Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ten Stories Of The Week: Ending February 25, 2012

Here are ten stories that shaped the world this week:

Putin's Russia:
Vladimir Putin's vision of Russia includes a stronger military, a message the will go over well in certain quarters in Russia ahead of presidential elections. Putin is expected to win, but with a smaller majority.
Putin, who is running to reclaim presidency in March 4 election, didn't name any specific nation eyeing Russian mineral riches, but in the past he had repeatedly accused the United States of trying to weaken Russia in order to sideline a rival. "We mustn't tempt anyone with our weakness," Putin wrote in the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Putin said the government plans spending about 23 trillion rubles (about $770 billion dollars) over the next decade to purchase more than 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles, more than 600 combat aircraft, dozens of submarines and other navy vessels and thousands of armored vehicles. 
ABC News]
Nuclear Iran: A few days after UN nuclear inspectors left empty-handed, for the second time in a year, Iran is requesting more talks. This is either a sincere attempt to resolve the nuclear issue or a cynical way to buy more time. Most analysts think it is the latter, as this has a familiar pattern.
The relatively upbeat comments by Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were in stark contrast to a terse statement issued by the U.N. agency on Wednesday after the two days of discussions in Tehran. "Our position is that we are going to continue the talks for cooperation with the agency and we hope that this process will be successfully going on," said Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh. "We need a quiet environment, a calm environment to continue our professional work with the agency," he told Reuters late on Thursday.The IAEA, a Vienna-based U.N. agency, said no further meetings with Iran are planned, signalling frustration at the lack of progress in two rounds of talks this year.
Helping Syrians: Western and Arab nations want to help the Syrian people caught in a downward spiral of violence. One of the problems they face are the views of various groups, each with conflicting goals and means to achieve the end, a most human of problems. For success to happen, and that means a new government in place—and that is the ultimate goal— the various groups will have to learn and accept compromises.
But as representatives of 60 countries and international organizations converged on Tunisia on Friday in search of a strategy to provide aid to Syria’s beleaguered citizens, they will find their efforts compromised even before they begin by the lack of a cohesive opposition leadership. Nearly a year after the uprising began, the opposition remains a fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grass-roots organizers and armed militants, all deeply divided along ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines, and too disjointed to agree on even the rudiments of a strategy to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
[The New York Times]
Afghanistan Troubles: The outrage and anger over American military personnel mistakenly burning of Islam's holy book, the Koran, has resulted in the death of seven Afghans and two American soldiers, the latter killed by a man wearing an Afghan military uniform. Extremist elements in Afghanistan will likely exploit this cultural mistake, symbolizing what's wrong with the American (read: foreign) presence in the Islamic nation. U.S. President Barack Obama has sent a letter of apology to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.
The Afghan government, which had responded slowly on the first day of protests, was in high gear on Thursday as officials tried to tamp down emotions ahead of the Friday day of prayer. Western and Afghan authorities feared that there could be emotional demonstrations after the prayer that the Taliban and extremist elements would try to exploit. Afghan officials quoted from a letter from President Obama in which he, among other things, apologized for the Koran burning. For President Hamid Karzai, the episode has fast become a political thicket. He and other government officials share with the Afghan populace a visceral disgust for the way American soldiers treated the holy book, but they recognize that violent protests could draw lethal responses from the police or soldiers, setting off a cycle of violence.
[The New York Times]
Santorum's America: Rick Santorum, candidate for the Republican Party, proves that you can't have allegiance to both the Church and to American democratic values. One will eventually win out, and that is usually the all-encompassing all-consuming values centred on religious faith. If it were otherwise, Santorum couldn't with all sincerity call himself a "true" Christian.
Like other Republican candidates, Santorum is trying to give the impression that the country’s current President, a man with a Muslim-sounding name, is leading the United States in a direction alien to its history and values. Part of this strategy involves accusing the Obama Administration, through its health-care reforms and other policies, of prosecuting what Newt Gingrich termed “a war on religion.” Santorum, during the recent flap over contraception, health insurance, and the Roman Catholic Church, accused the Obama Administration and its supporters of “taking faith and crushing it."
[The New Yorker]
Train Crash: A train crash in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during Wednesday morning's rush hour  has killed at least 49 persons and injured more than 600, making this the worst rail accident in three decades. The train's 28-year-old driver remains in intensive care. Driver inexperience and faulty brakes are being looked at. Whatever the outcome of this investigation, some will point fingers at Argentina's crowded and dilapidated rail system, a stark contrast to it better days when it had an extensive and well-operating rail network. This was largely dismantled during the privatizations of the 1990s.
Passengers said the force of the collision propelled the second train car inside the first carriage, trapping dozens of people in the wreckage alongside the busy platforms at Once station. Officials said faulty brakes were suspected of causing the accident and witnesses said the train hurtled into the buffers. "I said, 'Be careful, the train isn't braking' ... I moved backward because I thought it was going to run me over," said Alfredo Velazquez, 33, a shopping center manager who was waiting on the platform. "There was a terrible explosion and a brutal impact," he said.
Young Drivers: A new study confirms what many parents already know, that inexperienced drivers, typically young teenagers, are more apt to drive carelessly and cause more accidents. The results can be found in the American Journal of Epidemiology under "Do Elevated Gravitational-Force Events While Driving Predict Crashes and Near Crashes?"
Researchers installed computer and camera equipment on the cars of 42 newly licensed drivers to measure what they called “elevated g-force events,” like quick turns and jamming on the brakes.The researchers tracked the newbies for 18 months, and found that g-force event numbers let them make good bets on who was most likely to crash the car. Data showed that for every 100 miles on the road, elevated g-force events ranged from near zero for some drivers to as high as 50 for others. And drivers with the highest rate of g-force events showed greater instances of fender benders, crashes or close calls.
[Scientific American]
Protecting Oceans: The World Bank is looking to raise $1.5 billion in new funding from governments around the world, with the enviable and noble aim to conserve the world's oceans. Our waters have seen, among other things, a depletion of fish stocks—a result of commercial over-fishing. One of the goals is to increase the number of marine-protected areas to 5% of ocean area; it currently stands at less than 2%. The 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity already calls for 10% of the oceans to be protected by 2020, a figure that, given a business-as-usual climate, seems hard to achieve.
Unveiling the new Global Partnership for Oceans in Singapore, the bank’s president Robert Zoellick said that governments, non-governmental organizations and United Nations (UN) bodies had signed up to a more coordinated approach to ocean conservation, science and business. “To make our oceans healthy and productive again, we need greater cooperative and integrated action around the globe, so that our efforts add up to more than the sum of their parts,” said Zoellick. He hopes to raise $1.5 billion in new money from governments, the private sector and other groups to operate and monitor protected areas and reform governance arrangements around fishing and other marine activities over five years.
For Sale: One of the four versions of Edvard Munch's "The Scream," one of the world's most recognizable paintings, is on the auction block. This is the only one in private hands; the other three are in museums. The pastel version of The Scream (1895) is owned by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, of the Olsen shipping family, whose father, Thomas, was a friend and patron of Munch and acquired it to boost the artist's reputation overseas. It is expected to sell for $80 million; and Sotheby's in New York is handling the sale, scheduled for May 2, 2012.
Simon Shaw, head of the impressionist and modern art department at Sotheby's in New York, said: "Munch's The Scream is the defining image of modernity, and it is an immense privilege for Sotheby's to be entrusted with one of the most important works of art in private hands. "Instantly recognisable, this is one of very few images which transcends art history and reaches a global consciousness. The Scream arguably embodies even greater power today than when it was conceived.
[The Guardian]
Oscar Predictions: "The Artist," a silent film is the favorite to clean up at the Academy Awards, predicted to take the coveted awards for "Best Picture," "Best Director" and "Best Actor." Of course, audiences will have to wait till the actual Academy Awards, on February 26th, to verify if indeed such predictions are right on the mark.
So, is The Artist really going to win everything on Sunday? Basically, probably, yes. We've analyzed the winners of the precursor ceremonies along with industry trends, Oscar history, and our ever-important "gut feeling" to come up with predictions from which films, cast members, directors, and writers will prevail at this weekend's Academy Awards. Here, a detailed look at what will likely come out on top in the six major categories, as well as our predictions for the rest of the less splashy awards:
[The Atlantic]

