Federal document zeroes in on homegrown terrorist challenges

The Obama administration has published a scheme aimed at counteracting domestic violent fanaticism in the United States.

Released Thursday, the 20-page strategy describes specific steps to strengthen and expand cooperation with officials in communities that might be targeted by violent extremists.

The initiative says countering terrorism and raging zealotry inspired by al-Qaida, its affiliates and its adherents, is a top priority. It notes that other forms of extremism will not be ignored, and, as an example, mentions last July’s attacks by a right-wing extremist in Norway, saying “free societies face threats from a range of violent extremists.”

The proposal involves new efforts to study the impact of the Internet and social networks on radicalizing Americans from outside the country. It also lists steps to identify communities that might be targeted by riotous zealots for recruitment and radicalization, linking them with federal, state and local anti-terrorism efforts.

The new initiative commits a task force of senior officials from a variety of departments to ensure that the federal government interacts closely with local communities. The panel will report to the president each year.

In August, President Barack Obama signed off on the overall national initiative to fight hysterical extremism. It follows a broader National Strategy for Counterterrorism that discussed threats from al-Qaida followers, who sometimes are U.S. citizens, it noted, and engaged in terrorism such as the 2009 shootings at the Fort Hood, Texas military base.

President Obama did not present a statement Thursday to coincide with the initiative’s release. It does, however, contain a quote from him in August in which he says the government is working to prevent all types of extremism that lead to violence, regardless of who inspires it.

The co-chairs of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs said the document takes positive steps. But Independent Joseph Lieberman and Republican Susan Collins said in a statement that much more needs to be done and at a far faster pace, given the threat.

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Cain has left his campaign

Following allegations of sexual harassment and infidelity, former pizza magnate and banker Herman Cain has revealed Saturday that he would suspend his campaign to become the U.S. Republican presidential nominee.

Cain was greeted with loud cheers and music as he stepped out of his campaign bus in Atlanta holding his wife’s hand.

Two and half hours after the event started, Cain arrived at what were supposed to be his new campaign headquarters.

The crowd’s mood became subdued ten minutes into his speech, as he announced he would no longer be a candidate.

“As of today with a lot of prayer and soul searching, I am suspending my presidential campaign. I am suspending my presidential campaign because of the continued distraction, the continued hurt caused on me and my family,” said the once popular Republican contender.

He said he understood the disappointment of his supporters, but that he had what he called a “Plan B”. Cain said he would fight for change in Washington politics not as a presidential candidate, but with a new website called Cain Solutions. “We are going to have to work a little harder but we will change it from the outside.”

Cain called allegations against him false and unproven. He said he was not a perfect man, but that he was at peace with in his words, his God and with his wife.

Cain’s rise to the top of Republican polls earlier this year was reversed recently when an Atlanta businesswoman alleged she had had a 13-year sexual affair with him which ended when he began his presidential run. He had already been defending his reputation against several claims of sexual harassment by women while he was a restaurant lobbyist.

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich has begun to take the lead in national Republican polls, surpassing even former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, after Cain’s fall cleared the way.

An endorsement from him in the Republican race to compete against Democratic Party President Barack Obama in November 2012 would be coming soon, Cain said during his speech on Saturday.

During the short-lived campaign, Cain had become a favorite of the so-called Tea Party movement, which wants a much smaller government.

The Republican nomination battle is set to begin in the midwestern state of Iowa in about one month following this announcement.

Sex scandals have a long history during U.S. presidential campaign seasons.

In 1987, the initial frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Gary Hart dropped out of the race when photos showed the married former senator on a luxury yacht with a young model on his lap.

Hart then briefly returned to the race, but after getting very low results in early primaries, he quit again.

Newt Gingrich has been presenting himself as a more conservative candidate than the other leading Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney. However, Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, has only recently changed his once-liberal stance on medical marijuana and other issues.

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Hackers shut down an observer web site during Russian parliamentary elections

Many of those polled said they expected a government party victory, as voting began for Russian parliamentary elections on Sunday.

As a flurries turned to drizzle outside a central Moscow school, Elina Kharshor said that she and her mother voted for an opposition party, Just Russia.

She said she voted to strengthen the opposition, hoping there would a force to stand up to the Kremlin.

Standing nearby under the gray skies, Gregory Plokhotnikov, a Just Russia parliamentary candidate, said election observers for his party had been kicked out of several polling stations around Moscow.

