News briefs:May 27, 2010
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Today on Wikinews : As BP reports cautious optimism in it's "top kill" operation to stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the head of US Minerals Management Service resigns and Democratic Senator Mark Begich from Alaska says the Obama administration's moratorium on issuing drilling permits will result in higher costs for domestic oil and gas production. In other news, Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at Kennedy Space Center; the island nation of Vanuatu is hit by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and, in history, in 1884, Max Brod, friend of Franz Kafka, is born in Prague.
- audio credit NASA Multimedia Archive
Today is Thursday, May 27th, 2010. I'm Dan Harlow and this is Wikinews.
A US Coast Guard official said today that BP's latest effort to plug the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been successful in slowing the amount of oil leaking from the well. The official, Admiral Thad Allen, said that the procedure, known as a "top kill" operation, has been able to block some of the leaking oil at the source.
The operation involves pumping material into the well to plug the leak before cement is used to permanently seal the leak. Allen said the operation has "been able to force mud down and not allow any hydrocarbons to come up."
BP hasn't confirmed the success of the top kill operation, saying only that the "operation is proceeding as we planned it," and that there had been no major incidents thus far. Although the possibility of failure is still present, experts say that the longer the procedure continues, the less likely it will be that anything goes wrong.
The procedure began yesterday afternoon, after diagnostics on the damaged equipment on the ocean's surface indicated that it could withstand the added pressure of the mud being pumped into the well. Although engineers involved with the operation wore concerned that the pressure of the mud might not be able to overcome that of the oil, that has thus far not been the case.
Separately, a group of US scientists announced new estimates of how much oil was flowing from the well, ranging from 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day, far higher than BP's original estimate of 5,000 barrels a day, a figure which BP warned was possibly inaccurate.
In a press conference Thursday afternoon, US president Barack Obama also announced new measures in response to the spill, which include suspending off-shore test drilling for six months, extending the moratorium on issuing drilling permits for an additional six months, and canceling the sale of leases for off-shore drilling.
In statements, Obama criticized the "scandalously close relationship" between government officials and oil companies in the past, saying that the Mineral Management Service, which is the agency responsible for monitoring off-shore drilling, had been corrupt for years.
In lieu of the criticism of the Mineral Management Service,
after reports that US President Barack Obama had fired the director of the Minerals Management Service, Elizabeth "Liz" Birnbaum, the Interior Department revealed that she instead resigned "on her own volition". The resignation occurred amidst growing criticism of the federal government's response to the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and the agency's oversight over offshore drilling.
Birnbaum, who became director in June 2009, was expected to testify before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives today with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, however, she was not present when Salazar began to speak.
News agencies had reported that Birnbaum was forced out of office, and Obama was expected to officially announce the supposed firing later today in a news conference along with discussing an Interior Department report on the oil rig explosion. Birnbaum observed in her letter of resignation that Salazar "will be requiring three new leaders for the Office Natural Resources Revenue, the Bureau of Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement" as the entire Minerals Management Service is reorganized.
Not everyone was pleased with President Obama's decision to halt all new Arctic exploratory oil drilling applications until 2011, however.
Obama to suspend Arctic oil drilling (4:32) 
In a statement from Democratic Senator Mark Begich from Alaska, he said "I am frustrated that this decision by the Obama administration to halt offshore development for a year will cause more delays and higher costs for domestic oil and gas production to meet the nation's energy needs".
Last September, the state of Alaska made a public notice about Shell's desire to drill off the coast of the Beaufort Sea, placing experimental drilling rigs at two drill site locations and in a statement by Shell Oil Company President Marvin E. Odum to the U.S. Department of the Interior's Mineral Management Service, "Shell is committed to undertaking a safe and environmentally responsible exploration program ...".
Chuck Clausen, director of the Alaska project at the National Resources Defense Council is not so optimistic, stating, "Hazards present in the Arctic can include frigid temperatures, presence of sea ice, gale-force winds, intense storms and heavy fog ... The potential for loss in the Arctic is great."
Odum countered by saying that he believes the climate in the arctic will make any spill easier to clean up because "In Arctic conditions, ice can aid oil spill response by slowing oil weathering, dampening waves, preventing oil from spreading over large distances, and allowing more time to respond."
