Sunday, October 28, 2012

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending October 27, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Palestinian Elections: Palestinians voted last Saturday in the West Bank’s first local elections since 2005, selecting new leaders for 295 towns and villages, in 643 ballot stations, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Turnout was light in the morning but picked up as the day progressed, according to officials from the central elections commission. As they cast their votes, many Palestinians expressed pride and happiness that the long-delayed local elections were finally being held.
“It makes me feel that democracy is well here,” said Tareq Makhlouf, 26, a U.S.-born Palestinian who moved to Ramallah last year.
Others said they hoped the new slate of local leaders would bring change. “It is time to see new faces in the municipalities,” said Faisal Darras after casting a vote at a Ramallah polling station. “Seven years of the same faces is enough .... Elections should be held every four years, not every seven.”
The Palestinian Authority had attempted to conduct local elections several times since 2010, but votes were canceled due to political instability and the fracture between the two main Palestinian parties, Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Voter turnout was about 54 percent, the Palestinian election commission said when the polls closed, substantially lower than the last election when there was a 74 percent voter-participation rate. About a half a million persons were eligible to cast votes. 

Unrest In Lebanon: An article in the New York Times says that Syria's civil war might be spilling over into Lebanon, a country that had faced its own civil war between 1975 and 1990. For some, the memories of the destruction that such sectarian wars create have become livened by last week's car bomb that killed a top Lebanese intelligence official.
Tensions rippled across Lebanon on Saturday after the Friday attack, which killed Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, a top Lebanese intelligence official who was a Sunni and seen as a supporter of the rebels fighting to oust the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
People affiliated with the various opposition groups staged protests, burned tires and fired weapons into the air in Beirut and other cities as they called on the government to resign. Prime Minister Najib Mikati said he offered to step down, although he said President Michel Suleiman “asked me to stay for a while longer as he discusses the situation.”
The offer to resign, and the unrest after the attack, was partly a reflection of Lebanon’s continuing sectarian tensions, which are in danger of being stoked by the 19-month uprising across the border in Syria. Mr. Mikati is a Sunni, while Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group, and his other partners in Lebanon’s government are considered supporters of Syria’s leadership in its brutal fight against a mainly Sunni uprising.
A Letter Of Betrayal: Christian-Jewish relations took another setback when 15 leaders of Christian churches sent a letter to the U.S. Congress to ask them "to reconsider giving aid to Israel because of accusations of human rights violations," the New York Times reports. The Times adds: "The signers, besides the Presbyterians, included leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker agency) and the Mennonite Central Committee. Two Catholic leaders also signed, one with the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an umbrella group of men’s religious orders."
The Christian leaders say their intention was to put the Palestinian plight and the stalled peace negotiations back in the spotlight at a time when all of the attention to Middle East policy seems to be focused on Syria, the Arab Spring and the Iranian nuclear threat. “We asked Congress to treat Israel like it would any other country,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the top official of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “to make sure our military aid is going to a country espousing the values we would as Americans — that it’s not being used to continually violate the human rights of other people.”
The Jewish leaders responded to the action as a momentous betrayal and announced their withdrawal from a regularly scheduled Jewish-Christian dialogue meeting planned for Monday. In a statement, the Jewish leaders called the letter by the Christian groups “a step too far” and an indication of “the vicious anti-Zionism that has gone virtually unchecked in several of these denominations.”
“Something is deeply broken, badly broken,” said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group that helped to convene the meeting. “We’re certainly not getting anywhere now.”
Such is as true a statement you'll ever hear. Although such political moves might not represent the majority of the people in the pews, it is nevertheless disturbing. Betrayal is the right word to describe such actions, but then again the problem likely lies in the New Testament's narrative of the Jews, colouring the ability of many of its followers to recognize the church's complicity in their long tortured history of persecution of the Jewish People. For example, it was only in 1994 that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officially rejected Martin Luther's anti-Semitic writings, with its 1994 “Declaration to the Jewish Community.”

Unemployed In Spain Waiting For A Miracle: The economic crisis, and that's the right word, has hit Spain especially hard. People who never expected to be without a job, including engineers and other professionals, are now in the undignified position of having to wait in line to receive a free meal, their daily bread if you will The Voice of America writes:
In central Madrid on a Saturday afternoon, the economic crisis seems like something only economists worry about. But in the working class suburb of Mostoles, the crisis hits home.Here at the San Simon de Rojas food-distribution center, unemployed construction worker Antonio Molino Pelaez is just one of many getting acquainted to life on the streets. "When I had a job, I had a good life. I didn't have lot of money but enough to eat. Now I can't survive. I have nothing," he says. "It affects me a lot, because I'm a man of 41 and I don't have any prospects. I don't have a future. I don't have anything."
Pelaez, who eats here six days a week — on Sundays when the food-distribution center is closed, he doesn't eat — has no wife or family to support, a fact for which he is grateful. Many people who come to the food center do have families, including the unemployed waitress who is serving the hungry; living in an abandoned building with her children and unemployed husband, she is too embarrassed to come to the center merely to take a handout. It's a story heard over and over again. Twenty-five per cent of Spanish workers are unemployed and a growing number of them can't afford to buy enough food to live.
Consider the full impact of such a statement: "a growing number of them can't afford to buy enough food to live." What that means is that those who are fortunate enough to have homes can only pay for their housing; yet after doing so, there is no money left for the necessities of life, of living, which includes food. While the economists and political leaders in Europe (and America) might debate and dicker on how nations like Spain and Greece got in such a financial mess, they do so with little understanding of how it affects the middle-class, many of whom have now slipped into poverty—through no fault of their own.

