Wall Street Week Ahead: Attention turns to financial earnings

NEW YORK (Reuters) - After over a month of watching Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street can get back to what it knows best: Wall Street.


The first full week of earnings season is dominated by the financial sector - big investment banks and commercial banks - just as retail investors, free from the "fiscal cliff" worries, have started to get back into the markets.


Equities have risen in the new year, rallying after the initial resolution of the fiscal cliff in Washington on January 2. The S&P 500 on Friday closed its second straight week of gains, leaving it just fractionally off a five-year closing high hit on Thursday.


An array of financial companies - including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase - will report on Wednesday. Bank of America and Citigroup will join on Thursday.


"The banks have a read on the economy, on the health of consumers, on the health of demand," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.


"What we're looking for is demand. Demand from small business owners, from consumers."


EARNINGS AND ECONOMIC EXPECTATIONS


Investors were greeted with a slightly better-than-anticipated first week of earnings, but expectations were low and just a few companies reported results.


Fourth quarter earnings and revenues for S&P 500 companies are both expected to have grown by 1.9 percent in the past quarter, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.


Few large corporations have reported, with Wells Fargo the first bank out of the gate on Friday, posting a record profit. The bank, however, made fewer mortgage loans than in the third quarter and its shares were down 0.8 percent for the day.


The KBW bank index <.bkx>, a gauge of U.S. bank stocks, is up about 30 percent from a low hit in June, rising in six of the last eight months, including January.


Investors will continue to watch earnings on Friday, as General Electric will round out the week after Intel's report on Thursday.


HOUSING, INDUSTRIAL DATA ON TAP


Next week will also feature the release of a wide range of economic data.


Tuesday will see the release of retail sales numbers and the Empire State manufacturing index, followed by CPI data on Wednesday.


Investors and analysts will also focus on the housing starts numbers and the Philadelphia Federal Reserve factory activity index on Thursday. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment numbers are due on Friday.


Jim Paulsen, chief investment officer at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis, said he expected to see housing numbers continue to climb.


"They won't be that surprising if they're good, they'll be rather eye-catching if they're not good," he said. "The underlying drive of the markets, I think, is economic data. That's been the catalyst."


POLITICAL ANXIETY


Worries about the protracted fiscal cliff negotiations drove the markets in the weeks before the ultimate January 2 resolution, but fear of the debt ceiling fight has yet to command investors' attention to the same extent.


The agreement was likely part of the reason for a rebound in flows to stocks. U.S.-based stock mutual funds gained $7.53 billion after the cliff resolution in the week ending January 9, the most in a week since May 2001, according to Thomson Reuters' Lipper.


Markets are unlikely to move on debt ceiling news unless prominent lawmakers signal that they are taking a surprising position in the debate.


The deal in Washington to avert the cliff set up another debt battle, which will play out in coming months alongside spending debates. But this alarm has been sounded before.


"The market will turn the corner on it when the debate heats up," Prudential Financial's Krosby said.


The CBOE Volatility index <.vix> a gauge of traders' anxiety, is off more than 25 percent so far this month and it recently hit its lowest since June 2007, before the recession began.


"The market doesn't react to the same news twice. It will have to be more brutal than the fiscal cliff," Krosby said. "The market has been conditioned that, at the end, they come up with an agreement."


(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; editing by Rodrigo Campos)



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Armstrong to admit doping in Oprah interview


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lance Armstrong will make a limited confession to doping during his televised interview with Oprah Winfrey next week, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.


Armstrong, who has long denied doping, will also offer an apology during the interview scheduled to be taped Monday at his home in Austin, according to the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to speak publicly on the matter.


While not directly saying he would confess or apologize, Armstrong sent a text message to The Associated Press early Saturday that said: "I told her (Winfrey) to go wherever she wants and I'll answer the questions directly, honestly and candidly. That's all I can say."


The 41-year-old Armstrong, who vehemently denied doping for years, has not spoken publicly about the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report last year that cast him as the leader of a sophisticated and brazen doping program on his U.S. Postal Service teams that included use of steroids, blood boosters and illegal blood transfusions.


The USADA report led to Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and given a lifetime ban from the sport.


Several outlets had reported that Armstrong was considering a confession. The interview will be broadcast Thursday on the Oprah Winfrey Network and oprah.com.


A confession would come at a time when Armstrong is still facing some legal troubles.


Armstrong faces a federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed by former teammate Floyd Landis accusing him of defrauding the U.S. Postal Service, but the U.S. Department of Justice has yet to announce if it will join the case. The British newspaper The Sunday Times is suing Armstrong to recover about $500,000 it paid him to settle a libel lawsuit.


A Dallas-based promotions company has threatened to sue Armstrong to recover more than $7.5 million it paid him as a bonus for winning the Tour de France.


But potential perjury charges stemming from his sworn testimony denying doping in a 2005 arbitration fight over the bonus payments have passed the statute of limitations.


Armstrong lost most of his personal sponsorship — worth tens of millions of dollars — after USADA issued its report and he left the board of the Livestrong cancer-fighting charity he founded in 1997. He is still said to be worth an estimated $100 million.


Livestrong might be one reason to issue an apology or make a confession. The charity supports cancer patients and still faces an image problem because of its association with its famous founder.


Armstrong could also be hoping a confession would allow him to return to competition in elite triathlon or running events, but World Anti-Doping Code rules state his lifetime ban cannot be reduced to less than eight years. WADA and U.S. Anti-Doping officials could agree to reduce the ban further depending on what new information Armstrong provides and his level of cooperation.


Armstrong met with USADA officials recently to explore a "pathway to redemption," according to a report by "60 Minutes Sports" aired Wednesday on Showtime.


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Abandoning Afghanistan a bad idea




U.S. Marines from the 3rd Battalion 8th Marines Regiment start their patrol in Helmand Province on June 27.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • White House aide suggested all U.S. troops could be withdrawn from Afghanistan

  • Peter Bergen said the idea would be dangerous and send the wrong message

  • He says U.S. has abandoned Afghanistan before and saw the rise of the Taliban

  • Bergen: U.S. is seeking agreement that military will have immunity from prosecution




Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad."


(CNN) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai will meet with President Barack Obama on Friday to discuss the post-2014 American presence in Afghanistan.


The U.S. military has already given Obama options under which as few as 6,000 or as many as 20,000 soldiers would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Those forces would work as advisers to the Afghan army and mount special operations raids against the Taliban and al Qaeda.


Read more: U.S. may remove all troops from Afghanistan after 2014



Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen



But on Tuesday, Ben Rhodes, the White House's deputy national security adviser, told reporters that the Obama administration is mulling the idea of removing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission finishes at the end of 2014.


This may be a negotiating ploy by the Obama administration as it gets down to some hard bargaining with Karzai, who has long criticized many aspects of the U.S. military presence and who is likely to be reluctant to accede to a key American demand: That any U.S. soldiers who remain in Afghanistan after 2014 retain immunity from prosecution in the dysfunctional Afghan court system. It was this issue that led the U.S. to pull all its troops out of Iraq in December, 2011 after failing to negotiate an agreement with the Nuri al-Maliki government.


Read more: Defense officials to press Karzai on what he needs


Or this may represent the real views of those in the Obama administration who have long called for a much-reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and it is also in keeping with the emerging Obama doctrine of attacking al Qaeda and its allies with drones but no American boots on the ground. And it certainly aligns with the view of most Americans, only around a quarter of whom now support the war in Afghanistan, according to a poll taken in September.


Security Clearance: Afghanistan options emerge



In any case, zeroing out U.S. troop levels in the post-2014 Afghanistan is a bad idea on its face -- and even raising this concept publicly is maladroit strategic messaging to Afghanistan and the region writ large.


