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The Ancient Edge

Climate Change Led to Collapse of Ancient Indus Civilization

May 28th 2012

desertification New Mexico

A new study combining the latest archaeological evidence with state-of-the-art geoscience technologies provides evidence that climate change was a key ingredient in the collapse of the great Indus or Harappan Civilization almost 4000 years ago. The study also resolves a long-standing debate over the source and fate of the Sarasvati, the sacred river of Hindu mythology.

Once extending more than 1 million square kilometers across the plains of the Indus River from the Arabian Sea to the Ganges, over what is now Pakistan, northwest India and eastern Afghanistan, the Indus civilization was the largest—but least known—of the first great urban cultures that also included Egypt and Mesopotamia. Like their contemporaries, the Harappans, named for one of their largest cities, lived next to rivers owing their livelihoods to the fertility of annually watered lands.

"We reconstructed the dynamic landscape of the plain where the Indus civilization developed 5200 years ago, built its cities, and slowly disintegrated between 3900 and 3000 years ago," said Liviu Giosan, a geologist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and lead author of the study published the week of May 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Until now, speculations abounded about the links between this mysterious ancient culture and its life-giving mighty rivers."  Read more ..


India on Edge

India's Agriculture Boom Fuels 'Rural Urbanization'

May 28th 2012

Rural Construction

Forget what you think you know about rural India. Pastoral scenes of oxen carts and bicycles are increasingly being replaced by the symbols of modern prosperity - from motorbikes and home electronics, to hair and skin care products. Life in India's countryside still involves plenty of hard work. But standards of rural living have gone up dramatically in recent years.

Inflated food prices - otherwise a headache for politicians and urban consumers - have put more money in the pockets of farm workers. Generous government subsidies and lenient credit policies have helped fuel investment in tractors and other heavy equipment. It also has created a consumer market that makes many of India's hundreds of thousands of remote villages look a little more like cities. “We have amenities the previous generations could never afford to have. We have motorbikes, mobile phones, a fridge, and other things,” said Sanjay Singh, a rural villager.

The rural appetite for vehicles is especially strong. Shankar Prasad is one businessman cashing in on the trend. “In the case of motorcycles we find that about 50 percent of our buyers are from rural areas and only 50 percent, rest of them are from urban areas. In case of consumer durables when there was no sale about 10 years back of consumer durables. Now, we find that 50 percent of our sales are from the villages. So I will tell you the divide between the urban and rural area is blurring,” said Prasad. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

The Clerics vs. Modernity

May 27th 2012

Iranian clerics

In a speech in 2003 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that "More than Iran's enemies need artillery, guns and so forth, they need to spread cultural values that lead to moral corruption. They have said this many times. I recently read in the news that a senior official in an important American political center, said: 'Instead of bombs, send them miniskirts.'

He is right. If they arouse sexual desires in any given country, if they spread unrestrained mixing of men and women, and if they lead youth to behavior to which they are naturally inclined by instincts, there will no longer be any need for artillery and guns against that nation." It is striking here how the government uses military literature, vocabulary and metaphor to speak about culture. Since Khamenei is the commander in chief of the Armed Forces he also regards himself as the commander in chief of Islamic culture. He is the one who defines it and he is the authority who implements it. What Khamenei considers a cultural invasion should be seen as the broadest war in the history of mankind. In his eyes the enemy's armies are innumerable and include all members of Western society who adhere to modern liberal values and cultural institutions—from art to tourism. Read more ..


The Edge of Justice

Police, Suspensions in Schools Need Reform, New Report Urges

May 27th 2012

Campus crime

When it comes to student discipline, suspending kids and a heavy police presence in schools are policies that are doing more harm than good, according to a new report on three especially troubled California districts. 

The report released Thursday by University of California scholars and Human Impact Partners is an exhaustive profile of students in South Los Angeles, Oakland and the agribusiness hub of Salinas in Central California. All these communities have high levels of family poverty, high rates of student suspension and high dropout rates. Oakland-based Human Impact Partners reviews data and conducts on-the-ground interviews to assess the effects that public policies have on equity and health in communities.

The report was funded by the California Endowment. The Center for Public Integrity also receives some support from the Endowment. The Los Angeles school district has already adopted what’s called “positive behavioral support” as an alternative to out-of-school suspension. But researchers found that some L.A. schools are still failing to use the method. As a result, students are still being suspended and losing hundreds of days of school time. The report delves into the high rate of suspensions for “willful defiance,” and the serious discipline challenges the schools face. Read more ..


Nigeria on Edge

Isolation, Tradition, Poverty Drive Up Nigerian Maternal Death Rate

May 27th 2012

Breast Milk Flash Heated

Globally, the number of maternal deaths has been cut in half since 1990. But, in Nigeria 40,000 women die each year because of pregnancy complications. Aid organizations say poverty, isolation and dangerous traditions are the heart of the problem while some mothers say there are simply no doctors at the hospital. A United Nations study indicates that a third of the women who die from childbirth yearly are in two countries: India, the world's second-most populated, and Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation.

The report says Nigeria also has the distinction of having one of the world's highest maternal death rates - 630 deaths for every 100,000 live births. Bukola Danmusa is the mother of three who lives in a rundown neighborhood outside the capital. She says many women do not go to the hospital because it's too expensive. "Some people don’t have money to go the hospital to do [pre-natal care] and the results are complications or death when they have their baby," said Danmusa. She says, even if they go, to a hospital, there is usually no doctor and perhaps a single nurse. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Survival of Portuguese Health Care Questioned

May 26th 2012

innoculation of child

  Free state-funded health care is one aspect of the post-WWII political settlement of which Europeans are most proud. But now it could be under threat as governments are strapped for cash, and in Portugal, one of the continent’s poorest performers, the question of whether free health provision is still affordable is pressing.