However, Clausen believes that there are no current systems to remove oil from icy ocean waters.
This is not the first time that President Obama's administration has taken the environmentally cautious path in Alaska. The President put Bristol Bay off limits to oil and gas exploration until 2017. Bristol Bay currently is one of the top salmon fishing grounds in the state.
- Music Credit Gnossienne No. 1
Following other major stories from around the world,
the island nation of Vanuatu, located 1,750 kilometers to the east of Australia, was hit by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake at 04:14 local time. In response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia, though "it is not known that a tsunami was generated".
The Vanuatu government Meteorological Office reported infrastructure cracks, and power outages, but does not foresee major damage and there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries according to reports by CNN reporters.
As scientists monitor the southern oceans,
Canadian researchers from C-crest Laboratories have discovered an "unusually high" amount of bacteria in bottled water. Researchers don't blame specific brands, but bottled water in general.
A random study found unusually high rates of heterotrophic bacteria in the bottled water. Heterotrophic bacteria are organisms that use organic carbon for growth by consuming other organisms. Legal limits set by United States Pharmacopeia on how much bacteria should be present in drinking water in Canada is set at no more than 500 colony-forming units, yet the unusually high amounts of bacteria were present in 70% of the test samples across several brands of bottled water.
Sonish Azam, a Canadian researcher involved in the study, stated that “this amount of bacteria is alarming, as if we are ingesting a cup of culture.” “Microbiologically speaking,” she continued, “tap water is purer than ... most bottled water. We didn't know this until we conducted the research.”
The bacteria are not very harmful to an average person, but many sensitive groups, such as the young, sick or elderly, could get sick from it. However, in a recent study by the World Health Organization, the concluding analyses was that "heterotrophic bacteria counts in drinking water are not a health concern to the general public,"
Moving on now to a part of the world where water in any form is scarce,
Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, has been sworn in to another term after winning the country's recent polls, which were largely boycotted by the opposition.
The inauguration ceremony, attended by multiple African leaders and two diplomats from the United Nations, was held earlier today. A reporter for the Al Jazeera news agency described the event as being primarily "a gathering of African leaders".
In his inauguration speech, al-Bashir said that there would be "no return to war" with southern Sudan, and said a referendum on southern independence would be held on time. Southern Sudan is to hold a ballot in January of next year on whether to secede from the rest of the country. The referendum is a key part of the 2005 peace deal that ended Sudan's north-south civil war.
al-Bashir was re-elected in April with 68% of the vote. Many opposition parties boycotted the election, accusing the president's party of having rigged the result.
The president is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, including allegations that he ordered mass murder, rape and torture in Darfur, where rebels have frequently clashed with the government; al-Bashir strongly denies the claims.
Another embattled politician, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich wants to restart jury selection in his corruption trial.
Blagojevich defense team wants to restart jury selection in Illinois corruption trial (10:33) 
His lawyers claim that the judge in his trial inappropriately dismissed hundreds of potential jurors without consulting any of the parties in the case. As the trial is likely to last for several months, US District Judge James Zagel had stated in a previous hearing that he would conduct a "hardship screening" process and dismiss those jurors he feels would be burdened by this duty.
The defense team, however, argues that it must be involved in such changes to the jury pool and claims that over 300 people may have been dismissed in this "unilateral" move. The lawyers are expected to request a redo of the selection process during a status hearing before Zagel on Thursday.
The trial is scheduled to begin on June 3. Blagojevich's lawyers have already filed a request with the US Supreme Court to delay the trial on different, constitutional grounds. Justice John Paul Stevens has given prosecutors until Friday to respond to that motion.
Art Linkletter, creator of the television show Kids Say the Darndest Things, died peacefully in his Los Angeles, California home Wednesday.
Linkletter was best known for his television broadcasting hits, Kids Say the Darndest Things, People Are Funny, The Art Linkletter Show, and House Party. Linkletter was also a famed author, compiling the quotes from Kids Say the Darndest Things into a best-selling book of the same name. Bill Cosby said of Linkletter that "because of Art ..., adults found themselves enjoying children."
Linkletter, originally known as Gordon Arthur Kelly, was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan before being adopted by the Linkletter family. Linkletter was predeceased by his daughter, Diane, who died from a fall from a sixth floor Hollywood apartment. He is survived by his wife, two other daughters, seven grandchildren, and numerous great grandchildren.
