Sunday, February 06, 2011

despite obama's urging, science fairs are lagging

NYTimes | Rarely have school science fairs, a source of pride and panic for generations of American students, achieved such prominence on the national stage. President Obama held one at the White House last fall. And last week he said that America should celebrate its science fair winners like Sunday’s Super Bowl champions, or risk losing the nation’s competitive edge.

Yet as science fair season kicks into high gear, participation among high school students appears to be declining. And many science teachers say the problem is not a lack of celebration, but the Obama administration’s own education policy, which holds schools accountable for math and reading scores at the expense of the kind of creative, independent exploration that science fair projects require.

“To say that we need engineers and ‘this is our Sputnik moment’ is meaningless if we have no time to teach students how to do science,” said Dean Gilbert, the president of the Los Angeles County Science Fair, referring to a line in President Obama’s State of the Union address last week. The Los Angeles fair, though still one of the nation’s largest, now has 185 schools participating, down from 244 a decade ago.

In many schools, science fairs depend on teachers who shoulder the extra work. They supervise participants and research, raise the money for medals and poster boards, and find judges — all on their own time.

To organize the Northeastern Minnesota Regional Science Fair this weekend, Cynthia Welsh, a science teacher at Cloquet High School near Duluth, has logged more than 500 unpaid hours since September.

“My husband helps,” Ms. Welsh said.

In middle school, science fair projects are typically still required — and, teachers lament, all too often completed by parents. And some high schools funnel their best students into elite science competitions that require years of work and lengthy research papers: a few thousand students enter such contests each year.

But what has been lost, proponents of local science fairs say, is the potential to expose a much broader swath of American teenagers to the scientific process: to test an idea, evaluate evidence, ask a question about how the world works — and perhaps discover how difficult it can be to find an answer.

The local fairs, which rose to popularity after World War II, have historically provided entree to science for those who might not consider themselves science fanatics.

“Science fairs develop skills that reach down to everybody’s lives, whether you want to be a scientist or not,” said Michele Glidden, a director at Society for Science & the Public, a nonprofit group that administers 350 regional fairs whose winners attend Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest high school competition. “The point is to breed science-minded citizens.”

Saturday, February 05, 2011

MENA instability by the numbers

NYTimes | It is impossible to know exactly which embers spark a revolution, but it’s not so hard to measure the conditions that make a country prime for one.

Since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, speculating about whether the fervor will spread and to which countries has become something of a world-watcher’s parlor game.

So I’ve decided to give over much of my space this week to providing more data for that discussion.

As The New York Times headline declared earlier this week, “Jobs and Age Reign As Factors in Mideast Uprisings.” And the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy has used levels of democracy to identify countries at risk around the world.

These are solid measures, but I would add spending on essentials like food (there is nothing like food insecurity to spur agita), income inequality and burgeoning Internet usage (because the Internet has been crucial to the organization of recent uprisings).

Seen through that prism, Tunisia and Egypt look a lot alike, and Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen look ominously similar.

blacks and egyptians

The Root | The people of Egypt are looking to African Americans for solidarity in their struggle, just as we once looked to them in our own efforts to gain freedom and civil rights. When will we speak up for them?

When protesters in Egypt called for a "Million Man March" to mark the one-week anniversary of their Jan. 25 uprising against Hosni Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule, they did what many African-American public figures have yet to do: draw on the history and example of the black freedom movement to express support for the ongoing global struggle for democracy. With some exceptions (Cornel West being the most notable), members of the black intelligentsia have yet to provide significant commentary on the democratic aspirations being expressed so strongly and courageously in recent months in Arab countries in Africa and Asia. But even if some of us in America remain slow to take up the mantle of our own historical legacy, people around the world are taking note (just as Black History Month commences, no less).

Freedom fighters in Egypt wasted no time. They seized on the example of the 1995 Washington, D.C., Million Man March, organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, to galvanize their own compatriots in drawing attention to their plight and generating momentum for their struggle. The Egyptians' adoption of the Million Man March is not the first time the black freedom movement or its strategies have inspired struggles abroad; nor has this historically been a one-way exchange -- especially in the case of Egypt.

Long before Egypt was a partner of the U.S. government in its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, Egypt was a partner with black America. Egypt has figured in the black religious imagination for centuries, and more recently in the work of African-American historians and political activists throughout the 20th century.

The Old Testament story of Hebrew slaves' exodus from the oppression of a wicked pharaoh provided Africans enslaved in America with a coded language in Scripture and song. They used it to talk about their own yearnings for freedom from their white slave masters. Later, Egypt would become the source of pride for African Americans as Afrocentrist scholars claimed a kinship with the African identity of Egypt and its contributions to Western civilization.
Even President Barack Obama underscored this kinship when visiting the pyramids of Egypt after his 2009 Cairo speech. Looking upon some of the hieroglyphics, he remarked about one drawing of a man with prominent ears: "That looks like me!"

Midcentury, as Egypt was throwing off the remnants of British colonialism, it continued to inspire political activists. In a speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in Montgomery, Ala. (pdf), to mark the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, he included the "nationalistic longings of Egypt" as an example of a new age where "[a]s a result of their protest more than one billion three hundred million … of the colored peoples of the world are free today. They have their own governments, their own economic system, and their own educational system."

underground world hints at China's coming crisis

Telegraph | To understand how far ordinary Chinese have been priced out of their country's property market, you need to look not upwards at the Beijing's shimmering high-rise skyline, but down, far below the bustling streets where nearly 20m people live and work.

There, in the city's vast network of unused air defence bunkers, as many as a million people live in small, windowless rooms that rent for £30 to £50 a month, which is as much as many of the city's army of migrant labourers can afford.

In a Beijing suburb, beneath one of the thousands of faceless residential tower blocks that have carpeted the city's peripheries in a decade-long building frenzy, one of Beijing's "bomb shelter hoteliers", as they are known, agrees to show us his wares.

Passing under a green sign proclaiming "Air Defence Basement", Mr Zhao leads us down two flights of stairs to the network of corridors and rooms that were designed to offer sanctuary in the event of war or disaster.

"We have two sizes of room," he says, stepping past heaps of clutter belonging to residents, most of whom work in the nearby cloth wholesale market. "The small ones [6ft by 9ft] are 300 yuan [£30] the big ones [15ft by 6ft] are 500 yuan."

Beijing is estimated to have 30 square miles of tunnels and basements, some constructed after the Sino-Soviet split of 1969, when Mao's China feared a Soviet missile strike, and many more constructed since to act as more modern emergency refuges.

The fact Mr Zhao can easily rent out 150 such rooms, with the connivance of the city's Civil Defence Bureau with whom he has signed a five-year contract and invested nearly £150,000, is testament to China's massive unfulfilled demand for affordable housing.

"Some 80pc of our tenants are girls working in the wholesale market and the rest are peddlers selling vegetables or running sidewalk snack booths," he adds. "There are dozens of similar air defence basement projects in residential communities. In this area, they say 100,000 live underground."

Checking out the price of property above ground it is not difficult to see why. To buy a small flat (860 sq ft) in the tower block above – a typically grim, grey concrete affair – currently costs more than £200,000. In a city where the average monthly salary is 4,000 yuan, the average person would take 50 years to buy such an apartment, assuming they saved every penny they earned.

At the market, Xiao Wang, a sales girl who is one of the basement dwellers, says she lives in a small basement room with a friend. They have no kitchen and only the use of a stinking public toilet upstairs.

Friday, February 04, 2011

the african great green wall

ScientificAmerican | Yacouba Sawadogo was not sure how old he was. With a hatchet slung over his shoulder, he strode through the woods and fields of his farm with an easy grace. But up close his beard was gray, and it turned out he had great-grandchildren, so he had to be at least sixty and perhaps closer to seventy years old. That means he was born well before 1960, the year the country now known as Burkina Faso gained independence from France, which explains why he was never taught to read and write.

