Sunday, September 30, 2012

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending September 29, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

The New Egypt: If anyone has any doubts of the direction that Egypt is heading, further away from the United States and western values, and not approaching it as some have hoped, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's comments to The New York Times make it clear, the AFP article says. It is understandable why the current Egyptian leader would defend his Muslim Brotherhood values so close to his heart; it's not clear why America ought to support it.
In his interview, Morsi also reaffirmed his links to the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious organization viewed by many in the United States with suspicion. "I grew up with the Muslim Brotherhood," the president said. "I learned my principles in the Muslim Brotherhood. I learned how to love my country with the Muslim Brotherhood. I learned politics with the Brotherhood. I was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood."
He also pointed out that the United States should not expect Egypt to live by its rules as the West, underscoring a cultural divide between the two nations. "If you want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgment," he said. "When the Egyptians decide something, probably it is not appropriate for the US. When the Americans decide something, this, of course, is not appropriate for Egypt."
Moon Program For Cancer: In an article by Meredith Wadman in Nature, the president of the United States' largest cancer-treatment centre has a made a bold statement, reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy's moon challenge fifty years ago. It's a bold initiative, but a good one; I was wondering when such an initiative would happen. Undoubtedly, knowledgeable skeptics point out that cancer is a complicated and intelligent disease. Even so, there are always skeptics before every breakthrough, as there were during the early years of the Moon Program.

Yet, such skeptics, although well meaning (or not), never are the individuals at the forefront of innovation and discovery; they lack the imagination and courage. Such is the historical record of innovation. You need money, commitment, hard work and imagination to succeed. Bravo to Dr. DePinho, the MD Anderson Cancer Center and the many benefactors; we wish them well in their great initiative.
At a news conference on 21 September, Ronald DePinho, the president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told reporters his institution would spend up to $3 billion over ten years to attack eight cancers in a new “moon shots” programme.
The goal: to dramatically accelerate discoveries that will reduce mortality from the following eight cancers: acute myeloid leukemia/myelodysplastic syndrome; chronic lymphocytic leukemia; melanoma; lung cancer; prostate cancer, and triple-negative breast and ovarian cancers.
These ”inaugural” moon shots DePinho said, were chosen by a panel of 25 experts led by Frank McCormick, the president of the American Association for Cancer Research. They looked at numerous proposals put forward by MD Anderson researchers in the time since DePinho took the job at the helm of MD Anderson one year ago.
Odds Of Surviving Surgery Have Improved Greatly: The rates of surviving a surgical procedure have increased significantly in the last few decades, despite surgeries becoming more complicated and patients becoming older. The chances of dying in the operating room are about one-tenth that of what they were before 1970, the study's benchmark year. Before 1970, 357 people per million surgeries died from receiving anesthetic, the study said. That rate dropped to 34 people per million in the 1990s and 2000s. That's a 90 percent rate of improvement. The findings ought to give comfort to persons undergoing surgical procedures, knowing that their chances of coming out of the procedure have increased significantly since 1970. This is indeed good news, both revealing and proving how advances in science and medicine contribute to our well-being.

There are a number of reasons for the improvement, says an article in CTV News:
The lead author of the study said a variety of factors have contributed to the improvement in surgical survival. "You can't point to one thing," said Dr. Daniel Bainbridge, an anesthesiologist and associate professor in the department of anesthesiology and peri-operative medicine at the University of Western Ontario."I'm sure it's better drugs. It's better training of our residents. It's better operating room environments, cleaner environments. Better equipment. It's an understanding about safety and culture safety and avoiding drug errors."
The study, published in this week's issue of the journal The Lancet, was undertaken to see whether advances in the science of anesthetizing people and improved surgical safety procedures were actually translating into fewer deaths in operating rooms.With more than 230 million major surgeries occurring annually around the world, the stakes are high.
Bainbridge and his group explored the issue by amalgamating data from 87 studies other researchers had done to try to get a global picture of what had been happening over the past few decades to rates of deaths during or immediately after surgery. The patient pool in the combined studies represents 21.4 million times people were administered general anesthetic for surgery.
U.S. President Obama's U.N. Speech: On Tuesday September 25th: Presient Obama delivered a speech to the 67th United Nations General Assembly; the full speech can be found here. The 4,000-word speech had a few bright spots, such as the words below, as reported in The Guardian:
There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an Embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.
More broadly, the events of the last two weeks speak to the need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab World moving to democracy. Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue. Nor do we assume that the violence of the past weeks, or the hateful speech by some individuals, represents the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims– any more than the views of the people who produced this video represent those of Americans.
However, I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism. It is time to marginalize those who – even when not resorting to violence – use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics. For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence.
But the speech, in its naive desire to not offend the feelings of anyone, had a sense that it was almost an apology for American and western values rather than a robust apologia for them—the speech gave the remarkable but undesirable impression that the speaker was unsure of whether he himself believed that western liberal values such as freedom of speech, which includes the possibility of at times offending religious sensibilities, were something that he truly believed in and cherished:
I know there are some who ask why we don't just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. Moreover, as President of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we disagree with.
We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
Iranian President's Top Press Adviser Jailed: While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York delivering a speech to the United Nations on Wednesday, his top press adviser was taken into custody to begin serving a six-month jail sentence; he was "convicted of publishing material deemed insulting to the country's supreme leader," an Associated Press report published in Haaretz says. His arrest comes on top of two others this week—the son and daughter of Iran's former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani were arrested for essentially protesting against the conservative regimeas the Islamic Republic attempts to quell dissent and send a signal to reformers.

