The Birds of America

Sterna antillarum  Petite Sterne  /  Least Tern 

audubon_319

The smallest stern in North America, the Least Tern nests in colonies on the sandbars and beaches of the American East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Its length is 23 cm and its wingspan is 51 cm.

Plus petite sterne de l’Amérique du Nord, la petite Sterne niche en colonies sur les barres et les plages de la côte Est américaine et du golfe du Mexique. Elle a une longueur de 23 cm et une envergure de 51 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
319/1993.34922
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Calidris minutilla  Bécasseau minuscule  /  Least Sandpiper
audubon_320

The Least Sandiper nests in the tundra, the saltwater marshes and the boreal peat bogs of the Nouveau-Québec and Basse-Côte-Nord regions, the Île d’Anticosti, the Îles-de-la-Madeleine and the southern seacoast of Nova Scotia. There, it feeds on various insects, worms, small molluscs and crustaceans that it finds in the mud. Found in the southern united States during the winter, the Least Sandiper is 13 to 17 cm in length.

Le bécasseau minuscule niche dans la toundra, les marais salés et les tourbières boréales du Nouveau-Québec, de la Basse-Côte-Nord, de l’île d’Anticosti, des Îles-de-la-Madeleine et de la côte sud de la Nouvelle-Écosse. Il s’y nourrit d’insectes divers, de vers, de petits mollusques et de crustacés qu’il trouve dans la vase. Observé dans le sud des États-Unis en hiver, le bécasseau minuscule a une longueur de 13 à 17 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
320/1993.34923
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Ajaia ajaja  Spatule rosée  /  Roseate Spoonbill  

audubon_321

A protected species, the Roseate Spoonbill was formerly hunted for its pink feathers that were used in making fans. Common along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, it is also widely present in South America, more especially in Chili and Argentina. It rarely strays off-course, and is found in Arizona and in south-eastern California. The average length of the Roseate Spoonbill is 81 cm and its average wingspan is 127 cm.

Espèce protégée, la spatule rosée était autrefois chassée pour ses plumes roses qui servaient à la confection d’éventails. Commune sur la côte du golfe du Mexique, elle est également répandue en Amérique du Sud, au Chili et en Argentine plus particulièrement. Elle s’égare rarement et on l’observe en Arizona et dans le sud-est de la Californie. La spature rosée a une longueur moyenne de 81 cm et une envergure moyenne de 127 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
321/1993.34924

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Full article and photos:  http://www.mcq.org/audubon/catalogue/audubon_001.html

Sixty Years of Chinese Communism

The Party is increasingly out of step with the dynamic people it governs.

There are, it is sometimes said, “a million truths in China.” As the Communist Party celebrates the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic today, there are only three worth keeping in mind.

First, the Chinese state will try to project strength. There will be fearsome weapons and 200,000 soldiers and performers in a grand procession in the center of Beijing, meant to convince onlookers of the power of the communist superstate. Do not be impressed. If communists do one thing well, it is staging spectacles. Destitute North Korea, for instance, is even better than China in putting on perfectly synchronized parades and mass gatherings. The National Day march says little about the effectiveness, resilience or vigor of China’s one-party political system.

Second, the Chinese state, for all its apparent might, is deeply insecure. The theme of the celebration is “The Motherland and I, Marching Together.” But so great is the regime’s worry about possible unrest or disruption in protest of its rule that the laobaixing—ordinary Chinese—will not be walking in Beijing’s parade. There will be no cheering crowds lining the route along Chang’an Avenue. Citizens will be kept away by a six-province security perimeter and more than a million police and “volunteers” enforcing the tightest security in the country’s history. The government has booked all the hotel rooms overlooking the route to prevent anyone from seeing the parade up close. Nearby residents have been ordered not to look out their windows or invite guests.

China 60

That leads to a third point: The Communist Party is becoming increasingly divorced from its subjects. Sixty years ago, the Chinese people supported Mao Zedong as he swept Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang from power. Mao rarely feared the populace he ruled, even unleashing the masses in the Cultural Revolution to do away with political foes. His successor Deng Xiaoping used the same tactic, albeit on a smaller scale, by initially allowing the Democracy Wall movement to proceed.

Mao and Deng, for all their faults, were sure of themselves. Their successors, however, are men of lesser talents—and are certainly far less confident in their rule. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have institutionalized the Communist Party and thereby prevented the excesses of their two predecessors, but they have done so at great cost to the vitality of their organization. In their zeal to weed out charismatic figures—to ensure, for instance, that there will be no Chinese Gorbachev—they have purged men and women of great imagination and capability from the party leadership’s ranks. What is left are thousands of colorless cadres standing behind the faceless Mr. Hu.

The Chinese people, however, are a different story. While Beijing officials are holed up in their offices planning gargantuan parades, the country’s citizens are making, in the words of journalist Hannah Beech, a “kinetic dash into the future.” Remaking their country at breakneck speed, they are outracing everyone else. If there are at least a million truths in China, it is because the Chinese are changing fast, perhaps faster than any other group in the world today.

If there is any cause for optimism about China, this is it. Decades of government-sponsored economic development and social engineering have made people aware, assertive and, unlike their leaders, confident. By now, this process of social change has acquired its own momentum and the party can no longer stop it. Instead, it has responded by becoming more repressive in the political realm, especially since 2002, with crackdowns on everyone from newspaper editors to the writers of karaoke songs.

As the late Samuel Huntington noted, instability occurs under many conditions, but especially when political institutions do not keep up with the social forces unleashed by economic change. When I went to my dad’s hometown, dusty Rugao in Jiangsu province, last summer, no one wanted to talk about the Olympics, which were seen as “the government’s games.” Instead, almost everyone asked how American democracy worked and who would win the presidential election.

The Communist Party has not sensed or responded to people’s widespread desire to have more say in their government. So do not be surprised that last month’s party plenum, despite the expectations of the global China-watching community, produced no political reforms of any significance. The country’s ruling organization can put on large-scale displays of goose-stepping soldiers, but it cannot keep up with the Chinese people, who are, in a very real sense, the ones on the march.

Mr. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China” (Random House, 2001).

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204488304574431973923773060.html

Communist China at 60

Today’s celebrations ignore history and the Party’s uncertain future

Today 187,000 people will parade through Beijing to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, but the great proletariat will not be allowed to attend. Tiananmen Square has been cordoned off for days. Beijing’s ruling elites have banned pigeons and the Chinese Air Force will even shoo away the clouds to ensure a picture-perfect parade. The Communist Party will march in isolation, in a show of strength but not confidence, divorced from the people it governs.

This isn’t the people’s democracy that Mao Zedong sold to a war-torn country in 1949, although it’s largely in keeping with the way he governed. Mao’s reign of murder, persecution, paranoia and famine left between 30 and 60 million people dead. When countries the world over congratulate the Chinese government on its anniversary—the Empire State building in New York is even lighting up with the red and yellow hues of the Chinese flag—they are paying a kind of tribute to Mao’s ascendance and the dictatorship he bequeathed to 1.3 billion Chinese citizens.

Jintao

Hu Jintao

In the run-up to today’s celebrations, China’s leaders and their state-run propaganda have ignored this history and focused instead on the country’s economic gains. Here there really is something to celebrate. After Deng Xiaoping—himself a victim of Mao’s purges—opened up China to the outside world and adopted supply-side measures to free the talents of individual Chinese, the country has averaged almost 10% growth annually. The economic opportunities that the Chinese enjoy today flow from that decision, not from Mao’s victory over the Nationalist army during the civil war.

The Communist Party’s self-imposed dilemma since Deng has been how to continue and expand this economic prosperity while maintaining its grip on political power. This has resulted in fits of further liberalization followed by crackdowns. At the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic, legal reform was under way; the Internet was informing millions of Chinese about the outside world; and businesspeople were anticipating the opening required by China’s decision to join the World Trade Organization.

Today those trends have slowed and some are in reverse, especially in the political sphere under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Party apparatchiks are reasserting their control over the judiciary, instructing judges to follow the Party first, then the people and the law. The Party has also reasserted its control over information by clamping down on the Internet and expanding state-run media.

Beijing has halted the reform of state-owned banks—a critical part of economic reform—and instead used them as ATMs to pump money into state-owned enterprises during the recent economic downturn. Arbitrary seizures of property and people, along with a vague and restrictive competition law passed in 2007, have made the business climate opaque and uncertain.Chinese economist Wu Jinglian, who helped guide China’s transition to a market economy decades ago, is now warning about the reversal of reform.

For all of its attempts at control, Party leaders understand their lack of popular legitimacy and the unrest it often inspires. In 2007, China reported 80,000 “mass incidents,” which officials define as protests of five or more people. That number has almost certainly risen. Uprisings in China’s far-flung ethnic provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang, also reflect an unwillingness to let local people influence their own destiny. At the same time, Chinese nationalism is on the rise among China’s fenqing, or angry youth. Many in that generation take pride in the country’s accomplishments without recalling the horrors of Mao’s rule.

Mao would not recognize today’s modern Chinese economy, but he would recognize the Party that runs it. Until China’s leaders can trust their own people to attend a parade—and pass judgment from the ballot box—the so-called people’s revolution will remain unrealized.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574443901117684012.html

Obama, Dictators and democrats

How many rogue nations can President Obama hold in one hand?

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama spoke directly to the world’s rogue nations. “[W]e will extend a hand,” he said, “if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Question: How many rogue nations can you hold in one hand? Let’s try to count.

Iran remains rogue No. 1. The world is riveted by the expanding Iranian nuclear threat, and one might expect a mess of this magnitude would occupy most of the diplomatic energies of any presidency. But this one has time for more.

The Monday after last Friday’s bombshell that Iran has a hidden nuclear site, the State Department announced the start of a “direct dialogue” with Burma’s hopeless junta. The administration has dispatched a special envoy to Sudan and its genocidal leader, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad got his own Obama envoy, plus a visit from John Kerry.

At the Summit of the Americas, Mr. Obama himself did meet and greets for “dialogue” with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and reached out to Cuba’s Raul Castro. Mr. Obama then dropped in on Russia’s leaders for a “reset.”

There is something slightly weird about all this activity. If the Obama team wanted to make a really significant break from past Bush policy, it would say it was not going to just talk with the world’s worst strongmen but would give equal, public status to their democratic opposition groups. Instead, the baddest actors in the world get face time with Barack Obama, but their struggling opposition gets invisibility.

Iran zzz

An Iranian pro-democracy rally asks the right question

Iran’s extraordinary and brave popular opposition, which broke out again this week at two universities, seems to have earned these pro-democracy Iranians nothing in the calculations of U.S. policy.

With Iran, one could argue that stopping the mullahs’ nuclear program trumps the aspirations of its population. What about poor, harmless Guinea?

In July, Mr. Obama made a historic journey to Africa, giving a widely praised speech in Ghana in support of self-help and self-determination. In August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton grandly visited seven African nations with a similar message. Three days ago in Guinea, government troops fired on a pro-democracy rally estimated at 50,000 in the capital of Conakry, killing more than 150 people. The State Department got out a written statement of condemnation. Why is it not possible for President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton, having encouraged these aspirations, to speak publicly in their defense, rather than let democratic movements rise, fall and die?

In trying to plumb why the U.S. won’t promote or protect its own best idea, one starts with Mr. Obama’s remarks at the “reset” visit in Moscow: “America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country, nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country.”

Setting aside that no one is talking about the U.S. literally “imposing” a government in this day and age, what is one to make of a left-of-center American political leader taking such a diffident stance toward democratic movements? The people who live under the sway of the top dog in all the nations that have earned high-level Obama envoys are the world’s poor, and one would expect the social-justice left to support them. That may no longer be true on the American or European left.

Transforming dictatorships into nations with reasonably competitive democracies increases the odds that their people in time will find a competent leader, such as Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, who will introduce productive economic policies. That makes it more likely these peoples will join the global trading system, raising their incomes.

For the American left, now fused to financial support from domestic labor unions, the world’s dispossessed represent a threat—less costly labor selling goods into the high-cost world.

Active help for democratic oppositions in Venezuela, Syria, Egypt, Iran or even Guinea hardly serves this interest. Today, social justice stops at the water’s edge. Even as Mr. Obama extends his hand to a Chávez, Morales or Castro, he makes no effort to finish free-trade agreements with certifiably democratic Colombia and Panama.

