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Catholic Church on Edge

Cardinal Schönborn Confirms Homosexual on Parish Council in Austria

March 31st 2012

Florian Stangl of Austria
Florian Stangl

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who leads the Roman Catholic Church in Austria, has apparently confirmed that an openly homosexual man may serve on the parish council at a church in Stutzenhofen – a town in the Weinviertel region.

Florian Stangl was elected to the advisory post by members of the congregation, but apparently did not find approval on the part of his pastor, Rev. Gerhard Swierzek.

Stangl and his companion resorted to asking for a personal interview with Cardinal Schonborn, who then spoke with the pair and dined with them. According to Austrian daily Die Presse, Cardinal Schonborn decided that Stangl should not be excluded from the position, but the decision was not made public until March 30. Rev. Swierzek, who had opposed the homosexual Stangl, has since received death threats. Gasoline is said to have been poured through a window at his rectory, while a local newspaper reported that there was a rumour that the priest had left on vacation. Read more ..

The Arab Winter in Egypt

Is the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Nominating a Presidential Candidate?

March 31st 2012


Shortly after mass protests toppled Hosni Mubarak last February, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood sought to assuage fears of an "Islamist takeover" by making two promises to both the international community and to Egyptian secularist parties: that it would run candidates in fewer than 50 percent of the parliamentary races, and that it would not run a presidential candidate. Yet one month before the parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood backtracked on its first promise. Fearing that upstart Salafist parties would steal its thunder, the Brotherhood's electoral alliance ran a full slate of candidates. The reversal paid off: The Brotherhood won a 47-percent parliamentary plurality, nearly doubling the second-place Salafists' 24-percent take.

Now the Brotherhood is considering a second flip-flop: Its leaders are deliberating over whether to run a presidential candidate. They fear that, without a Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, the organization's younger members will vote for Abdel Monem Abouel Fotouh -- a popular former Brotherhood leader whom the organization banished last year after he declared his presidential candidacy despite the Brotherhood's policy against running a presidential candidate at that time. If a critical mass of Muslim Brotherhood members vote for the outcast Abouel Fotouh, it would represent a major affront to the organization's leadership.

So how is the Muslim Brotherhood leadership conducting this intra-party deliberation of obvious national importance? The answer is revealing, if not reassuring, about the Brotherhood's political practices.

Zakariya Helmy, an activist in the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, told me that Brotherhood leaders were claiming that they had sought the counsel of the organization's rank-and-file members. "The argument [that the Brotherhood leaders are making] is that, before we take any decision, we start taking the opinion of the grassroots of the local areas and members of every local area," he says. Read more ..

Poisoned Places

EPA Steps in at Iowa Plant—after Years of Complaints

March 30th 2012

grain processing plant (iwatch)
GPC Plant, Muscaine, Iowa (credit: Chris Hamby/iWatch)

For years, people living in the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa, have complained about the ash and smoke blowing into their neighborhood from a corn processing plant. State regulators have brought enforcement cases against the company, but the town’s South End neighborhood remains under a haze.

On March 27, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, alleging years of violations of air pollution rules at the plant owned by Grain Processing Corp. The letter issued to the company, known as GPC, doesn’t impose penalties, but puts it on notice that the EPA is considering an enforcement case. GPC spokesman Janet Sichterman said company officials are reviewing the notice and “aren’t in a position to make a comment on it now.”

The action comes as the company is battling the Iowa attorney general, who has alleged separate violations of air and water pollution rules in a lawsuit. A group of citizens, calling themselves Clean Air Muscatine, has filed a petition to intervene in that case, saying the state’s previous actions against GPC have failed to protect people living near the facility. Read more ..

Religious Tolerance on Edge

Stratford Condo Association Bans Resident's Mezuza

March 29th 2012

Stratford Mezzuzah

A condominium owner in Stratford, Conn has been told by her condo association that she must remove the mezuzah from her doorpost. The California Condo Association has asked condo owner Barbara Cadranel to remove the mezuzah—the small object placed on the doorpost of a Jewish family’s home in fulfillment of religious obligations—and has threatened to fine her $50 a day for keeping it up.

According to its agreement with its condo owners, the California Condo Association does allow for the display of items such as Christmas wreaths and crosses on condo unit doors, but does not allow for the display of items, such as mezuzot, on building structures such as doorposts, which it defines as common areas. Now, the incident is in the local news, and the Anti-Defamation League and a Washington, D.C. law office specializing in religious rights have gotten involved.

