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Broken Aid

How Shipping Unions Sunk Food Aid Reform

November 16th 2013

Hungry African Widow/Children

As members of the U.S. House and Senate meet this week to hammer out a farm bill, they are likely to consider changes to the way the United States delivers food aid to hungry and impoverished nations. The debate will reprise an intense legislative battle that flared in June when food aid reforms were proposed in the House.

That struggle had a startling and little-noticed result: a plan to reshape the way in which the U.S. delivers half of the world’s food aid was dealt a decisive blow by a small but determined group of maritime unions.

Unlike other developed nations, which purchase most food aid in the regions that receive it, the U.S. buys food from American farms, ships it on American vessels, and gives away much of the goods free of cost for humanitarian groups to distribute. Although the Government Accountability Office has concluded that this system is “inherently inefficient” and can be harmful to farmers in recipient nations, for decades the setup has been politically untouchable. A powerful coalition including agriculture companies, the military, the shipping industry and humanitarian aid groups ensured that any changes were dead on arrival in Congress.


China Rising

China: The Next Phase of Reform

November 14th 2013

Bank of China

In light of China's imminent demographic imbalance, the changes to family planning were expected. The country's massive pool of cheap labor previously underpinned its economic and social transformation, but as China prepares to transition toward a consumer-based economy, its aging population is a problem.

No details have been given on the structure of the National Security Committee. The goal was to merge different institutions in charge of diplomacy, security, military and intelligence into a coordinated agency under the authority of the president. However, the decision -- which is far more than an institutional change -- came after a re-evaluation of China's internal and external security environment and of the country's emerging role in the international community. Beijing recognizes the need for a more delicate and coherent team to handle the country's strategic issues and pursue its national interests. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Train To Nowhere: Russian Prison Transfers

November 13th 2013

prison cell northern ireland flickr

Under the cover of darkness in the early hours, Russian jailors unexpectedly transferred 30 Greenpeace activists from their Murmansk cells onto a special prison train carriage that rolled out of the far northern city.

Lawyers and relatives were given no advance warning. It was unclear where the prisoners were being taken. And it was unclear when they would arrive.

There was nothing unusual about the prison transfer, which took place on November 11. The only thing about it that stood out was that investigators subsequently clarified that the group was being transferred to a pretrial detention center in St. Petersburg -- an exception to standard procedure.

In Russia, prison transfers can take days, weeks, or even months. And, as the case of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova illustrates, the authorities are not legally obliged to provide information as to the detainee's whereabouts or condition during this period. Read more ..

The Defense Edge

Thanking You for Your Service

November 11th 2013

Soldier Crying

A few years ago, when I was writing with a different hat, the Band of Brothers USMC Motorcycle Riding Club provided me with a list of companies providing free and discounted services to American military veterans in honor of Veteran's Day.  I wrote at the time:

"Veterans Day is about remembering the sacrifices of our soldiers in today's wars and in wars past. There are military parades and somber reflections, speeches and flags. And for those who commemorate 11-11 as Armistice Day, there is an even more somber twinge as "the war to end all wars" turned out to be only a precursor of bigger and more horrible wars. But in an interesting twist on the very American habit of using Federal holidays for shopping, businesses have taken to offering discounts and gifts to service personnel as a Veterans Day "thank you." A single instance may sound a little silly - a free donut from Krispy Kreme - but in the aggregate, they form a uniquely American picture of a country that appreciates the service of our troops." Read more ..

Wildlife on Edge

Uganda’s Lion Population Devastated by Bush Meat Hunters

November 9th 2013

lion stalking gazelles

A recent report found that Uganda's lion population is down by 30 percent in the past decade.  But in the country's Murchison Falls National Park, the figure is closer to 60 percent, mainly because of snares meant to catch bush meat.

On a blistering hot day in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, and Tom Okello, the park’s area manager, rummaged through a shed filled with wires.

“This is a store for recovered poaching implements and equipment,” he said.  “So with us here we have the snares.  We have wires which are got from electric lines, we have wires which are got from telephone lines, then we have wires which are even got from tires.  These snares I would estimate to be about three tons, and these are recoveries in the last five months.” Read more ..

The Way We Are

Was Humanitarian Intervention A Passing Fad?

November 7th 2013

Hungry African Widow/Children

During the 1990s, a previously little-known concept rapidly became the hottest term in international relations. "Humanitarian intervention"—at its simplest, the use of military force to protect human rights—established itself in the political lexicon following a series of brutal conflicts in Africa and the Balkans.

