and cross-border attack tunnels used by Hamas.

Hours later Hamas said it would be willing to abide by a new 24-hour humanitarian truce ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the truce would go into effect at 2 p.m. (1100 GMT) Sunday. The three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday is expected to begin Monday or Tuesday, depending on the sighting of the new moon.

Israel had offered a 24-hour truce late Saturday, but Hamas — which has demanded the lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza as well as the release of Palestinian prisoners — rejected it.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, did not say if Israel would hold its fire during the time requested by Hamas, but said troops would continue demolishing militant tunnels.

The 20-day war has killed more than 1,050 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to Palestinian health officials. Israel has lost 43 soldiers. Two civilians and a Thai worker in Israel were killed by rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza.

The military had earlier said about a dozen rockets were fired toward Israel since midnight — without causing casualties or damage — and that as a result it would “resume its aerial, naval and ground activity in the Gaza Strip.” The Israeli military released a video showing a rocket being fired from what it said was a Gaza school.

“Once again Hamas is cynically using the people of Gaza as a human shield,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

The 12-hour lull on Saturday — agreed to by both sides following intense U.S. and U.N. mediation efforts — saw Palestinians return to neighborhoods reduced to rubble and allowed medics to collect close to 150 bodies, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.

The Israeli military says it is doing its utmost to prevent civilian casualties, including by sending evacuation warnings to residents in targeted areas, and blames Hamas for putting civilians in harm’s way.

Hamas and other militants in Gaza have fired more than 2,400 rockets at Israel since hostilities began on July 8, many deep into the Israeli heartland and toward most of the country’s major cities.

Casualties on the Israeli side have stayed relatively low thanks to Israel’s sophisticated Iron Dome aerial defense system and because residents have been vigilant about seeking shelter quickly upon hearing the air raid sirens.

Before the announcement of the holiday cease-fire, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri had said any truce must include a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and that tens of thousands of displaced people must be allowed to return to their homes. Israel’s current terms were “not acceptable,” he said in a text message to journalists.

Israel’s acceptance of the cease-fire extension was premised on its soldiers remaining in Gaza to destroy the more than 30 tunnels the military says it has found in the densely populated coastal strip.

Ramadan, Day 30: The Opening

Posted: 26 Jul 2014 09:01 PM PDT

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur'an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God's final revelation to humanity. The Qur'an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

The most often-recited chapter of the Qur'an by the Muslim faithful is first chapter appropriately named "The Opening" (Al-Fatihah in Arabic). It is recited at least 17 times a day just through the five daily ritual prayers. And, The Opening is recited often at the beginning and end of religious gatherings, weddings, funerals, and other important life events. The chapter consists of 7 lines that offer the pre-text to the rest of the Qur'an. Commentators have pointed to The Opening as a summary of the entire Qur'an. In the Islamic tradition this chapter is known as "Mother of the Book" (Umm ul-Kitab) because of its stature in the Qur'an and in the life of devout Muslims.

Since this is my last post for the 30 days, 30 reflections of Ramadan series, I thought it appropriate to offer some insight into this commemorative chapter of the Qur'an — hoping that the end is just the beginning of many conversations and openings. These insights are just a glimpse into the extraordinary commentary that exists in the Islamic tradition on The Opening.

The Opening begins with what becomes the opening phrase of all of the 114 chapters of the Qur'an [except chapter 9 since it is a continuation of chapter 8]: "In the name of Allah, The most gracious, The dispenser of grace" (1:1). Alternatively, you will often find this phrase being translated simply as "…The most merciful, The most compassionate."

The Opening begins by introducing the author. God is introduced as Allah, which is the Arabic word for God. Allah is a unique name that by its linguistic nature cannot be gendered (unlike goddess) and cannot be pluralized (unlike gods). Allah is the name for God that unites all divine names and attributes into One unlike other names and attributes that point to an aspect of God. To clarify, Allah is not "the Muslim God." Allah is described in the Qur'an as the creator and sustainer of the heavens and the earth and everything that exists in between — the God of every living reality. As such, when the Torah or Gospel is translated into Arabic, God or its equivalent from another language is translated as "Allah."