The websites of Echo Moskvi, the nation’s leading independent radio station, and Golos, the nation’s lone independent observer group were disabled by hackers starting early Sunday.

Golos director Lilia Shibanova was detained for 12 hours on Saturday at Moscow’s Sheremeyetevo Airport by customs agents who seized her computer.

Police barred many Golos poll watchers from observing the voting around the nation, she told reporters on Sunday.

Before the Internet site went down, she said, Golos had received more than 5,500 allegations of violations of the election law – all received before voting started. Then a barrage of telephone calls had rendered their hot-line telephone useless while hacker attacks knocked down the Golos site, she said.

At a polling station in Elektrozavodskaya, a working class neighborhood in eastern Moscow, representatives of five opposition parties watched the voting as voters trickled in and out. In the warm, well-lit lobby, one woman sold hot dogs, juice and open faced sandwiches. Nearby, elderly voters clustered around a second table where low-cost Christmas ornaments and gifts were for sale.

Voting station director Natalia Cherneshova says voting was proceeding normally. She says the polls would stay open for people who were in line at the closing time.

Exit polls and preliminary results are not to be made public until polling ends in all nine of Russia’s time zones including Kaliningrad, a part of Russia sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

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Parsing for text adventure games

I don’t know much about natural language processing, but if you’re interested in implementing your own parser you could always look up some information on parsing formal grammars. The simplest methods I’m aware of involve describing a grammar in Backus-Naur form and building parse trees from input phrases, which can be used on very limited sets of English (they are ideal for subject-verb-object forms, for example).

Basically, you run through your input phrase and process individual tokens in terms of lexical categories, like noun and verb, then use Backus-Naur form (or some equivalent) to attempt to build a parse tree based on a system of formal rules. If you can successfully build a tree with one terminal at the root, you have a syntactically correct input and you can process it semantically to get the actual ‘meaning’ of the instruction.

That’s kind of just a really basic rundown on a simple method which is often used to process formal languages, you should be able to find more information on, say, Wikipedia or from a language processing text.

If you’re interested in getting your hands dirty with interactive fiction without getting too much into language parsing theory, I’d really recommend checking out Inform 7 (you can probably google it for the web site) — it’s a language which compiles to Z-code and is expressed using a limited subset of English. Because it compiles to Z-code, compiled games can be played in any program which will execute Z-code, so you don’t have to worry about writing parsing code yourself.

For example, to define a room containing an angry midget, you would write something like:

The Midget Room is a room. The angry midget is a person in the Midget Room. The description of the Midget Room is “You are in a room. An angry midget is glowering at you.”

That may not be entirely correct, but that’s sort of how Inform 7 programs look. You should check it out if it sounds interesting. It’s really quite neat.

Regardless of whether you go with a fancy technical version, the important thing is to make sure that the subset of English you are parsing is sufficient for your needs.

Before you think about ignoring prepositions, consider the difference between “Give Jack the shotgun” or “Give the shotgun to Jack.” Same meaning, separate noun orders. If the latter is parsed as “Give the shotgun Jack,” which is interpreted as giving Jack to the shotgun, and the player simply receives the message, “I don’t think it would want that,” then he will be awfully confused.

You could consider that only things could be given and only people could be recipients, but then you might have trouble with an exchange like:

  • Give the dog a dog toy.
  • Give the dog to the dangerously armed clown.

Whereas a BNF production like:

  • ::= Give| Giveto

Would automatically parse both forms as syntactically equivalent and allow you to attach the correct semantic information to the resulting parse tree without really putting in any additional work.

You can use a simplified parser, and depending on what you’re doing, it may be fairly appropriate, but you will most likely end up with some weirdness at some point, and if you need to expand the parser at a later date — to understand the difference between “put the quarter on the vending machine” and “put the quarter in the vending machine,” for example — then you may find it exceedingly difficult to do so once a fair bit of coding has been done.

Ultimately, if it works well enough for you it works well enough for you, and I wouldn’t worry about it. Just be aware that more complete solutions already exist, although they can be fairly complicated.


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NASA launch had stowaways

Yesterday’s launch of the NPP satellite also had an interesting payload. Four universities added five small satellites, designed and built by students. The satellites will take pictures, measure radiation, and help to understand how solar storms affect communications equipment, among other things.