Portuguese citizens have their vices like anyone else. But if their health deteriorates, they know, like most Europeans, there is a high quality yet mainly free health care system to look after them. But big spending cuts were a condition of the country’s recent bailout, and hospitals are cutting salaries and getting rid of staff. In short, people have to pay more to see the doctor.

Antonio Arnaut, former Minister of Social Affairs, helped set up Portugal’s health service after the fall of the dictatorship in the 1970’s. Now a lawyer in Coimbra, north of Lisbon, he’s angry at the cuts. "I'm worried about the future of the National Health System, but not because of the economic difficulties that Portugal is now experiencing, my main concerns are about this right wing government," he said. "There’s an ideological project to destroy the National Health System. The National Health System is a part of the European social model." Read more ..


The Edge of Justice

Police, Suspensions in Schools Need Reform, New Report Urges

May 26th 2012

Little girl upset

When it comes to student discipline, suspending kids and a heavy police presence in schools are policies that are doing more harm than good, according to a new report on three especially troubled California districts. 

The report released Thursday by University of California scholars and Human Impact Partners is an exhaustive profile of students in South Los Angeles, Oakland and the agribusiness hub of Salinas in Central California. All these communities have high levels of family poverty, high rates of student suspension and high dropout rates. Oakland-based Human Impact Partners reviews data and conducts on-the-ground interviews to assess the effects that public policies have on equity and health in communities.

The report was funded by the California Endowment. The Center for Public Integrity also receives some support from the Endowment. The Los Angeles school district has already adopted what’s called “positive behavioral support” as an alternative to out-of-school suspension. But researchers found that some L.A. schools are still failing to use the method. As a result, students are still being suspended and losing hundreds of days of school time. The report delves into the high rate of suspensions for “willful defiance,” and the serious discipline challenges the schools face. Read more ..


Philippines on Edge

Philippines Look to Bridge Education Gap

May 26th 2012

Armin Luistro
Education Secretary Armin Luistro

In the Philippines, the new school year begins in June and a few dropouts in the Manila area are hoping to be back in a regular classroom by then. Right now, a pilot program of the national education system is helping them catch up at “pushcart classrooms.” These mobile classrooms travel to street corners in six of the most impoverished neighborhoods of the metro area, complete with books, supplies, a meal and throngs of volunteers. On a street corner in the Novaliches neighborhood just north of Manila, dozens of children are busy with school work shaded by a tarp against a searing sun. The kids, ages five to 18, read, write, draw and do arithmetic problems as they sit at plastic chairs and tables borrowed from the local town council.

A wooden cart painted in shades of green is near the entrance to the makeshift classroom. The pushcart- or “kariton” in Filipino- is a cupboard on wheels that typically holds school supplies, books, personal hygiene items and meals. “All of them are street children, they are not studying,” said Yolanda Peñalosa, a public school teacher who volunteers at the pushcart. "Volunteers spend two hours each Saturday doing one-on-one lessons with the children who are first assessed to see what level they are in. The goal is to get them back into a formal classroom. “… because of the reason the father has no work, the parents they are separated.

Problems have been encountered to make them stop.” While public education is free in the Philippines, school supplies, uniforms and meals are not. The expenses can exceed some impoverished families’ budgets. Seven-year old Marvin stopped school when a typhoon washed away his family’s house. Marvin mostly spends his time playing outside and helping his mother with chores. He says his father is unemployed. Marvin says his father’s life is dominated by gambling and alcohol. Because Marvin was recently in pre-school, his teacher says his chances of going back to regular school in June are strong. Efren Peñaflorida created the pushcart classrooms to give any child the ability to go to school. Read more ..


The Health Edge

'Personality Genes' May Help Account for Longevity

May 24th 2012

Holding Hands

"It's in their genes" is a common refrain from scientists when asked about factors that allow centenarians to reach age 100 and beyond. Up until now, research has focused on genetic variations that offer a physiological advantage such as high levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol. But researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology of Yeshiva University have found that personality traits like being outgoing, optimistic, easygoing, and enjoying laughter as well as staying engaged in activities may also be part of the longevity genes mix.

The findings come from Einstein's Longevity Genes Project, which includes over 500 Ashkenazi Jews over the age of 95 and 700 of their offspring. Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews were selected because they are genetically homogeneous, making it easier to spot genetic differences within the study population. Previous studies have indicated that personality arises from underlying genetic mechanisms that may directly affect health. The present study of 243 of the centenarians (average age 97.6 years, 75 percent women) was aimed at detecting genetically-based personality characteristics by developing a brief measure (the Personality Outlook Profile Scale, or POPS) of personality in centenarians. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

Iranian Establishment Makes New Social Media Foray With Imam Site

May 24th 2012

Iran Cyber Cafe

Hadinet.ir is Iran’s latest foray into the social media sphere, the domain of young, middle-class Iranians that's often reserved for poking fun at state policies and religious rulings.

The new social-networking site is devoted to Imam Naghi, a Shi'ite saint. Employing a basic layout, it features a collection of quotes attributed to the imam and posts by members who express their love and devotion to the ninth-century figure. Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency says the site, which will be officially unveiled on May 23 by Iran's Culture Minister, is a reaction to "insults" against the imam.