As with most political concepts, humanitarian intervention became voguish, thanks to circumstances. The Soviet Union had collapsed. We hadn't fully grasped the threat posed by Islamist terrorism. With the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and the relative success of the Israel-Palestinian peace process, even the Middle East seemed uncommonly stable.

Most important, there was an acute awareness in Western countries that our impressive military strength hadn't deterred some of the worst slaughters of the 20th century. For around 14 weeks in 1994, Rwanda was the site of the most rapacious extermination since the Shoah, with more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus murdered by machete-wielding Hutu extremists. Between 1992 and 1995, the war in Bosnia spawned countless atrocities, such as the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Serb forces in the town of Srebrenica. To many—especially American Jews—it seemed that these failures showed the hollowness of oft-repeated promises of "Never again." Read more ..

The Edge of Healthcare

African Scientist's Research on Mosquito Swarms Awarded

November 6th 2013

mosquito biting

A scientist from Burkina Faso has won an award from Britain’s Royal Society for his research on new ways to target mosquito swarms responsible for the spread of malaria. Scientists say it’s vital to develop new tools to tackle the disease as both the malarial parasite, and the mosquitoes that carry it, are developing resistance to existing drugs and insecticides.

The research by Dr. Abdoulaye Diabate focused on the reproductive patterns of male mosquitoes - and his findings have caught the attention of scientists around the world.

“The important thing about this mating system is that whenever you go into a field site, you will find mosquito swarms at the same place every single day. This kind of makes it really very easy to target, to tackle these mosquitoes and see how you can just reduce mosquito density,” said Diabate.

Burkina Faso has one of the highest rates of malaria in the world. Diabate found that during the rainy season in Burkina Faso, some houses contained 900 mosquitoes. He said the discovery that the insects swarm together to mate in the same place year in, year out presents an opportunity to disrupt breeding patterns. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Homing Pigeons May Home-In on Smells

November 5th 2013

Click to select Image

Homing pigeons, like other birds, are extraordinary navigators, but how they manage to find their way back to their lofts is still debated. To navigate, birds require a ‘map’ (to tell them home is south, for example) and a ‘compass’ (to tell them where south is), with the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field being the preferred compass systems. A new paper provides evidence that the information pigeons use as a map is in fact available in the atmosphere: odours and winds allow them to find their way home. The results are now published in Biogeosciences, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

Experiments over the past 40 years have shown that homing pigeons get disoriented when their sense of smell is impaired or when they don’t have access to natural winds at their home site. But many researchers were not convinced that wind-borne odours could provide the map pigeons need to navigate. Now, Hans Wallraff of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, has shown that the atmosphere does contain the necessary information to help pigeons find their way home. Read more ..

Inside Politics

Koch-Backer Governors Group Gives Big to Cuccinelli in Virginia

November 4th 2013

Money Bands=Happiness

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has raked in millions from out-of-state donors while at the same time hammering Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe for doing the same, campaign finance records show.

Cuccinelli has received $8.1 million — more than 40 percent of funds raised by his campaign since Jan. 1 — from the Republican Governors Association (RGA), a Washington, D.C.-based group that funnels big contributions from corporations and billionaires into races for governor across the country, according to state data collected by the Virginia Public Access Project.

Tomorrow’s contest pits tea party favorite Cuccinelli against McAuliffe, former Democratic National Committee chairman and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Heading into Election Day, Cuccinelli trails in the money race, having received nearly $20 million compared with McAuliffe’s nearly $32.9 million, according to VPAP. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday shows McAuliffe with a 6 point lead. Read more ..

Financing the Flames

Financing the Flames from a Mobile Home in Florida

November 4th 2013

Financing the Flames

A regular feature of West Bank confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians seems to be a corps of intrepid young women that villagers call “internationals.” They specialize in upfront and personal, in-your-face, and often nose-to-nose verbal taunting hoping to provoke a reaction that video cameras can record. If and when soldiers finally do react, these incidents are then uploaded to the Internet to prove “the brutality of the IDF.” These “internationals” often seem to appear out of nowhere at a village flashpoint. Just as suddenly, they melt into the background.

Using false names and seemingly untrackable movements, the skilled and stealthy internationals have managed to inspire and encourage videographed confrontation far beyond their numbers. Who are they? What is the font of their financial wherewithal? Who is financing these flames?

Searching for answers, one night in early May 2013, I traveled to the tiny West Bank town of Deir Itsiya where the internationals quietly maintain a base of operations. The women are known to many in that local Arab community, where they are provided logistical assistance and deferential hospitality. They receive many European guests. When I asked my taxi driver, "Do you know where the house is?" he answered, "Yes, Sheik Haider (neighborhood)." He took me there.