Here are some facts. The nation was doing well financially, enjoying twenty years of sustained growth, and where 8 out of 10 individuals owned homes—the world's highest rate of home ownership. But Spain, like the United States, had a real estate bubble, a result of speculation and government incentives to encourage home ownership. Then the 2008 world recession hit it, and it has not yet recovered, resulting in a high unemployment rate, the New York Times reports: "In April 2012, Spain’s unemployment rate reached 24.4 percent, the highest in Europe and an especially stark figure given that the government had not yet begun to lay off public sector servants in any significant number."

Such are the hard facts and data, but that does not remotely tell the many individual stories of heartache and loss, and such facts matter little to the many millions of individuals, including professionals, who have lost their jobs, their residences and their way of life. Even if there is some bank bailout (an estimated €100bn of rescue loans has been set aside, with terms, of course) to resolve the liquidity crisis, as it is called by economists, it might be too little too late for many of the unemployed. The prospects of ever finding a job for many middle-aged men are now dimmer than ever. That's a shame; a real shame.

Changes In China: An article in The Economist looks at the possibility that China's upcoming leader,
Xi Jinping, might be more reform-minded than his predecessors. Or he might not; it's always hard to speculate what China's top leader might do. In a nation that desires both economic and social stability, as well as prosperity, Xi truly has a tough road ahead of him.
JUST after the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which starts in Beijing on November 8th, a short line of dark-suited men, and perhaps one woman, will step onto a red carpet in a room in the Great Hall of the People and meet the world’s press. At their head will be Xi Jinping, the newly anointed party chief, who in March will also take over as president of China. Behind him will file the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s supreme body. The smiles will be wooden, the backs ramrod straight. Yet the stage-management could hardly be more different from the tempestuous uncertainties of actually governing.
As ruler of the world’s new economic powerhouse, Mr Xi will follow his recent predecessors in trying to combine economic growth with political stability. Yet this task is proving increasingly difficult. A slowing economy, corruption and myriad social problems are causing growing frustration among China’s people and worry among its officials.
In coping with these tensions, Mr Xi can continue to clamp down on discontent, or he can start to loosen the party’s control. China’s future will be determined by the answer to this question: does Mr Xi have the courage and vision to see that assuring his country’s prosperity and stability in the future requires him to break with the past?
Depending on what the results are on November 6th in the U.S. presidential elections, both economic powerhouses might have new leaders—one elected by the will of the people; and the other selected by party officials. The difference is telling.

October 27th In History
  312: Roman emperor Constantine the Great has his famous "Vision of the Cross";
1492: Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus discovers Cuba, claiming the island for Spain;
1810: The United States annexes West Florida from Spain;
1838: Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs issues the "Extermination Order," which orders all Mormons to leave the state or face extermination; 
1916: The first published reference to "jazz" appears in Variety;
1938: DuPont announces its new synthetic fiber will be called "nylon";
1962: During the Cuban missile crisis (Oct 16-28), an American U-2 spy plane is shot down by a Soviet missile crew over Cuba, resulting in the death of Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., USAF;
1978: Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt share Nobel Peace prize

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Final List Of Nobel Prizes Awarded For 2012

Nobel Laureates

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Bernhard Nobel, born in 1833, for whom the Nobel Prize is named. "In his will he left 31 million SEK (today about 265 million dollars) to fund the prizes," the Nobel site says.

Congratulations to the 2012 Laureates: nine individuals, all men, from five nations, and one entity, the European Union. Here is the full list of the 2012 Nobel Prize winners, in order of their announcement:

Medicine: The first of this year's Nobel Prizes, in medicine, were announced: John Gurdon of Britain and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan have been honored "for discovering that mature, specialized cells of the body can be reprogrammed into stem cells," the CBC reports:
Scientists want to harness the reprogramming to create replacement tissues for treating diseases like Parkinson's and for studying the roots of diseases in the laboratory. The prize committee at Stockholm's Karonlinska institute said the discovery has "revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop."
Gurdon showed in 1962 that the DNA from specialized cells of frogs, like skin or intestinal cells, could be used to generate new tadpoles. That showed the DNA still had its ability to drive the formation of all cells of the body. More than 40 years later, in 2006, Yamanaka showed that a surprisingly simple recipe could turn mature cells back into primitive cells, which in turn could be prodded into different kinds of mature cells.
Basically, the primitive cells were the equivalent of embryonic stem cells, which had been embroiled in controversy because to get human embryonic cells, human embryos had to be destroyed. Yamanaka's method provided a way to get such primitive cells without destroying embryos.
This is indeed good news on many fronts, and that human embryos do not have to be destroyed to advance science in general and human medicine in particular should please conservative and religious groups. The prize in medicine is the first of five to be announced this week; the prize in economics will be announced on October 15. All prizes will be handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death (in 1896).

Physics: The Noble Prize in Physics has been given to Serge Haroche of the Collège de France in Paris, France; and David Wineland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology physics laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, "for inventing and developing methods for observing tiny quantum particles without destroying them," the CBC reported.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the two scientists Tuesday "for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems. "Haroche and Wineland, both 68, work in the field of quantum optics, which deals with the interaction between light and matter.
"Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of super fast computer based on quantum physics," the academy said. "The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time."
At the heart of their research is a method each physicist developed, independently but effective, to observe (essentially by "trapping") individual quantum particles while not altering their quantum state—an achievement that will have considerable practical benefits in the near future:
The Nobel Laureates have opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them. For single particles of light or matter the laws of classical physics cease to apply and quantum physics takes over. But single particles are not easily isolated from their surrounding environment and they lose their mysterious quantum properties as soon as they interact with the outside world. Thus many seemingly bizarre phenomena predicted by quantum physics could not be directly observed, and researchers could only carry out thought experiments that might in principle manifest these bizarre phenomena.
These scientists' discoveries will eventually take the thought experiments of the mind to practical applications in the factory, including building faster and more accurate computer technologies and using the knowledge toward bettering the many types of electronic devices that we now use or will use.