But critics, including many ordinary Iranians, say the site will likely join the list of previous, largely unsuccessful attempts by the establishment to make use of social networking. Many young Iranians say they are unlikely to be interested in the new site. Mehr's mention of "insults" toward the imam appears to be a reference to a popular Facebook page titled, "The Campaign to Remind Shi'ites about Imam Naghi," which satirizes political and religious sayings and attributes them to him. Read more ..


The Edge of Farming

Revolutionizing Chicken Feed

May 24th 2012

Chickens
credit: Andrei Niemimäki

Chicken is the most widely eaten meat in the world. About a thousand chickens are slaughtered for consumption every second worldwide. In the West, the trend is obvious: From about 35 pounds per capita in 1970, poultry consumption in the United States leaped to 83.6 pounds per person in 2010, according to the National Chicken Council.

Yet poultry farmers still dish out feed using equipment that hasn’t fundamentally changed since the 1960s. An Israeli inventor is aiming to modernize the system for the sake of both the farmers and their animals. “Contemporary feeding methods treat broilers—and other livestock such as pigs and turkeys—as products in a production line, with fixed feeding rates and minimal regard for their welfare,” according to Ziv Dubinsky.

Dubinsky, a mainly self-taught inventor from Kibbutz Beit Keshet in the Lower Galilee, has devised a robotic enhancement that could revolutionize chicken-house feeding systems. “The idea is to improve the method of feeding poultry and other livestock with a robot that automatically adjusts the amount of feed at any given time,” he explains. “This saves farmers a lot of money, with far less wastage, while significantly improving the animals’ welfare by reducing mortality levels and rivalry within the flock.” Read more ..


The Congo on Edge

Distress of Child War and Sex Abuse Victims Halved by New Trauma Intervention

May 24th 2012

Congolese child

A new psychological intervention has been shown to more than halve the trauma experienced by child victims of war, rape and sexual abuse. Researchers at Queen's University Belfast pioneered the intervention in conjunction with the international NGO, World Vision as part of a wider programme to treat psychological distress in child victims of war and sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Eastern Congo has the world's highest rate of sexual violence. Known as 'the rape capital of the world', it is estimated that girls and women in the eastern DRC are 134 times more likely to be raped than their counterparts in the West. In war-affected countries, such as the DRC, victims of rape and sexual violence often do not receive any psychological or even medical help.

After only 15 sessions of the new group-based Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (TF-CBT), Queen's researchers found reductions of: Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Docs Slower to Drop 'Black Box' Drugs When Drug Rep Access Restricted

May 23rd 2012

nurse w/stethoscope

After years of reducing their contact with pharmaceutical sales representatives, physicians now risk an unintended consequence: Doctors who rarely meet with pharmaceutical sales representatives — or who do not meet with them — are much slower to drop medicines with the Food and Drug Administration's "black box" warnings and to adopt first-in-class therapies.

According to a study published May 21 in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension, doctors whose access to pharmaceutical sales representatives is limited can take more than four times longer to change prescriptions based on new information than their peers who have more frequent contact. This longer response time holds true whether the physicians are responding to "positive news" related to an innovative therapy or "negative news" related to a newly discovered medicine risk.

George Chressanthis, professor of healthcare management and marketing and acting director for the Center for Healthcare Research and Management at Temple University's Fox School of Business, led the study in collaboration with ZS Associates, a global sales and marketing consulting firm with a very deep presence in the health care industry. Read more ..


West Africa on Edge

Regional Conflicts Place West African Women in Danger of Abuse

May 23rd 2012

West Africa Domestic Violence

West African women are at greater risk of domestic violence following conflict, according to the International Rescue Committee. The group says physical and emotional abuse have a devastating impact on women in countries where the scars of political conflict have not yet fully healed.

When Fatima, a woman living in rural Liberia, was unable to go to the market to buy the ingredients to make dinner for her family, her husband came home and beat her. He took a kitchen knife, the knife Fatima would normally have used to slice vegetables, and cut three fingers from his wife's left hand. The reason she was unable to go to the market was that her husband had refused her money to do so. Fatima's story is just one of many cases of severe domestic violence, both physical and emotional, experienced by women living in post-conflict countries in West Africa, according to the International Rescue Committee.

A new IRC report explains fighting does not stop after conflicts end, instead it often continues behind closed doors in communities and homes where women bear the brunt of post-conflict tensions. The IRC calls the violence "alarming, pervasive and horrific." "Conflict increases women's risk to violence of all forms. Domestic violence in war and post-war settings, and more specifically the silence around it, is surprising given what we know about its prevalence. What we see during war time is that violence that was once very private often becomes very public," said IRC global women's protection and empowerment programs director Heidi Lehmann.

Using Money to Assert Control

She said women frequently report incidents of emotional manipulation alongside acts of violence. Lehmann said money often is used as a tool to control women and prevent them leaving abusive husbands. In many cases, women are trapped in unhappy marriages and lack the financial means to stand up to their husbands or seek emotional and medical support. IRC President George Rupp said domestic violence in post-conflict communities is more likely after wars fought along ethnic lines or between rebel groups that used fear tactics to intimidate opposing communities. Read more ..


The Health Edge

Socioeconomics May Affect Toddlers' Exposure to Flame Retardants

May 23rd 2012

Black infant

A Duke University-led study of North Carolina toddlers suggests that exposure to potentially toxic flame-retardant chemicals may be higher in nonwhite toddlers than in white toddlers. The study also suggests that exposure to the chemicals is higher among toddlers whose fathers do not have a college degree, a proxy measure of lower socioeconomic background.