The one thing the Obama tack of talking to dictators and slow-walking free trade assures is that many of these populations may be run indefinitely by economically incompetent psychopaths who pose no threat to the interests of American labor and their Democratic dependents. This anti-democratic protectionism of course has fans on the xenophobic right in the U.S., too.

This is a risky business. What if the new authoritarian, make-believe democratic model gains? Our dictator chat partners are getting brazen about staging and then rigging elections. Iran’s mullahs proved there will be no sustained push-back from the U.S. or Western Europe to a fraudulent election. Instead the great powers’ energies go into pounding tiny Honduras, which tried to save itself from the Chávez- and Castro-admiring Manuel Zelaya.

What if the world’s real democrats, after enough bullets and dungeon time, lose belief in the American democracy’s support for them on this central idea? They may come to regard their betters in the U.S. and Europe as inhabiting a world less animated by democratic belief than democratic decadence.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574444890430083018.html

U.S. Credibility and Pakistan

What Islamabad thinks of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Critics of the war in Afghanistan—inside and out of the Obama Administration—argue that we would be better off ensuring that nuclear-armed Pakistan will help us fight al Qaeda. As President Obama rethinks his Afghan strategy with his advisers in the coming days, he ought to listen to what the Pakistanis themselves think about that argument.

In an interview at the Journal’s offices this week in New York, Pakistan Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi minced no words about the impact of a U.S. withdrawal before the Taliban is defeated. “This will be disastrous,” he said. “You will lose credibility. . . . Who is going to trust you again?” As for Washington’s latest public bout of ambivalence about the war, he added that “the fact that this is being debated—whether to stay or not stay—what sort of signal is that sending?”

Mr. Qureshi also sounded incredulous that the U.S. might walk away from a struggle in which it has already invested so much: “If you go in, why are you going out without getting the job done? Why did you send so many billion of dollars and lose so many lives? And why did we ally with you?” All fair questions, and all so far unanswered by the Obama Administration.

tank ss

An army tank displayed in a ceremony to mark the Pakistan Defense Day in Mingora, the main town of Pakistan’s Swat Valley

As for the consequences to Pakistan of an American withdrawal, the foreign minister noted that “we will be the immediate effectees of your policy.” Among the effects he predicts are “more misery,” “more suicide bombings,” and a dramatic loss of confidence in the economy, presumably as investors fear that an emboldened Taliban, no longer pressed by coalition forces in Afghanistan, would soon turn its sights again on Islamabad.

Mr. Qureshi’s arguments carry all the more weight now that Pakistan’s army is waging an often bloody struggle to clear areas previously held by the Taliban and their allies. Pakistan has also furnished much of the crucial intelligence needed to kill top Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in U.S. drone strikes. But that kind of cooperation will be harder to come by if the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan and Islamabad feels obliged to protect itself in the near term by striking deals with various jihadist groups, as it has in the past.

Pakistanis have long viewed the U.S. through the lens of a relationship that has oscillated between periods of close cooperation—as during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s—and periods of tension and even sanctions—as after Pakistan’s test of a nuclear device in 1998. Pakistan’s democratic government has taken major risks to increase its assistance to the U.S. against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Mr. Qureshi is warning, in so many words, that a U.S. retreat from Afghanistan would make it far more difficult for Pakistan to help against al Qaeda.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574443352072071822.html

Obama Can’t Outsource Afghanistan

George Bush succeeded in Iraq by talking to his generals regularly.

So our top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that he has spoken with President Barack Obama only once since June.

This is a troubling revelation. Right now, our commander in chief is preparing to make one of the most important decisions of his presidency—whether to commit additional troops to win the war in Afghanistan. Being detached or incurious about what our commanders are experiencing makes it hard to craft a winning strategy.

Mr. Obama’s predecessor faced a similar situation: a war that was grinding on, pressure to withdraw troops, and conflicting advice—including from some who saw the war as unwinnable. But George W. Bush talked to generals on the ground every week or two, which gave him a window into what was happening and insights into how his commanders thought. That helped him judge their recommendations on strategy.

Mr. Obama’s hands-off approach to the war seems to fit his governing style. Over the past year, he outsourced writing the stimulus package to House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, washed his hands of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to reinvestigate CIA interrogators, and hasn’t offered a detailed health-care plan.

Mr. Obama’s aloofness on the war will be a problem if the recent airing of Joe Biden’s views on Afghanistan is a tipoff that Mr. Obama will rely on his vice president’s guidance. According to reports in the New York Times and other publications, Mr. Biden supports reducing troop levels in favor of surgical attacks—mostly launched from offshore—and missile strikes against al Qaeda, especially in Pakistan.

Such an approach would almost certainly lose the war. Actionable intelligence—key to defeating an insurgency—would dry up. Tribal chieftains would cut deals with the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Afghan government would probably collapse, and the Afghan people would have little choice but to swing their support to the Taliban. Pakistan would likely come to see us as a fair-weather friend and increasingly resist U.S. attacks against al Qaeda on its soil. American credibility would be shattered. And militant Islamists would gain a victory.

Mr. Biden has a record rare in its consistency and duration of being wrong about big national security questions.

In his first U.S. Senate campaign in 1972, he called for cutting and running from Vietnam. He later voted to cut off funding for South Vietnam and spoke out against the war. After we did withdraw, communist forces conquered South Vietnam as well as Cambodia, where Pol Pot carried out a campaign of genocide.

In the 1980s, Mr. Biden opposed President Ronald Reagan’s national security approach on almost every front, including funding for the Contras in Nicaragua, building missile defenses, and increasing military spending. In the 1990s, apparently willing to cede Kuwait to Saddam Hussein, he voted against the first Gulf War. Over the past decade, Mr. Biden opposed the surge that put us on the path to victory in Iraq. Instead called for a “soft partition” that would have divided Iraq into three countries.

Mr. Biden has been right about Afghanistan at least once. In 2002, he said, “Security is the basic issue in Afghanistan. Whatever it takes, we should do it. History will judge us harshly if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we failed to stay the course.”

The responsibility for the outcome of the war in Afghanistan rests squarely with Mr. Obama. Until now, he seems to have treated the conflict as a distraction from his efforts to nationalize our health-care system. But the war is now front and center. He has been told by Gen. McChrystal that America needs more boots on the ground to win.

In the past, when Mr. Obama has moved left, he moved fast and far to the left—witness his willingness to push health-care legislation even if it only has Democratic support. But when he has played to the center—as on Afghanistan, when he decided in last year’s campaign that he needed to be tough on at least one of the wars America was engaged in—he has looked for appealing half-measures that ultimately prove unworkable.

It was easy in 2008 to criticize Mr. Bush’s war leadership. But winning a shooting war requires a commander in chief’s constant, direct and deep involvement. Mr. Obama could show he understands this if he uses his trip to Denmark this week (where he will serve as pitchman for Chicago to get the 2016 Olympics) to make a surprise visit to Afghanistan.

Refusing to provide all the troops and strategic support that his commanders are requesting will be to concede defeat. We’ll soon know whether Mr. Obama has the judgment and the courage to win this war.

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.

Karl Rove, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574444981640430364.html

NY Times Public Editor Admits Paper Slow on ACORN, Staffer to Now Monitor Conservative Media

New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s latest column tackles the ACORN scandal — or as Times readers know it: “What ACORN scandal?”

In “Tuning In Too Late,” Hoyt criticized the Times for its lack of coverage of the juicy ACORN imbroglio, an omission that has prodded the paper into creating a new semi-position. It’s assigned an editor to monitor opinion media and catch stories like this earlier (apparently not a single television at Times headquarters is tuned to Fox News, where they could have caught it quite easily.)

Hoyt summarized the video sting in which ACORN workers at several branches across the country were captured giving advice on child sex trafficking and tax evasion to a gaudy pimp and a hot-pants prostitute (actually conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles). The tapes, whose gradual release were masterfully mediated by Andrew Brietbart at his new website BigGovernment.com, resulted in ACORN being cut off from federal funding and losing its ties to the Census Bureau and IRS. Yet the Times took little interest in the scandal and the consequences:

“But for days, as more videos were posted and government authorities rushed to distance themselves from Acorn, The Times stood still. Its slow reflexes — closely following its slow response to a controversy that forced the resignation of Van Jones, a White House adviser — suggested that it has trouble dealing with stories arising from the polemical world of talk radio, cable television and partisan blogs.

“Some stories, lacking facts, never catch fire. But others do, and a newspaper like The Times needs to be alert to them or wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself.

This is quite misleading. The Times already monitors opinion media for story tips. It’s just that they only monitor the left side of the blogosphere. Lachlan Markay provided some stark examples at NewsBusters on Sunday:

“The Times consistently cites liberal blogs far more than ones on the right, undermining the claim that they missed these two stories because they don’t monitor online media. A Nexis search reveals 477 combined mentions of five of the left’s top blogs: Huffington Post, Think Progress, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, and Media Matters.

“But a search for five of the right’s top blogs, Hot Air, Pajamas Media, NewsBusters, RedState, and TownHall turns up only 18 combined mentions from the Times.”

The left-wing Talking Points Memo, run by Josh Marshall, was recently praised by Executive Editor Bill Keller. It’s a favorite source for Times reporters. Liberal columnist Maureen Dowd took its name too literally when she plagiarized it. And the online version of Monday’s front-page profile of Elizabeth Cheney links to left-wing media watchdog Media Matters as its source for an unflattering anecdote.

The Times’s hesitation to pick up news from conservative media didn’t start with ACORN, of course. Before missing the outcry over Obama environmental adviser and 9-11 Truther Van Jones, the paper ignored the affair of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards during the 2008 presidential campaign, until he admitted it in a television interview. Hoyt even criticized the paper for not taking the Edwards affair story seriously in an August 2008 column. Apparently no one listened.

Hoyt quibbled with the paper’s delayed first story on ACORN, which ran under the headline, “Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn, Favored Foe.”

“The article said that conservatives hoped to weaken the Obama administration by attacking its allies and appointees they viewed as leftist. The conservatives thought they had a “winning formula,” the article said, mobilizing people “to dig up dirt,” then trumpeting it on talk radio and television….I thought politics was emphasized too much, at the expense of questions about an organization whose employees in city after city participated in outlandish conversations about illegal and immoral activities.”

Hoyt’s criticism echoes what Times Watch wrote the day the article appeared:

“Scott Shane’s “Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn, Favored Foe” hit the high points but overplayed the ideological angle, as the headline hints. There are six conservative labels in the story, not including the headline, and Shane portrayed the scandal in pure political terms, with “the right” as “gleeful” in claiming its “latest scalp,” as opposed to expressing outrage over a tax-funded leftist organization with connections to the Census Bureau and IRS (!) encouraging tax evasion and child prostitution.”

Hoyt then quoted Managing Editor Jill Abramson pretty much admitting the paper is not in tune with what right-leaning people are thinking, blaming “insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio.” Then the big news:

“She and Bill Keller, the executive editor, said last week that they would now assign an editor to monitor opinion media and brief them frequently on bubbling controversies. Keller declined to identify the editor, saying he wanted to spare that person “a bombardment of e-mails and excoriation in the blogosphere.

“”Despite what the critics think, Abramson said the problem was not liberal bias.”

Abramson also previously admitted the paper was “a beat behind” in its Van Jones coverage, but blamed the Labor Day weekend and also denied any liberal bias.

Clay Waters, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574445150781555702.html

Mother Knows Best: Females Control Sperm Storage To Pick The Best Father

field cricketScientists have found new evidence to explain how female insects can influence the father of their offspring, even after mating with up to ten males. A team from the University of Exeter has found that female crickets are able to control the amount of sperm that they store from each mate to select the best father for their young.

The research team believes the females may be using their abdominal muscles to control the amount of sperm stored from each mate. Their findings are now published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

Female crickets mate with several different males, including their closest relatives. In general, offspring produced with close relatives are more likely to have genetic disorders. Different animals employ a range of behaviours to avoid this, such as not mating other animals from the group they grow up in. Crickets do not avoid mating with relatives, but this research shows that they produce more offspring fathered by males that are unrelated to them.

To conduct their study, the researchers bred field crickets in the laboratory. They used new DNA-based techniques to determine the quantity stored by each the female. They found that the females stored a higher content of sperm from unrelated males. They then tested young crickets to determine their paternity. The results showed that, regardless of the order in which they had mated, an unrelated mate was more likely to become a father. This must have been under female control, because the methods the team used meant that males could not influence the amount of sperm they passed to the female.