Why so? Afghans well remember something that most Americans have forgotten.


After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, something that was accomplished at the cost of more than a million Afghan lives and billions of dollars of U.S. aid, the United States closed its embassy in Afghanistan in 1989 during the George H. W. Bush administration and then zeroed out aid to one of the poorest countries in the world under the Clinton administration. It essentially turned its back on Afghans once they had served their purpose of dealing a deathblow to the Soviets.










As a result, the United States had virtually no understanding of the subsequent vacuum in Afghanistan into which eventually stepped the Taliban, who rose to power in the mid-1990s. The Taliban granted shelter to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization from 1996 onward.


Read more: Court considers demand that U.S. release photos of bin Laden's body


After the overthrow of the Taliban, a form of this mistake was made again by the George W. Bush administration, which had an ideological disdain for nation building and was distracted by the Iraq War, so that in the first years after the fall of the Taliban, only a few thousand U.S. soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan.


The relatively small number of American boots on the ground in Afghanistan helped to create a vacuum of security in the country, which the Taliban would deftly exploit, so that by 2007, they once again posed a significant military threat in Afghanistan.


In 2009, Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan to blunt the Taliban's gathering momentum, which it has certainly accomplished.


Read more: Inside the Taliban


But when Obama announced the new troops of the Afghan surge, most media accounts of the speech seized on the fact that the president also said that some of those troops would be coming home in July 2011.


This had the unintended effect of signaling to the Taliban that the U.S. was pulling out of Afghanistan reasonably soon and fit into the longstanding narrative that many Afghans have that the U.S. will abandon them again.


Similarly, the current public discussion of zero U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014 will encourage those hardliner elements of the Taliban who have no interest in a negotiated settlement and believe they can simply wait the Americans out.


It also discourages the many millions of Afghans who see a longtime U.S. presence as the best guarantor that the Taliban won't come back in any meaningful way and also an important element in dissuading powerful neighbors such as Pakistan from interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs.


Read related: Afghanistan vet finds a new way to serve


Instead of publicly discussing the zero option on troops in Afghanistan after 2014, a much smarter American messaging strategy for the country and the region would be to emphasize that the Strategic Partnership Agreement that the United States has already negotiated with Afghanistan last year guarantees that the U.S. will have some form of partnership with the Afghans until 2024.


In this messaging strategy, the point should be made that the exact size of the American troop presence after 2014 is less important than the fact that U.S. soldiers will stay in the country for many years, with Afghan consent, as a guarantor of Afghanistan's stability.


The United States continues to station thousands of troops in South Korea more than five decades after the end of the Korean War. Under this American security umbrella, South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest.


It is this kind of model that most Afghans want and the U.S. needs to provide so Afghanistan doesn't revert to the kind of chaos that beset it in the mid-1990s and from which the Taliban first emerged.


Read more: What's at stake for Afghan women?


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14-year-old, 15-year-old killed in separate shootings

Chicago Tribune reporter Adam Sege with an update on the shootings in Chicago that killed two teenage boys. (Posted Jan. 12th, 2013)









Two gunmen shot a 14-year-old boy several times Friday night as he stood on his porch, leaving him to die in the front hallway of his Humboldt Park home, authorities said.


The shooting came just hours after a 15-year-old boy was fatally shot in a separate attack in the Little Village neighborhood. Including both homicides, at least six teens were shot since Friday afternoon, according to police.


In the Humboldt Park shooting, two male shooters opened fire about 11:50 p.m. in the 2400 block of West Augusta Boulevard, striking the boy multiple times in the chest, Chicago Police Department News Affairs Officer Amina Greer said.








Immediately following the shooting, a car sped down the street in reverse and took off, a neighbor said.


It appeared the boy, later identified by the Cook County medical examiner's office as Rey Dorantes of the 2400 block of West Augusta Boulevard, managed to take a couple of steps before collapsing. When paramedics arrived, he was lying just inside the home, bleeding from several bullet wounds, police said. He died at the scene.


Police found blood on the front steps and more than half a dozen shell casings on the sidewalk.


The high school freshman had been talking on a cellphone in front of his home just moments before shots rang out, his stepmother said.


The shooting may have been gang-related, police sources said. Family and friends on the scene, however, said the victim avoided gangs and spent his free time listening to music and riding his bicycle.


He'd thrown himself into a school program offering experience in a local bike shop -- a program designed, his mother said, to keep kids away from the type of violence that ended his life.


The boy would have turned 15 on Tuesday, said his stepmother Jo Ann Tenev.


"Now he's not even going to see his 15th birthday," she said, crying.


Neighbors returning home stared at squad cars and crime scene tape blocking the street of two- and three-story brick homes.


On the sidewalk near the crime scene, the father of one of the boy's friends sobbed as he paced near a group of somber teenagers.


When a neighbor asked him what had happened, his answer was brief.


"A little boy just got murdered," he said.


In the Little Village shooting, a shooter walked up to the 15-year-old about 6:40 p.m. in the 2600 block of South Ridgeway Avenue, News Affairs Officer John Mirabelli said.


The shooter shouted a gang slogan and opened fire, striking the 15-year-old in the torso, Mirabelli said, citing preliminary information.


The boy was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:19 p.m., according to the Cook County medical examiner's office.


The medical examiner's office identified him as Victor Vega, of the 2600 block of South Central Park Avenue.


No suspects are in custody in either shooting as detectives investigate.


asege@tribune.com


Twitter: @AdamSege
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Obama, Karzai accelerate end of U.S. combat role in Afghanistan


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed on Friday to speed up the handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, raising the prospect of an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from the country and underscoring Obama's determination to wind down a long, unpopular war.


Signaling a narrowing of differences, Karzai appeared to give ground in talks at the White House on U.S. demands for immunity from prosecution for any American troops who stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, a concession that could allow Obama to keep at least a small residual force there.


Both leaders also threw their support behind tentative Afghan reconciliation efforts with Taliban insurgents, endorsing the establishment of a Taliban political office in Qatar in hopes of bringing insurgents to inter-Afghan talks.


Outwardly, at least, the meeting appeared to be something of a success for both men, who need to show their vastly different publics they are making progress in their goals for Afghanistan. There were no signs of the friction that has frequently marked Obama's relations with Karzai.


Karzai's visit came amid stepped-up deliberations in Washington over the size and scope of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan once the NATO-led combat mission concludes at the end of 2014.


"By the end of next year, 2014, the transition will be complete," Obama said at a news conference with Karzai standing at his side. "Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end."


The Obama administration has been considering a residual force of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops - far fewer than some U.S. commanders propose - to conduct counterterrorism operations and to train and assist Afghan forces.


A top Obama aide said this week that the administration does not rule out a complete withdrawal after 2014, a move that some experts say would be disastrous for the weak Afghan central government and its fledgling security apparatus.


Obama on Friday left open the possibility of that so-called "zero option" when he several times used the word "if" to suggest that a post-2014 U.S. presence was far from guaranteed.


Insisting that Afghan forces were "stepping up" faster than expected, Obama said Afghan troops would take over the lead in combat missions across the country this spring, rather than waiting until the summer as originally planned. NATO troops will then assume a "support role," he said.


"It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty," Obama said.


Obama said final decisions on this year's troop cuts and the post-2014 U.S. military role were still months away, but his comments suggested he favors a stepped-up withdrawal timetable.


There are some 66,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan. Washington's NATO allies have been steadily reducing their troop numbers as well despite doubts about the ability of Afghan forces to shoulder full responsibility for security.