Hand-to-mouth activity may account for a significant amount of the children's exposure to the contaminants, according to the study. Age and duration of breastfeeding also were associated with exposure.

The scientists, led by Heather Stapleton, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, tested 83 toddlers ages 12 to 36 months for levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). This class of exceptionally long-lasting chemicals was widely used over the last 30 years to reduce flammability in a variety of consumer products, including polyurethane foam padding, electronics and furniture.

Studies have shown that over time, PBDEs migrate into the environment and accumulate in living organisms, where they can disrupt endocrine activity and impair thyroid regulation and brain development. Early exposure to PBDEs has been linked to low birth weight and impaired cognitive, motor and behavioral development. One study in 2010 showed that children with high levels of exposure to PBDEs scored lower on infant development and preschool IQ tests. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Violent Video Games Turning Gamers Into Deadly Shooters

May 23rd 2012

Playing violent shooting video games can improve firing accuracy and influence players to aim for the head when using a real gun finds a new study in Communication Research, published by SAGE.

Authors Jodi L. Whitaker and Brad J. Bushman tested 151 college students by having them play different types of violent and non-violent video games, including games with human targets in which players are rewarded for hitting the targets' heads. After playing the game for only 20 minutes, participants shot 16 bullets from a realistic gun at a life-size, human-shaped mannequin. Participants who played a violent shooting game using a pistol-shaped controller hit the mannequin 33% more than did other participants and hit the mannequins' head 99% more often. Read more ..


Edge of Gaming

Sid Meier - Gaming Genius - Shares his Magic with Students

May 22nd 2012

Sid Meier - gaming genius - by Laura Rudich
Sid Meier (Photo credit: Laura Rudich)

You are navigating the jungles of the city, desperately trying to catch the bus. Dodging traffic, jumping skateboards and avoiding construction zones. But first, you must make a decision: would you rather be a hippo, a man or a mouse?

This is the theme of a video game designed by three engineering students at a two-week-long "boot camp" at the University of Michigan that ended on May 18, when students showcased their projects.

The first-ever "Sid Meier Game Design Boot Camp" was an intensive 11 days of lectures, activities, game design and development at the Ann Arbor-based institution. The camp, sponsored by Microsoft, featured talks from designers at that company, as well as EA Games, Zynga and Binary Creative (founded by U-M alumnus Matt Gilgenbach). But when asked what drew them to the camp, the participants immediately exclaimed, "Sid Meier!"

Meier is a verifiable celebrity in the video game world, designing such popular games as "Sid Meier's Civilization" and "Sid Meier's Pirates!" He is one of the rare game developers who can claim to be a household name. A U-M computer science alumnus, Meier came up with the idea during a visit to the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, where his son, Ryan, attended. Ryan Meier graduated in 2011 and now works for Blizzard Games. "I would drop by every now and then to see how he was doing," says Meier. "It was fun to see how much things have changed. When I started, the computers here were not like they are now!" Read more ..


The Ukraine on Edge

Ukrainian Female Students Protest Minister's 'Ugly' Insult

May 22nd 2012

Dmytro Tabachnyk anti-rally 2010

Ukraine's education minister is in hot water after saying that women at the highest levels of study in the country's university system are less attractive than other Ukrainian women.

Dmytro Tabachnyk said last week that the country's better graduate and post-graduate students "are girls who have a less bright, less attractive, and less model-like appearance." A group of about 10 women who are graduate students or doctoral-level students at Ukrainian universities gathered in front of the Education Ministry in Kyiv on May 21 to complain about Tabachnyk's statement. The women -- students of fields such as law, medicine, and education -- dressed in long gowns for the protest and carried placards saying, "I read that I am ugly!" Each also held a university diploma to prove that they had obtained a four-year university degree in Ukraine. The women demanded that Tabachnyk either apologize for his remarks or resign from his cabinet post. Read more ..


Mexico on Edge

Mexico's Protestants and Secularists Concerned about Changes to Constitution

May 21st 2012

Light of the World temple, Chiapas Mex.
Light of the World temple in Chiapas, Mexico.

In the United States, evangelical leaders have been at the forefront of pushing prayer in public schools. But in Mexico, they are in the vanguard in opposing it. While the so-called narco war and economic distress are generally regarded as the top two issues in this year’s electoral races, fundamental issues of church, the state and religion are also swirling around the political scene. A flash point is the Mexican Congress’ recent approval of changes to Article 24 of the Mexican Constitution.

Seemingly innocuous, the reform guarantees the right to practice religion in “public as well as private” places. Supported by President Felipe Calderon, the reform was passed last December by Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies just as the country was shutting down for the long winter holiday break. In March, as Mexico was gearing up for another extended holiday season, the Senate followed suit.

According to La Jornada daily, National Action Party (PAN) Senator Sergio Perez Mota justified the reform as a necessary one to prevent Mexico from sinking into a "lay state” that curtails “essential freedoms.” Although the reform also contains language that defends the secular character of the Mexican State, opponents contend it could open the door to religious instruction in public schools. Read more ..


