Thursday, May 29, 2008

What Your Eyes Say About Your Mood

Has anyone ever told you that you looked sad or tired when you weren’t? If the problem isn’t your mood, it might be your face, according to a study in the medical journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Food Relief For Africa 'Insufficient,' GAO Says

Efforts by the United States and multilateral agencies including the World Bank to reduce hunger in sub-Saharan Africa have been "insufficient," with foreign aid to the region failing to flow into agricultural development projects vital to the ability of poor countries to feed themselves, according to a report to be released this morning by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Issued ahead of a major United Nations summit in Rome next week to address the global food crisis, the report suggests that the failure to invest in African agriculture has contributed to the problems unfolding in the region as food prices soar worldwide. High dependence on imported food has been blamed for Africa's worse spike in hunger in years, with skyrocketing prices sparking unrest and food shortages in a number of nations, including Mauritania and Somalia.

The report, a draft copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, additionally describes U.S. aid efforts in sub-Saharan Africa as fragmented and misdirected. It says, for instance, that a Bush administration initiative to "end hunger in Africa" launched in 2002 effectively amounted to a repackaging of existing programs and came with no new funding.

At the same time, USAID, the main humanitarian aid arm of the U.S. government, has shifted away from promoting better crops, focusing instead on providing emergency food aid "to the detriment of actions designed to address the fundamental causes of these emergencies, including low agricultural productivity and other factors."

A Past at Rest in Rwanda

KIGALI, Rwanda -- It happened just 14 years ago -- the slaughter of roughly a million people here in only 100 days. "More people had been killed more quickly than in any other mass killing in recorded history," writes Martin Meredith in his book "The Fate of Africa."

And yet today there are few visible traces of the genocide that began in April 1994. It's not that Rwandans have forgotten, but that they seem to have willed themselves to live in the present. That makes this place feel different from other post-conflict states I know, such as Iraq and Lebanon, where the past and present are congealed in a wound that never heals.

During a week spent traveling the country, I found that Rwandans rarely brought up the events of the past. They almost never named the ethnic groups involved in the 1994 genocide -- the Hutu perpetrators and the Tutsi victims. Expatriates would speak a kind of code, referring to "H's" and "T's."

For Rwego, it was not a question of forgetting but of continuing: "Why had I remained alive? So that I should do something for others." He got top grades in school, earned a medical degree and now is a doctor with Rwanda's national AIDS research organization. He is a reserved, stoical man, like most Rwandans I met, but as he told this story, he brushed a tear from one eye.

If you visit the Kigali Memorial Center here, you will look into the very heart of this tragedy. The story is meticulously told: from the Belgian colonialists' decision in the 1930s to assign Hutu and Tutsi racial identities to people who had lived together for centuries; to the rise of "Hutu Power" as a racist ideology to sustain a corrupt Rwandan elite; to the planning for genocidal killings during the early 1990s, which the West knew about but did nothing to stop; to the final result, the slaughter of men, women and children, as recorded in the tableaux of the Children's Memorial:

"Francine Murengezi Ingabire. Age: 12. Favorite sport: Swimming. Favorite food: Eggs and chips. Favorite drink: Milk and Fanta Tropical. Best friend: Her elder sister Claudette. Cause of death: Hacked by machete."

The Florida Revelation . . .

The Sunshine State has about 3.8 million people without insurance, or about 21% of the population, the fourth-highest rate in the country. The "Cover Florida" plan hopes to improve those numbers by offering access to more affordable policies. As even Barack Obama says, the main reason people are uninsured isn't because they don't want to be; it's because coverage is too expensive.

But the Florida reform, which both houses of the legislature approved unanimously, renounces Mr. Obama's favored remedy: It nudges the government out of the health-care marketplace. Insurance companies will be permitted to sell stripped-down, no-frills policies exempted from the more than 50 mandates that Florida otherwise imposes, including for acupuncture and chiropractics. The new plans will be designed to cost as little as $150 a month, or less.

Mr. Crist observed that state regulations increase the cost of health coverage, and thus rightly decided to do away with at least some of them. It's hard to believe, but this qualifies as a revelation in the policy world of health insurance. The new benefit packages will be introduced sometime next year and include minimum coverage for primary care and catastrophic expenses for major illness.

Monkeys Control a Robot Arm With Their Thoughts

Cool video at the NY Times link...

Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary, scientists reported on Wednesday.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

When Hostility Melted for the ‘Funny Accent’

Go to the link for the surprising end of this story...

I apologized, but the family was livid. Especially the elder son, a middle-age man with a diamond earring and a habit of jerking his head as he spoke, long blond hair flying. They had been in the E.R. more than six hours, he protested.

“I’m sorry you had to wait,” I apologized again.

The daughter — slim and soft-spoken — asked where I was from, adding, by way of explanation, “The accent.”

I was used to the question. “Nigeria,” I said, and apologized anew for my delay.

After that, I thought everything went well. But the next day, the son filed a complaint with the hospital administration. That was when I decided they did not like me. Maybe their father was too good to be cared for by a black man, an African no less, one they probably thought believed in the healing powers of rocks and trees and the voodoo dance. At least that was how one woman put it after I refused to prescribe antibiotics for a viral upper-respiratory infection.

From then, I had done my best to avoid the children, though I always called to update them on their father’s condition.

WARNING: This Will Give You Nightmares

How sad--please consider a donation...I have seen much advanced pathology in Africa like this Doctor--however I have never seen noma...

