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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


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." 


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.

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


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 ..

The Ancient Edge

Ancient Mayan Artwork, Calculations Discovered

May 11th 2012

Mayan Art

Archeologists working among the ruins of a 9th century Mayan town in Guatemala have discovered a room filled with extraordinarily well-preserved artwork. The colorful wall paintings provide new insights into how Mayan astronomers charted the cosmos. 

Xultun was the largest city in the ancient Mayan empire in Central America, where, at its height, an estimated 90,000 people lived and worked among pyramids, inscribed monuments, water reservoirs and sport fields. But by the 14th century, the Mayan civilization had collapsed and this great city fell with it. In 1920, Xultun was rediscovered, overgrown with vegetation. Work to map the 31 square-kilometer site and decode the myriad inscriptions on its monuments continues to this day. In 2008, Boston University archeologist William Saturno was exploring tunnels in the Xultun ruins that had been opened by looters in the 1970s.  One day his student assistant, Max Chamberlain, discovered the entranceway - close to the surface but hidden by vegetation - to a room-like structure. “Max thought he saw the remnants of paint on the walls of this fairly small Maya structure,” Saturno says.

Significant Lives

Vidal Sassoon, Streetfighter

May 11th 2012

Vidal Sassoon

Rabbi Israel Elia, head of the venerable Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London’s Maida Vale district, remembers the day when he met Vidal Sassoon, one of the congregation’s most celebrated sons. Elia had been quietly working in his office on a spring morning two years ago when an anxious colleague relayed the news that a film crew had gathered outside the building. The rabbi went to investigate.

“At the head of the crew, there was a smartly dressed man with delicate, graceful features,” Rabbi Elia recalled yesterday. “He walked over to me and introduced himself as Vidal Sassoon. He was making a film about his life and career.” Pointing to an annex at the side of the synagogue, Sassoon explained that the building had housed the orphanage where he spent his childhood. “So, I took him inside,” Elia said. “He told me, ‘I want to show you where my dormitory was.’ We entered a room and he looked around. He was excited: ‘Yes, this was it, this was the dormitory.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Vidal, your dormitory is now my office.’ He threw his arms around me and hugged me, telling me about the kindness of our community, how his accomplishments would not have been possible without that generosity.” Read more ..

The Health Edge

Revenue-Driven Surgery Drives Patients Home Too Early

May 11th 2012

Face Transplant Surgery

Revenue-driven surgery and poor planning drive some surgical patients home too early, concludes a pair of logistical studies conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. The studies show a correlation between readmission rates and how full the hospital was at the time of discharge, suggesting that patients went home before they were healthy enough.

The researchers recommend better planning and other logistical solutions to avoid these problems. "Discharge decisions are made with bed-capacity constraints in mind," says University of Maryland Professor Bruce Golden, the Smith School's France-Merrick Chair in Management Science, who conducted the research with Ph.D. student David Anderson and other colleagues.

"Patient traffic jams present hospitals and medical teams with major, practical concerns, but they can find better answers than sending the patient home at the earliest possible moment," Golden adds. In the studies, Golden and Anderson tracked patient movement at a large, academic medical center located in the United States. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Vitamin K2--New Hope for Parkinson's Patients?

May 11th 2012


Neuroscientist Patrik Verstreken, associated with VIB and KU Leuven, succeeded in undoing the effect of one of the genetic defects that leads to Parkinson's using vitamin K2. His discovery gives hope to Parkinson's patients. This research was done in collaboration with colleagues from Northern Illinois University (US). "It appears from our research that administering vitamin K2 could possibly help patients with Parkinson's. However, more work needs to be done to understand this better," says Patrik Verstreken.

Malfunctioning power plants are at the basis of Parkinson's. If we looked at cells as small factories, then mitochondria would be the power plants responsible for supplying the energy for their operation. They generate this energy by transporting electrons. In Parkinson's patients, the activity of mitochondria and the transport of electrons have been disrupted, resulting in the mitochondria no longer producing sufficient energy for the cell. This has major consequences as the cells in certain parts of the brain will start dying off, disrupting communication between neurons. The results are the typical symptoms of Parkinson's: lack of movement (akinesia), tremors and muscle stiffness.

The exact cause of this neurodegenerative disease is not known. In recent years, however, scientists have been able to describe several genetic defects (mutations) found in Parkinson's patients, including the so-called PINK1 and Parkin mutations, which both lead to reduced mitochondrial activity. By studying these mutations, scientists hope to unravel the mechanisms underlying the disease process. Read more ..

