Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ten Stories Of The Week: Ending January 28, 2012

Here are the ten stories that shaped the week:

Punishing Society: The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. A good number of the persons in the U.S. are behind bars for drug offenses and other non-violent crimes. Adam Gopnik raises a good number of points that are worth considering, including the need to rethink how we treat non-violent crime, why crime rates dropped in New York City and why decriminalizing marijuana use makes good social sense.
The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
[The New Yorker]
Stating Facts: U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a State of the Union address on Tuesday that focused on jobs and domestic policies that will bring more fairness and prosperity to more Americans. This is a good thing, if he can deliver.
Declaring that “we’ve come too far to turn back now,” the president used his final State of the Union address before he faces the voters to showcase the extent to which he will try to contrast his core economic principles with those of his Republican rivals in a time of deep economic uncertainty. While many Americans remain disappointed with the state of the economy and the president’s handling of it, Mr. Obama nonetheless tried to bring into relief the difference between where the country was when he took over and where it is now.  
[The New York Times]
Ending Inequalities: The world's political and economic elite met in Davos, Switzerland, 2,600 delegates, in a five-day conference (Jan 25-29) with the heady name of World Economic Forum. As they have been doing since 1971, they meet each year in the ski-resort town high in the Swiss alps. (Davos, with a permanent population of less than 15,000 is the highest city in Europe, at 1,560 metres above sea level.)  The meetings, and there are a number of meetings and sessions with speeches by political leaders, as is common to all international conferences, typically ends with little accomplished, at least that helps or benefits the average person. This year might be different.
Davos and concrete action don’t traditionally go hand-in- hand. But, to crib a line from economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, this time is different. The business and political elites gathered at high altitude have a host of reasons to set narrow interests aside and work to solve issues crucial to preserving the economic prosperity on which their positions depend. If they opt for nothing more than talk, the disappointment will be deafening.
Building Collapse: Three buildings collapsed in the historic downtown core of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday night. The buildings were mostly empty when they collapsed, resulting in five confirmed deaths and six injured; 19 persons are missing. Investigators are looking at the possibility of both structural problems and a gas leak.
It was not immediately clear what caused the collapses of the 20-story building and the adjacent 10- and 4-story buildings. Officials said they were investigating both the possibility of a gas leak and a structural failure. The accident comes at a delicate time for Rio de Janeiro as it prepares for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games two years later. The buildings were located just steps from the emblematic Municipal Theater, where U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech last year during his visit to Brazil.
Sanctioning Syria: Syria faces further isolation, including from its Arab neighbours, as the United Nations Security Council moves closer to issuing a resolution against Syria. The U.N. says that more than 5,400 persons have died as a result of the 10-month crisis in Syria.
Friday's closed-door discussion was called ahead of a possible vote next week on the resolution. It marks a new phase in the regional stand against Syria, which has rapidly gained momentum over the past fortnight as the Arab League has actively looked for ways to end the crisis. However the growing regional pressure on Syria, which increased on Friday with a move by Saudi Arabia to recognise a nascent opposition movement, could again be stymied by staunch Syrian allies Russia and China. Both countries have barely wavered in their support for Damascus since they used their roles as permanent members of the global security body three months ago to veto a US-led resolution aimed at curbing a rapid slide towards outright sectarian war.
[The Guardian]
Securing Russia: Vladimir Putin is known to use scatological rhetoric, part of his public tough-guy image as once elite member of the nation's security service, the FSB. This strategy has worked in the past, yet the Russian people want something more, as recent protests for democracy and transparency prove. Putin's  chances of becoming president (again) are not as secure as once thought.
For the moment, polls suggest that Putin still has a good chance of winning the presidency in the first round of elections. Even though his popularity has declined, Putin’s carefully cultivated image as a strong and decisive leader who defends Russia’s national interests appears to have retained him support across a broad swath of Russia’s population, and no viable alternative to him has emerged thus far. If unexpectedly large numbers turn out for the opposition protests scheduled for February 4, however, it could undermine his candidacy and force him into an unpredictable second round. This is a situation the Kremlin wants to avoid at all costs.
[New York Review of Books]
Sailing Record: Laura Dekker, a sixteen-year-old girl has become the youngest person to sail around the world. The trip was not without its controversy, however, as Dutch authorities, "concerned about her welfare," blocked attempts to set out to sea, citing their legal obligations to ensure that she remain in school. Dekker eventually won a 10-month court battle to pursue her dream. As is always the case in such stand-offs between state authority and individual pursuits, Dekker's accomplishment will long be remembered; the Dutch officials will not.
A YEAR and a day after she set out to sail single-handed around the globe, Dutch teenager Laura Dekker has broken the unofficial record set by Australia's Jessica Watson in 2010 to become the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world. Dekker, who is 16 years and four months old, has cut six months off the unofficial record set by Watson, who was days shy of her 17th birthday when she completed a non-stop voyage.
[Sydney Morning Herald]
Fueling Seaweed: A plant that is abundant, found in the world's oceans, might prove to be the ideal alternative fuel. A genetically modified strain of common gut bacteria might be the engine to turn the seaweed into ethanol or other fuels.
Seaweed may well be an ideal plant to turn into biofuel. It grows in much of the two thirds of the planet that is underwater, so it wouldn't crowd out food crops the way corn for ethanol does. Because it draws its own nutrients and water from the sea, it requires no fertilizer or irrigation. Most importantly for would-be biofuel-makers, it contains no lignin—a strong strand of complex sugars that stiffens plant stalks and poses a big obstacle to turning land-based plants such as switchgrass into biofuel.
[Scientific American]
Monkeying Around: Canadian scientists have found a rare monkey that was thought extinct in the region of Borneo where it was discovered. Borneo is a large island situated north of Java Island, Indonesia, and is home to one of the world's largest rainforests, whose origins date to 160 million years ago  The Grizzled Langur (Presbytis hosei canicrus) belongs to the small primate genus Presbytis found in Borneo, Sumatra, Java and the Thai-Malay Peninsula. The langur was initially thought to reside in a limited area. in the northeast section of Borneo.
However, the research team found the langur in Wehea Forest in East Kalimantan, Borneo. The 38,000-hectare pristine rainforest is home to at least nine known species of non-human primates, including the Bornean orangutan and gibbon. East Kalimantan is a challenging place to do research given its remote location, said Stephanie Spehar of the University of Wisconsin, adding that the discovery was possible due to the help of local partners.
Writing Biography: What makes a good biographer is more than his ability to collect the facts about a person over the span of his life. It's about telling a story that captures the attention of readers. Some are better than others.
Biographer Michael Scammell has devoted much of his long career to writing about two of the 20th century’s foremost intellectuals, whose impassioned writings defined in human and moral terms the stakes in the struggle against communism. Scammell’s book about the Nobel Prize–winning dissident Russian writer Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, published in 1984, was the first major biography to shed light on this towering yet secretive figure. Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, which came out last year to much acclaim, revived the reputation of the protean Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler, best known for his 1940 anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon.
[The Wilson Quarterly]
CARTOON OF THE WEEK: Mitt Romney says he understands unemployment: [PoliticalHumor]

:  Some good news out of Washington. It seems that the primary resident of the white House has awakened from his two-year slumber.
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” —U.S. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address.
[The Washington Post]

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Cave Painting, Papua, New Guinea:
For generations people in the region have marked cave walls with stenciled handprints. These prints were made with clay-based paint, but in other caves, crimson stains tell the story of a bloody initiation ritual for young men.
[National Geographic]
VIDEO OF THE WEEK: Certain chemicals common to many household products, notably PFCs, might reduce the efficacy of childhood vaccines by half, says the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).