And last week, Reporters Without Borders said that two women journalists were arrested, bringing the total to at least 57 women journalists and bloggers who have been arrested and given jail terms since the June 2009 elections. This is undoubtedly bad news for free speech and democracy. But there is a silver lining, namely, that moderates in Iran are speaking out against hard-line policies that the majority of Iranians do not want.
Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who is also the head of the state-run IRNA news agency, is one of dozens of Ahmadinejad's allies detained since April 2011 in the fallout from a political feud between the president and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran's hardline political establishment slapped down Ahmadinejad and his supporters after the president briefly challenged an order from the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the choice of intelligence chief.

An Iranian court convicted Javanfekr last November of "publishing materials contrary to Islamic norms," and also banned him from journalism activities for three years. The charges against him included insulting Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran. The semiofficial Fars news agency said judicial agents detained Javanfekr late Wednesday. IRNA said Javanfekr was arrested as Ahmadinejad, who had shielded his press adviser in the past from arrest, began his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
 The case against Javanfekr began after he wrote in an official publication that the practice of women wearing a head-to-toe black covering known as a chador was not originally an Iranian practice but was imported. This was considered offensive by hardline Iranian clerics.
& One More, Because It's Important 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Speech At The U.N.: On Thursday September 27th, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addressed the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly. I think it was an excellent, eloquent, informative and rational speech, mixing ancient history and modern history, and in the process giving a defence of the values that define western liberal democracy. Yes, he spoke about the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and using a cartoon-like graphic on the importance of agreeing on a "red line"—which may I add was effective. All this is to say that in a clash between mediaevalism and modernity, it is modernity that defines western civilization; this excerpt speaks of a hope that we all share: "Israel stands proudly with the forces of modernity," the prime minister said.... "So too will a cloistered Middle East eventually yield to the irresistible power of freedom and technology. And when this happens our region will be guided not by fanaticism and conspiracy, but by reason and curiosity."  Am Yisrael Chai. You can view the entire 32-minute speech here and here.

