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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Video Offers Glimpse of Syria’s War Through the Eyes of Iranian Military Advisers

Iranian military advisers have reportedly been operating in Syria for some time, training forces loyal to Iran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad. Until this week, however, there was little tangible evidence of their presence. That changed when Syrian rebels overran troops trained by Persian-speaking advisers and captured what looks like footage of the Iranians recorded by a cameraman embedded with their unit.

In a report based on the footage broadcast Friday on NOS, the Dutch television network, one of the advisers could be seen on camera denying that “the Syrian army is at war with the people.” The war in Syria, he explained, “is that of Islam versus the nonbelievers. Good versus evil.”

A Dutch television report, with English subtitles, on Iranian military advisers in Syria, produced by Roozbeh Kaboly for the program “Nieuwsuur.”

The adviser went on to describe the Iranian role in a proxy war in Syria drawing fighters and support from many other countries. “This front is supported by Hezbollah. The fighters are Iranians, Hezbollah, the Iraqi and Afghan Mujahideen and others. The opponents are Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar… funded by the Emirates, plus America, England, France and Europe.”

Roozbeh Kaboly, a producer for the NOS program “Nieuwsuur,” told The Lede that he had obtained the footage from a Syrian rebel brigade that claimed to have captured the video after killing a number of Iranian advisers in battle last month. (The brigade made the same claim in an interview with Al Jazeera.) The footage, which is of high quality and includes interviews, seems to have been recorded for an unfinished documentary on a group of Iranians advising a pro-government militia outside Aleppo.

In addition to an earlier NOS report, the footage of the Iranian advisers was also included in broadcasts by Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera English, and the BBC. More of the raw footage of the advisers was also uploaded to the YouTube channel of the rebel brigade that provided it to the broadcasters. Access to those clips was later restricted, but the footage was copied and made available by the British blogger Eliot Higgins, who writes as @Brown_Moses on Twitter.

Copies of six video clips showing Iranian military advisers in Syria, originally uploaded to the YouTube channel of a Syrian rebel brigade and then duplicated by Eliot Higgins, a British blogger who writes as Brown Moses.

Government-imposed restrictions on independent reporting imposed by the Syrian government, and the dangers of the battlefield, make it difficult to independently verify rebel claims about the footage, but several pieces of evidence suggest that it is authentic. Some of the footage does show the advisers and the cameraman coming under attack and video posted on YouTube by the rebel brigade that provided the footage of the Iranians to the media seems to show them fighting late last month in a similar-looking location.

Video posted online by Syrian rebels, said to show Iranian military advisers and Syrian fighters under attack outside Aleppo last month.

In addition, Mr. Kaboly drew The Lede’s attention to a report in the Iranian media that showed mourners in Iran attending the funeral of the adviser featured in the footage discussing his work in Syria.

A screenshot from an Iranian news site showed the funeral of an Iranian military adviser killed in Syria last month. A screenshot from an Iranian news site showed the funeral of an Iranian military adviser killed in Syria last month.

As an analysis of the footage from the site EA Worldview notes, some reports in Iran described the adviser featured in the footage as a documentary filmmaker, and another man, also described as an Iranian filmmaker working in Syria was reportedly killed at about the same time.

Helicopters Rescue Schoolchildren in Colorado Floods

In this video from the National Guard, a Ch-47 Chinook helicopter from the Second Battalion, Fourth Aviation Regiment out of Fort Carson, Colo., picked up children near Jamestown who were stranded after attending an outdoor environmental program.

Eighty-five Colorado schoolchildren and 14 adults, trapped while attending an environmental camp program in a mountain town cut off by floodwater, were among the hundreds of people evacuated by helicopter this weekend in the aftermath of the state’s worst flooding in years.

Lt. Col. Mitch Utterback with the Colorado National Guard told reporters that it might have been the first time since Hurricane Katrina that so many people needed to be airlifted to safety. Since Thursday, the flooding has killed at least four people, washed away roads and homes, and caused widespread devastation across Boulder, Larimer and Weld Counties, north of Denver.

On Sunday, officials announced that President Obama had approved federal disaster aid as rescue efforts continued for hundreds of people who were still unaccounted for, meaning that family or friends had not been able to contact them.

Colonel Utterback said Saturday that helicopter crews, grounded on the first day of severe flooding because of heavy rain, had been working around the clock. There is concern that heavy rains on Sunday could again halt helicopter rescue efforts.

Lt. Col. Mitch Utterback with the Colorado National Guard giving an update on rescue operations via ABC’s Channel 7 News in Denver.
In Boulder County, video from the National Guard showing rescue efforts in Lyons.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and other elected officials who were aboard a National Guard helicopter, conducting an aerial survey of the flood damage, rescued people they saw waving for help on Highway 34, near Rocky Mountain National Park. The governor posted on Twitter about picking up four people, a dog and a cat â€" and then two others.

In Jamestown, 150 people were airlifted to safety, in addition to the fifth-graders and chaperones from Fireside Elementary School in Louisville, Colo., about 10 miles south of Boulder.

The students were attending a program on Thursday at the Cal-Wood Education Center when rising waters from heavy rain destroyed bridges and roads in the area. They were transported by helicopters to Boulder Municipal Airport and then bused to their school where parents, friends and family were waiting.