Chemistry: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to two Americans Robert Lefkowitz of Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University in California for discovering the inner workings of G-protein-coupled receptors, which are gateways to cells that react to chemical messages. An article in Reuters says:
"Around half of all medications act through these receptors, among them beta blockers, antihistamines and various kinds of psychiatric medications," the committee said.Working out better ways to target the receptors, known as GPCRs, is an area of keen focus for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
Lefkowitz told a news conference by telephone that he was asleep when the phone call came from Sweden. "I did not hear it—I must share with you that I wear earplugs to sleep. So my wife gave me an elbow. So there it was, a total shock and surprise," he said.
The release from the Nobel Committee explains in greater detail how and why their work on G-protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs are important:
The team achieved its next big step during the 1980s. The newly recruited Kobilka accepted the challenge to isolate the gene that codes for the β-adrenergic receptor from the gigantic human genome. His creative approach allowed him to attain his goal. When the researchers analyzed the gene, they discovered that the receptor was similar to one in the eye that captures light. They realized that there is a whole family of receptors that look alike and function in the same manner.
Today this family is referred to as G-protein–coupled receptors. About a thousand genes code for such receptors, for example, for light, flavour, odour, adrenalin, histamine, dopamine and serotonin. About half of all medications achieve their effect through G-protein–coupled receptors. 
The work will lead to the manufacture of better drugs with less side effects. The laureates will receive their prizes at formal ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

Literature: The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan, the Swedish Academy says, “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”  Mo Yan (which means "don't speak" in Chinese), is a pen name; his given name is Guan Moye. The Guardian writes of the 57-year-old writer, who has thus far managed to escape Chinese censors, perhaps aided by his position of vice-chairman of the Chinese Writers Association:
Mo Yan has published novels, short stories and essays on various topics, and despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors, the Nobel committee noted.The 57-year-old, whose real name is Guan Moye, is perhaps best-known abroad for his 1987 novella "Red Sorghum", a tale of the brutal violence that plagued the eastern China countryside—where he grew up—during the 1920s and 30s. The story was later made into an acclaimed film by leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
In a style that has been compared to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mo Yan authored other acclaimed works including "Big Breasts and Wide Hips", "Republic of Wine" and "Life and Death are Wearing Me Out". His latest novel, 2009's "Frog", is considered his most daring yet, due to its searing depiction of China's "one child" population control policy and the local officials who ruthlessly implement it with forced abortions and sterilisations.
The choice of Mo might be an odd one, and not the perfect choice to represent China, his critics point out, given his membership in the Communist Party. Or perhaps Mo is representative of China, pragmatic in his approach: "A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression," Mo said in a speech at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, the China Daily said. "Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions."

More controversial , however, is his praise of the Communist Revolution and Mao, Reuters writes
A number of rights activists and other writers had said Mo was unworthy of the prize and denounced him for commemorating a speech by Chairman Mao Zedong. Mo, together with other Chinese writers, copied out sections of Mao's speech for a special book to mark the 70th anniversary of the speech. It had said writers who did not integrate their work with the Communist revolution would be punished.
So it is.

Peace: The European Union has won the Nobel Peace Prize for its historic role in in uniting the continent over the last six decades, and as the Nobel Committee put it "to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe." No doubt, the EU can use some cheering up, and the award is seen as a morale boost at a time when the bloc struggles to resolve its economic crisis. Reuters writes:
The award served that the bloc had largely brought peace to a continent which tore itself apart in two world wars in which tens of millions died.The EU has transformed most of Europe "from a continent of wars to a continent of peace," Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said in announcing the award in Oslo.
"The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU's most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights," he said.
He praised the EU for rebuilding Europe after World War Two and for its role in spreading stability after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.But the debt crisis afflicting the single currency zone has brought economic instability to several member states, and rioting has erupted on the streets of Athens and Madrid as austerity measures have bitten hard.
The Nobel Committee, in giving the award to the EU, has likely bypassed more worthy candidates, including Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio, a frequent critic of the KremlinAs has been the case with the Peace Prize over the years, this year's winner is symbolic if not political, and speaks more about a desire than a reality—in this case preserving the importance of the EU, of which Norway is not a member state.

The same Reuters article notes: "Norway, the home of the peace prize, has voted 'no' twice to joining the EU, in 1972 and 1994. The country has prospered outside the EU, partly thanks to huge oil and gas resources. The five-member committee is appointed by parliament, where parties are deeply split over EU membership. Jagland has long favored EU membership."

Economic Sciences: The Nobel Prize in economics, the sixth and final of the prestigious prizes, was awarded to two Americans: .Alvin E. Roth, 60, of Harvard University and Lloyd S. Shapley, 89, of the University of California, Los Angeles "for the theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design."

The Noble Committee release  explains the real-world applications of Roth & Shapley's research:
This year's Prize concerns a central economic problem: how to match different agents as well as possible. For example, students have to be matched with schools, and donors of human organs with patients in need of a transplant. How can such matching be accomplished as efficiently as possible? What methods are beneficial to what groups? The prize rewards two scholars who have answered these questions on a journey from abstract theory on stable allocations to practical design of market institutions.
And as the Wall Street Journal notes:
The academy said the researchers worked independently rather than together, but that the "combination of Shapley's basic theory and Roth's empirical investigations, experiments and practical design has generated a flourishing field of research and improved the performance of many markets."
This year's award again confirms the United States' strong leadership in economic sciences. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences was first awarded in 1969; it follows the same rigorous principles of the original five prizes.