Nor did he learn French. He spoke his tribal language, Mòoré, in a deep, unhurried rumble, occasionally punctuating sentences with a brief grunt. Yet despite his illiteracy, Yacouba Sawadogo is a pioneer of the tree-based approach to farming that has transformed the western Sahel over the last twenty years.

"Climate change is a subject I have something to say about," said Sawadogo, who unlike most local farmers had some understanding of the term. Wearing a brown cotton gown, he sat beneath acacia and zizyphus trees that shaded a pen holding guinea fowl. Two cows dozed at his feet; bleats of goats floated through the still late-afternoon air. His farm in northern Burkina Faso was large by local standards—fifty acres—and had been in his family for generations. The rest of his family abandoned it after the terrible droughts of the 1980s, when a 20 percent decline in annual rainfall slashed food production throughout the Sahel, turned vast stretches of savanna into desert, and caused millions of deaths by hunger. For Sawadogo, leaving the farm was unthinkable. "My father is buried here," he said simply. In his mind, the droughts of the 1980s marked the beginning of climate change, and he may be right: scientists are still analyzing when man-made climate change began, some dating its onset to the mid-twentieth century. In any case, Sawadogo said he had been adapting to a hotter, drier climate for twenty years now.

"In the drought years, people found themselves in such a terrible situation they had to think in new ways," said Sawadogo, who prided himself on being an innovator. For example, it was a long-standing practice among local farmers to dig what they called zai—shallow pits that collected and concentrated scarce rainfall onto the roots of crops. Sawadogo increased the size of his zai in hopes of capturing more rainfall. But his most important innovation, he said, was to add manure to the zai during the dry season, a practice his peers derided as wasteful.

Sawadogo's experiments proved out: crop yields duly increased. But the most important result was one he hadn't anticipated: trees began to sprout amid his rows of millet and sorghum, thanks to seeds contained in the manure. As one growing season followed another, it became apparent that the trees—now a few feet high—were further increasing his yields of millet and sorghum while also restoring the degraded soil's vitality. "Since I began this technique of rehabilitating degraded land, my family has enjoyed food security in good years and bad," Sawadogo told me.

profit -seeking, not supply drove the MENA governance crisis



Reuters | Record high global food prices showed no sign of relenting following a rash of catastrophic weather, highlighted by a major U.S. snowstorm and a cyclone in Australia, which could put yet more pressure on prices and spark further unrest around the world.

The closely watched U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index on Thursday touched its highest level since records began in 1990.

The index rose for the seventh month in a row to 231 in January, topping the peak of 224.1 in June 2008, when the world was last gripped in a food crisis.

"These high prices are likely to persist in the months to come," FAO economist and grains expert Abdolreza Abbassian said in a statement.

Surging food prices have helped fuel the discontent that toppled Tunisia's president in January and that has spilled over to Egypt and Jordan, raising expectations other countries in the region would secure grain stocks to reassure their populations.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick urged global leaders to "put food first" and wake up to the need to curb price volatility.

"We are going to be facing a broader trend of increasing commodity prices, including food commodity prices," he told Reuters in an interview.

SUPPLY THE KEY
Catastrophic storms and droughts have been battering the world's leading agriculture countries in recent months, including flooding and a massive cyclone in Australia and a powerful winter storm that swept across parts of the United States.

Dubbed "Stormageddon," one of the biggest snowstorm in decades dumped up to 20 inches of snow in some parts of the U.S. grain belt this week, paralyzing grain and livestock movement. Meanwhile, more cold weather in the U.S. Plains ignited concerns the region's winter wheat lacked adequate insulating moisture.

U.S. wheat prices surged to 2-1/2 year highs on Thursday before retreating slightly on profit taking, along with prices of the other big crops such as corn and soybeans. But traders said pressure remains on wheat prices with forecast for more cold in the U.S. Midwest.

Sugar prices also surged to three-decade highs on fears of damage Cyclone Yasi would bring to the Australian cane crop. Prices for Malaysian palm oil, a cooking staple in the developing world, hit 3-year highs on flooding.

Big companies have had to adjust to higher raw material costs. Kellogg Co, the world's largest breakfast cereal company, said on Thursday it has boosted prices on many of its products to offset rising costs for ingredients such as grains and sugar.

"Today's announcement by the Food and Agriculture Organization should ring alarm bells in capitals around the world," said Gawain Kripke, a policy and research director for Oxfam America, an international development group.

"Governments must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past when countries reacted to spiraling prices by banning exports and hoarding food. This will only make the situation worse and it is the world's poorest people who will pay the price," he said.

the future of food and farming

BIS | Project aim: to explore the pressures on the global food system between now and 2050 and identify the decisions that policy makers need to take today, and in the years ahead, to ensure that a global population rising to nine billion or more can be fed sustainably and equitably.

The global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years. On the demand side, global population size will increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030, and probably to over nine billion by 2050; many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the production side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative.

Over this period globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures. Any one of these pressures (‘drivers of change’) would present substantial challenges to food security; together they constitute a major threat that requires a strategic reappraisal of how the world is fed. Overall, the Project has identified and analysed five key challenges for the future. Addressing these in a pragmatic way that promotes resilience to shocks and future uncertainties will be vital if major stresses to the food system are to be anticipated and managed.

The five challenges, outlined further in Sections 4 – 8, are:
  • A. Balancing future demand and supply sustainably – to ensure that food supplies are affordable.
  • B. Ensuring that there is adequate stability in food supplies – and protecting the most vulnerable from the volatility that does occur.
  • C. Achieving global access to food and ending hunger. This recognises that producing enough food in the world so that everyone can potentially be fed is not the same thing as ensuring food securityfor all.
  • D. Managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change.
  • E. Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world.
These last two challenges recognise that food production already dominates much of the global land surface and water bodies, and has a major impact on all the Earth’s environmental systems.

In recognising the need for urgent action to address these future challenges, policy-makers should not lose sight of major failings in the food system that exist today.
Although there has been marked volatility in food prices over the last two years, the food system continues to provide plentiful and affordable food for the majority of the world’s population. Yet it is failing in two major ways which demand decisive action:
Hunger remains widespread. 925 million people experience hunger: they lack access to sufficient of the major macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein). Perhaps another billion are thought to suffer from ‘hidden hunger’, in which important micronutrients (such as vitamins and minerals) are missing from their diet, with consequent risks of physical and mental impairment. In contrast, a billion people are substantially over-consuming, spawning a new public health epidemic involving chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Much of the responsibility for these three billion people having suboptimal diets lies within the global food system.

Many systems of food production are unsustainable. Without change, the global food system will continue to degrade the environment and compromise the world’s capacity to produce food in the future, as well as contributing to climate change and the destruction of biodiversity. There are widespread problems with soil loss due to erosion, loss of soil fertility, salination and other forms of degradation; rates of water extraction for irrigation are exceeding rates of replenishment in many places; over-fishing is a widespread concern; and there is heavy reliance on fossil fuel-derived energy for synthesis of nitrogen fertilisers and pesticides. In addition, food production systems frequently emit significant quantities of greenhouse gases and release other pollutants that accumulate in the environment.

new mexico out of natural gas?!?!?!

MercuryNews | With tens of thousands of people across New Mexico without natural gas service, Gov. Susana Martinez on Thursday declared a state of emergency, ordered all government offices be shut down Friday and urged schools to "strongly consider" remaining closed for the day.

Demand has soared because of extremely cold weather across the state since Tuesday. New Mexico Gas Company said rolling blackouts in West Texas also impeded the delivery of natural gas into New Mexico.

