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Broken Healthcare

Hospital 'Facility Fees' Boosting Medical Bills, and Not Just for Hospital Care

December 24th 2012

medicine and money

After Vermont hospitals started buying up the medical practices of local physicians, state Sen. Kevin Mullin of Rutland, began hearing complaints that prices some patients were paying for routine medical care had soared.

One family accustomed to paying about $120 in out-of-pocket costs for doctor visits and other medical services was outraged when they ended up forking over more than $1,000 for similar visits, Mullin said, mostly for seeing doctors whose practices had been bought out by a local hospital. “The only thing that was different was the office was [now] hospital-owned,” said Mullin, a Republican. “All of a sudden everything was charged differently.”

The root of these increases are controversial charges known as “facility fees,” and they are routinely tacked on to patients’ bills not just for services actually provided in hospitals, but also by outpatient care centers and doctors’ offices simply because they’ve been purchased by hospital-based health care systems. Hospitals argue they can’t afford to keep the doors open without facility fees.

Hospitals have billed them at least since 2000 when Medicare set billing standards for doctors employed by hospitals, and private insurers went along. Since then, the fees have grown increasingly common, costly and controversial. Critics argue that the billing practice needlessly adds billions of dollars to the nation’s ballooning health care costs and needs to be revamped. Some private insurers have protested the fees and in some cases even refused to pay them, which can add to the patient’s share of the bill. But getting rid of the charges — or even requiring medical offices to post facility fees — has proved daunting, reformers say. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Smaller Colorado River in our Future

December 24th 2012

Ancient Grand Canyon

Some 40 million people depend on the Colorado River Basin for water but warmer weather from rising greenhouse gas levels and a growing population may signal water shortages ahead. In a new study in Nature Climate Change, climate modelers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory predict a 10 percent drop in the Colorado River's flow in the next few decades, enough to disrupt longtime water-sharing agreements between farms and cities across the American Southwest, from Denver to Los Angeles to Tucson, and through California's Imperial Valley.

"It may not sound like a phenomenally large amount except the water and the river is already over-allocated," said Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the new study. The study expands on findings published in 2007 in the journal Science that the American Southwest is becoming more arid as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns shift from human-caused climate change. It also comes on the heels of a major study of the Colorado River Basin by the U.S. Department of Interior that projected longer and more severe droughts by 2060, and a 9 percent decline in the Colorado's flows. Read more ..

The Vote Aftermath

Son Reveals Romney Didn't Want the Presidency

December 24th 2012

Click to select Image

In an interview with the Boston Globe, GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney’s son Tagg described his father as reluctant to run for the presidency and hesitant to reveal his personal side during the long campaign. “He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire to … run,” said Tagg, according to the report. “If he could have found someone else to take his place . . . he would have been ecstatic to step aside,” he continued.” “He is a very private person who loves his family deeply and wants to be with them, but he has deep faith in God and he loves his country, but he doesn’t love the attention.”

According to the report, Romney was shaken by his 2008 failed bid to capture the GOP nomination and was wary of a second run. The former Massachusetts governor initially told family members he would not run again. Read more ..

Israel's Next War

Israel's Active Defense Doctrine Won't Work Against Hezbollah

December 23rd 2012

Israel's weeklong air campaign against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza last month helped establish a successful anti-rocket/missile combat doctrine, which was well-designed for that particular conflict, but which will not be applicable against Hezbollah.

Despite the triumphalist cries and unceasing flow of belligerent threats coming out of Gaza, Hamas' leadership is trying to recover from their deep shock at the extent of damage incurred by their organization during the conflict, senior IDF sources say.

The air campaign began with a surprise when the Israel Air Force killed Hamas' military chief, Ahmed Jabari. He will be difficult to replace especially as subsequent strikes eliminated more than 30 senior terrorist field commanders. The air campaign also destroyed nearly all of Hamas' and Islamic Jihad's Fajr rockets (with a range of 45 miles) and around half of their Grad rockets (with a range of 10 miles).

Terrorist groups based in Gaza including Hamas launched some 1,500 rockets and missiles at Israel and scored psychological points by setting off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But 87 percent of the missiles heading towards populated, built-up areas were blown out of the sky by the Iron Dome anti-rocket/missile system. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Current Syrian Collapse Emulates Ancient Mesopotamian Downfall

December 23rd 2012

Syria fighting injured baby

Dr Ellery Frahm from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology made the discoveries by studying stone tools of obsidian, razor-sharp volcanic glass, crafted in the region about 4,200 years ago.

