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Afganistan on Edge

British Ministers: Women's Rights Key to Stable Afghanistan

October 26th 2012

Afgan Women in Burka

British ministers say the development program in Afghanistan is failing to protect the rights of Afghan women. A new government report says Britain should reconsider its ambition of building Afghan government institutions and instead focus on more traditional aid targets, especially women's rights.

British parliamentarian Malcolm Bruce chaired a new study advising Britain's Department for International Development on its program in Afghanistan. Bruce says Britain is not doing enough to make sure women's rights are protected.

"They have benefited a lot from the end of the Taliban and from the period if you like of international engagement," said Bruce.  "Many of them are really concerned that the gains could be lost and there is certainly evidence that it is being pushed back."

Of nearly 100 projects funded by Britain in Afghanistan, Bruce says only two of those are directly or explicitly focused on women. In some regions of Afghanistan women's rights have improved since the Taliban fell over a decade ago. 3.2 million girls are now studying, that's a concrete improvement following the ban on female education under Taliban rule in the 1990s. Read more ..

Cambodia on Edge

Illegal Fishing Threatens Tonle Sap Lake Villagers' Livelihood

October 25th 2012

Tonie Sap Lake

Villagers on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, who depend on fishing for subsistence, say their livelihoods are threatened by illegal commercial fishing, which continues after a government ban.  And they say authorities in charge of enforcing the ban are being bribed to look the other way.

Despite a government ban on commercial fishing across Tonle Sap Lake - the largest lake in Southeast Asia -- fishing communities say bribery of corrupt local officials has meant the illegal practice is actually increasing. The ban was meant to decrease the rapid overfishing of the lake, a major source of food for much of the country.

Mao Penh, the head of one local fishing community, says law enforcement officials are “colluding” with illegal fishing operations. “One side took the money and closed their eyes while the other went for the illegal fishing.  The law enforcement officials are colluding with offenders; that's 50-50. This is what's happening in my village these days,” he said. Read more ..

Inside Ethiopia

Ethiopia to Introduce Mobile Banking

October 25th 2012

Mobile Banking

Ethiopia is one of the few remaining African countries to introduce mobile banking. With the booming economy and a population of 80 million this country could be the next gold mine for mobile banking companies.

Mobile banking has proved to be a lucrative venture in the developing world, where large parts of the population belong to the so-called "unbanked."  In Africa, only Ethiopia and Zimbabwe do not provide mobile money services.  That will change soon for Ethiopia.

BelCash and M-Birr are mobile banking technology providers that have been in Ethiopia for the last three years to set up mobile banking and mobile money services. Dutch company BelCash is focused on mobile banking, working in partnership with banks to provide easier access to finance through bank accounts. Ireland-based M-Birr is a mobile money service that works with micro finance institutions where no registration at a bank is needed. Read more ..

Inside Cuba

From Persecution To Acceptance? The History Of LGBT Rights In Cuba

October 24th 2012


Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the island nation has received low scores in many human rights indices for reported assaults on freedom of speech, expression, religion, and basic due process. Outside of these violations, historians regard the 1960s as an even more repressive decade for one Cuban community in particular: the country’s homosexual population. Indeed this group has only recently witnessed an opening of civil liberties for them. While the record of their treatment today is certainly not perfect, there are clear signs of a gradual but serious shift from Cuba’s previously anti-LGBT policies to a modern tendency of equal treatment and respect for all sexual orientations.

Even in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, the island’s society relegated the homosexual community to the few LGBT-friendly bars in Cuban cities. Moreover, strict laws criminalized homosexuality and targeted gay men in particular for harassment. In the 1930s, Cuba enacted the Public Ostentation Law, which encouraged the harassment of LGBTs who refused to hide their orientation. At this time, Cuba’s legislation toward the LGBT community was essentially no different from what was being done in the rest of Latin America, nor the continent’s colonial ancestors, Spain and Portugal.

Homosexuality in Cuba Under Castro
The Cuban Revolution seemed to present hope for improved living conditions for the many afflicted members of the community, and hope for a new outlook on old social mores quickly spread across the island. Many gay men were in favor of the Revolution and even supported longtime Cuban President Fidel Castro. However, despite professed egalitarianism, Castro’s government in reality was no kinder to the LGBT community than the pre-revolutionary governments. Castro and the other leading revolutionaries considered homosexuality a devious product of capitalism, which had to be rooted out entirely from society. For example, Che Guevara’s definition of the socialist “New Man” in part necessitated a strong and unambiguously heterosexual male. This view was not unique to the Castro regime, and could be found in the ideologies of many leaders from other communist countries. For example, the USSR and China routinely persecuted the LGBT community. As ironic as it may seem, communist thinking at the time consistently ignored the LGBT community. Read more ..