'WAR OF NECESSITY'


Karzai voiced satisfaction over Obama's agreement to turn over control of detention centers to Afghan authorities, a source of dispute between their countries, although the White House released no details of the accord on that subject.


Obama once called Afghanistan a "war of necessity." But he is heading into a second term looking for an orderly way out of the conflict, which was sparked by the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by an al Qaeda network harbored by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers.


He faces the challenge of pressing ahead with his re-election pledge to continue winding down the war while preparing the Afghan government to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence once most NATO forces are gone.


Former Senator Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee to become defense secretary, is likely to favor a sizable troop reduction.


Karzai, meanwhile, is eager to show he is working to ensure Afghans regain full control of their territory after a foreign military presence of more than 11 years.


Asked whether the cost of the war in lives and money was worth it, Obama said: "We achieved our central goal ... or have come very close to achieving our central goal, which is to de-capacitate al Qaeda, to dismantle them, to make sure that they can't attack us again."


He added: "Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. This is a human enterprise, and you fall short of the ideal."


Obama made clear that unless the Afghan government agrees to legal immunity for U.S. troops, he would withdraw them all after 2014 - as happened in Iraq at the end of 2011.


Karzai, who criticized NATO over civilian deaths, said that with Obama's agreement to transfer detention centers and the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghan villages, "I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity" in a bilateral security pact being negotiated.


Addressing students at Georgetown University later in the day, the Afghan leader predicted with certainty that the United States would keep a limited number of troops in Afghanistan after 2014, in part to battle al Qaeda and its affiliates.


"One of the reasons the United States will continue a limited presence in Afghanistan after 2014 in certain facilities in Afghanistan is because we have decided together to continue to fight against al Qaeda," Karzai said. "So there will be no respite in that."


Many of Obama's Republican opponents have criticized him for setting a withdrawal timetable and accuse him of undercutting the U.S. mission by reducing troop numbers too quickly.


Karzai and his U.S. partners have not always seen eye to eye, even though the American military has been crucial to preventing insurgent attempts to oust him.


In October, Karzai accused Washington of playing a double game by fighting the war in Afghan villages instead of going after insurgents who cross the border from neighboring Pakistan.


In Friday's news conference, Karzai did not back down from his previous comments that foreigners were responsible for some of the official corruption critics say is rampant in Afghanistan. But he acknowledged: "There is corruption in the Afghan government that we are fighting against."


Adding to tensions has been a rash of deadly "insider" attacks by Afghan soldiers and police against NATO-led troops training or working with them. U.S. forces have also been involved in a series of incidents that enraged Afghans, including burning Korans, which touched off days of rioting.


(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Mark Felsenthal, Jeff Mason, Phil Stewart, Tabassum Zakaria, David Alexander; Editing by Warren Strobel and Will Dunham)



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Wall Street slips, weighed by Wells Fargo, banks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged lower on Friday after Wells Fargo & Co , the first major bank to kick off fourth-quarter earnings season for the financial sector, reported a decline in net interest margin despite a record profit in the latest quarter.


Wells Fargo, the fourth-biggest U.S. bank and the nation's largest home lender, said its fourth-quarter net interest margin - a key measure of how much money banks make from loans - fell, even as profit jumped 24 percent. The bank also made fewer mortgage loans than in the third quarter.


"It (Wells Fargo results) is weighing on the sector. We are keeping our fingers crossed that this won't be a sector thing and more confined to Wells Fargo, but it's definitely playing a factor today," said Larry Peruzzi, senior equity trader at Cabrera Capital Markets LLC in Boston.


The bank's shares fell 1.4 percent to $34.92. The S&P 500 financial sector index <.gspf> fell 0.6 percent and the KBW Banks index <.bkx> fell 1 percent. Bank of America Corp , JPMorgan Chase & Co and Citigroup Inc are due to report results next week.


Overall earnings were expected to grow by 1.9 percent in this earnings season, according to Thomson Reuters data.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 6.12 points, or 0.05 percent, at 13,477.34. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 2.37 points, or 0.16 percent, at 1,469.75. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 2.19 points, or 0.07 percent, at 3,119.56.


Also keenly watched Friday were shares of Dow component Boeing , which fell 2.6 percent to $75.11 after a cracked cockpit window and an oil leak on separate flights in Japan compounded safety concerns about its new 787 Dreamliner. The U.S. Department of Transportation said the jet would be subject to a review of its critical systems by regulators.


Best Buy shares rallied after its results showed a bit of a turnaround in its U.S. stores, though same-store sales were flat during the key holiday season. Shares jumped 12 percent to $13.69.


Basic materials shares were pressured after China's annual consumer inflation rate picked up to a seven-month high, narrowing the scope for the central bank to boost the economy by easing monetary policy. The S&P basic materials sector <.gspm> fell 0.6 percent.


Dendreon Corp shares jumped 14.7 percent to $5.85 after Sanford C. Bernstein upgraded the drugmaker's stock to "outperform" from "market-perform" and said it could be one of the best performers in 2013.


(Editing by Bernadette Baum, Nick Zieminski)



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Eager Chudzinski takes over new-look Browns


CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns have always been a part of Rob Chudzinski's life. Now, he's the man in charge.


Chudzinski, who spent the past two seasons as Carolina's offensive coordinator, was introduced as the club's sixth fulltime coach on Friday, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the 44-year-old who as a kid pretended he played tight end for the Browns during games in his backyard in Toledo, Ohio.


"It is a dream come true," Chudzinski said. "I can't wait to get started."


Chudzinski will inherit a young roster he'll try to develop into a contender with the Browns, who have lost at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons and made the playoffs only once since 1999.


Chudzinski previously worked as an assistant with the Browns, most recently as their offensive coordinator in 2008. Although he has no previous head coaching experience, owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner are confident they hired the best possible candidate available to turn their club into a consistent winner.


"I would not miss the chance for the world." Chudzinski said. "We're going to win here."


The Browns hauled their search to find the 14th coach in franchise history to Arizona and back. They talked to high-profile college coaches, NFL assistants and a fired pro coach who took a team to a Super Bowl.


None of them was hired.


Instead, Chudzinski became their pick.


"I believe we came back with the best coach for the Cleveland Browns," said Haslam, who flew to Charlotte, N.C. on Thursday night with Banner to offer Chudzinski the job. "He is one of the brightest young coaches in the business."


Chudzinski's first move will be to hire his staff. He will immediately meet with the assistants currently working for the Browns. Chudzinski would not comment on any possible candidates to become his coordinators. There are reports he is considering former San Diego coach Norv Turner to run his offense. Chudzinski worked for Turner with the Chargers.


"I have a plan in place," he said. "We're going to get a great staff. We have a young group of players. This is going to be about the process. Lots of people are worried about the end result, but this is going to be the right process to get us where we want to be."


Now that they've hired their coach, Haslam and Banner will focus on finding a new general manager to help pick players for Chudzinski, who will be involved in finding the GM.


The new coach — "Chud," as he's known to players and friends — worked with the Browns' tight ends in 2004 and was their offensive coordinator in 2007, when the team won 10 games — their most since an expansion rebirth in 1999. He was released when Romeo Crennel was fired in 2008.


Chudzinski said when he walked off the field after the final game that season he knew he would be coming back to Cleveland "someday, somehow."


Chudzinski replaces Pat Shurmur, another first-time coach when he was hired, who was fired on Dec. 31 after a 5-11 season. For the past two years, Chudzinski has worked with talented Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and resuscitated Carolina's offense, which was one of the league's worst before he arrived.