Dustin Sagrillo, 34, one of the stranded parent volunteers, told the Boulder Daily Camera that parents cooked food and led activities with the children while another group shoveled trenches and cleared debris.

“The kids were having fun either way,” he said.

School and camp officials kept parents updated throughout the ordeal on the school’s Web site and on Facebook.

Other schoolchildren attending a program at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, were also stranded. They were rescued by a caravan of vehicles that traveled through the national park, over Trail Ridge Road, because other roads into Estes Park had been washed away, according to news report from ABC’s Channel 7 on the rescue efforts and the reunion between parents and children.

Students from Pine Grove Elementary School in Parker, attending a program near Rocky Mountain National Park, were rescued by a caravan that traveled across Trail Ridge Road.

Minecraft, an Obsession and an Educational Tool

If you were to walk into my sister’s house in Los Angeles, you’d hear a bit of yelling from time to time. “Luca! Get off Minecraft! Luca, are you on Minecraft again? Luca! Enough with the Minecraft!”

Luca is my 8-year-old nephew. Like millions of other children his age, Luca is obsessed with the video game Minecraft. Actually, obsessed might be an understated way to explain a child’s idée fixe with the game. And my sister, whom you’ve probably guessed is the person doing all that yelling, is a typical parent of a typical Minecraft-playing child: she’s worried it might be rotting his brain.

Fro those who have never played Minecraft, it’s relatively simple. The game looks a bit crude because it doesn’t have realistic graphics. Instead, it’s built in eight-bit, a computer term that means the graphics look blocky, like giant, digital Lego pieces.

Unlike other video games, there are few if any instructions in Minecraft. Instead, like the name suggests, the goal of the game is to craft, or build, structures in these eight-bit worlds, and figuring things out on your own is a big part of it. And parents, it’s not terribly violent. Sure, you can kill a few zombies while playing in the game’s “survival mode.” But in its “creative mode,” Minecraft is about building, exploration, creativity and even collaboration.

The game was first demonstrated by Markus Persson, a Swedish video game programmer and designer known as Notch, in 2009 and released to the public in November 2011. Today, the game runs on various devices, including desktop computers, Google Android smartphones, Apple iOS and the Microsoft Xbox. There are thousands of mods, or modifications, for the game, that allow people to play in prebuilt worlds, like a replica of Paris (Eiffel Tower included) or an ancient Mayan civilization.

While parents â€" my sister included â€" might worry that all these pixels and the occasional zombie might be bad for children, a lot of experts say they shouldn’t fret.

Earlier this year, for example, a school in Stockholm made Minecraft compulsory for 13-year-old students. “They learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future,” said Monica Ekman, a teacher at the Viktor Rydberg school.

Around the world, Minecraft is being used to educate children on everything from science to city planning to speaking a new language, said Joel Levin, co-founder and education director at the company TeacherGaming. TeacherGaming runs MinecraftEdu, which is intended to help teachers use the game with students.

A history teacher in Australia set up “quest missions” where students can wander through and explore ancient worlds. An English-language teacher in Denmark told children they could play Minecraft collectively in the classroom but with one caveat: they were allowed to communicate both orally and through text only in English. A science teacher in California has set up experiments in Minecraft to teach students about gravity.

Mr. Levin said that in addition to classroom exercises, children were learning the digital skills they would need as they got older.

“Kids are getting into middle school and high school and having some ugly experiences on Facebook and other social networks without an understanding of how to interact with people online,” he said. “With Minecraft, they are developing that understanding at a very early age.”

While there are no known neuroscience studies of Minecraft’s effect on children’s brains, research has shown video games can have a positive impact on children.

A study by S.R.I. International, a Silicon Valley research group that specializes in technology, found that game-based play could raise cognitive learning for students by as much as 12 percent and improve hand-eye coordination, problem-solving ability and memory.

Games like Minecraft also encourage what researchers call “parallel play,” where children are engrossed in their game but are still connected through a server or are sharing the same screen. And children who play games could even become better doctors. No joke. Neuroscientists performed a study at Iowa State University that found that surgeons performed better, and were more accurate on the operating table, when they regularly played video games.

“Minecraft extends kids’ spatial reasoning skills, construction skills and understanding of planning,” said Eric Klopfer, a professor and the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Scheller Teacher Education Program. “In many ways, it’s like a digital version of Lego.”

Professor Klopfer suggested that if parents were worried about the game, they should simply play it with their children. He said he set up a server in his house so his children’s friends could play together and he could monitor their behavior and then explain that some actions, even in virtual worlds, are unethical â€" like destroying someone’s Minecraft house, or calling them a bad name.

But Professor Klopfer warned that, as with anything, there was â€" probably to my nephew’s chagrin â€" such as thing as too much Minecraft.

“While the game is clearly good for kids, it doesn’t mean there should be no limits,” he said. “As with anything, I don’t want my kids to do any one thing for overly extended periods of time. Whether Legos or Minecraft; having limits is an important part their learning.”

Many children would happily ignore that little warning if their parents let them.

Last weekend, my sister saw Luca on his computer with what appeared to be Minecraft on the screen. “Luca, I told you, you can’t play Minecraft anymore,” she said.

“I’m not playing Minecraft, mama,” he replied. “I’m watching videos on YouTube of other people playing Minecraft.”