The laureates will receive their prizes at formal ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896. For more information on the Nobel Prize, see here.

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending October 20, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

EU Increases Sanctions on Iran: An article by Reuters and published in The Jerusalem Post says the European Union has increased its sanctions against Iran:
EU governments agreed on Monday to further sanctions against major Iranian state companies in the oil and gas industry, and strengthened restrictions on the central bank.
"These sanctions are hitting the Iranian economy hard," Netanyahu added. "We'll know they are achieving their goal when the centrifuges stop spinning and when the Iranian nuclear program is rolled back."
Andrew Standley, the EU ambassador to Israel, said in public remarks at the meeting with Netanyahu that "Iran's nuclear program is a concern not only to Israel but also to the region and the wider international community."
Earlier Tuesday, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said the new sanctions would not force Tehran back into negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program. "We think the error in calculation which these countries are pursuing will distance them from a favorable result," said Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We recommend that instead of taking the wrong approach and being stubborn and using pressure...with a logical approach they can return to discussions."

The EU agreed further sanctions against Iran's banking, shipping, and industrial sectors on Monday, cranking up financial pressure on Tehran in the hope of drawing it into serious negotiations on its nuclear program.
Let's hope that this becomes reality sooner than later.  The sanctions affect ordinary Iranians, which is an unfortunate result of this continuing nuclear crisis. The end result ought to be a diplomatic solution that benefits Israel, Iran and its people, and the international community.

Israel Delivers Top-Notch Family Health Care: An article in The National Post says Israel's health-care system is both effective and efficient, while spending less than many other OECD nations on providing care.
The Jewish state spends just eight percent of GDP on healthcare and offers universal access through one of three HMOs. All conditions, including pre-existing conditions, are covered, although some medicines must be purchased privately. Israelis pay a health tax as part of income tax in exchange for coverage.“Israel has an excellent family health care system and that is a very good point,” Francesca Colombo, a senior health policy analyst and one of the report’s authors told The Media Line. “It has universal access and low spending which is an achievement.”
One successful institution is a network of well-baby neighborhood clinics where newborns are given immunizations and other services. Some medical services such as eye tests are also provided in schools.The report cites the example of adult diabetes. The country has the same rate of diabetes–6.5 percent of the adult population–as many other OECD countries, yet it has the second lowest rate of hospitalization for diabetes that has not been properly controlled.
“There is a pioneering system of using 40 indicators to monitor the quality of primary care since everyone here is involved in one of the HMO’s,” Dr. Bruce Rosen, the Director of the Smokler Center for Health Policy Research at the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Brookdale Institute. “Israel has one of the highest longevity rates in the world for men and one of the highest for women.”
It brings to mind the old adage doing more with less. In other words, a nation can deliver high-level medical care at a reasonable cost if it knows what its primary and secondary goals are and it can keep those in mind; I would think that primary care and preventative medicine would be two of the top goals today.

I would sense such an approach might depend on having doctors with the requisite skills and training, and a good follow-up system. This is something that is not always done in the strict confines of the North American medical system, including my home nation of Canada, which does have universal medicare, at least in principal if not practice.

Cuba Eases Travel Restrictions, But Not For Everyone: An article in Associated Press and published in The Globe and Mail says that the Cuban government has announced its intentions to remove certain travel restrictions, primarily the need to apply for an exit visa and produce a letter of invitation, thus giving many Cubans the ability to travel to their primary destination, the United States.
The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it will no longer require islanders to apply for an exit visa, eliminating a much-loathed bureaucratic procedure that has been a major impediment for many seeking to travel overseas. A notice published in Communist Party newspaper Granma said Cubans will also not have to present a letter of invitation to travel abroad when the rule change takes effect Jan. 13, and beginning on that date islanders will only have to show their passport and a visa from the country they are travelling to.
"As part of the work under way to update the current migratory policy and adjust it to the conditions of the present and the foreseeable future, the Cuban government, in exercise of its sovereignty, has decided to eliminate the procedure of the exit visa for travel to the exterior,” the notice read. The measure also extends to 24 months the amount of time Cubans can remain abroad, and they can request an extension when that runs out. Currently, Cubans lose residency and other rights including social security and free health care and education after 11 months.
Still, the notice said Cuba plans to put limits on travel within unspecified sectors. Doctors, scientists, members of the military and others considered valuable parts of society currently face restrictions on travel to combat brain drain.
Exit visas are a way to control travel. The lifting of travel restrictions, for some of the many Cubans who desire to leave the island nation, is a positive step for the communist regime now headed by Raul Castro, who took over the reins of government from his ailing older brother Fidel in 2006; and it shows that gradual changes are the norm for the authoritarian regime.

Yet the easing of travel does not go far enough, says Cuban dissident Elizardo Sanchez in a Los Angeles Times article: “The government is admitting that people have a right," said Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. "But with so many limitations and hindrances, in practice thousands of Cubans will be excluded and discriminated against.”

