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As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta notes that the last of the 33,000 so-called surge troops who were added to the U.S. force in Afghanistan last year have now left the country, there's this interesting news:

Space Shuttle Endeavour Lands In California

Sep 20, 2012

The Space Shuttle Endeavour landed in the Mojave Desert today. In truth, tomorrow will be the spectacular day, when it flies across the California coast, and across the landmarks of San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it will find its new, permanent home at the California Science Center.

Still, the retired shuttle had a poignant day today, taking off from Houston, flying low through Austin and making a special flyover in Tucson, Arizona in honor of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whose husband Mark Kelly was in command during its last mission in May 2011.

According to a Senate investigations subcommittee, Microsoft Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and other multinational corporations took advantage of an ambiguous U.S. tax code to avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes.

Here's how Bloomberg wraps it up:

Back in July, The New York Times writer Jeremy Peters lifted the curtain on a common, but surprising, practice in Washington: In exchange for an interview, high-powered politicos demand the right to approve any quotes before they're published.

It's a practice used by the White House as well as the Romney campaign.

The allegations of physical and verbal abuse at U.S. Speedskating have a new twist: A coach allegedly directed a skater to tamper with the skates of a Canadian competitor at an international competition last year — and the skater complied.

Fifteen members of an Amish breakaway group in Ohio "have been found guilty of hate crimes by carrying out beard- and hair-cutting attacks against fellow Amish in a dispute over religious differences," The Associated Press reports.

According to the wire service, a jury today "also found the sect's leader, 66-year-old Samuel Mullet Sr., "guilty of planning the attacks last fall in eastern Ohio. ... They all face prison terms of 10 years or more."

The Obama administration continued walking a fine line today when describing the attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

"It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack," White House spokesman Jay Carney said aboard Air Force One, according to Reuters. "Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials. So, again, that's self-evident."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a bit of news during an appearance at the University of Colorado, yesterday. When she was asked a question about the issue of gay marriage, she smiled and declined to answer, the AP reports. She said the issue is likely to come up before the court, so she couldn't adress it.

"I think it's most likely that we will have that issue before the court toward the end of the current term," she said.

Pew: Religious Intolerance Is On The Rise Worldwide

Sep 20, 2012

Religious intolerance is on the rise worldwide, according to a new study from Pew's Forum on Religion and Public Life. The study finds that during the past year three-quarters of the world lived in countries with "high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion." That's five percent higher than a year earlier.

Perhaps the biggest jump, Pew reports, is the rise in countries the forum considers to put high or very high restrictions on religion. That number jumped from 31 percent in 2009 to to 37 percent in 2010.

This may be one of the last developments in the story of the "pepper spray cop" and what happened last November when University of California Davis Police Lt. John Pike infamously blasted some Occupy protesters who were blocking a campus road with some tear-inducing gas:

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a.k.a. Sam Bacile, made her look like a religious bigot by "having hateful words put in her mouth" when he dubbed a new soundtrack into the anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims that has sparked violence and protests around the Muslim world, one of the actresses in the video charges.

Southwestern Colorado's 4,700-acre Chimney Rock Archaeological Area will on Friday be designated a national monument, according to Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

The designation, which President Obama will approve and that has bipartisan support, will help preserve the site.

Cecilia Giménez, the Spanish woman who really messed up when she tried to restore a 19th-century fresco of Jesus, now wants a piece of the action from the 2,000 or so euros ($2,600) her church has collected from tourists coming to see the ruined artwork.

There were 382,000 first-time claims for unemployment benefits last week, down by just 3,000 from the week before, the Employment and Training Administration says.

Meanwhile, "the 4-week moving average was 377,750, an increase of 2,000 from the previous week's revised average of 375,750." That figure offers a slightly better look at the trend.

Iran's Mehr news agency says a Muslim cleric in the northern province of Semnan claims he was recently knocked to the ground and kicked by a woman who apparently had had enough of his criticism about how she was dressed.

Bloomberg News writes that:

Good morning, here are our early stories:

Pakistani Students Burst Barricades In Latest Protest Linked To Anti-Islam Video.

And here are more morning headlines:

Syrian Group Files Complaint Against French Paper's Muhammad Cartoons. (BBC)

(We retopped this post at 8 a.m. ET.)

Though fresh data from the Census Bureau show that the number of Americans living in poverty edged higher in 2011, its latest American Community Survey also signals that after a Great Recession and a painfully slow recovery the U.S. economy may finally be bottoming out.

The Associated Press leads its report on the news this way:

Plans that would allow John Hinckley to leave a mental institution and go live with his mother are on hold. His doctors say the man who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan is well enough to deserve more freedom.

But a key part of the treatment plan is now up in the air.

Therapists in Virginia, near the home of John Hinckley's elderly mother, say they want to withdraw from a plan to treat him several days a week.

Hinckley's longtime defense lawyers say they want to quit too, because they're not getting paid any more.

You thought this happened only to Homer Simpson.

But, no, it happened in real life to oilfield workers in Texas: During the course of their work, they lost a radioactive rod. That's the story our friends at State Impact Texas are telling this afternoon.

We'll let you click over to get the full story about how even the National Guard has been enlisted, but here are the basics:

The big names on the Internet are forming a new lobbying group they hope will influence lawmakers when it comes to privacy and piracy.

The Washington Post reports that Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook and 10 other Web companies formed the Internet Association to counter any efforts to issue new rules for their industry.

The Post adds:

The abuse allegations against U.S. Olympic short track speedskating coach Jae Su Chun have escalated with a demand for arbitration and an "open and ongoing investigation" by police.

But while a large group of skaters charge Chun with abuse, another set has issued a statement in support of the coach.

Introducing A New Commenting System

Sep 19, 2012

As many of you have no doubt noticed, within the past few hours our technology team has introduced a brand-new commenting system.

The transition should be painless — meaning that there is nothing to do on your end to continue participating in the comments.

The good news is that this new system allows for many modern amenities the other system lacked. Those include: Threaded comments and the ability to use HTML formatting. The new system also allows you to delete your own comments.

Chicago Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno, who led the opposition in his city to the opening of a Chick-fil-A restaurant there because of company President Dan Cathy's outspoken stand against same-sex marriage, now says he won't stand in the fast-food chain's way.

Update at 2:01 p.m. ET. 14 U.S. Officials Cited For Possible Discipline:

The Justice Department's Inspector General has released the results of an investigation into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosive's failed gun-walking operation known as "Fast and Furious."

Tens of thousands of students are back in school this morning in Chicago.

As we told you yesterday, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to end the seven-day walkout. This morning, reports The Chicago Sun-Times, everyone was excited to get back to normal — the teachers, the students and even the mayor.

The Sun-Times reports:

There's no rest for the undead, it seems.

Zombies have been used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help spread tips about preparing for natural disasters. They've been "studied" by Canadian researchers trying to figure out the best way to respond to new, highly infectious diseases.

Hearing about the 18-inning, 5 hours and 44 minutes-long game between the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners that stretched from last night into today set us off in search of news about Major League Baseball's longest games.

Space shuttle Endeavour has taken off on its farewell tour across the country.

The third of the retired fleet of four to head off to a retirement home, Endeavour is being ferried from Florida to Los Angeles — with a stop on the way in Houston. It is perched atop a 747.