The Connecticut Regional Office of the ADL has sent a letter asking the association in Stratford to allow Cadranel to keep her mezuzah hanging on the doorpost of her unit. “A mezuzah is not a decorative choice for Jews, or a choice of any kind,” said ADL’s Connecticut Regional Director Gary Jones. “Requiring its removal is tantamount to requiring a Jewish person to move. Thousands of condominium owners throughout Connecticut display mezuzahs on their doorposts without any issue. We are confident that the California Condo Association can accommodate the religious requirements of all its owners and ensure that people of all backgrounds are able to live in the building as part of an inclusive community without undermining the goals of its bylaws.” Read more ..

Tibet on Edge

Dalai Lama Seen as Instigator and Solution in China-Tibet Struggle

March 28th 2012

Dalai Lama

One of the key demands Tibetan self-immolation protesters have been calling for as they set themselves on fire is for China to allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. Some Tibet analysts say Beijing is missing a crucial opportunity by not engaging the Dalai Lama to find a compromise to the situation. But, from China’s perspective, increasingly so, it is Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader that is the problem, not the solution.

It is no secret that China distrusts the Dalai Lama. He is routinely blamed as being the source of unrest in Tibetan parts of China and is the frequent target of scathing attacks in China’s state media and in Internet chat rooms.

Late last week, the state-run Chinese website China Tibet Online carried a commentary that not only accused the religious leader of instigating the self-immolations, but of advocating what it said was “Nazi-style” racial segregation. The official Xinhua news agency also published the commentary. Radio Free Asia have complied an interactive timeline of the Tibetan self-immolations.

Tibet specialists in China say that while those who self-immolate may be calling out for the exiled spiritual leader’s return, the Dalai Lama’s influence is waning in Tibetan parts of the country. Chinese authorities have branded the acts as terrorism and say those who have participated in the flaming protests are largely individuals who are social outcasts and criminals. Read more ..

Guatemala on Edge

Education Reform is Key to Stemming Violence in Drug-Infested Guatemala

March 28th 2012

Guatemalan National Police

Not surprisingly, much has been said about the disturbing violent crime trends in Central America such as murders and massacres by the narcotraficantes continue to evade prosecution by authorities. Those who are most notorious for the killing continue to avoid suffering the consequences for their heinous crimes. In Guatemala, a nation torn by violence and divided by transnational gangs, former Interior Minister

Carlos Menocal released a statement declaring that the homicide rate had fallen from 46 in 2008 to 39 murders per 100,000 residents this past year. If these numbers stand the test of independent research, former president Alvaro Colóm, can use them to tout his successes as newly inaugurated President Otto Pérez Molina takes over. Even with this slight decrease in violent deaths, the nation still suffers 16 murders a day, and over 5,600 murders a year. Given an impunity rate of nearly 98 percent, just over 100 of these violent crimes would be brought to trial with even fewer still advancing to the sentencing stage. Read more ..

The Dawn of Civilization

Domesticated Cattle Traced to Small Herd 10,500 Years Ago

March 28th 2012

Aurochs Skeleton
Aurochs skeleton at National Museum of Denmark (credit:Marcus Sümnick)

All cattle are descended from as few as 80 animals that were domesticated from wild oxen in the Near East some 10,500 years ago, according to a new genetic study, published in March in Molecular Biology and Evolution. An international team of scientists from the CNRS and National Museum of Natural History in France, the University of Mainz in Germany, and UCL in the UK were able to conduct the study by first extracting DNA from the bones of domestic cattle excavated in Iranian archaeological sites. These sites date to not long after the invention of farming and are in the region where cattle were first domesticated.

The team examined how small differences in the DNA sequences of those ancient cattle, as well as cattle living today, could have arisen given different population histories. Using computer simulations they found that the DNA differences could only have arisen if a small number of animals, approximately 80, were domesticated from the wild ox (aurochs).

Dr Ruth Bollongino of CNRS, France, and the University of Mainz, Germany; lead author of the study, said: “Getting reliable DNA sequences from remains found in cold environments is routine. … That is why mammoths were one of the first extinct species to have their DNA read. But getting reliable DNA from bones found in hot regions is much more difficult because temperature is so critical for DNA survival. This meant we had to be extremely careful that we did not end up reading contaminating DNA sequences from living, or only recently dead cattle.“ Read more ..

The Human Edge

Human Noise Has Ripple Effects on Plants

March 27th 2012

black-chinned hummingbird
Black-chinned hummingbird (credit National Park Service)

A growing body of research shows that birds and other animals change their behavior in response to human noise, such as the din of traffic or the hum of machinery.

But human clamor doesn’t just affect animals.

Because many animals also pollinate plants or eat or disperse their seeds, human noise can have ripple effects on plants, too, finds a new study reported in the March 21, 2012, issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In cases where noise has ripple effects on long-lived plants like trees, the consequences could last for decades, even after the source of the noise goes away, says lead author Clinton Francis of the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.