Dr Frahm used artefacts unearthed from the archaeological site of Tell Mozan, known as Urkesh in antiquity, to trace what happened to trade and social networks when Bronze-Age Syrian cities were abandoned in the wake of a regional government collapse and increasing drought due to climate shifts.

“Unfortunately,” explained Dr Frahm, “the situation four thousand years ago has striking similarities to today. Much like the fall of the Akkadian Empire, a governmental collapse is a real possibility in Syria after nearly two years of fighting. Some archaeologists and historians contend that the Akkadian Empire was brought down by militarism and that violence ended its central economic role in the region. Read more ..

The Darkest Edge

Christmas in the Trenches: 1914 and Today

December 22nd 2012

Christmas truce 1914

As the first Christmas of World War I approached, Pope Benedict XV on Dec. 7, 1914, asked the leaders of all warring governments to agree to an official cease-fire. He begged "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." Sadly, his plea was ignored by government leaders. But many of the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce.

In 1914, the earthly powers of Europe were engaged in a suicide pact that came to be known then as the Great War. By December of that year, the promise that many envisaged that the carnage would surely end by Christmas had long been cast aside as battles raged along the front that formed between the Allies of the Triple Entente on one side and the Central Powers on the other. Trench warfare unfolded as Germans faced British and French troops as they haggled over the soil of Belgium and France, while Italy and Russia contended with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, too. Ottoman Turkey, long an ally of the German Reich, fell into the fray and controlled the essential approaches to the Black Sea through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. A bloody stalemate ensued as the contending parties now bore upon each other with the most deadly weapons and tactics then known to humanity. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Hawaiian Islands are Dissolving

December 21st 2012

Someday, Oahu’s Koolau and Waianae mountains will be reduced to nothing more than a flat, low-lying island like Midway.

But erosion isn’t the biggest culprit. Instead, scientists say, the mountains of Oahu are actually dissolving from within.

“We tried to figure out how fast the island is going away and what the influence of climate is on that rate,” said Brigham Young University geologist Steve Nelson. “More material is dissolving from those islands than what is being carried off through erosion.”

The research pitted groundwater against stream water to see which removed more mineral material. Nelson and his BYU colleagues spent two months sampling both types of sources. In addition, ground and surface water estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey helped them calculate the total quantity of mass that disappeared from the island each year. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

Catholic Spokesman Denies Vatican Archives Exonerate Turkey for Armenian Genocide

December 21st 2012

Armenian death march
Death march of Armenians

Speaking for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Turkey, Rinaldo Marmara denied statements attributed to him by Turkish media about the existence of documents purportedly held by the Vatican Archives that the origin of the 1915 Armenian genocide arose from "problems" within the Armenian community itself. Last week, the Turkish press reported that the University of Bahcesehir will seek to examine documents supposedly in the Vatican Archives.

The Turkish daily, Vatan, in a December 11 report said that Marmara will lead research at the Vatican Archives. Read more ..

The Darkest Edge

Mayan Apocalypse Jitters Shuts Down Michigan Schools

December 20th 2012

mayan calendar

Parents of some 25 school districts in Michigan had to keep their children at home after education officials decided to shutter schools due to threats of violence. On December 19, school officials in Grand Blanc (a suburb of Flint) were alerted to text messages allegedly sent by a high school student to his mother that claimed that shots had been fired at the school The mother called police, who promptly had the school on lockdown while police from four distinct jurisdictions raced to the school. Law enforcement in Michigan was already on heightened alert due to fears engendered by the massacre in Connecticut last week, and because of the coming so-called Mayan apocalypse.

Due to rumors, schools in Genesee County and Lapeer County in Michigan decided to close down, thus giving children an extra two-days' holiday. Children will stay home on December 20 and 21. They were already scheduled to remain home as of December 24 in observance of Christmas. Read more ..

Broken Government

A Congressional Food Fight over Peanut Butter vs. Hummus

December 19th 2012

Small Farm

There’s a battle of the sandwiches going on in Congress. At issue is the shape of the safety net program for America’s farmers. On one side: peanut butter, the favorite sandwich spread of American childhood. On the other side is the upstart, hummus, a Middle Eastern spread made with chick peas. “It’s really one of the fastest-growing snack foods in the U.S.,” says Tim McGreevy, who runs the farm lobby group, USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, adding that hummus is finding new places on the American menu. “[It] started out as a dip and now it’s moving into a spread. People put it on sandwiches and pitas.”