Martinez declared a state of emergency for all of New Mexico, urging residents to turn down their thermostats, bundle up and shut off appliances they don't need for the next 24 hours.

She later announced all state operations not providing critical services would be closed Friday to decrease the strain on energy resources throughout the state.

"Due to statewide natural gas shortages, I have ordered all government agencies that do not provide essential services to shut down and all nonessential employees to stay home" on Friday, Martinez said after meeting with public safety personnel in Albuquerque.

"I have also encouraged all schools that have not already announced closures to strongly consider doing so," she said.

New Mexico Gas Company said service was disrupted throughout the state—in Bernalillo, Placitas, Taos, Questa, Red River and parts of Albuquerque, Silver City, Alamogordo, Tularosa and La Luz.

Emergency shelters were set up in several areas. Martinez said residents needing help finding a shelter or getting to one should call the non-emergency police or fire phone number in their community.

"As New Mexicans, we've always gotten through difficult situations," she said. "We will get through this situation as well."

Thursday, February 03, 2011

what egypt's unrest could mean for hamas

CSM | As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's grip on power slipped this week, Israelis and Palestinians are sizing up what a change in government in Cairo may mean for the Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority officials fear the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might prompt Cairo to ease access to Gaza, and help Hamas consolidate its rule there.

Egypt has the keys to Gaza's only border not controlled by Israel. That leaves President Mubarak's successor, whoever it may be, with the option to open up the stifled territory of 1.5 million to trade and civilian traffic, or to continue the restrictions that weigh on the economy and the Islamic militant government there.

While the first option would win Egypt popularity with the Arab public throughout the Middle East and boost Hamas, it would signal a break in Israel's critical alliance with Cairo. It could also tip the scales in favor of Hamas in the three-year rift between Hamas and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

“It's a very sensitive point,” says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

“The current Egyptian regime has a strong interest in preventing the Hamas-controlled regime from moving into Egypt,” says Professor Steinberg. “There is an Israeli concern that a different government – an Islamic based government – would allow much more freedom of movement and terrorists across the border.”

the street is not afraid of governments anymore

NYTimes | The future of the Arab world, perched between revolt and the contempt of a crumbling order, was fought for in the streets of downtown Cairo on Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of protesters who have reimagined the very notion of citizenship in a tumultuous week of defiance proclaimed with sticks, home-made bombs and a shower of rocks that they would not surrender their revolution to the full brunt of an authoritarian government that answered their calls for change with violence.

The Arab world watched a moment that suggested it would never be the same again — and waited to see whether protest or crackdown would win the day. Words like “uprising” and “revolution” only hint at the scale of events in Egypt, which have already reverberated across Yemen, Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia, offering a new template for change in a region that long reeled from its own sense of stagnation. “Every Egyptian understands now,” said Magdi al-Sayyid, one of the protesters.

The protesters have spoken for themselves to a government that, like many across the Middle East, treated them as a nuisance. For years, pundits have predicted that Islamists would be the force that toppled governments across the Arab world. But so far, they have been submerged in an outpouring of popular dissent that speaks to a unity of message, however fleeting — itself a sea change in the region’s political landscape. In the vast panorama of Tahrir Square on Wednesday, Egyptians were stationed at makeshift barricades, belying pat dismissals of the power of the Arab street.

“The street is not afraid of governments anymore,” said Shawki al-Qadi, an opposition lawmaker in Yemen, itself roiled by change. “It is the opposite. Governments and their security forces are afraid of the people now. The new generation, the generation of the Internet, is fearless. They want their full rights, and they want life, a dignified life.”

The power of Wednesday’s stand was that it turned those abstractions into reality.

The battle was waged by Mohammed Gamil, a dentist in a blue tie who ran toward the barricades of Tahrir Square. It was joined by Fayeqa Hussein, a veiled mother of seven who filled a Styrofoam container with rocks. Magdi Abdel-Rahman, a 60-year-old grandfather, kissed the ground before throwing himself against crowds mobilized by a state bent on driving them from the square. And the charge was led by Yasser Hamdi, who said his 2-year-old daughter would live a life better than the one he endured.

“Aren’t you men?” he shouted. “Let’s go!”

anonymous creepin to the mic like a phantom...,


Video - Aint Nuthin But a G Thang Baby

NYTimes | The online group Anonymous said Wednesday that it had paralyzed the Egyptian government’s Web sites in support of the antigovernment protests.

Anonymous, a loosely defined group of hackers from all over the world, gathered about 500 supporters in online forums and used software tools to bring down the sites of the Ministry of Information and President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, said Gregg Housh, a member of the group who disavows any illegal activity himself. The sites were unavailable Wednesday afternoon.

The attacks, Mr. Housh said, are part of a wider campaign that Anonymous has mounted in support of the antigovernment protests that have roiled the Arab world. Last month, the group shut down the Web sites of the Tunisian government and stock exchange in support of the uprising that forced the country’s dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee.

Mr. Housh said that the group had used its technical knowledge to help protesters in Egypt defy a government shutdown of the Internet that began last week. “We want freedom,” he said of the group’s motivation. “It’s as simple as that. We’re sick of oppressive governments encroaching on people.”

blood and fear in cairo streets

The Independent | "President" Hosni Mubarak's counter-revolution smashed into his opponents yesterday in a barrage of stones, cudgels, iron bars and clubs, an all-day battle in the very centre of the capital he claims to rule between tens of thousands of young men, both – and here lies the most dangerous of all weapons – brandishing in each other's faces the banner of Egypt. It was vicious and ruthless and bloody and well planned, a final vindication of all Mubarak's critics and a shameful indictment of the Obamas and Clintons who failed to denounce this faithful ally of America and Israel.

The fighting around me in the square called Tahrir was so terrible that we could smell the blood. The men and women who are demanding the end of Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship – and I saw young women in scarves and long skirts on their knees, breaking up the paving stones as rocks fell around them – fought back with an immense courage which later turned into a kind of terrible cruelty.

Some dragged Mubarak's security men across the square, beating them until blood broke from their heads and splashed down their clothes. The Egyptian Third Army, famous in legend and song for crossing the Suez Canal in 1973, couldn't – or wouldn't – even cross Tahrir Square to help the wounded.

As thousands of Egyptians shrieking abuse – and this was as close to civil war as Egypt has ever come – swarmed towards each other like Roman fighters, they simply overwhelmed the parachute units "guarding" the square, climbing over their tanks and armoured vehicles and then using them for cover.

One Abrams tank commander – and I was only 20 feet away – simply ducked the stones that were bouncing off his tank, jumped into the turret and battened down the hatch. Mubarak's protesters then climbed on top to throw more rocks at their young and crazed antagonists.

I guess it's the same in all battles, even though guns have not (yet) appeared; abuse by both sides provoked a shower of rocks from Mubarak's men – yes, they did start it – and then the protesters who seized the square to demand the old man's overthrow began breaking stones to hurl them back. By the end of the day there were reports of three deaths in Cairo, and widespread accounts that the pro-Mubarak crowds were deliberately targeting Western journalists.

social networks the tyrant's weapon of choice too...,

The Independent | We've seen the incredible potential for technology to empower citizens and the dignity of those who stand up for a better future," said President Obama on Tuesday night, after he had just come off the phone from speaking to Egypt's embattled leader, Hosni Mubarak. To which one can say: yes and no. For the sense in which Mr Obama is correct may be quite limited. Undoubtedly, it is much easier to organise a demonstration than it used to be. You can call people from your mobile phone, send text messages, use Facebook, dispatch a tweet to your friends or fire off email messages. We are all connected now.

