Sunday, August 4, 2013

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending August 3, 2013

News & Commentary



Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

New Normal For Afghanistan: An article, by Graham Bowley, in the New York Times says that an Australian entrepreneur, backed by American investment, has started a soccer league in Kabul, which might shape the future of this nation that has seen its share of violence.

Bowley writes:.
Mr. Mohseni has brought a modicum of normalcy to Afghanistan. His new commercial soccer league is part of a broader Afghan media empire — the holding company is called the Moby Group — that he and his family have built after their return to Kabul from Australia in 2002. As a private company, Moby does not state its earnings publicly, but people familiar with its performance say it is likely to post revenue of more than $60 million in its current fiscal year.
In a country where the Taliban once banned television, where a television set costs about one-fourth of an average Afghan’s annual income and where the electricity supply is uneven, Mr. Mohseni has built a business in the bubble of security and prosperity afforded by the international presence in the country. He has done this with the start-up help of United States government money and with a cash injection last year from News Corporation, led by his friend Rupert Murdoch, with whom he shares an Australian background, a love of gossip and an obvious industriousness.
Now, like his native country, Mr. Mohseni stands on the cusp of the next phase of development. In the coming year, Afghanistan is facing both the withdrawal of most international troops and a tense political transition after presidential elections. Outside the stadium, beyond the police guards poised on nearby towers, the reality is that Afghanistan remains a poor, turbulent, chaotic nation that, some fear, may plunge into something even worse as its army confronts the Taliban alone without international support, as outside aid money dwindles and as warlords jostle for supremacy.
Whether Mohseni and others like him succeed will largely depend on the will of the average Afghani to both accept and embrace modern ways. If they attend soccer matches, watch TV and do some of the things that moderns do, then there is every good chance that Afghanistan will eventually have some of the decorations of a modern democracy.  Real democracy will take much longer, requiring more effort, taking decades to take force.

Elections In Cambodia: An article in The Economist says that elections in Cambodia last week returned the incumbent, but with a smaller majority, to power, signaling that Hun Sen, the prime minister, who has led the nation for 28 years, has seen better days. His party, Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), won 68 seats in the 123-seat parliament, a comfortable enough margin, but, more surprising is that the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by Mr Sam Rainsy, had picked up 55 seats.

The Economist writes:
It was a dramatic conclusion to a dramatic home stretch. On July 12th the government had issued a pardon to Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader who had exiled himself from Cambodia since 2009, while criminal charges were prepared against him. He made his homecoming on July 19th, when he was met by a jubilant crowd. They may have hoped that Mr Sam Rainsy’s presence could bring their party an outright victory in the polls, but he seemed to have known better. Even then, with a week to go before the election, he was threatening to have the results condemned if the rules weren’t changed.
When July 28th came round, some voters were angered to discover that their names were not on the rolls, or that other people had already voted under their names. Other rumours flew furiously: for instance that the CPP was shipping in Vietnamese from across the border to cast ballots.
“Khmer can’t vote—yuon can,” went up the cry on social-media sites and among many who were protesting against the CPP. Yuon means Vietnamese people in Khmer, the main language of Cambodia. Many regard it as a highly derogatory term. Two police vehicles were overturned and set alight. By nightfall troops were deployed, roads blocked and Phnom Penh’s lively rumour mill had gone into overdrive. It all made a tense atmosphere tenser.
By the end of preliminary counting, the CPP acknowledged that the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by Mr Sam Rainsy had picked up 55 seats, an impressive improvement on the 29 seats it had already held in the 123-seat parliament. The CPP won 68 seats for itself, down from 90, and so lost the two-thirds majority which had enabled it to rewrite the constitution. Minor parties, including the once-formidable royalist Funcinpec party, were obliterated.
Poor Die Much Earlier: An article, by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, in the New York Times says what the poor and less-fortunate already know; that no options as a result of little money leads to killer stress and early death:

Velasquez-Manoff writes:

Dr. Marmot blames a particular type of stress. It’s not necessarily the strain of a chief executive facing a lengthy to-do list, or a well-to-do parent’s agonizing over a child’s prospects of acceptance to an elite school. Unlike those of lower rank, both the C.E.O. and the anxious parent have resources with which to address the problem. By definition, the poor have far fewer.
So the stress that kills, Dr. Marmot and others argue, is characterized by a lack of a sense of control over one’s fate. Psychologists who study animals call one result of this type of strain “learned helplessness.”
Such sums up the problem that many in the United States today face—a land with increasing social and economic inequalities. No options; no control; more stress; early death. Welcome to the American Nightmare.