Protecting an abundant, affordable supply of sandwich fixings -along the rest of the food supply- has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy for decades. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Commercial Space Travel Makes a Giant Leap for Mankind

December 19th 2012

Space X launch 2012

With NASA's retired shuttles mothballed in museums, 2012 saw a new kind of spacecraft blaze its own path toward the International Space Station. In May, the Dragon space capsule — developed, owned and operated by California-based SpaceX — was launched from atop a Falcon-9 rocket, becoming the first private craft to dock with the ISS.

A feat achieved by only a few governments, the docking, says SpaceX chief Elon Musk, signaled more than a mere technological breakthrough. "This was a crucial step," Musk said of the unmanned mission that was completed in conjunction with NASA. "It makes the things in the future, and the ultimate path toward humanity becoming a multi-planet species, much, much more likely." Designed to carry cargo or crew, the Dragon capsule is slated for a manned test within three years. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Drought Causing Historic Low Levels on Mississippi River

December 18th 2012

Missisisppi river barge and mist

A lack of rain in the central part of the United States has created a crisis on the Mississippi River. The most important inland U.S. waterway is reaching historic low levels, which could significantly disrupt shipping. The U.S. Coast Guard, which plays a key role in determining whether the river stays open to traffic, is keeping one eye on the receding river, and another on the skies - hoping for rain.

Crewmembers on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Gasconade are struggling to keep traffic flowing on the Mississippi River. As the water level beneath them continues to drop, the green and red buoys they deploy to mark the shallow spots are all that stand between successful navigation of the river and disaster. “As it gets narrower, there’s less room to move around, and things like wind pushing on you and the shallow water coming up it makes it very difficult," said Ryan Christensen of the U.S. Coast Guard. Read more ..

Japan on Edge

Japan's Governing Party Resoundingly Ousted in Shift to Right

December 17th 2012

Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe


Uzbekistan on Edge

Uzbekistan's Glamorous Graft Enriches President and Celebrity Daughter

December 16th 2012

Gulnara Karimova

A new TV documentary airing on Sweden's SVT public television offers startling eyewitness accounts of how Uzbekistan's ruling regime negotiates, and extracts, millions of dollars in bribes from foreign investors.

The program, "TeliaSonera and the Dictator's Daughter," appears to bolster allegations that the Swedish-based TeliaSonera telecoms company paid $250 million in bribes to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, in exchange for entry into the Uzbek market.

Fredrik Laurin, an investigative reporter with the current-affairs program "Uppdrag granskning," says the documentary includes testimony from two executives within TeliaSonera's organization who witnessed the 2007 deal to enter Uzbekistan, an agreement negotiated on Karimova's behalf by a longtime ally with ties to the telecom market. Read more ..

Islam's War Against Christianity

At Christmas, Christians Continue to be Persecuted by Muslim Neighbors

December 16th 2012

Dead Copts

Despite promises to reform the school textbooks, the Saudi education system continues to indoctrinate children with hatred and incitement, especially against Christians and Jews. The textbooks teach -- among a long list of hate-filled passages, all of which originate in the Qur'an or the Hadith -- that "Christians are the enemies of the Believers," and that "the Apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews; and the Swine are the infidels of the communion of Jesus, the Christians." These reports of the persecution of Christians by Muslims around the world during the month of October include (but are not limited to) the following accounts, listed by form of persecution, and by country, in alphabetical order—not according to severity.

Canada: As happens regularly in Egypt (see below), a Molotov cocktail was hurled through the window of a newly opened Coptic church near Toronto. Unlike in Egypt, however, firefighters came quickly and little damage was done: "Police have no suspects or motive in the incident."

Egypt: A Muslim mob, consisting mostly of Salafis, surrounded St. George Church in the Beni Suef Governorate. Armed with batons, they assaulted Christians as they exited the church after Sunday mass; five were hospitalized with broken limbs. The Salafi grievance is that Christians from neighboring villages, who have no churches to serve them, are traveling and attending St. George. Read more ..


SecState Hillary Clinton Faints and Suffers Concussion at Home

December 16th 2012

Hillary Clinton in blue

The Department of State announced on December 15 that the peripatetic Secretary Hillary Clinton suffered a concussion after fainting at her home. According to State Department spokesman and deputy assistant secretary of state Phillipe Reines, Clinton had been suffering from a stomach virus that caused dehydration and the subsequent fainting spell.

Once an adversary of President Obama in the Democratic primaries in 2008, Clinton remains the choice of many as his successor. A former First Lady of the United States, Clinton is now 65 years old. She is the most travelled Secretary of State in history, logging thousands of miles annually on a dogged schedule. Clinton backed out of a trip to North Africa and the Persian Gulf on December 10 because of illness that she contracted during a trip to Europe. During her tenure, Clinton has having visited 112 countries doing her job. Read more ..