It sure did me. I was working at the Schweitzer hospital in Africa when a mother brought her two-year-old child to us. Even wrapped in a sheet, it was obvious that he was unnaturally thin, his elbows too pointy, his back too bony. The odd thing was that she had a sheet over his head. He cried weakly and pushed at it every so often, but she kept the sheet in place. This mom didn’t speak, or make eye contact. She wasn’t impatient, like she knew there was nothing anyone could do. She just sat, listless in a chair, waiting for her turn. The other moms, as if they already knew, had edged away from her in the crowded waiting room, leaving a circle of empty chairs around her. I thought for a moment, when I walked to her, that I smelled a whiff of something. A sickly sweet smell - the smell of human decay and rot, the smell of a corpse left in the sun. But surely that wasn’t possible. This kid was moving.
I’d been in Africa for months already. I’d seen things that I thought had hardened me, permanently. I’d seen worms slithering in people, maggots foaming out of a child’s ear, leprosy that ate away limbs - you name it. Nothing could shock me. Or so I thought. She followed me to the exam room. Why did this woman ignore my greeting and carry her child, wordless, as a tear slid down her cheek? What was under that sheet?

It was a nightmare. One you personally can stop from ever destroying another child again. And I’m going to tell you how.

After the woman gently put her child on our thin clinic pallet, I pulled back the sheet. Noma is what I was taught to call what I saw. This child’s face had begun to rot, while he was still alive. A gaping, gangrenous hole had opened at the left corner of his baby mouth and ate away his cheek - it ate all flesh, and then into bones, leaving white skull edges exposed. His upper lip was mostly gone and the hole was now big enough to eat away the end of his nose, leaving sinus holes gaping, coated with a thin layer of pus. The smell, as he exhaled, was enough to make me swallow hard. I was horror-struck, but even worse was the fact that he saw my face, and, like any sweet little kid, I scared him - looking at him like that, and he reached his thin arms up to his mama and his crusty eyes tried to fill with tears and what was left of his mouth tried to distort into a normal cry, tugging at fraying, rotting flesh, part of his tongue was gone and I realized the horror of it all - that he was trapped, hurting, rotting before he was dead and, even though I thought it couldn’t be worse, I saw his poor mother swallow hard and walk around me and reach to stroke his hair. But she didn’t do what all the women in Africa do when their babies cry at the doctor’s - she didn’t offer him her breast. And you could see that she felt horrible for not doing it, but how could she when all that was left of his mouth and face was this living, hurting, horror-struck gangrenous hole? He was bereft.

That, my lovely reader-friends, is the face of noma. That experience, when I cried in Africa in front of this mother and when I weep now even thinking about it again, is why I’m asking everyone to recognize this new, long-overdue cause. I know we’re all disaster-exhausted. I know it’s hard to reach inside for yet one more tug on our tugged-to-the-point-of-breaking heartstrings. But Noma is something that no one, no child, should ever be forced to suffer. It is a horror beyond all horrors. And it’s completely, cheaply preventable.

And, with the price of food skyrocketing, it’s likely to attack more and more children.

Noma, to put it simply, is when there is not enough nutrition and germs overgrow the mouth and the child’s immune system fails under the onslaught without nourishment - the germs start to eat away at the flesh of the person. It begins in the mouth, where we all have lots of germs, and it keeps going through flesh and bone. Usually it is fatal - when the mouth begins to disintegrate, a vicious spiral begins because the child can’t eat. But if it is recognized early and aggressively treated with simple things like vitamins and nutrition and sometimes antibiotics, children can be saved. Even when they’re saved, however, these children are often outcasts - disfigured for life, for no greater sin than not having enough to eat when they were young. Noma is often believed to be a curse, and whole families can be stigmatized. Today, over 100,000 children a year suffer this horror. Noma strikes wherever there is hunger - Asia, South America, and Africa. And yes, noma existed here, both in the United States and Europe, until the last century when we became wealthier nations.

Here’s how you can help. Say no to noma. Noma no more, is what I’d call this campaign. Give a bit - even the cost of one day’s coffee, just $3. Don’t stress about whether it’s enough - anything is good. Go to for more info - 100% of proceeds go to direct services.

Suu Kyi's house arrest extended

Burma's ruling junta has renewed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest.
The decision came at a tricky time for the generals, who have been criticised for their response to Cyclone Nargis.

Ms Suu Kyi's party won a resounding election victory in 1990, but she was denied power by the military.

The 62-year-old National League for Democracy (NLD) leader has spent more than 12 of the last 18 years in detention.

Police bundled a number of opposition activists into a truck as they marched on Tuesday from the NLD party headquarters to her lakeside villa in Rangoon.

Correspondents had expected her house arrest - which has been renewed annually - to be rolled over for another year.

Monday, May 26, 2008

BRUCE COCKBURN - If I Had A Rocket Launcher

The Magnifying Glass Gets an Electronic Twist

PEOPLE who lose part of their sight to macular degeneration, diabetes or other diseases may now benefit from some new technology. Several portable video devices that enlarge print may help them make the most of their remaining vision.Swipe one of the devices over an airline ticket, or point it at a medicine bottle on a shelf, and all of the fine print is blown up and displayed in crisp letters on a screen.

Sturdy desktop video-based systems that magnify print have long been available, but lightweight, portable devices have become popular only in the past decade, as the size of consumer electronics products in general has shrunk. The new hand-held models typically weigh 9 ounces or less and can enlarge the print on closeby or more distant objects: users can pass the magnifier over a menu in a dimly lit restaurant, for example, or aim it at a grocery display on a store aisle.