When Haslam and Banner embarked on their coaching search as 2013 began, the pair vowed they would wait as long as necessary to find "the right coach" for Cleveland. They promised to give their new coach final say over the roster and planned to pair him with an executive to help pick players.


Chudzinski wasn't seen by many as an option.


And then he became the choice.


Haslam said Chudzinski's passion for the Browns was a bonus, but he had all the credentials and characteristics they were looking for in a new coach.


"If Rob was from Plano, Texas, we would have hired him," Haslam said.


Chudzinski said he wants a team that attacks on both sides of the ball. He would not comment on any of Cleveland's players, and sidestepped a question about rookie Brandon Weeden, who had an uneven first season with the Browns.


Chudzinski interviewed with the team on Wednesday, when the club also visited with Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Chudzinski appeared to be a long shot for the job, not because he wasn't qualified, but because it was thought Haslam wanted to make a big splash with his first coaching hire.


However, Chudzinski wowed Haslam and Banner during his meeting and the team decided it was time to end its search in its second week. Haslam said 10 minutes into the interview that he nodded at Banner that they had found their man.


In his first season in Carolina, Chudzinski turned Newton, the No. 1 overall draft pick, loose and the Panthers set club records for total yards (6,237) and first downs (345). Carolina also scored 48 touchdowns after getting just 17 in the season before Chudzinski arrived. The Panthers jumped from last in the league in total yardage to seventh, the biggest improvement since 1999.


Haslam pointed out the Panthers scored 88 touchdowns the past two seasons. Cleveland scored 44.


Following last season, Chudzinski interviewed for head coaching jobs with St. Louis, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay before returning to Carolina.


In getting the Browns' job, Chudzinski was picked over Zimmer, Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman, fired Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt and Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Whisenhunt was in Cleveland for a second interview on Thursday, and appeared to be the front-runner. The Browns also were expected to interview Indianapolis offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.


Chudzinski's hiring may have shocked some Cleveland fans, many of whom at fantasies about Nick Saban or Jon Gruden or Kelly brining his supersonic offense to the NFL.


But his selection is in keeping with at least one of Banner's past moves. When he was in Philadelphia's front office, Banner went outside the box and hired Green Bay assistant Andy Reid, a relative unknown who spent 14 seasons with the Eagles.


___


Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL


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Origin of Life: Did a Simple Pump Drive Process?






A new theory proposes the primordial life-forms that gave rise to all life on Earth left deep-sea vents because of their “invention” of a tiny pump. These primitive cellular pumps would have powered life-giving chemical reactions.


The idea, detailed Dec. 20 in the journal Cell, could help explain two mysteries of life’s early origin: How did the earliest proto-cells power chemical reactions to make the organic building blocks of life; and how did they leave hydrothermal vents to colonize early Earth’s oceans?






Authors of the new theory argue the environmental conditions in porous hydrothermal vents — where heated, mineral-laden seawater spews from cracks in the ocean crust — created a gradient in positively charged protons that served as a “battery” to fuel the creation of organic molecules and proto-cells.


Later, primitive cellular pumps gradually evolved the ability to use a different type of gradient — the difference in sodium particles inside and outside the cell — as a battery to power the construction of complex molecules like proteins. And, voilĂ , the proto-cells could leave the deep-sea hydrothermal vents. [Image Gallery: Unique Life at Deep-Sea Vents]


“A coupling of proton gradients and sodium gradients may have played a major role in the origin of life. This is really cool, novel stuff,” Jan Amend, a researcher at the University of Southern California, who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email to LiveScience. The study reflects the increasingly popular idea that a simple, everyday source of power, not a rare occurrence like a lightning strike, could have provided the power to initially create life, he said.


Deep-sea start


Many scientists think life got its start around 3.7 billion years ago in deep-sea hydrothermal vents. But figuring out just how complex, carbon-based life formed in that primordial stew has been tricky.


Somehow, the precursors of life harnessed carbon dioxide and hydrogen available in those primitive conditions to create the building blocks of life, such as amino acids and nucleotides (building blocks of DNA). But those chemical reactions require a power source, said study co-author Nick Lane, a researcher at the University College London.


Now, Lane and William Martin, of the Institute of Molecular Evolution at the Heinrich Heine University in Germany, propose that the rocky mineral walls in ocean-floor vents could have provided the means.


The theory goes: At the time of life’s origin, the early ocean was acidic and filled with positively charged protons, while the deep-sea vents spewed out bitter alkaline fluid, which is rich in negatively charged hydroxide ions, Lane told LiveScience.


The vents created furrowed rocky, iron- and sulfur-rich walls full of tiny pores that separated the warm alkaline vent fluid from the cooler, acidic seawater. The interface between the two created a natural charge gradient.


“It’s a little bit like a battery,” Lane told LiveScience.


That battery then powered the chemical transformation of carbon dioxide and hydrogen into simple carbon-based molecules such as amino acids or proteins. Eventually that gradient drove the creation of cellular membranes, complicated proteins and ribonucleic acid (RNA), a molecule similar to DNA.


Leaving the vents


At that point, primitive cells used the thin, serpentine walls of the vent to corral the new carbon-based molecules together into precursors of cells and used the charge gradient in the environment to power the building of more complex organic chemicals.


But in order to leave the vent, primitive cells would have needed some way to carry a power-producing gradient with them — think battery pack. To solve that problem, the team looked at existing archaea bacteria in deep-sea vents.


Those primeval life-forms use a simple type of cellular pump that pushes sodium out of the cell while pulling positively charged protons in. The team proposed that a precursor to that cellular pump evolved in the membranes of the proto-cells.


The membrane started out very leaky, but over time, the membranes would have slowly closed, preventing much larger sodium particles from leaving the cell while smaller protons could still slip through. That enabled the proto-cells to still use the existing power-source in the environment — the charge gradient — while gradually evolving an independent way of getting power.


Eventually, when the pores closed completely, the primitive cells would have had a sodium pump that could power their cellular reactions, enabling more complex life to form. They could then leave their birthplace.


Testing the idea, however, will be tricky, Amend told LiveScience. “Mimicking natural conditions in the lab is a lot more difficult than it sounds.”


Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We’re also on Facebook & Google+


Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Why global labor reforms are vital






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Saudi authorities beheaded Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan woman

  • She was convicted of killing a baby of the family employing her as a housemaid

  • This was despite Nafeek's claims that the baby died in a choking accident

  • Becker says her fate "should spotlight the precarious existence of domestic workers"




Jo Becker is the Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch and author of 'Campaigning for Justice: Human Rights Advocacy in Practice.' Follow Jo Becker on Twitter.


(CNN) -- Rizana Nafeek was a child herself -- 17 years old, according to her birth certificate -- when a four-month-old baby died in her care in Saudi Arabia. She had migrated from Sri Lanka only weeks earlier to be a domestic worker for a Saudi family.


Although Rizana said the baby died in a choking accident, Saudi courts convicted her of murder and sentenced her to death. On Wednesday, the Saudi government carried out the sentence in a gruesome fashion, by beheading Rizana.



Jo Becker

Jo Becker



Read more: Outrage over beheading of Sri Lankan woman by Saudi Arabia


Rizana's case was rife with problems from the beginning. A recruitment agency in Sri Lanka knew she was legally too young to migrate, but she had falsified papers to say she was 23. After the baby died, Rizana gave a confession that she said was made under duress -- she later retracted it. She had no lawyer to defend her until after she was sentenced to death and no competent interpreter during her trial. Her sentence violated international law, which prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed before age 18.


Rizana's fate should arouse international outrage. But it should also spotlight the precarious existence of other domestic workers. At least 1.5 million work in Saudi Arabia alone and more than 50 million -- mainly women and girls -- are employed worldwide according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).