The Pollard Case

Newly Released CIA Documents Confirm that Jonathan Pollard Sought Intelligence on Arab States, Not US

December 15th 2012

File Folders

A newly declassified damage assessment reveals that convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard was seeking information for nuclear, military and technical information on the Arab states, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union, and not on the United States.

The damage assessment, which was classified by the CIA and only released today–though still heavily redacted– on appeal by the National Security Archive at George Washington University reveals that Pollard’s handlers “never expressed interest in US military activities, plans, capabilities, or equipment.”

The damage assessment further details the specific information requested of Pollard: Syrian drones and central communications, Egyptian missile programs and Soviet air defenses. The document also describes how Pollard’s handler told him to ignore a request from his bosses for U.S. “dirt” on senior Israeli officials.

According to the article on the NSA’s website the documents Pollard passed along revealed information on “PLO headquarters in Tunisia; specific capabilities of Tunisian and Libyan air defense systems; Iraqi and Syrian chemical warfare productions capabilities (including detailed satellite imagery); Soviet arms shipments to Syria and other Arab states; naval forces, port facilities, and lines of communication of various Middle Eastern and North African countries; the MiG-29 fighter; and Pakistan’s nuclear program. Also included was a U.S. assessment of Israeli military capabilities.” Read more ..

The Battle for Bahrain

U.S. Differences with Bahrain Now Playing Out in Public

December 15th 2012

Bahrain enraged protesters

Washington's relations with Bahrain are under strain after royal comments at a regional strategy conference in the island's capital. The incident, described by the Associated Press as a "diplomatic flap" and a "public slap against Washington," reopens the debate about the progress of reforms as street violence continues between Shiite protestors and security forces deployed by the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family.

Over fifty people, including security personnel, have died in protests pressing for more political representation and other rights over the past two years. In February 2011, most Shiite members of parliament resigned, and subsequent by-elections reinforced the Sunni majority in the assembly despite the island's majority Shiite population. Protests continue on an almost daily basis -- an embarrassment to Washington given that the island hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a key component in efforts to deter Iran. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Rally 'Round the Jihadist

December 14th 2012

Rebel fighters

The Obama administration slapped a terrorist designation on a jihadist rebel faction in Syria, but only managed to spark an anti-American backlash among the opposition.

The backlash within Syria to the U.S. decision to designate the Syrian-based jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization has been swift. Opposition to the designation, which was officially announced on Dec. 11, extends well beyond groups ideologically sympathetic to Jabhat al-Nusra's radical goals. After more than 40,000 deaths, the starvation and torture of many, and the sadistic tactics of the Assad regime, Syrians now want the fall of the regime more than ever -- even if that means temporarily embracing groups with suspect long-term goals.

The Barack Obama administration's designation of Jabhat al-Nusra asserts that the group is an extension of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) -- merely one of the terrorist organization's aliases. Whether this is the case or whether the administration is issuing the designation as part of a political effort to convince the opposition to shun Jabhat al-Nusra, the move will likely fail to marginalize the group at this juncture. Following the fall of the regime, however, it could help sideline the most destructive influences trying to gain a foothold in post-Assad Syria. Read more ..

The North Korean Threat

China Appeals for Calm Following North Korean Missile Launch

December 13th 2012

North Korean launch

North Korea launched its rocket Wednesday morning, surprising many countries throughout Asia, including its main ally China. While the move was strongly condemned by Japan and South Korea, China's reaction was more muted.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said China expresses regret at North Korea’s decision to launch the rocket despite extensive concerns in the international community.

China says countries should remain calm and that while North Korea has a right to make peaceful use of outerspace, that right is subject to restriction by the United Nations. The spokesman said the U.N. Security Council’s actions should be moderate to avoid escalation of the situation. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Climate Change and the Prospect of Water Wars

December 13th 2012

Click to select Image

International researchers from 14 institutions met in Nicosia (Cyprus) on the 10th and 11th of December to present and debate the results of studies on water, conflict and security conducted in the past three years in a variety of locations in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Sahel under the CLICO research project. The CLICO project explored the social dimensions of climate change and in particular, conflicts related to water, and the threats this may pose for national and human security. The project was led by the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and financed by the Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities (SSH) Theme of the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme.

The effects of climate change on water are expected to intensify in the Mediterranean and surrounding regions in the coming years. This raises potential threats to the security of populations, particularly those most vulnerable to droughts or floods. Prominent people have talked about the danger of "water wars" and about climate change as a threat to national security. The results of the CLICO project, however, found that such discourses oversimplify a complex reality. Read more ..