The devices have a substantial drawback, however, when compared with a $40 magnifying glass: They typically cost $700 to $1,300, and Medicare and most private insurance plans usually do not pay for them, said Robert McGillivray, low-vision specialist at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass.

Myanmar’s Cyclone Survivors Still Waiting for Food

PYAPON, Myanmar — The roads of the ravaged Irrawaddy Delta are lined these days with people hoping to be fed.

After lifetimes living off the land, poor farmers have abandoned their ruined rice paddies, setting up makeshift bamboo shelters, waiting for carloads of Burmese civilians who have taken it on themselves to feed those who lost everything to Cyclone Nargis.

Few of those who wait say they have received anything from the government, other than threats.

“They said if we don’t break our huts and disappear, they will shoot us,” one man in the village of Thee Kone said over the weekend before a police jeep approached. “But as you can see, it’s raining now. We are pleading to the police to give us one more day and we will be gone far, far from the road, as they wish.”

A red sign on a stake along one road read: “Don’t throw food on the roads. It ruins the people’s good habits.”

I don’t know how the government is helping us,” said Ko Htay Oo, 40, in Kungyangon, a delta town 30 miles south of Yangon, Myanmar’s main city. He said the only aid he had seen was delivered by other Burmese citizens.

“I am no beggar, so I didn’t eat anything in the past two days,” he said, leaning against a roadside palm tree. “Besides, you shouldn’t compete with kids for begged food.”

Those who have gotten government help say it is not nearly enough.

Dead bodies floating down the Pyapon River are no longer strangers to us,” said Daw Khin Kyi, a resident. “Some of these bodies still wear gold necklaces and bracelets, so some people went out to collect them in the first few days. But now, after many days, nobody goes near. Fish are nibbling at the bodies.”

Ma Ye Ye Tan, a 17-year-old from a hamlet down the river, survived the cyclone. She had arrived at the home of a Pyapon relative several days after the cyclone with virtually nothing on, shivering in monsoon rain.

Now, she said, she did want to go back to her village, which is filled with death. She is not sure what happened to her parents.

“After the cyclone came and went, we continued to hear people shouting in the darkness, but when village men went to search for them, they could find no one,” she said. “We think they are ghosts shouting. I am afraid of ghosts.”

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Derek Trucks Band -- Sahib Teri Bandi (Crossroads 2007)

Presenting the amazing Derek Trucks:

Sudan's Macabre Display Of Victory Over Attackers

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- A week after Darfur rebels launched an audacious attack on this sand-swept capital, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir presided over a macabre exhibit aimed at crushing any doubt as to which side won.

With state TV cameras set up across a dusty field, he surveyed a row of battered and bullet-holed Hilux trucks that government forces had seized from the rebels. Bashir raised an ivory-tipped baton, and hundreds of security forces cheered, waving shoes, T-shirts and other clothes allegedly stripped off the doomed fighters.

Then he strolled past a 200-yard-long photo gallery, a grotesque display of burned and dismembered bodies, allegedly those of the rebels. Each image was underlined with the same caption in Arabic: "summary of failure."

Food Costs Push Bangladesh to Brink of Unrest

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- As a seamstress, Abida Dulalmia makes $1.25 a day embroidering cartoon characters on Disney T-shirts and stitching pockets on jeans for Target. In this jumbled, hazy metropolis, her salary was once coveted. Now it hardly seems enough.

With inflation starting to climb into the double digits in Bangladesh and food prices soaring around the world, Dulalmia spends as much as 80 percent of what she makes solely to put food on the dinner table.

"We work really hard," the 25-year-old mother of two said on a recent day, wiping perspiration from her daughter's forehead in the muggy heat of their airless, one-room home. "Why can't we afford to eat?"
Bangladesh is among at least 33 countries, many with shaky governments and destitute populations, that are at risk of serious political unrest if food prices keep rising, according to a recent World Bank study. In some countries, the consequences of the food crisis are already playing out. Haiti's prime minister, for example, was forced to step down last month after riots in Port-au-Prince.

In this country, the crisis is compounded by natural disasters that have destroyed wide swaths of farmland. Many Bangladeshis have migrated from rural areas to the capital as "climate refugees," driven out by floods and cyclones that some scientists believe have intensified because of rising global temperatures. Now, in the relative safety of Dhaka, illiterate, often unskilled laborers are being hit by economic calamity as high inflation and surging food prices make their lives more difficult.

Although poverty had started to slowly recede over the past decade in this nation of 150 million, there are renewed fears that inflation could undo its decades of progress and once again make it the "basket case" of the world, as it was once dubbed by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Junta Offers Showcase Camps, but Most Burmese Lack Aid

From Bruce Cockburn's song, "Postcards from Cambodia"..

This is too big for anger,
it’s too big for blame.
We stumble through history so
humanly lame
So I bow down my head
Say a prayer for us all
That we don’t fear the spirit
when it comes to call

The surrealism in Myanmar continues--the latest from the New York TImes:

HLINETHAYA RELIEF CAMP, Myanmar — The 68 blue tents are lined up in a row, with a brand-new water purifier and boxes of relief supplies, stacked neatly but as yet undelivered and not even opened. “If you don’t keep clean, you’ll be expelled from here,” a camp manager barked at families in some tents.
The moment, at what has been billed as a model camp for survivors of Cyclone Nargis, captured a common complaint among refugees and aid volunteers: that the military junta that rules Myanmar cares more about the appearance of providing aid than actually providing it.
In the village of Ar Pyin Padan, a few minutes’ walk from here and just an hour’s drive from the center of Yangon, 40 families who lost nearly everything they owned crowded a rundown two-story school building. They had pushed desks together to serve as makeshift beds.