The Human Edge

Grandmas Made Humans Live Longer

October 24th 2012

Mother child Ethiopa

Computer simulations provide new mathematical support for the "grandmother hypothesis" – a famous theory that humans evolved longer adult lifespans than apes because grandmothers helped feed their grandchildren.

"Grandmothering was the initial step toward making us who we are," says Kristen Hawkes, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Utah and senior author of the new study published Oct. 24 by the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The simulations indicate that with only a little bit of grandmothering – and without any assumptions about human brain size – animals with chimpanzee lifespans evolve in less than 60,000 years so they have a human lifespan. Female chimps rarely live past child-bearing years, usually into their 30s and sometimes their 40s. Human females often live decades past their child-bearing years.

The findings showed that from the time adulthood is reached, the simulated creatures lived another 25 years like chimps, yet after 24,000 to 60,000 years of grandmothers caring for grandchildren, the creatures who reached adulthood lived another 49 years – as do human hunter-gatherers. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Putin Creates Agency To Restore Russia's National Pride

October 24th 2012


The Kremlin is hoping to restore national pride in Russia with the creation of a new agency in charge of promoting patriotism. The agency will be part of the presidential administration and, according to the Kremlin's website, will be tasked with strengthening "the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society" and improving "government policies in the field of patriotic upbringing."

President Vladimir Putin formally ordered the creation of the new structure, the Directorate for Social Projects, on October 20.

The initiative has drawn mixed reactions, with critics dismissing it as a Soviet-style scheme aimed at consolidating the Kremlin's power base and curbing an unprecedented youth-driven protest movement against Putin's 12-year rule.

Nikolai Petrov is a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow: "As an antidote to political protests, the Kremlin is using ideology and counting on the quiet, archaic masses who don't want change," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "This is why this newly created body will deal primarily with ideological issues."'

'Spiritual And Moral Values'
The idea behind the Directorate for Social Projects was first formulated by Putin last month during his visit to the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, where he toured a presidential cadet school and held a roundtable discussion on patriotism with top government officials and cultural luminaries.

Indonesia on Edge

Sunni Sectarianism and the Re-emergence of Jihadism in Indonesia

October 24th 2012

Indonesian Sunnis
Indonesian Sunnis

Events in Indonesia during September 2012 raised concerns that the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation may be taking a turn toward hardline Islamism. A major government official openly called for the elimination of Shiite Islam from Indonesia, and the Buddhist minority was the target of a foiled bombing. These developments may cause the future of Indonesia’s tolerant Islam to be reassessed.

Indonesia experienced two events in September 2012 which may signal a turning point in the campaign run by Indonesia’s Sunni Islamists to install Sharia as the law of the state. The first is the religious affairs minister’s inflammatory statements against Shiite Islam, which may indicate that Sunni Islamists have accelerated their plans to damage the diversity within Indonesian Islam. The second is the discovery of a suicide bombing plot against Indonesia’s Buddhist minority, which could signal that dormant jihadists may be newly emboldened. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Russia Marks Tenth Anniversary of the Siege of the Moscow Theatre

October 23rd 2012

Russian memorial to Moscow victims

Time has not eased Dmitry Milovidov's grief over the death of his 14-year old daughter, Nina, in the Moscow theater siege. Milovidov stills struggles to contain his anger as he recounts Nina's 57-hour ordeal at the hands of Chechen rebels and the botched rescue operation that took her life 10 years ago.

Like most of the 130 hostages who died in the siege, Nina was killed by the knockout gas pumped into the Dubrovka theater to subdue the militants. "The chemical affected her respiratory system and halted her breathing," Milovidov says. "How long can a person live without breathing? Then her heart stopped beating. That's what was done to our children." Read more ..

Mexico on Edge

The Tragedy of Human Bondage and Trafficking South of the Border

October 23rd 2012

Mexican women protesters
Mexican women protesting against feminicide.

“Each year, thousands of people are trafficked within and across our borders to serve as sex slaves or un-free labor in U.S. homes, fields and factories. Many enter via our southern border with Mexico, after having been trafficked within or across Mexico from other parts of the Americas and beyond…enslaved migrant laborers are often seen simply as undocumented workers who are in the country illegally, while sex trafficking victims are merely prostitutes plying an illegal trade..”

The above passages were from a program backgrounder to a timely conference held this past week at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque: “Borderline Slavery: Contemporary Issues in Border Security and the Human Trade.”

Sponsored by UNM’s Latin American and Iberian Institute and in cooperation with colleagues from New Mexico State, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and other academic institutions, the event drew borderlands scholars, journalists, legal professionals and students. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

The Exact Spot of Julius Caesar's Murder Discovered

October 23rd 2012

Torre Argentina Rome

Archaeologists from Spain's National Science Council (CSIC) have found the exact spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by Brutus and conspirators in Rome, approximately 45 years before the birth of Christ. They have found a structure that Caesar's adoptive son built in honor of the fallen conqueror of Gaul.

