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The Future's Edge

Designing Human-like Robots

March 24th 2012

Robonauts
NASA/GM's Robonaut2 (credit: NASA)

When we talk with someone, words aren’t the only thing that impact our listener.  Other subtle factors—such as tone of voice, body language and eye contact—also have powerful communicative potential.

Bilge Mutlu, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, understands and appreciates the power of nonverbal communication.

The professor calls himself a human-computer interaction specialist.  His work involves taking characteristics of human behavior and replicating them in robots or animatronic characters.

Mutlu is leading a team that’s developing and creating various computer algorithms based on how people communicate without words.  These algorithms are then used to program devices, like robots, to look and act more human-like, helping to bridge the gap between man and machine.

A person’s gaze is one of the facets of nonverbal communication Mutlu has found to be especially interesting. “It turns out that gaze tells us all sorts of things about attention, about mental states, about roles in conversations,” he says.

For example, if you focus your gaze on a specific individual while talking to a group of people, it communicates that what’s being said is especially relevant to that individual. Research also shows when you finish saying something in a conversation and your gaze is directed to one particular person, that person is likely to take the next turn speaking in the discussion. These nonverbal cues tell people where our attention is focused and what we mean when we direct a question or comment in a conversation. Read more ..


Edge of Healthcare

Healthcare Insurance Price Hikes Drive Consumer Competition

March 23rd 2012

medicine and money

Even a $10 increase in premiums can drive people to a different health care plan. That's good news for health care reform, which relies heavily on competition and consumer response to pricing.

A new study by the University of Michigan looked at only the Medicare population. Younger people who aren't eligible for Medicare are even more likely to shop around if prices or premiums in benefit plans increase, said Richard Hirth, professor at the U-M School of Public Health and study co-author. Tom Buchmueller of the U-M Ross School of Business and SPH, is the lead author. Other co-authors include Kyle Grazier of UM-SPH and Edward Okeke, formerly a doctoral student at U-M-SPH.

Under health reform, formally called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, people can select from a menu of health plans offered in their state's insurance exchange. The study findings suggest that insurers might have to price premiums very competitively to woo plan participants.

"Competition may be substantial," said Hirth, who is also the research director for the U-M Center on Value Based Insurance Design. "Based on our estimates, if an insurer tries to impose a large increase, it would see its market share decline 1-2 percent for every 1 percent increase in its premiums."

Researchers found that large price increases could drastically reduce a plan's market share. For U-M retirees, researchers found that only a $10 increase in premiums led to a 2 to 3 percent decrease in a plan's market share. Read more ..


Edge of Food

'Fair-Trade' Foods are Not Necessarily 'Lo-Cal'

March 23rd 2012

fair trade

Claims on food labels that a product is organic, locally produced or made by workers subject to fair labor practices may mislead consumers into thinking that such foods are low in calories, says a University of Michigan researcher. "Social ethics claims on food packaging can promote the misperception that foods are lower-calorie and therefore appropriate for greater consumption," said Norbert Schwarz, professor of marketing at the Michigan Ross School of Business and U-M professor of psychology and social research. "As rates of overweight and obesity have reached record levels, advertising claims have become more common on the fronts of food packaging, fueling concerns that they may lead consumers to see foods as healthier than they really are."

Schwarz and colleagues Jonathon Schuldt of California State University-Northridge and Dominique Muller of the University of Grenoble in France conducted two studies to see if ethical claims on food packaging, such as fair trade (where workers receive just compensation for their work), exhibit the same "halo" effect as those of other food claims (foods low in fat or cholesterol or high in fiber are often misperceived as low in calories). Read more ..


The Violent Roads of Mexico

Massive Narcotics Seizure Indicates Rise in Mexican Meth and Heroin Production

March 23rd 2012

mexican police on parade

The Mexican Department of Defense announced March 15 that soldiers seized 3.6 metric tons (nearly 8,000 pounds) of a dark liquid containing opium paste Feb. 1 in Coyuca de Catalan, Guerrero state. The seizure is a record for Mexican opium and heroin interdictions -- the next biggest seizure was 245 kilograms of opium gum in January 2011 in the same state. This seizure of opium and the recent record-breaking seizures of methamphetamine indicate a dramatic rise in meth and heroin production in Mexico to supplement cartel income.

Opium gum is made by extracting the fluid from poppy pods that can grow in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains along Mexico's Pacific coast. Making black tar heroin can be as easy as soaking the opium gum in acetic acid. Judging by the fact that authorities discovered the opium paste in a liquid (likely acetic acid), it seems they found a lab where the opium gum was being converted to black tar heroin. Read more ..


The Edge of Terror

Toulouse Killer Dead after Siege, Firefight

March 22nd 2012

french riot police toulouse mar 2012

French police stormed the apartment of Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah the moring of Thursday March 22, killing the self-described jihadist and ending a 32-hour siege.

The Times of Israel reports that three French police officers were wounded in the encounter, during which Merah came out with “guns blazing.”

Police used a camera to survey the apartment and when the camera entered the bathroom, the gunman came out, guns blazing, Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters.

A firefight ensued and Merah jumped out the first-floor window and was “found dead,” he said. Heavy gunfire was heard outside for several minutes after police entered the apartment. Some 300 bullets were exchanged in the firefight.