But also note what the head of police in Iran, Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghaddam, is doing. A few days ago, he proudly announced the launch of cyber-police units throughout the country to confront internet crimes and to counter social networks that spread "espionage and riots". The police chief said the cyber-police would take on anti-revolutionary and dissident groups who used internet-based social networks in 2009 to trigger protests against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "Through these very social networks in our country, anti-revolutionary groups and dissidents found each other and contacted foreign countries and triggered riots." Iran is not going to put up with that, he was saying.

So the technology to which the US President was referring is available equally to friend and foe. Take the mobile phone, for instance. The Egyptian government had a crude answer to all this potential-for-technology-to-empower-citizens stuff. Once the demonstrations became serious, it swiftly closed down all mobile phone services. Only yesterday did mobile phone communications begin to come back. In fact, governments don't have to shut down the whole mobile network; they can content themselves with switching off a single city or even parts of it. And while News Of The World journalists have proved adept at hacking into voicemail messages, many authoritarian governments can do better than that. They can use technology that allows them to interrupt the delivery of text messages that contain what they consider to be suspicious words.

There is a further aspect of mobile phones of which organisers of demonstrations need to be aware. Your location can be established by joining up the "lines" between local base stations. This is not an obscure technique. As Evgeny Morozov points out in his important book, The Net Delusion: How Not To Liberate The World, published last month, mobile companies have strong economic incentives to improve their location-identification technology so that they can sell geographically targeted advertising. If businesses can use it, so can police forces. When you are standing in the middle of Cairo's Tahrir Square, squashed among thousands of demonstrators, with your mobile in your pocket, switched on, you are not necessarily as well hidden or anonymous as you might wish.

Mr Morozov gives a frightening analysis of how authoritarian governments can harness the new technologies of the internet age. Social networking sites, for instance, make it easy to find one's friends who are already members, but cyber-police can use the same facilities for their own purposes. Nor do authoritarian governments try to do everything themselves. They force the companies that run the internet to police the web according to broad guidelines. This is the way Chinese censorship is going. In its essence, it is not so very different from the way in which the US Government went about putting pressure on companies that extended financial services to Julian Assange's whistleblower website, WikiLeaks. From the point of view of the authorities, the nice thing about this is that the companies get blamed, not them.

armchair revolutionaries be careful what you wish for...,

The Independent | During a long hard winter, nothing warms the cold blood of the Western armchair revolutionary more than the sight of a bunch of attractive dark-skinned people out on the streets having a right old revolution. In a country where public schoolboys swinging on the Cenotaph passes as righteous insurrection, the sight of so many ordinary people protesting is understandably exhilarating. The recent 95-page report by Human Rights Watch, "Work on Him Until He Confesses": Impunity for Torture in Egypt, shows how the Mubarak government has consistently failed to investigate and prosecute police accused of the most vicious attacks. Whereas the only wounds one can imagine Charlie Gilmour sustaining would be if he fell off his pony and landed face down on that silver spoon he keeps secreted in his gob.

Nick Clegg has just popped up on breakfast TV gushing on about how "exciting" events in Egypt are, with all the wide-eyed wonder of a tweenager experiencing Bieber Fever. Even me, as an evil Zionist cheerleader – I find it hard not to cheer at the thought of Mubarak being toppled from his perch. This alleged friend of democracy and Israel has overseen a rotten time in the country he dictates to, during which persecution of Christians and silly slanders against Israel – the Zionist sharks of Sharm el Sheikh – have flourished.

It would be wonderful to think that what replaces Mubarak will be better. But here's the thing about Middle Eastern regimes: they're all vile. The ones that are "friendly" are vile and the ones that hate us are vile. Revolutions in the region have a habit of going horribly wrong, and this may well have something to do with the fact that Islam and democracy appear to find it difficult to co-exist for long.

It's hard to believe now, but I recall being 19 and delighted when the Iranian Revolution happened. As a good Communist kiddy, I'd grown up with my dad's fairly accurate horror stories of how SAVAK, the Shah's secret police, burned the arms off of opponents, leaving them as "human snakes". I remember how disgusted I was when Andy Warhol said "It bothers me that people are being tortured in Persia – but the Empress is a personal friend" as an excuse for hanging out with the Pahlavi family.

And now look at Iran. It's not strictly Middle Eastern, but its Islamism brings it into the orbit of the region, so much so that – naughty! – WikiLeaks recently revealed that certain Muslim countries actually want Israel to attack it and wipe out its nuclear potential. And its revolution has led to it being run by an even more vile regime than that of the late, unlamented Peacock Throne. As reported in this newspaper earlier this week, Iran now executes an average of one person every eight hours.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

a wikileak on the u.s. and al jazeera


Video - Al Jazeera's live feed of the violence taking place in Tahrir square.

Counterpunch | The United States has had it in for al-Jazeera at least since 2000, when the Qatar-based news network began reporting on Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians during the intifada and, a year later, covered the start of U.S. war-making in the Middle East, revealing to the Arab world a graphic picture of U.S. and Israeli brutality. During the Iraq war, U.S. planes bombed the al-Jazeera station in Baghdad and killed one of its correspondents, in what clearly appeared to be an attempt to silence the network. CounterPunch can show, through a Wikileaks-released cable from the U.S. embassy in Doha, Qatar, where al-Jazeera is based, that U.S. officials were still ragging the network in February 2009 in the wake of Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza, because, alone of news networks the world over, al-Jazeera had actually shown what was happening on the ground to Gazan civilians besieged by an unrelenting Israeli air, artillery, and ground attack.

The U.S. ambassador’s scolding of al-Jazeera is particularly relevant today in view of the network’s running coverage of the popular uprising in Egypt against U.S. ally Husni Mubarak. Mubarak himself has tried to shut down the network, and one can assume that U.S. officials, undecided just how to kathyrespond to this crisis and which side to support, are at least biting their fingernails over what to do about this latest instance of al-Jazeera’s honest reporting. There is no way to hide this uprising, even with press censorship, and U.S. networks are also reporting non-stop, but al-Jazeera is the network watched throughout the Arab world, and it is easy to imagine U.S. policymakers ruing the fact that it is once again exposing the U.S. alliance with dictatorships and oppression of Arabs.

Accordig to the cable from Doha, on February 10, 2009, three weeks after the Gaza assault ended, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Lebaron arranged a meeting with al-Jazeera’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, to express concern that the network’s reporting from Gaza was harming the U.S. image “in the Arab street.” Lebaron’s contorted reasoning went as follows: al-Jazeera’s coverage “took viewers’ emotions and then raised them to a higher level through its coverage.” Then Qatar’s ruling royal family, which provides funding to the network, would point to anger on the Arab street as “a call to action,” which Lebaron contended created a vicious circle leading to “more graphic coverage, more emotion, more demonstrations, and then more calls to action” -- as if the emotion-raising images from Gaza that started this circle revolving were somehow not real and not the basis of the story. There would obviously have been no emotion and no demonstrations if Israel had not launched the assault in the first place (using U.S. arms).

Lebaron simply did not like the fact that al-Jazeera had shown what was happening in Gaza. With jaw-dropping illogic, he complained that al-Jazeera provided no balance in its reporting because on one side it showed Israeli talking heads, while “on the other side of the scale, you are broadcasting graphic images of dead children and urban damage from modern warfare.” Lebaron was not convinced by Khanfar’s point that, even though al-Jazeera had attempted to provide both perspectives by running reports in every news bulletin from correspondents in Israel as well as in Gaza, it was still impossible to “balance” coverage because it was Gazans who were being killed and Israelis who were talking.

In answer to Lebaron’s argument about the vicious circle, Khanfar noted that demonstrations in other sizable Muslim countries such as Turkey and Indonesia had also been very large, despite the fact that there was not a big market for al-Jazeera in these countries. But Lebaron thought this argument “extraneous.”