At an elbow in a dusty road, I found their compound behind long, ornate iron fencing. I knocked on all the doors, the ones with knockers and the ones without. No answer. I called out for anyone who was home. A neighbor strolled by to remark. The driver translated: "He said the European girls are not sleeping in town tonight. But he knows how to reach them. I will take you where he said." Read more ..

Intelligence on Edge

US Contends Europeans Misunderstand NSA Spying Programs

November 3rd 2013


While European nations are objecting to the American spying programs that reportedly targeted their populations and their leaders, U.S. officials say the program is misunderstood and that some European intelligence agencies have actually cooperated closely with Washington.

A delegation of indignant European Parliament members hit the sidewalks and halls of power in Washington this week to express concern about the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations.

German member Elmar Brok summarized their concerns. “We have not a free feeling to go forward together if you are feeling that your neighbor and friend is monitoring you."

But top U.S. intelligence officials told Congress that’s not exactly what they were doing. Rather, the NSA director, General Keith Alexander, said the information about phone calls and emails was gathered legally, and reporters mischaracterized what it was. “Both they and the person who stole the classified data did not understand what they were looking at,” said Alexander. Read more ..

A Legacy of War

Zimbabwe Seeks Funds to Remove Landmines

November 2nd 2013

Land Mine

International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] and the government of Zimbabwe have embarked on a landmine removal campaign in a village on the border with Mozambique. Zimbabwe's government is struggling to raise funds for demining, and some people are being maimed or killed by old mines still in the ground.

A loud sound that can be heard is a mock landmine explosion set off by Zimbabwe's army in Gonarezhou National Park, near the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border. But explosions like this still happen 33 years after the country won its independence. People get maimed. Some even killed.

Thirty-year-old Philemon Sibanda lost a limb after he stepped on a landmine in 1998 while herding cattle in his village. “They have not even cleared the area of landmines. As for me, I have no life. I am just seated. If I had not been injured I would be tilling the land as others are doing. Those who are able-bodied are crossing into South Africa to look for employment,” he said.

Sibanda can’t walk, as the prosthetic limb that was donated to him by the charity World Vision now causes pain if he uses it. He needs a new one, but cannot afford it.

Hundreds of thousands of mines laid in the 1970s during Zimbabwe's independence war still litter the ground at sites across the country. According to Halo Trust, a British-based demining organization, Zimbabwe is one of the densest minefields in the world, with approximately 5,500 unexploded landmines per kilometer.  Read more ..

Inside Politics

How JFK's Assisination Changed American Politics

November 1st 2013

JFK official portrait

Almost every American of a certain age remembers where he was when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.

The nation stopped and mourned. In their grief, few Americans wondered how the tragedy would affect domestic politics, and in the short run relatively little changed. “Let us continue,” President Lyndon Johnson said when he addressed Congress after the funeral.

In the longer run, the effect on partisan politics, on the people and press and parties, was profound. And those effects continue to reverberate today.

Unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt, who were taken from the stage just as they completed historic undertakings -- the Civil War, World War II -- Kennedy was murdered when he and his administration were in the middle of things. The tax cuts he had proposed in February 1963 and the civil rights bill he had endorsed that year had been long delayed in Congress. But, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time, they were well on their way to passage when he died.

Relations with the Soviet Union were stable after resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The United States was already sending more troops to Vietnam, and Kennedy’s approval of the Nov. 1 coup against the Diem government committed the United States to continuing responsibility there.

Politically, Kennedy’s job approval had declined significantly from about 70 percent, but only because of the defection of Southern whites on civil rights. In the rest of the nation he was highly popular and running ahead of any Republican by margins larger than those enjoyed by Franklin Roosevelt. That suggests that he would have nearly matched the 61 percent of the vote Lyndon Johnson got in November 1964, with some slippage in Johnson’s Texas and the border South. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Tehran Softens Image Abroad But Remains Hard-Line At Home

October 31st 2013

Hassan Rowhani

Soft on the outside, hard on the inside. That may be the best way to describe the often startling contrast between Iran's current foreign and domestic policies.

Since taking office in August, President Hassan Rohani has won widespread praise for showing greater flexibility in nuclear talks with the international community.

The praise has come even from countries usually highly skeptical of Iran's readiness to solve the nuclear crisis through negotiations.