Merah, who confessed to killing three children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school in Toulouse Monday, reportedly said he wanted “to die weapons in hand,” according to Gueant earlier Thursday. Read more ..


Battle for Syria

Ethnic Cleansing of Christian Communities led by Al-Qaeda in Syria

March 21st 2012

Syria and Christian art

While the Syrian opposition forces have been guilty of violence, abuse, torture - as stated in a report released by Human Rights Watch - in Homs there is "an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians", carried out by members of the "Brigade Faruq", which has been linked to Al Qaeda. This is according to sources in the Syrian Orthodox Church, which represents 60 percent of Christians in Syria.

Militant armed Islamists - says the sources - have managed to expel 90 percent of Christians from Homs and confiscated their homes by force. According to the sources within the Syrian Orthodox Church, the militants went door to door in the neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan, forcing Christians to flee, without giving them the chance to take their belongings. The "Faruq Brigade" is run by armed elements of Al-Qaeda and various Wahhabi groups and includes mercenaries from Libya and Iraq. Read more ..


Inside Myanmar

The Opening Up of Myanmar May Profoundly Affect Asian Geopolitics

March 21st 2012

Myanmar girl and Aung son

Myanmar's ongoing liberalization and its normalization of relations with the outside world have the possibility of profoundly affecting geopolitics in Asia – and all for the better.

Geographically, Myanmar dominates the Bay of Bengal. It is where the spheres of influence of China and India overlap. Myanmar is also abundant in oil, natural gas, coal, zinc, copper, precious stones, timber and hydropower, with some uranium deposits as well. The prize of the Indo-Pacific region, Myanmar has been locked up by dictatorship for decades, even as the Chinese have been slowly stripping it of natural resources. Think of Myanmar as another Afghanistan in terms of its potential to change a region: a key, geo-strategic puzzle piece ravaged by war and ineffective government that, if only normalized, would unroll trade routes in all directions.

Ever since China's Yuan (ethnic Mongol) dynasty invaded Myanmar in the 13th century, Myanmar has been under the shadow of a Greater China, with no insurmountable geographic barriers or architectural obstacles like the Great Wall to separate the two lands -- though the Hengduan Shan range borders the two countries. At the same time, Myanmar has historically been the home of an Indian business community -- a middleman minority in sociological terms -- that facilitated the British hold on Myanmar as part of a Greater British India. Read more ..


Edge on Anti-Semitism

New Think Tank Formed to Combat Campus Anti-Semitism

March 20th 2012

UC Davis swastika graffiti

Did you know that, until recently, Jews lacked the same civil rights protections on college campuses that is afforded to Arab Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans, to name just a few?

That was until Kenneth L. Marcus, former head of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and others lobbied to revise the Title VI policy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2004, as head of OCR, he revised—or "clarified"—the policy which he said always meant to apply to Jews, too, but technically didn't because of a legal loophole.

The loophole stemmed from the fact that OCR classified Judaism as just a religion, and not a race or ethnicity. Religion is not protected under Title VI. And so, Jewish students who suffered discrimination and harassment on federally funded universities (even most private institutions receive at least some government funding, said Marcus) were not able to receive the standard protection of resources and support, and have their complaints investigated by the university.

Jewish students who reported such incidents were previously told by the campus that it basically couldn't do anything, and that the student could either go through the process of getting an attorney and taking her complaint to the federal courts or take her complaint to the justice department, which Marcus said "wasn't interested in pursuing these cases." Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Exercise Can Lead to Female Orgasm, Sexual Pleasure

March 19th 2012

victim

Findings from a first-of-its-kind study by Indiana University researchers confirm anecdotal evidence that exercise -- absent sex or fantasies -- can lead to female orgasm. While the findings are new, reports of this phenomenon, sometimes called "coregasm" because of its association with exercises for core abdominal muscles, have circulated in the media for years, said Debby Herbenick, co-director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion in IU's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. In addition to being a researcher, Herbenick is a widely read advice columnist and book author. "The most common exercises associated with exercise-induced orgasm were abdominal exercises, climbing poles or ropes, biking/spinning and weight lifting," Herbenick said. "These data are interesting because they suggest that orgasm is not necessarily a sexual event, and they may also teach us more about the bodily processes underlying women's experiences of orgasm."

The findings are published in a special issue of Sexual and Relationship Therapy, a leading peer-reviewed journal in the area of sex therapy and sexual health. Co-author is J. Dennis Fortenberry, M.D., professor at the IU School of Medicine and Center for Sexual Health Promotion affiliate. The results are based on surveys administered online to 124 women who reported experiencing exercise-induced orgasms (EIO) and 246 women who experienced exercise-induced sexual pleasure (EISP). The women ranged in age from 18 to 63. Most were in a relationship or married, and about 69 percent identified themselves as heterosexual. Read more ..


Mozambique on Edge

Linking Conservation and Human Rights

March 17th 2012

African savanna and elephants

An American entrepreneur says there is a link between conservation and human rights. Gregory Carr says that’s why he pledged $40 million to rebuild Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. About eight years ago, Mozambique’s ambassador to the United Nations invited Carr to visit his country. He knew the American was a philanthropist and hoped he could do some good in Mozambique. Carr says he was both honored and enthusiastic about the offer. “I asked myself what Mozambique can do to advance its human development. Where can it build its economy? And I thought, well, what about safari tourism? A lot of African nations have a multi-billion dollar safari tourism industry and Mozambique’s was very small,” he said. He says that’s when he was told about Gorongosa. “I thought what if I worked with the government and we restored this park we could create an enormous tourism industry, which would create jobs, but also we get to save and restore conservation,” said Carr.