September 29th in History

522 BCE: Darius I of Persia kills the Magian usurper Gaumâta, securing his hold as king of the Persian Empire;
480 BCE: Battle of Salamis: The Greek fleet under Themistocles defeats the Persian fleet under Xerxes I.;
1227: Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, is excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX for his failure to participate in the Crusades;
1789: The First United States Congress adjourns;
1829: The Metropolitan Police of London, later also known as the Met, is founded;
1911: Italy declares war on the Ottoman Empire;
1923: The British Mandate for Palestine takes effect, creating Mandatory Palestine;
1938: Munich Agreement: Germany is given permission from France, Italy, and Great Britain to seize the territory of Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. The meeting occurred in Munich, and leaders from neither the Soviet Union nor Czechoslovakia attended;
1943:  World War II: U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Italian Marshal Pietro Badoglio sign an armistice aboard the Royal Navy battleship HMS Nelson off Malta;
2004: The asteroid 4179 Toutatis passes within four lunar distances of Earth.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending September 22, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Consulate Attack Planned: The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last week, on the anniversary of September 11th, resulting in the death of Amb. Chrisopher Stevens and three others, was pre-planned and pre-meditated—putting in serious doubt the Obama Administration's position that it was a spontaneous protest over a film; the U.S.'s own intelligence agencies disagree with the White House. As does the Libyan government, a Reuters report says:
Libyan President Mohammed Magarief said on Sunday that about 50 people have been arrested in connection with the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last week, which he said was planned by foreigners linked to al Qaeda. The attack on Tuesday in Benghazi came amid protests over a video made in the United States that Muslims saw as blaspheming the Prophet Mohammad. It resulted in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
Magarief, in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation," said some of those arrested were not Libyans and were linked to al Qaeda, the militant Muslim group that carried out the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Magarief, who became president after the bloody U.S.-backed ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, described others as affiliates or sympathizers.
"It was definitely planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago and they were planning criminal acts since their arrival," Magarief said, adding that some were from Mali and Algeria.
China-Japan Dispute Over Rocky Islands: A dispute between Japan and China over a chain of islands has become more tense lately, The Guardian reports. The decision by Japan to nationalize the disputed, gas-rich islands in the East China Sea has led to violent protests in China and reminders of the painful history between these two Asian economic powers that predate the Second World War. Chinese commentators continue to note that Japan has "never fully come to terms with its wartime actions, let alone shown genuine remorse":
The sharpening dispute over the Senkaku islands, known as Diaoyu in China, is the most recent product of this old narrative of violence, hatred, fear and grief that continues, sporadically, to obstruct both nations in their efforts to forge a more stable, trusting relationship. But understanding its roots does not render it less potent. The Americans, who still view themselves as the Asia-Pacific's leading power, are increasingly nervous.
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, currently visiting Japan, pointedly warned that "provocative behaviour" by either side could lead to misjudgments, violence and, potentially, open warfare. "It is in everybody's interest … for Japan and China to maintain good relations and to find a way to avoid further escalation," Panetta said. In this he echoed Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, who this month stressed the need for restraint and dialogue between China and several south-east Asian countries with which Beijing has territorial disputes.
China's unhappy legacy of foreign occupation and its sense that an unrepentant Japan is party to a US-orchestrated geo-strategic conspiracy to contain or limit its development as a great power also form part of the backdrop to the Senkakus standoff. While claiming he was not taking sides, Panetta confirmed in Tokyo that the islands were covered by the Japan-US security and defence treaty. That means, in theory at least, that Washington is bound to help Japan defend territory that China says has been illegally seized.
Ivory Demand Leads to African Elephant Slaughter: The demand for ivory is so high that tens of thousands of elephants are killed each year for their tusks, which are carved into religious artifacts, says an article in National Geographic by Oliver Payne; this is taking place despite an international ban that has been in place since 1990. Ivory's veneration crosses religious boundaries and is revered among Catholics in the Philippines, among Muslims in Egypt and among Buddhists in China, the nation with the greatest demand. For those who complain about Jewish ritual slaughter of cows, which is done humanely for human consumption, here is something to think about. Tens of thousands of African elephants are slaughtered each year, many en masse with automatic weapons like AK47s, in such nations as Chad, Cameroon, Kenya and Tanzania.
The elephant is revered in Buddhism and is a symbol of Thailand. Monks there give out ivory amulets in return for donations. Kruba Dharmamuni, a prominent monk known as the Elephant Monk, wears an ivory elephant-head pendant suspended from ivory prayer beads representing the 108 human passions.
"Ivory removes bad spirits," Dharmamuni told National Geographic. Ivory also earns him money. The Elephant Monk takes in thousands of dollars a month from amulets of ivory and other materials sold in his temple gift shop.
In China, religious themes are common in carved ivory pieces. Newly rich Chinese are snapping up ivory in the form of Buddhist and Taoist gods and goddesses. Prices can be astronomical: Christy reports seeing a carved ivory Guanyin on sale for the equivalent of U.S. $215,000. Guanyin is the Buddhist goddess of mercy, a Madonna-like figure who doubles as a fertility goddess.
Buddhist monks in China perform a ceremony called kai guang, the opening of light, to consecrate religious icons, just as some Filipino priests will bless Catholic images made of illegal ivory for their followers. "To be respectful of the Buddha," the report quotes a Chinese collector, "one should use precious material. If not ivory then gold. But ivory is more precious."
Jesus' Wife Named Mary, Ancient Fragment Says: There has always been quiet internal debate within some sects of Christianity on whether the biblical Jesus was married; the official canon says that he was not and remained celibate until his death, aged 33. A small fragment of papyrus, written in ancient Egyptian Coptic, however, might prove otherwise. Whatever one thinks or knows about the "Christian" Jesus, and we know very little apart from what is written in the biblical texts, this finding might help to place him into a historical Jewish context. If one takes into consideration that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew and was referred to as a rabbi ("teacher"), it would conform to the traditions of the time if he were married; and Mary Magdalene is the most likely choice for a wife.