Located in what is known as the Curia of Pompey, the concrete structure measures three meters wide and over two meters high, and was erected by order of Augustus (adoptive son and successor of Julius Caesar) to condemn the assassination of his father. The location of the structure provided the key the researchers needed to find the spot of the murder immortalized by Classical chroniclers and William Shakespeare. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

Turkey is Leading Jailer of Journalists

October 23rd 2012

Turk flags

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists says Turkey -- long seen as a model of democracy in the Middle East -- is the world's leading jailer of journalists. A report released Monday says Turkey currently has 76 journalists behind bars. CPJ says it has confirmed that at least 61 of them are detained in direct connection with their work. Turkey's total puts it ahead of Iran, Eritrea, and China -- three countries more well known for curbing media freedom.

“Turkey has a legal problem,” said Nina Ognianova, an analyst with CPJ. “According to local groups, at the end of last year, 2011, there had been between 3,000 and 5,000 pending cases - criminal cases - against journalists on a variety of charges that stretch from insulting ‘Turkishness’ to trying to influence the outcome of a trial.” Ognianova said the prosecutions, as well as imprisonment of journalists, are possible because of vaguely written Turkish laws against terrorism that can be misused by authorities. Read more ..

Europe on Edge

Euro Crisis Fuels Pro-Independence Movements

October 22nd 2012

Spanish protesters

Pro-independence parties have won a series of elections across Europe in recent days, many of them campaigning on anti-austerity platforms. Despite EU calls for closer integration to overcome the euro crisis, the popular movement appears to be in the opposite direction.

Scotland already has its own parliament in Edinburgh. The ruling Scottish National Party wants to break away entirely from the United Kingdom. First Minister Alex Salmond has secured a referendum on Scotland’s future - to be held in 2014. “I believe we’ll win it by setting out a positive vision for a better future for our country, both economically and crucially also socially,” said Salmond. Salmond said an independent Scotland would rely on an energy economy, becoming the "Saudi Arabia of renewable energy." Read more ..

Mexico on Edge

Embattled Indigenous Communities of Mexico

October 22nd 2012

Protester Michoacan Mexico

For the second time in less than two years, an indigenous community in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan has erected barricades and seized control of security matters. Located in the Purepecha highlands of the Pacific coast state, the small community of Urapicho in the municipality of Paracho has been under the self-declared control of the people for about a month now.

The news was publicized this week with the posting of a video on YouTube that shows armed and masked men, some clothed in military-style camouflage clothing, attending a sand-bagged checkpoint, where motorists are searched. Two anonymous, masked spokespersons explain the reasons behind the uprising and the goals of their movement. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Israel to Aid Bone-Dry Syria with Life-Giving Water Purification

October 21st 2012

A deal was brokered over the October 13-14  weekend that will allow a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals to sell water purification tablets that will be used to purify dirty water in Syria. Already a near-dry state, Syria’s drinking water supply has deteriorated sharply since the onset of a bloody war that has displaced and killed thousands of people. Special permission was required to broker the sale since the AquaTabs will be used in an enemy state, although the goods will not be sold directly from Israel to Syria.

The international aid organization UNICEF, which has stepped up its emergency response in Syria in advance of winter, will purchase the tablets from Medentech, a branch of the Israeli-owned company that is based in Ireland, according to Ynet. The chlorine tablets are considered a better alternative to boiling water to remove contaminants since the latter method requires fuel that is not only scarce but also emits pollution into the atmosphere.

Israel’s Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz approved the contract because of the grave humanitarian situation that has been unfolding in Syria since May, 2011, although it was politically palatable to do so given that UNICEF is paying for and distributing the AquaTabs as a neutral third party. Read more ..

Nigeria on Edge

Bakassi People Bitter Over Loss Of Homeland in Nigeria

October 21st 2012

Bakassi People

Nigeria’s Bakassi people are mourning the loss of their homeland after the Nigerian government declined to appeal 10-year-old ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ceding the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon. An appeal was the last glimmer of hope for the Bakassi people, who strongly opposed to the transfer of their ancestral home to Cameroon. Nigeria had 10 years to appeal the ICJ ruling but did not do so by the October 10, deadline. The nation’s minister of justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke, summed up the decision by saying “An application for a review is virtually bound to fail.” Many, like Prince Edem Nsa, say they will not soon forget October 10. “I felt so bad. It was like the ground should open for me to go in and forget about this world,” he said.  “It was the saddest day of my life.” Read more ..