Human Trafficking

Film-Makers use Girls Gone Wild to Stop Human Trafficking

May 11th 2012

girls gone wild

A creative pair of Dutch film makers are taking on one of the world's worst crimes: human trafficking. Konraad Lefever and Duval Guillaume directed a video (see here) for YouTube to promote StopTheTraffik - a human rights advocacy group based in the UK that seeks to criminalize the sale of human beings, who largely end up in the international sex trade.

Set in Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District, the pair filmed scantily clad young women who posed behind glass at street level as passersby to evaluate them as prostitutes. For decades young women, and some men, have posed at the street-level brothels in displays reminiscent of department store windows. The film-making pair used this to another purpose as they filmed six women who at first appear to beckon the men who pass by on the street with come-hither glances and beckoning gestures. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

Kemalism Is Dead, but Not Ataturk

May 11th 2012

Turk flags

Kemalism may be dead, but Ataturk's way of doing business appears to be alive and kicking in Turkey. Has Turkey's twentieth century experience with Kemalism—a Europe-oriented top-down Westernization model—come to an end? To a large extent: Yes.

Symbolically speaking, nothing could portend the coming end of Kemalism better than the recent public exoneration of Iskilipli Atif Hoca, a rare resistance figure to Kemalism in the early twentieth century. However, even if Kemalism might be withering away, ironically its founder, Ataturk, and his way of doing business seem to be alive in Turkey.

But first the story of Iskilipli Atif Hoca: In November 1925, Ataturk carried out perhaps the most symbolic of his reforms, banning all Turkish males from wearing the Ottoman fez in order to cement his country's commitment to European ideals. Ataturk wanted to make Turks European head to toe, and the abolition of the fez embodied this effort. Most Turks acquiesced to Ataturk's reforms, not just to the "hat reform" but also to deeper ones such as the "alphabet reform," which changed the Turks' script from an Arab alphabet-based one to its current Latin-based form, further connecting the Turks to European culture. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

Ancient American Ball Game was a Life or Death Proposition

May 10th 2012

Mexican playing ulama
Modern version of ancient Mesoamerican ball game.

George Washington University Professor Jeffrey P. Blomster’s latest research explores the importance of a rough and tumble ballgame to ancient Mesoamerican societies. Dr. Blomster’s findings show how the discovery of a ballplayer figurine in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca in Central Mexico demonstrates the early participation of the region in the iconography and ideology of the game known by its Mixtec name 'ōllamaliztli'.' This is a point that had not been previously documented by other researchers. Dr. Blomster’s paper, "Early evidence of the ballgame in Oaxaca, Mexico", is featured in the latest issue of Proceedings in the National Academies of Science (PNAS).

Dr. Blomster, GW associate professor of anthropology, has spent 20 years researching the origin of complex societies in Mesoamerica. The participation of early Mixtec societies in ballgame imagery is a new aspect of his research. For the journal publication, Dr. Blomster worked with undergraduate students Izack Nacheman and Joseph DiVirgilio to create artistic renditions of the figurine artifacts found in Mexico.

While early versions of the Mesoamerican ballgame used a hard rubber ball, the ballgames Dr. Blomster researched bear little resemblance to today’s Major League Baseball. The games and the costumes or uniforms participants wore were tied to themes of life and death, mortals and underworld deities or symbolizing the sun and the moon. In some instances, the ballcourt itself represented a portal to the underworld. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Smart Phones Are Changing Real World Privacy Settings

May 10th 2012

smartphone user

Smart phone users are developing new concepts of privacy in public spaces. With endless applications, high-speed wireless Internet access, and free messaging services, smart phones have revolutionized the way we communicate. But at what cost? According to researchers at Tel Aviv University, the smart phone is challenging traditional conceptions of privacy, especially in the public sphere.

Dr. Tali Hatuka of TAU's Department of Geography and Dr. Eran Toch of TAU's Department of Industrial Engineering have teamed to measure the impact of the smart phone phenomenon on privacy, behavioral codes, and the use of public space. Their early results indicate that although spaces such as city squares, parks, or transportation were once seen as public meeting points, smart phone users are more and more caught up in their technology-based communications devices than their immediate surroundings. Smart phone users are 70 percent more likely than regular cellphone users to believe that their phones afford them a great deal of privacy, says Dr. Toch, who specializes in privacy and information systems. Read more ..

The Gender Edge

First Waitress Hired in Gaza since Hamas Take-Over in 2007

May 10th 2012

Gaza city skyline
Gaza City

For the first time in Gaza, since Hamas seized control in 2007, a woman has been allowed to work as a waitress in a restaurant, serving men food and drinks. Ranad al-Ghozz, 24, from Gaza City recently made local media headlines in Gaza, when she began working at the coastal A-Salam restaurant last month.