Though the study focused on field crickets, the findings are likely to be relevant in other insect species and possibly other sections of the animal kingdom. For example, chickens are known to store more sperm from dominant males.

Lead author Dr Amanda Bretman of the University of Exeter said: “Our study shows that even after mating, female insects control who fathers their offspring. We’re only really just beginning to understand the reasons for the different mating strategies in the insect world and that is thanks to new techniques.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090908124621.htm

One Man’s Utopia

A first-time novelist imagines an America made wonderful by Warren Buffett, Phil Donahue and Yoko Ono.

Here’s the bad news: Ralph Nader has written a novel. Here’s the good news: There’s no sex in it. Wait. That’s not strictly true. At the end of its 700 pages, one of the characters hooks up with Yoko Ono.

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

Ralph Nader has written a novel. Well, he doesn’t call it a novel—he calls it “a practical utopia.” In it, he spins a fictional vision of what might happen if the country’s super-rich got together with assorted influential people and worked to transform American culture and politics into something more to Ralph Nader’s liking.

In Mr. Nader’s tale, billionaire investor Warren Buffett is so dismayed by the ineffectual and chaotic government reaction to Hurricane Katrina that he hatches a plan to “redirect” American society. He summons a brace of moguls—Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Ross Perot and George Soros, among others—to a secret Maui location, along with such celebrities as Bill Cosby, Yoko Ono and Warren Beatty. As they confer together, they find that they all—surprise! —agree that Something Must Be Done.

The news media soon dub this cabal, in one of Mr. Nader’s typically tin-eared phrases, “the Meliorists.” The “something” that they all agree must be done involves, naturally, increasing regulation, raising taxes and punishing heartless multinational corporations. It’s easy, apparently, once you’ve made a billion dollars in international business and finance, to denounce international business and finance.

naderBut the Meliorists realize that before any real reform can take place they must first win over America. They have to wake up the country. And that process fills the first 200 pages—out of a total of 700 (I mentioned that, right?)—of this very long, very odd, very Nader book.

Here, for instance, is an actual passage from “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!”: “As promised, Ted Turner and Phil Donahue had put their heads together to brainstorm about a mascot for the group’s efforts. Ted’s thoughts naturally ran along avian lines, and it wasn’t long before they hit on the idea of a parrot. . . . Patriotic Polly hit the airwaves in fifteen-second spots shown on thousands of stations, and it was an immediate smash.”

The parrot, see, appears on TV and squawks, “Get up! Don’t let America down!” Then there’s an email address for viewers to use to join the movement to redirect America. Which the viewers do, and off we go.

Because that’s what it takes, really, to get America to agree with you, according to Ralph Nader: a parrot, a couple of TV spots, some billionaire’s cash. Why so easy? The premise of the novel is that ordinary people love Ralph Nader’s politics. They all agree with his progressive, left-wing agenda—even though, for some reason, they didn’t vote for him, in huge numbers, in two presidential elections. But with a little Hollywood pixie dust and some community-organizing money, the entire grocery list of left-wing causes from 1960 to 2009 can be enacted. The whole story is presented with such sweet earnestness that it almost seems mean to laugh at it. Almost.

In fact, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” reads less like a novel or “practical utopia” than a dream journal. At the Maui summit, for instance, Phil Donahue rises to address his fellow do-gooders: “Phil pulled a letter from his jacket pocket. ‘This is an offer from the head of NBC. He wants to give me a national talk show, and get this—he specifically wants me to deal with injustice, hard solutions to the nation’s problems, bold doings among ordinary people, and the plight of millions of Americans who get pushed around or shut out while they do the essential, grimy, everyday work that keeps the rich and famous sitting pretty on top. He says NBC wants a “new Dr. Phil” for the new burgeoning civil society.’ ”

And that’s only page 68! (There are 700 pages total, in case I forgot to mention that.) The spine is barely creased and already there’s a sensational parrot, a new TV talk show . . . oh, and a movement to change the national anthem to the more peaceful, labor-friendly “This Land Is Your Land.” But even a first-time novelist like Mr. Nader knows that the story would begin to drag if he simply narrated a tale of how the country seamlessly eased into an idyllic state of pure Naderism, in which Ralph Nader’s vision is finally realized and everyone sounds like Ralph Nader.

And so he throws a few hurdles in the way of the Meliorists. Following the unionization of Wal-Mart, there’s some predictable push-back from corporate fat cats and power brokers. You know the type: the ones who force decent Americans to use energy-hogging lightbulbs and to sing a complicated national anthem. But then there’s push-back against the push-back, which is eventually (spoiler alert!) successful, thanks to Yoko Ono’s deployment of her ravishing personal beauty to dazzle and distract the guy leading the corporate opposition. His name, by the way, is Lancelot Lobo. It may be a blessing that Mr. Nader populated his book with so many famous people.

By novel’s end, American society is thoroughly Naderized. Warren Beatty sits in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento; the president has signed on to the Meliorist program; and Americans have embraced a new life that is dimly lit by awful fluorescent curlicue bulbs. But curiously, for a futuristic utopia, it all seems so tired. So old. So Jimmy Carter. This is a novel that should have been written in 1976. Honestly, though, it’s feeling more like 1976 every day.

Mr. Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574440954001791002.html

Subterranean spiders among new species discovered under Australian desert

More than 850 new species, from blind fish to diving beetles, have been discovered under the Australian outback.

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A millipede of the genus Stygiochiropus

The largely blind creatures first went underground due to climate change tens of millions of years ago and have survived since in total darkness.

Scientists believe the finding represents only a fifth of the thousands of species that could be living in tiny caves and caverns beneath the desert.

Evolutionary biologist Professor Andy Austin, of Adelaide University, said the insects were survivors from a time 20 to 30 million years ago when rainforest covered much of Australia.

“Central and southern Australia was a much wetter place 15 million years ago when there was a flourishing diversity of invertebrate fauna living on the surface,” he said.

“But the continent became drier, a process that last until about one to two million years ago, resulting in our current arid environment.

“Species took refuge in isolated favourable habitats, such as in underground waters and micro-caverns, where they survived and evolved in isolation from each other.”

Prof Austin said spiders, small crustaceans, worms and woodlice were found in the four year survey. The results were announced at a conference in Darwin to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin

“Virtually all are blind and completely lack eyes, and lack pigment, so they are pale or white in colour,” he said.

“The insects in caves often have long legs and antennae — most sense vibration and use chemical senses, as they cannot see in the pitch black.”

The new species, which represent a whole new element of biodiversity in Australia, are now under threat from mining and ranching.

Prof Austin and his team have only examined 10 per cent of the areas that are likely to have underground species and will carry on searching as well as investigating the genetics of the creatures and how they reacted to climate change millions of years ago.

“What we’ve found is you don’t have to go searching in the depths of the ocean to discover new species of invertebrate animals — you just have to look in your own backyard,” he said.

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Full article and photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/6246660/Subterranean-spiders-among-new-species-discovered-under-Australian-desert.html

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See also:

Researchers Go Underground To Reveal 850 New Species In Australian Outback

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Some of the 850 new species discovered in underground water, caves and micro-caverns across outback Australia.

Australian researchers have discovered a huge number of new species of invertebrate animals living in underground water, caves and “micro-caverns” amid the harsh conditions of the Australian outback.

A national team of 18 researchers has discovered 850 new species of invertebrates, which include various insects, small crustaceans, spiders, worms and many others.

The team – led by Professor Andy Austin (University of Adelaide), Dr Steve Cooper (South Australian Museum) and Dr Bill Humphreys (Western Australian Museum) – has conducted a comprehensive four-year survey of underground water, caves and micro-caverns across arid and semi-arid Australia.

“What we’ve found is that you don’t have to go searching in the depths of the ocean to discover new species of invertebrate animals – you just have to look in your own ‘back yard’,” says Professor Austin from the Australian Center for Evolutionary Biology & Biodiversity at the University of Adelaide.

“Our research has revealed whole communities of invertebrate animals that were previously unknown just a few years ago. What we have discovered is a completely new component to Australia’s biodiversity. It is a huge discovery and it is only about one fifth of the number of new species we believe exist underground in the Australian outback.”

Only half of the species discovered have so far been named. Generically, the animals found in underground water are known as “stygofauna” and those from caves and micro-caverns are known as “troglofauna”.

Professor Austin says the team has a theory as to why so many new species have been hidden away underground and in caves.

“Essentially what we are seeing is the result of past climate change. Central and southern Australia was a much wetter place 15 million years ago when there was a flourishing diversity of invertebrate fauna living on the surface. But the continent became drier, a process that last until about 1-2 million years ago, resulting in our current arid environment. Species took refuge in isolated favorable habitats, such as in underground waters and micro-caverns, where they survived and evolved in isolation from each other.

“Discovery of this ‘new’ biodiversity, although exciting scientifically, also poses a number of challenges for conservation in that many of these species are found in areas that are potentially impacted by mining and pastoral activities,” he says.

The research team has reported its findings at a scientific conference on evolution and biodiversity in Darwin, which celebrates the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin: http://www.evolutionbiodiversity2009.org.

The team’s research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Environmental Futures Network.

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Full article and photo: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090928095214.htm

Software mimics ant behavior by swarming against cyber threats

Ant-swarmLooking to create computer defenses that adapt well to the cat-and-mouse game played between computer users and cyber attackers, a team of researchers has turned to one of nature’s most effective militias—ants. Computer scientists at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., are studying whether software written to behave like an army of “digital ants” can successfully find and flag malicious software (or malware).

“In nature, we know that ants defend against threats very successfully,” Wake Forest computer science professor Errin Fulp said in a prepared statement. “They can ramp up their defense rapidly, and then resume routine behavior quickly after an intruder has been stopped. We were trying to achieve that same framework in a computer system.”

To prove that their “swarm intelligence” model could more quickly and thoroughly scan for malware, Fulp and his colleagues developed a way to divide up the process of searching for security threats across 64 computers networked together. As the digital ants sought out potential security problems, they left a digital trail of their progress, much the same way normal ants leave behind a scent that can be picked up and followed by other ants. When the researchers unleashed a worm on the network, the digital ants were able to find it.

This approach differs from conventional computer security software, which can for the most part be programmed to search only for known malware. Makers of this software often update it with descriptions of new viruses and worms, but this reactive model keeps computer users at least a step behind their adversaries. Fulp and his team hope that the sharing of information among the digital ants will lead to computer defense systems that can find malware written with slight variations in order to avoid detection.

Computer scientists are already studying programs that act like swarming ants to help alleviate telecommunications system bottlenecks. “The foraging of ants has led to a novel method for rerouting network traffic in busy telecommunications systems,” Eric Bonabeau and Guy Thèraulaz wrote in an article, “Swarm Smarts,” in Scientific American‘s 2008 special report on robots. Bonabeau is chief executive and chief scientific officer at Icosystem Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., while Thèraulaz is a research director at the Research Center on Animal Cognition of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France.

Computer-maker Hewlett-Packard and the University of the West of England together invented a network routing technique in which antlike agents deposit bits of information, or “virtual pheromones,” at telephone network nodes (or switching stations), according to Bonabeau and Theraulaz. These mark less congested areas of the network that could be used by phone companies to divert surges in traffic on the network.

Larry Greenemeier, Scientific American

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Full article and photo: http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/60-second-science/post.cfm?id=software-mimics-ant-behavior-by-swa-2009-09-28&sc=CAT_TECH_20090930

Samoa tsunami: 10 facts about tsunamis

A tsunami in the Pacific has killed more than 100 people in Samoa. We look at what causes tsunamis and what to look out for.

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Christopher Moore of NOAA looks at computer graphs at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii, concerning the earthquake and tsunami that hit American Samoa.

The word ‘tsunami’ is Japanese, and translates as ‘harbour wave’. Tsunamis used to be called ‘tidal waves’, but the term has fallen out of use with scientists as they have nothing to do with tides.

A tsunami consists of a series of waves, known as a wave train, rather than a single wave. For a large tsunami, these waves could arrive over a period of hours, and the first is not necessarily the largest.

Most tsunamis are caused by undersea earthquakes. A magnitude 8.0 earthquake is behind the Samoan disaster, according to the US Geological Survey. An earthquake will cause a tsunami if it is powerful enough and if it is under a sufficient depth of water.

About 80 per cent of all tsunamis take place in the Pacific Ocean.

The theory that underwater earthquakes were behind tsunamis was first put forward by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, in 426BC, in his book History of the Peloponnesian War.