It is of course in the nature of any war-making country to wish no one were looking over its shoulder reporting on the atrocities it and its allies are committing. U.S. policymakers and the U.S. media have long regarded al-Jazeera’s television coverage of Israeli and U.S. actions as “incitement” -- as if al-Jazeera rather than we and the Israelis were the perpetrator, as if al-Jazeera rather than U.S. and Israeli actions were the cause of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment among Arabs. This cable is one of the most blatant examples of this effort to manage the news, avoid responsibility, and blame the messenger.

the bbc goes in on wikileaks and assange

Counterpunch | The campaign by the establishment press against Julian Assange is intensifying. CBS’s 60 Minutes tried to trash him last Sunday, but Assange left CBS’ interviewer, Steve Kroft, floundering. Last Sunday also saw New York Times editor Bill Keller consume several thousand words in the NYT’s Magazine abusing Assange with disgraceful lack of scruple, Assange being a man who gave the New York Times some actual news scoops, instead of its regular staple of gastroporn from Sam Sifton. Here Israel Shamir reports, with some personal involvement, on the impending slurring of Assange on the BBC, and the attacks on him in The Guardian.

I picked up the phone on the third ring, and a melodious British voice informed me that the BBC wanted to include me in its Panorama program. The BBC wanted to hear my views on the world, and was especially interested in Wikileaks. Oh what a glorious moment! I felt myself puff with pride. There is something about “the Beeb” that makes my heart flutter! I have always been partial to their style, and I considered it an honour to have the BBC listed on my CV, even though it was over thirty years ago. When I worked in Bush House on the Strand, the BBC’s Panorama was one of the best investigative programs anywhere - and suddenly here they are, soliciting my comments! Eager to build a relationship of trust, I answered all their preparatory questions with an unvarnished honesty. I thought I had done well; they offered to fly me to London, or if that were inconvenient they would fly out and speak to me in Moscow – civil chaps, aren’t they?

Looking back, the signs of danger were easy to see. They were producing a program about Wikileaks, but they had no plans to interview Julian Assange. Perhaps he is too busy? Furthermore, the questions began to take on a sinister tone. I shrugged off the feeling as a by-product of all the dirty politics we were discussing, but a few telephone conversations later my ill feelings finally seeped into my swelled head and it dawned on me what was going on. These nice chaps from the BBC were actually collecting dirt to use against Wikileaks! I was being played for a sucker. Suddenly I felt like Julian Assange, face to face with the honey trap.

The clincher was a letter I just received from producer John Sweeney, outlining the substance of the broadcast. It does not read like a television show, it reads like a criminal indictment. Every wild accusation is listed, and those without a shred of evidence are given pride of place. Most amazing of all, the Sweeney letter includes some lines lifted from a missive I had sent to Julian some time ago. The words were taken out of context and they were a misquotation of the original, but I recognise my prose. Some questions immediately spring to mind. How did the BBC get their hands on my private correspondence? Does the BBC actually steal private mail, or do they hire out? Ominously, this is not the first time this has happened to me. Another private letter of mine was (mis)quoted by The Guardian’s investigative editor David Leigh. Is it too conspiratorial of me to recognise a disturbing pattern? Could it be that the alleged three stolen laptops of Julian Assange found their last resting place at Leigh&Sweeney after a brief sojourn at Langley?

John Sweeney and David Leigh are cut from different cloth, but they both know how to play the journalism game. Leigh smoulders with jealousy. He plays the Salieri to Assange’s Mozart, but he thinks of himself as the unsung hero of Wikileaks. A hero? Rather, a villain. As Bill Keller of the New York Times admitted it was Leigh who “concluded that these rogue leaks (he engineered them) released The Guardian from any pledge”. Since then, he’s started his own private war against Wikileaks. His liaison with Sweeney was a convenient one. Sweeney is the sort of guy you assign to smear Mother Theresa. He has skated along thus far because only the very rich might contemplate suing the BBC, but he has been found by a court to be a libeller at least one time. Sweeney’s lunatic outbursts of fury are calculated to intimidate interviewees and have been preserved for posterity. It is all too plain to me now why Assange and company refused to have anything to do with Panorama and its pre-planned outcome. It is all too obvious to me now why they came hunting for your humble narrator.

The Panorama program on Wikileaks will run on February 7, 2011, the very day that the trial of Julian Assange will be reopened. The result of the trial is unpredictable, not so the program. Assange has more than a chance before the British courts, but if this Sweeney letter is anything to judge by, Panorama will leave no survivors. This is the British version of The Empire Strikes Back, the ultimate response to those who try to challenge mainstream corporate media’s hold over the public mind. In the meantime, the FBI and Scotland Yard have been keeping busy, making as many as 45 raids on various premises connected with Wikileaks, so that the alliance between the BBC and The Guardian is an ethereal mirror of some very earthy, if not subterranean, activity.

american hypocrisy in the middle-east

Counterpunch | The hypocrisy of the US government is yet again demonstrated in full bore force. The US government invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, laid waste to much of the countries including entire villages and towns, and massacred untold numbers of civilians in order "to bring democracy" to Iraq and Afghanistan. Now after days of Egyptians in the streets demanding "Mubarak must go," the US government remains aligned with its puppet Egyptian ruler, even suggesting that Mubarak, after running a police state for three decades, is the appropriate person to implement democracy in Egypt.

On January 30, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that "freedom and democracy" America neither seeks nor supports the ouster of the Egyptian dictator. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu told the US and Europe that criticism of Mubarak must be curbed in order "to preserve stability in the region."

By "stability" Netanyahu means the unimpeded ability of Israel to continue oppressing the Palestinians and stealing their country. Mubarak has been for three decades the well-paid enforcer for the US and Israel, sealing off Gaza from the outside world and preventing aid flows across the Egyptian border. Mubarak and his family have become multi-billionaires, thanks to the American taxpayer, and the US government, both Republicans and Democrats, do not want to lose their heavy investment in Mubarak.

The US government has long corrupted Arab governments by paying rulers installed by the US to represent US/Israeli interests rather than the interest of Arab peoples. Arabs put up with American-financed oppression for many years, but now are showing signs of rebellion.

The murderous American-installed dictator in Tunis was overthrown by people taking to the streets. Rebellion has spread to Egypt and there are also street protests against the US-supported rulers in Yemen and Jordan.

These uprisings might succeed in ousting puppet rulers, but will the result be anything more than the exchange of a new American puppet ruler for the old? Mubarak might go, but whoever takes his place is likely to find himself wearing the same American harness.

What dictators do is to eliminate alternative leadership. Potential leaders are either assassinated, exiled, or imprisoned. Moreover, anything short of a full-fledge revolution, such as the Iranian one, leaves in place a bureaucracy accustomed to business as usual. In addition, Egypt and the country's military have grown accustomed to American support and will want the money to keep flowing. It is the flow of this money that ensures the purchase of the replacement government.

Because the US dollar is the world reserve currency, the US government has financial dominance and the ability to financially isolate other countries, such as Iran. To break free of America's grip, one of two things would have to happen. Revolution would have to sweep the Arab world and result in an economic unity that could foster indigenous economic development, or the US dollar has to fail as world currency.

Arab disunity has long been the means by which the Western countries have dominated the Middle East. Without this disunity, Israel and the US could not abuse the Palestinians in the manner in which they have for decades, and without this disunity the US could not have invaded Iraq. It is unlikely that the Arabs will suddenly unite themselves.

The collapse of the dollar is more likely. Indeed, the policy of the US government to maximize both budget and trade deficits, and the policy of the Federal Reserve to monetize the budget deficit and the fraudulent paper assets of the large banks, have the dollar heading for demise.