The Battle for Bahrain

The Shadow of Iran over Bahrain's Problems

October 20th 2012

Bahrain enraged protesters

Tension has increased again in the Persian Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain, the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, after one policeman was killed and a second seriously injured by a homemade bomb during a clash with Shiite demonstrators in a village outside the capital, Manama.

These latest casualties in Bahrain, in the troubles that started in early 2011, occurred just three days after the Bahraini Foreign Ministry had summoned Iran's top diplomat on the island to complain about Tehran's interference in Bahrain's internal affairs. Specifically, and without mentioning by name Bahrain's majority Shiite community, the Bahrainis accused Iran of inciting sedition and sectarianism "via its mass media; and through ties and contacts with specific groups in the Bahraini community." Tehran was also accused of falsely claiming that Bahrain had requested Iranian mediation to help resolve the island's problems. Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

Afghan Woman's Beheading Latest In Alarming Trend

October 20th 2012

Afgan Women in Burka

A disturbing spate of violent attacks against women has gripped western Afghanistan, where over a dozen women have been killed this year. In the latest incident, an 18-year-old identified only as Najibullah was arrested on October 13 in connection with the gruesome torture and beheading two days earlier of a woman in the western city of Herat, near the border with Iran.

Mahgul, a 25-year-old newlywed, was found dead outside her home by her family, who then carried her mutilated body to the local Department for Women's Affairs to raise awareness of her killing. Najibullah, who gave a confession in front of journalists and television cameras on October 15, said he was forced to carry out the act by his aunt, Mahgul's mother-in-law, Parigul. He said Parigul restrained Mahgul, while he took a sharp knife and beheaded her. Read more ..

America on Edge

Dallas Suburbs Lead in Efforts To Deny Public Information Requests

October 19th 2012

Paper Stack

Among the state’s biggest cities, several sprawling Dallas-area suburbs tallied the highest rate of requests to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott last year to keep government information secret.

The probe examined the number of attempts by the 20 largest Texas cities to block public requests for information in 2011, then looked at how those numbers stacked up for each city, according to the rate of requests per 100,000 population. The “winners” were not the state’s biggest cities. McKinney had the highest rate of requests asking that Abbott allow the withholding of documents sought by citizens under the Texas Public Information Act. Next up were McAllen, Garland, Mesquite, Plano and Arlington. Fort Worth was ranked eighth and Dallas ninth, giving the Fort Worth/Dallas metroplex seven of the top 10 in the rankings.

The investigation also looked at the cities’ batting averages in getting their requests approved by Abbott’s office. McKinney won full or partial approval to withhold information in 95 percent of its cases; most of those requests were partially approved, meaning some information did have to be released. Read more ..

Gaza on Edge

Both Israelis and Hamas fear Salafist takeover of Gaza

October 19th 2012

Burka cellphone

A growing number of Islamists from the Egyptian-based Salafist network, who embrace global jihad, are multiplying and taking root in the Gaza Strip, while Hamas, which governs that portion of the Palestinian population, has done nothing to stop the extremist "invaders," Israeli police sources have declared. "We hope that Hamas will be more determined to deal with this threat. So far, Hamas's attitude has shown a double standard: they say that they are taking steps on the ground, but the results are very poor," Yossi Kuperwasser, director-general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told reporters in Jerusalem.

The remarks came days after Israeli aircraft targeted Hisham Saedni, one of four militants killed in cross-border violence that flared up last week. Saedni headed the Shora Council of the Mujahideen, a group ideologically linked to al-Qaeda, and reportedly trained in Iraq at the outset of the U.S. invasion in 2003. The Israeli police source stated that Saedni and his men were involved in firing rockets into southern Israel and planting explosive devices, one of which killed an Israeli soldier and critically wounded another and were set to launch an attack on the Israel-Egypt border. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

American Presidential Campaigns are a Mirror of American Society

October 19th 2012

Bunch of American flags

American presidential campaigns provide a unique window into our society, according to a University of Michigan anthropologist. "It says a lot about our culture that we pay so much attention to the clothing, gestures and hair styles of presidential candidates and to their performances in highly theatrical situations, like debates," said Michael Lempert, a linguistic anthropologist at the U-M.

Lempert is the co-author with University of Chicago anthropologist Michael Silverstein of "Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency," just published by Indiana University Press. In the book, they dissect the construction and presentation of a presidential candidate's "message"—revealed through a carefully choreographed persona composed of appearance, style of speech, gesture and publicly packaged biography, which are as influential as what the candidate actually says. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Social Media Transforms Debate Viewership

October 18th 2012

Smart phone running voice recogniton

Computers and mobile devices are transforming the speed and means by which voters get information about candidates. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are steadily replacing traditional sources as the delivery method of choice for a generation of new voters.