Volcanic eruptions, massive landslides, meteorite impacts and underwater nuclear explosions can also cause tsunamis, as can tropical cyclones or other weather conditions. A storm-caused tsunami is known as a ‘meteotsunami’; such an event devastated Burma in 2008.

Despite the enormous size of the waves when they hit the land, the amplitude (wave height) of a tsunami is often as little as three feet in the open ocean, while its wavelength (distance between two peaks) can be as long as 120 miles. At this point it will be travelling at more than 500mph.

As the tsunami reaches shallower water the waves compress, making the wavelength shorter and the amplitude higher. The wave slows down, although it will still be travelling at around 50mph.

Predicting a tsunami is near impossible. In some cases a few minutes’ warning can be gained when the water along the shore suddenly recedes, in a phenomenon called ‘drawback’. This happens when a tsunami’s trough reaches the land before the peak.

A 10-year-old English girl, Tilly Smith, saved nearly a hundred lives with this knowledge ahead of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She had learned about drawback in a geography lesson and warned her family, who in turn told others. She has since given a speech at the United Nations and had an asteroid named after her: 20002 Tillysmith.

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Full article and photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/samoa/6245871/Samoan-tsunami-10-facts-about-tsunamis.html

The Claim: Loss of Sight Heightens the Other Senses

THE FACTS

This familiar claim is the stuff of many a Hollywood story line — like “Daredevil,” in which a lawyer’s sudden blindness heightens his other senses and turns him into a superhero. Studies suggest that the story is more fact than fantasy.

In one series of studies, neuroscientists at McGill University tested blind and sighted subjects for pitch perception and their ability to locate sounds.

The blind subjects generally scored higher, which came as little surprise — until the scientists discovered that precisely when the subjects had become blind affected their performance.

Those who were born blind did best, those who became blind as small children were slightly behind, and those who lost their vision after age 10 did no better than the sighted subjects.

The implication was that a young brain could be rewired so that visual-processing areas were used for other purposes.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of that was shown in brain-imaging studies, in which scientists found that blind subjects who were best able to locate sound were engaging both the auditory and the visual areas of the cortex. Blind subjects who scored low, as well as sighted subjects, had little or no activity in the visual lobe.

Other studies have had similar results with odor discrimination and tactile sensation.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Research suggests that at least in some circumstances, blindness can heighten other senses.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/health/29real.html?ref=health

Pulling Together Increases Your Pain Threshold

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A study of Oxford rowers has shown that members of a team who exercised together were able to tolerate twice as much pain as when they trained on their own.

In the study, published September 16 in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, researchers from the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology found the pain threshold of 12 rowers from the Oxford Boat Race squad was greater after group training than after individual training.

They conclude that acting as a group and in close synchrony seems to ‘ramp up’ pain thresholds. The underlying endorphin release may be the mechanism that underpins communal-bonding effects that emerge from activities like religious rituals and dancing.

Each of the 12 rowers participated in four separate tests. They were asked to row continuously for 45 minutes in a virtual boat in the gym (as in normal training), in an exercise carried out in two teams of six and then in a separate session as individuals, unobserved by other team members. After each of the sessions, the researchers measured their pain threshold by how long they could stand an inflated blood pressure cuff on the arm.

The study found there was a significant increase in the rowers’ pain threshold following exercise in both individual and group sessions (a well established response to exercise of any kind). However, after the group training there was a significantly larger increase as compared with training carried out individually.

Since close synchrony is the key to successful competition-class racing, these results suggest that doing a synchronised activity as a group increases the endorphin rush that we get from physical exertion. The study says that since endorphins help to create a sense of bonhomie and positive effect, this effect may underlie the experience of warmth and belonging that we have when we do activities like dancing, sports, religious rituals and other forms of communal exercise together.

Professor Robin Dunbar, Head of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, said: ‘Previous research suggests that synchronised physical activity such as laughter, music and many religious activities makes people happier and is part of the bonding process. We also know that physical exercise creates a natural high through the release of endorphins. What this study shows us is that synchrony alone seems to ramp up the production of endorphins so as to heighten the effect when we do these activities in groups.’

Lead author Dr Emma Cohen, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, said: ‘The results suggest that endorphin release is significantly greater in group training than in individual training even when power output, or physical exertion, remains constant. The exact features of group activity that generate this effect are unknown, but this study contributes to a growing body of evidence suggesting that synchronised, coordinated physical activity may be responsible.’

One of the researchers involved in this study was Robin Ejsmond-Frey, a double Blue in rowing and former President of the Oxford University Boat Club.

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Full article: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090927150348.htm

Photo: http://www.spc.ox.ac.uk/gallery_image/72/11/rowing_team.html

Hyenas Cooperate, Problem-solve Better Than Primates

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Spotted hyenas may not be smarter than chimpanzees, but a new study shows that they outperform the primates on cooperative problem-solving tests.

Captive pairs of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) that needed to tug two ropes in unison to earn a food reward cooperated successfully and learned the maneuvers quickly with no training. Experienced hyenas even helped inexperienced partners do the trick.

When confronted with a similar task, chimpanzees and other primates often require extensive training and cooperation between individuals may not be easy, said Christine Drea, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University.

Drea’s research, published online in the October issue of Animal Behavior, shows that social carnivores like spotted hyenas that hunt in packs may be good models for investigating cooperative problem solving and the evolution of social intelligence. She performed these experiments in the mid-1990s but struggled to find a journal that was interested in non-primate social cognition.

“No one wanted anything but primate cognition studies back then,” Drea said. “But what this study shows is that spotted hyenas are more adept at these sorts of cooperation and problem-solving studies in the lab than chimps are. There is a natural parallel of working together for food in the laboratory and group hunting in the wild.”

Drea and co-author Allisa N. Carter of the Univ. of California at Berkeley, designed a series of food-reward tasks that modeled group hunting strategies in order to single out the cognitive aspects of cooperative problem solving. They selected spotted hyenas to see whether a species’ performance in the tests might be linked to their feeding ecology in the wild.

Spotted hyena pairs at the Field Station for the Study of Behavior, Ecology and Reproduction in Berkeley, Calif. were brought into a large pen where they were confronted with a choice between two identical platforms 10 feet above the ground. Two ropes dangled from each platform. When both ropes on a platform were pulled down hard in unison — a similar action to bringing down large prey — a trap door opened and spilled bone chips and a sticky meatball. The double-rope design prevented a hyena from solving the task alone, and the choice between two platforms ensured that a pair would not solve either task by chance.

The first experiment sought to determine if three pairs of captive hyenas could solve the task without training. “The first pair walked in to the pen and figured it out in less than two minutes,” Drea said. “My jaw literally dropped.”

Drea and Carter studied the actions of 13 combinations of hyena pairs and found that they synchronized their timing on the ropes, revealing that the animals understood the ropes must be tugged in unison. They also showed that they understood both ropes had to be on the same platform. After an animal was experienced, the number of times it pulled on a rope without its partner present dropped sharply, indicating the animal understood its partner’s role.

“One thing that was different about the captive hyena’s behavior was that these problems were solved largely in silence,” Drea said. Their non-verbal communication included matching gazes and following one another. “In the wild, they use a vocalization called a whoop when they are hunting together.”

In the second and third experiments, Drea found that social factors affected the hyenas’ performance in both positive and negative ways. When an audience of extra hyenas was present, experienced animals solved the task faster. But when dominant animals were paired, they performed poorly, even if they had been successful in previous trials with a subordinate partner.

“When the dominant females were paired, they didn’t play nicely together,” Drea said. “Their aggression toward each other led to a failure to cooperate.”

When a naïve animal unfamiliar with the feeding platforms was paired with a dominant, experienced animal, the dominant animals switched social roles and submissively followed the lower-ranking, naïve animal. Once the naïve animal became experienced, they switched back.

Both the audience and the role-switching trials revealed that spotted hyenas self-adjust their behavior based upon social context.

It was not a big surprise that the animals were strongly inclined to help each other obtain food, said Kay Holekamp, a professor of zoology at Michigan State University who studies the behavioral ecology of spotted hyenas.

“But I did find it somewhat surprising that the hyenas’ performance was socially modulated by both party size and pair membership,” Holekamp said. “And I found it particularly intriguing that the animals were sensitive to the naïveté of their potential collaborators.”

Researchers have focused on primates for decades with an assumption that higher cognitive functioning in large-brained animals should enable organized teamwork. But Drea’s study demonstrates that social carnivores, including dogs, may be very good at cooperative problem solving, even though their brains are comparatively smaller.

“I’m not saying that spotted hyenas are smarter than chimps,” Drea said. “I’m saying that these experiments show that they are more hard-wired for social cooperation than chimpanzees.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090928131032.htm

The Birds of America

Anhinga anhinga  Anhinga d’Amérique  /  Anhinga  

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The Anhinga lives in the wooded marshes and forest watercourses of the eastern United States. Essentially a fish-eater, it feeds on fish that it catches while swimming. Its technique, by the way, is very special. It navigates in water like a serpent, with grace and agility, leaving only its head and neck out of the water. That is why it has been called the “Serpent-bird”. The length of the Anhinga is 89 cm and its wingspan is 114 cm.

L’anhinga d’Amérique habite les marais boisés et les cours d’eau forestiers de l’est des États-Unis. Essentiellement piscivore, il se nourrit de poissons qu’il capture à la nage. Sa technique est d’ailleurs fort particulière. Tel un serpent, il navigue dans les eaux avec grâce et agilité, en ne sortant que la tête et le cou de l’eau. C’est pourquoi on le surnomme “ oiseau-serpent ”. L’anhinga d’Amérique a une longueur de 89 cm et une envergure de 114 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
316/1993.34919
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Melanitta perspicillata  Macreuse à front blanc  /  Surf Scoter  
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The Surf Scoter’s habitat is the tundra of the Nouveau-Québec region, the North-West Territories and the Arctic. It nests close to lakes and rivers, where it can easily feed on molluscs, crustaceans and barnacles. Although it migrates through all the regions of Québec, it will be found all along the East and West Coasts of North America during the winter. The length of the Surf Scoter is 48 to 58 cm.

La macreuse à front blanc a pour habitat la toundra du Nouveau-Québec, les Territoires du Nord-Ouest et l’Arctique. Elle niche près des lacs et des rivières, là où elle peut s’alimenter aisément de mollusques, de crustacés et de balanes. Bien qu’elle passe en migration dans toutes les régions du Québec, on la retrouve, en hiver, tout le long des côtes est et ouest de l’Amérique du Nord. La macreuse à front blanc a une longueur de 48 à 58 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
317/1993.34920
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Recurvirostra americana  Avocette d’Amérique  /  American Avocet  

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The American Avocet is a wading bird of the American West and Midwest, found in shallow marshes and ponds. During the winter season, it travels some distance to go and nest along the North-American seacoasts. Although it is not a threatened species, this bird, with its long beak and thin legs, has suffered from being hunted, which has made it disappear from certain regions. The length of the American Avocet is 46 cm.

L’avocette d’Amérique est un échassier du Midwest et de l’Ouest américains, retrouvé dans les marais et les étangs peu profonds. En saison hivernale, elle se déplace quelque peu pour nicher tout le long des côtes de l’Amérique du Nord. Bien qu’il ne soit pas menacé, cet oiseau au long bec et aux fines pattes a souffert de la chasse, le faisant disparaître de certaines régions. L’avocette d’Amérique a une longueur de 46 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
318/1993.34921

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Full article and photos: http://www.mcq.org/audubon/catalogue/audubon_001.html

Adolf Hitler alive: weird conspiracy theories

The discovery that the skull believed to be Adolf Hitler’s was actually a woman’s has reignited conspiracy theories.

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Adolf Hitler: alive and well and living on the Moon?

Rumours of Hitler’s survival have been widespread for years, with some even claiming he is alive today.

While that is unlikely – the Nazi leader would celebrate his 121st birthday in April – the possibility that he made it out of the Berlin bunker has been seriously put forward on several occasions. Here are four of the strangest theories.

Hitler fled on a ‘ghost convoy’ to Argentina

Several prominent Nazis – including ‘architect of the Holocaust’ Adolf Eichmann and Dr Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’ – certainly did flee to Argentina.

And the arrival of two U-Boats in the South American country in the weeks after the war led to more speculation that Hitler joined his former underlings there. But Heinz Schäffer, one of the officers on the U-Boats, has alwas strenuously denied being part of a ‘ghost convoy’.