As the supply of dollars grows, the value diminishes. Perhaps the time is not far off when rulers cease to sell out their peoples for American money.

u.s. power elite covets internet kill-switch


Video - Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins co-sponsor Internet Kill Switch bill.

TheRegister | US lawmakers plan to try once more to equip the president with an internet “kill switch,” a controversial measure that's become even more incendiary following last week's move by Egypt to pull the plug on the global network.

In April, when similar bills circulated on Capitol Hill [1], industry groups warned they gave the president too much power to disconnect critical infrastructure and didn't include enough oversight. The vague wording of the bills meant the president would in effect be allowed to cause widespread disruptions for a host of reasons. Those bills were eventually tabled.

Fast forward to last week, when the Egyptian government switched off virtually all internet access and mobile phone coverage [2] in an attempt to quell protestors calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for 30 years. Five days after the draconian outage was put in place, the Egyptian government has only tightened its grip on internet communications [3].

Senator Susan Collins, one of the sponsors of the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, recently told [4] Wired.com the legislation was a far cry from the powers exercised by Mubarak because it could only be used in times of significant “cyber” emergency.

“My legislation would provide a mechanism for the government to work with the private sector in the event of a true cyber emergency,” Collins told the publication. “It would give our nation the best tools available to swiftly respond to a significant threat.”

The latest public version of the bill, which Collins has said she intends to introduce “soon,” contains language saying the federal government's designation of vital internet or other computer systems “shall not be subject to judicial review,” according to [5] CNET.

Pundits have wasted no time attacking the measure as heavy handed and a serious threat to American liberty. With the internet serving as an important way to communicate and gather news, its disruption during emergencies means the public could lose an important source of information when they need it most.

“The most specious reason for this mechanism is that if some evil worm or attack on the National infrastructure— a.k.a. "Cyberwar" — would be underway, the Internet would need to be shut down to prevent further damage to the country, which apparently can no longer function without the Net,” uber tech columnist John C. Dvorak wrote here [6]. “This is kind of a weird tautology. The country can't function without the Net, so we need to secure the it, which includes having the ability to shut it down. But with the Net down, how can the country function?”

Good question.

gates states the obvious...,

TheRegister | When the revolution comes, someone's always ready to tell you how Facebook and Twitter are powering history.

The problem is that while they're still standing, governments can snuff out Facebook and Twitter whenever they like. All they need do is flip the "off" switch on the servers, routers, and wireless equipment used by local service providers.

Just ask Bill Gates.

When US TV anchor Katie Couric asked the Microsoft co-founder and chairman if he was surprised that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak could take the unprecedented step of killing the entire Egyptian internet, Gates responded with an emphatic: "no".

Sometimes, he knows what he's talking about.

"It's not that hard to shut the Internet down if you have military power where you can tell people that's what's going to happen," Gates said. "Whenever you do something extraordinary like that you're sort of showing people you're afraid of the truth getting out, so it's a very difficult tactic, but certainly it can be shut off."

Web traffic analysis firm Renesys tracking the black out encapsulated the enormity of the situation here:

Every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world. Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and all their customers and partners are, for the moment, off the air.
And yet the Egyptian protests continue - without Twitter and Facebook.

As US chat-show host Conan O'Brien, himself the victim of a botched power struggle, apparently put it: "If you want people to stay at home and do nothing, why don't you turn the internet back on?"

Next stop: the leader of the free world contemplates its own internet kill switch.

alone together

WaPo | In "Why the West Rules, For Now," his excellent and amusing survey of the last 70,000 years or so of human history, Ian Morris discusses an event we can look forward to in 2045: the Singularity, "effectively merging carbon-and-silicon based intelligence into a single global consciousness. . . . We will transcend biology, evolving into a new, merged being as far ahead of homo sapiens as a contemporary human is of the individual cells that merge to create his or her body." With 35 years to go, we now have Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together" as a progress report from the biotechnological front lines. And it is not amusing.

Turkle is a psychoanalytically trained psychologist at MIT who has specialized for years in studying artificial intelligence and its effect on humans who invent it, use it and enjoy it. Her new book considers robots, Facebook, iPhones and the Internet, and explores questions pertinent to each. Since the 1980s, she has made good use of her access to the foremost thinkers in the AI world, and she has devised experiments for observing how people of all ages - most instructively children and the elderly - interact with and relate to machines that in some ways mimic how humans or animals act, think and talk. "Alone Together" is not statistical, it is anecdotal. It is therefore vivid, even lurid, in its depictions of where we are headed, but the reader comes away unsure whether Turkle's anxieties are warranted.

It is clear throughout that a new technology has a cost and a momentum that are never considered when that technology is introduced - tractors looked easier than plows, iPhones seem more convenient than landlines. Only long after each innovation is introduced do humans bother to ponder things like soil erosion or texting while driving. Decades after the introduction of the Internet and of AI, Turkle is beginning to have second thoughts. She focuses first on robots: humans are determined to relate to them. No matter how old or young the humans are, no matter how sophisticated in their experience of AI, they begin to have feelings for robots they come in contact with and to feel that their feelings are reciprocated. A mechanical question elicits an answer, large painted eyes elicit compassion, a metallic touch elicits a responding touch, and the emotions that go along with human responses cannot be controlled. Turkle does not include pictures of the robots she mentions, but looking at them on the Internet after reading about them is disorienting - surely that is not Kismet, the prototype robotic girlfriend that many of Turkle's subjects are attracted to? But it is.

A robot in the room, acting animated and interested, draws us out of ourselves, but social networking tends to push us apart, Turkle says, because humans on the Internet behave (or can behave or are pushed to behave) inhumanely. The Internet gives people the cover to indulge in hate speech, to present phony personas, or simply to avoid relating in real space and time.

Turkle's subject is so vast that she cannot address every facet of it, and of course the missing facet that struck me as a novelist is that every robot and every networking app is a work of art, designed to express the psyche of the artist and to shape the response of the user. We are not entirely unversed in responding to things that don't exist - Odysseus, Macbeth and the woman portrayed in the Mona Lisa don't exist, either. We could say that when we read "David Copperfield," we agree to a joining of minds that is pleasurable and enlightening, and that as we read and experience many works of art, we clarify the boundaries between each one and between art and ourselves. Turkle's research subjects are at the very beginning of the next phase of the human journey. It may be that we will gain self-knowledge from our experience that we can't yet imagine.

For those who recoil, though, Ian Morris has an alternative - the collapse of civilization. He makes a good case that mankind has approached climate/energy/population ceilings before and that breakthrough is less likely than self-destruction; in fact, the melding of human and machine intelligence may be our only salvation. Turkle doesn't ponder this issue, but when you read her engrossing study, you will.

digital dopamine hegemony

WaPo | The decision by Egyptian officials to virtually shut down Internet access to the country Friday marked an audacious escalation in the battle between authoritarian governments and tech-savvy protesters. It was also a direct challenge to the Obama administration's attempts to promote Internet freedom.

Internet access was cut off in Egypt shortly after midnight Friday, apparently after authorities ordered the country's five service providers to block it, according to experts. Cellphone service was also severely disrupted.

"The Egyptian government's actions ... have essentially wiped their country from the global map," James Cowie of Renesys, a New Hampshire-based company that monitors Internet data, said on the company's Web site.

The move came roughly a day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had publicly urged Egypt not to close off access to the technology and social media that were being used to organize demonstrations. On Friday, the administration denounced Egypt's action - first by using Twitter.

"Govt must respect the rights of Egyptian people & turn on social networking and internet," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs warned in a tweet.

U.S. officials concede that Twitter does not a revolution make. But they believe that such platforms have accelerated the pace of protest movements, citing the rapid coalescence of the Tunisian demonstrations that toppled that country's longtime leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the Egyptian demonstrations that erupted this week.