Peru on Edge

Indigenous Peoples of Peru Harrowed by 'Shining Path' Narcoterrorists

May 21st 2012

Machiguenga people

One of the oldest indigenous communities of Peru, which predates the Conquest, now finds itself between the hammer of the Peruvian government and the anvil of remnants of Sendero Luminoso – the ‘Shining Path’ Maoist communists who plagued the Andean republic for decades. The Machiguenga people of the mid-altitude forested slopes of the Andes and the Amazon Basin now appear to be suffering a reprise of a conflict that was initiated by Sendero in 1980. Sendero was well-known for its brutal tactics, which included the murder of uncooperative peasants.

The Peruvian government, under President Alberto Fujimori, was largely successful in combating the Maoist group but at the cost of numerous human rights violations and disappearances of persons associated with Sendero. The group’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in 1992, even while armed encounters with government forces continue sporadically. Between 1980 and 2000, some 70,000 Peruvians perished or disappeared as a result of the conflict.

The damage caused by the armed conflict near Cusco, in the province of La Convención, has been varied. These included casualties on the part of the army and police, as well as innocent civilians. The decades-long conflict, which continues sporadically, has meant that Peru has had a revolving door of ministers with portfolios for Defense and Internal Affairs. Home-made bombs and mines continue to claim lives. Read more ..


The Congo on Edge

Islamic Investment Bank Buys Thousands of Acres of Congo forest

May 20th 2012

Congo forester and tree

When I first read about the acquisition of 500,000 hectares of high value forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo by an Islamic investment bank in Jordan, I thought one thing: land grab.

Over the last couple of years, countries across the MENA region have been buying tracts of land all over Africa. Worried about the rising cost of food as well as declining natural resources locally, they have been trying to make sure that their eggs (so to speak) aren’t all in one basket. Egypt has bought up land in Sudan, Saudi Arabia has staked a claim on land in Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates has farms in Sudan, Morocco and Algeria.

However, this latest land acquisition by Sanabel is a little more interesting as it claims to come with some green credentials. According to news reports, Sanabel which is Jordan’s first Islamic investment bank is considering a number of “Sharia’ compliant forestry activities” for the land it has purchased. These range from afforestation and reforestation projects, and protecting the land from deforestation and sustainable agro-forestry projects. Read more ..


Russia on Edge

Russian Opposition 'Likes' Facebook

May 20th 2012

Russia - Facebook

Not long ago, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill warned his clergy not to be tempted to seek "illusory popularity" online by engaging with the masses on social networking sites. This week, however, Kirill relented and opened his own Facebook page.

The decision by the erstwhile Internet-phobic patriarch to make his presence felt on the world's top social networking platform -- which raised at least $16 billion in an initial public offering (IPO) on May 17 that valued the company at a staggering $104 billion -- is a sign of the times. Facebook, whose shares will begin trading publicly on the Nasdaq stock exchange on May 18, has been famously slow to take off in Russia, lagging far behind more popular local sites like Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, and Moi Mir.

Nonetheless, it has grown more than threefold over the past year. To be sure, Facebook still ranks fourth among social-networking platforms in Russia. But it is increasingly becoming the platform of choice for the urban professionals who made up the backbone of the opposition protests that have rocked Russia over the past several months -- a phenomenon that has made it the place to be for politically engaged Russians. Read more ..


Azerbaijan on Edge

Visitors to Azerbaijan wary over Hotels' Hidden Cameras

May 20th 2012

Baku Azerbaijan Airport Sheraton
Sheraton Baku Airport Hotel

No sex under any circumstances.

That's what one local rights group is advising visitors to Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, for the Eurovision Song Contest there next week. The group, Azad Genclik Teskilati (Free Youth), claims "hidden cameras are installed on the premises of all...hotels without exception," and that footage made with the cameras "can later be used against tourists for blackmail." The corporate headquarters of major international hotels in Baku have given assurances that they have policies in place to protect guests' privacy.

But the concerns arose after hidden cameras were used in some Azerbaijani hotels to make secret sex videos of opposition journalists and critics of Azerbaijan's government -- violating their right to privacy in an attempt to blackmail them and silence dissent. In one case, a video of two opposition journalists engaged in sexual acts was later broadcast on a television channel owned by a cousin of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Oxytocin Improves Brain Function in Children with Autism

May 20th 2012

Autism

Preliminary results from an ongoing, large-scale study by Yale School of Medicine researchers shows that oxytocin—a naturally occurring substance produced in the brain and throughout the body—increased brain function in regions that are known to process social information in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorde (ASD).

A Yale Child Study Center research team that includes postdoctoral fellow Ilanit Gordon and Kevin Pelphrey, the Harris Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology have found the first, critical steps toward devising more effective treatments for the core social deficits in autism, which may involve a combination of clinical interventions with an administration of oxytocin," said Gordon. "Such a treatment approach will fundamentally improve our understanding of autism and its treatment."

Social-communicative dysfunctions are a core characteristic of autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that can have an enormous emotional and financial burden on the affected individual, their families, and society. Gordon said that while a great deal of progress has been made in the field of autism research, there remain few effective treatments and none that directly target the core social dysfunction. Oxytocin has recently received attention for its involvement in regulating social abilities because of its role in many aspects of social behavior and social cognition in humans and other species. Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Acid in the Brain Linked to Panic

May 19th 2012

Boy in pain

University of Iowa neuroscientist John Wemmie, M.D., Ph.D., is interested in the effect of acid in the brain. His studies suggest that increased acidity or low pH, in the brain is linked to panic disorders, anxiety, and depression. But his work also suggests that changes in acidity are important for normal brain activity too.