As U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said following this month's talks in Geneva between Tehran and the six world powers, "We are at a different point in this with a new government in place, and we are having a level of conversation that is different from what we had in the past." Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Improving Earthquake Early Warning Systems

October 30th 2013

Chile earthquake

Earthquake early warning systems may provide the public with crucial seconds to prepare for severe shaking. For California, a new study suggests upgrading current technology and relocating some seismic stations would improve the warning time, particularly in areas poorly served by the existing network – south of San Francisco Bay Area to north Los Angeles and north of the San Francisco Bay Area.

A separate case study focuses on the utility of low cost sensors to create a high-density, effective network that can be used for issuing early warnings in Taiwan. Both studies appear in the November issue of the journal Seismological Research Letters (SRL).

"We know where most active faults are in California, and we can smartly place seismic stations to optimize the network," said Serdar Kuyuk. Richard Allen, director of the Seismological Laboratory at UC Berkeley, is the co-author of this study. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iranian Reformist Daily Becomes First Publication Banned Under Rohani

October 29th 2013


Iran's reformist "Bahar" daily has become the first publication to be banned since President Hassan Rohani came to office in August.

The closure was imposed by Iran's state press watchdog over publication of an article that critics say undermined Islamic principles.

The controversial article was an opinion piece that questioned the Shi'ite belief that the Prophet Muhammad had appointed his son-in-law, Imam Ali, as his successor.

Culture Minister Ali Jannati claimed the article distorted the history of Islam and created religious divisions. "Unfortunately, 'Bahar' has committed several [press] violations in the past year-and-a-half. It has received written warnings, but the daily has not paid attention," Jannati was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Mehr news agency. The hard-line daily "Kayhan" reacted to the piece by accusing reformists of attacking the rule of religious figures. Read more ..

China on Edge

5 Killed as Car Crashes into Beijing's Tiananmen Square

October 28th 2013

Chinese soldier at Tienamen Square

Chinese authorities say five people are dead and at least 38 injured after a sports utility vehicle crashed into a crowd in Tiananmen Square, burst into flames.

Beijing police say the incident occurred shortly after noon Monday when a jeep rammed a section of a bridge leading into the Forbidden City.

Police say that all three individuals in the car, the driver and two others, were killed in the crash. A notice on the police social media account reported several bystanders and police were injured. Some foreigners were reported among those hurt.

Images of the incident were quickly removed from China’s social media sites, but could be seen on websites beyond the reach of Chinese authorities. In the photos, flames could be seen rising high above the jeep, not far from a large portrait of Mao Zedong. Shortly after the incident, authorities locked down the area and erected a fence around the vehicle. Some reporters who photographed the incident were detained by police and forced to delete their footage.  Read more ..

Broken Government

Lawmakers Return to Budget Battle

October 27th 2013

US Capital Day

A select group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers meets this week in search of a bipartisan blueprint for America’s fiscal future. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the conference brings together top lawmakers from the House and Senate budget committees that, for years, have been deadlocked on federal spending and taxation.

The conference is tasked with bridging major budget differences between the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate. It also has a larger purpose, according to Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray.

“Showing the American people that, as a Congress, we can work and make sure that our economy is growing and that people are back to work,” said Murray. That sentiment was echoed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican. Read more ..

Thailand on Edge

Thailand Races to Supply SE Asia’s Demand for Vehicles

October 26th 2013

new cars close up

Thailand is gaining a reputation as the “Detroit of the East” for its booming automobile industry. It is now the world's third largest maker of commercial vehicles, behind only the United States and China and ranked ninth in total vehicle production. Many foreign-branded auto makers are producing vehicles in Rayong for Southeast Asia’s growing middle class.

This is one of the estimated two-and-half million vehicles rolling off Thailand's assembly lines this year. Ford's regional president, Matt Bradley, praised the country as a highly successful model for manufacturing.

"Thailand, I think, has made a concerted effort from government policy in the last 15 years to plan to support the automotive industry. Ford has been in Thailand about 17 years and just since 2007 we've invested over a billion dollars in our manufacturing and product cycle plant footprint in Thailand," he said. Read more ..

Saudi Arabia on Edge

Saudi Tiff with Washington Latest of Many

October 25th 2013

Saudi Oil

Once again, Saudi officials are on a rhetorical rampage against the United States.
Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the United States and current Saudi intelligence chief, has warned that the kingdom will make a “major shift” away from its 80-year alliance with Washington.

Turki al-Faisal, another former ambassador to the United State, said in an interview this week that “there is definitely, from a public opinion point of view in the Kingdom, a high level of disappointment in the U.S. government’s dealings, not just with Palestine, but equally with Syria.”