As the owner of Linkletter Enterprises, Linkletter also owned real estate in Australia and invested in oil wells.
As the American Space Shuttle program nears the end of operations by the close of this year, Space Shuttle Atlantis landed yesterday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, after 11 days, 18 hours and 4.8 million miles in space.
Atlantis lands at Kennedy Space Center (13:24) 
- Audio credit NASA Multimedia Archive
The mission, designated STS-132, carried the Russian-built Mini Research Module named Rassvet and an Integrated Cargo Carrier-Vertical Light Deployable (ICC-VLD) to the International Space Station, and featured three spacewalks, after docking with the station on the third day of her mission.
STS-132 was commanded by Kenneth Ham, piloted by Dominic A. Antonelli, and the four mission specialists were Garrett Reisman, Michael T. Good (who replaced Karen Nyberg due to a temporary medical condition), Stephen G. Bowen and Piers Sellers. This was at least the second time all of the crew had ridden aboard a previous shuttle mission and was Sellers's third trip to space.
This was Space Shuttle Atlantis' 32nd mission and its last, completing almost 25 years of service. Along with Atlantis, the Space Shuttles Endeavour and Discovery will also be retired in 2010 and the shuttles will be shown at museums around the country.
On this day in history (15:16) 
- Music Credit The Modest Blue Shawl
In 1884, Max Brod was born in Prague. Although he was a prolific writer in his own right, he is most famous as a friend, biographer, and literary executor of Franz Kafka.
Brod was a German speaking Jew who had studied law at the German Charles-Ferdinand University, graduating in 1907. By 1924 he was already an established writer and also worked as a critic.
In 1939, as the Nazis took over Prague, Brod and his wife Elsa fled to Palestine, settling in Tel Aviv, where he continued to write and worked as a dramaturg for the Israeli national theater for 30 years. When Elsa died in 1942, Brod was supported by his close companion Felix Weltsch, a friendship which had lasted 75 years from their days in Elementary school in Prague.
However, Brod's most famous friendship was with Franz Kafka, one of the most influential fiction writers of the early 20th century. Brod first met Kafka on October 23, 1902, when both were students at Charles University. Brod had been giving a lecture at the German students' hall on Arthur Schopenhaue when Kafka addressed him after the lecture and accompanied him home.
From then on, Brod and Kafka met frequently, often even daily, and remained close friends until Kafka's death in 1924. Kafka was a frequent guest in Brod's parents' house and it was here that he met his future girlfriend and fiancée Felice Bauer, a cousin of Brod's brother-in-law. Brod, Kafka and Brod's long time friend Felix Weltsch constituted the so-called "close Prague circle" of friends.
Unlike Kafka, Brod rapidly became a prolific, successful published writer. His first novel and fourth book overall, was published in 1908 when he was only 24, and was celebrated in Berlin literary circles as a masterpiece of expressionism.
During Kafka's lifetime, Brod tried repeatedly to reassure Kafka in rejecting his doubts about his own literary efforts, and Brod pushed Kafka to publish his work. Before even a line of Kafka's work had been published, Brod had already praised him as "the greatest poet of our time", ranking with Goethe or Tolstoy.
The two also tried, but failed, to arrange common literary projects but notwithstanding their inability to write in tandem, which stemmed from clashing literary and personal philosophies, they were able to publish one chapter from an attempted travelogue in May 1912, for which Kafka wrote the introduction.
On Kafka's death in 1924 Brod was the administrator of the estate and preserved his unpublished works from incineration despite what was stipulated in the will. He defended this course by saying that when Kafka asked him to burn his papers, he told him he would not carry out this wish, adding, "Franz should have appointed another executor if he had been absolutely and finally determined that his instructions should stand". When Brod fled Prague in 1939, he took with him a suitcase of Kafka's papers, some of which he later edited and published in 6 volumes of collected works.
In 1937 Brod wrote the first biography of Kafka, and he always resisted one-sided interpretation of Kafka, hating the term "Kafkaesque," arguing that it presented a picture of the man and his work contradicted by his own intimate knowledge.
On December 20, 1968, Brod died in Tel Aviv at the age of 84.
And those are the top headlines for Thursday, May 27th, 2010
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