Read more: Indonesian maid escapes execution in Saudi Arabia






Again according to the ILO, the number of domestic workers worldwide has grown by more than 50% since the mid-1990s. Many, like Rizana, seek employment in foreign countries where they may be unfamiliar with the language and legal system and have few rights.


When Rizana traveled to Saudi Arabia, for example, she may not have known that many Saudi employers confiscate domestic workers' passports and confine them inside their home, cutting them off from the outside world and sources of help.


It is unlikely that anyone ever told her about Saudi Arabia's flawed criminal justice system or that while many domestic workers find kind employers who treat them well, others are forced to work for months or even years without pay and subjected to physical or sexual abuse.




Passport photo of Rizana Nafeek



Read more: Saudi woman beheaded for 'witchcraft and sorcery'


Conditions for migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia are among some of the worst, but domestic workers in other countries rarely enjoy the same rights as other workers. In a new report this week, the International Labour Organization says that nearly 30% of the world's domestic workers are completely excluded from national labor laws. They typically earn only 40% of the average wage of other workers. Forty-five percent aren't even entitled by law to a weekly day off.


Last year, I interviewed young girls in Morocco who worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for a fraction of the minimum wage. One girl began working at age 12 and told me: "I don't mind working, but to be beaten and not to have enough food, this is the hardest part."


Many governments have finally begun to recognize the risks and exploitation domestic workers face. During 2012, dozens of countries took action to strengthen protections for domestic workers. Thailand, and Singapore approved measures to give domestic workers a weekly day off, while Venezuela and the Philippines adopted broad laws for domestic workers ensuring a minimum wage, paid holidays, and limits to their working hours. Brazil is amending its constitution to state that domestic workers have all the same rights as other workers. Bahrain codified access to mediation of labor disputes.


Read more: Convicted killer beheaded, put on display in Saudi Arabia


Perhaps most significantly, eight countries acted in 2012 to ratify -- and therefore be legally bound by -- the Domestic Workers Convention, with more poised to follow suit this year. The convention is a groundbreaking treaty adopted in 2011 to guarantee domestic workers the same protections available to other workers, including weekly days off, effective complaints procedures and protection from violence.


The Convention also has specific protections for domestic workers under the age of 18 and provisions for regulating and monitoring recruitment agencies. All governments should ratify the convention.


Many reforms are needed to prevent another tragic case like that of Rizana Nafeek. The obvious one is for Saudi Arabia to stop its use of the death penalty and end its outlier status as one of only three countries worldwide to execute people for crimes committed while a child.


Labor reforms are also critically important. They may have prevented the recruitment of a 17 year old for migration abroad in the first place. And they can protect millions of other domestic workers who labor with precariously few guarantees for their safety and rights.


Read more: Malala, others on front lines in fight for women


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jo Becker.






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Judge OKs exhumation of body of lottery winner













Exhumation approved


Meraj Khan, the sister of Urooj Khan, leaves court today after Judge Susan Coleman gave a quick OK to exhume her brother's body at Rosehill Cemetery on Chicago's North Side.
(Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / January 11, 2013)





















































A Cook County probate judge gave the go-ahead today to exhume the body of a million-dollar lottery winner who died of cyanide poisoning.

Judge Susan Coleman gave a quick OK to the request by the medical examiner’s office, saying no one had objected to exhuming Urooj Khan’s body at Rosehill Cemetery on Chicago’s North Side.

Khan’s death is being investigated as a homicide after comprehensive toxicological tests showed he had lethal levels of cyanide in his blood.


Court papers said the body was not embalmed, leading prosecutors to indicate that it was “critical” to arrange for the remains to be exhumed as soon as possible.

In an affidavit, Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina said it was necessary to do a full autopsy to “further confirm the results of the blood analysis as well as to rule out any other natural causes that might have contributed to or caused Mr. Khan’s death.”


jmeisner@tribune.com







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Syria rebels seize base as envoy holds talks


BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) - Rebels seized control of one of Syria's largest helicopter bases on Friday, opposition sources said, in their first capture of a military airfield used by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.


Fighting raged across the country as international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi sought a political solution to Syria's civil war, meeting senior U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva.


But the two world powers are still deadlocked over Assad's fate in any transition.


The United States, which backs the 21-month-old revolt, says Assad can play no future role, while Syria's main arms supplier Russia said before the talks that his exit should not be a precondition for negotiations.


Syria is mired in bloodshed that has cost more than 60,000 lives and displaced millions of people. Severe winter weather is compounding their misery. The U.N. children's agency UNICEF says more than 2 million children are struggling to stay warm.


The capture of Taftanaz air base, after months of sporadic fighting, could help rebels solidify their hold on northern Syria, according to Rami Abdelrahman, head of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


TACTICAL, NOT STRATEGIC GAIN


But Yezid Sayigh, at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said it was not a game-changer, noting that it had taken months for the rebels to overrun a base whose usefulness to the military was already compromised by the clashes around it.


"This is a tactical rather than a strategic gain," he said.


In Geneva, U.N.-Arab League envoy Brahimi's closed-door talks began with individual meetings with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. He later held talks with both sides together.


A U.S. official said negotiations would focus on "creating the conditions to advance a political solution - specifically a transitional governing body".


Six months ago, world powers meeting in Geneva proposed a transitional government but left open Assad's role. Brahimi told Reuters on Wednesday that the Syrian leader could play no part in such a transition and suggested it was time he quit.


Responding a day later, Syria's foreign ministry berated the veteran Algerian diplomat as "flagrantly biased toward those who are conspiring against Syria and its people".


Russia has argued that outside powers should not decide who should take part in any transitional government.


"Only the Syrians themselves can agree on a model or the further development of their country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.


REFUGEE MISERY


But Syrians seem too divided for any such agreement.


The umbrella opposition group abroad, the Syrian National Coalition, said on Friday it had proposed a transition plan that would kept government institutions intact at a meeting with diplomats in London this week. But the plan has received no public endorsement from the opposition's foreign backers.


With no end to fighting in sight, the misery of Syrian civilians has rapidly increased, especially with the advent of some of the worst winter conditions in years.


Saudi Arabia said it would send $10 million worth of aid to help Syrian refugees in Jordan, where torrential rain has flooded hundreds of tents in the Zaatari refugee camp.


A fierce storm that swept the region has raised concerns for 600,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries, as well as more than 2.5 million displaced inside Syria, many of whom live in flimsy tents at unofficial border camps.


Opposition activists report dozens of weather-related deaths in Syria in the last four days. UNICEF said refugee children are at risk because conditions have hampered access to services.


Earlier this week, another United Nations agency said around one million Syrians were going hungry. The World Food Programme cited difficulties entering conflict zones and said that the few government-approved aid agencies allowed to distribute aid were stretched to the limit.


The WFP said it supplying rations to about 1.5 million people in Syria each month, far short of the 2.5 million deemed to be in need.


(Additional reporting by Alexander Dzsiadosz in Beirut and Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi; Editing by Alistair Lyon)



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Wall Street slightly higher on China data; S&P near resistance level

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks inched higher on Thursday, helped by stronger-than-expected exports in China, the world's second-biggest economy, but gains were capped as the S&P 500 hovered near a 5-year high.


Financial and telecommunications stocks were the day's top gainers, while the material sector was the biggest drag. The S&P 500 material sector index <.gspm> was off 0.3 percent. The financial sector index <.gspf> rose 0.6 percent and the telecom sector <.gspl> was up 0.5 percent.


The benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index was near a five-year closing high of 1,466.47. On Friday, the index had ended at the highest close since December 2007.


"The market is technically right at the level of resistance, near 1,465-1,467. A solid breakthrough above the level would be the start of a next leg higher, but it looks like it is going to be difficult to break above that level for now," said Randy Frederick, managing director of active trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab. He cited concerns about the earnings season and upcoming debt ceiling talks.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 9.84 points, or 0.07 percent, at 13,400.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 2.55 points, or 0.17 percent, at 1,463.57. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 2.01 points, or 0.06 percent, at 3,103.80.


In company news, shares of upscale jeweler Tiffany dropped 3.6 percent to $60.98 after it said earnings for the year through January 31 will be at the lower end of its forecast.


U.S.-traded Nokia shares jumped 17.3 percent to $4.40 after the Finnish handset maker said its fourth-quarter results were better than expected and that the mobile phone business achieved underlying profitability.


Herbalife Ltd stepped up its defense against activist investor Bill Ackman, stressing it was a legitimate company with a mission to improve nutrition and help public health. The stock was up 1.4 percent to $40.47.


Data showed China's export growth rebounded sharply to a seven-month high in December, a strong finish to the year after seven straight quarters of slowdown, even as demand from Europe and the United States remained subdued.


In the U.S., claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, though seasonal volatility made it difficult to get a clear picture of the labor market's health.


Also, U.S. wholesale inventories rose more than expected in November and sales rose by the most in more than 1-1/2 years. The market's reaction to both reports was muted.


(Reporting By Angela Moon; Editing by Nick Zieminski)



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Jaguars fire Mularkey after team's worst season


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Jacksonville Jaguars fired coach Mike Mularkey on Thursday after just one season, the worst in franchise history.


New general manager David Caldwell made the announcement two days after he was hired, giving him a clean slate heading into 2013. Caldwell said he wants to immediately explore every avenue possible to turn the Jaguars around.


"For that to happen as seamlessly as we want, and as quickly as our fans deserve, I feel it is in everyone's best interests for an immediate and clean restart," Caldwell said.


Mularkey, who went 2-14 this season, became the eighth head coach fired since the end of the regular season. He looked like he would be one and done when owner Shad Khan parted ways with general manager Gene Smith last week and gave Mularkey's assistants permission to seek other jobs. Even though Khan ultimately hired Mularkey, Smith directed the coaching search last January that started and ended with the former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator.


"Mike Mularkey is leaving our organization with my utmost respect," Khan said. "Mike gave the Jaguars everything he had on and off the field, and his efforts as our head coach will always be appreciated."


Mularkey's brief tenure — he didn't even last a year — was filled with mistakes. His biggest one may have been his loyalty to Smith, who assembled a roster that lacked talent on both sides of the ball.


Mularkey probably stuck with Smith's franchise quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, longer than he should have. And the coach's insistence that the team was closer than outsiders thought and his strong stance that he had the roster to turn things around became comical as the losses mounted. The Jaguars lost eight games by at least 16 points, a staggering number of lopsided losses in a parity-filled league.


Mularkey would have been better served had he said publicly what he voiced privately: that the Jaguars didn't have enough playmakers or a starting-caliber quarterback.


Instead, he never conceded that Jacksonville was a rebuilding project that needed time.


Mularkey signed a three-year contract on Jan. 11, 2012, getting a second chance to be a head coach six years after resigning with the Buffalo Bills.


His return was shaky from the start.


His best player, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, skipped offseason workouts as well as training camp and the preseason in a contract dispute. His first draft pick, receiver Justin Blackmon, was arrested and charged with aggravated DUI in June. And his team was riddled with injuries, including key ones to linebacker Daryl Smith and Jones-Drew.


Even things he had control over went awry.


He had to backtrack after saying Chad Henne would compete with Gabbert for the starting job in March. He created a stir by threatening to fine players up to $10,000 for discussing injuries. He initially played rookie receiver Kevin Elliott over Cecil Shorts III early on. And he really irked some players with tough, padded practices late in a lost season.


Throw in the way he handled injuries to receiver Laurent Robinson (four concussions before going on IR) and Jones-Drew (admittedly should have had foot surgery sooner), and there were reasons to doubt whether Mularkey was cut out to be a head coach. Dating back to his final season in Buffalo, Mularkey has lost 20 of his last 23 games.


Nonetheless, if Khan really wanted to fire Mularkey, he would have done after the season finale along with Smith.


So this was Caldwell's call.


Caldwell and Mularkey spent four years together in Atlanta, getting to know each other well enough that Caldwell didn't need a sit down with Mularkey after he got the GM job Tuesday.


Caldwell and Khan have a news conference scheduled for Thursday afternoon.


Potential replacements for Mularkey include former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman.


Schottenheimer was up for the Jacksonville job last season, and Roman has been linked to the Jaguars since Caldwell became the leading candidate to replace Smith.


Roman and Caldwell were teammates and roommates in the 1990's while attending John Carroll University.


___


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Deadliest Space Weather: New Series Premieres on The Weather Channel






Some of the universe’s most extreme tempests, cyclones and rainstorms are visualized in stunning form in a new series premiering this week on The Weather Channel.


“Deadliest Space Weather,” a six-part series, begins Thursday (Jan. 10) at 9 p.m. EST (8 p.m. CST).






The series investigates wild weather systems throughout our solar system, such as violent winds on Saturn, dust storms on Mars, and acid rain on Venus that could eat through steel. One planet has lightning bolts 10,000 times more powerful than any on Earth.


A preview clip of the series details Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the largest storm in the solar system, where winds can reach 400 miles per hour (640 kilometers per hour).


What would happen if such a storm were to arise on Earth, where no hurricane has ever had winds surpassing 200 mph (320 kph)?


“Hurricanes on Earth already do extensive damage,” University of California, Berkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko says in the series. “Well, think of one with 400-mile-an-hour winds. If you double the speed, that’s actually four times the energy of these swirling particles. It would really cause a lot of damage.”


That kind of tempest would qualify as a Category 20 hurricane on Earth, experts said.


Each week, the show will profile another amazing instance of jaw-dropping space weather, and then describe, in terrifying detail, what such climatic tantrums could do on our own planet.


“Exploring these unique weather phenomena in our solar system is a fascinating journey, but one understands the true magnitude of these galactic storms so much more when they are theoretically placed into the familiar context of life on Earth,” Michael Dingley, senior vice president of content and development at The Weather Channel, said in a statement.


Follow Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+


Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Weather News Headlines – Yahoo! News





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'Lincoln' leads Academy Award contenders with 12 nominations








With a conspicuous diss of Kathryn Bigelow, the un-nominated director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Academy Awards nominations were announced Thursday morning.


“Zero Dark Thirty” was one of nine films given the best picture nomination nod. The others: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”; “Silver Linings Playbook”; “Lincoln”; “Les Miserables”; “Life of Pi”; “Amour”; “Django Unchained”; and “Argo.” With 12 nominations total, director Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” led this year’s pack, unusually full of films that have reached a broad mainstream audience. “Life of Pi” came in with 11 nominations; “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Les Miserables” received eight.


The best actress Oscar nominees include the oldest-ever performer in that category (Emmanuelle Riva, 85, for “Amour”) as well as the youngest (Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”). They’ll compete for the Feb. 24 Oscars against Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”), Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) and Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”).






To the surprise of no one on this planet or any other, Daniel Day-Lewis led the best actor competition for “Lincoln.” His fellow nominees: Denzel Washington, “Flight”; Hugh Jackman, “Les Miserables”; Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook”; and in the year’s most unsettling performance, Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master.”