But while Saudi frustration with the policies of the Barack Obama administration is real, the latest complaints and threats are more about trying to influence U.S. policy than about changing the fundamental foreign policy orientation of the world’s biggest oil producer. As Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont, said in an interview, “They’re mad but they have no other place to go.” Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iran's Hard-Liners Fight To Defend Enmity With U.S.

October 24th 2013

Iranian clerics

In the past few days, new banners have popped up around Iran’s capital. They show an Iranian government negotiator sitting across a table from an American government negotiator wearing a suit with army pants and boots with a shotgun in his lap under the table.

"American Honesty," declares the billboard, a not-so-subtle suggestion that despite an emphasis on diplomacy, America's real intention is to take military action against Iran.

The banners appear to be the work of hard-liners in the Islamic republic who are upset by President Hassan Rohani’s recent efforts to decrease tensions with the West and engage with the United States. 

The election this past June of Rohani, who has been pushing for moderation and trying to move Iran away from past confrontational policies, has sidelined hard-liners, who now fear further marginalization as a result of potential warming relations with the West. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Facing Lawsuits Over Asbestos, Paper Giant's Secretive Research

October 23rd 2013

asbestos hazard

In the spring of 2005, Georgia-Pacific Corp. found itself facing nearly $1 billion in liability from a product it hadn’t made in nearly three decades: a putty-like building material, known as joint compound, containing the cancer-causing mineral asbestos.

Named in more than 60,000 legal claims, Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific sought salvation in a secret research program it launched in hopes of exonerating its product as a carcinogen, court records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show. It hired consultants known for their defense work to conduct studies and publish the results, with input from the company’s legal department — and is attempting to keep key information hidden from plaintiffs.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission had banned all asbestos-containing joint compound as of 1978, and Georgia-Pacific, maker of a widely used version called Ready-Mix, had raised no objection. But in 2005, as asbestos-related diseases with long latency periods mounted, the company revisited the issue with one aim: to defend lawsuits filed by people like Daniel Stupino, a part-time renovation worker who died last year of mesothelioma, a form of cancer virtually always caused by asbestos exposure. Read more ..

China on Edge

China’s Human Rights Record Challenged at UN

October 22nd 2013

jail door closeup

China has made a spirited defense of its human rights record, which is under review at the U.N. Human Rights Council.  While admitting some shortcomings Tuesday, the Chinese delegation told the 47-member U.N. body that Beijing has made many improvements in promoting and protecting the rights of its citizens.

China’s human rights record is under review for the second time under the United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  Under this procedure, the U.N. Human Rights Council examines each nation’s record once every four years. 

The last time China came under the human rights spotlight in 2009, Beijing accepted 42 recommendations made by other countries in attendance.  In his statement to the council Tuesday, the head of the Chinese delegation acknowledged that not all of these recommendations have been implemented.  However, he said his country has made great strides. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Chimps Respond to Human Yawning

October 21st 2013

Bonobo chimp

A new study says as chimpanzees grow, they increase their ability for empathy – the ability to recognize emotions in others. Researchers say they learned this by watching chimps yawn when they see people yawn.

Elaine Masden and her colleagues at Lund University in Sweden base their conclusions on studying the primates in a sanctuary. But you have to ask – why study contagious yawning?

Laughing, she said, “I don’t know. It’s a really peculiar effect. It’s such a small thing, but that nonetheless most of us experience. Most of us when we see or hear others yawn or just think about yawning or read about yawning then we ourselves begin to yawn. So it’s something that most people are familiar with.” Dr. Madsen -- an evolutionary psychologist -- says not everyone reacts the same way. About half of people tested do not respond to contagious yawning. Read more ..

Palestine on Edge

PLO: Battle for Succession Has Begun

October 20th 2013

Mahmoud Abbas and father

Over the past few months, a succession battle has been quietly raging in the Palestinian Authority [PA]. This behind-the-scenes battle is continuing even as the PA leadership conducts secret peace talks with Israel. In fact, the U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations have served as a catalyst for increased calls by senior PLO and Fatah officials to start planning for the day after Mahmoud Abbas's departure from the scene.

Like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, the 78-year-old Abbas has been running the PA in an autocratic fashion since his election as president in January 2005. And like Arafat, Abbas has since managed to keep many of his critics silent by providing them with funds, luxurious offices and vehicles, secretaries, bodyguards and assistants. Many senior members of the PLO and Fatah, for example, each receive from Abbas tens of thousands of dollars every month to enable them to cover the costs of office rentals and vehicles, as well as salaries for their secretaries and henchmen. Still, the funds have not been able to buy Abbas 100% quiet. Read more ..