Labor on Edge

There will be Blood: Michigan Delivers Body-Blow to Organized Labor

December 12th 2012

Michigan right to work protest

Despite the presence of thousands of protesters and counter-protesters in the Michigan state capitol building and grounds, the Republican-controlled state Legislature passed and Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder signed controversial legislation that reduces the power of labor unions in the state. Michigan was the birthplace of the United Auto Workers union and also the scene of some of the worst violence in the last century that pitted organized labor against companies such as Ford and General Motors. In Michigan, approximately 18 percent of working people are now represented by labor unions, one of the highest percentages in the country and the second-highest in the Midwest.

Now signed into law, the legislation will bar both public and private sector union workers (with the exception of police and firefighters) from being required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. At least two school districts in the state announced closings, thus allowing school teachers to join other organized labor at the protests. Reportedly, many teachers from other districts used paid sick-leave to attend the rally. Read more ..

The Musical Edge

Remembering Iconic Sitar Player Ravi Shankar

December 12th 2012

Ravi Shankar

World-renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar, one of the greatest ambassadors of Indian music, has died in San Diego, near his Southern California home. He was 92 years old. Shankar, a master of the sitar—a multi-stringed, Indian classical instrument—helped popularize its use in the west.

Shankar was a recognized master of classical Indian music, an art form with roots that extend back more than 4,000 years. Through his contact with musicians of different cultures, Shankar was the first to introduce Indian music to western, mainstream audiences. Over his eight-decade career, he became a worldwide musical icon, especially through his work with the Beatles, and was labeled the “godfather of world music” by no less than George Harrison.

The Indian prime minister’s office confirmed Shankar’s death and called him a “national treasure.”

Ravi Shankar was born in India and began his musical career in the 1930s, studying music and dance. At the age of 10, he moved to Paris to join his brother, the leader of a respected Indian dance troupe. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

Famed Archaeologist Claims Possible Proof That Noah’s Ark Flood Actually Happened

December 12th 2012

Stormy Seas

The famed archaeologist responsible for discovering the titanic wreck says that he thinks he has proof that the flood at the center of the biblical Noah’s Ark story actually happened.

Robert Ballard and his team are probing the depths of the Black Sea off the coast of Turkey in search of traces of an ancient civilization hidden underwater since the time of Noah. He told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour  that, using robotic technology to travel farther back in time, he is on a marine  archaeological mission that might support the story of Noah. He said some 12,000 years ago, much of the world was covered in ice.

“Where I live in Connecticut was ice a mile above my house, all the way back to the North Pole, about 15 million kilometers, that’s a big ice cube,” he said, according to ABC News’ website. “But then it started to melt. We’re talking about the floods of our living history.”

The water from the melting glaciers met the world’s oceans causing floods all around the world.

“The questions is, was there a mother of all floods,” Ballard said. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Students Dress for Success in School and Life

December 11th 2012


Each Monday at Mayfield Intermediate School in Manassas, Virginia, you'll find boys dressed in suits with ties and girls wearing dresses or skirts and blouses. It's a far cry from the usual jeans and sweatshirts common in American classrooms.

Almost 700 students at Mayfield participate in the "Dress for Success" program, which educators believe can enhance students’ behavior and, they hope, achievement in school and in life.

Diana Otero, 10, is one of those students. “What am I going to wear to school today?” is what she asks herself each morning, but not on Mondays. That’s when she puts on a nice outfit that makes her feel "important and confident." At school, Diana and the other well-dressed students attend their regular Monday classes and their activities  as usual. This is Diana’s first year in the "Dress for Success" program. “I thought it would help me improve my grades.” Read more ..

The Gender Edge

Abuse during Childhood Linked to Adult-onset Asthma in African-American Women

December 11th 2012

Crying black woman

According to a new study from the Slone Epidemiology Center (SEC) at Boston University, African-American women who reported suffering abuse before age 11 had a greater likelihood of adult-onset asthma compared to women whose childhood and adolescence were free of abuse. The study, which is published online in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, was led by Patricia Coogan, DSc, senior epidemiologist at SEC and associate professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health.

This study followed 28,456 African-American women, all of whom are participants in the Black Women’s Health Study, between 1995 and 2011. They completed health questionnaires and provided information on physical and sexual abuse during childhood up to age 11 and adolescence, ages 12–18. The results indicate that the incidence of adult-onset asthma was increased by more than 20 percent among women who had been abused during childhood. The evidence was stronger for physical abuse than for sexual abuse. There was little indication, however, that abuse during adolescence was associated with the risk of adult-onset asthma. Read more ..