As an article in Time says:
On Tuesday, Harvard historian Karen L. King presented to the world a small papyrus fragment, which she calls The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. It could suggest Jesus was indeed married: “Jesus said to them, my wife … she will be able to be my disciple” reads a part of the fragment of a Coptic codex dating back to the fourth century A.D. “ This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife,” King, who is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard’s Divinity School, wrote in a draft paper presented at a conference in Rome.
“It’s not evidence for us historically that Jesus had a wife,” King stresses in a video posted on YouTube. “It’s clear evidence that some Christians, probably in the second half of the second century, thought that Jesus had a wife.” The text is written in a dialect of the Coptic language, which today survives only in the liturgy of the Egyptian Coptic Christian church. The text should be considered part of the “vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage” among early Christians, as King was quoted as saying in a Harvard press release—debates that still persist nearly two millennia later. “Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married,” she said. “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife now shows that some Christians thought otherwise.”
U.S. Ads in Pakistan Don't Work: In an attempt to quell violence in Pakistan, the U.S. government has spent $70,000 in ads denouncing the film that has upset the Islamic world. As an NBC article says:
In the 30-second ad that began running Thursday, Obama says, "Since our founding the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate religious beliefs of others."Clinton appears after Obama and says, "Let me state very clearly that the United States has absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its contents. America's commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation."The ad is subtitled in Urdu, the main Pakistani language
A U.S. seal is also displayed in the video. The comments by Obama and Clinton are from previous public statements and were not taped specifically for the ad."It is common and traditional to have to buy air time on Pakistan TV for public service announcements," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
As the Washington Post reported on Friday, the ads have not worked, and the Pakistani protesters have decided to show what they think of the American conciliatory gesture on Love for the Prophet Day”:
Pakistani police opened fire on rioters who were torching a cinema during a protest against an anti-Islam film Friday, and security forces clashed with demonstrators in several other cities in Pakistan on a holiday declared by the government so people could rally against the video. Thousands of people protested in several other countries, some of them burning American flags and effigies of President Barack Obama.
September 22nd in History

    66: Roman Emperor Nero creates the Legion I Italica;
1499: Treaty of Basel: Switzerland becomes an independent state;
1692: Last 8 persons hanged for witchcraft in the U.S, in Salem, Massachusetts;
1792: Beginning of the French Republican era;
1896: Queen Victoria surpasses her grandfather King George III as the longest reigning monarch in British history;
1964: "Fiddler on the Roof" opens at Imperial Theater in New York City for 3,242 performances;
1967: U.S.S.R. performs nuclear test at Semipalitinsk, Eastern Kazakhstan, U.S.S.R.;
1969: China performs nuclear test at Lop Nor, China;
1972: Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, expels 8,000 Asians from Uganda;
1993: Supreme Soviet dismisses president Boris Yeltsin;

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending September 15, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Creative Persons Live Longer: An article in Scientific American links creativity with longer life, and might I add a happier and more meaningful one. Creativity, linked with open-mindedness, allows the brain's neural networks to remain active and flexible. Creative persons tend to have healthy active brains.
Researchers have long been studying the connection between health and the five major personality traits: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness and conscientiousness. A large body of research links neuroticism with poorer health and conscientiousness with superior health. Now openness, which measures cognitive flexibility and the willingness to entertain novel ideas, has emerged as a lifelong protective factor. The linchpin seems to be the creativity associated with the personality trait—creative thinking reduces stress and keeps the brain healthy.

A study published in the June issue of the Journal of Aging and Health found that higher openness predicted longer life, and other studies this year have linked that trait with lower metabolic risk, higher self-rated health and more appropriate stress response.

The June study sought to determine whether specific aspects of openness better predicted survival rates than overall openness, using data on more than 1,000 older men collected between 1990 and 2008. The researchers found that only creativity—not intelligence or overall openness—decreased mortality risk.
Russia Refuses to Hand Over Religious Books: An article in CBS News sheds additional information  in a long-time civil case between Chabad-Lubavitch, a Jewish sect, and the Russian government over tens of thousands of religious books and artifacts that legally and morally belong to the Jewish group. The Jewish group has won a civil case in New York in 2010, but to no avail, since Russia is protected by an American law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, enacted in 1976. One wonders why the Russian government is so intransigent over a matter—Jewish religious books and manuscripts—for which it has no use:
At issue are two collections: 12,000 religious books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian Civil War nearly a century ago; and 25,000 pages of handwritten teachings and other writings of religious leaders stolen by Nazi Germany during World War II, then transferred by the Soviet Red Army as war booty to the Russian State Military Archive.

Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement within orthodox Judaism, is estimated to have more than 200,000 adherents and to draw perhaps a million to some of its services in about 70 countries It was founded in the late 1700s in Eastern Europe, and has been led through its history by seven "Rebbes," who amassed the books and writings. The group was incorporated in New York City in 1940.
In its filing, the Justice Department said that Chabad's bid for sanctions is precluded by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The department argues that this law doesn't allow a court to compel compliance with an order for property held by a foreign state within the state's own territory. The department added that even if sanctions were allowed, the judge should not issue them "in order to avoid damage to foreign policy interests of the United States." 
Resentful Youth Attack U.S. Embassies (Egypt, Libya, Yemen) Over Film: It all started on September 11th when hundreds of protesters mobbed the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, ostensibly over a film that they said "was insulting to Islam."  The same day, Islamists stormed the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three others. The rioting and resentment then spread to Saana,Yemen, where the American embassy was attacked, and to other nations, all of them with high rates of unemployment and poverty. Still, it's also important to bear in mind that the protests are actually small in number and are hardly representative of the nations in which they take place.

A thought to consider. One cannot ignore the correlation between high unemployment and civil violence; in the absence of young men making productive use of their time and living quiet dignified lives, the former ignites the latter. The rates of unemployment are as follows in the three nations where protests began: Egypt (12.6 percent), Libya (30 percent), and Yemen (35 percent), which includes a high proportion of unemployed youth. For many, religious beliefs are all that they have and an attack on their religion is an attack on them, on their dignity.

Such might explain the root causes, and the emotional desire to give vent to rage;  and, yet it cannot excuse the violence, nor the murder of four American civilians in Libya. Nor can the frustration and resentments, as misplaced as these now might be, give people the right to attack a foreign embassy and tear down and desecrate its flag, a provocative act by any ideology or religion. Since it started in Egypt, one has to question where were Egyptian security officials, who have a responsibility to protect all foreign embassies under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963), of which Egypt is a signatory nation. The article in Reuters says:
Egyptian protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy on Tuesday, tore down the American flag and burned it during a protest over what they said was a film being produced in the United States that insulted Prophet Mohammad. In place of the U.S. flag, the protesters tried to raise a black flag with the words "There is no God but God, and Mohammad is his messenger", a Reuters witness said.
Once the U.S. flag was hauled down, some protesters tore it up and showed off pieces to television cameras. Others burned the remains outside the fortress-like embassy building in central Cairo. But some protesters objected to the flag burning. Many Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet to be offensive.
[You can also read more here, here, here and here about protests spreading to other nations]. Let's hope that calm is soon restored and that governments in the Middle East take all reasonable measures necessary to bring this about. Equally important is the need to increase employment and get young people working.
U.S. President Obama Snubs Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu: Things could not get worse for Israel; an article in Reuters has noted that Obama will not meet Netanyahu to discuss the Iran File when he is in New York to attend a United Nations meeting. Given the importance of the threats that Iran poses, this is surprising in one way, but given the open animosity between the two men's differing visions on the importance of containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, it is not. Both Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have underplayed the time factor, saying the U.S. has up to a year to work things out with Iran. It's a luxury that, unfortunately, Israel does not have.
In a highly unusual rebuff to a close ally, the White House said on Tuesday that President Barack Obama would not meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a U.S. visit later this month, as tensions escalated over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program.
The apparent snub, coupled with Netanyahu's sharpened demands for a tougher U.S. line against Iran, threatened to plunge U.S.-Israeli relations into crisis and add pressure on Obama in the final stretch of a tight presidential election campaign.
An Israeli official, who declined to be identified, said the White House had refused Netanyahu's request to meet Obama when the Israeli leader visits the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly, telling the Israelis, "The president's schedule will not permit that."
Russian Scientists Attempt To Clone Woolly Mammoth: This is the type of scientific discovery that is both a curiosity and of scientific merit. An article in The Christian Science Monitor says that Russian scientists have discovered a well-preserved woolly mammoth remains in a remote part of Russia, a long-extinct beast which they hope might contain sufficient genetic material to clone. The chief requirement for cloning is that cells have to be living; that means that the cells in the woolly mammoth would have had to be in an environment where the ambient temperature held steady between -4 and -20 Celsius. Such is a unlikely probability for a beast that last roamed the earth 10,000 years ago. There have been other efforts in the past; none thus far successful. If this attempt proves successful, it would be a scientific coup, bringing us a step closer to understanding our prehistoric past.  The article says:
The Russian-led international team found the remains, including fur and bone marrow, with some cell nuclei intact, in the Ust-Yansk area of the Yakutia region on Russia's Arctic coast.
The next step will be to search for living cells among the material which was preserved in the Siberian permafrost, said the Russian scientist who led the expedition with members from the United StatesCanadaSouth KoreaSweden and Great Britain.
"All we need for cloning is one living cell, which means it can reproduce autonomously. Then it will be no problem for us to multiply them to tens of thousands cells," said Semyon Grigoryev, a professor at North-East Federal University (NEFU).