Here, deliveries of relief supplies are so infrequent that the refugees say they draw lots to get a small share whenever a donation comes in. For drinking water, one said, the township authorities “threw some medicine” into a nearby pond and told the villagers to drink from it.

Now the authorities are allowing no more refugees into the school. Instead they are trying to evict those who are already there so that the building can be used as a balloting station on Saturday.

The aid runners are coming under increasing pressure from the government.

Twenty of Mr. Thura’s team members have received calls from the police warning that they will be punished if they continue their work. On Sunday, he said, his photographer, U Kyaw Swar Aung, was arrested and has not been heard from since. He had been traveling around the delta making videos of dead bodies, crying children and villagers who went insane after the storm and distributing them as DVDs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Thura said the government seemed less focused on aid than on making sure there were no more scenes like those to film. In one place, he said he saw a pile of floating bodies clogging the narrow mouth of a stream after they were dumped into the water by soldiers on a cleanup operation.

“Then the soldiers used dynamite to blow up the bodies into shreds,” he said.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor: My Stroke of Insight

Fascinating discussion of the brain from a neuroscientist who has had a stroke...

Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions -- motion, speech, self-awareness –- shut down one by one. An astonishing story.

Why Zappos Pays New Employees to Quit—And You Should Too

irst, some background. As most of you know, Zappos sells shoes—lots of them—over the Internet. The company expects to generate sales of more than $1 billion this year, up from just $70 million five years ago. Part of the reason for Zappos’s meteoric success is that it got the economics and operations right. It offers customers a huge selection—four million pairs of shoes (and other items, such as handbags and apparel) in a warehouse in Kentucky next to a UPS hub. (If Imelda Marcos visited that warehouse she'd likely have a coronary on the spot.) It also offers free delivery and free returns—if you don’t like the shoes, you box them up and send them back to Zappos for no charge.

So the value proposition is a winner. But it’s the emotional connection that seals the deal. This company is fanatical about great service—not just satisfying customers, but amazing them. The company promises free, four-day delivery. That’s pretty good. But most of the time it delivers next-day service, a surprise that leaves a lasting impression on customers: “You said four days, but I got them the next morning.”
This is a company that’s bursting with personality, to the point where a huge number of its 1,600 employees are power users of Twitter so that their friends, colleagues, and customers know what they’re up to at any moment in time. But here’s what’s really interesting. It’s a hard job, answering phones and talking to customers for hours at a time. So when Zappos hires new employees, it provides a four-week training period that immerses them in the company’s strategy, culture, and obsession with customers. People get paid their full salary during this period.

After a week or so in this immersive experience, though, it’s time for what Zappos calls “The Offer.” The fast-growing company, which works hard to recruit people to join, says to its newest employees: “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $1,000 bonus.” Zappos actually bribes its new employees to quit!

Why? Because if you’re willing to take the company up on the offer, you obviously don’t have the sense of commitment they are looking for. It’s hard to describe the level of energy in the Zappos culture—which means, by definition, it’s not for everybody. Zappos wants to learn if there’s a bad fit between what makes the organization tick and what makes individual employees tick—and it’s willing to pay to learn sooner rather than later. (About ten percent of new call-center employees take the money and run.)

Spot Crime in Your Neighborhood

Crime-mapping mashup SpotCrime pulls data from city police records and news sources and plots it in an easy-to-snoop fashion. Choose a city, a time frame, and the types of offenses you want to see, and you can mouse-over the pinned icons to see thumbnail descriptions, or click an item for a full read. The site claims that humans are working in the background to make sense of

Study Finds Big Social Factor in Quitting Smoking

Smokers tend to quit in groups, the study finds, which means smoking cessation programs should work best if they focus on groups rather than individuals. It also means that people may help many more than just themselves by quitting: quitting can have a ripple effect prompting an entire social network to break the habit.

The study, by Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, followed thousands of smokers and nonsmokers for 32 years, from 1971 until 2003, studying them as part of a large network of relatives, co-workers, neighbors, friends and friends of friends.
Dr. Christakis described watching the vanishing clusters as like lying on your back in a field, looking up at stars that were burning out. “It’s not like one little star turning off at a time,” he said. “Whole constellations are blinking off at once.”

As cluster after cluster of smokers disappeared, those that remained were pushed to the margins of society, isolated, with fewer friends, fewer social connections. “Smokers used to be the center of the party,” Dr. Fowler said, “but now they’ve become wallflowers.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Myanmar Mourns Victims of Cyclone

It is heartbreaking that a natural disaster of such magnitude has hit such a gentle people, but it is nauseating that a government would deny international aid to people dying...Pictures of our
trip to Myanmar from two months ago can be found here

BANGKOK — Myanmar began three days of national mourning for cyclone victims Tuesday, one day after agreeing to let its Southeast Asian neighbors help coordinate foreign relief assistance following the devastating Cyclone Nargis more than two weeks ago.

The supply of aid and the entry of relief workers from countries outside the Southeast Asian bloc will continue to be limited, said Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo after an emergency meeting in Singapore of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, which includes Myanmar. But the move was taken as a signal that Myanmar’s reclusive military rulers had bowed somewhat to international pressure to allow more outside aid.

Older Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain

When older people can no longer remember names at a cocktail party, they tend to think that their brainpower is declining. But a growing number of studies suggest that this assumption is often wrong.