Gorongosa National Park spreads across nearly 3,800 square kilometers in central Mozambique. In 1983, the park closed because of civil war and became the site of a number of battles. Many elephants were killed for their ivory and other wildlife were slaughtered for bushmeat and for sport. Literally a handful of animals were left by the time fighting finally ended in 1994. In 2004, the Mozambique government and the Gregory C. Carr Foundation reached agreement on the Gorongosa Restoration Project. Carr later pledged $40 million over 30 years. He says conservation is vital for the health of the planet. Read more ..

Pakistan on Edge

Pakistani Hindus Allege Forced Marriages, Islamic Conversions

March 16th 2012

Pakistan Islamic women

Leaders of the minority Hindu community in Pakistan's southern Sindh province complain that young girls in the area are being abducted and then forced to convert to Islam and married off to Muslim men. Pakistan People's Party MPA Pitanber Sewani appeared agitated when he reminded the government and its institutions not to force Hindus in Sindh to follow the path of Baloch nationalists who are waging “a war for their rights”. Moving a resolution against post-marriage conversion of Hindu girls, Pitanber Sewani wanted the government to frame a law against the forced marriages. During his fiery speech, he said that young Hindu girls are being kidnapped and converted to Islam after they are subjected to forced marriage with Muslim boys. He said that this practice has created resentment among the minority communities living in Sindh.

The most recent case is that of Rinkel Kumari (renamed Fariyal Shah). Kumari's family is claiming her back from what they say is a forced marriage with a Muslim man. The man's family and clan deny abducting her and insist she converted to Islam of her own free will. Human rights activists say that other reported abductions of members of minority communities in Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, have not been properly investigated by the authorities. In the most recent case, Hindu community leaders say that an oath Ms Kumari made in front of a court in her home town that she had freely got married and converted to Islam was made under duress. They say that many others like her have been forcibly taken away by powerful politicians - some allied to the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The Hindu community has accused one of the party's MPs, Mian Abdul Haq, of supporting the abduction and the forced conversion. But in an interview with the BBC he strenuously denied the allegations. Read more ..

Sudan on Edge

Israelis Imagine a Better Future for Sudan’s Girls

March 15th 2012

Girls School in Sudan

West of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and north of Uganda, a new African state has emerged from decades of civil war to gain its independence. Last July, South Sudan was declared an official country and was recognized by the United Nations. Israel, which had been assisting the people of the region for the past decade, extended a warm diplomatic hand right from the start.

Eager to help this new country gain a foothold amongst its complicated host of societal problems, the Israeli humanitarian aid organization IsraAID is launching diplomatic and humanitarian efforts including a new social-worker training program in cooperation with the Israeli NGOs FIRST and Operation Blessing-Israel. Read more ..


China on Edge

China Struggles to Bridge Gap Between Rich, Poor

March 15th 2012

China Great Hall of the People

China’s National People’s Congress is wrapping up 10 days of meetings in Beijing, where officials are laying out policy priorities. Among the biggest concerns is addressing the growing gap between rich and poor. At this year's annual legislative session, some 3,000 delegates discussed China’s economy, ethnic unrest and reform of the country’s legal system. But for many, the growing gap between rich and poor is the most pressing issue, especially in Beijing's slums, where the country's most affluent and the least can live in close proximity.

In a network of alleys behind one of the city’s luxury shopping malls, dozens of shacks are a block away from a Bentley dealership. In one of these tiny rooms, constructed from a patchwork of aluminum and metal siding held down by rocks and bricks, Li Yulan, 78, runs a small shop that sells snacks and soft drinks. She says the rich are too rich. The poor are too poor. Of eight people in her family, just two have income, she says. Li says the family needs the income from her little store. For Li Yulan, the biggest worry is the rising cost of living. Her income has grown in recent years, but she says it is not enough to offset the rising cost of goods. She says she and many others in this small neighborhood, sandwiched between the city’s skyscrapers, hope the legislators understand their struggle. Li says the NPC is good so long as the problems are solved, but she says just vain talk is useless. She says people in her community are most concerned about rising food prices. Read more ..


Edge of Human Rights

Human Organ Business Exploits the Poor

March 15th 2012

Bangladeshi organ victim
Bangladeshi woman shows scar caused by kidney removal.

A Michigan State University anthropologist who spent more than a year infiltrating the black market for human kidneys has published the first in-depth study describing the often horrific experiences of poor people who were victims of organ trafficking. Monir Moniruzzaman interviewed 33 kidney sellers in his native Bangladesh and found they typically didn’t get the money they were promised and were plagued with serious health problems that prevented them from working, shame and depression.

The study, which appears in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, and Moniruzzaman’s decade-long research in the field describe a growing worldwide market for body parts that include kidneys, parts of livers and even corneas.

Moniruzzaman said the people selling their organs are exploited by unethical brokers and recipients who are often Bangladeshi-born foreign nationals living in places such as the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Because organ-selling is illegal, the brokers forge documents indicating the recipient and seller are related and claim the act is a family donation.