September 15th in History
  668: Eastern Roman Emperor Constans II (also called "Constantine the Bearded"is assassinated in his bath at Syracuse, Italy;
1327: The British city of Exeter suffers a plague that wipes out nearly half its population, resulting in widespread riots, and culminating in the September 15th massacre on the site where now exists the University of Exeter;
1616: The first non-aristocratic, free public school in Europe is opened in Frascati, Italy;
1812: French army under Napoleon reaches Kremlin, Moscow;
1835: HMS Beagle and Charles Darwin reache Galapagos Islands;
1894: Japan defeats China in Battle of Ping Yang;
1904: Wilbur Wright, an American, makes his first airplane flight;
1940: Turning point in the Second World War's Battle of Britain, when the British Royal Air Force shoots down large numbers of German Luftwaffe aircraft;
1959: Soviet Premier Khrushchev arrives in U.S. to begin a 13-day visit;
1970:  PLO leader Arafat threatens to make a cemetery of Jordan;
2007: The United Nations declares it as an International Day of Democracy.


Shana Tova; a sweet and peaceful new year to all.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending September 8, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

U.S. Halts Training of Police in Afghanistan: The Washington Post has reported that Americans will stop training Afghan Local Police for at least a month in order to carry out intensified vetting procedures on new recruits. The vetting process is indeed a good idea. Yet, this is a setback for the Americans in that training local forces as police officers is one of the necessities to bring legitimate law and order to a region that badly needs it. But local customs and dictates, as well as tribal loyalties, have made this task, enviable as it is, next to impossible.
There have been 34 insider attacks this year — at least 12 in August alone — that have killed 45 international troops, putting intense strain on the relationship between coalition forces and the Afghans they live and work with. The shootings also have thrown doubts on one of the pillars of the U.S.-led coalition’s planned withdrawal by the end of 2014 — training Afghan forces so they can take the lead for security in the country.
Lt. Col. John Harrell, a spokesman for U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, said the pause in training affects about 1,000 trainees of the Afghan Local Police, a militia backed by the government in Kabul.
U.S. President Obama Wrong About Iran: An article in Commentary by Jonathan S. Tobin confirms that U.S. President Obama is not a man to admit his mistakes easily, even if it concerns Iran and its threat to Israel. In light of a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is doubling the number of centrifuges, thus confirming its nuclear ambitions, it should be enough to convince the current American Administration to take a different course.
Israel’s problem is that the Obama administration doesn’t care that it has been proven wrong and feels no inclination to engage in a conversation with the leaders of the Jewish state about taking action to either reverse course or head off a catastrophe. Instead, it just sticks to its line about giving more time for diplomacy even though no one in Washington, let alone anywhere else, believes that it is possible to talk the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions. The president wants no back talk from the Israelis about this. But even more than that, he desires no trouble in the Middle East in the next two months as he fights for re-election.
Organic Foods No More Nutritious Than Conventional Foods: In a comprehensive study conducted by Stanford University, scientists have found that foods labeled organic do not necessarily confer any greater health benefit on consumers, nor are they necessarily more nutritious than non-organic or conventional  foods.  It's true that organic foods have been shown to contain lower levels of pesticides than conventional foods, but these levels are still within government guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The study, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, the journal of the American College of Physicians (ACP), notes the following:
Researchers conducted a systematic review of 17 human studies and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, eggs, chicken, pork, and meat to compare the health, nutritional, and safety characteristics of organic and conventional foods. They found that the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.
"Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious," said Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD MS, a VA Physician Fellow at CHP/PCOR, and lead author of the paper. "My colleagues and I were a little surprised that we didn't find that."
The researchers did find weak evidence of the nutritional superiority of organic foods in that organic produce contained significantly higher levels of total phenols, a compound that may have antioxidant properties, and that organic milk and chicken contained significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. However, the researchers concluded that since few people have phosphorous deficiency, the finding has little clinical significance.
Transition From Devout Marxist to Devout Christian in China: An article in The New York Review of Books has an interview with Yuan Zhiming, a prominent figure during the the 1989 Tiananmen protests; he was the creator of the much-watched series on Chinese television called River Elegy, which spoke about the need for Chinese to look outward. Yuan himself has changed views, from a devout Marxist to a devout Christian. Such is not surprising in a nation where Marxism and Christianity have been living side by side for decades. Equally important, as China becomes more wealthy and its citizens acquire more things, it is expected that they will look to religion—in this case to Christianity—for answers to life's questions. In contrast to Mao's xenophobia, the Christian narrative with Jesus as a central figure of "love and acceptance" might go a long way to soften Chinese culture and its distrust of foreigners.
After the Tiananmen crackdown, Yuan became one of the country’s most-wanted dissidents, fleeing to Paris and eventually making his way to Princeton. It was there, in 1992, that he converted to Christianity and later started his US-based charity, China Soul for Christ Foundation. Although banned from entering China, he has become one of the country’s most influential spiritual figures through his documentaries and videotaped sermons. This summer, I met Yuan at his offices north of San Francisco, where we talked about China’s moral crisis, the future of communism, and the problems Christianity has in adapting to its new home.
Russia Issues Warning About Attacking Iran: Not surprising, Russia has issued an official warning to Israel and the United States that they should not consider an attack Iran, since it says there is no evidence that the Islamic Republic is developing nuclear weapons. It has also said that any further sanctions, beyond the ones already imposed in four Security Council Resolutions (the last in 2010), are unnecessary. That means that Russia is prepared to veto anything new, as it did recently with Syria. An article in the National Post says:
“We warn those who are no strangers to military solutions … that this would be harmful, literally disastrous for regional stability,” Interfax quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying. An attack on Iran “would set off deep shocks in the security and economic spheres that would reverberate far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East region,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying.

