Daily Archives: February 18, 2009

Jewish Groups Prepare for Rare Blessing of the Sun

new_york_sunrise

Forward | Feb 17, 2009

By Ben Harris (JTA)

As sunrise broke over New York City on the morning of April 8, 1981, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — at the time he was known just as Zalman Schachter — stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and sounded the shofar.

For more than two hours after, Shachter-Shalomi led some 300 mostly young adults in an obscure Jewish ritual known as Birkat Hachamah, or blessing over the sun, a prayer recited once every 28 years when, the Talmud says, the sun reaches the same spot in the firmament as when it was created.

According to an account of the service in The New York Times, participants raised their hands in prayer, asked for healing for individuals and the earth, and released 70 balloons. At the conclusion, some worshipers joined in the singing of a Hebrew version of “Let the Sun Shine In” from the rock musical “Hair.”

The rite, Shachter-Shalomi told the Times, “helps us renew our relationship with the solar system and increase our awareness of the sun as a source of energy.”

Twenty-eight years later, Jews across the denominational spectrum are gearing up again for the observance with a range of planned celebrations, many of them environmentally focused. The sun prayer will be said, as it will several times in the 21st century, on April 8, which this year falls on the eve of Passover.

In the northern Israeli city of Safed, an eight-day festival is planned featuring several environmentally and kabbalistically inspired events, including the ceremonial burning of leavened bread on the morning before Passover by concentrating the sun’s rays through an optic lens.

“Over the last 28-year cycle, we have suffered from pollution and the depletion of natural resources,” said the festival founder, U.S.-based artist Eva Ariela Lindberg, in a news release. “Let us use this extraordinary opportunity to co-create the next cycle by seeking alternative solar energies and a purer environment, recharging ourselves and learning how to honor the earth, our neighbors and ourselves. This is a time to renew, and bring fresh blossoms to our world for the next 28-year cycle.”

In the United States, 14 Jewish organizations have joined to launch BlessTheSun.org, a Web site with links to various educational materials and ideas for April 8 activities. The site asks users to sign a Covenant of Commitment in which they “pledge to hasten the day of environmental healing, social justice and sustainable living for all.”

Five of the groups also are sponsoring an art competition for works “interpreting aspects of the sun and exploring the relationship between Judaism and the environment.” And the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has designed a 68-page study text on the prayer emphasizing environmental themes.

“Growing up, there was almost a fear in recognizing that our holidays and calendar are indicative of an earth-based religion,” said Nati Passow, co-founder of the Jewish Farm School, one of the groups behind BlessTheSun. “That doesn’t necessarily mean idol worship or earth worship, but it means that the calendar and the cycles were a reflection of people who lived with a greater awareness of natural cycles than we have now. And so any time you can teach people about elements of our tradition that are earth-based, and especially the ones that are hidden and not as well known, it’s a way of bringing people into Judaism.”

The prayer, whose origins lie in the Talmud, blesses God “who makes the work of creation” and is the same blessing said over other rare natural phenomena, like lightning or a meteor.

Its Talmudic origins mean that the sun blessing is hardly the sole province of liberal Jewish environmental groups.

ArtScroll Publications, an Orthodox publishing house, has reissued an updated version of Rabbi J. David Bleich’s seminal 1981 book “Birchas Hachamah,” probably the most definitive English-language treatment of the subject. And Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox environmental group, is working on a number of initiatives, including a sun-themed mishloach manot — the food baskets traditionally given on the holiday of Purim, which falls about a month before the sun blessing.

Bleich’s book includes a rigorously detailed discussion of the evolution of the Jewish calendar and the complex calculations of lunar and solar cycles that determine the dates of Jewish observances.

“The blessing on this occasion, it would seem, is evocative rather than responsive,” wrote Bleich, a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Yeshiva University. “It is designed to arouse man from his lethargy, to force him to reflect upon this cosmic phenomenon, to summon him to contemplation. Marking yet another solar milestone in the calendar of eternity, the occasion calls out to man: Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?”

Despite the complexity of the Talmudic discussion, the determination of April 8 is almost certainly inaccurate, Bleich told JTA. But the sages of the Talmud ordained the blessing not as a precise astronomical commemoration, Bleich said, but as a pedagogic device to impress upon future generations God’s continuing role in sustaining the universe.

Asked about Jewish groups that want to infuse the blessing with an environmental message, Bleich said, “I wish them luck.”

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Source: Casey’s fingerprints on duct tape wrapped around Caylee’s skull

Bounty hunter Leonard Padilla, who has been involved in the case since the beginning, said his law enforcement source said Casey Anthony’s fingerprints were found on the duct tape that was wrapped around Caylee’s skull.

CBS 12 | Feb 17, 2009

Missing Florida GirlNew information has emerged in the Caylee Anthony murder case. The state has released more than 1,100 pages of evidence to Casey Anthony’s defense team.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that the evidence includes FBI test results on duct tape found on Caylee’s skull. All evidence will be released to the public later this week but attorney’s close to the investigation say this may force Casey Anthony’s defense attorney to consider a plea bargain.