Doctors, hospital officials and drug companies turn a blind eye to the illicit act because they profit along with the broker and, of course, the recipient, said Moniruzzaman, who questioned many of the people involved. Most of the 33 Bangladeshi sellers in his study had a kidney removed across the border in India. Generally, the poor seller and the wealthy recipient met at a medical facility and the transplant was performed at that time, he said. Read more ..


The Environmental Edge

Bright is the New Black: New York City Roofs Go Cool

March 14th 2012

Click to select Image
credit: Kris Arnold

On the hottest day of the New York City summer in 2011, a white roof covering was measured at 42 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the traditional black roof it was being compared to, according to a study including NASA scientists that details the first scientific results from the city’s unprecedented effort to brighten rooftops and reduce its urban heat island effect.

The dark, sunlight-absorbing surfaces of some New York City roofs reached 170 degrees Fahrenheit on July 22, 2011, a day that set a city record for electricity usage during the peak of a heat wave. But in the largest discrepancy of that day, a white roofing material was measured at about 42 degrees cooler. The white roof being tested was a low-cost covering promoted as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030.

On average through the summer of 2011, the pilot white roof surface reduced peak rooftop temperature compared to a typical black roof by 43 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the study, which was the first long-term effort in New York to test how specific white roof materials held up and performed over several years. Read more ..


The Ancient Edge

Ancient Graffiti Illuminate the Life of the Common Man

March 14th 2012

greek graffiti beth she'arim

History is often shaped by the stories of kings and religious and military leaders, and much of what we know about the past derives from official sources like military records and governmental decrees. Now an international project is gaining invaluable insights into the history of ancient Israel through the collection and analysis of inscriptions—pieces of common writing that include anything from a single word to a love poem, epitaph, declaration, or question about faith, and everything in between that does not appear in a book or on a coin.

Such writing on the wall—or column, stone, tomb, floor, or mosaic—is essential to a scholar’s toolbox, explains Prof. Jonathan Price of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Classics. Along with his colleague Prof. Benjamin Isaac, Prof. Hannah Cotton of Hebrew University, and Prof. Werner Eck of the University of Cologne, he is a contributing editor to a series of volumes that presents the written remains of the lives of common individuals in Israel, as well as adding important information about provincial administration and religious institutions, during the period between Alexander the Great and the rise of Islam (the fourth century BCE to the seventh century CE). Read more ..


Health on Edge

Body Clocks May Hold Key to Treatment of Bipolar Disorder

March 14th 2012

sleeping person

Scientists have gained insight into why lithium salts are effective at treating bipolar disorder in what could lead to more targeted therapies with fewer side-effects.

Bipolar disorder is characterised by alternating states of elevated mood, or mania, and depression. It affects between 1 percent and 3 percent of the general population. The extreme “mood swings” in bipolar disorder have been strongly associated with disruptions in circadian rhythms—the 24-hourly rhythms controlled by our body clocks that govern our day and night activity.

For the last 60 years, lithium salt (lithium chloride) has been the mainstay treatment for bipolar disorder, but little research has been carried out to find out whether and how lithium impacts on the brain and peripheral body clockwork.

“Our study has shown a new and potent effect of lithium in increasing the amplitude, or strength, of the clock rhythms, revealing a novel link between the classic mood-stabiliser, bipolar disorder, and body clocks,” said lead researcher Dr Qing-Jun Meng, in the University of University of Manchester's Faculty of Life Sciences. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

How Will Iran Choose its Next Supreme Leader?

March 13th 2012

Iranian clerics

This is part two of “Supreme Succession: Who Will Lead Post-Khamenei Iran?”; read part one here.

The formal succession process may not matter much. Iran’s constitution lays down a clear procedure for designating a Supreme Leader’s successor. Yet in all likelihood, the officials charged with this responsibility under the law will not be the ones making the key decisions. In fact, the regime may bypass the constitutional procedure altogether.

The previous succession did not follow the constitutional requirements. As mentioned before, Khomeini appointed a council to revise the constitution shortly before his death. Before the council had the opportunity to vote on a final amended version of the charter, however, Khomeini died.

The changes were intended to separate religious authority from political authority, perhaps totally. In particular, they allowed an ordinary ayatollah or mujtahid—not just a marja-e taqlid (grand ayatollah)—to become Supreme Leader. Indeed, immediately after Khomeini’s death, Khamenei was selected as Supreme Leader even though he was not a mujtahid, let alone a marja-e taqlid. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Personal Cloud Replaces PCs as the Center of Our Digital Lives

March 13th 2012

CG cloud

The reign of the personal computer as the sole corporate access device is coming to a close, and by 2014, the personal cloud will replace the personal computer at the center of users' digital lives, according to research from Gartner.

Gartner analysts said the personal cloud will begin a new era that will provide users with a new level of flexibility with the devices they use for daily activities, while leveraging the strengths of each device, ultimately enabling new levels of user satisfaction and productivity. However, it will require enterprises to fundamentally rethink how they deliver applications and services to users.

"Major trends in client computing have shifted the market away from a focus on personal computers to a broader device perspective that includes smartphones, tablets and other consumer devices," said Steve Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner. "Emerging cloud services will become the glue that connects the web of devices that users choose to access during the different aspects of their daily life." Read more ..