Inside America

Oklahoma City MAPS Out Revitalization

December 10th 2012

Oklahoma City Botanical Gardens

For communities looking to attract the coveted highly-skilled, highly-paid workforce, there is often little substitute for a locale’s livability. Job opportunities, no matter how plum, may fail to lure workers if a city is determined to be undesirable by potential emigrants. In describing what motivates the so-called Creative Class to relocate, urban theorist Richard Florida notes that “quality-of-place”—a city’s built and natural environment, its population diversity and vibrancy—is the deciding factor.

Perhaps no U.S. city has proved more effective at recognizing their quality-of-life shortcomings and making a drastic effort to turn things around than Oklahoma City. The impetus for action, as is often the case, was a crisis. “It was a really destitute place to live,” said Roy H. Williams, president and CEO of Oklahoma City’s Chamber of Commerce, referring to the state capital in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s. Read more ..

Ethiopia on Edge

Despite Economic Growth, Poverty Remains Ethiopia's Plight

December 10th 2012

Chinese shoe factory in Ethiopia
Chinese shoe factory in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but remains one of the poorest countries at the same time. It might take years before the majority of people benefit from the growth. Ethiopia's economy has grown at an annual rate of nearly 10 percent for the last seven years. But a third of the population still lives below the poverty line.

Samuel Bwalya is the economic advisor for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Ethiopia. Bwalya says that the country has to be patient while waiting for a trickle-down effect to lift more people from poverty. "Ethiopia is starting from a very low base in terms of development, so it should actually take much longer for this impact to take root," Bwalya noted. "So I think we are too much in a hurry to see seven-year growth to start asking questions about how many people are out of poverty. Ethiopia is still very poor. But if you look where Ethiopia is coming from, it has made significant progress in reducing poverty." Read more ..

The Way We Are

Testing the Brain for Confidence

December 10th 2012

Baby Boomer

Researchers have discovered how the brain assesses confidence in its decisions. The findings explain why some people have better insight into their choices than others.

Throughout life, we're constantly evaluating our options and making decisions based on the information we have available. How confident we are in those decisions has clear consequences. For example, investment bankers have to be confident that they're making the right choice when deciding where to put their clients' money. Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL led by Professor Ray Dolan have pinpointed the specific areas of the brain that interact to compute both the value of the choices we have in front of us and our confidence in those choices, giving us the ability to know what we want.

The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure activity in the brains of twenty hungry volunteers while they made choices between food items that they would later eat. To determine the subjective value of the snack options, the participants were asked to indicate how much they would be willing to pay for each snack. Then after making their choice, they were asked to report how confident they were that they had made the right decision and selected the best snack. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Vietnam's Elephants Face Threats from Near and Far

December 9th 2012

rampaging bull elephant

At the end of the war in 1975, as many as 2,000 wild elephants roamed the lowland forests of Vietnam. Today, there are as few as 50. Poaching and habitat destruction have brought the animals to the brink of extinction, and conservationists say the only herd with a long-term chance of survival is located along the border separating Yok Don National Park and Cambodia.

According to park director Tran Van Thanh, the already limited forests are shrinking as local communities cut trees in order to grow crops and expand housing. “Another problem with the elephants now is about the agriculture cultivating of the local people," he said, explaining that the pachyderms enjoy eating sweet crops such as banana and dragon fruit, wreaking havoc on local farmers.

As their habitat shrinks, the elephants become more aggressive, he says, and traditional scare tactics, such as lighting fires, become less effective. Because locals are not taught how to live in harmony with the elephants, Thanh says they often resort to violence. Many residents own guns, he adds, and illegal hunting is not uncommon.

“I think this is a big problem for the government," said Thanh, explaining that, after years of fighting illegal logging, staff training is outmoded. "They have to improve the capacity of the staff and [teach] the local authority how to help conservation."

But diminishing local resources isn't the only threat elephants are facing. Despite the 1989 global ban on illicit ivory, the global trade continues to take its toll on Vietnam's wild elephant population. In Dak Lak province, at least six wild elephants were killed by poachers this year alone — two of them found in August, their skulls mutilated and tusks sawn off. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

The Biggest Trees are Dying

December 9th 2012

Click to select Image

The largest living organisms on the planet, the big, old trees that harbor and sustain countless birds and other wildlife, are dying. A report by three of the world’s leading ecologists in today’s issue of the journal Science warns of an alarming increase in deathrates among trees 100-300 years old in many of the world’s forests, woodlands, savannahs, farming areas and even in cities. “It’s a worldwide problem and appears to be happening in most types of forest,” says lead author Professor David Lindenmayer of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and Australian National University.