The Race for EVs

Volvo Turns Car Body Into a Battery

October 18th 2013

Plug-in Vehicle

Car batteries are heavy and clumsy, right? Along with research partners, Volvo has developed a concept to integrate the batteries into the car structure. With innovative materials and form factors, the batteries would claim much less space. Further down the road, the concept could significantly reduce the weight of future electric vehicles.

Volvo's new energy storage systems consist of carbon fibres, nano structured batteries and supercapacitors. The project team identified a feasible alternative to the heavy weight, large size and high costs associated with the batteries seen in hybrids and electric cars today, whilst maintaining the efficient capacity of power and performance. The answer was found in the combination of carbon fibres and a polymer resin, creating an advanced nanomaterial, and structural super capacitors. The reinforced carbon fibres sandwich and the new battery are moulded and formed to fit around the car's frame, such as the door panels, the boot lid and wheel bowl, releasing the space normally occupied by the batteries (without sucpercaps) in the floor structure of the car or in the trunk. The carbon fibre laminate is first layered, shaped and then cured in an oven to set and harden. The super capacitors are integrated within the component skin. This material can then be used around the vehicle, replacing existing components, to store and charge energy. Read more ..

Broken Government

US Farm Policy Amouts to $80 Billion for Rich People

October 17th 2013

wheat fields

Alice doesn't just live in Wonderland anymore; she seems to be everywhere. On ABC, in numerous op-ed columns (along with the entire Corleone family in one case), and even hiding out in multiple DC monuments. She has also, apparently, invaded many congressional offices. Why? Because the chaos of Wonderland ‒ complete with various lunatic Queens of Hearts, Mad Hatters, Sleepy Dormice, and random Cheshire Cats on Cruz control ‒ seems to have become pervasive in Washington's corridors of power over the past three weeks (you can pick your own cast for Charles Dodgson's characters; there are many, many contenders for the leading roles).

But, in fact, the advent of Wonderland into the world of congressional legislation is not a new phenomenon. And the House and Senate agricultural committees are prime examples of the long standing nature of the Wonderland legislative tradition. Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

The Thorny Issue Of Status Of U.S. Forces In Afghanistan

October 16th 2013

Army in Afghanistan

Washington wants its soldiers to be immune from Afghan courts if they remain after 2014. Kabul isn't sure. Here are five things to know about what makes immunity for foreign soldiers so complicated.

How has immunity become a sticking point for keeping U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan?
Both Kabul and Washington want some U.S. soldiers to remain in Afghanistan after multinational forces leave by the end of next year. But they cannot agree upon the terms of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) detailing how much immunity U.S. soldiers will have from Afghan courts. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the sticking point in Kabul on October 2, when they announced only partial success in writing a new security pact. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Robots Become China's Growing Labor Force

October 14th 2013

Robotic Orange Harvester

While China may be known as the world's factory, rising labor costs have led to booming growth in automation for manufacturing and that is turning the country into the world's biggest purchaser of robots. Leading robotics manufacturers have come to Shanghai to cash in on this rapidly expanding business opportunity.

Robots have traditionally been used in heavy manufacturing, such as automobiles, but now their uses are widening as their capabilities expand.

Shunrin Mizutani, the CEO of Japanese robotics company Yaskawa in Shanghai, said that in addition to being used in the airline industry, some are used to make iPhones and other smart phones. "Assembly that used to be done by hundreds of thousands of people is now done by robots,"  he said. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Terror Attack Leaves Psagot Residents Wondering about Peace

October 13th 2013

It was a frightening Saturday night for the residents of Psagot, a community of 1,800 people located in Judea and Samaria, north of Jerusalem. A Palestinian terrorist infiltrated into the community, firing from point-blank range at nine-year-old Noam Glick, who was playing on the balcony of her home. The girl was lightly wounded with gunshots to her neck and chest and was hospitalized in Jerusalem.

“It was the first time that something like this happened in Psagot,” said Liat Ofer, a 26-year-old resident of the community, who teaches in Jerusalem.

Noam’s father Yisrael Glick told Israel’s Army Radio that Noam managed to get back into the house after she was shot. “Noam told us there was an Arab man out there. I realized that this was a security incident. It’s the scariest thing that can happen here – to have a terrorist enter your home,” he said. Read more ..

