Cat Flag’s Top News Stories Besides The Shutdown

The latest news about the federal government shutdown crisis is… there is no news. Republicans and Democrats are still divided on how to reopen the government and resolve the debt limit crisis.

Although the Washington impasse is gobbling up the biggest headlines right now, other news stories are continuing to break around the world as they always do. Rather than write another post about the debates in Washington, I have decided to focus today’s post on some of the other news stories that have caught my attention in the past week.

Kenyan authorities name Westgate Mall attackers

This CCTV image of the Westgate Mall attackers was posted on Al-Shabaab's Twitter feed.

This CCTV image of the Westgate Mall attackers was posted on Al-Shabaab’s Twitter feed.

When I last reported on the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya, authorities still did not know the identities of the terrorists who participated in the attack. On Monday, Kenyan authorities finally named the four deceased assailants whose bodies were found in the mall. They were identified as Omar Nabhan, a Kenyan and relative of a senior al-Qaeda operative; Somali-American Khattab al-Kene; Abu Barra al-Sudani from Sudan;  and a fourth man the authorities referred to only as “Umayr”. They also claimed there were two more attackers whose identities remain unknown: a deceased Somali woman whose body was found beside a gun turret, and a sixth terrorist who is believed to have escaped and is currently at large.

In addition to announcing the attackers’ identities, Kenyan authorities also released security-camera videos showing some scenes from the attack as it happened. Cleanup of the mall from the attack is underway, while al-Shabaab, the organization claiming responsibility for the attack, has vowed that more attacks against Kenya will follow.

Chinese authorities open experimental “Free Trade Zone” in Shanghai

The entrance to the new Shanghai "Free Trade Zone", under construction. The zone was officially opened September 30. Image from

The entrance to the new Shanghai “Free Trade Zone”, under construction. The zone was officially opened September 30. Image from

In 1980, as part of the “reform and opening up” policies of China’s then-new leader Deng Xiaoping, the city of Shenzhen near Hong Kong was turned into the first of what would be several “Special Economic Zones” where the Communist government would allow for foreign, capitalist businesses to set up shop and invest. These early experiments with capitalism proved an immense success, helping to build China into the economic power it is today.

In response to the global economic downturn, Chinese authorities are hoping that a new, updated version of that same experiment will be the economic boost that China needs. An 11-square-mile district in Shanghai, China’s most populous city, has now been turned into the “Shanghai Free Trade Zone” – an area designed to be even more business-friendly than the rest of the country, by reducing or even eliminating many of the restrictions and regulations on finance and banking that businesses must obey in the rest of China. Furthermore, while the rest of China has laws prohibiting foreigners from owning Chinese companies in “vital” industries such as shipping, medicine, or telecommunications, in the new Free Trade Zone, these restrictions won’t apply.

The goal, according to Chinese officials, is to promote innovation. Reduced restrictions and more Chinese collaboration with foreign investors, it is hoped, will open up opportunities for inventors and entrepreneurs. Already, some investors are looking forward to the opportunities that the zone brings. However, there are also plenty of skeptics who aren’t as sure that China is as committed to this experiment as they say they are. Even with the looser restrictions, there are still 1,000 areas that are listed as off-limits to foreign investors. Plus, it is still not entirely clear to what extent the new economic freedom will also include new political freedoms. There have been contradictory reports regarding whether or not people in the zone will have access to banned websites or video games – some reports say “yes”, some say “no”. As new and experimental as the Free Trade Zone is, perhaps we will simply have to wait to find out for sure.

Syria chemical weapons deal appears to be working, for now

UN chemical weapons inspectors escorted by Free Syrian Army fighters. Image by Bassam Khabieh for Reuters

UN chemical weapons inspectors escorted by Free Syrian Army fighters. Image by Bassam Khabieh for Reuters

When I last reported on the diplomatic complexities of Syria’s chemical weapons program and America’s response to it, President Obama was asking Congress to allow a military operation against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the weeks since, a surprise diplomatic deal was reached instead: Assad would voluntarily destroy his chemical weapons stockpile, with UN inspectors monitoring the destruction to ensure he keeps his word.

According to Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the UN agency responsible for enforcing the global ban on chemical weapons, the Syrian authorities have been cooperative and helpful. Inspectors are already on the ground in Syria, with a mandate to visit and take stock of all of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and manufacturing facilities by November 1. Meanwhile, Syria has to have a timetable for the destruction of its chemical arsenal by October 27. This is the first time weapons inspectors have had to perform their duties in an active war zone, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon fears the inspectors may be caught in the crossfire. To mitigate this risk, the inspectors will be joined by security and medical personnel who can respond quickly to a dangerous situation.

Space probe on mission to Jupiter will become fastest man-made object ever

An artist's depiction of the Juno spacecraft, built by NASA with help from the University of Iowa

An artist’s depiction of the Juno spacecraft, built by NASA with help from the University of Iowa

NASA may be closed, but its space probes are still carrying out their missions regardless of what is happening on Earth. NASA’s latest space probe on a mission to Jupiter, Juno, is soon set to pass by its home planet today in order to get a “gravity boost” on its trajectory. Using Earth’s gravity as a “slingshot”, it will speed away on its course to the gas giant at 25 miles per second. This will make it the fastest thing ever built by humans in history, far faster than a .50-caliber bullet (which only travels at a half-mile per second). As it passes by, it will take a few quick photos of the Earth and moon from “behind” (relative to the sun), allowing us to see the first glimpse at what we would look like to any Martian observers.

Even at its incredible speed, Juno won’t arrive at its destination until 2016. When it arrives, it will make a total off 33 orbits around Jupiter, taking measurements and making observations of the planet and its moons.

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