From the article, “Two of the hitchhikers, named M-Cubed and RAX-2, were developed by students at the University of Michigan. Students spent four years designing and building the M-Cubed satellite, a technology demonstration mission for NASA built mostly from common hardware-store materials, which will take pictures of the Earth and transmit them over a 9600-baud signal. The RAX-2 satellite, also transmitting data at 9600 baud, will do atmospheric research for the National Science Foundation.”

It’s great to see students involved in such high-profile projects!

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Markets rally after EU debt plan

The European Union announced a plan on Thursday to significantly increase a bailout fund designed to contain the eurozone debt crisis and reduce Greece’s debt by half.

The Frankfurt market rising more than five percent, while the Paris stock exchange shot up more than six percent. The London exchange increased nearly three percent, and U.S. indexes were all ahead by more than two percent in midday trading.

The debt-relief scheme could give Greece a chance to regain its economic footing and help to solve the continent’s two-year-long crisis, European leaders said. “We have done what needed doing,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it was a “credible and ambitious” plan, while Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said the result would be “a new era, a new chapter” for his country.

The United States will support its European allies to address global economic problems, U.S. President Barack Obama said. He welcomed the deal as a “critical foundation” to help solve the eurozone crisis.

Following 10 hours of tense negotiations in Brussels, EU leaders said they had convinced banks and investors to accept a 50 percent loss on Greek government bonds, effectively reducing Greek debt by $140 billion. At the same time, the banks are required to raise an additional $148 billion by June. The bailout fund to cover future assistance for debt-ridden nations in the 17-nation bloc that uses the euro currency will be increased to $1.4 trillion.

The deal still leaves Greece with a significant debt burden – estimated at 120 percent of its economic output in 2020, down from 160 percent now. But Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said that debt level “becomes viable” for the country.

The deal has effectively saved the European single currency, French Finance Minister Francois Baroin said, telling French radio that it will “stabilize the eurozone and global growth.” World Bank chief Robert Zoellick welcomed the deal, as did officials in China and Japan.

Financial analysts and world leaders outside Europe have said in the past that the continent’s leaders were too timid in dealing with the crisis. International creditors have approved two bailouts for Greece and single bailouts for Ireland and Portugal. The financial markets feared that the debt contagion would spread to bigger European economies in Italy and Spain, and that Greece would evenutally default on its obligations despite the bailouts.

Analysts said Thursday the Brussels agreement could give the continent’s weaker economies more time to grow and adapt to the austerity measures their governments have imposed.

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Nokia boosted by selloff of low-end phones

Nokia’s reported loss was not as bad as expected, and the Finnish handset maker forecasts a profits next quarter for the handset business as the company gets ready to unveil devices based on Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system. Nokia shares surged over 10 percent in before U.S. markets opened.

Nokia and Microsoft are progressing toward the unveiling of devices intended to change the direction of the mobile market performance of both companies. Over a year in the making, the plans will soon be vetted by end users.

Chief Executive Officer Stephen Elop, a former Microsoft executive, will likely announce a line of devices based on Microsoft’s Windows Phone software during next week’s Nokia World event in London.

Nokia is also expected to keep producing and upgrading Symbian smartphones through 2016. Elop set a target in February of distributing 150 million additional Symbian devices.

Nokia has been losing pace to Apple and Google in the smartphone market. And with a market share of just 2-3 percent, Windows Phone has had limited success in the smartphone market so far. Nokia had been the world’s largest cellular phone producer since 1998 with market shares eventually touching 40 percent, but researcher Gartner Inc now puts Nokia’s market share at 22.8 percent for Q2. Apple moved over 17 million iPhones in the third quarter and set a record of moving more than 4 million iPhone 4S devices over the first weekend. Google Android market share is now hovering around 50 percent, and around 15 percent share for Apple.

Nokia is expected to produce a total of twelve Windows Phone 7 smartphone models in 2012. All of them should deliver significant benefits over the Symbian platform that is being phased out.

Nokia announced a net loss in Q3 of $93.6 million as sales fell 13 percent, which was not as bad as expected, on sales of $12.3 billion, down 13 percent from the prior year. The company sold over 106 million mobile devices, which was also surpassing estimates. Smartphone sales were down 38 percent from year-over-year, lagging at 16.8 million. Although feature phone sales were greater than expected, Nokia took a hit on margins. Operating margins were only 2.4 percent in Q3, down from 11.3 percent a year ago, and average selling prices dropped 20 percent from the prior year.

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