Broken Government

What To Know About The Looming U.S. Debt-Ceiling Crisis

October 12th 2013

K Street

If the United States defaults on its debt, the results for the global economy would be catastrophic. Here are five things to know about the U.S. debt ceiling crisis now playing out in Washington.

What is the debt ceiling crisis
U.S. officials warn that if the government is unable to raise the amount of money it can borrow, the country will be unable to pay all its bills. If that happens, the results would not only be catastrophic for the U.S. economy but for the global economy.

The U.S. Treasury says that by October 17 the government will exhaust its ability to stay beneath the current $16.7 trillion federal debt ceiling, which is fixed by law, and would have only about $30 billion left in cash. That's not enough to keep up payments of salaries and social benefits at home, plus interest due on trillions of dollars borrowed internationally.

That would be an unprecedented situation. The United States hasn't defaulted on its debts since 1790, when it was a newly formed country. Today it is the world's strongest economy, with trade and investment ties to virtually every other country, and no state of that economic status has ever defaulted on its debts before.

But whether the United States' two political parties -- President Barack Obama's Democrats and the opposition Republicans -- can agree on letting Washington borrow more money to pay its bills is an open question. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Russia Has Highest Level Of Wealth Inequality

October 11th 2013

International Currency 3

A new report on global wealth has determined that Russia now has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world -- with the exception of a few small Caribbean nations where billionaires have taken up residency.

The annual global wealth study published by the financial services group Credit Suisse says a mere 110 Russian citizens now control 35 percent of the total household wealth across the vast country. By comparison, billionaires worldwide account for just 1 to 2 percent of total wealth.

The report says Russia has one billionaire for every $11 billion in wealth while, across the rest of the world, there is one billionaire for every $170 billion. One of the report's main authors, Tony Shorrocks of the London-based consultancy Global Economic Perspectives, said on October 10 that wealth disparity in Russia is unparalleled. Read more ..

Fatah on Edge

Is Abbas Losing Control Over Fatah?

October 10th 2013

Abbas UN

A series of incidents over the past few weeks indicate that the Palestinian Fatah faction, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, is witnessing a sharp power struggle between some of its top leaders. The infighting in Fatah is a sign of the growing challenges facing Abbas as he continues to conduct peace talks with Israel. Moreover, the internal squabbling raises questions about Abbas's ability to reach any agreement with Israel that would be acceptable to most Palestinians.

What has been happening in Fatah lately is more than differences of opinion among the faction's top brass. Some Palestinians have gone as far as saying that the infighting marks the beginning of a revolt against Abbas's leadership. Fatah gunmen have returned to the streets of some West Bank cities and refugee camps are openly challenging Abbas's leadership. Read more ..

The Video Edge

Red Cross Wants Video Games To Be More Realistic

October 9th 2013

Pearl Harbor Bombing

When it comes to military-style computer video games, realism sells. In first-person shooter games like the top-selling "Call of Duty" and "Modern Warfare," players are virtual participants in realistic battlefield scenarios inspired by and often based on actual combat situations.

But while the onscreen firefights, death, and destruction are not real, the decisions players make in order to "win" the game are another matter. In their pursuit of victory, gamers can choose to wipe out whole villages, shoot civilians, and commit other acts that in real life would constitute war crimes.

Now the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is arguing that this false sense of impunity has the potential to affect what happens on actual battlefields. The Red Cross says the absence of rules of war in the games "create[s] the impression that prohibited acts, such as torture and extrajudicial killing, are standard behavior." Read more ..

The Cyber Edge

Cyber Survival: Why We're Losing and What's Needed to Win

October 8th 2013

Computers/Nerd Silhouette

Cyber security is not just about the computer on your desk, or even the remote computer sitting somewhere in what we now call the cloud. A different way of looking at it is to consider cyber security an issue that concerns any technology that has a computer chip in it. Cyber security issues extend to information and information systems, and increasingly they extend to products and services we use in our day-to-day lives. We are facing a technology issue in which similar vulnerabilities exist to your information as they do, for example, to the new generation of biomedical implant devices that allow for remote diagnostics.

When we think about the harms that can befall our information, information systems, products and services, we typically categorize them into categories involving risk to their confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Everyday in the newspapers we read about harms to confidentiality. Everyday someone's online data is compromised and corporate trade secrets stolen. But, that's not what keeps most people up at night. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

As Sochi Paralympics Approach, Conditions For Russia's Disabled Still Dire

October 7th 2013

Wheelchair athletes

Maria Gendeleva is just 25, but she has already spent more than a decade in a wheelchair. Since losing the use of her legs in a car crash, life has been an uphill battle for the young Russian -- a battle she appears determined to win.

