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Don't plan the homecoming party just yet. It costs almost twice as much -- $3.9 billion -- to keep troops in Iraq than the Pentagon originally estimated, Gen. Tommy Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. Franks added that there are about 145,000 troops in Iraq and that number will remain stable "for the foreseeable future." The committee also learned that the U.S. is spending between $900 and $950 million a month in Afghanistan (good thing they had this hearing -- no one would have remembered Afghanistan considering, uh, that the Bush Administration never talks about it.) As of now, there is no exit plan for Iraq. Though Rumsfeld said it would "take some time," he added "when it's done, it's going to have been darn well worth having done." Glad someone thinks so.




It was the foam the whole time. Remember that chunk of foam that fell off the space shuttle Columbia during launch? Remember how the foam was blamed for the shuttle's explosion and then dismissed? Validating Occam's Razor, it turns out it was the foam. In a test on Monday, NASA fired a piece of foam insulation at 500 mph into a wing panel. It left a 16-inch hole. The test reveals what was initially evident - the astronauts were doomed before they even "slipped the surly bonds of earth." The Columbia Accident Investigation Board referred to the test result as the "smoking gun." (Check out this link for internal emails from the crew during the flight. Big ups to A for the link.)

Hand it over, Dick. Ah for the blissful pre-September 11 world, when all we had to worry about was Vice President Dick Cheney holding secret energy task force meetings with Enron executives. The National Energy Policy Group was comprised of cabinet secretaries, agency bosses and senior White House aides. Fine. But in comes (allegedly) the head of the Republican National Committee; Kenneth Lay, former Enron chair; and some energy lobbyists. Judicial Watch and Sierra Club sued over this dupe and ever since, the Bush Administration has been hanging onto those files like Saddam clung to power. A federal district court ordered Cheney to turn over his records and on Tuesday, a federal appeals court denied the veep's request to block the sharing of information, or the "discovery process." Discovery is the keystone of American jurisprudence (you can't play your hand as well without knowing what the other guy's holding), and the court called Cheney's motion "extraordinary" and "drastic." The Black Table smells an executive order grilling.




And then the German guy says to the Italian guy… In a perfect example of not helping your own cause, German and Italian government officials are making fools out of themselves by taunting each other in their respective languages. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder cancelled his vacation to Italy on Wednesday after an Italian tourism official decried some 8 million annual German visitors as oafs who "invaded the beaches of Italy." In a letter to a nationalist newspaper, Stefano Stefani remarked that Italians "know the Germans well, those stereotyped blonds with a hyper-nationalist pride who have always been indoctrinated to be first in the class at any cost." All this comes a week after the Italian prime minister called Germany "a country intoxicated with arrogant certainties" and likened a German government official to a Nazi. The Black Table encourages both countries to simply shut the hell up and return to worrying about their collapsing national health care systems.




If the shoe fits, buy the brand. In a trumping of the swoosh over the star, Nike bought Converse on Wednesday for $305 million. Nike is attracted Converse's "retro" line of "Chuck Taylor All Stars." (Don't worry kool kids - Converse shoes will not bear the Nike name.) Converse has struggled in recent years and even filed for bankruptcy in January 2001. Converse reported $205 million in revenue in 2002, compared to Nike's $10.7 billion. (Punk rockers and nostalgic basketball fans do not exactly make for a booming consumer demo.) Nike gets to be hipper and more fashionable, and the rest of us get to keep wearing One Stars. Plus, Nike's underpaid employees in third-world countries will now get some variety in their 20-hour workday.




He must have been really, really tired. A man who has been in a coma for 19 years began speaking last month, and his first word was "Mom." Terry Wallis' doctor prescribed him Paxil about 18 months ago, but no one is sure if the drug contributed to his reawakening. ("You're not in a coma, Terry. You're just really depressed.") Mr. Wallis initially thought that Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States, forcing The Black Table to wonder which is worse: being out of it for 19 years or thinking Ronald Reagan still runs the country.



Aileen Gallagher, author of three children's books, (and another one, about muckraking, on the way!) writes Weekly Rundown every Friday.