Egypt & Jordan Ambassadors Present Their Credentials to Israel: An article in AFP says that both Egypt and Jordan have sent ambassadors to Israel to take up posts that have long been vacant; this is a good sign for peaceful relations between Israel and the only two Arab nations that have signed peace deals with Israel.
New ambassadors from Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries to have a peace treaty with Israel, formally took up their posts on Wednesday, both highlighting a desire for good relations. Egypt's Atef Salem presented his credentials to President Shimon Peres, bringing a message of reassurance from the government of President Mohamed Morsi, whose roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood. "I came with a message of peace and I came to confirm that we are really working for mutual trust and transparency and we are committed to all the agreements we signed with Israel," he said.
Peres told him: "We consider Egypt historically and politically as the leading country of the Arab world. We have the highest respect for your people and for your history.
"Please convey to President Morsi my very best wishes for his success, for the success of Egypt and for the success of the Middle East."
Jordan's new envoy, career diplomat Walid Obeidat, also presented his credentials to Peres, filling a position that had been vacant since mid-2010. "Our foremost priority in our foreign policy still remains the peace process and achieving peace between all neighbouring countries, including the establishment of an independent sovereign Palestinian state," Obeidat said in remarks broadcast on Israel public radio.
Driverless Cars On the Horizon: An article in The Economist says that driverless automobiles might become the norm within a decade or two. If it sounds far-fetched, think about the electronic devices that you now take for granted and that were not operational twenty years ago, including the Web. It takes some imagination, but not too much:
Just imagine. It could, for a start, save the motor industry from stagnation. Carmakers are fretting at signs that smartphone-obsessed teenagers these days do not rush to get a driving licence and buy their first car, as their parents did. Their fear is that the long love affair with the car is fading. But once they are spared the trouble and expense of taking lessons and passing a test, young adults might rediscover the joys of the open road. Another worry for the motor industry is that car use seems to be peaking in the most congested cities. Yet automated cars would drive nose-to-tail, increasing the capacity of existing roads; and since they would be able to drop off their passengers and drive away, the lack of parking spaces in town might not matter so much.
Cars have always been about status as well as mobility; many people would still want to own a trophy car. These might not clock up much mileage, so carmakers would have to become more like fashion houses, constantly creating new designs to get people to swap their motors long before they have worn out. But cars that are driverless may not need steering wheels, pedals and other manual controls; and, being virtually crashless (most road accidents are due to human error), their bodies could be made much lighter. So makers would be able to turn out new models quicker and at lower cost. Fresh entrants to carmaking could prove nimbler than incumbents at adapting to this new world.
All major changes at first appear controversial and unsettling; as will the idea of eventually giving up automobile ownership. It will come sooner than later, and with it, bring about wholesale changes to the way we commute, shop and work. As article says: "Google, which is testing a fleet of autonomous cars, thinks in maybe a decade, others reckon longer. A report from KPMG and the Centre for Automotive Research in Michigan concludes that it will come 'sooner than you think' "

October 20th in History

1097: First Christian Crusaders arrive in Antioch, now in modern Turkey;
1774: The U.S. Continental Congress orders discouragement of entertainment;
1786: Harvard University organizes first astronomical expedition in U.S.;
1818: The 49th parallel becomes the official border between the U.S. and Canada;
1822: First edition of London Sunday Times published;
1835: Charles Darwin and the HMS Beagle leaves Galapagos Archipelago and sail to Tahiti
1883: Max Bruch's Kol Nidre first performed;
1905: Russian tsar allows the people of Poland to speak Polish;
1930: British White paper restricts the Jews from buying Arab land in British-mandate Palestine;
1973: OPEC oil embargo begins

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending October 13, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Philippines Signs Peace Agreement With Rebels: An article in Bloomberg says that Philippine President Benigno Aquino has announced that it has signed a peace deal with Islamic rebels, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, thus giving them an autonomous region. This is a bold move by the President Aquino, but it might be a necessary one to better its fortunes. The decades-long insurgency by the rebels has claimed 100,000 lives and has made investment in the Philippines less attractive. The World Economic Forum in its latest survey has ranked the island nation 126th of 144 on the cost to business due to terrorism.
A new “political entity” called “Bangsamoro” will take the place of the autonomous region in Mindanao, Aquino said in Manila today. Talks between Philippine officials and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front concluded in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, and Aquino and Malay Prime Minister Najib Razak will witness the signing of the agreement in Manila on Oct. 15.
“This framework agreement paves the way for a final, enduring peace in Mindanao,” Aquino said, flanked by his entire cabinet. “This means that hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations, and opening doorways of opportunity for other citizens.”
While economic growth in the Philippines is accelerating, the insurgency has frustrated efforts by companies including Xstrata Plc. and Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. to tap an estimated $312 billion in mineral deposits in the south, and damaged Aquino’s efforts to further boost foreign investment. Death squads that human-rights groups have linked to police and the military, contract killings over land disputes, and al-Qaeda- affiliated terrorists in Mindanao add to the mix of violence as the nation pursues its first investment-grade credit rating.T
As the article points out, peace tends to bring with it dividends: “It could help sustain the rally in the stock market,” Astro del Castillo, managing director at First Grade Finance Inc., said by phone from Manila today. “It’s one of the islands that’s really underdeveloped. If there is peace, investments will pour in and push the economy of the country higher.”

U.S. and Philippines Hold Joint Military Exercises: An article in the New York Times says the United States and the Philippines are holding joint military exercises:
The training, called Amphibious Landing Exercises, involve 2,600 United States Marines and 1,200 Philippine Marines and will be held in locations around the northern island of Luzon. The two militaries will train together on disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and maritime security. “Today, we stand side by side as we face common threats,” said Marine Brig. Gen. Craig Q. Timberlake at the opening ceremony.
The exercises are being held during a time of increased tensions in the South China Sea with the Philippines and China involved in a territorial dispute over islands lying near rich energy deposits. Officials said Monday that the joint exercises have been going on for nearly 30 years and were not related to the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
They are designed for training and mutual education. “Amphibious Landing Exercises is an opportunity for an exchange of professional expertise,” said Brig. Gen. Remigio C. Valdez, the deputy commander of the Philippines armed forces. “Technological advancement is at the heart of its goal.”
The training exercises are taking place at a time when the area of the south China Sea has become more tense, and the U.S. turns its attention to an area that it has long considered vital but perhaps neglected to adequately protect its interests.