Major Scientific Study On Medical Marijuana: A press release from Drexel University says it “has received a grant for a five-year study of medical marijuana and its impact on drug use and physical and psychological health among young adults in Los Angeles. It is the first large-scale NIH project funded to directly investigate medical marijuana use among young adults aged 18 to 26.”

It adds:

The study, “Medical Marijuana, Emerging Adults & Community: Connecting Health and Policy,” is being led by Dr. Stephen Lankenau, an associate professor in Drexel’s School of Public Health, who was awarded an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health for $3.3 million over five years, beginning July 1. Ultimately, Lankenau hopes the study’s findings can guide medical marijuana policies at local, state and national levels to result in the most positive health outcomes for young adults and communities.
Lankenau aims to determine the impact of medical marijuana policies in Los Angeles on young adults’ physical and psychological health. A core focus is understanding the significance and influence of dispensaries – storefronts that sell medical marijuana – on health.
[...]
Federal funding of medical marijuana research has been minimal to date likely because under federal law the drug remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance, a category that includes other drugs such as heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Lankenau noted that, as a result, most existing studies are smaller in scale, or involve secondary analysis of survey data without direct recruitment of medical marijuana-using populations.
This is a significant public policy shift in the U.S., which, until this announcement, has not conducted any studies of this magnitude. Given its wide use, it's important to understand the effects and significance of marijuana, notably on the health and welfare of young adults. Ignoring the issue will not make it disappear. 


Playing With Schrodinger’s Cat: An article, by Jesse Emspak, in Live Science says scientists are coming closer to understanding a decades-old thought experiment in quantum mechanics:

Emspak writes:
The idea, called Schrödinger's Cat after the physicist,Erwin Schrödinger, who proposed it in 1935, goes like this: Put a cat in a box with a vial of poison gas. The vial opens when a tiny piece of radioactive metal emits an alpha particle (the nucleus of a helium atom) as it decays. Emitting an alpha particle is a quantum-mechanical process, which means that whether it happens in any given stretch of time is basically random.
Quantum mechanics says that it's impossible to know whether the radioactive decay has happened (and the cat is dead) unless one measures it — that is, unless the alpha particle interacts with the environment in some way that an observer can see. Until that happens, the alpha particle is emitted and not emitted at the same time. The cat is both dead and alive, a state called superposition. Opening the box is a measurement — one sees the effect of an alpha particle as the dead cat, or the absence of an alpha particle as a live one. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]
In the two new studies, detailed in the July 21 issue of the journal Nature Physics, researchers used particles of light, or photons, to test the limits of such superposition. If there is no limit to how many particles or photons you can put into a quantum system, that means the cat really is both dead and alive at once, and the act of measuring its state makes the mathematical formulation that describes it (called a wave function) "collapse" into a definite state, alive or dead.
This shows the strangeness of quantum mechanics, where things can exist in two states. It is hard for our minds, that is those of us who are not quantum physicists, or highly familiar with it, to comprehend its reality. Even so, it’s good to try to understand its implications without arrogantly attacking its premise from ignorance.I welcome physicists' comments on this experiment.

& One More, On Cancer

Cancer Should Be Better Defined: An article in CBC News says that the definition of cancer needs to be narrowed to exclude diseases that are likely to do no harm:

The CBC writes:
The definition of cancer should be narrowed to exclude some forms of the disease that are unlikely to cause harm, U.S. cancer experts propose. That's one of the recommendations from a working group of the U.S. National Cancer, which published an online commentary today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 
The word 'cancer' often invokes the specter of an inexorably lethal process," said Dr. Laura Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California in San Francisco, along with her co-authors. "Use of the term 'cancer' should be reserved for describing lesions with a reasonable likelihood of lethal progression if left untreated."
[...]
The authors say doctors, patients and the general public need to recognize that overdiagnosis is common and occurs more frequently with cancer screening. Overdiagnosis occurs after the detection of tumours which, if left untreated, would not cause harm during the patient's lifetime.
This is an interesting proposition, since a diagnosis of cancer can also result in psychological, emotional and familial turmoil. If the tumour is not harmful, there is no need for long-term invasive procedures like chemotherapy and radiation. Medicine now has a better understanding of cancer and often over-treatment can do more harm than good. 

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