Inside Germany

Germany's World Strategy

March 13th 2012

Angela Merkel

The idea of Germany having an independent national strategy runs counter to everything that Germany has wanted to be since World War II and everything the world has wanted from Germany. In a way, the entire structure of modern Europe was created to take advantage of Germany's economic dynamism while avoiding the threat of German domination. In writing about German strategy, I am raising the possibility that the basic structure of Western Europe since World War II and of Europe as a whole since 1991 is coming to a close.

If so, then the question is whether historical patterns of German strategy will emerge or something new is coming. It is, of course, always possible that the old post-war model can be preserved. Whichever it is, the future of German strategy is certainly the most important question in Europe and quite possibly in the world.

Origins of Germany's Strategy

Before 1871, when Germany was fragmented into a large number of small states, it did not pose a challenge to Europe. Rather, it served as a buffer between France on one side and Russia and Austria on the other. Napoleon and his campaign to dominate Europe first changed the status of Germany, both overcoming the barrier and provoking the rise of Prussia, a powerful German entity. Prussia became instrumental in creating a united Germany in 1871, and with that, the geopolitics of Europe changed. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

Iranian Succession--Who Will be the Next Leader?

March 10th 2012

Khameni and Khomeini

Over the past two decades, and in the wake of the controversial 2009 presidential election, real power in Iran has been consolidated in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei more than with anyone else, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As head of the government and, more significantly, commander-in- chief of the armed forces, Khamenei has either sidelined or suppressed all of his domestic rivals, allowing him to abandon consensual governance by relying on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The succession process that will follow his eventual departure is therefore much more important than the next presidential election, assuming there even is one.

To be sure, there is little reason to believe that Khamenei will soon pass from the scene. Besides the IRGC, Iran has no real power center capable of forcing him to abdicate. And even the IRGC shows no evidence of potentially disobeying his orders or developing a circle of leadership independent from him. Read more ..


Edge of Terrorism

Intercontinental Trade in a Leafy Narcotic Funds Somalian Terrorists

March 10th 2012

Yemen khat cud
Chewing khat in Yemen.

Analysts believe that this benign-looking plant popular in the Middle East may be funding the Al Shabaab terrorist organization in southern Somalia.
 
A very popular narcotic in the Middle East, khat maybe be funding the terrorist organization Al Shabaab in Somalia, CNN reports. Chewing the red stems of Catha edulis produces mild euphoria and an alertness akin to that produced by caffeine, and it is openly and widely use in the Horn of Africa. In Yemen, growing Khat uses more water than the country can afford and takes priority over more sustaining crops. Now Dutch officials are banning khat in the Netherlands, where a large Somali community imports large quantities of the plant from farmers in Meru County, Kenya. Government spokespeople insist that this decision was taken to protect against grave economic, health, and social concerns, but analysts believe that funds generated by the trade are funneled to Al Shabaab and that the Dutch aim to curtail that. Read more ..


Inside Israel

Women's Rights in Israel

March 10th 2012

Modern Women Leaders
Golda Meir

Israel is widely considered among the world's most progressive nations in defending the rights of women. 

Israel's Declaration of Independence - calling for the equal treatment of citizens regardless of race, religion, or gender - stands as a beacon of civility, freedom, and justice in a region where women are denied many basic freedoms.

In fact, Israel was one of the first countries in the world to be led by a female head of state. From 1969 to 1974, Golda Meir served as Israel's Prime Minister, setting the stage for future generations of women to follow in her political footsteps. Today, 24 women serve in the 120-member Knesset, a higher proportion than sit in the U.S. Congress. Three women also are ministers in the Israeli cabinet - Sofa Landver, Orit Noked, and Limor Livnat. Additionally, the leaders of two of Israel's three major political parties - Kadima and Labor - are both women, Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yachimovich, respectively.

Livni was first elected to the Israeli Knesset as a member of the rightist Likud party in 1999. When Likud leader Ariel Sharon became prime minister in July 2001, Livni was appointed Minister of Regional Co-operation, and thereafter held various Cabinet positions including Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Minister of Immigrant Absorption and Minister of Housing and Construction. She received the Abirat Ha-Shilton ("Quality of Governance") award for 2004. in October 2005, she was appointed Minister of Justice after several months acting in that position.

In Sharon's Cabinet, Livni was an avid supporter of the prime minister's disengagement plan, and was generally considered to be among the key dovish or moderate members of the Likud party. She often mediated between various elements inside the party, and made efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including successful efforts to have the pullout from the Gaza Strip ratified by the Knesset. On November 12, 2005, she spoke at the official annual commemoration of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. Read more ..


Edge of Peace

Eco-Park For a Green Peace

March 10th 2012

Kishon River

If you are paddling a canoe down one of rivers that flows through Israel to the Mediterranean Sea, you might want to hold onto your oars. Some of these rivers are full of sewage effluent, agriculture runoff, wastewater from animal farms and industrial byproducts.

The Kishon River, which flows from the Palestinian city of Jenin through the Haifa Bay, is one of the most polluted of them all. Oil refinery waste dumped into the Kishon is thought responsible for giving Israeli divers cancer.

Recent conservation efforts on Israel's part have greatly improved the river's condition. But upstream it's a different story. Upstream, where the 70-kilometer river starts in Jenin, Palestinians rely on the river to carry away partly and poorly treated sewage. Open cesspits further downstream siphon into the river from the West Bank side, while heavy loads of fertilizers run off with every rain. Wildlife has returned to the Kishon following conservation efforts, but the situation is still grim near the West Bank end of the waterway. Read more ..