2 Chinese Telecoms Raise Spying Concerns, U.S. Congress Says: An article in the National Post says that the United States Congress' Intelligence Committee has said that American businesses should not conduct business with two major Chinese telecom companies—Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. and ZTE Corp.— for reasons that centre on state espionage.
U.S. telecommunications operators should not do business with China’s top telecom gear makers because potential Chinese state influence on the companies poses a security threat, the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee said in a report on Monday. The report follows an 11-month investigation by the committee into Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and ZTE Corp. The companies have been fighting an uphill battle to overcome U.S. lawmakers’ suspicions and expand in the United States after becoming key players in the worldwide market.
The House Intelligence Committee’s concerns are bound to set back the companies’ U.S. prospects and may also lead to strains in ties between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies. Committee Chairman Rogers, at a press conference to release the report, said the panel was stopping short of urging a U.S. boycott of mobile phones and other handheld devices made by Huawei and ZTE.
Espionage has existed for centuries. When there is a notable and leading technological nation like the United States, it becomes a target of many spy agencies and their proxies. It is both right and normal for a nation like the U.S. to protect its interests. That being the case, there has long been a suspicion that a rising and powerful economic nation like China has not ruled out state espionage to get its hands on intellectual property, pragmatically deciding to use legitimate private enterprises as a conduit to gain sensitive technological information.

Of course this is both illegal and immoral; each year, nations like the U.S. spend hundreds of billions of dollars on scientific research and development. It's only right that the U.S. should not make it easier for nations like China to illegally obtain technology that is not rightfully theirs. It would also be prudent on the part of Canada to heed the advice of U.S. lawmakers.

North Korea Boasts Its Missiles Can Strike the U.S.: In an article in the New York Times, North Korea has boasted that its missiles can strike at the heart of the United States. This bluster comes a few days after the U.S. and South Koreasigned a deal to give the South more military punch, doubling the range of its ballistic missiles. The Times writes:
North Korea has often threatened to strike the “heart” of the United States, and a popular propaganda poster there shows a North Korean missile hitting what looks unmistakably like Capitol Hill. But the warning issued Tuesday was more detailed. 
The North Koreans “do not hide” that their armed forces, “including the strategic rocket forces, are keeping within the scope of strike not only the bases of the puppet forces and the U.S. imperialist aggression forces’ bases in the inviolable land of Korea but also Japan, Guam and the U.S. mainland,” a spokesman at the North’s National Defense Commission said in a statement. North Korea often refers to the South Korean military as “puppet forces,” a reference to the South’s alliance with the United States.
The North’s “strategic rocket forces” are believed to be in charge of the country’s missiles. The North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, visited the unit’s headquarters in March and mentioned it by name during his first public speech in April.
All this bragging on the part of North Korea is a way to pump up the nation, which is suffering terribly from this authoritarian regime. That its people are malnourished and starving, and that one-third of its children show signs of stunted growth, seem to matter little to the North's leader. It is highly unlikely that the North would think about launching a missile at its counterparts in the South, let alone Japan or the U.S.

As the AFP article says: "Reacting to Pyongyang's claims that it possessed rockets capable of striking the US mainland, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said North Korea should realize threats and provocation will achieve nothing.
That's only going to undermine their efforts to get back in the conversation with the international community. Rather than bragging about its missile capability, they ought to be feeding their own people.
Nothing more can be added.

Israel PM Netanyahu Calls Elections For Early 2013: Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced early general elections, eight months before his current mandate ends, in a bid to receive a renewed mandate from the electorate to impose certain austerity measures that are likely to be unpopular with particular segments of the population. The Guardian writes:
"I have decided, for the benefit of Israel, to hold elections now and as quickly as possible," Netanyahu said at a press conference, without specifying the date of the poll. Israel's economy and national security are the two issues likely to dominate the election campaign, with the question of a peace agreement with the Palestinians being pushed down the political agenda. The election date is expected to be late January or early February.
Netanyahu's party, Likud, is expected to comfortably win the largest share of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats, almost four years after the last election in February 2009. The prime minister had the option of waiting until next October before going to the electorate.
His coalition government has proved unexpectedly stable despite repeated threats by his small rightwing coalition partners to bring down the government. Under Israel's electoral system of proportional representation, the leader of the biggest party will have to negotiate with smaller parties to form a new coalition government.
Netanyahu's decision to call early elections rests on two main domestic considerations. The first is the forthcoming national budget. The prime minister faces a massive struggle to get an austerity budget passed in the face of the warring interests of the smaller parties in his coalition who have an eye on their constituencies. He may believe it is better to call an election than see the government fall in the wake of the budget crashing in flames.
Almost forgotten in all the coverage and talk about the threat emanating from Iran is the need to focus on Israel's economy and the necessary measures any government must take to both reduce its budget deficit and create jobs. Israel's budget deficit has doubled in the last year, at about 3 per cent of GDP, which is a worrisome sign for financial markets; its unemployment rate is 7 per cent, the highest it has been since January 2010.

It is likely that Prime Minister Netanyahu is delaying the painful and necessary austerity measures until after the election, which he's likely to win. Even so, he doesn't have much room to maneuver.