Instead, the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.

The studies are analyzed in a new edition of a neurology book, “Progress in Brain Research.”
A broad attention span may enable older adults to ultimately know more about a situation and the indirect message of what’s going on than their younger peers,” Dr. Hasher said. “We believe that this characteristic may play a significant role in why we think of older people as wiser.”

In a 2003 study at Harvard, Dr. Carson and other researchers tested students’ ability to tune out irrelevant information when exposed to a barrage of stimuli. The more creative the students were thought to be, determined by a questionnaire on past achievements, the more trouble they had ignoring the unwanted data. A reduced ability to filter and set priorities, the scientists concluded, could contribute to original thinking.

This phenomenon, Dr. Carson said, is often linked to a decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. Studies have found that people who suffered an injury or disease that lowered activity in that region became more interested in creative pursuits.


Natural echolocation is a way of sensing the surroundings by clicking your tongue and interpreting the sound that echoes back. It takes years to learn, so if someone loses a sense later in life it can be difficult to pick up.

Now, the emerging science of Brain Enhancement may have a solution. Professor Kevin Warwick at the University of Reading has developed an ultrasound device that could help blind people echolocate electronically.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Chasing Utopia, Family Imagines No Possessions

The voluntary simplicity movement reminds me alot of life in the ex-patriot parallel universe, where travel and adventure usurp materialism for many...

Though it may not be the stuff of the typical American dream, the voluntary simplicity movement, which traces its inception to 1980s Seattle, is drawing a great deal of renewed interest, some experts say.
“The idea in the movement was ‘everything you own owns you,’ ” said Dr. Grigsby, who sees roots of the philosophy in the lives of the Puritans. “You have to care for it, store it. It becomes an appendage, I think. If it enhances your life and helps you do the things you want to do, great. If you are burdened by these things and they become the center of what you have to do to live, is that really positive?”

“Their previous lives have become too stressful,” Dr. Schor said. “They have a lack of meaning because their jobs are too demanding.”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Famine Looms as Wars Rend Horn of Africa

DAGAARI, Somalia — The global food crisis has arrived at Safia Ali’s hut.

he cannot afford rice or wheat or powdered milk anymore.

At the same time, a drought has decimated her family’s herd of goats, turning their sole livelihood into a pile of bleached bones and papery skin.

The result is that Ms. Safia, a 25-year-old mother of five, has not eaten in a week. Her 1-year-old son is starving too, an adorable, listless boy who doesn’t even respond to a pinch.

Somalia — and much of the volatile Horn of Africa, for that matter — was about the last place on earth that needed a food crisis. Even before commodity prices started shooting up around the globe, civil war, displacement and imperiled aid operations had pushed many people here to the brink of famine.

But now with food costs spiraling out of reach and the livestock that people live off of dropping dead in the sand, villagers across this sun-blasted landscape say hundreds of people are dying of hunger and thirst.

This is what happens, economists say, when the global food crisis meets local chaos.

A Disgraceful Farm Bill

Oh did I already blog on this?

Congress has approved a $307 billion farm bill that rewards rich farmers who do not need the help while doing virtually nothing to help the world’s hungry, who need all the help they can get.

President Bush should keep his promise to veto it and demand better legislation.

The bill is an inglorious piece of work tailored to the needs of big agriculture and championed by not only the usual bipartisan farm state legislators but also the Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Every five years we get a new farm bill, and each time we are reminded that even reformers like Ms. Pelosi cannot resist the blandishments and power of the farmers.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Oh did I already blog about this? Here is an editorial from the WSJ.

We can't wait to hear how Members of Congress explain their vote this week for the new $300 billion farm bill. At a time when Americans are squeezed at the grocery store, they will now see more of their taxes flow to the very farmers profiting from these high food prices.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
May 14, 2008; Page A20
We can't wait to hear how Members of Congress explain their vote this week for the new $300 billion farm bill. At a time when Americans are squeezed at the grocery store, they will now see more of their taxes flow to the very farmers profiting from these high food prices.

This year farm income is expected to reach an all-time high of $92.3 billion, an increase of 56% in two years, making growers perhaps the most undeserving welfare recipients in American history. But that won't stop this bill from passing the House and Senate by wide margins. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was once a farm subsidy skeptic, but she now has some 30 freshman Democrats from battleground rural districts to protect. So more than $10 billion a year in giveaways to agribusiness is a necessary taxpayer sacrifice to keep her majority.

Ms. Pelosi calls the bill "real reform," which is like calling Lindsay Lohan born again. For example: The bill perpetuates the so-called Hurricane Katrina gambit that allows farmers to lock in price-support payments at the lowest possible market price, and then sell their crops later at the highest possible price, and then pocket the high price and a payment from the government for the difference between the two. They in effect get paid twice for the same bushel of wheat.

A bigger scam is the new income limit to qualify for subsidies. Mr. Bush sought a $200,000 annual income cap, but Congress can't bring itself to go below $750,000. Even that is a farce, because it doesn't include loan programs and disaster payments, and it allows spouses to qualify for payments too. The White House and liberal reformers calculate that farm owners with clever accountants can have incomes of up to $2.5 million and still get a taxpayer handout.

The Art of Survival: An Interview with Jerry White

Jerry (no, not "Jeremiah") Wright gets it...Well, at least I will say that his thoughts/philosophies echo those I have formed on the basis of my international travels/life experience

Jerry White is the co-founder of Survivor Corps (formerly Landmine Survivors Newwork). His changed in 1984 when he lost his leg in a landmine explosion while visiting Israel. After this experience he has championed the cause of survivorship and became a leader in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. In 1997 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Jody Williams for his efforts. He recently published a book called I Will Not Be Broken: Five Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis.