Russian officials have issued similar warnings in the past, but Ryabkov’s remarks appeared to underscore Moscow’s concern about the possibility that Israel might attack Iranian nuclear facilities. Heightened Israeli rhetoric about the facilities, which Western powers believe are part of a program to develop a nuclear weapons capability, has stoked speculation that Israel may attack Iran before the U.S. presidential election in November.
Ryabkov said there were no indications of a military nuclear program and suggested monitoring by the U.N. nuclear agency was a strong guarantee. “We, as before, see no signs that there is a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program. No signs,” Interfax quoted Ryabkov—Russia’s point man for diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear programme—as saying.

September 8th in History

    70Roman forces under Titus sack Jerusalem;
1264: The Statute of Kalisz, guaranteeing Jews safety and personal liberties and giving battei din jurisdiction over Jewish matters, is promulgated by Boleslaus the Pious, Duke of Greater Poland;
1380: Russians defeat Tatars at Kulikovo, beginning of the decline for Tatars;
1504: Michelangelo's "David" is unveiled in Florence;
1664: Dutch surrender New Amsterdam (now New York City) to 300 English soldiers;
1760: French army gives Montreal to General Jeffrey Amherst;
1924: Alexandra Kollontai of Russia becomes first woman ambassador;
1941: The German blockade of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Russia begins;
1951: Treaty of San Francisco: In San Francisco, California, 48 nations sign a peace treaty with Japan in formal recognition of the end of the Pacific War;
1962: U.S.S.R. performs nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya U.S.S.R; and
1994: Last U.S., British and French troops leave West Berlin, Germany