Then, God's chief attributes are introduced — The most gracious, The dispenser of grace. Both attributes (Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem) share the same linguistic root — R-H-M. The root word in Arabic means "womb." So, the attributes are really expressing the mother-like mercy and compassion that God has for the creation. Interestingly, the Prophet Muhammad would often teach people about God using mother-like metaphors. Once the Prophet saw a woman endearingly holding her child and told his companions that God is more merciful to the creation than this woman is toward her child. Mercy or Grace is really seen, in Islamic theology, as the basis for all of God's work in the universe. And, the devotees of God are those who adorn themselves with this characteristic such that they should strive to become "Servants of The most merciful" (Qur'an 25:63 — 76).

The next line reads, "All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds" (1:2). Here the creations relationship to God is introduced and another essential attribute of the divine is revealed. The Qur'anic logic is based on the premise that if God is One, The merciful, The compassionate — then all praise or thanks that comes from the creation should properly be directed toward God. The second part — "the Sustainer of the worlds" — reveals this understanding of God as being the originator and nurturer of everything living thing that exists, the One who takes every living being from its immature and weakest form to its mature and strongest form.

The chief attributes of The most gracious, The dispenser of grace are reaffirmed in the third line of The Opening (1:3).

Then, in the fourth line, another of God's attributes is revealed and an important theme of the Qur'an is mentioned for the first time: "Master [or Owner] of the Day of Judgement" (1:4). The idea of human accountability of the beliefs held and of the lives lived by human beings is one of the most central teachings of the Qur'an. It assumes a life of the soul that continues well after death. Death is not the end of the soul's journey; death is what marks the next phase of the soul's journey — just as when the baby is expelled from his or her mother's womb to come into the life of this world, death expels the soul from the womb of this world into the next. And, ultimately, every human soul will be asked about how they used the gift of free will in this world. And, God is the Master or Owner of that Day [which really means period of time] in which souls will either be forgiven or taken to task. Interestingly, the word for judgement is related to the word for debt in Arabic. As such, some of the commentators say that this is the "Day in which debts are due" — meaning the debt of life and its blessings. And, since God is the Master or Owner of these debts, God can just as easily and justifiably forgive as God can take to task.

The relationship between the human being and God is really crystallized in the next line: "You alone do we serve, and You alone do we turn to for help" (1:5). Having established our complete dependency, in reality, on God in the previous lines — the central Qur'anic theme of servanthood to and trust in God is introduced. Servanthood does not simply require the life of prayer and ritual devotion — though important. Rather, serving God is about living life in the most beautiful and ethical way in accordance with the teachings of God and in accordance with the divine attributes that the servant seeks to acquire as part of his or her own character. Relying on the help and assistance of God is a natural state of servanthood and it is a profound affirmation of God's power and majesty.

In the next line, The Opening turns into a prayer and the recitation reaches its climax: "Guide us the straight path" (1:6). This asking of God to be guided is an acknowledgement that God plays an active role in the seeker and servant's life. God is not aloof nor has God abandoned creation after creating it. Rather, God guides through scripture and prophets and sages. And, God guides every heart that is humble enough to ask for guidance. Interestingly, the next chapter of the Qur'an begins, "This is the Book wherein there is no doubt, a guide for those who are mindful of God" (2:2). In essence, indicating that the rest of the Qur'an is an answer to the devotee's asking God for guidance.

Finally, the very last line offers a peek into what this guidance is: "The path of those upon whom You have bestowed Your blessings, not of those who have been condemned nor of those who go astray" (7:7). Much of the Qur'an is recounting of stories of people and communities from the past who received God's good graces. The Qur'an also offers prescriptions and proscriptions to achieve spiritual and ethical success. And, much of the Qur'an is also a relaying of past peoples who transgressed the boundaries set by God and who worshipped other than God — all as a way of warning and redirecting readers and believers to a life of devotion to what is good and right and to an absolute and pure monotheism in which nothing and no one is taken as a god besides God.

This is a brief insight into The Opening and into the major themes of the Qur'an. Ramadan, which will end on Sunday at Sunset, comes every year to remind Muslims of the gift and responsibility of the Qur'an. It is my deepest prayer that more contemplation of the Qur'an will lead to greater openings in the mind and heart that manifest in the world as new rays of light in the midst of darkness.

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