Question: How can people be expected to “give back” when so much has been taken from them?
Answer: The most generous can be found among the poorest of the poor, people who experienced crisis and poverty themselves. Many have discovered that the key to finding joy lies in giving back to our communities. Many of us exert enormous effort just to survive life, but when we learn to give again, in small and big ways, we gain in strength. Giving keeps us from slipping back into a victim mentality.

Question: What are the challenges of starting an organization that serves people thousands of miles away from most of your supporters?

Answer: It is a challenge for people to feel empathy and compassion across oceans. It’s a fact of life that most charitable giving, like politics, is local. Less than three percent of American private philanthropy goes to international causes or organizations. Americans are very generous, but most of their gifts go to churches, synagogues, hospitals, schools and cultural institutions in our backyards.

I once sat in on a focus group and heard many participants admit they would be more likely to give to an international organization like Survivor Corps if they also knew we were helping survivors here at home, such as veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. And we are. The United States is a very war-affected nation. We must have strategies to reach out and connect conflict survivors to offer support and promote successful community reintegration after war and violence.

None of the survivors I work with, from Bosnia to Vietnam to Ethiopia, wants to be dependent on our charity or pity. They want a chance to get back in the game. That’s why each and every survivor we work with agrees to perform community service. For example, if we help a survivor get a fake leg or find a job, then he or she is obligated to help another survivor in their community. Sometimes it’s as simple as a roof repair, or sharing of food. Everyone feels better after giving again. Does anyone out there feel good being in someone else’s “charitable” debt?

(This is exactly what I have found in spending time with the very poor in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.)

Question: What’s your step-by-step recommendation for someone who wants to “change the world” like you have?

Answer: Look at your own life circumstances and take the Survivor Pledge: 1) I will not be a victim. 2) I will rise above. 3) I will give back. 4) I will change the world.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama once told me, “We have to remove the landmines from our own hearts first, before we can fully demine the world and bring peace.” So take a peak within, then gain some perspective to rise above self-centeredness and reach out to others in need. It can be scary at first because it requires us to get out of our comfort zones and cross boundaries and barriers to meet people who seem different, marginalized, threatening at first.

The question becomes not whether to be a global citizen—we all are—but how best to become an active one. And it gets personal, because you have to get to know yourself and ask: Who am I? What do I care about? What am I good at? How can I help appropriately? And then align these things in our lives, our work, our giving patterns. Give locally; act globally. Or give globally; act locally. Do it your way by mixing it up, have fun as you learn your unique value-add place in the world. Turns out that giving is simply good for you. Like exercise, it boosts your serotonin levels.

Video: Burma/Myanmar in Cyclone Nargis' aftermath

Global Voices has compiled a collection of videos from inside Myanmar. Note: some of these are quite disturbing...They may not be up for long if (when) censorship occurs...

In spite of these restrictions on people carrying cameras and taking pictures, some have gone out to record the extent of the damages. It would seem that their disregard for the junta's guidelines for reporting on the cyclone is strictly tied with their anger at the junta for not evacuating the affected villages even when they were aware of the impending cyclone and the possible devastation it could cause.

Farm Bill Chestnuts

TO HEAR CONGRESS tell it, the farm bill that it just passed by veto-proof margins in both houses is all about helping the poor. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), for example, appeared with members of the House Asian and Hispanic caucuses to hail its benefits for minority communities. And about two-thirds of the $289 billion bill will go to nutrition programs for low-income Americans, including about $10 billion in necessary increases. Corporate welfare for agribusiness accounts for less than half the price tag. But where does the Constitution say that Congress has to put aid to the poor in the same bill with tens of billions in aid to the middle class and rich? Congress does it that way so that rural members can get urban and suburban members to sign off on lavish farm subsidies they would otherwise reject.
The farm bill is the epitome of old-style Washington politics

Women Rise in Rwanda's Economic Revival

MARABA, Rwanda -- Sun-kissed plantations ring this village, renowned in recent years for growing the rich arabica beans brewed and served in some of the world's finest coffee houses. But the secret to success here has had far less to do with the idyllic climate and volcanic soil than with a group of people who have emerged as Maraba's -- and Rwanda's -- most potent economic force: women.

In the 14 years since the genocide, when 800,000 people died during three months of violence, this country has become perhaps the world's leading example of how empowering women can fundamentally transform post-conflict economies and fight the cycle of poverty.

Vitamin D Deficiency Makes Breast Cancer More Deadly

Vitamin D Deficiency Makes Breast Cancer More Deadly
Women with low levels of vitamin D when they’re diagnosed with breast cancer are more likely to die from the disease than those who have higher levels of the vitamin, doctors are reporting.

The finding — part of a growing body of evidence that connects vitamin D to several types of cancer — was just published, ahead of the upcoming American Society of Clinical Oncology conference. It was based on a University of Toronto study of 512 women diagnosed with breast cancer between 1989 and 1995. Researchers kept track of the women’s health through 2006.

Vitamin D levels were broken into three categories: “deficient” (192 of the women were in this group) “insufficient” (197 women) and “sufficient” (124 women). (Even among healthy women, high rates of vitamin D deficiency are common.)

Those with deficient levels were 73% more likely to die than those with sufficient levels. Cancer was also significantly more likely to spread to other parts of the body in women with vitamin D deficiency, the researchers found.