Humanity on Edge

Ethics of the Singularity

March 6th 2012

NGC 1097 Spiral Galaxy
NGC 1079 (credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, SINGS Team (SSC))

What Is the Singularity? If we manage to create a general artificial intelligence (AI)—an AI with intellectual capabilities similar to our own—this may well launch a Technological Singularity.

The possibility of a Technological Singularity is a key issue for the future of the AI community and of human society. If the Singularity occurs, it is very likely that the main social and technological problems facing us will then be eliminated, for better or worse. The first possibility excites Singularity enthusiasts; the second excites Hollywood directors and other pessimists. As AI researchers, we would like to be enthusiasts; here we review our prospects for remaining enthusiastic. Read more ..


Turkey on Edge

Istanbul’s Main Square To Become Lifeless And Isolated In New Urban Plan

March 5th 2012

Istanbul

Today, Istanbul’s Taksim Square is a bustling hub of activity, with majestic Gezi Park providing some natural solace — even when the trees are brown in winter, as in the above photo. But a new plan would eliminate most of the greenery in this photo and cut off Taksim from the rest of the city. That’s the argument of the Taksim Platform, a group of concerned citizens, urban planners, lawyers, and academics who have so far collected more than 13,500 signatures against the project. See what the new square would look like after the jump.

In the government’s vision for the new Taksim Square, the front of Gezi Park would be replaced by a building with a courtyard, while the back would be reduced to a small patch of grass and a mall. The streets running through and around Taksim Square would be paved over and replaced by deep underground tunnels, increasing the volumeand speed of traffic as vehicles exit the tunnels. Read more ..


Edge of Poverty

UNICEF's 2012 State of The World's Children Report: Vital Services Denied to Millions

March 4th 2012

Multiracial kids
Urban Children

The United Nations Children's Fund warns hundreds of millions of children who live in cities and towns are excluded from vital services, as it relates to their health, education, clean water and sanitation. In this year’s 2012 State of the World's Children report, UNICEF describes the grim reality of children growing up in poverty in city slums, which offer few of the benefits that are available to children of a wealthier class. For those individuals and families who can afford to go to the doctor, get an education and take advantage of the many recreational activities available, cities are great places to live. And yet, they are not such great places for poor children forced to live in slums and shantytowns. The U.N. Children’s Fund says these children are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the world. They live amid violence and exploitation, in addition to being deprived the most basic services.
Read more ..

Analysis of the Youth

A Healthy Teenager is a Happy Teenager

March 2nd 2012

Sullen Woman

Teenagers who turn their backs on a healthy lifestyle and turn to drink, cigarettes and junk food are significantly unhappier than their healthier peers. New research also shows that 12-13 is a catalyst age when young people turn away from the healthy habits of their younger years and start to get involved in risky behaviours.

The research, which used information from Understanding Society, a long-term study of 40,000 UK households funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), looked at the responses of 5,000 young people between the ages of 10-15 to questions about their health-related behaviours and levels of happiness. The results show that young people who never drank any alcohol were between four and six times more likely to have higher levels of happiness than those who reported any alcohol consumption.
Youth who smoked were about five times less likely to have high happiness scores compared to those who never smoked. Higher consumption of fruit and vegetables and lower consumption of crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks were both associated with high happiness.The more hours of sport youth participated in per week the happier they were. Read more ..


America on Edge

See America on $2 Per Day, Like 2.8 Million American Kids Do

March 2nd 2012

Homeless Black Teenager

One in five households with children in poverty are surviving on the cash equivalent of a half gallon of milk per person per day in a given month. The National Poverty Center has released a new report that examines poverty trends between 1996 and 2011. The number of households with children who are in extreme poverty in a given month—living at $2 or less in income per person per day—in 2011 totaled roughly 1.46 million households, including 2.8 million kids. This number is up from 636,000 households in 1996, nearly a 130 percent increase.

The study finds that in-kind public programs are having an effect, though. The number of children living in extreme poverty is cut in half to 1.4 million in 2011 when the statistics take into account benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). Read more ..


Edge of Health

New Influenza Virus May not be Harmful to Humans, Maybe

February 28th 2012

Cough

A new influenza A virus discovered in fruit bats in Guatemala does not appear to present a current threat to humans, but should be studied as a potential source for human influenza, according to scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who worked with Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City, Guatemala. “This is the first time an influenza virus has been identified in bats, but in its current form the virus is not a human health issue,” said Dr. Suxiang Tong, team lead of the Pathogen Discovery Program in CDC’s Division of Viral Diseases and lead author of the study.  “The study is important because the research has identified a new animal species that may act as a source of flu viruses.” 

For the bat influenza virus to infect humans, it would need to obtain some genetic properties of human influenza viruses. This can occur in nature through a process called reassortment. Reassortment occurs when two or more influenza viruses infect a single host cell, which allows the viruses to swap genetic information. Reassortment is a complicated chain of events that can sometimes lead to the emergence of new influenza viruses in humans. Preliminary CDC research on the new virus suggests that its genes are compatible with human influenza viruses. Read more ..


Inside Spain

92 Percent of Spanish Families With Adopted Children Are Satisfied With Their Decision

February 26th 2012

Premature Baby

Two separate surveys six years apart have been used to analyse the level of satisfaction with adoptions in Andalucía. The study shows that 77.7 percent of families are happier after the process and variables that make it more difficult have been identified, such as the age of the children when arriving, multiple adoption and previous experiences of abuse. There is a significant link between the parents' assessment and that of the children.