CARTOON OF THE WEEK:  Everyone likes an old-fashioned camp-fire story, especially if it lacks veracity.
[The New Yorker]

QUOTE OF THE WEEK:  The focus this week is on Iran as the war of words heats up between Iran and the West.
Our strategy now is that if we feel our enemies want to endanger Iran's national interests, and want to decide to do that, we will act without waiting for their actions.
Mohammad Hejazi, deputy head of the Iranian Armed Forces

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Hindu Festival: "A Hindu holy man applies ashes to his face at the Pashupatinath Temple during the Shivaratri festival in Kathmandu on Feb. 20. Hindu holy men from Nepal and India come to this temple to take part in the festival, which is one of the biggest Hindu festivals dedicated to Lord Shiva and celebrated by devotees all over the world."

On Syria: "The United Nations accuses Syria of human rights violations. An interview with, Bassma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian opposition."
[The New York Times]

"The public domain is a vast commons of material that is no longer protected by copyright, meaning that the material is free to enjoy, share and build upon without restriction. All works eventually enter the public domain – from classic works of art, music and literature, to abandoned drafts, tentative plans, and overlooked fragments.

This week's public domain offering is "Hand book of the carnival, containing Mardi-Gras, its ancient and modern observance" (1874): "Fascinating little book offering a brilliantly detailed insight into the 19th century New Orleans Mardi-Gras tradition, including a history of the Mistick Krewe of Comus, The Twelfth Night Revellers, and The Knights of Momus."
It could be viewed here.