Today, Gendeleva has a full-time job, drives her own car, and enjoys an active social life. In a country like Russia, where inadequate infrastructure and a general lack of awareness mean people with disabilities are all but cut off from society, this makes her the exception rather than the rule.

But Gendeleva, an upbeat Muscovite with flowing blonde hair, says her daily life in a wheelchair is nonetheless strewn with hurdles -- from steep curbs to inaccessible public buildings. "I'm already so used to it constantly happening that I don't even notice it. I just accept it and move on," she says. "For me, it is more surprising when a whole day goes by without these obstacles and barriers." Read more ..

The Prehistoric Edge

Homo Neanderthalensis Made Bone Tools Before Homo sapiens

October 6th 2013

Click to select Image

One day in 2011, undergraduate student Naomi Martisius was sorting through tiny bone remnants in the University of California, Davis, paleoanthropology lab when she stumbled across a peculiar piece. The bone fragment, from a French archaeological site, turned out to be a part of an early specialized bone tool used by a Neandertal before the first modern humans appeared in Europe. "At the time, I had no idea about the impact of my discovery," said Martisius, who is now pursuing her doctoral degree in anthropology at UC Davis.

Martisius' opportunity was the result of a decade of excavation and research by two international teams. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August.

"Previously these types of bone tools have only been associated with modern humans," said Teresa E. Steele, associate professor of anthropology at UC Davis, who also served as a co-author on the article and adviser to Martisius at UC Davis and at archaeological excavations in France.

"However, our identification of these pieces in secure Neandertal contexts leaves open the possibility that we have found, for the first time, evidence that Neandertals may have influenced the technology of modern humans," she said. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Plant Clinics Taking Root in East Africa

October 5th 2013

Nigerian farmers

Despite advances in science and technology, crop disease continues to plague farmers everywhere.  The Britain-based Center for Agriculture and Biosciences International, or CABI, says up to 40 percent of the food grown worldwide is lost to pests and diseases before it can be consumed.

CABI is trying to change that with a crop protection program called Plantwise.  In the past three years, the program has trained nearly a thousand so-called plant doctors in 24 countries, including one near Kampala, Uganda.

It’s market day in Mukono, a village about 15 kilometers from Kampala.  Plant doctor Daniel Lyazi has arrived by motorbike to set up his clinic next to a stall where a traditional healer is trying to sell herbal remedies to shoppers. 

There is no remedy for the diseased plant samples that people bring to Lyazi’s clinic, which is basically just a table under a small tent. The slime-covered cabbage that a farmer plunks on the table is not going to get any better, nor will the rest of his cabbages.  But Lyazi’s recommendations may save the next season’s crop.  Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

Mineral Wealth Could Harm, Not Aid, Afghanistan's Future

October 4th 2013

rust iron oxide wikipedia

Afghanistan's mineral wealth is closely tied to its future prospects. If managed well, the theory goes, the mining sector could be the backbone of a sustainable economy, fund national security, and stabilize the government.

But the country's natural resources could just as easily undercut Kabul's efforts to stand on its own by exacerbating corruption, forcing a sell-off of prized assets to foreign investors, and becoming yet another source of violent conflict.

Based on its handling of the mining sector, observers say, it looks like Afghanistan is on course to join the raft of countries afflicted by the "resource curse."

The Mines and Petroleum Ministry estimates that Afghanistan boasts oil, gas, iron ore, copper, and gold deposits worth about $1 trillion. Kabul hopes to generate about $4 billion a year in mining and energy revenue over the next decade. Yet in 2012, the two sectors brought in less than $150 million combined. Read more ..

The Drug Wars

U.S. Drug Agents Smuggling Cocaine, Venezuelan President Alleges

October 3rd 2013

Nicolas Maduro

The president of Venezuela on Wednesday cast suspicion on an American law enforcement agency saying his nation is probing the American drug enforcement officers to learn whether or not they are involved in narcotics trafficking in his country. President Nicolas Maduro announced that his own law enforcement officials are investigating whether the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was involved in a recent criminal case involving a multi-million dollar cocaine smuggling operation, according to Jerry Langher, a former narcotics detective and director of corporate security. "After the gun-smuggling snafu by [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] U.S. federal agents on what's known as Operation Fast and Furious, more political leaders are finding it easier to make outrageous accusations against the United States," said Iris Aquino, a former NYPD police official.


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