"We wanted to know to what extent adoptions in Spain are providing children who need it with a healthy family environment that promotes their development" Yolanda Sánchez-Sandoval, a researcher from the University of Cádiz (UCA) states. In order to assess that, a comprehensive questionnaire was sent to families with adopted children in Andalucía, which was employed, amongst other uses, to assess family's satisfaction with the decision as a measurement of success. Read more ..


India on Edge

India's Surging Vehicle Count Creates Public Health Hazards

February 24th 2012

India Highway congestion

India's economy is growing at a blistering pace, and while that is increasing welfare for millions, it's also raising some alarming public health red flags. Respiratory pediatrician S.K. Kabra has busy Saturdays. His outpatient waiting area at this New Delhi hospital teems with parents whose children complain of breathing difficulties. Kabra says poor air quality is a key component in a grim U.N. statistic: 13 percent of Indian children under five years of age, who are hospitalized for respiratory infections, die. "Pollution increases the morbidity, increases the frequency, increases the severity. If a mother and a baby are exposed to some pollutant, that will increase respective morbidity," noted Kabra.

A recent U.S. study using satellite data gave India the lowest air quality rating in the world, citing concentrations of particulates five times higher than those deemed safe for human health. For poor and rural Indians, a significant danger comes from cooking with wood and other biomass. But the fastest-growing source of dangerous pollution is actually related to India's increasing wealth. Anumita Roychowdhury is an executive director at the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment. She speaks of a "toxic spiral" with the growing number of vehicles on India's streets. "Imagine a city with more than 5.6 million vehicles, adding nearly 1,200 to 1,300 vehicles a day," said Roychowdhury. "The pace of the problem is growing faster than our ability to deal with it." Read more ..


Afghanistan on Edge

No Refuge From Misery For Afghanistan's Displaced

February 24th 2012

Afghani Taliban

To the casual observer the thousands of caves that dot the sandstone cliffs of the ancient Afghan city of Bamiyan hearken to another era, when monks visiting the region's famous Buddha statues took residence there. But for hundreds of Afghans, the caves represent their current reality. The new residents have been forced to seek refuge in the caves, unable to return to areas they originally fled due to insecurity and the destruction of their former homes and villages. Upon their return to their native lands they have found it a struggle to survive, with basic essentials such as food, shelter, and health care in short supply. One is Gulsom, a 34-year-old mother of seven who has lived in the Bamiyan caves for over five years. Gulsom, who only has one name, returned to Bamiyan after she and her children were deported from Iran. After travelling to her former village and finding it deserted and completely destroyed, Gulsom followed the footsteps of hundreds of other returnees and displaced families in the region and moved into a cave. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

How The Kremlin Is Using Sex To Sell Putin

February 23rd 2012

Putin Ad

I'm scared," the girl says, "I want my choice to be based on love." The doctor, his glasses perched on his nose, looks down at her reclined on a leather chair. "I understand you, it's always scary the first time." The doctor then points to a copy of "Time" magazine with Putin on the cover and says, "Trust is love." Sweeping panpipes kick in, reminiscent of the "Titanic" theme tune, and the girl happily trots off to the polling station. The campaign ad from the youth group Nashi is the latest in a series of pro-Kremlin campaign videos that use sex to sell Putin's candidacy ahead of the March 4 election. Last year, Putin's Army of scantily clad women ripped off their clothes and lovingly unboxed Apple products. One time, the girls got together to make a chocolate cake for Putin. Or, with aesthetics borrowed from the car-washing scene in "Cool Hand Luke," Putin's girls strip off and get soapy.

The ads just get more and more bizarre. Before shaking hands with Putin, one Russian man decided that he would somehow transfer good vibes by fondling the breasts of 1,000 girls on the street. Many accepted the offer, many didn't. And in what might be a metaphor for the end of innocence, in this video a teddy bear is ripped up and then -- with pornographic predictability -- all the ladies start catfighting and ripping off each other's clothes. But the one that really takes the cake is the "Girls for Putin" music video, where at one point the singer pines for Putin while nursing a bottle of Jack Daniels. For some reason she also wants to be Putin's dog, Connie, so she paints her face (as a dog). Then she drinks more whisky, plays air guitar with a baseball bat, strips, and spits on a smashed pumpkin. Read more ..


Edge of Hunger

Action Needed to Address Perennial Problem of Hungry School Kids

February 23rd 2012

Homeless Black Teenager

Hunger is on the rise in America. The Conference of Mayors recently reported that 86 percent of surveyed cities have seen increases in the need for emergency food aid. These findings coincide with a Feeding America reportthat 20 percent of children in the United States are hungry. To turn the tide, we need to rekindle the passion and innovation of those who started the fight to end hunger in America more than a century ago.

In 1908 a Cincinnati school teacher, Ella Walsh, saw that her students were struggling. They looked pale. The students were not getting enough to eat. This obviously had serious health as well as educational repercussions. They could not learn on an empty stomach. Walsh could see malnutrition before her eyes. But she did not just “file it and forget it.” She took action. She got some cooking materials together, found a room, arranged a table, and started serving what came to be known as the “penny lunch.” Read more ..


