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Microsoft Unveils Plan For Three Labs in Europe

Microsoft said Thursday that it would set up research centers in Britain, France and Germany to improve its Internet search technology, describing the move as a vote of confidence in the European economy and in the company’s ability to close the gap with Google.

The chief executive, Steven A. Ballmer, said at a news conference that the three “centers of excellence” — near Paris, in London and in Munich — would employ several hundred people.

He declined to say how much the company would invest. But Microsoft, which has fought pitched battles with European regulators over its Windows operating system, said it was making a major financial commitment at a time when many companies were nervous about spending.

“Investing in anything at this time can be a tough sell,” Ballmer said. “But when economic times are tough, we have to keep our faith in the promise that technology holds to transform the future.”

Microsoft has been pushing to improve its ability to run Internet searches and to attract the advertising revenue that comes with them, after its failed bid to acquire Yahoo. Yahoo struck a deal instead with the market leader, Google, to share some search capabilities. “We are the challenger, not the leader, in search,” Ballmer said. “But search is in its infancy, and there is so much room for innovation.”

Google accounts for nearly 80 percent of Internet searches in Europe, according to the research company comScore; its share is slightly more than 60 percent in the United States.

As Bombs Fall Silent, An Iraqi City Blossoms

Bombs go off infrequently now in Samarra, and they are mostly small, nothing like the massive explosion that two years ago toppled the golden dome of the famous Askariya Shrine in this ancient city, setting off a wave of sectarian bloodletting across Iraq.

A bakery and a schwarma shop recently opened in a heavily guarded central neighborhood. Earlier this week, dozens of children rode a creaky Ferris wheel and took wagon rides on a downtown street to celebrate Id al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

The shrine itself is slowly being rebuilt. This week, for the first time in two years, hundreds of worshippers attended morning prayers for Id al-Fitr under the delicately blue-tiled dome of the mosque next door.

“It is better now,” many residents say if asked. “Today is better than yesterday.”

Yet in Samarra, as in many parts of this ravaged country, better is a relative term. The city’s name is derived from an Arabic phrase meaning “a joy for all to see.” But joy, or even basic satisfaction, remains a scarce commodity.

The violence that once raged throughout the overwhelmingly Sunni city has quieted in the last few months. In August, there were only nine small weapons attacks, compared with 44 last November, according to the U.S. military. One homemade bomb exploded in August. Last November there were 13. The curfew for residents has been pushed back to midnight or even later if there are religious events.

Sunspots Are Fewest Since 1954, But Significance Is Unclear

The sun has been strangely unblemished this year. On more than 200 days so far this year, no sunspots were spotted. That makes the sun blanker this year than in any year since 1954, when it was spotless for 241 days.

The sun goes through a regular 11-year cycle, and it is emerging from the quietest part of the cycle, or solar minimum. But even for this phase it has been unusually quiet, with little roiling of the magnetic fields that induce sunspots.

“It’s starting with a murmur,” said David H. Hathaway, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

As of Thursday, the 276th day of the year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., had counted 205 days without a sunspot.

In another sign of solar quiescence, scientists reported last month that the solar wind, a rush of charged particles continually spewed from the sun at a million miles an hour, had diminished to its lowest level in 50 years.

Mexican President Proposes Decriminalizing Some Drugs

President Felipe Calderon, who has made fighting drug traffickers the centerpiece of his administration, proposed legislation on Thursday that would decriminalize the possession of small quantities of cocaine and other drugs for addicts who agreed to undergo treatment.

Calderon said that the proposal was intended to attack the growing problem of drug addiction in Mexico. Still, it will probably be controversial both at home and abroad. A similar measure two years ago provoked strong opposition from the United States and was eventually dropped.

A recent government survey found that the number of drug addicts in Mexico had almost doubled in the past six years to 307,000, while the number of those who had tried drugs rose to 4.5 million from 3.5 million.

Drugs used to flow through Mexico to the United States, and they still do, but an increasing amount of those narcotics now stays in Mexico to feed the habits of domestic consumers.

Under Calderon’s proposal, Mexican authorities would not prosecute people found to be carrying small amounts of drugs if they declared they were addicts and submitted to a treatment program.

Those who are not addicts could avoid prosecution by entering a prevention program.