“Silver Linings Playbook” fared well, against some predictions, scoring a supporting actor nomination for Robert De Niro and a supporting actress nod for Jacki Weaver. Other supporting actors nominated include Christoph Waltz for “Django Unchained”; Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Master”; Alan Arkin, “Argo”; and Tommy Lee Jones,” Lincoln.” All have won Oscars before.


Along with Weaver, Sally Field received a supporting actress nomination, hers for “Lincoln.” The competition: Anne Hathaway, singing her guts out all the way to the podium on Feb. 24 (I’m guessing) for “Les Miserables”; Helen Hunt for “The Sessions” (more of a leading role, in fact); and Amy Adams as the Lady Macbeth of the action in “The Master.”


It’s a huge showing for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” whose director, Benh Zeitlin, goes toe to toe against his fellow directing nominees David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”), Michael Haneke (“Amour”) and Spielberg. Along with “Zero Dark Thirty” director Bigelow, “Argo” helmer Ben Affleck, widely expected to be nominated ... wasn’t.






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Syria denounces peace envoy who hinted Assad must go


BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria denounced international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as "flagrantly biased" on Thursday, casting doubt on how long the U.N.-Arab League mediator can pursue his peace mission.


The Syrian Foreign Ministry was responding to remarks by Brahimi a day earlier in which he ruled out a role for President Bashar al-Assad in a transitional government and effectively called for the Baathist leader to quit.


"In Syria...what people are saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long," Brahimi told the BBC, referring to Assad, who inherited his post from his father Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970 and ruled for 30 years.


"President Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it," the veteran Algerian diplomat said, hinting the Syrian leader should go.


The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it was very surprised at Brahimi's comments, which showed "he is flagrantly biased for those who are conspiring against Syria and its people".


The ministry later said it was nevertheless still willing to work with the envoy to find a political solution to the crisis.


Brahimi has had no more success than his predecessor Kofi Annan in his quest to resolve the 21-month-old conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed.


British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that violence in Syria might worsen and said the international community must "step up" its response if it does.


So far regional rivalries and divisions among big powers have stymied any concerted approach to the upheaval, one of the bloodiest to emerge from a series of revolts in the Arab world.


Russian and U.S. diplomats, who back opposing sides of the war, will meet Brahimi in Geneva on Friday.


Ahead of the meeting, Russia repeated its insistence that Assad must not be pushed from power by external forces and that his exit must not be a precondition for negotiations.


"Only the Syrians themselves can agree on a model or the further development of their country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.


"MASK OF IMPARTIALITY"


Syria's al-Watan newspaper said Brahimi had removed his "mask of impartiality" to reveal his true face as a "a tool for the implementation of the policy of some Western countries".


On Sunday Assad, making his first public speech in six months, offered no concessions and said he would never talk to foes he branded terrorists and Western puppets.


As peace efforts floundered, rebels battled for a strategic air base for a second day, pursuing a civil war that had briefly receded for some Damascus residents who set aside their differences to play in a rare snowfall that blanketed the city.


For a few hours, people in the capital dropped their weapons for snowballs and traded hatred for giggles.


"Last night, for the first time in months, I heard laughter instead of shelling. Even the security forces put down their guns and helped us make a snowman," Iman, a resident of the central Shaalan neighborhood, said by Skype.


There was no respite on other battlefronts, with heavy fighting around the Taftanaz base in northwestern Syria, which insurgents are trying to capture to extend their grip on Idlib province and weaken Assad's control of the skies.


Rebels assaulted the airport's main buildings and armory using heavy guns, tanks and other weapons and appeared to have overrun half the area of the base, said Rami Abdelrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group that monitors the conflict from abroad.


"Now, it's serious," he said.


The air base has been used to launch helicopter attacks in the region, and its loss would be a blow to the government's ability to defend its positions there, Abdelrahman said.


MISSILE LAUNCH


Insurgents have tried to take the base for months, but have been bolstered by the recent arrival of Islamist fighters including the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, he added.


There was no immediate government account of the fighting, which could not be confirmed independently.


Opposition forces have seized swathes of territory in northern Syria in recent months, but remain vulnerable to attack by the military's planes and helicopters - hence their strategy of trying to capture air bases such as the one at Taftanaz.


There was no word on whether the firing of a short-range ballistic missile inside Syria on Wednesday, reported by a NATO official, was linked to the fighting at Taftanaz.


NATO could not confirm the type of missile used, but the description fit the Scuds that are in the Syrian military's armory, the official added, describing the latest launch and similar ones last week as "reckless".


A NATO official said that since the start of December 2012, the alliance had detected at least 15 launches of unguided, short-range ballistic missile inside Syria.


Neither side has gained a clear military advantage in the war pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against security forces dominated by Assad's minority, Shi'ite-linked Alawite sect.


The Observatory also reported fighting between rebels and troops in the Sayyida Zeinab area of Damascus, and air raids were reported in the capital's Maleiha area and eastern suburbs.


Despite some support from Sunni regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebels remain largely disorganized, fragmented and ill-equipped. Poor discipline, looting and insecurity in some insurgent-held areas have also eroded their support from civilians.


Turf wars between rebel units and with Kurdish groups have also beleaguered the armed opposition. On Thursday, a senior Islamist commander was assassinated near the border with Turkey, Syrian rebels and political opposition sources said.


Thaer al-Waqqas, northern commander of al-Farouq Brigades, had been suspected of involvement in the killing four months ago of a member of al-Nusra Front.


He was shot dead at a rebel position in the town of Sermin, a few kilometers from Turkey, the sources said.


(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes, Mariam Karouny and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Jason Webb)



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Wall Street edges up after Alcoa beats revenue estimates

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged up on Wednesday after Alcoa got the earnings season under way with better-than-expected revenue and an encouraging outlook for the year.


The market's rise came after two-days of declines, with few catalysts to give direction and investors fretting about the start of earnings season after the prior quarter's lackluster performance.


Alcoa Inc said late on Tuesday it expects global demand for aluminum to grow in 2013, though the company expressed concern about the impact on business from a confrontation in Washington over the U.S. budget. Shares of Alcoa, the largest U.S. aluminum producer, were trading flat in early afternoon at around $9.12, after earlier trading higher.


Overall, corporate profits were expected to beat the previous quarter's meager 0.1 percent rise. Both earnings and revenues in the fourth quarter were expected to grow by 1.9 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.


But the lowered expectations leave room for companies to surprise investors even if their results are not particularly strong, analysts said.


The current quarter was shaping up like the previous one, with companies lowering expectations in recent weeks, said James Dailey, portfolio manager of TEAM Asset Strategy Fund in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.


"So the big question and focus is on revenue, and Alcoa had better-than-expected revenue," calming the market a little, Dailey said.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 56.44 points, or 0.42 percent, at 13,385.29. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 3.31 points, or 0.23 percent, at 1,460.46. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 11.50 points, or 0.37 percent, at 3,103.31.


Shares of Herbalife Ltd rose 3.5 percent to $39.70, following news that hedge fund manager Dan Loeb has taken a stake of more than 8 percent in the nutritional supplements seller, according to a regulatory filing. Herbalife has come under fire from prominent short-seller Bill Ackman, who has accused the company of being a "pyramid scheme," a charge it vehemently denies.


Facebook Inc shares rose above $30 per share for the first time since July, 2012. The social network sent out a media invitation on Tuesday saying, "Come and see what we're building." Facebook, which has been tight-lipped about its plans after its botched IPO in May, invited the media to its Menlo Park, California, campus on January 15.


Among other companies reporting earnings, Constellation Brands , whose labels include Robert Mondavi and Ravenswood wines, reported higher profit and raised its forecast. The stock was down 0.8 percent at $35.74.