“Large old trees are critical in many natural and human-dominated environments. Studies of ecosystems around the world suggest populations of these trees are declining rapidly,” he and colleagues Professor Bill Laurance of James Cook University, Australia, and Professor Jerry Franklin of Washington University, USA, say in their Science report. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Create iPhone Photo Collages with Friends and Their Friends

December 8th 2012

Pixplit Crew

Pixplit is the first app that uses the concept of connecting with people in the third degree of separation,’ says co-founder Jay Meydad. A bloke in London used his iPhone to upload a snapshot of the city’s Underground via the new Israeli mobile app Pixplit. His friend in New York then added a photo of the subway, and a friend of that friend completed the three-part split with an image of the Milan Metro.

“There are almost 13,000 photo apps on the App Store but ours is the only one that lets you collaborate with others in a visual dialogue,” says Pixplit co-founder Yovav (Jay) Meydad. “A photo typically has one area of content, while on Pixplit it’s divided into two to four parts.” Based in the heart of Tel Aviv, Pixplit began development in May with angel funding, and officially opened on October 17 when the company was named best new startup at the StartTWS competition in Tel Aviv. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

A Move To Cut Dependence On Bomb Grade Uranium In Medical Isotopes

December 8th 2012


The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to modify the Medicare payment system for radiological isotopes used in diagnostic procedures despite concerns that the change would not do enough to end health care providers’ reliance on bomb-grade uranium. Effective Jan. 1, hospitals and other medical facilities will be entitled to an additional $10 in government reimbursement for every diagnostic procedure they conduct on Medicare patients using isotopes not derived from highly enriched uranium.

The Health and Human Services Department proposed the change in July, and it has been viewed favorably by nonproliferation advocates who want to see the United States weaned off of isotopes produced with material that could be used to make a nuclear weapon if it fell into the wrong hands.

Health care industry officials, however, have argued the administration underestimates how much more it will cost to switch to producing isotopes without HEU material. The extra $10 per procedure is not likely cover the cost increase passed on health care providers, and will therefore not be enough to persuade hospitals and other medical facilities to make the switch, industry officials argued in September comments to the HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In a passage buried within a 357-page notice published in the Federal Register last month, CMS officials acknowledged the additional payment might not be a great incentive. They argued, though, that they are merely looking to compensate providers who switch to non-HEU sources, not give them motivation to do so.

“We did not create an additional payment to promote the administration’s initiative to eliminate domestic reliance on [medical isotopes derived] from HEU, as that is outside the scope of” the CMS rule, the notice says. “Rather the industry had conveyed to us that this conversion to non-HEU will occur in response to U.S. strategic policy, but that cost considerations have created barriers to that movement. … Although commenters have opined that a larger payment would be a better incentive to support non-HEU conversion, the purpose of the payment is limited to mitigating any adverse impact.” Read more ..

Inside Saudi Arabia

The Making of Kings in Saudi Arabia

December 7th 2012

Saudi Royal Burial

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah recently underwent relatively minor back surgery and his hospitalization triggered a host of increasingly dire rumors about the state of his health.  Though the 88-year-old monarch has since recovered and appeared in public, the episode has raised new questions about royal succession, an issue that has loomed over Saudi Arabia for years.

As they advance in age, one Saudi leader after another faces the same tough decision: should the crown continue to be passed from brother to brother – the sons of the Kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud? Or has the time come for a new generation of leaders?

After the sudden death of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef last June, his brother Salman, 76, was named Crown Prince and is likely to become the next king in spite of his poor health.  But who should succeed him?  Only a handful of his brothers are still living and in reasonable health, and some even ask whether they would be up to the task of leading the Kingdom.   Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

The Turkey-Syria Border Snafu

December 6th 2012

Turk flags

Tensions flared on the Turkish-Syrian border again over the weekend as Syrian regime forces and rebels clashed near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, just across from Turkey's Hatay province. Shells fired during the clashes fell into the Turkish town of Reyhanli, just on the other side of the border. On Monday, the Syrian regime bombed the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn, causing more shells to fall into Turkey as well as prompting Turkey to alert its fighter jets. This is the new state of affairs that has arisen since Syrian shells first fell on Turkey almost two months ago, resulting in an exchange of fire between the two countries that lasted for six days. The Turks are once again experiencing the spillover of clashes in Syria into Turkish towns across the countries' 900-kilometer shared border. Read more ..

The Prehistoric Edge

Africa's Homo Sapiens were the First Techies

December 5th 2012

Neanderthal child mannequin

The search for the origin of modern human behaviour and technological advancement among our ancestors in southern Africa some 70 000 years ago, has taken a step closer to firmly establishing Africa, and especially South Africa, as the primary centre for the early development of human behaviour.