The two U-Boats, U-530 and U-977, surrendered at Mar del Plata in Argentina in July and August 1945 respectively.

Hitler ‘fled to Antarctica in a U-Boat’

Among the theories of Hitler’s whereabouts after the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945 was that he was smuggled out of Germany and onto a U-Boat.

From there, the story goes, the Nazi leader was taken to a secret military base in Antarctic. In the late 1950s British and American forces found the base and destroyed it with atomic weapons.

The theory falls down on three major points. One, there was never a German military presence in Antarctica, despite a pre-war mission there to see whether a whaling base would be feasible.

Two, while the two U-Boats mentioned above did arrive in Argentina after the war, they could not possibly have made it to Antarctica. The sea ice in the winter blocks all access to the land where any base would have been.

Three, while atomic bombs were detonated in the southern hemisphere in 1958, they were atmospheric tests, hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth. All three took place between 1400 and 2150 miles north of Antarctica.

Using secret rocket technology, Hitler fled to a Nazi base on the moon

The point when Hitler conspiracy theories lose touch with reality altogether. The Nazis’ development late in the war of high-technology weapons – including the V2, an early ballistic missile, and the Me 262 jet fighter – inspired some to believe that Germany had secretly won the space race.

It was also suggested that the Nazis had made contact with UFOs and that they had made it to the Moon as early as 1942. Furthermore, Russian and American astronauts actually made it there in the 1950s, and stayed at a Nazi lunar base.

For added measure, it is claimed that the Moon is perfectly habitable for humans, but that NASA claims it is barren and airless in order to stop Third World countries visiting it.

Hitler is alive and well and staying in San Diego

Well, not really. This one is a joke – but there is a structure, visible on Google Maps, that might make you think otherwise. A barracks building in the US Navy base in San Diego’s Coronado island, known as the ‘Seal’s Lair’, is very definitely in the shape of a swastika.

In 2007, the US Navy said it was going to redesign the 1960s-built edifice, spending around $600,000 (£375,000) to make it less master-racy. They admitted they noticed the shape when it was built, but didn’t think anyone would spot it from the ground.

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Full article and photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/6242144/Adolf-Hitler-alive-weird-conspiracy-theories.html

Adolf Hitler suicide story questioned after tests reveal skull is a woman’s

Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his Berlin bunker has been called into question after American researchers claimed that a bullet-punctured skull fragment long believed to belong to the Nazi dictator is, in fact, that of an unknown woman.

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The four-inch skull fragment has a hole where a bullet reportedly passed through Hitler’s left temple when he shot himself and is kept in Russia’s federal archives along with what are said to be his jawbones. Together, they are all that is left of Hitler’s body, the charred remains of which Soviet forces first recovered in 1945. For years, the Russians have held up the artefacts as proof that Soviet troops found Hitler’s body in the ruins of Berlin and that he died on April 30 when he shot himself just after taking cyanide.

But a History Channel documentary programme broadcast in the US called Hitler’s Escape claims the skull fragment belongs to a woman under 40 and not Hitler, who was 56 when he died. It quotes Nick Bellantoni, an archaeologist and bone specialist who took DNA samples from the skull in Moscow and had them tested at the University of Connecticut. He and his colleagues are sceptical that the skull fragment could belong to Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-time companion, since she is thought to have committed suicide by cyanide rather than with a gun.

The findings are likely to revive conspiracy theories suggesting that Hitler did not die in 1945 but survived and fled to South America or elsewhere. Proponents of that theory believe Soviet troops found only his body double.

However, the Russians have never held up the skull as exhibit one, always insisting that the jawbones — said to be in perfect condition – are confirmation. Soviet forces tracked down an assistant to Hitler’s dentist in 1945 who confirmed their authenticity. The contested skull fragment was found later, in 1946, when the Russians began an investigation after rumours that Hitler was still alive. It was found in the same hole outside Hitler’s bunker where his body was first found.

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Full article and photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6237028/Adolf-Hitler-suicide-story-questioned-after-tests-reveal-skull-is-a-womans.html

Italian coffee culture: a guide

If you don’t want to be taken for a tourist in Italy, you should drink coffee as and when the locals do.

espresso_1492101c

The idea of not drinking coffee is as foreign to Italians as the idea of having to explain its rituals.

I once met an Italian who didn’t drink coffee. He made light of the fact, but you could see that he was tired of having to explain his disability every time some new acquaintance uttered the standard Italian greeting: “Prendiamo un caffè?” (“Fancy a coffee?”). His breezy but faintly passive-aggressive manner concealed, I suspect, deep pools of self-doubt and underground lakes of wounded masculine pride. Vegetarians develop the same nonchalant yet haunted look when travelling in places like Mongolia, where meat comes with a side-dish of meat. But this Italian guy wasn’t a visitor, he was local. He was the Mongolian vegetarian.

Coffee is so much a part of Italian culture that the idea of not drinking it is as foreign as the idea of having to explain its rituals. These rituals are set in stone and not always easy for outsiders to understand.

In fact, as in any self-respecting cult, they are made deliberately hard to comprehend, so that the initiated can recognise each other over the bar counter without the need for a curious handshake (which would only lead to stubborn cappuccino stains).

Some might object that the Italian coffee cult is now a worldwide church with branches in London, Dubai and Bora Bora. But although the Arabica coffee blend is often perfect, the cups just the right size and shape, the machines as Made in Italy as they come, Italian coffee bars outside Italy almost always adapt to the host culture – just like the vast majority of Chinese restaurants outside China. If you take your cue from your local high street espresso purveyor, you risk straying from the True Path on arrival in Italy.

Here, then, for those who fancy going native in true Lorenzo of Arabica style, are the Ten Commandments of Il Culto del Caffè.

1. Thou shalt only drink cappuccino, caffé latte, latte macchiato or any milky form of coffee in the morning, and never after a meal. Italians cringe at the thought of all that hot milk hitting a full stomach. An American friend of mine who has lived in Rome for many years continues, knowingly, to break this rule. But she has learnt, at least, to apologise to the barman.

2. Thou shalt not muck around with coffee. Requesting a mint frappuccino in Italy is like asking for a single malt whisky and lemonade with a swizzle stick in a Glasgow pub. There are but one or two regional exceptions to this rule that have met with the blessing of the general coffee synod. In Naples, thou mayst order un caffè alla nocciola – a frothy espresso with hazelnut cream. In Milan thou can impress the locals by asking for un marocchino, a sort of upside-down cappuccino, served in a small glass which is first sprinkled with cocoa powder, then hit with a blob of frothed milk, then spiked with a shot of espresso.

3. Which reminds me, thou shalt not use the word espresso. This a technical term in Italian, not an everyday one. As espresso is the default setting and single the default dose, a single espresso is simply known as un caffè.

4. Thou can order un caffè doppio (a double espresso) if thou likest, but be aware that this is not an Italian habit. Italians do drink a lot of coffee, but they do so in small, steady doses.

5. Thou shalt head confidently for the bar, call out thine order even if the barista has his back to you, and pay afterwards at the till.

6. If it’s an airport or station bar or a tourist place where the barista screams “ticket” at thee, thou shalt, if thou can bear the ignominy, pay before thou consumest.

7. Thou shalt not sit down unless thou hast a very good reason. Coffee is a pleasurable drug, but a drug nevertheless, and should be downed in one, standing. Would thou sit down at a pavement table to take thy daily Viagra?

8. Thou shouldst expect thy coffee to arrive at a temperature at which it can be downed immediately as per the previous commandment. If thou preferest burning thy lips and tongue or blowing the froth off thy cappuccino in a vain attempt to cool it down thou shouldst ask for un caffè bollente.

9. Thou shall be allowed the following variations, and these only, from the Holy Trinity of caffè, cappuccino and caffé latte: caffè macchiato or latte macchiato – an espresso with a dash of milk or a hot milk with a dash of coffee (remember, mornings only); caffè corretto: the Italian builder’s early morning pick-me-up, an espresso “corrected” with a slug of brandy or grappa; and caffè freddo or cappuccino freddo (iced espresso or cappuccino) – but beware, this usually comes pre-sugared. Thou mayst also ask for un caffè lungo or un caffè ristretto if thou desirest more or less water in thine espresso.

10. Anything else you may have heard is heresy.

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Full article and photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/italy/6246202/Italian-coffee-culture-a-guide.html

Soothe your aching joints with a healthy dose of antioxidants

kiwi

Antioxidents such as Vitamin C can help soothe inflamed joints. Look for it in foods such as kiwi, mango, strawberries and broccoli.

If you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, you may have heard that avoiding certain foods, like eggplant and bell peppers, and taking antioxidant supplements can help relieve pain, stiffness and fatigue.

Or, you might be among the two-thirds of Canadians struggling with arthritis who think physical activity will harm your joints.

When it comes to managing the pain, advice about diet and exercise is plentiful. While some of it’s based on solid evidence, some lacks scientific backing.

One in every 100 Canadians has arthritis, a painful condition that attacks the joints and connective tissue. One of the most severe forms is rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a debilitating disease caused when the body’s immune system attacks its own joints, causing inflammation.

It most often diagnosed between the ages of 25 and 50, but the disease can strike people of all ages. Rheumatoid arthritis affects joints in the wrist, fingers, elbows, shoulders, neck, jaw, feet, ankles, knees and hips.

Since it triggers an autoimmune response, RA affects the whole body. Often joint pain is accompanied by fatigue, flu-like aches and pains, and weakness.

While medications are used to treat pain and swelling, many people often turn to natural remedies to help manage the disease. One widespread belief is that nightshade vegetables – potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and tomatoes – can aggravate symptoms. However, not one study has proven this link.

It is known that a small percentage of people with RA have food allergies that worsen joint pain and stiffness. Removing allergy-causing foods such as wheat, corn, milk, pork and oranges has been shown to improve symptoms in some allergic people.

Another misconception is that exercise causes further joint damage. Yet including daily exercise that’s appropriate for people with arthritis can help reduce joint pain and fatigue, strengthen muscles that support joints and improve joint mobility.

Studies do suggest that certain diets, foods and supplements may help ease RA symptoms and offset the side effects of certain medications. Before you adopt any of these strategies, check in with your health-care provider.

Mediterranean diet

Adopting a Mediterranean-style diet –rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil and containing little red meat – may help manage RA symptoms. Researchers have found that arthritis patients taking conventional medication who followed a Mediterranean diet had fewer inflamed joints and improved physical functioning than those assigned to a typical Western diet.

The hallmark foods of a Mediterranean diet provide monounsaturated fat, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals thought to reduce inflammation in the body.

Vegetarian diet

A number of studies have demonstrated that a strict vegetarian diet can bring about long-term improvements in RA symptoms. Diets plentiful in plant foods are believed to reduce inflammation and promote the growth of friendly bacteria in the gut that boost the immune system.

Other research has demonstrated the benefits of a vegetarian diet that eliminates gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.

If you’re considering the vegetarian route, consult with a registered dietitian to ensure your diet provides all the nutrients you need.

Antioxidant-rich foods

Inflammatory immune compounds generate free radicals, compounds thought to cause tissue damage in people with rheumatoid arthritis. When scientists have examined the blood and joint fluid of arthritis suffers, they’ve found increased free radical activity and lower levels of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, beta carotene and selenium.

Foods, not supplements, are your best source of antioxidants. A 2007 review of 20 studies found no convincing evidence that antioxidant supplements, alone or in combination, were effective in treating rheumatoid arthritis.

The best food sources of vitamin C are citrus fruit, cantaloupe, kiwi, mango, strawberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and red pepper. Vitamin E-rich foods include wheat germ, nuts, seeds, whole grains and kale.

To increase your intake of beta-carotene include dark green and orange produce in your daily diet such as carrots, sweet potato, winter squash, kale, spinach, apricots, peaches, mango and papaya.

Selenium is found in seafood, chicken, whole grains, nuts, onions, garlic and mushrooms.

Calcium and vitamin D

Corticosteroid drugs such as prednisone can thin bones and long-term use can lead to osteoporosis. If you’re taking such a medication, it’s critical that you consume 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams of calcium and 1,000 IU (international units) of vitamin D a day to preserve bone health.

Vitamin D also helps regulate the body’s immune system. Low blood levels of vitamin D have been associated with rheumatoid arthritis disease activity, which is more severe in the winter months when a lack of sunshine prevents vitamin D synthesis in the skin. (A greater intake of vitamin D is also linked with a lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.)