"We are interested in the idea that pH might be changing in the functional brain because we've been hot on the trail of receptors that are activated by low pH," says Wemmie, a UI associate professor of psychiatry. "The presence of these receptors implies the possibility that low pH might be playing a signaling role in normal brain function." Wemmie's studies have shown that these acid-sensing proteins are required for normal fear responses and for learning and memory in mice. However, while you can buy a kit to measure the pH (acidity) of your garden soil, there currently is no easy way to measure pH changes in the brain.

Wemmie teamed up with Vincent Magnotta, Ph.D., UI associate professor of radiology, psychiatry, and biomedical engineering, and using Magnotta's expertise in developing MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)-based brain imaging techniques, the researchers developed and tested a new, non-invasive method to detect and monitor pH changes in living brains. According to Wemmie, the new imaging technique provides the best evidence so far that pH changes do occur with normal function in the intact human brain.

Specifically, the study showed the MRI-based method was able to detect global changes in brain pH in mice. Breathing carbon dioxide, which lowers pH (makes the brain more acidic), increased the signal, while bicarbonate injections, which increases brain pH, decreased the MRI signal. The relationship between the signal and the pH was linear over the range that was tested. Read more ..


Africa on Edge

Obama Announces Food Initiative for Africa

May 19th 2012

Hungry African Widow/Children

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a plan aimed at lifting 50 million Africans out of poverty in the next 10 years. Private companies from around the world have pledged more than $3 billion toward the effort. With the leaders of several African countries watching, the president said Friday that governments, private industries and organizations will work together to improve Africa's food security. "Today, I can announce a new global effort we are calling a 'New Alliance' for food security and nutrition. And, to get the job done, we are bringing together all the key players around a shared commitment," said Obama.

At a food security forum in Washington, the president said ending hunger by making African farms more productive is a moral imperative. "Because of smart investments in nutrition and agriculture and safety nets, millions of people in Kenya and Ethiopia did not need emergency aid in the recent drought. But when tens of thousands of children die from the agony of starvation, as in Somalia, that sends us a message that we have still got a lot of work to do. It is unacceptable. It is an outrage. It is an affront to who we are," he said. The president spoke as he prepared to host the annual economic summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations at the Camp David presidential retreat outside Washington. Read more ..


The Arab Winter in Egypt

Egypt's Moussa Stresses Experience in Time of Flux

May 18th 2012

Tahrir Square 22 nov 2011

Veteran diplomat Amr Moussa is one of the top contenders in Egypt's presidential election May 23-24. Moussa's past is both a strength and a weakness. The former foreign minister and ex- Arab League chief says he is ready to lead the nation. "The country is in a major crisis," noted Moussa. "And a major crisis would not justify at all a president who will ask around 'What do I do on this point, or that point' and gaining experience as he goes." 

Challenges

But how the presidential candidate got his experience is proving one of the biggest hurdles of his campaign. Cairo voter Hussein Ali will not be casting his ballot for him. Ali says he doesn't want someone from the former government as president.  The country, he says, needs "new blood." At a recent debate, the urbane, veteran diplomat defended his past by pointing to the last decade spent at the Arab League.
Read more ..


Rights on Religion

Myths and Misperceptions Surround ‘the Top Ten’

May 18th 2012

Bottom 6 Commandments

Last week, a U.S. district court judge sitting in Roanoke, Va., made an extraordinary suggestion about the document commonly referred to as “The Ten Commandments.” He suggested it be cut to six. He appointed another judge to oversee negotiations to accomplish that goal.

The case involves Narrows High School in Narrows, Va., a part of the Giles County school district, which is the actual defendant in the case. After Narrows High put up a display of “The Ten Commandments,” the American Civil Liberties Union objected and brought the case to the U.S. District Court in Roanoke. It cited the separation clause of the First Amendment, as well as a number of federal court decisions, as its reasons.

Hearing the case is Judge Michael Urbanski. The issue, Urbanski told the litigants last week, boils down to a matter of intent. Was the display intended to convey a message of morality and ethics, or was the intent to promote a religion? Read more ..


France on Edge

What Hollande and the French Socialists Owe to the Muslim Community

May 18th 2012

French muslim woman

Bill Clinton was once feted as the first black American president, while Barack Obama has since been called the first ‘gay’ American president. So it is with equal aplomb that an observer of the recent election of the Socialist Francois Hollande can be dubbed the first Muslim president of France. This is because of the news that ninety-three percent of French Muslims voted for Hollande in the second round of the French presidential election, giving him the margin of victory over the right-of-center Nicolas Sarkozy and nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen.

According to the French website, La Vie, the final tally for the poll showed that Hollande won by only 1.13 million votes. Since an estimated 2 million Muslims voted, the Socialist obviously owes that community a great favor. Photographs found at the French website ‘Observatoire de l’Islamisation’ shows Muslims waving the flags of their native countries and jubilant over the defeat of Sarkozy.

Hollande’s victory can be attributed to the growing good relations between elements of the Socialist Party and other leftist groupings with the Muslim community, even with those segments associated with the notorious Muslim brotherhood. Read more ..


The Health Edge

Early Substance Use Linked to Lower Educational Achievement

May 17th 2012

Premature Baby

Researchers have found evidence that early drug and alcohol use is associated with lower levels of educational attainment. Studying male twins who served in the military during the Vietnam era, they found that those who began drinking or using drugs as young teens or who became dependent on alcohol, nicotine or marijuana, were less likely to finish college than those who didn't use alcohol or drugs until later in life and never became dependent.