& One More, a Story of True Courage:

Malala Yousafza: Freedom Fighter In Pakistan: The family of a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafza, who was shot by a Taliban militant while she was returning home from school—a girl who advocated freedom, including the right of education—says it will not be silenced, an article in The Telegraph reports. The shooting of this courageous girl has both shocked and galvanized the nation of Pakistan.
Malala Yousafzai remains in a critical condition after being singled out by gunmen on her way home from school on Tuesday. Her courage in writing a blog about life under the Pakistan Taliban when they controlled the Swat Valley has turned her into a national hero in a country where few are brave enough to challenge extremism.
Doctors cannot yet say whether she will make a full recovery. Hours after surgeons removed a bullet from his daughter's neck, Ziaddun Yousafzai told The Daily Telegraph that his family had no intention of seeking asylum overseas. "We wouldn't leave our country if my daughter survives or not," said Mr Yousafzai, at the military hospital in the north-western city of Peshawar where Malala is being treated."We have an ideology that advocates peace. The Taliban cannot stop all independent voices through the force of bullets."
He added that the family had received multiple threats but had never considered stopping their campaign against the Taliban or leaving Mingora, the main town of Swat. Mr Yousafzai also said his family had rejected offers of security for his daughter in the past. "We stayed away from that because she is a young female. The tradition here does not allow a female to have men close by," he said.
The Pakistan Taliban has already said it will try again to kill Malala if she survives. On Wednesday family friends reported fresh threats against Malala's father and brother.
Malala Yousafza, a courageous girl, is a true freedom fighter, since she is fighting for freedom to receive education., to learn and to think independently. Her actions ought to embolden the military of Pakistan to confront the Taliban, whose ways are reactionary, pre-modern and an assault on human dignity and freedom. The Taliban claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, calling Yousafzai’s work “obscenity.” This brazen act, the shot heard round the world directed at a young girl returning from school, might be the beginning of the end for extremism and its hateful ideology in Pakistan.

Let's hope so; as the Telegraph puts it: “The nature of the attack has stunned Pakistan, a country hardened by years of militant and army brutality. Human rights groups, politicians and commentators have united in condemnation raising hopes the shooting might prove a turning point in the country's perceived reluctance to take on militant havens in the north-west.”

Equally important, let's hope for a full and complete recovery for Malala Yousafza, because I believe, and I am sure others concur, that she has a bright future ahead of her, one in which she'll become the remarkable adult that her nation needs.

October 13th In History
54: The Roman emperor Claudius I dies after being poisoned by his wife, Agrippina, and his step-son, Nero, ascends to the throne as emperor;
409: Vandals and Alans crossed the Pyrenees and appeared in Hispania.1943: Italy declares war on Germany, its one-time ally;
1307: Hundreds of Christian Knights Templar in France are simultaneously arrested by agents of Phillip the Fair, and are later tortured to confess to heresy.
1792: Washington lays the cornerstone of the Executive Mansion (White House);
1843: In New York City, Henry Jones and 11 others found B'nai B'rith, the oldest Jewish service organization in the world.
1881: Revival of Hebrew language as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda & friends agree to use Hebrew exclusively in their conversations1960: Television sets across the United States showed a split screen with Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon on one side and Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy on the other during their third televised debate. They were actually thousands of miles apart and not in the same studio;
1977: Four Palestinians hijack a Lufthansa airliner demanding the release of 11 imprisoned members of Germany's Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, also known as the Red Army Faction.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending October 6, 2012

News & Commentary

Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Azerbaijan To Israel's Defense: It has often been said that politics of necessity lead to odd alliances, at least publicly. An article in Reuters and published in the The Jerusalem Post says that Israel might have found at least one ally from an unexpected source, Azerbaijan. Such a political move shows that despite the risks to it, Azerbaijan considers a nuclear Iran to be a greater risk. If this holds true, it would give Israel some more diplomatic leverage against Iran and its nuclear program. It might also encourage other nations to line up with Israel:
Azerbaijan, the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic on Iran's far northern border, has, say local sources with knowledge of its military policy, explored with Israel how Azeri air bases and spy drones might help Israeli jets pull off a long-range attack.
That is a far cry from the massive firepower and diplomatic cover that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wants from Washington. But, by addressing key weaknesses in any Israeli war plan - notably on refueling, reconnaissance and rescuing crews - such an alliance might tilt Israeli thinking on the feasibility of acting without US help.
Despite official denials by Azerbaijan and Israel, two Azeri former military officers with links to serving personnel and two Russian intelligence sources all told Reuters that Azerbaijan and Israel have been looking at how Azeri bases and intelligence could serve in a possible strike on Iran.
"Where planes would fly from - from here, from there, to where? - that's what's being planned now," a security consultant with contacts at Azeri defense headquarters in Baku said. "The Israelis...would like to gain access to bases in Azerbaijan."
Take No Offense: An article in The Guardian shows how cultural differences can lead to violent outcomes. Since education is often the best way to quell misunderstanding, soldiers in the Afghan army have been issued a booklet, an intelligent measure: "The 18-page guide is being distributed after a sharp rise in the number of 'green on blue' attacks, the nickname for incidents in which Afghan troops turn their weapons on Nato soldiers," the article says. "This year 51 Nato troops have been killed by members of the Afghan security forces, including nine British soldiers." 
The booklet is intended to bridge the divide cultural divide between local forces and Nato troops and avoid the misunderstandings that have sometimes ended in violence, the Washington Post reported. It warns Afghan soldiers that their international allies may blow their noses in public or "show their excitement by patting one another on the back or the behind", both taboos in Afghan culture.
The pamphlet, entitled “Cultural Understanding — A Guide to Understanding Coalition Cultures", also cautions that Westerners may put their feet up desks without realising that showing the soles of feet is considered a serious insult in Islamic culture.
Publication Fraud On The Rise: An article in ScienceInsider says that the majority of scientific papers that undergo retraction are not due to honest scientific error, but fraud. It seems that the desire, if not urgency, to get published in the top journals has led some scientists to submit papers with less integrity and honesty than one presumes is required in science. The results of the findings were published yesterday online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS); the authors are microbiologists and journal editors Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel writes:
Casadevall and Fang, who are fascinated by scientific integrity in publication, wanted to follow up on work published last year. Medical writer R. Grant Steen had reported in the Journal of Medical Ethics that 73.5% of 742 papers retracted between 2000 and 2010 were pulled because of errors. "What I was interested in was to see if we could understand the sources of error," says Casadevall, who runs a lab at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, and is editor-in-chief of mBio. That way, he and Fang thought, "we may find a way to improve science" by giving researchers a heads up about where the most common pitfalls lie.
They asked Steen to join them, and together searched PubMed for all retractions, coming up with a total of 2047 dating back to 1977. (PubMed primarily covers biomedical research.) Rather than rely just on retraction notices from journals— which in some cases they couldn't access without paying a fee, Casadevall says—they cross-referenced as many retractions as they could with other sources, including reports from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which investigates scientific misconduct.At stake is the integrity of scientific research and its findings. The interesting point is the following, although the article might not have given it the due attention it deserves: "Although retractions are on the rise, they remain relatively rare in science. Well under 0.1% of papers in PubMed have been retracted, the study found; the database contains more than 25 million papers going back to the 1940s." 
While this might be true, it raises more questions. One unanswered question deserving attention is why retractions are increasing: Is it is due to laxness, a direct result of time constraints, in the peer-review process and a corresponding greater diligence on the part of readers post-publication? Or is there a greater dishonesty in scientists today who, feeling the pressure to publish (i.e., "peer pressure"), take risks that they ordinarily would not take elsewhere? I would be interested to know what scientists think.