As she gears up for this year’s election, Center College student Kelly Bolton, who's on the campus of the vice presidential debate, is getting political updates not from television or traditional news sources, but instantly, through her phone. “You know what’s happening, when it’s happening.  And that’s exciting in a political season because you want to know where the polls are standing, or if Romney said something or Obama said something,” Bolton said.

The information is delivered to her phone through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have grown in popularity as more Americans own mobile devices. uring the first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the Pew Research Center says one in 10 Americans watched the debate while also following news about it on their computers or mobile devices. Read more ..

Afganistan on Edge

Afghanistan Tests Out New Civil-Service Hiring System

October 17th 2012

Civil service applicants

If you were appointed a district governor in Afghanistan, how would you tackle security challenges?

For that matter, how would you provide equal rights for women in a deeply conservative society? And how would you implement government policies in an area where there is not much trust or support for government?

Those are the types of questions currently being posed to hundreds of job candidates as Afghanistan tests out revamped hiring procedures for civil-service positions. The effort is part of the country's larger effort to fight corruption, and is aimed at changing a firmly entrenched culture of favoritism when filling government positions ranging from lofty gubernatorial posts to more modest secretarial roles. Read more ..

The Women's Edge

Initiative Empowers Rural Women

October 16th 2012

West Africa Domestic Violence

October 15th is International Day of Rural Women. The United Nations says rural women play a critical role in development, food security and eradicating poverty.

Four U.N. agencies recently launched a five year initiative to speed economic empowerment and gender equality of rural women. Initially, the program will be implemented in seven countries: Ethiopia, Liberia, Niger, Rwanda, Guatemala, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan.

“When women are empowered, things change, not only for her, but also for the other members of the household and then also for the economy,” said Clare Bishop Sambrook, senior advisor on gender for IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Sambrook described a typical day for a rural woman in East Africa.

“Basically, she’d be getting up in the dark and going to bed in the dark. And she’d start off by cleaning the compound; doing a little bit of cooking of a snack that she and her husband would take to the fields. And then she and her husband would take the agricultural tools, perhaps a hoe, perhaps some draft animals and a plough off to the fields, which might be half an hour away, an hour away. Work there for two or three hours, but then on the way back she’s collecting bits of vegetation and things she could use for adding to the basic diet for lunch,” she said. But that’s only half the day.

“When she gets home then she’d be bathing the children and preparing the food. And then in the afternoon perhaps spending two or three hours going off collecting the water and coming back and collecting firewood on the way. So she’d be carrying the water on her head and the firewood on her back. And perhaps accompanied by one or two little children. Then she gets home and then does more food preparation, which might be by hand, using a local means of crushing the maize. And then cooking the food and then perhaps caring for other household members. And then, eventually, retiring to bed at about nine o’clock,” she said. Read more ..

Nigeria on Edge

Gold Feeds - And Poisons - Nigerian Children

October 16th 2012

Children gather water

About 20 miles from the nearest paved road or light switch, the village of Bagega, Nigeria is the epicenter of the worst lead poisoning outbreak that anyone can remember. The government has promised millions of dollars for a massive life-saving cleanup, but small children continue to play in toxic dirt, and activists say time is running out.

At a gold-processing site, men hammered away at rocks. As he worked, Ismail explained how it’s done. He said that first they crush the rocks, then they feed the pebbles into an electric flour mill, powered by a small generator. Gold is then extracted from the sand. As they worked, an unusual kind of dust billows from the hammers and machines, covering Ismail’s body and clothes. It’s dust that is laden with lead. Read more ..

Islam on Edge

Doctor Sets Out To Divorce Infertility From Tajik Cultural Taboos

October 15th 2012

Tajik Wedding

"It seemed everyone around me, all my friends, were having children," Sharif Halimov recalls, "but my wife couldn't get pregnant." Traditionally, the solution to the Tajik man's fatherhood dilemma has been a simple one -- find a new wife.

But while the truth was tough to handle -- the 36-year-old military officer admits "his masculinity was hurt" when it was first suggested that he, not his wife, was likely responsible for the couple's infertility -- Halimov is glad he listened to the doctor. Thanks in part to medical treatment, Halimov and his wife now have plenty of mouths to feed: Nargis, their biological 1-year-old daughter; and 5-year-old Nafisa, whom the couple adopted from a Dushanbe orphanage. "I think no one here has my patience. I went to many doctors, I tried traditional medicine, and I also prayed to god," he says. Read more ..

Pakistan on Edge

Pakistan Prays for Recovery of Teenage Human Rights Advocate felled by Taliban

October 15th 2012

Malala Yousafzai

Pakistan's military says the 14-year-old schoolgirl who was recently shot by the Taliban has been sent to Britain for medical treatment.