The study was conducted by investigators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System. "We can't say that substance dependence or early substance use causes lower educational achievement, but we do see a strong association," says lead author Julia D. Grant, PhD, research assistant professor of psychiatry. "Even after we statistically controlled for the genes and the environmental factors that twins share, we found a relationship between substance use and educational achievement." Past studies about the relationship between substance use and education have delivered mixed results. But this study of 6,242 twins shows a link between fewer years of schooling and the onset of drinking before age 14. Read more ..


Mexico on Edge

Horrific Violence in Mexico Likely to Affect July Presidential Election

May 16th 2012

Mexican Drug Police2

The discovery of 49 decapitated and handless corpses on a highway near the city of Monterrey, in Mexico's northern Nuevo Leon state on Sunday, has drawn attention once again to the brutal drug war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives in that Latin American nation during the past six years.  Shortly before the discovery in Monterrey, dozens of bodies were found in the border city of Nuevo Laredo and in the central city of Guadalajara.

In Nuevo Leon, authorities are investigating the brutal slaughter of 43 men and six women, whose identities are difficult to establish, according to state public security spokesman Jorge Domene.

None of them have heads, he explains, and the bodies are so mutilated that forensic experts might not be able to establish who they were. Domene says signs left near the bodies indicate that credit for the mass killing is being claimed by Los Zetas, a paramilitary group that started out a decade ago as part of the Gulf cartel in northeastern Mexico, and then went into drug smuggling on its own. Read more ..


The Health Edge

Drugs from Lizard Saliva Reduces the Cravings for Food

May 15th 2012

Obese man

A drug made from the saliva of the Gila monster lizard is effective in reducing the craving for food. Researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, have tested the drug on rats, who after treatment ceased their cravings for both food and chocolate.

An increasing number of patients suffering from type 2 diabetes are offered a pharmaceutical preparation called Exenatide, which helps them to control their blood sugar. The drug is a synthetic version of a natural substance called exendin-4, which is obtained from a rather unusual source – the saliva of the Gila monster lizard (Heloderma suspectum), North America's largest lizard.

Researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, have now found an entirely new and unexpected effect of the lizard substance, reducing the cravings for food. In a study with rats, Assistant Professor Karolina Skibicka and her colleagues show that exendin-4 effectively reduces the cravings for food. "This is both unknown and quite unexpected effect," comments an enthusiastic Karolina Skibicka: "Our decision to eat is linked to the same mechanisms in the brain which control addictive behaviours. We have shown that exendin-4 affects the reward and motivation regions of the brain. Read more ..


Broken Economy

Americans are Still at Sea and Underwater with Debts

May 15th 2012

consumer debt

As the country emerges from the Great Recession, a substantial number of U.S. families are underwater—and not just with their mortgages. According to a new University of Michigan report, about one out of every five U.S. households owe more on credit cards, medical bills, student loans and other noncollateralized debts than they have in savings and other liquid assets.

The report also predicts continuing trouble ahead for home mortgages, with 1.7 percent of families surveyed in 2011 saying that it is "very or somewhat likely" that they will fall behind on their mortgage payments in the near future. This represents an improvement from 2009, however, when 1.9 percent of families had such expectations.

"Our data suggest that the mortgage crisis will continue for the next few years, although a somewhat smaller share of families will experience mortgage distress," said Frank Stafford, an economist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and co-author of the report with U-M researchers Bing Chen and Robert Schoeni. "And even though average savings levels have gone up since 2008, our data show that there has been no improvement in financial liquidity between 2009 and 2011, except among families with more than $50,000 in savings and other liquid assets." Read more ..


The Edge of Autism

Evolution's Gift May Also Be at the Root of a Form of Autism

May 15th 2012

Autism

A recently evolved pattern of gene activity in the language and decision-making centers of the human brain is missing in a disorder associated with autism and learning disabilities, a new study by Yale University researchers shows.

"This is the cost of being human," said Nenad Sestan, associate professor of neurobiology, researcher at Yale's Kavli Institute for Neuroscience. "The same evolutionary mechanisms that may have gifted our species with amazing cognitive abilities have also made us more susceptible to psychiatric disorders such as autism." 

Kenneth Kwan and other members of the Sestan laboratory identified the evolutionary changes that led the NOS1 gene to become active specifically in the parts of the developing human brain that form the adult centers for speech and language and decision-making. This pattern of NOS1 activity is controlled by a protein called FMRP and is missing in Fragile X syndrome, a disorder caused by a genetic defect on the X chromosome that disrupts FMRP production. Fragile X syndrome, the leading inherited form of intellectual disability, is also the most common single-gene cause of autism. Read more ..


The Urban Edge

Urban Landscape's Power to Hurt or Heal

May 15th 2012

Urban farming

Research shows that street furniture, barriers, parks, public spaces and neighbourhood architecture can stir up powerful emotions in local residents. This should be taken into account in programmes designed to reduce tensions and foster community cohesion.

Four cities - Amsterdam, Beirut, Belfast and Berlin were chosen as the location of the research as each has a different social history and underlying tensions. The project was undertaken by Dr Ralf Brand of the University of Manchester and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Dr Brand found that tensions between different social groups (ethnic, religious or political in nature) and radicalisation can have a significant impact on the urban landscape, and vice versa. This does not mean that urban environments cause, or prevent, these political positions. But some architectural and urban design features were identified that at least played a part in raising community tensions as well as those that reduced divisions. Read more ..