Apollo Group Inc slid more than 11 percent after it reported lower student sign-ups for the third straight quarter and cut its operating profit outlook for 2013. Apollo's shares were last at $18.63.


(Reporting by Angela Moon; Editing by Kenneth Barry and Dan Grebler)



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AP Source: Surgery reveals damage to RG3's ACL


WASHINGTON (AP) — A person familiar with the situation says the surgery on Robert Griffin III's knee revealed damage to the ACL.


The Washington Redskins quarterback had surgery Wednesday morning to repair a torn lateral collateral ligament in his right knee. The procedure also examined Griffin's ACL, which he tore while playing for Baylor in 2009. Another torn ACL would complicate Griffin's chances of returning by the start of next season.


The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the Redskins had not made an announcement about the latest details surrounding the rookie quarterback's injury.


Griffin sprained the LCL last month and reinjured the knee in Sunday's playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.


___


Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP


___


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Giant squid captured on video in ocean depths






TOKYO (AP) — After years of searching, scientists and broadcasters say they have captured video images of a giant squid in its natural habitat deep in the ocean for the first time.


The three-meter (nine-foot) invertebrate was filmed from a manned submersible during one of 100 dives in the Pacific last summer in a joint expedition by Japanese public broadcaster NHK, Discovery Channel and Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science.






NHK released photographs of the giant squid this week ahead of Sunday’s show about the encounter. The Discovery Channel will air its program on Jan. 27.


The squid, which was inexplicably missing its two longest tentacles, was spotted in waters east of Chichi Island about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) south of Tokyo, NHK said. The crew followed it to a depth of 900 meters (2,950 feet).


Little is known about the creature because its harsh environment makes it difficult for scientists to conduct research. Specimens have washed ashore on beaches but never before have been filmed in their normal habitat deep in the ocean, researchers say.


Japanese zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera, who was on board the submersible at the time of the encounter, was able to lure the giant squid with a one-meter (three-foot) -long diamond squid.


All the lights from the submersible were turned off while they waited. At a depth of 640 meters (2,100 feet), the giant squid appeared and wrapped its arms around the bait, eating it for over 20 minutes before letting go.


“What we were able to gain from this experience was the moment of the giant squid attacking its prey — we were able record that,” said Kubodera, who has been researching the giant squid since 2002.


Other scientists involved in the expedition this summer, which logged 400 hours of dives, were American oceanographer and marine biologists Edith Widder and Steve O’Shea from New Zealand.


NHK said a high-definition camera was developed for the project that could operate deep in the ocean and used a special wavelength of light invisible to the giant squid’s sensitive eyes.


Kubodera said scientific research, technology and the right lure all came together to make the encounter possible, and that this case will shed more light on deep-sea creatures going forward.


After more than a decade of going out to sea in search of the giant squid, he relished the moment he came face-to-face with it.


“It appeared only once, out of 100 dives. So perhaps, after over 10 years of some kind of relationship I’ve built with the giant squids, I feel, perhaps, it was the squid that came to see me.”


___


Associated Press video journalist Emily Wang contributed to this report.


Science News Headlines – Yahoo! News





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Karzai's U.S. visit a time for tough talk




The last time Presidents Obama and Karzai met was in May in Kabul, when they signed a pact regarding U.S. troop withdrawal.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Afghan President Karzai meeting with President Obama in Washington this week

  • Felbab-Brown: Afghan politics are corrupt; army not ready for 2014 troop pullout

  • She says Taliban, insurgents, splintered army, corrupt officials are all jockeying for power

  • U.S. needs to commit to helping Afghan security, she says, and insist corruption be wiped out




Editor's note: Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book is "Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan."


(CNN) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai is meeting this week with President Obama in Washington amid increasing ambivalence in the United States about what to do about the war in Afghanistan.


Americans are tired of the war. Too much blood and treasure has been spent. The White House is grappling with troop numbers for 2013 and with the nature and scope of any U.S. mission after 2014. With the persisting corruption and poor governance of the Afghan government and Karzai's fear that the United States is preparing to abandon him, the relationship between Kabul and Washington has steadily deteriorated.


As the United States radically reduces its mission in Afghanistan, it will leave behind a stalled and perilous security situation and a likely severe economic downturn. Many Afghans expect a collapse into civil war, and few see their political system as legitimate.


Karzai and Obama face thorny issues such as the stalled negotiations with the Taliban. Recently, Kabul has persuaded Pakistan to release some Taliban prisoners to jump-start the negotiations, relegating the United States to the back seat. Much to the displeasure of the International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan government also plans to release several hundred Taliban-linked prisoners, although any real momentum in the negotiations is yet to take place.


U.S. may remove all triips from Afghanistan after 2014



Vanda Felbab-Brown

Vanda Felbab-Brown



Washington needs to be careful that negotiations are structured in a way that enhances Afghanistan's stability and is not merely a fig leaf for U.S. and NATO troop departure. Countering terrorism will be an important U.S. interest after 2014. The Taliban may have soured on al Qaeda, but fully breaking with the terror group is not in the Taliban's best interest. If negotiations give the insurgents de facto control of parts of the country, the Taliban will at best play it both ways: with the jihadists and with the United States.


Negotiations of a status-of-forces agreement after 2014 will also be on the table between Karzai and Obama. Immunity of U.S. soldiers from Afghan prosecution and control over detainees previously have been major sticking points, and any Afghan release of Taliban-linked prisoners will complicate that discussion.










Karzai has seemed determined to secure commitments from Washington to deliver military enablers until Afghan support forces have built up. The Afghan National Security Forces have improved but cannot function without international enablers -- in areas such as air support, medevac, intelligence and logistical assets and maintenance -- for several years to come. But Washington has signaled that it is contemplating very small troop levels after 2014, as low as 3,000. CNN reports that withdrawing all troops might even be considered.


Everyone is hedging their bets in light of the transition uncertainties and the real possibility of a major security meltdown after 2014. Afghan army commanders are leaking intelligence and weapons to insurgents; Afghan families are sending one son to join the army, one to the Taliban and one to the local warlord's militia.


With Afghan president's visit, nations' post-2014 future takes shape


Patronage networks pervade the Afghan forces, and a crucial question is whether they can avoid splintering along ethnic and patronage lines after 2014. If security forces do fall apart, the chances of Taliban control of large portions of the country and a civil war are much greater. Obama can use the summit to announce concrete measures -- such as providing enablers -- to demonstrate U.S. commitment to heading off a security meltdown. The United States and international security forces also need to strongly focus on countering the rifts within the Afghan army.


Assisting the Afghan army after 2014 is important. But even with better security, it is doubtful that Afghanistan can be stable without improvements in its government.


Afghanistan's political system is preoccupied with the 2014 elections. Corruption, serious crime, land theft and other usurpation of resources, nepotism, a lack of rule of law and exclusionary patronage networks afflict governance. Afghans crave accountability and justice and resent the current mafia-like rule. Whether the 2014 elections will usher in better leaders or trigger violent conflict is another huge question mark.


Emphasizing good governance, not sacrificing it to short-term military expediencies by embracing thuggish government officials, is as important as leaving Afghanistan in a measured and unrushed way -- one that doesn't jeopardize the fledgling institutional and security capacity that the country has managed to build up.


U.S. likely to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after NATO forces leave


Karzai has been deaf and blind to the reality that reducing corruption, improving governance and allowing for a more pluralistic political system are essential for Afghanistan's stability. His visit provides an opportunity to deliver the message again -- and strongly.


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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Vanda Felbab-Brown.






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