The military said Monday that a panel of doctors recommended Malala Yousafzai's transfer to a British facility "which has the capability to provide integrated care to children who have sustained severe injury." The teenager was being treated in military hospitals in the Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Rawalpindi.

Taliban gunmen shot Yousafzai in the neck and head on October 9 as she left school in the northwestern area of Swat Valley. The Taliban said it targeted the girl because she spoke out against the militant group. Read more ..

China and America

Number of Chinese Students in US Dramatically Expands

October 14th 2012

Chinese Students

The number of students from China studying at universities across the United States has increased dramatically. According to some statistics, the number of undergraduate students from China in the U.S. has doubled in the last two years.  Economists say the trend is due, in large part, to a growing middle class in China. Los Angeles county has one of the largest Chinese student populations in the U.S. - totaling more than 4000 students.

At the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, it is not difficult to spot students from China. They gather regularly for social events, such as this Mid-Autumn festival. Environmental engineering student Sun Wei said he has not met many Americans because there are so many students from his home country. But he said there is a positive side to this. “The benefit is when I arrived it doesn't take much adjusting," Wei said. "It's all Chinese.” Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Smartphone App Lets Russians Call Out Bribes

October 14th 2012

Smart phone running voice recogniton

Have you ever wanted to see an interactive map of all the bribes that change hands in Russia?  Well soon you may be able to thanks to a new smartphone application released for free download by a group of entrepreneur activists.

Bribr, a smartphone app designed by a team of 20 volunteer Muscovites, allows users to register bribes they have had to pay on their mobile phones and then automatically pinpoints them on an interactive map online. The idea is that the map -- depending on its popularity -- will portray an entire constellation of payoffs frenziedly passing hands across Russia's nine time zones.

Yevgenia Kuida, 25, who founded Bribr, hopes it will raise awareness and contribute to a public movement against corruption. "The main idea is basically to raise more attention to bribes, to provoke more interest," Kuida says. "We really believe that if you send the same message all the time to people and they see it, then potentially their attitude might change." Since it went active last week, the app has logged 1.55 million rubles (almost $50,000) in bribes. Corruption in Russia has been estimated to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Read more ..

Asia on Edge

Asia's Aging Populations Pose New Challenges for Region's Economies

October 14th 2012

Elderly man

Researchers in Asia are warning that aging populations pose challenges for governments, as economic productivity falls and more people need financial and medical support. Governments are beginning to heed the warning, pursuing a range of policies to try to address the problem.

In Singapore this year, the government unveiled a catchy song to address a topic that usually does not have dedicated state-sponsored jingles: the island state's young couples need to produce more children to help reverse declining fertility rates. The song is light-hearted, but the problem is serious. By 2030, the population will halve within a generation as the elderly are set to triple in number.  As an incentive, Singapore is offering bonuses of up to $3,250 for each of the first two children, rising to nearly $5,000 for the third and fourth offspring.

Through the 1980s and on, Asia's young working age population was a driving force for the region's economic success. But the trend in Singapore is symptomatic of broader shifts across Asia Asian Development Bank (ADB), said economist Donghyum Park. Read more ..

The Way We Are

The Worst Sounds and Why we Dislike Them

October 13th 2012

Boy in pain

Heightened activity between the emotional and auditory parts of the brain explains why the sound of chalk on a blackboard or a knife on a bottle is so unpleasant. In a study published today in the Journal of Neuroscience and funded by the Wellcome Trust, Newcastle University scientists reveal the interaction between the region of the brain that processes sound, the auditory cortex, and the amygdala, which is active in the processing of negative emotions when we hear unpleasant sounds. Brain imaging has shown that when we hear an unpleasant noise the amygdala modulates the response of the auditory cortex heightening activity and provoking our negative reaction.
"It appears there is something very primitive kicking in," says Dr Sukhbinder Kumar, the paper’s author from Newcastle University. "It’s a possible distress signal from the amygdala to the auditory cortex." Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL and Newcastle University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine how the brains of 13 volunteers responded to a range of sounds. Listening to the noises inside the scanner they rated them from the most unpleasant - the sound of knife on a bottle – to pleasing - bubbling water. Researchers were then able to study the brain response to each type of sound.

Inside Mexico

Green Roofing Counters Food Insecurity and Climate Change in Mexico

October 13th 2012

Xochimilco Mexico school gardening
School garden in Xochimilco, Mexico.

In Mexico City, a form of urban agriculture known as green roofing has gained widespread popularity due to the significant role it has played in reducing air pollution and securing adequate food supplies. These gardens are constructed on elevated building surfaces such as parking lots or residential terraces. Although green roofing dates back to the Mesopotamia era, it has become widely popular to counter global warming, and also has the potential to provide food security. Mexico is infamously known for its poor environmental conditions and a high poverty rate, making it a prime country to promote environmental improvements as it addresses its food insecurity.