In previous studies, Francis and colleagues found that some animals increase in numbers near noisy sites, while others decline. But could animals’ different responses to human noise have indirect effects on plants, too?

To find out, the researchers conducted a series of experiments from 2007 to 2010 in the Bureau of Land Management’s Rattlesnake Canyon Wildlife Area in northwestern New Mexico. Read more ..

Religious Tolerance

The Texas Sabbath Showdown: The Inside (and Still Blazing) Story

March 27th 2012

Beren BBall team

At about 8 p.m. on Feburary 27, constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin was sitting half-asleep in the aisle seat of an Amtrak train speeding south from New York to Washington, D.C. Seated next to him was his daughter and law partner Alyza Lewin. Shortly after crossing the bridge into New Jersey, as red and green track lights blurred past, his cell phone rang. Struggling against the din of a train car filled with passengers, and the exhaustion of a tiring day in Manhattan, Lewin tried to make out what was being said on the cell phone. “You are located where?” he asked. “Did you say Texas?”

From that Monday night moment and for the next four days, a tornadic frenzy of phone calls, text messages, e-mails, conference calls and voice mails was unleashed between parents and attorneys in Texas and Washington. It would all change a number of lives forever and make headlines worldwide as an international sports drama.

Beren Jewish Academy of Houston, an Orthodox Jewish high school, fielding a superb basketball team, had battled its way to the semi-finals of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS). Ironically, although TAPPS was a sports league of private and religious schools, the association was determined not to honor any Sabbath except Christian Sunday. Moreover, the semi-final playoffs were deliberately scheduled for March 2, a Friday night, which meant that Orthodox Jewish students could not participate. TAPPS angrily and steadfastly denied all requests for accommodation for Beren’s Jewish kids, refusing to move the game up just a few hours even though Covenant, the team Beren was scheduled to play, agreed to the proposed revised game time. That triggered a legal challenge in federal court which quickly led to TAPPS reversing its decision and rescheduling the Friday night game to early Friday afternoon in time for the Beren team to play. The pumped Beren team handily won the game. Headlines raced across the planet trumpeting a victory for the Beren team, for religious accommodation, for sports and for great storylines. Read more ..

Edge of Islam

Islamic Marriage guide Counsels Men to Strike Wives or Pull their Ears

March 27th 2012

a gift for muslim couple

An Islamic guide to marriage counsels husbands on the best ways to beat their wives. The book, A Gift for Muslim Couple, advises husbands to beat their wives with “hand or stick or pull her by the ears.”  Written by Maulavi Ashraf Ali Thanvi, a prominent Muslim scholar, the blurb for the book claims that it “deals with the subject of marriage and after marriage relationship, as well as the various pitfalls of marriage, causes of breakdown and their causes.” Moderate Muslims, however, have denounced the guide for encouraging violence against women.

A Gift for Muslim Couple says it analyses "real life incidents," while advising on "different aspects of family life and how to run the institution of marriage successfully." To accomplish marital success with a wife, the book states that a husband may find it “necessary to restrain her with strength or even to threaten her."

Apparently emphasizing a sense of balance in the treatment of wives, the book advises that "the husband should treat the wife with kindness and love, even if she tends to be stupid and slow sometimes."

Author Thanvi also declaims upon the "rights of the husband," which, according to his book, include denying his wife’s access to leaving "his house without his permission." As to other conjugal rights on the part of a husband, the book says that a wife must “fulfil his desires” and "not allow herself to be untidy ... but should beautify herself for him." The book encourages husbands to scold their wives. According to the book, they may also "beat by hand or stick, withhold money from her or pull (her) by the ears." At the same time, the book advises a measure of restraint, saying that husbands should "refrain from beating her excessively." Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Does The Brain 'Remember' Antidepressants?

March 26th 2012

Click to select Image

Individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) often undergo multiple courses of antidepressant treatment during their lives. This is because the disorder can recur despite treatment and because finding the right medication for a specific individual can take time.

While the relationship between prior treatment and the brain's response to subsequent treatment is unknown, a new study by UCLA researchers suggests that how the brain responds to antidepressant medication may be influenced by its remembering of past antidepressant exposure.

Interestingly, the researchers used a harmless placebo as the key to tracking the footprints of prior antidepressant use. Read more ..

Inside Uzbekistan

Dance-Off At Uzbekistan’s Norouz

March 26th 2012

Nowruz 2012 Uzbekistan
President Karimov celebrates Norouz (credit: Uzbek State TV/RFE/RL)

What do you get when you put together a U.S. diplomat, a septuagenarian Central Asian dictator, and a giant public celebration of the New Year?