Fish oil

Research suggests that taking fish-oil capsules, alone or in combination with arthritis medications, reduces the number of tender joints and morning stiffness, improves walking distance and reduces pain.

Fish oil contains EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids that hinder the body’s production of inflammatory immune compounds. Most studies have used a large dose of fish oil that provides 3.8 grams EPA and 2 grams DHA per day, an amount that’s easier to get from a liquid fish-oil supplement than a capsule. (One fish-oil capsule contains much less DHA and EPA than one teaspoon of liquid fish oil.) It may takes a few months to notice a decrease in symptoms. Avoid fish-liver-oil supplements as most are concentrated in vitamin A, which, if consumed for an extended period of time, can decrease bone density.

Eating fish may help prevent RA. An American study found that women who ate at least two weekly servings of baked or broiled fish were almost half as likely to have the disease as women who ate fish less than once per week.

For more information on rheumatoid arthritis, visit http://www.arthritis.ca, the website of The Arthritis Society.

Leslie Beck, Globe and Mail

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Full article and photo: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health/soothe-your-aching-joints-with-a-healthy-dose-of-antioxidants/article1306051/

Roman Polanski faces months behind bars as extradition battle unfolds

The director is fighting his forced return to the U.S. to face punishment for a 30-year-old sex conviction. It is rare for Switzerland to release nonresidents held in such cases.

chalet

The chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, where director Roman Polanski lived part of the year. He was arrested at the Zurich Film Festival over the weekend and faces extradition to the U.S. for having sex with a minor 30 years ago.

Gone are the red carpet and the luxury accommodations, at least for a while. Film director Roman Polanski will probably remain in prison for several months as he fights deportation to the U.S. in a 3-decade-old sexual assault case.

His Swiss attorney, one of the country’s top criminal lawyers, filed a request in court Tuesday that Polanski be set free while his extradition case winds its way through the judicial system.

But such releases are rare for nonresidents in Switzerland, who are generally deemed to be flight risks. And given the lengthy extradition and appeals process, Polanski faces jail time far in excess of the 42 days he spent behind bars in Los Angeles back when the charges against him arose.

“We are talking about three, four months easily,” said Peter Cosandey, a former prosecutor here with extensive experience in extradition cases. “If he’s not released on bail as requested by his lawyers, then he has to remain in prison.”

Exactly where Polanski is being held has been kept secret for security reasons, which is normal procedure in Switzerland. Diplomats at the Polish Embassy, who met with Polanski on Monday, declined to disclose his location “to not make it easier for paparazzi to find him,” Consul Marek Wieruszewski said in a telephone interview from Bern, the Swiss capital.

Polanski has both Polish and French citizenship. French diplomats have also been in contact with the director.

He is entitled to unlimited access to his high-profile Swiss lawyer, Lorenz Erni, and to consular officials. But beyond that Polanski is living the life of any other jailed suspect, confined to a single cell that he most likely has to himself and allowed an hour of outdoor exercise a day.

“He stressed that he’s being treated very well . . . with respect and even some sympathy to his situation,” Wieruszewski said. “Conditions are good.”

Polanski’s arrest Saturday night, while in Zurich to receive a lifetime achievement award at a film festival, has inspired impassioned debate across Europe and in North America.

Artists and members of the film world on both sides of the Atlantic have rallied behind him, demanding his release, as have government officials in France and Poland. A letter from the Polish and French foreign ministers to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking her to intervene in the matter was due to be delivered in Washington on Tuesday.

But public reaction has been mixed, with many Europeans aghast at support for a fugitive who fled the U.S. in 1978 in the face of charges that he plied a 13-year-old girl with alcohol and drugs and then had sex with her. The director pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with the girl, but left the country before sentencing.

The U.S. has 40 days from the arrest to lodge a formal extradition request, a period that can be extended to 60 days if necessary. The Swiss Justice Ministry then has a week or two to examine the request. If authorities accept the request, Polanski can file a formal appeal in federal court, which would take another few weeks.

Convincing authorities that he ought to be released on bail in the interim would be tough.

“If he lived here in Zurich, worked here in Zurich, had his family here in Zurich, we could say OK, his center of life is in Switzerland, so there’s low probability that he will escape,” Cosandey said. As that’s not the case for Polanski, “the court will say that the danger of escaping is too high.”

The director does own a residence in the Swiss resort town of Gstaad, and his attorney in France, Herve Temime, raised the possibility that Polanski could be confined there instead of in prison.

“He has a chalet in Switzerland. He would naturally accept to be placed under house arrest,” Temime told reporters in Paris.

Erni, Polanski’s Swiss lawyer, did not return calls seeking comment.

Once an extradition request from the U.S. is submitted, Swiss authorities have little room to maneuver in ruling on it, Cosandey said. Under the extradition treaty, the hearing is largely an administrative matter, and as long as proper procedures are followed and administrative criteria satisfied, Switzerland has little choice but to grant the request.

The question of why Polanski was arrested now continued to puzzle many in Europe, because the director has gone in and out of Switzerland for years.

Guido Balmer, a Justice Ministry spokesman, dismissed speculation that Switzerland was trying to improve ties with the U.S. after a rocky period in the bilateral relationship. “There is no link to any other issue,” he said. “It’s a police matter, so there is no place for any politics.”

Media here have speculated that Swiss authorities approached the U.S. first with information that Polanski would be attending the film festival in Zurich.

Balmer said such a scenario was possible, but would be perfectly within the realm of usual cooperation between U.S. and Swiss law enforcement. He added that Polanski’s intention to come to Zurich was well publicized beforehand.

At Polanski’s meeting with Polish diplomats Monday, “he looked normal,” Wieruszewski said. The director also received a visit from his wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner.

Wieruszewski said he was working with Swiss authorities to try to establish a way for Polanski to communicate with the outside — for example, to contact the embassy if he wishes. As the defendant in an ongoing case, Polanski’s communications are restricted.

“I’m trying to explain that, in his case, the investigation was 30 years ago,” Wieruszewski said. “It doesn’t make sense. Not to give him a computer or the Internet, [but] let him communicate with his lawyer, his family or with the embassy.”
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Full article and photo: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-polanski-swiss30-2009sep30,0,4988989.story

Iran ‘has secret nuclear arms plan’

Britain’s intelligence services say that Iran has been secretly designing a nuclear warhead “since late 2004 or early 2005”, an assessment that suggests Tehran has embarked on the final steps towards acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

As world powers prepare to confront Iran on Thursday on its nuclear ambitions, the Financial Times has learnt that the UK now judges that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, ordered the resumption of the country’s weapons programme four years ago.

Iran is already under pressure after the revelation last week that it has been building an undeclared site to enrich uranium.

The UK’s assessment of Iran’s clandestine weapons programme will now add to concerns over Tehran’s capability, suggesting it could be making faster-than-expected progress on its nuclear project.

By contrast, US intelligence services remain firm in their conclusion that while Iran may ultimately want a bomb, the country halted weapons design work in 2003 and probably has not restarted that effort as of 2007.

The US published this judgment in a National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 amid claims that the CIA was scarred by its errors over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme.

Britain has always privately expressed scepticism about the US assessment on Iran but is only now firmly asserting that the weapons programme restarted in 2004-05.

Iran’s chief nuclear official on Tuesday ruled out any discussions in Thursday’s talks with world powers over the country’s nuclear programme.

The comments by Ali-Akbar Salehi add to the pessimism that the talks in Geneva with the US, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China will bear any fruit and will further fuel international suspicions about the link between Iran’s nuclear and missile plans.

“We will never bargain about our sovereign rights,” Mr Salehi said. “If we have the right to enrich uranium … convert uranium … have fuel fabrication … design reactors and manufacture reactors, we will do them and will not freeze them.”

He said Iran was committed to the “integrity” of the non-proliferation treaty and would not accept the six big powers’ “freeze-for-freeze” proposal, by which Iran should suspend all nuclear-related activities in return for a halt in international punitive measures. “They say the only guarantee you can give us is to stop all kinds of nuclear technologies and activities, but this is absolutely … nonsense,” Mr Salehi said.

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Full article: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/837f30a0-ad30-11de-9caf-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1

UN ‘to remove Afghanistan envoy’

Peter Galbraith
Mr Galbraith had been critical of the Afghan election commission

A senior UN official in Afghanistan is to be removed from his post following a row about the country’s presidential election, the BBC has learned.

UN officials said Peter Galbraith had not been fired but would be removed from the mission.

Mr Galbraith, a US diplomat, said: “The secretary general appointed me and has not fired me so far as I know.”

Mr Galbraith angered Afghan President Hamid Karzai by reportedly calling for a complete recount of the vote.

Last week the top UN Afghan envoy, Kai Eide, said Mr Galbraith had left the country after a row between them.

But he denied he had ordered him to go.

PETER GALBRAITH: KEY DATES
1979-1993: Senior adviser to US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
1993-1998: First US Ambassador to Croatia, and co-author of Erdut Agreement that ended the war in Croatia
2000-2001: Director of Political, Constitutional and Electoral Affairs for the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor
2003: Resigns from the US government to write The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End

UN sources say Secretary General Ban Ki-moon decided to end Mr Galbraith’s mission after it became clear he was no longer able to carry out his work in Afghanistan, says the BBC’s Lyse Doucet.

Some Afghan cabinet ministers had said they no longer wanted to work with him.

It is understood that Mr Galbraith would have been kept in his post until after a final ruling on the disputed presidential election – a process that is in its final stages – but leaks emerged in Kabul before Mr Galbraith himself had been informed of the secretary general’s decision, said Ms Doucet.

A UN spokesman in Kabul told the BBC: “We are aware of the reports. An announcement of this nature would come from the UN secretary general’s office in New York. At this stage there has been no announcement”.

‘Valuable deputy’

Last week, Mr Eide told the BBC the dispute had been resolved by Mr Galbraith agreeing to leave the country for a while.

He described Mr Galbraith as “a valuable deputy” and said he hoped they could “re-establish a good team and work together”.

Mr Eide declined to talk about details of his disagreement with Mr Galbraith, but said the UN should respect the constitutional bodies in charge of the presidential election “to avoid any impression that there is foreign interference”.

AFGHAN POLL FRAUD
15 Sep:Election Complaints Commission +chief says 10% of votes need to be recounted
8 Sep: Poll complaints body orders some recounts nationwide
8 Sep: IEC says votes from 600 polling stations “quarantined”
3 Sep: Claims 30,000 fraudulent votes cast for Karzai in Kandahar
30 Aug: 2,000 fraud allegations are probed; 600 deemed serious
20 Aug: Election day and claims 80,000 ballots were filled out fraudulently for Karzai in Ghazni
18 Aug: Ballot cards sold openly and voter bribes offered

The row is between two men who have known each other for a long time but have very different styles, but a UN source said that had not been the only factor in Mr Galbraith’s removal, Lyse Doucet says.

It is understood that Mr Ban would not have dismissed Mr Galbraith – who came to the post with US support – without backing from the Washington, she adds.

The US, along with other foreign missions in Afghanistan, appears to want to move on from the election dispute to deal with the country’s other considerable problems, she says, but this will anger observers who believe a more robust response is needed to the allegations.

EU election observers have said that about 1.5m votes – about a quarter of all ballots – cast in August’s presidential vote could be fraudulent.

They say that 1.1 million votes cast for President Karzai are suspicious.

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8281934.stm

$100bn a year for climate safety

Dead cow in Kenyan drought
African countries are likely to need help in adapting to drier conditions

Adapting to impacts of climate change will cost $75-100bn (£47-63bn) per year in the developing world from 2010, a World Bank study concludes.

The bank released preliminary findings from its new global study at the latest round of UN climate talks in Bangkok.

The figures assume that temperatures rise by 2C (3.6F) in the next 40 years.

How to finance adaptation, and how much money will be available, is a major theme in the talks that are supposed to produce a new global treaty this year.

The major costs would come from improving coastal protection and protecting transport links, the bank says.

The figures are more precise than previous estimates by UN agencies and development charities.

“One of the ways our analysis differs is that it’s the first to establish a baseline that includes economic growth,” Warren Evans, director of the bank’s environment department, told BBC News.

“Most of the previous studies assumed that Bangladesh in 2050, for example, would be the same as it is today, and obviously it’s not going to be like that – hopefully there’ll be less poverty and more growth and so on – and that has major impacts on the costs of adaptation.”

The bank found that costs would differ according to rainfall in a world that has warmed 2C from pre-industrial times, with wetter conditions implying a higher overall pricetag.