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending September 1, 2012

News & Commentary

After a summer break, I am back; here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Neil Armstrong Dies at 82: American hero and the first man to walk on the moon, Armstrong died on Saturday August 25th; he was 82. An Associated Press article by Lisa Cornwell and Seth Borenstein captures what all of us felt about this man.
Neil Armstrong was a soft-spoken engineer who became a global hero when as a steely-nerved pilot he made "one giant leap for mankind" with a small step onto the moon. The modest man, who had people on Earth entranced and awed from almost a quarter-million miles away, but credited others for the feat, died Saturday. He was 82.
 Armstrong died following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures, his family said in a statement. It didn't say where he died; he had lived in suburban Cincinnati.
Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon July 20, 1969, capping the most daring of the 20th century's scientific expeditions. His first words after becoming the first person to set foot on the surface are etched in history books and the memories of those who heard them in a live broadcast.
 "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," Armstrong said.
Taliban Beheads 17 in Afghanistan:  In Afghanistan 17 persons were beheaded by Taliban Islamists, which forbid many things, including mixed dancing, music, women's education and many of the things that define modern western society. Its methods are crude, but highly effective. An article by Ahmad Nadeem in Reuters says:
The Taliban beheaded seventeen party-goers, including two women dancers, in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province as punishment, recalling the darkest days of rule by the ultra-conservative Islamist insurgents before their ouster in 2001.
The bodies were found on Monday in a house near the Musa Qala district where a party was held on Sunday night with music and mixed-sex dancing, said district governor Nimatullah. Men and women do not usually mingle in Afghanistan unless they are related, and parties involving both genders are rare and kept secret.
Infant Male Circumcision:  This is something that Jews and Muslims can agree on. Ritual male circumcision—common to Muslims and Jews—poses no risk to the child. The American Academy of Pediatrics said in an article in Pediatrics, “new research, including studies in Africa suggesting that the procedure may protect heterosexual men against H.I.V., indicated that the health benefits outweighed the risks.” Such scientific findings debunks the circumcision hysteria in some circles, including the recent ruling by a German court in Cologne and the potential prosecution of a rabbi in Bavaria:  In Commentary, Jonathan S. Tobin writes:
This gives the lie to those opponents who have tried to depict circumcision as a danger to male infants who must be protected from the desire of their parents to practice their faith. The ruling is a switch from a 1999 ruling that had taken a neutral stance on the issue. This helps clarify the debate being promoted by opponents of circumcision. Once the medical argument is taken away from them they are left with only two possible motivations: The dubious assertion that no parent ought to have the right to make the decision to carry out such a procedure on an infant, and anti-Semitism.
It should be specified that neither Jews nor Muslims, who also practice circumcision, do so for health reasons. Both treat the circumcision of males as a positive religious commandment and not one of either health or hygiene. But where opponents have been able to brand the procedure as either dangerous or without medical benefits has undermined support for the procedure even though the question is one of religious freedom.

Mitt Romney Confirmed as Republican Candidate in U.S. Presidential Elections: When Ann Romney, the wife of Mitt Romney, stepped up to the podium last Tuesday in defense of her man, her long-time husband, her words were no doubt aimed at women voters with families. Emotion is as important as policy in such things as appealing to the electorate. Few voters today only consider policy issues, though of course that is what's essential. In modern politics, however, voters have to like and trust the person they cast their ballot for, and Ann Romney's speech reflected that thinking, that reality. An AP report in Bloomberg Business Week says:
Her pitch was aimed squarely at women who are raising families. "If you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It's how it is, isn't it?" she said. "It's the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right."
And Mrs. Romney defended her husband's wild success in business, offering a character testimonial to counter Democratic attack ads that have worked to paint her husband as wealthy and out-of-touch.
"Mitt doesn't like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point," she said. "And we're no different than the millions of Americans who quietly help their neighbors, their churches and their communities. They don't do it so that others will think more of them. They do it because there is no greater joy."
Jewish Refugees From Arab Lands: Israel is asking the United Nations to hold a summit on Jewish refugees from Arab lands whose properties were confiscated. Such a move is long overdue by Israel. Whether it has any chance of seeing the light of day in the United Nations, which is generally hostile to Israel, will greatly depend on whether other nations support Israel's initiative. An article in the algemeiner says:
The summit’s main goal would be to address the issue of Jewish property rights, according to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that between 1948 and 1951 about 850,000 Jews were expelled or forced out of Arab nations, losing an estimated $700 million in property ($6 billion today). Most of these refugees were absorbed by Israel, where today they comprise over half the population.

September 1st in History

1689: Russia began taxing men's beards;

1836: Reconstruction begins on Synagogue of Rabbi Judah Hasid in Jerusalem;

1902: A Trip to the Moon, considered one of the first science fiction films, is released in France;

1905: Alberta and Saskatchewan join the Canadian confederation;

1939: The Second World War begins when Germany invades Poland;

1970: Attempted assassination of King Hussein of Jordan by Palestinian guerrillas, who attack his motorcade.

1979: The American space probe Pioneer 11 becomes the first spacecraft to visit Saturn when it passes the planet at a distance of 21,000 kilometres (13,000 mi).

2004: The Beslan school hostage crisis commences when armed terrorists take children and adults hostage in Beslan in North Ossetia, Russia; 344 civilians were killed, 186 of them children. Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev took responsibility for the hostage taking.