Previous studies have connected low vitamin D levels with higher risk of colon, prostate and breast cancer, as well as higher mortality from the cancers, according to this NEJM article.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

If It’s Eye Care Technology, This Must Be Orange County

THAT Orange County, Calif., has become a center of small companies developing devices for eye care is no coincidence.

Some of the companies were nurtured by a six-year-old private organization of more than two dozen top executives of corporations in the county. The organization, called Orange County Technology Network, or Octane, has so far created 27 companies, most in electronics and software technology, and biomedical devices, especially for eye care.

Towering Silence

For millennia Zoroastrians have used vultures to dispose of their dead. What will happen when the birds disappear?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Seedy Rivalry

Another great column by biologist, Olivia Judson on sperm competition...

Young Saudis, Vexed and Entranced by Love’s Rules

Asking a woman for her number can cause a young man anxiety anywhere. But in Saudi Arabia, getting caught with an unrelated woman can mean arrest, a possible flogging and dishonor, the worst penalty of all in a society where preserving a family’s reputation depends on faithful adherence to a strict code of separation between the sexes.
That suggests that Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam, largely uncontested at home by the next generation and spread abroad by Saudi money in a time of religious revival, will increasingly shape how Muslims around the world will live their faith. Young men like Nader and Enad are taught that they are the guardians of the family’s reputation, expected to shield their female relatives from shame and avoid dishonoring their families by their own behavior. It is a classic example of how the Saudis have melded their faith with their desert tribal traditions.

“One of the most important Arab traditions is honor,” Enad said. “If my sister goes in the street and someone assaults her, she won’t be able to protect herself. The nature of men is that men are more rational. Women are not rational. With one or two or three words, a man can get what he wants from a woman. If I call someone and a girl answers, I have to apologize. It’s a huge deal. It is a violation of the house.”
“Love is dangerous,” Al Atti said as she sat with her sisters in the house. “It can ruin your reputation.”

Love on Girls’ Side of the Saudi Divide

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The dance party in Atheer Jassem al-Othman’s living room was in full swing. The guests — about two dozen girls in their late teens — had arrived, and Ms. Othman and her mother were passing around cups of sweet tea and dishes of dates.

The separation between the sexes in Saudi Arabia is so extreme that it is difficult to overstate. Saudi women may not drive, and they must wear black abayas and head coverings in public at all times. They are spirited around the city in cars with tinted windows, attend girls-only schools and university departments, and eat in special “family” sections of cafes and restaurants, which are carefully partitioned from the sections used by single male diners.

Special women-only gyms, women-only boutiques and travel agencies, even a women-only shopping mall, have been established in Riyadh in recent years to serve women who did not previously have access to such places unless they were chaperoned by a male relative.

Playful as they are, girls like Ms. Othman and her friends are well aware of the limits that their conservative society places on their behavior. And, for the most part, they say that they do not seriously question those limits.

Flirting by Phone

A woman can’t switch her phone’s Bluetooth feature on in a public place without receiving a barrage of the love poems and photos of flowers and small children which many Saudi men keep stored on their phones for purposes of flirtation. And last year, Al Arabiya television reported that some young Saudis have started buying special “electronic belts,” which use Bluetooth technology to discreetly beam the wearer’s cellphone number and e-mail address at passing members of the opposite sex.
“My sister and I sometimes ask my mom, ‘Why didn’t you breast-feed our boy cousins, too?’ ” Shaden continued.

She was referring to a practice called milk kinship that predates Islam and is still common in the Persian Gulf countries. A woman does not have to veil herself in front of a man she nursed as an infant, and neither do her biological children. The woman’s biological children and the children she has nursed are considered “milk siblings” and are prohibited from marrying.

“If my mom had breast-fed my cousins, we could sit with them, and it would all be much easier,” Shaden said. She turned back to the stack of DVDs she had been rifling through, and held up a copy of Pride and Prejudice, the version with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, a film she says she has seen dozens of times.

“It’s a bit like our society, I think,” Shaden said of late Georgian England. “It’s dignified, and a bit strict. Doesn’t it remind you a little bit of Saudi Arabia? It’s my favorite DVD.”

Shaden sighed, deeply. “When Darcy comes to Elizabeth and says ‘I love you’ — that’s exactly the kind of love I want.”

Burma junta 'seals cyclone zone'

Burma's military rulers have tightened access to areas hit by Cyclone Nargis, in spite of international pleas to allow foreign aid workers in.

A UN official in Rangoon says the military has erected more checkpoints to make sure foreigners cannot get to the worst-affected areas.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is in Burma trying to urge the generals to allow aid agencies to help the victims.

Meanwhile, forecasters say another cyclone is forming off Burma's coast.

The Hawaii-based Joint Typhoon Warning Center said on its website that "a significant tropical cyclone" could develop in the next 24 hours.

Aid agencies are warning that the ruling generals' refusal to sanction a major international relief effort will cause more deaths.

Worldwide Telescope

Want to see the same images that scientists at NASA use for their research or perform your own research with those images? Or do you want to see the Earth from the same perspective that astronauts see as they descend to Earth? How about taking a 5 minute break and viewing a panorama of a different city? Install WWT and start your explorations.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Out With the Boys for a Night of Numbering

“Could I pass for a boy?” I asked. The black skirt of my abaya still trailed the floor, but from the waist up I felt pretty pleased with the effect.

Fahad, the most talkative of the boys, snorted.