Development goals

Developing countries say that as western nations grew prosperous largely through burning fossil fuels, they have a duty to finance protection around the world.

The principle is accepted by some developed countries, and a number of proposals are on the table.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed setting up a $100bn fund for adaptation money, and last month the European Commission published suggestions on how the burden might be shared between funding nations, and between the public and private sectors.

Rice stall
The costs of staple foods such as rice are projected to rise

But consensus has yet to be reached between governments trying to negotiate the new UN climate treaty.

The World Bank notes that the $75-100bn sum is roughly equivalent to existing levels of overseas aid.

“This study makes plain that taking action in favour of adaptation now can result in future savings and reduce unacceptable risks,” said Bert Koenders, the Dutch Minister for Development Co-operation.

“For poor countries, [the costs] are unacceptably high. International public financial support for adaptation in the poorest developing countries should be new and additional, so as not to jeopardise the Millennium Development Goals.”

The Dutch government is co-funding the World Bank study, along with Switzerland and the UK.

Left out

One analysis that departed dramatically from the $100bn per year ballpark emerged last month from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the Grantham Institute.

It suggested the true costs would be double or even treble that amount.

It cited examples such as a Chinese study showing that the cost of adapting a single watershed would come in at $1bn per year.

Professor Martin Parry, who led the IIED report, said the World Bank appeared to have omitted some significant elements from its analysis.

“The biggest of these is the cost of adapting ecosystems, which could cost as much again, even if it were possible,” he said.

“And then there are other sectors that are not included, such as manufacturing, mining, energy and tourism, each of which would have an adaptation cost.”

The overall cost would also be higher if temperatures rose by more than 2C.

Earlier this week, a new UK projection suggested that if the world’s energy use continued along its current trajectory, a rise of 4C was likely by 2070.

The World Bank will release further details before December’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen, with the full report due out in March.

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Full article and photos: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8282308.stm

Israel to free 20 for Shalit film

Gilad Shalit in Israeli army uniform before his capture
Shalit has not been seen since his capture in 2006 in a cross-border raid

Israel has said it will release 20 Palestinian women from detention in return for proof that captured soldier Gilad Shalit is still alive.

A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it was waiting to receive video taken recently by his militant captors in Gaza.

Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinians, including dozens of women.

Gilad Shalit has not been seen since his capture by Hamas militants in a raid on an Israeli border base in 2006.

The Israeli statement said the deal had been proposed by international mediators as a “confidence-building measure”.

Sources close to the negotiations said the exchange was scheduled to take place on Friday, after a list of the women had been circulated to allow any legal objections to be lodged.

Mediation ‘success’

The Hamas group is demanding the release hundreds of prisoners, many serving lengthy sentences for carrying out militant attacks, in exchange for the soldier.

A spokesman for the Hamas armed wing told a news conference in Gaza that 19 of the women to be released were from the West Bank and the 20th, from Gaza, would be released along with a child she had had in prison.

“This is a success for the Egyptian and German mediators,” said the spokesman, known as Abu Ubeida.

He said four of the women were members of Hamas, while five were from the rival Fatah movement, three were members of Islamic Jihad and the others were from other Palestinian groups.

Mr Shalit’s captors have released three letters from him and an audio message in the last three years, but he has been denied access to international humanitarian officials despite repeated requests.

The last letter was dated 2008 and the audio tape was released in June 2007.

A senior Israeli source told the BBC: “The negotiations are expected to be long and difficult. We will continue to take firm steps to bring Gilad home safe and sound as soon as possible.”

Mr Netanyahu was quoted by his office as saying: “It is important that the entire world know that Gilad Shalit is alive and well and that Hamas is responsible for his health and state.”

The BBC’s Katya Adler in Jerusalem says this is the latest in a series of on-again, off-again negotiations.

The case of Gilad Shalit, 23, constantly makes headline news in Israel where the public is hungry for any information about him.

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8282421.stm

Peering into the future

Building a bionic eye

A contact lens that could put names to faces and guide soldiers in combat

SINCE the late 19th century, people with imperfect vision have been able to use contact lenses to improve their eyesight. In the early days these lenses were made of glass and could perform only simple visual corrections. Now they are usually made of plastic and can be moulded into the more complex shapes appropriate to those who suffer from astigmatism or who require bifocals. They can also be tinted, for people who wish to change the colour of their eyes. Yet the main purpose of even the most sophisticated contact lens remains what it always has been: to improve a person’s sight. That is about to change.

Researchers at the University of Washington, in Seattle, led by Babak Parviz, have incorporated electronic circuitry into a plastic lens, including light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for “on-eye” displays, transistors for computing, a radio for wireless communication and an antenna for collecting power from a radio source, such as a mobile phone, in a person’s pocket.

Making a “smart” lens like this is not easy. Electronic components are usually manufactured at temperatures which would melt plastic and are made of materials that do not naturally adhere to a contact lens’s plastic. Dr Parviz and his colleagues have therefore designed a lens that is peppered with small wells, ten microns deep, that are connected by a network of tiny metal wires. Each well is sculpted so that a component of a particular shape will fit snugly into it and, at its bottom, it contains a small amount of an alloy with a low melting-point. In addition, wells that will accommodate LEDs must be fitted with microlenses to focus the light from the LED in a way that the eye can cope with.

The components are manufactured individually and suspended in a liquid. This suspension is then washed over the lens, allowing the components to blunder into holes of the appropriate shape, where they stay put. The alloy is then gently heated, melting the alloy and connecting the components to the wires and thus to one another.

The researchers say that the resulting circuitry requires so little power that it does not produce enough heat to cause discomfort. And although Dr Parviz has not, himself, worn the lens, he has tested it on rabbits—and the animals do not seem to find it uncomfortable.

So far, the prototype’s display is rudimentary (in truth, it consists of but a single LED). However, Dr Parviz and his colleagues are working on a lens that can accommodate an eight-by-eight array of LEDs. They are also exploring a design which produces images using tiny shutters, in the manner of a liquid-crystal display.

As well as an LED, the prototype contains a small radio chip and antenna so that it can be powered without wires. The researchers will discuss the performance of their wireless-power system, which taps into the mobile-phone frequencies in the range 900-megahertz to 6-gigahertz range and draws about 100 microwatts of power, at a conference in Beijing in November.

What the display will show, of course, is up to the imagination—the name, perhaps, of someone the wearer has met but does not recall, or the street directions in an unfamiliar city. Or, perhaps, the quickest route to a target that needs destroying. For this sort of technology surely has military applications as well.

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Full article: http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/tm/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14538587&source=hptextfeature

If Skype should fall

There are now plenty of able-bodied alternatives

SEVERAL years ago, your correspondent found his telephone bill was getting out of hand and vowed to halve it. The obvious answer was to sign up for a free Skype account—and get the benefit of computer-to-computer phone calls around the world for nothing plus calls to conventional landline phones for little more than two cents a minute.

At the time, he was paying his landline carrier (Verizon) five cents a minute for local calls, 11 cents for cross-country calls and an average of 16 cents a minute for international calls. Overseas calls accounted for half his monthly bill.

Before deciding to hang up his landline, he looked at a number of alternatives to Skype—including Gizmo Project (now called Gizmo5), SightSpeed, GrandCentral, TalkPlus, iSkoot, Mobivox, ooVoo, Jajah, Jangl and others with even sillier names. At the time, none came close to challenging Skype in terms of features, convenience and popularity.

One special attraction for a roving correspondent was Skype’s videoconferencing facility, which was simplicity itself to use. Also, with almost 200m users (now 480m) signed up for the service, there was a fair chance that many colleagues and acquaintances would already have Skype accounts and be readily accessible. The clincher was that Skype also ran on dozens of mobile phones, portable game consoles and other internet appliances. Today, that includes Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch.

That was not to say Skype was without its problems. The lack of adequate security had been a concern since the day it was launched in 2003. Enthusiasts are quick to point out that Skype has some of the best encryption technology around for preventing eavesdroppers from listening into conversations. That is true. But Skype’s ability to evade wiretapping is of little concern for most users. For business users especially, the main concern is that Skype provides an ideal vehicle for delivering malware into the inner sanctum of an organisation, as well as for sneaking corporate secrets out.

Remember, Skype was designed by the same Estonian whizz-kids who created the all but unblockable KazAa file-sharing network that rocked the music industry a decade ago and provided the same proprietary “peer-to-peer” architecture capable of tunnelling through firewalls. With traffic forwarded from one computer to another via an inner circle of some 20,000 super-nodes, Skype has no central servers directing the traffic flow, logging the calls and preventing viruses, Trojan horses and spyware from piggybacking on the flow of encrypted data. That can be a serious concern for small firms and home users who lack the professional means to protect themselves.

Another worry has been the way anyone can join Skype’s network without proof of identity. In fact, users can set up numerous accounts under different fictitious names and go wholly unchallenged. That makes it a jungle where antisocial behaviour is common.

Despite such reservations, your correspondent has found Skype a handy way of staying in touch with friends and family, and having business meetings. Over the past few years it has saved him literally thousands of dollars in travel costs alone. He has had countless video conferences using his office PC or laptop while on the road. He also carries a slick little Belkin handset that can make Skype calls over Wi-Fi networks without the need for a computer. With free Wi-Fi hotspots in public places throughout California, the Skype phone gets more use than its owner’s mobile.

But now, suddenly, storm clouds are gathering over Skype. In a flurry of lawsuits, the investment group that recently agreed to acquire 65% of Skype from eBay for $1.9 billion is being sued by the original founders, Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom, who sold the company to eBay for $2.6 billion in 2005.

Back then, eBay was granted a licence to use the founders’ proprietary peer-to-peer software—but not the right to open it up for developers to tinker with. Among other things, eBay and Skype’s new would-be owners are being sued for breach of this licensing agreement, copyright infringement and theft of trade secrets. Meanwhile, their licence to use the so-called Global Index Software has been terminated by Joltid, the Stockholm firm the founders set up to license their proprietary software.

Whatever the motives behind these messy legal wranglings, the threat to Skype’s future is real enough to cause concern among those who use it. It was bad enough two years ago when Skype fell silent for 36 hours after the mass downloading of a Microsoft “Patch Tuesday” release, which unexpectedly brought the peer-to-peer network to its knees. The scurry by worried Skype users to get a backup plan in place crippled a number of other internet telephony services as traffic to them suddenly rocketed.

As a precaution, your correspondent has been taking a fresh look at some of the alternatives he dismissed last time round. He has opened accounts with a couple of the more desirable ones in case they are overwhelmed by another sudden rush to sign up if Skype goes offline again. Most of the alternatives are now far more competitive than they were three years ago. A few are every bit as good as (or even better than) the latest version of Skype, though none has anything like the mass appeal.

For Macintosh users, iChat is everything you would expect of Apple—slick, simple and with stunning graphics. Its voice quality is even better than Skype’s. The video chat feature lets you set up multi-person conferences on the fly. And it is less of a bandwidth hog than Skype. All you need is an internet connection and a video camera, plus an account with one of the more popular instant-messaging services, such as AIM, Google Talk, Jabber or MobileMe—and, of course, a Macintosh computer running Mac OS X.

The choice for Windows users is wider, though few of the products are as polished as iChat. SightSpeed comes close. It is delightfully simple to set up and use, and provides excellent 30 frames-a-second video with crisp audio and little delay. You can also send video e-mail and text chat with its built in instant-messaging service. And it works on Macs as well as PCs.

One drawback: the SightSpeed software (called Logitech Vid) is free only to those using a video camera made by Logitech; otherwise, all you get is a 30-day free trial. If you are planning to buy a stand-alone video camera for your computer, the SightSpeed service is reason enough to chose a Logitech device. Those with laptops that have a video camera already built in are better off looking elsewhere.

If making “SkypeOut” calls to landline and mobile phones—as well as making free voice and video calls from computer to computer—is important to you, then look no further than Gizmo5. This is identical to Skype in most respects save one: it uses open standards for managing calls, though its compression algorithms and client software are as proprietary as Skype’s. However, by embracing the popular internet-signalling standard called Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Gizmo5’s free software can work seamlessly with other SIP-based networks, including the phone companies’.