Last week on Nancy Grace, bounty hunter Leonard Padilla, who has been involved in the case since the beginning, said his law enforcement source said Casey Anthony’s fingerprints were found on the duct tape that was wrapped around Caylee’s skull. This is the same duct tape adorned with a red heart shaped sticker over Caylee’s mouth.

Caylee was 2 when she was reported missing in July. Her remains were found in December. Casey Anthony’s trial is scheduled for next month.

Brits Turn Off The Heating In Coldest Winter for 13 years

Southern Britain endured its coldest temperatures since 1991 – the country as a whole suffered its worst winter for 13 years

Recession-hit Brits layed off the gas this winter

Sky News | Feb 17, 2009

Demand for gas in the UK dropped this winter despite Britons shivering in the coldest weather for 13 years.

As blizzards battered the country, recession-hit Brits appeared to turn down the heating and break out the woolies.

Gas consumption fell by 4% from October to mid-December compared to the same time last year.

National Grid said people cutting down on spending because of the recession was to blame for the drop in demand.

“If you take out exports there has been a 4% drop in gas demand,” a National grid spokesman said.

“(The recession) is what we think is driving it.

“Across the winter so far, if you correct for weather, we have seen local distribution zone demand down 6% compared to last year.”

Freezing temperatures and snow storms have blanketed parts of the UK this year.

Southern Britain endured its coldest temperatures since 1991 – the country as a whole suffered its worst winter for 13 years – while Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands recorded -18.4C (-1.1F).

The snow and freezing temperatures should have raised demand for gas.

National Grid said many industries that use gas as a raw material had cut back on consumption because of falling demand for their own goods.

Ahmadinejad calls for New World Order

Press TV | Feb 17, 2009

ahmadinejadIranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for a new world order based on new ideas, saying the era of tyranny has come to a dead-end.

In an exclusive interview with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Ahmadinejad noted that it is time to propose new ideologies for running the world.

He said the time of tyrannical regimes is over and arrogant powers can no longer proceed with business as usual since their capitalism-based economies are collapsing.

“Tyrannical regimes will not last forever and they will reach their end sooner or later,” Ahmadinejad stated.

The president said people across the globe are fed up with the slogans of the arrogant powers.

He cited the widespread protests in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, where he believes the major powers’ policies are failing.

“Any civilization or empire that wants to impose its ideas on others through the use of force will reach its end in the near future,” he said.

Iran can present new ideas and views, which the world will need in the future, he added.

The Iranian president stated that Israel’s defeat in its Gaza offensive was the beginning of a new order in the world. “Now they are in disarray and new developments are unfolding.”

Israel’s 23-day offensive against Gaza, which ended on January 18, was condemned by the international community and caused divisions among major Israeli political parties.

The Spy Factory: The New Thought Police

The NSA Wants to Know How and WHAT You Think

Global Research | Feb 13, 2009

by James Bamford

big_brotherThe National Security Agency (NSA) is developing a tool that George Orwell’s Thought Police might have found useful: an artificial intelligence system designed to gain insight into what people are thinking.

With the entire Internet and thousands of databases for a brain, the device will be able to respond almost instantaneously to complex questions posed by intelligence analysts. As more and more data is collected—through phone calls, credit card receipts, social networks like Facebook and MySpace, GPS tracks, cell phone geolocation, Internet searches, Amazon book purchases, even E-Z Pass toll records—it may one day be possible to know not just where people are and what they are doing, but what and how they think.

The system is so potentially intrusive that at least one researcher has quit, citing concerns over the dangers in placing such a powerful weapon in the hands of a top-secret agency with little accountability.

Getting Aquaint

Known as Aquaint, which stands for “Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence,” the project was run for many years by John Prange, an NSA scientist at the Advanced Research and Development Activity. Headquartered in Room 12A69 in the NSA’s Research and Engineering Building at 1 National Business Park, ARDA was set up by the agency to serve as a sort of intelligence community DARPA, the place where former Reagan national security advisor John Poindexter’s infamous Total Information Awareness project was born. [Editor’s note: TIA was a short-lived project founded in 2002 to apply information technology to counter terrorist and other threats to national security.] Later named the Disruptive Technology Office, ARDA has now morphed into the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).

A sort of national laboratory for eavesdropping and other spycraft, IARPA will move into its new 120,000-square-foot home in 2009. The building will be part of the new M Square Research Park in College Park, Maryland. A mammoth two million-square-foot, 128-acre complex, it is operated in collaboration with the University of Maryland. “Their budget is classified, but I understand it’s very well funded,” said Brian Darmody, the University of Maryland’s assistant vice president of research and economic development, referring to IARPA. “They’ll be in their own building here, and they’re going to grow. Their mission is expanding.”

If IARPA is the spy world’s DARPA, Aquaint may be the reincarnation of Poindexter’s TIA. After a briefing by NSA Director Michael Hayden, Vice President Dick Cheney, and CIA Director George Tenet of some of the NSA’s data mining programs in July 2003, Senator Jay Rockefeller IV, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a concerned letter to Cheney. “As I reflected on the meeting today,” he said, “John Poindexter’s TIA project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern regarding the direction the administration is moving with regard to security, technology, and surveillance.”