Building A Palestinian Society: In an article in Tablet, Richard Landes says that for peace to be possible between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the leadership of the Palestinians have to show some positive measures, good will if you will,  particularly as it relates to their own Palestinian refugees. There are some uncomfortable truths that need airing. That their living in refugee camps for more than 60 years has not benefited the Palestinian People; that the current peace process is not going anywhere; and that this situation needs a viable and just solution that reduces the power of politics.

Prof. Landes lays out the problem: "[T]he Arab leadership chose to herd Arab refugees into prison camps so that they could serve as a symbol of Israeli crimes." The solution?: free them. His statement is as simple as it is right. It is not the only initiative that will show both Israelis and Palestinians that peace is possible, but it is a very good first step.
So, here’s my proposal to those who somehow feel we must revive the peace procespoliticss now, before it’s too late. Call for the Palestinians to show their good intentions, not toward the Israelis, but toward their own people. Get those “refugees” out of the prison camps into which they have been so shamefully consigned for most of a century.
Begin at home, with the over 100,000 refugees in Territory A, under complete PA control. Bring in Habitat for Humanity and Jimmy Carter to help them build decent, affordable, new homes. Let us all participate in turning the powers of Palestinian ingenuity away from manufacturing hatred, fomenting violence, and building villas for the rich and powerful, while the refugees live in squalor as a showcase of Israeli cruelty, and start to do good for a people victimized by their own leadership.
To take this position, so aligned with progressive values, however, we would have to confront two obstacles. First, overcoming our immense reluctance to criticize and make demands on the Palestinians. That would also mean we’d also have to renounce the impulse to attack as racists or Islamophobes those making the demands. We also have to consider, especially true for journalists in the field, the possibility that we’re intimidated, afraid to criticize people with so prickly a collective ego. Second, it would mean overcoming the widespread hunger for stories of “Jews behaving badly.” After all, if it weren’t for the appetite for moral Schadenfreude, the whole idea of pinning the miserable fate of the Palestinian refugees on Israel rather than on their Arab jailors would never have taken hold in the first place.
This is undeniably true. The question is how to implement such a process, which many will say is not impossible but difficult politically.  True, it will at first take courage on the part of the moderates within the Palestinian leadership to agree to go ahead with such a proposal; they will need encouragement and resources from the West, as the article points out. Even so, given what's at stake here, it's a proposal worth considering.

Illegal Shipments to Russia: An article in Bloomberg yesterday says that eleven persons have been indicted for "illegally exporting high-tech microelectronics from the United States to Russian military and intelligence agencies." The eleven, the FBI says, are part of "a Russian military procurement network operating in the United States and Russia."
The case is “the first-ever criminal prosecution of a large-scale Russian military procurement network operating within the United States,” said Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for Loretta Lynch, U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, New York. A federal indictment dated Sept. 28 was unsealed today.
One of the accused is Alexander Fishenko, 46, an owner and executive of both the Houston-based export firm Arc Electronics Inc. and a Russia-based procurement firm, Apex System LLC. He is also charged with operating as an unregistered agent of the Russian government, the Justice Department said. Most of the other defendants were employees of Arc or Apex, the government said.
The microelectronics involved are subject to strict government controls, the Justice Department said. They can be used in radar and surveillance systems, weapons guidance systems and detonation triggers, according to the government. Arc shipped at least $50 million worth of microelectronics and other technology to Russia without an export license, the government said in a memorandum today to U.S. Magistrate Judge George C. Hanks Jr. in Houston.


October 6th In History

1890: Mormon Church outlaws polygamy;
1927: "Jazz Singer," starring Al Jolson, first movie with a sound track, "a talkie," premiers in New York City;
1898: Gustav Mahler conducts the First Wiener Philharmonic;
1951: Stalin announced that Russia has the atom bomb;
1956: Dr. Albert Sabin discovers oral polio vaccine;
1973: Yom Kippur War: Egyptian and Syrian forces launch a coordinated attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, beginning the Yom Kippur War.
1981: President Anwar Sadat of Egypt is assassinated while viewing a military parade in a Cairo suburb.