"From now on, any and all dissent movements will have technology as a core component," said Alec Ross, Clinton's senior adviser for innovation.

The Obama administration has elevated Internet freedom in U.S. diplomacy, and Clinton gave a major speech on the issue last year. The State Department is currently working on plans to spend $30 million on Internet freedom projects, including software that enables activists to break through firewalls imposed by oppressive governments.

google and twitter defy egyptian social media blackout

WaPo | As Egypt moved Monday to shut down its sole operating Internet service provider, Google and Twitter teamed up to create a service for people to send tweets from the nation through a phone call.

Over the weekend, a small group of engineers from the companies got together to create the service that allows anyone with access to voice service -- landline or mobile -- to leave a messsage that automatically gets transmitted into a tweet, according to the Google blog. People cut off from Internet and mobile services in Egypt could call +16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855. Tweets from the call would be sent with the hashtag: #egypt.

"Like many people we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground," wrote Ujjwal Singh, cofounder of Google company SayNow and AbdelKarim Mardini, a Google product manager for Middle East & North Africa.

"We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are with everyone there," they wrote.

The service comes as Egypt's ministry of information told CNN Monday evening it has shut down Noor the remaining ADSL service, according to CNN. Noor had appeared to be offering Internet connections to a limited number of institutions within Cairo, global network experts said.

The move effectively cut off any communications in the nation to the Internet ahead of planned protests Monday. The Egyptian government also said it had cut off all mobile services Monday ahead of the protests.

gut microbes influence behavior

TheScientist | Gut microbes acquired early in life can impact brain development in mice and subsequent behavior, such as decreasing physical activity and increasing anxiety, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This paper opens the door to new studies in at least two directions," Yale University microbiologist Andrew Goodman, who was not involved in the research, told The Scientist in an email. "First, determining how differences between complete host-associated microbial communities lead to differences in behavior, and second, exploring the contributions of microbes during specific developmental periods in the host."

Gut microbiota often colonize their hosts early in life, either during pregnancy or following birth, and play an integral role in the health of developing organisms. Previous research has shown that the bacteria affect the development of liver function, the protection epithelial cells afford underlying digestive tissue, gut regulation and the growth of new capillary blood vessels. But this is the first time gut flora have been linked to brain development and behavior.

Harmful microbial infections, on the other hand, have been linked to neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and schizophrenia. And rodents infected by microbial pathogens before and after birth demonstrated behavioral abnormalities, such as anxiety-like behavior and impaired cognitive function, leading Rochellys Diaz Heijtz, a neurobiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and her colleagues to wonder if the gut's normal microbial residents may similarly influence brain development.

The researchers tested exploratory activity in germ-free mice and mice with normal gut microbiota by tracking their movements across open space. They also tested anxiety of the two groups in two classic rodent behavioral tests -- the light-dark box and the elevated maze. Spending more time in lit areas and along unwalled, elevated maze portions equated to less anxiety.

Germ-free mice appeared to be more exploratory than mice with normal microbiota, venturing farther and to more areas of the space provided. Germ-free mice also spent more time in the light and engaged in riskier behavior in the maze, indicating they suffered from less anxiety than their microbe-filled counterparts.

The team then infected germ-free mice with normal gut microbiota when they were born to test whether the gut flora could alter the mice's activity and anxiety levels. Sure enough, the newly infected mice spent less time exploring and engaging in risky behavior, like the normal mice in the initial experiments. The results further supported the argument that the microorganisms can affect brain and behavior when introduced early enough in development.

"These microorganisms communicate in a systemic fashion to the developmental programming of a new individual and can influence fundamental aspects of behavior," said Diaz Heijtz. "We should start to consider the possibility that the microbiome and/or its composition may contribute to psychiatric problems."

in the bowels with dopamine hegemony

WSJ | A group of Nestle SA researchers here are on an unusual mission: They hope to create new foods based on gut instinct.

Not the type of instinct one normally equates with intuitive decision-making, but the sophisticated processes that take place in our digestive tracts to let us know when we're hungry. There, a collection of nerve cells work together and communicate much as the neurons in our brain do. It's essentially an autonomous and self-governing second brain that we all carry in our belly.

Nestle says products using its new science could be available within five years. Widely known for its chocolate, the company makes a broad array of foods including cereal, drinks, coffee, frozen meals, bottled water and pet food.

This avenue of food science, which is also being pursued by other food companies, could represent a fresh assault in the fight against flab. One in four Americans is obese, and obesity rates are also rising dramatically in parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Although food companies have long tried to make effective fat-fighting food, their results have been modest.

Nestle and other food giants are now on a push to decipher the language of satiety—the complex signals our gut brain sends to the big brain—and use that knowledge to make better satiety-inducing foods, or foods that make you feel full longer. Nerve cells in the gut are located in the tissues lining the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. Like the central nervous system, the gut brain makes use of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

those IMF data clearly delineate jordanian vulnerability...,

LATimes | King Abdullah II of Jordan fired his Cabinet on Tuesday and ordered his new prime minister to pursue political reforms to "correct the mistakes of the past" following massive anti-government protests around the Arab world and smaller demonstrations at home.

The new government of Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit has been told to take "practical, swift, and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process, in line with the king's vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development," according to a statement carried by the state-owned Petra news agency.

In neighboring Syria, the toppling of an Arab dictator in Tunisia and the continuing popular revolt against Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak has inspired talk of staging anti-government protests against the reign of President Bashar Assad.

Several online campaigns have been launched on Twitter and Facebook calling for protests. One group has called for a "day of rage" on Saturday, similar to the Jan. 25 demonstrations in Egypt that sparked the current uprising there. Another Web page with more than 6,000 members calls for protests in Damascus on Friday and Saturday.

"We want to end oppression and torture and insult [to] people," said a 38-year-old Damascus resident who asked that he be referred to only by the honorific Abu Tamaam. He said he would attend protests later this week.

"We want to achieve our freedom," he said. "Syria deserves this."

Jordanians have taken to the streets in recent weeks demanding the government respond to popular concerns over unemployment and corruption, although their demands are markedly more modest than those of their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, who called for complete regime change.

The Jordanian grievances have been aimed for the most part at Prime Minister Samir Rifai, who was replaced by Bakhit on Tuesday.

oil, food, and the wealth of countries in play...,

EarlyWarning | I thought it would be helpful (at least to me) to put up some very basic statistics about all the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries. Firstly, from the IMF, we have the GDP/capita for twenty MENA countries (2009 figures, expressed in dollars at PPP).

It's good to be clear which MENA countries actually produce the oil. Here are the 2009 data from BP:Tunisia is a minnow in the global oil market, Egypt slightly more important. Algeria, however, matters a lot as its oil production is probably close to total demonstrated OPEC spare capacity. Thus serious social instability in Algeria would have major effects on global oil prices. If instability spread to bigger oil producers than that (eg Kuwait or UAE), the effects could be very dramatic.

Presumably, the regimes in those countries are in a much better position to buy their populations off, being much wealthier. I must admit to feeling slightly dirty writing that sentence. Staring at this list of countries makes clear what we already know: about a third of global oil production comes from this array of nasty autocratic regimes, and thus the global economy is utterly dependent on their continued stability.

Next, here are unemployment rates (for those countries the IMF has stats for - most don't provide them).The stats are high everywhere except Kuwait. Though, if the official figures are to be believed, comparable to the US currently. The countries currently experiencing unrest do not have obviously massively higher unemployment than other countries in the region, suggesting the potential for further unrest. For example, Saudi unemployment is apparently higher than Egypt's.

