Chatter: Syrian government bombs playground, say activists




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Need to know:
Just when you thought the tales of horror from Syria couldn't get any worse – they have. Activists say up to 10 children are dead after the government bombed their playground.

A warplane dropped a pair of cluster bombs on the village of Deir al-Asafir, just east of Damascus, the activists report. Unverified YouTube videos purport to show the aftermath: children's bloodied bodies lying in the street, their grieving parents standing over them.

The Syrian army has previously denied using or even having cluster bombs, which are banned by the UN as weapons virtually guaranteed to harm civilians. This latest report is one of many that suggests the army is lying.

Want to know:
Egypt's president – or pharaoh, as his critics call him – is due to meet the country's top judges today, in a bid to relieve the crisis over his self-proclaimed new powers.

Egyptian lawyers and judges have accused President Mohammed Morsi of waging an unprecedented attack on the judiciary by issuing a decree that effectively insulates his decisions from any legal challenges. So outraged was the Judges' Club that it called a strike in all Egyptian courtrooms throughout the weekend.

Morsi will holds talks with members of the top judicial body, the Supreme Judicial Council, later today. Amid violent nationwide protests and a tumbling stock market, the president knows he has to defuse tensions. Yesterday he assured that the decree was not designed to concentrate power in his hands, and in any case, was only temporary; whether Egypt believes him, we shall see.

Dull but important:
The UN's latest conference on climate change opened this morning in Qatar.

Wait, Qatar? Yes, really. The country famous for its gas and oil reserves – which have given it not only wealth but some of the highest per-capita carbon emissions of any nation in the world – is hosting talks about how to, um, limit carbon emissions. The irony has been compared to "McDonald's hosting a conference on obesity."

All we can hope is that the Qataris – and all the other offenders, who are certainly numerous – will promise to do better. Someone has to, and quick: a fund to help developing countries fight climate change runs out this year, as does the Kyoto Protocol, the only current treaty that legally binds industrialized countries (the 30 that have signed it, anyway) to cutting their CO2 output.

Just because:
Farewell then, Ehud Barak: Israel's defense minister is quitting politics.

Barak has unexpectedly announced that he will not run in general elections in January, in order to do what every retired politician does: spend more time with his family. He will remain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's defense minister until the new government is formed.

Barak has chosen to end his 50-year career in the military and politics days after Operation Pillar of Defense secured "victory" for Israel – so it says – against Hamas. But Israel's Enemy No. 1, as Barak and Netanyahu have consistently portrayed Iran and its nuclear program, remains unfettered – and some are already speculating that Barak will be back, in an unelected role, to deal with it.

Strange but true:
Fear not, world: nuclear proliferation and global warming are worrying and all, but when it comes to the really scary stuff like, I dunno, human-hating robots, Britain's top brains have got your back.

The University of Cambridge plans to open a new department dedicated to "the four greatest threats to mankind"; so climate change and nuclear war, sure, but also rogue biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

"We need to take seriously the possibility that there might be a 'Pandora's box' moment with [artificial general intelligence] that, if missed, could be disastrous," warns fretful Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price.

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk – or, as it has already been nicknamed, the Terminator Center – opens next year. No one tell the cyborgs we're onto them.