Air Pollution & Regional Development

A majority of climatologists agree that there is a strong correlation between rising temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions. Warmer temperatures have altered global climate patterns. Urban areas, such as Mexico City, are major emitters of carbon dioxide because of high-energy consumption and regional development. In the ten-year period between 1990 and 2000, Mexico City had an annual average of more than 300 days of poor air quality. In addition to air pollution, agricultural lands in the Valley of Mexico, also known as the Greenbelt, have been rapidly decreasing due to regional development and pollution. Read more ..

Haiti After the Quake

Islam Gains Ground in Devastated Haiti

October 13th 2012

Haitian mosque
Haitian mosque untouched by 2010 earthquake.

Various forms of Christianity and Afro-Caribbean religions are dominant in Haiti, but Islam has shown a noticeable increase in followers since the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and left more than 1 million others homeless. Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, is now home to at least five mosques. Islam has also shown noticeable growth elsewhere in the Americas, especially in Brazil and Paraguay.

School teacher Darlene Derosier, a mother of two, helped build one of the mosques in her neighborhood. She said she converted to Islam after losing her home in the earthquake and the death of her husband a month later. "For me the victory is that you lived, but you did not think you would," she said.

People of many religions arrived in Haiti following the earthquake to lend assistance. But Muslim convert Kishner Billy, who hosts a nightly TV program, said that Muslims appear to have had the most lingering impact. " Read more ..

Inside Iran

Iranian Jews Fear Their Phones Are Tapped

October 12th 2012

Jews in Iran

M., a Jewish man in his fifties from Tehran, celebrated the festival of Simhat Torah this week. He did not build a sukkah in his yard or invite his Muslim friends and neighbors in, but he attended the special Simhat Torah service. As an observant Jew, he goes to the nearby synagogue three times a day for morning, afternoon and evening prayers.

“It’s a small synagogue in downtown Tehran,” he tells us from Iran over Skype. “In the middle of the week, about 15 Jews who live in the area worship there. This week, like on any other holiday, there were more people than usual. The members of Tehran’s Jewish community attend the synagogue, pray in Hebrew and celebrate the festivals — but other than that, we’re just like all the Iranians.”

M. speaks with us in English. “I don’t speak Hebrew because I went to public school, where we studied with Muslims. But you can learn Hebrew in Jewish private schools. There is a large Jewish community in Iran. Tehran has a large synagogue that serves the community, but I go to a small synagogue that’s close to my home. I eat kosher food, which can be bought at the synagogue. There are also people who help me buy medications and take care of me.” Read more ..

Spain on Edge

Homeless Families in Spain Are Squatting After Eviction

October 12th 2012

Spainish squatters

Protest groups in Spain have helped families that were kicked out of their homes by banks find shelter in repossessed, empty apartment buildings. Police moved in quickly in most cases, but in Seville about 30 families are going on six months of illegal occupation.

Fifty-four-year old Mercedes Lladanosa showed us around the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her daughter and granddaughter. It has hardwood floors and a fancy faucet in the bathroom. But bare light bulbs hang uselessly from the ceiling. The electricity was shut off months ago. And the washing machine is only for show, as the city cut off the building’s access to running water last week. They cook with a gas camping stove. What little furniture Lladanosa has was donated or found in the trash. It is not much - a couch, a bed and a crib. 

Squatting for survival

She and more than 100 others have been living like this since May, in this five-story building that was completed three years ago and left empty when the developer went bankrupt.  Nearly 40 families moved in with help of members from the 15M activist group, like Antonio Moreno Rosana. “Right now in Spain we have something like 517 evictions a day. The thing is, just in Andalucía I think, there are 116,000 empty houses. It is outrageous that you have got empty houses when people are getting thrown out into the street,” said Rosana. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Modest September Job Gains Controversial but Not Unprecedented

October 12th 2012

The hullabaloo surrounding last week's release of the nation's employment numbers was a bit overblown, says a University of Michigan economist.

While U.S. employers posted modest job gains in September, the unemployment rate fell sharply from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent—the lowest point in nearly four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"There is some controversy over the legitimacy of the BLS household employment measure and the unemployment rate that is derived from the same survey, but the numbers seem statistically reasonable," said Donald Grimes of the U-M Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iranians Manage to Have Sense of Humor Despite Travails

October 11th 2012

Iranian women with mobile

Anxiety, fear, and hopelessness are becoming part of the daily lives of many Iranians as the country confronts a deepening economic crisis. The value of the national currency, the rial, has lost some 40 percent of its value.

But despite the difficult times, Iranians have apparently not lost their sense of humor, finding fodder for jokes in the sliding currency and their own misery.