Finally, here are the IMF's estimates of inflation rates. In this case, I have taken 2008 figures, both because they are the last year for which actuals were available for all countries but Tunisia, but also because conditions in oil and food markets in 2008 seem like the best guide for events in the next few years.

flames and fighting on the nile

The Australian | It is hard to grasp the sheer size and weight of Egypt in the Arab identity: with 80 million people, it is the most populous nation, the fount of classical Arabic, an ancient centre of Sunni Muslim learning and a fertile source of newspapers, books, music, films and soap operas adored from Casablanca to the Gulf.

Yet an undercurrent of terrorism lurks on the fringes of Egyptian civilisation. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man who helped plan the September 11 attacks, was born in Cairo. Terrorists killed 58 Western tourists at Luxor in 1997 and at least 88 people died in a bomb attack at the Sharm el-Sheikh resort in 2005.

Egypt embodies the woes of other Arab nations: economic deprivation, an oppressive political system, a super-wealthy elite and a family that has ruled for decades.

Its armed forces, once the most powerful in the region, consume billions in American aid but 30 years of peace with Israel have left them indolent and riddled with corruption. They do, however, command patriotic prestige, an asset that could now become crucial.

So the warning signs were there. But none of President Hosni Mubarak's generals or secret policemen seems to have expected the torrent of events last week.

On Tuesday, thousands of mostly young men poured into the streets, taking the government by surprise and overwhelming the security forces, who broke ranks and ran.

On Wednesday, the authorities outlawed public gatherings and detained hundreds of demonstrators and political activists. The protesters held their nerve. Skirmishes ignited in the afternoon, with riot police chasing people to clear streets, beating some with bamboo staves and lengths of rubber hose.

In the northern city of Suez, protesters set fire to a provincial government office and a fire station. Satellite television relayed images to a restive Arab world. At that point, governments and markets across the globe took notice, because Suez commands the strategic canal that carries trade between Europe and the booming economies of the Far East.

Thursday was tense but quiet, except for a bizarre protest in Cairo by lawyers who started throwing rocks from inside the neo-classical building of their union at riot police on the streets outside.

In fact, the eerie calm of Thursday was just the sound of people regrouping, via Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone messages. They called for a day of rage on Friday, the Muslim holy day.

After prayers, the word went out to head for Tahrir Square at the heart of old Cairo, which had become the centre of the protests.

Few details were on Facebook, as it had become clear the authorities were monitoring the site. But, as it turned out, few details were needed.

As crowds spilled out of the mosques they scorned the anodyne sermons they had heard as proof that the clerics were in the pay of the government. "We must express our opinion as individual human beings without bloodshed or destruction of property," the speaker at the Fatih mosque said, telling the faithful that the leader should "be your guide".

The time had passed for that. The anger of the crowds was directed at Mubarak personally: his rigged elections, the corruption of his circle and his ceaseless grip on power. "Mubarak must go!" they chanted. Rasha el-Sayed, 36, said: "There are no jobs, and the prices are so high we cannot afford bread. The women are becoming spinsters and the men are sitting at home doing nothing."

Within half an hour the police started firing tear gas. Only a few brave young men stood their ground, throwing rocks and at one point hurling a tear-gas grenade back towards the police.

After that, protests swelled like the Nile in flood.

Buildings burned, cars were set ablaze, clouds of tear gas hung in the air and gunshots punctuated the chants of protest in towns and cities across the country.

By midnight on Friday, when a haggard Mubarak went on television to say he had listened to his people and sacked his government, pledging to make things better, Egypt was in flames.

The wind of change in the Arab world -- predicted by both bin Laden and George W. Bush--had come. So important is Egypt in the region that the future of the whole Middle East could now be forged on the streets of Cairo and Suez.

Western governments and Islamic revolutionaries from Tehran to Peshawar are holding their breath this weekend. There appear to be three possible outcomes: a transition to democracy; a new dictatorship, perhaps led by a general around whom the old guard would coalesce; or an Islamic state.

However, nowhere has technology combined with peaceful protest beaten a truly ruthless regime, as the Burmese could testify.

From Tehran there came predictions that Muslim fundamentalists would triumph in Tunis and Cairo, as they did over the liberal and leftist factions in the Iranian revolution.

will the arab revolutions spread?

ForeignPolicy | The end of the Tunisian story hasn't yet been written. We don't yet know whether the so-called Jasmine Revolution will produce fundamental change or a return to a cosmetically-modified status quo ante, democracy or a newly configured authoritarianism. But most of the policy community has long since moved on to ask whether the Tunisian protests will spread to other Arab countries -- Egypt, of course, but also Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and almost every place else. Most experts on each individual country can offer powerful, well-reasoned explanations as to why their country won't be next. I'm skeptical too.

But I found it unsatisfying to settle for such skepticism as I watched the massive demonstrations unfold in Egypt on my Twitter feed while moderating a panel discussion on Tunisia yesterday (I plead guilty). As I've been arguing for the last month, something does seem to be happening at a regional level, exposing the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarianism and empowering young populations who suddenly believe that change is possible. There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn't ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn't ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow.

The arguments for skepticism are strong ones. Without belaboring the obvious, every Arab country is different. Each has a distinct political history and culture, a distinct political economy, a distinct demographic profile and urban geography. Many compelling articles have now shown precisely why Tunisia was different -- its robust middle class, its highly educated population, its relatively small size, its ties to Europe through labor migration and remittances, its vulnerability to the global financial crisis, its particularly censored media, its relatively small and under-nurtured military, its relative insignificance to U.S. strategic interests. But those aren't the only reasons to doubt that the Tunisian model can spread.

Another argument for skepticism is authoritarian learning. Simply put, most Arab regimes are quick studies when it comes to their own survival, and quickly adapt when challenged. Unlike tightly controlled Tunisia, states such as Egypt and Jordan have been grappling with protests movements for going on a decade now and have an all-too-rich experience with how to repress, divide, and defeat the new protest movements. Yesterday's massive demonstrations in Cairo may have shocked everyone -- outsiders, Egypt's government, even the protestors -- but in a country which has been rocked by pro-Palestine and anti-Iraq war protests, the Kefaya movement, the April 6 movement, the judges and lawyers protests, and massive labor unrest, the difference is in scale, not type. The same is true across many of the Arab countries which have struggled with restive societies over the last decade.

Dictators learn from each other, not just from the past. The Arab Summit last week displayed this very clearly. Every Arab leader is on red alert at the moment, determined not to repeat Ben Ali's mistakes. They are frantically offering concessions on economic issues, reversing price rises and increasing subsidies. And of course they are ramping up the repressive apparatus, on the streets and online, to try to stop any snowballs from rolling before they get too big. The lesson most seem to have learned is not "be more democratic," it is "be tougher." No Arab leader seems likely to be taken by surprise, or to disregard the early signs of trouble. The success of Egypt's protestors yesterday doesn't mean that they won't be violently crushed today.

And then, of course, there's the international context. Where Tunisia may be relatively insignificant to the great international strategic issues in the region -- Israel, Iran, Iraq, oil -- other potential dominoes have a greater claim on the support of the world's Realists. These authoritarian regimes are the foundation of the America-led regional order. For all the U.S. talk about democracy promotion, the goal has always been to strengthen and legitimize these allies -- to prevent, not to nurture, the kind of popular mobilization exploding today. It's not the least bit surprising that the Washington Post, which has obsessively focused on democracy in Egypt, today finds itself deeply worried by instability there and the strength of Islamists.

Finally, most of the regimes seem to retain the foundations of their overt strength. Oil prices are tolerably high, security services loyal, elections thoroughly manipulated, Islamists repressed, international support strong. In short, there are plenty of reasons to see Tunisia as a one-off.

And yet… it doesn't feel that way. The scenes in Cairo yesterday stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table… and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history.