The answer, at least in the eyes of state broadcasters in Uzbekistan, is great television.

March 22 marked Uzbekistan’s observance of Norouz, the Persian New Year, a holiday kept not just in Iran but all over Central Asia. For the occasion, Uzbek President Islam Karimov threw a big party in a Tashkent arena, replete with choreographed performances, giant balloons, and spontaneous dancing from officials who normally keep a tight lid on their public personas.

Uzbek state television was on hand to capture video footage of President Karimov—who turned 74 in January—rising from his chair in the viewing stand to clap his hands, raise his arms, and cut a rug. The leader’s energy was apparently infectious: as Karimov’s dance moves became more enthusiastic, the aides around him waved their hands and shook back and forth with greater gusto. Read more ..

Edge of Adolescence

Most Adults Do Not Support Legal Consequences for Teenage Sexting

March 26th 2012

Teenaged Android

Sexting – sending sexually explicit, nude, or semi-nude photos by cell phone – has become a national concern, especially when it involves children and teens. A new poll shows that the vast majority of adults do not support legal consequences for teens who sext. Seventeen states have already enacted laws to address youth sexting and another 13 states have pending legislation in 2012 that focuses on sexting.

The University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health recently asked adults across the United States for their opinions about youth sexting and sexting legislation. The poll found that the vast majority, 81 percent, of adults think an educational program or counseling is an appropriate consequence for teens who sext. Most adults also favor similar non-criminal programs: 76 percent of adults think schools should give all students and parents information on sexting, and 75 percent of adults support requiring community service for sexting teens.

In contrast, most adults do not favor legal consequences for minors who sext other minors. About one-half, 44 percent, support fines less than $500 for youth sexting, while 20 percent or fewer think that sexting should be treated as a sex crime, or that teens who sext should be prosecuted under sexual abuse laws. Read more ..

Edge on Education

Parents and Teachers Trump Peers in Keeping Teens at School

March 26th 2012

parents teachers students

Teachers and parents matter more than peers in keeping adolescents engaged in school, according to a new study that counters the widespread belief that peers matter most in the lives of adolescents. "We were surprised to find that most adolescents continue to be influenced greatly by their teachers and parents when it comes to school engagement," said Ming-Te Wang, the lead author of the study and a faculty research fellow at University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

"Even though this is a stage when young people are moving toward establishing autonomy and independence, teachers and parents remain important in helping them stay involved in school, and in extracurricular activities. And this is true for all ethnic groups and races, and across all the economic groups we studied." For the study, which was published in the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Child Development, Wang and co-author Jacquelynne Eccles analyzed longitudinal data on nearly 1,500 teens from 23 schools in the Washington, D.C., area. Students were interviewed in 7th, 9th and 11th grades, with researchers asking about four indicators of student engagement: compliance with school rules, participation in extracurricular activities, identification with one's school and value placed on education. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Can Our Genes Be Making Us Fat?

March 25th 2012

Childhood Obesity

While high-fat foods are thought to be of universal appeal, there is actually a lot of variation in the extent to which people like and consume fat. A new study in the March issue of the Journal of Food Science, published by the Institute of Food Technologists, reported that two specific genes (TAS2R38–a bitter taste receptor and CD36–a possible fat receptor), may play a role in some people's ability to taste and enjoy dietary fat. By understanding the role of these two genes, food scientists may be able to help people who have trouble controlling how much fat they eat.

Most food scientists acknowledge the texture of fat plays a big role in how fat is perceived in the mouth. For example, ice cream is typically "rich, smooth and creamy." And certain fats, scientists have determined, can be detected by smell. Only recently have food scientists explored that most fats have a taste too. Researchers are now investigating the gene (CD360) that is responsible for detecting the taste of fats (fatty acids) in the mouth. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Poverty Stretches the Digital Divide

March 25th 2012

2010 US Broadband Coverage
US Broadband Coverage as of 2010 (credit: iWatch News/IRW)

Broadband subscribership in rural states, particularly in the West, increased at a rapid clip between 2008 and 2010 while the South has lagged behind the rest of the nation, according to an analysis of government data.

Southern states like Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee have abysmal subscription rates, according to the analysis.

While the most-wired state is Hawaii, states in the relatively wealthy Northeast have the highest subscription rates—among them, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

Access to broadband has become critical for keeping up in American society. Finding and applying for jobs often takes place entirely online. Students receive assignments via email. Basic government services are routinely offered online. The lack of a broadband connection puts people at a profound disadvantage. People without access, who are likely to be lower on the economic ladder, fall further and further behind, widening the “digital divide” between rich and poor. Read more ..

The Future's Edge

Designing Human-like Robots

March 24th 2012

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


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 ..

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