As one Tehran-based businessman said “We share jokes [and] we try to laugh at these dark days. What else are we supposed to do?”

We’ve compiled several of the jokes that are making the rounds on the streets of the capital and other cities.

Here's one that refers to comments made by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on the eve of his 2005 election victory, when he said the country's real problems are unemployment and housing shortages -- not young people's appearances. That comment has now become infamous, as Ahmadinejad is blamed for the economic free-fall:

The day when Ahmadinejad said, "Are the hairstyles of the youth our problem? Let’s instead fix the economy," we were really lucky that he didn’t want to fix our hair -- because by now, we would all be bald! Read more ..

Israel on Edge

Southern Israel: Living on Rockets, Miracles, and the Iron Dome

October 11th 2012

Hamas troops w/rocket

Days and nights in southern Israel have been punctuated by a growing number of sirens and rocket explosions, with over 60 rockets striking Israeli cities and communities this past week. On Monday morning alone, 55 Qassam and mortar shells were fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. The rocket strikes damaged buildings, properties and a kibbutz petting zoo that is usually filled with children, but was empty because of the early morning hour. For residents in Netivot, Sderot and the Gaza-border communities, the rocket routine is not a new one.

On Tuesday night, three rockets were fired, with one towards the city of Netivot and the others landing near Sderot, which has been the target of rocket attacks for nearly 12 years. Speaking with Tazpit News Agency on Wednesday, Netivot resident, Elisheva Ratzon described the panic she experienced the previous night.

“I was on the computer, reading on the news that a rocket had struck Sderot earlier, when all of the sudden, the rocket siren for Netivot went off,” said Ratzon. “It was about 10:30 at night and the rocket struck just as I ran into the shelter in my apartment. There was an extremely loud boom.” Read more ..

The Way We Are

Depressed People Have Difficulty Detecting Others' Emotions

October 11th 2012

Emotional woman's faces

Clinically depressed people have a hard time telling the difference between negative emotions such as anger and guilt, a new University of Michigan study found. “It is difficult to improve your life without knowing whether you are sad or angry about some aspect of it," said Emre Demiralp, a researcher at the University of Michigan Department of Psychology. The lead author of a study recently published in Psychological Science added that the ability to distinguish between various emotional experiences affects how individuals deal with life stressors.

Being unable to differentiate certain emotions from each other might lead to a person choosing an action that is not appropriate, thus exacerbating the problem, she said.

"It is difficult to improve your life without knowing whether you are sad or angry about some aspect of it," Demiralp said. "For example, imagine not having a gauge independently indicating the gasoline level of your car. It would be challenging to know when to stop for gas. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

As Syria Economy Falters, Damascus Somewhat Spared

October 10th 2012

pro-Assad Rally Damascus

The Spice Market of Old Damascus is a strange sight in a country ravaged by civil war. The military pounds pro-rebel towns ringing the capital, but here at its heart, business is brisk. Naiem Bezraa stood in the shop once owned by his father and grandfather, topping off neat pyramids of cumin and dried peppers, pine nuts and almonds. Bezraa said work carries on, but prices have gone up, affecting both customers and  business.  But he said, "Thank God," his supplies are still coming in.

Syria's economy has suffered severely from 18 months of conflict. Bezraa conceded that people are cutting back, sticking mainly to buying essentials. Customers on this ancient, bustling alleyway complain that foreign products are especially expensive.

Sense of normalcy
Still, a certain normalcy prevails.  Goods are more expensive, but available. A man who declined to give his name carried several full shopping bags, noting the price of imported goods is high. 

India on Edge

Indian Girls Rise Up Against Child Marriage

October 10th 2012

Typical Indian Child Bride
Typical Indian Child Bride

Child marriage is an ancient practice in India, and despite being illegal, it continues today in mostly rural areas. Nearly half of women in India are married before the age of 18 and many of those become brides much younger. But one group in eastern India is looking to change this trend.
Bithika Das is concentrating on her school work. The 16-year-old girl from a small village in West Bengal state knows this opportunity to study is one that was nearly lost two years ago when her parents arranged her marriage to a young man.
“If I got married then, my education would have stopped at ninth grade. I could have achieved nothing in the future with an incomplete education. In my husband’s family, I was not going to get good respect,” she said.

Foundation fights back

After her parents' refusal to cancel the marriage arrangement, Bithika contacted the Murshidabad office of the Childline India Foundation. The group runs a 24-hour hotline, providing counseling and other help to children in crisis. Childline activist Debika Ghoshal led the team that helped stall the marriage of then-14-year-old Bithika. The group works with local police to lodge criminal complaints against parents who do not comply with the law banning child marriage. Activists then focus on ensuring that a young girl is able to continue with her education. Read more ..

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