“No,” he said. “But I think that’s as good as we’re going to do. We’re going to put you in the middle seat, and if you see someone in another car staring, turn slowly away.”

We piled into the S.U.V., and Thamer clicked through a rap mix CD to find Akon’s “Smack That,” to set the right mood for an evening of numbering. The boys bobbed their heads in time to the music.

“Wanna jump up in my Lamborghini Gallardo/Maybe go to my place and just kick it, like Taebo?” Akon sang.

In reality, getting a girl to go anywhere with him, let alone to “kick it,” is a near impossibility, Fahad explained. For most young Saudi men, a night of numbering is simply a night driving around with friends, listening to music, chasing cars containing black-draped figures that could just as easily be old women as young girls. Since numbering is considered harassment, detention by the religious police is an ever-present possibility.

Hungry Burmese Child

A Burmese child asked for more food during aid delivery in Dedaya, Myanmar. It is estimated that one million people are homeless.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Friday, May 09, 2008

U.N. Suspends Myanmar Aid After Supplies Seized by Junta

BANGKOK — The United Nations suspended relief supplies to Myanmar on Friday after the military government seized the food and equipment it had already sent into the country.

One United Nations official said he had never seen delays like this before in delivering relief supplies and aid officials. In Indonesia after the tsunami in 2004, he said, an air bridge of daily flights was established within 48 hours.

“The frustration caused by what appears to be a paperwork delay is unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts,” said Mr. Risley. “It’s astonishing.”

Shattered Nation Proceeds With Vote

"Completely Surreal" is right...

The damage and disruptions from the storm — the death toll could rise by many tens of thousands, roadways and communications are blocked — forced the regime to postpone the voting in central Yangon and the much harder-hit Irrawaddy Delta, which lies to the south. Those areas will go to the polls on May 24. Elsewhere in the country, voting will proceed on Saturday.

Most of the international community considers the draft constitution — and the referendum — to be a sham. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a Brazilian lawyer and former United Nations human rights envoy who served as a liaison with the junta, ridiculed the draft constitution and the government’s ban on any public criticism of the document.

“Completely surreal,” he said.

Among its stipulations: Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2010 and a fourth of all seats are reserved for military officers. Also, Burmese who have married foreigners are ineligible for office, a codicil aimed squarely at Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy activist who remains under house arrest in Yangon. She was married to a British scholar, Michael Aris, who died in 1999.

It is widely expected that the vote will be resoundingly in favor of the draft. The government would probably not permit anything but a landslide. Soldiers, for example, will vote at their barracks, and government workers must vote in front of their bosses.

“Of course we will tick ‘yes,’ ” said a customer service agent at the new airport in Yangon. “We work for the government, what can we do?”

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Aid Flows to Myanmar as Death Toll Rises to 22,500

The government's focus on passing the Constitutional Referendum in the midst of this tragedy is quite disturbing...

BANGKOK — The death toll from a powerful cyclone that struck Myanmar three days ago rose to 22,500 Tuesday, with a further 41,000 people still missing, the government said, and foreign governments and aid organizations began mobilizing for a major relief operation.

Shaken by the scope of the disaster, the authorities said they would delay a vote in the worst affected areas on a new constitution that was meant to cement the military’s grip on power.

The death toll was the latest in a steadily escalating official count since Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar early Saturday, devastating much of the fertile Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon, the nation’s main city.

At a news conference in Yangon, the minister for relief and resettlement, Maung Maung Swe, said 41,000 people were still missing in the aftermath of the cyclone, which triggered a surge of water inland from the sea.
The constitutional referendum was still to go ahead on May 10 in other parts of the country but would be delayed until May 24 in the worst affected regions, where more than a third of the population live.

The postponement of the vote, a centerpiece of government policy, along with an appeal for foreign disaster relief assistance, were difficult concessions by an insular military junta that portrays itself as all-powerful and self-sufficient, analysts said.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Truth About the Spinning Dancer

A popular e-mail going around features a spinning dancer that has been touted as a test of whether you are right-brained and creative or left-brained and logical. If you see the dancer spinning clockwise, the story goes, you are using more of your right brain, and if you see it moving counterclockwise, you are more of a left-brained person.

But while the dancer does indeed reflect the brain savvy of its creator, Japanese Web designer Nobuyuki Kayahara, it is not a brain test. Instead, it is simply an optical illusion called a reversible, or ambiguous, image. Images like this one have been long studied by scientists to learn more about how vision works.

Food Politics

THE WHOLE world is feeling the impact of soaring food and commodity prices. A recent series in The Post reported that poor families in West Africa are selling precious livestock to buy staples, while some consumers in our own area have taken to hoarding cut-rate groceries. The surge in costs, unlike anything global food markets have seen since the 1970s, has many causes. It reflects one good trend -- rising demand for food as India and China prosper -- and a dangerous one -- rising oil prices. There has been drought in wheat-exporting Australia. Many countries have banned or discouraged food exports. Yet several contributing factors are made in the U.S.A. The Federal Reserve Board's interest rate cuts are weakening the dollar. They may also be driving speculators to bid up the price of commodities. And ethanol subsidies, coupled with Congress's new mandate to produce 36 billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2022, are diverting land from other crops to corn production -- and corn from food to energy.

Correcting policies that exacerbate the food crisis will be one of the next president's most urgent tasks

Surgery Shows Promise For Treatment of Diabetes

In dozens of studies involving thousands of patients, standard gastric bypass surgery cleared up diabetes in more than 80 percent of obese patients who had the disease, raising the possibility that surgery would help those who weigh less.
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