A new research paper by renowned Wits University archaeologist, Prof. Christopher Henshilwood, is the first detailed summary of the time periods he and a group of international researchers have been studying in South Africa: namely the Still Bay techno-traditions (c. 75 000 – 70 000 years) and the Howiesons Poort techno-tradition (c. 65 000 – 60 000 years). The paper, entitled Late Pleistocene Techno-traditions in Southern Africa: A Review of the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, c. 75 ka, has been published online in the Journal of World Prehistory on 6 November 2012.

Henshilwood says these periods were significant in the development of Homo sapiens behaviour in southern Africa. They were periods of many innovations including, for example, the first abstract art (engraved ochre and engraved ostrich eggshell); the first jewellery (shell beads); the first bone tools; the earliest use of the pressure flaking technique, that was used in combination with heating to make stone spear points and the first probable use of stone tipped arrows launched by bow. Read more ..

The Edge of the Earth

Himalayas And Pacific Northwest Could Experience Major Earthquakes

December 4th 2012

Continental Crust

A big one is due in the Himalayas. The Himalayan range was formed, and remains currently active, due to the collision of the Indian and Asian continental plates. Scientists have known for some time that India is subducting under Asia, and have recently begun studying the complexity of this volatile collision zone in greater detail, particularly the fault that separates the two plates, the Main Himalayan Thrust (MHT).

Previous observations had indicated a relatively uniform fault plane that dipped a few degrees to the north. To produce a clearer picture of the fault, Warren Caldwell, a geophysics doctoral student at Stanford, has analyzed seismic data from 20 seismometers deployed for two years across the Himalayas by colleagues at the National Geophysical Research Institute of India.

The data imaged a thrust dipping a gentle two to four degrees northward, as has been previously inferred, but also revealed a segment of the thrust that dips more steeply (15 degrees downward) for 20 kilometers. Such a ramp has been postulated to be a nucleation point for massive earthquakes in the Himalaya. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

In Jordan, Syrian Refugees Await Assad's Fall

December 4th 2012

Syrian refugees Jordan

In a makeshift kitchen between refugee tents in Jordan, members of an extended family try to recreate some semblance of the life they left in Syria, before war tore apart their homeland. They are among more than 200,000 Syrians in Jordan waiting for the conflict to end.

Several women pat out dough for bread and cook it over an open fire. Om Ahmed, who cares for several children in the group, recalls their last days at home in el Sawra, in southern Syria.  “It was very bad," she says. "They were hitting us with rockets and tanks and mortar shells.”

They tried to find a haven in towns nearby, but were forced to cross the border, settling at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. At the camp's playground, children have a place to run in safety, away from the bombing and firefights which have claimed an estimated 40,000 lives since early last year. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Climate Change Melts Away Obstacle To Arctic Shipping For China, Russia

December 3rd 2012

Siberian Glacier

Could climate change turn the Russian Arctic into a northern alternative to the Suez Canal ?Some Russians think so, as they add up the results from their Arctic summer shipping season, which closed on November 28. There were a record 47 crossings by ships moving cargo between Asia and Europe -- almost 12 times the number of two years ago.

The difference? Melting Arctic ice. In September, American satellites recorded the greatest shrinkage of Arctic ice since record-keeping started 33 years ago. This summer, ice retreated to 3.4 million square kilometers -- about half the average levels recorded in the 1980s and 1990s.

With more open water, U.S. hydrologists predict that cargo volumes will increase this decade by 50 times from this year's level. For northern Europe, the Russian Arctic route can cut 7,000 kilometers off the standard trip to Asia through Egypt's Suez Canal. Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

Nukes Likely To Decline In Obama’s Second Term

December 3rd 2012

Misslle in Silo

The Pentagon’s budget is almost assuredly going down in coming years, under heavy pressure from those who wish to trim the federal deficit and see the agency – whose budget increased by two-thirds over the last decade – as a ripe target. But it also looks like a specific weapon system,  the nation’s stockpile of nuclear warheads, is also headed down, with Barack Obama’s reelection.

This is not a great surprise. Obama promised in a 2009 speech in Prague, after all, that the U.S.-Russian arms control treaty he was then negotiating “will set the stage for further cuts.” But the administration’s planning was not detailed publicly before the election to avoid creating controversy.

Now that the voting is past, a group of independent advisers to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly urged her to consider pursuing an informal accord with Russia aimed at lowering the number of nuclear weapons the two countries might deploy under existing treaties. Its report, issued Nov. 27, has also acknowledged official support for deeper cuts inside the administration.


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