Depending on the carrier and the handset used, that can mean free—or, at least, much cheaper—calls to landline and mobile phones, as well as free voice and video calls between computers. For many, that is enough to make Gizmo5 an even better deal than Skype. Should Skype go silent (or even if it does not), Gizmo5 could well pick up much of the running.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14530209&source=most_recommended

The speechwriter’s revenge

A new exposé of George Bush’s White House raises howls and cheers

IF P.G. WODEHOUSE had gone to Washington, DC, and worked for George Bush, “this is the book he would have written,” declares the dust-jacket of “Speech-less”. And it is true that the book’s author, a former speechwriter called Matt Latimer, writes well and is sometimes amusing too. But whereas Wodehouse’s wit was gentle and warm, Mr Latimer empties buckets of bile on almost everyone he has ever met or worked with.

Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s strategist, is a “villain. And…a clumsy one at that.” Ed Gillespie, another close aide, was “a speechwriter’s worst kind of boss: a lacklustre writer who thought he was a good one.” The White House was “infatuated with decisiveness, dismissive of deliberation”. It was full of idiots who thought it might be a good idea to liken Mr Bush to Thomas Jefferson. Mr Latimer settles scores with people no one has heard of, such as the allegedly slothful press office at the Pentagon.

No one cares about Mr Latimer’s grudges, but many are intrigued by the rude things he says he heard the president say. Mr Bush apparently said that Barack Obama was unqualified and “has no clue”. Of Joe Biden, he said: “If bullshit was currency, [he] would be a billionaire.” Staff at the White House hated John McCain, writes Mr Latimer, but were euphoric when he picked Sarah Palin as his running-mate. Not Mr Bush, however. “This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. “She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.”

Mr Latimer grew up in Flint, Michigan, a town so depressed he was once arrested because the police thought a well-dressed white boy could only be there to buy drugs. He started loving Ronald Reagan around the time he started shaving. He came to Washington young and idealistic, and worked for a congressman, three senators and Donald Rumsfeld. He still admires Mr Rumsfeld and two of the senators, but despairs of nearly everyone else. He joined the White House for Mr Bush’s last couple of years, but soon found that the president was not the conservative hero of his dreams. Instead of pushing for the overthrow of tyranny everywhere, as he had once promised, he was now reluctant to demand the release of an Egyptian political prisoner in case he upset President Hosni Mubarak. He was making overtures to Iran, though he had previously said this was like talking to terrorists. And when the financial crisis struck, neither Mr Bush nor anyone around him seemed to have a clue what to do. They ended up spending lots of money.

A less naive observer might note that, by the time Mr Latimer showed up, Mr Bush did not exactly have a free hand. Democrats controlled Congress. Iraq was slipping into chaos, the army was overstretched and the Treasury was bleeding red ink. It was probably not the best time to pick a fight with Egypt, whose government, though authoritarian, was at least somewhat friendly. Many people think Mr Bush performed better in his final years than in his earlier ones. His surge averted disaster in Iraq. And although his team’s initial response to the financial crisis was confused, at least total meltdown was avoided. In this area, Mr Obama carried on where Mr Bush left off.

Mr Latimer’s account is furiously disputed. Dana Perino, Mr Bush’s former press secretary, says his quotes “don’t ring true”. William McGurn, his chief speechwriter, speculates that Mr Latimer is angry because he lost his office in the West Wing to someone more important. Memoirs by aggrieved underlings should always be taken with a grain of salt. That said, people tend to believe what they want to believe, and Mr Latimer’s book has helped two pre-existing delusions to become stronger.

The first, which is popular among some Republicans, is that Mr Bush was unpopular because he was not conservative enough. Mr Latimer has proved that Mr Bush was not, in fact, a true conservative, argues Jed Babbin, the editor of Human Events, a socially conservative magazine. And this means the conservative movement need no longer be tarred by association with him, apparently. “It lifts the burden of George W. Bush from our shoulders,” exults Mr Babbin, clearing the way for a new Reagan, a genuine one this time, to lead Republicans back to victory.

The danger of delusion

The second delusion, popular among Democrats, is that Mr Bush will help them win elections indefinitely. It worked in 2006 and 2008, so why not in 2010? Some Democratic strategists think the surest way to keep control of Congress next year is to link every Republican to Mr Bush.

The problem with both these ideas is that they look backwards. Republicans will not tempt tomorrow’s voters if they merely offer a reheated version of what they were selling in 1980. They will not win swing voters if they value doctrinal purity above all else. And they will not be able to govern if they treat all compromise as betrayal. Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to Reagan, says the Republican Party has been taken over by “anti-tax fanatics” so extreme that he is not sure they wouldn’t rather default on the national debt than raise taxes. That may be an exaggeration, but it is hard to spot much seriousness in either party about getting the nation’s finances in order.

As for the Democrats, they need to realise that no matter how many Bush-baiting books are sold in Washington, DC, the rest of the country is moving on. Mr Obama is the president. His party dominates both chambers up on Capitol Hill. Come election time next November, if unemployment is still high, or Afghanistan has turned into a fiasco, or if health-care reform unravels, or if there is another terrorist attack, Americans will blame the people in power, not the retired guy in Crawford.

Lexington, The Economist

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14505481&source=most_recommended

Artificial success

The fad for functional foods

The popularity of “natural” food spawns an unnatural response

 It’s practically spinach

OVER the past decade, the biggest trend in food marketing has been the shift towards organic, “natural” and even “whole” foods. Consumers in wealthier markets worldwide have demanded foods with minimal processing, in a state as close as possible to their natural one, in the fervent (and often mistaken) belief that such food is healthier for their bodies and for the planet.

Ironically, this success is now prompting multinational food giants to accelerate investments in “functional” foods that are intentionally modified to make them healthier or more nutritious.

Consumers are swallowing such products, and the marketing claims that come with them, enthusiastically. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consultancy, expects the global market for functional foods to mushroom from $78 billion in 2007 to $128 billion in 2013. One example of this approach is the enrichment of eggs with omega-3 fatty acids to combat hypertension. Another is the addition of chemicals called sterols to margarines to impede the absorption of cholesterol. The best example is the recent boom in bacteria-enriched yogurts, such as Danone’s blockbuster brand Activia, which are supposed to fight “bloating” (code for constipation).

Functional foods are nothing new, observes Bernard Hours of Danone. He says that his firm, a French dairy giant, was selling yogurt in pharmacies in Barcelona as long ago as 1919. Public-health campaigners have long added vitamin B to flour to fight pellagra and vitamin D to milk to defeat rickets. Adding iodine to salt has also helped in the battle against goitre.

The modern craze for functional foods began much more recently—and it started in Asia, not Europe. Long before Activia came Yakult, a bioactive yogurt-like drink from Japan that is now available worldwide. Encouraged by a government keen to improve public health, Japanese manufacturers have long tinkered with packaged foods to allow them to make health claims. On average, the Japanese spend twice as much per person on functional foods as Americans and nearly three times as much as Europeans. When Coca-Cola wanted to experiment with a supposedly healthy green-tea-flavoured drink, it targeted young Japanese women first.

The trend is now spreading most rapidly in America. Firms selling everything from energy drinks to breakfast foods to artificial sweeteners (Splenda now comes with added fibre) are rushing to add miracle ingredients to their wares in the hope that the supposed benefits will entice customers. A number of rival food giants have even banded together into a coalition (dubbed “Smart Choices”) to agree on common labelling standards for functional foods.

All this sounds impressive, but there are two factors that could yet trip things up: consumer scepticism and regulatory disapproval. There is reason to think that punters are growing wary of the notion that they can eat their way to fighting fitness. Earlier this year, Coca-Cola was sued by a consumer group over health claims made for its Vitamin Water brand. Danone also faced a similar class-action lawsuit over its yogurts. On September 18th the firm settled that case, admitting no wrongdoing but agreeing to set up a $35m fund to reimburse unhappy yogurt-eaters.

The over-exuberance of some marketers has also irked regulators. When Cheerios, a popular cereal brand owned by General Mills, tried earlier this year to claim on its box that it was “clinically proven to reduce cholesterol”, America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided that it had gone too far. More recently, the decision by the Smart Choices coalition to endorse sugary cereals such as Froot Loops has attracted criticism. On September 21st an American Congresswoman, Rosa DeLauro, sent an angry letter to the FDA demanding an investigation to see whether unhealthy products were being “misbranded”. If the only real function behind such labels is to bolster profits, consumers and regulators will eventually see through the hype.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/businessfinance/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14520480&source=hptextfeature

A catastrophe is looming

East Africa’s drought

Governments are at their wits’ end to keep their hungry people alive

THIS year’s drought is the worst in east Africa since 2000, and possibly since 1991. Famine stalks the land. The failure of rains in parts of Ethiopia may increase the number needing food handouts by 5m, in addition to the 8m already getting them, in a population of 80m. The production of Kenyan maize, the country’s staple, is likely to drop by one-third, hitting poor farmers’ families hardest. The International Committee of the Red Cross says famine in Somalia is going to be worse than ever. Handouts are urgently needed by roughly 3.6m Somalis, nearly half the resident population (several million having already emigrated during years of strife). In fractious northern Uganda cereal output is likely to fall by half. Parts of South Sudan, Eritrea, the Central African Republic and Tanzania are suffering too. Rich countries are being less generous than usual. The UN’s World Food Programme says it has only $24m of the $300m it needs just to feed hungry Kenyans for the next six months.

In Mwingi district, in Kenya’s Kamba region, the crops have totally failed. Villagers are surviving on monthly government handouts of maize-meal, rice and a little cooking oil. Worse than the hunger, say local leaders, is the thirst. People are digging wells by hand, but they hit rock. They plead for the means to go deeper but they cannot afford the dynamite or machinery.

In the pastoral areas of northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and south Somalia the death of livestock on a massive scale has sharpened conflict. Oromo rebels in south and east Ethiopia and Somali secessionists in the east of the country are likely to fight more fiercely. The drought may strengthen the hand of the Islamist Shabab movement, linked to al-Qaeda, in south Somalia; it uses food aid to control the people. Recent cattle raids in northern Kenya have left scores dead, with unprecedented numbers of women and children among the victims. Fighting may intensify until the land becomes greener again.

When will that be? Meteorologists reckon the rains due in October and November will be heavier than usual. That would be good, if the east African authorities were prepared. But they are not. Mud slides and floods are likely, with streams and rivers carrying off the topsoil. Malaria and cholera may increase. Surviving cattle, weakened by drought, will drown or die of cold.

Even the cities—and their economies—will be sorely afflicted, since 95% of Ethiopia’s power and 70% of Kenya’s is hydroelectric. With rivers down to a trickle or drying up completely, dams are running out of water; some are empty. Turbines have shut down. Electricity throughout east Africa is patchier than usual, just when governments are trying to pep their economies up.

east africaThe delayed opening of a big Ethiopian dam capable of producing 300MW has resulted in daily blackouts in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. That, says the government, has reduced economic growth by two percentage points to 7%; others guess that growth has fallen to less than 5%. A British firm, Aggreko, has won a contract to set up electrical generators to supply 30MW to Ethiopia’s grid.

The same firm has also signed a deal with Kenya to double the power it temporarily supplies the country, to 290MW. Kenya has been rationing electricity. Most of its townspeople are without power for three days a week. Aggreko will keep more lights on but far more expensively. Small firms and poorer customers may be pushed into the dark.

The high price of food and water is making governments more disliked. The price of maize-meal has more than doubled since 2007. Jerry cans of water, which is often filthy, cost four times more than a year ago. With luck, governments may be forced to improve their management of water. Villagers may be persuaded to build terraces to stop topsoil running off. Dams need better maintenance and desilting. Officials should be shamed into stopping their friends from stealing or wasting water. As the cost of diesel power soars, schemes for renewable power and plans to link the region’s power grids may be speeded up. High prices have encouraged some industries to find their own solutions. An Indian cement firm, Sanghi, says it plans to run a new Kenyan cement factory on its own hydroelectric power.

Amid the gloom, a few companies and countries have benefited. Shares in the Kenya Power and Lighting Company have risen this year in expectation of more demand. The main Kenyan power supplier, KenGen, has sold bonds to finance a scheme to expand its output by 500MW. Malawi, which periodically suffered famine until a recent fertiliser-subsidy scheme came good, is to export maize to Kenya.

The drought cycle in east Africa has been contracting sharply. Rains used to fail every nine or ten years. Then the cycle seemed to go down to five years. Now, it seems, the region faces drought every two or three years. The time for recovery—for rebuilding stocks of food and cattle—is ever shorter. And if the rains fail before the end of this year, an unimaginably dreadful catastrophe could ensue.

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Full article and photos: http://www.economist.com/world/middleeast-africa/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14506436&source=hptextfeature