The majority of Gaza women cannot be found in the workplace as traditional norms are against women working out of the house. If women do work, it is in the public sector specializing in education and health fields. Hamas, the religious Palestinian Sunni Islamic political party rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, basing its governance upon Islamic fundamentalism, has passed laws that curb women’s status and rights since its takeover of Gaza. Women are not allowed to ride motor scooters and hairdressers for women are banned in Gaza.

Twenty-year-old Asmahan Nasser works as a hotel waitress at the upscale Al-Deira, where she must wear a hijab uniform. According to a report in Haaretz, Nasser says she must deal not only with disapproving male patrons, but also disapproving women as well. In one incident, a woman patron left in protest of the hotel’s employment of a waitress and refused to allow Nasser to bring her coffee. Read more ..

The Archeaological Edge

The World’s Oldest Kitchen

May 10th 2012


Deep in a large cave—the size of an airplane hangar—in South Africa, four Israeli scientists were part of an international team that made an astonishing find: the world’s oldest kitchen. There’s no hearth or blender or refrigerator here, but it does contain the oldest evidence of fire use by mankind. Dated to one million years ago, the cave predates the earliest accepted case of humans using fire by about 300,000 years. The size and scope of the remains found in the dark, somewhat damp cave are so compelling there’s no doubt about it, says Liora Kolska Horwitz, a co-director of the research project.

As a zooarchaeologist, she helped reconstruct the general layout of the cave environment and the fauna that may have inhabited it or been eaten there. Her Hebrew University colleagues Ari Matmon and Ron Hagai, and Naomi Porat from the Israel Geological Survey, established with good certainty the age of the cave and the activities that went on inside it.

Sitting around the campfire

The team of international scientists co-led by Kolska Horwitz and Michael Chazan from the University of Toronto looked at microscopic traces of wood ash found near animal bones in the Wonderwerk Cave in Northern Cape province. Alongside these remains were stone tools dating from about one million years ago. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Research in United Arab Emirates Pinpoints Indoor Air Quality Risks

May 9th 2012

dubai buildings

The rapid shift from nomadic life to modern-day culture in the United Arab Emirates has exposed residents to significant indoor air quality risks that can lead to respiratory illness, according to a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With the swift modernization of the country, UAE governmental agencies have not performed the research required to pinpoint health risks, the study reported. The need to develop governmental research capacity makes collaborations with U.S. research teams vital, but the studies must be conducted in a culturally appropriate way.

"This is an important area of investigation, and the UAE is completely under-researched," said Karin Yeatts, Ph.D., lead study author and assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. "There are many good scientific questions that need to be answered, and this area of the world is very deserving of science and public health work. "Knowing about indoor air quality risks is important, Yeatts said, because people in the UAE spend 80 percent to 95 percent of their time indoors escaping the high temperatures. Read more ..

Greece on Edge

Greek Leftists Seek Coalition, Reject EU Austerity

May 9th 2012

Greek and EU flags

The leader of Greek’s leftist Syriza party is beginning talks with other parties on forming a coalition government to reject what he calls "barbaric" austerity measures imposed by the European Union. Voters failed to give any party a majority in Sunday’s election, plunging Greece into more uncertainty. The result is part of a wave of anti-austerity feeling that is building momentum in Europe.

At Syntagma Square in front of parliament, the epicenter of so many anti-government protests in recent years, Greeks gathered to read the newspaper headlines that point to a future once more filled with uncertainty. If none of the elected parties can form a coalition, the country will have to go to the polls once more. Athens resident Dimitros Gletzakos voiced the fears of many Greeks. He says he believes that new elections will again bring a mix, a contradictory and reactionary result. He says Greeks can no longer take such a result - either emotionally, economically or practically. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Income Inequality Leads to More U.S. Deaths

May 8th 2012

Unemployment Line in California
Unemployment Line

A new study provides the best evidence to date that higher levels of income inequality in the United States actually lead to more deaths in the country over a period of years. The findings suggest that income inequality at any one point doesn’t work instantaneously - it begins increasing mortality rates 5 years later, and its influence peaks after 7 years, before fading after 12 years. “This finding is striking and it supports the argument that income inequality is a public health concern,” said Hui Zheng, author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

Many other studies have examined the impact of income inequality on mortality and have come up with mixed results, according to Zheng. But he thinks that this study overcomes problems in previous research by using a different data structure and statistical model (called a discrete-time hazard model). Zheng used data from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey from 1986 to 2004 with mortality follow-up data from 1986-2006. His final sample included more than 700,000 people aged 30 and up. Read more ..

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