Building “Hal”

The original goal of Aquaint, which dates back to the 1990s, was simply to develop a sophisticated method of picking the right needles out of a vast haystack of information and coming up with the answer to a question. As with TIA, many universities were invited to contribute brainpower to the project. But in the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11, with the creation of the NSA’s secret warrantless eavesdropping program and the buildup of massive databases, the project began taking on a more urgent tone.

“Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the most memorable character, HAL 9000. We are building HAL.”

In a 2004 pilot project, a mass of data was gathered from news stories taken from the New York Times, the AP news wire, and the English portion of the Chinese Xinhua news wire covering 1998 to 2000. Then, 13 U.S. military intelligence analysts searched the data and came up with a number of scenarios based on the material. Finally, using those scenarios, an NSA analyst developed 50 topics, and in each of those topics created a series of questions for Aquaint’s computerized brain to answer. “Will the Japanese use force to defend the Senkakus?” was one. “What types of disputes or conflict between the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] and Hong Kong residents have been reported?” was another. And “Who were the participants in this spy ring, and how are they related to each other?” was a third. Since then, the NSA has attempted to build both on the complexity of the system—more essay-like answers rather than yes or no—and on attacking greater volumes of data.

“The technology behaves like a robot, understanding and answering complex questions,” said a former Aquaint researcher. “Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the most memorable character, HAL 9000, having a conversation with David. We are essentially building this system. We are building HAL.” A naturalized U.S. citizen who received her Ph.D. from Columbia, the researcher worked on the program for several years but eventually left due to moral concerns. “The system can answer the question, ‘What does X think about Y?’” she said. “Working for the government is great, but I don’t like looking into other people’s secrets. I am interested in helping people and helping physicians and patients for the quality of people’s lives.” The researcher now focuses on developing similar search techniques for the medical community.

Thought policeman

A supersmart search engine, capable of answering complex questions such as “What were the major issues in the last 10 presidential elections?” would be very useful for the public. But that same capability in the hands of an agency like the NSA—absolutely secret, often above the law, resistant to oversight, and with access to petabytes of private information about Americans—could be a privacy and civil liberties nightmare. “We must not forget that the ultimate goal is to transfer research results into operational use,” said Aquaint project leader John Prange, in charge of information exploitation for IARPA.

Once up and running, the database of old newspapers could quickly be expanded to include an inland sea of personal information scooped up by the agency’s warrantless data suction hoses. Unregulated, they could ask it to determine which Americans might likely pose a security risk—or have sympathies toward a particular cause, such as the antiwar movement, as was done during the 1960s and 1970s. The Aquaint robospy might then base its decision on the type of books a person purchased online, or chat room talk, or websites visited—or a similar combination of data. Such a system would have an enormous chilling effect on everyone’s everyday activities—what will the Aquaint computer think if I buy this book, or go to that website, or make this comment? Will I be suspected of being a terrorist or a spy or a subversive?

Controlling brain waves

Collecting information, however, has always been far less of a problem for the NSA than understanding it, and that means knowing the language. To expand its linguistic capabilities, the agency established another new organization, the Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL), and housed it in a building near IARPA at the M Square Research Park. But far from simply learning the meaning of foreign words, CASL, like Aquaint, attempts to find ways to get into someone’s mind and understand what he or she is thinking.

One area of study is to attempt to determine if people are lying simply by watching their behavior and listening to them speak. According to one CASL document, “Many deception cues are difficult to identify, particularly when they are subtle, such as changes in verb tense or extremely brief facial expressions. CASL researchers are studying these cues in detail with advanced measurement and statistical analysis techniques in order to recommend ways to identify deceptive cue combinations.”

Like something out of a B-grade sci-fi movie, CASL is even training employees to control their own brain waves.

Another area of focus explores the “growing need to work with foreign text that is incomplete,” such as partly deciphered messages or a corrupted hard drive or the intercept of only one side of a conversation. The center is thus attempting to find ways to prod the agency’s cipher-brains to fill in the missing blanks. “In response,” says the report, “CASL’s cognitive neuroscience team has been studying the cognitive basis of working memory’s capacity for filling in incomplete areas of text. They have made significant headway in this research by using a powerful high-density electroencephalogram (EEG) machine acquired in 2006.” The effort is apparently directed at discovering what parts of the brain are used when very good cryptanalysts are able to guess correctly the missing words and phrases in a message.

Like something out of a B-grade sci-fi movie, CASL is even trying to turn dull minds into creative geniuses by training employees to control their own brain waves: “The cognitive neuroscience team has also been researching divergent thinking: creative, innovative and flexible thinking valuable for language work. They are exploring ways to improve divergent thinking using the EEG and neurobiological feedback. A change in brain-wave activity is believed to be critical for generating creative ideas, so the team trains its subjects to change their brain-wave activity.”

James Bamford is the author of three books on the National Security Agency, including the 2008 The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, from which this article was adapted with kind permission of Doubleday. Bamford coproduced, with Scott Willis, NOVA’s “The Spy Factory,” which was based on this book.

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NOVA | The Spy Factory Trailer

Spy Factory – Part 1