The Edge of Food

Hong Kong Activists Protest Shark Fin Trade

May 14th 2012

Shark fin soup

Shark fin has been considered a luxury in Chinese cuisine since the Ming emperors first demanded the delicacy more than 400 years ago. However, unsustainable and barbaric methods of harvesting the fish mean shark populations are increasingly endangered. More than 150 activists recently braved oppressive heat to deliver a letter calling on the new head of the Hong Kong government, CY Leung, to ban the use of shark fin at official government banquets.

According to Rachel Vickerstaff of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, the southern Chinese city is the destination for over half the shark fin traded globally—a market worth more than $500 million a year. “Our objectives are to get some public awareness of what we’re trying to do and to let CY know why he needs to see why sharks need saving,” said Vickerstaff.

Sharks are afforded some protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, Vickerstaff calculates that up to 70 million sharks are killed each year to feed the growing demand for shark fin among increasingly affluent Chinese consumers. “The Hong Kong government has hidden behind CITES, which is pretty ineffective. CITES only has international trade restrictions on three species of shark. But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists well over 100 species as threatened or near threatened with extinction,” added Vickerstaff.

Nowadays, shark fin is served in soups at business and wedding banquets as a symbol of status. Depending on a specimen’s quality, a bowl of shark fin soup can cost more than $100, while a dorsal fin of the prized whale shark can retail for up to $20,000. Conservationists say the over-fishing of apex predators has a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem. But they say there is some good news. Younger generations in China are increasingly reluctant to partake of shark fin. Read more ..


Turkey on Edge

Flooding out Terror? Turkey’s Ilisu Dam Project

May 14th 2012

Ilisu Dam
Ilisu Dam project

You may have heard of dams being built for water management purposes or electricity production, but probably not one being built for counter-terrorism purposes. Turkey’s proposed Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River would satisfy just that end. When Ankara completes the proposed construction on the dam in 2013, a large artificial reservoir would flood canyons across the rugged terrain of southeastern Turkey, thus effectively flooding out the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) from the area and scoring a rare “hydro-victory” against terrorism.

The Ilisu Dam project is part of the government-funded Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which traces its origins to the early days of the Turkish republic when plans to utilize the Euphrates and Tigris rivers for energy generation and irrigation were first developed. However, GAP it still awaiting completion. Major fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military has prevented completion of the project since the 1990s. Read more ..


Nigeria on Edge

Nigerian 'Gold Rush' Poisoning Children

May 13th 2012

Nigeria Polio vaccination

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders says at least 4,000 children are suffering from lead poisoning as a result of artisanal gold mining in Zamfara State in Nigeria. The group says emergency federal funds are needed to prevent many of these children from dying.  Activists say the funding has been approved, but none of it has been made available to help the people in Zamfara. Zamfara State is literally sitting on a gold mine.  Nigeria's Doctors Without Borders head, Ivan Gayton, says since gold prices surged in recent years, small time miners can sometimes sell their gold for as much 70 or 80 percent of its international market value. This means villagers who were living on a few dollars a day, are now living on $10 or $15 a day. But unsafe mining practices are releasing so much lead into the community that it is killing local children.  Roughly 400 children have died in the past two years, thousands are awaiting emergency treatment, and nobody knows how many others are in need of urgent care. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Bed Nets Sharply Reduce Malaria Deaths Among Sudanese Refugees

May 12th 2012

mosquito biting

The United Nations is reporting that malaria has dropped from being the leading cause of death among refugees living along the Sudan border. Among the locations where the new malaria-reducing strategies are being employed is the Kakuma Camp for Sudanese refugees in northern Kenya. Not long ago, malaria killed more Sudanese refugees than any other disease. But now, while it is still deadly, the U.N. reports it is only the fifth leading cause of death among the estimated 50,000 Sudanese refugees living in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. 

The reason - a five-year campaign called Nothing-But-Nets run by The United Nations Foundation. Nothing-But-Nets is the largest grassroots campaign in the world and it hopes to end malaria deaths by 2015. Now, Nothing-But-Nets has launched an emergency appeal to send 100,000 life-saving bed nets to help thousands of South Sudanese refugees fleeing conflict and violence along the Sudan border.

Thirty-seven-year-old Achol Deng is a mother of three from Jonglei state. She is among thousands of new arrivals in the Kakuma refugee camp. Deng received mosquito nets that she will need to save her young family during the rainy season.  Read more ..


The Way We Are

Home on the Rails: Ringling Brothers’ Rolling Community

May 12th 2012

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus train, 1992
The circus train in 1992 (credit: James G. Howe)

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is America’s longest-running circus company. It began performances in the early 1890s, and more than a century later, the company maintains many of the traditions of the circus, including travel by train, which is home to hundreds of performers. Its newest show is called “Dragons.” Ringmaster Jonathan Iverson, a former opera singer, joined the circus about 10 years ago. He was drawn by the history and mystique of the company which calls itself “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

“The part of that mystique is the world’s largest privately owned train. I love the train,” Iverson says. “Three hundred fifty performers and cast and crew and animals are actually traveling on rails across America. That is the world’s greatest carpool.” That car pool—with 60 cars—is more than a kilometer-and-a-half long and crisscrosses the country for 11 months a year.

Iverson shares his train car with his wife, a dancer in the show, and their two children. Like the other families on the train, they cook and eat, take showers and do laundry—live their lives—in the privacy of their own car. “It is so much fun. It gives us sort of like a mini-vacation every week,” Iverson says. “We really see the country. America is really, really beautiful.” Read more ..



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