Iran on Edge

Iran's National Internet Gets Late Spring Launch Date

February 22nd 2012

Shadowy Computer User

Iran’s so-called "national Internet" will be launched in either in late May or June, according to an announcement by Iranian Telecommunications Minister Reza Taghipour. Speaking on February 20 at a cyber-defense forum in Tehran, Taghipour said the national Internet is one of the steps Iran is taking toward creating infrastructures aimed at boosting its cyber-defense capabilities. Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Taghipour as saying, "Supporting local software and creating secure communication infrastructure are among the most important strategic decisions in the field of cyber defense, and in this regard the first phase of this network will become operational in the month of Khordad" -- the third month of the Iranian civil calendar, which begins in May and ends in June. Iranian officials have been promising to launch a national Internet since at least 2006. But they have provided little details about its scope, which has stoked fears that it could cut off citizen’s access to the World Wide Web. Iran already has one of the world’s toughest Internet censorship regimes, routinely blocking thousands of websites deemed immoral or threatening to the country’s national security.

  Read more ..


The Edge Of Justice

Social Workers Better Prepared to Address Juvenile Delinquencies than Law Enforcement Personnel

February 21st 2012

Juvenile Law

In the pioneering days of the juvenile corrections system, social workers often served as the primary probation officers who rehabilitated young offenders. As the field of corrections became dominated by law enforcement officers, the role of social workers was marginalized. A University of Missouri expert on juvenile justice and child welfare says social workers should return to the juvenile corrections system and reclaim their role as rehabilitators. Less than 2 percent of trained social workers are employed in the corrections system, according to the National Association of Social Workers.

Clark Peters, an assistant professor in the MU School of Social Work and a policy research scholar at the Institute of Public Policy in the Truman School of Public Affairs, says social workers’ specialized qualifications as counselors and facilitators better prepare them than law enforcement personnel to address youth offenders’ psychological and social needs. Compared to those trained in criminal justice, social workers are more likely to advocate for offenders’ access to needed services, such as mental health or substance abuse counseling, education or vocational training, or increased support from their family and friends, Peters said. Read more ..


Afghanistan on Edge

New Afghan Textbooks Sidestep History

February 21st 2012

Afghan School

Afghanistan's recent history is comparable to a war epic -- a story encompassing four decades of foreign invasions, civil war, and political turmoil.  How that story is told, however, has proved highly controversial, with the country's rival ethnic and political groups writing their own accounts of history, shaped by their own ideologies, and with their own villains and heroes. Now Afghan officials think they have found a way to teach the country's contentious history that is acceptable to all Afghans regardless of their politics, ethnicity, or religion. The answer, they say, is to omit the past four decades from the history books. As of the next school year, which begins this spring, the Afghan government plans to distribute textbooks to high school students that do not mention the Soviet invasion, the country's devastating civil war, the reign of the extremist Taliban regime, the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and the international presence that continues today. The Afghan Education Ministry says the textbook, the only one to be officially approved by the government, is part of a new nonpolitical curriculum. It is part of an initiative launched three years ago that has seen the government distribute books which avoid contentious recent history to some elementary and secondary schools around the country. Read more ..


Ukraine on Edge

Tymoshenko's Daughter Says She Fears For Her Mother's Life

February 20th 2012

Yulia Tymoshenko

The daughter of Ukraine's jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko says she's afraid her mother may die because of what she describes as abusive prison conditions. Yevhenia Tymoshenko -- who this month accused Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych of seeking to "get rid of" her mother -- said the former prime minister has been subjected to poor medical care and abusive conditions since she was initially jailed in August. The 31-year-old Tymoshenko, speaking to RFE/RL in Prague, said her worries about her mother have grown ever since an alleged incident in January where prison officials took 20 minutes to respond after her mother lost consciousness in her cell. "Of course, we understand that she's there for political reasons. And the whole democratic world states the same, that it's a politically motivated repression," she said. "But at the moment, we are actually worried just for her life. I'm not worried whether she's going to be back in politics or not, I'm just worried that she'll be alive."

Yulia Tymoshenko, who twice served as prime minister under the presidency of her Orange Revolution cohort Viktor Yushchenko, was handed a seven-year sentence late last year on charges of abuse of office. In late December, she was moved to a remote women's prison in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Since then, her family members and lawyers have complained of harsh conditions in her jail cell, including too-bright lighting and around-the-clock video surveillance. Read more ..


The Edge of Psychology

Babies Know What’s Fair

February 18th 2012

Angry Child

“That’s not fair!” It’s a common playground complaint. But how early do children acquire this sense of fairness? Before they’re 2, says a new study. “We found that 19- and 21-month-old infants have a general expectation of fairness, and they can apply it appropriately to different situations,” says University of Illinois psychology graduate student Stephanie Sloane, who conducted the study with UI’s Renée Baillargeon and David Premack of the University of Pennsylvania.

In each of two experiments, babies watched live scenarios unfold. In the first, 19-month-olds saw two giraffe puppets dance around at the back of a stage. An experimenter arrived with two toys on a tray and said, “I have toys!” “Yay!” said the giraffes. Then the experimenter gave one toy to each giraffe or both to one of them. The infants were timed gazing at the scene until they lost interest. Longer looking times indicated that something was odd—unexpected—to the baby. In this experiment, three-quarters of the infants looked longer when one giraffe got both toys. Read more ..



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