Archive for January, 2011

World food prices at fresh high, says UN

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Global food prices rose to a fresh high in December, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

Its Food Price Index went above the previous record of 2008 that saw prices spark riots in several countries.

Soaring sugar, cereal and oil prices had driven the rise, the report said.

The index, which measures monthly price changes for a food basket composed of dairy, meat and sugar, cereals and oilseeds, averaged 214.7 points last month, up from 206 points in November.

It stood at 213.5 points at the high of June 2008 – sparking violent protests in countries including Cameroon, Haiti and Egypt.

There were further riots over food prices in Mozambique in September last year.

However, despite high prices, FAO economist Abdolreza Abbassian said that many of the factors that triggered food riots in 2007 and 2008 – such as weak production in poor countries – were not currently present, reducing the risk of more turmoil.

But he added that “unpredictable weather” meant that grain prices could go much higher, which was “a concern”.

– More…

Brazil Finance Minister Mantega warns of trade war

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Brazil has warned that the world is on course for a trade war because of what it says is currency manipulation by China, the US and others.

Finance minister Guido Mantega said Brazil was preparing moves to prevent further appreciation of its currency.

He said his government would raise the issue at the World Trade Organization and the G20 group of rich and developing countries.

Mr Mantega was speaking in an interview with the Financial Times newspaper.

“This is a currency war which is turning into a trade war,” Mr Mantega said in his first major interview since Dilma Rousseff took office as Brazil’s new president on 1 January.

He said Brazil’s trade with the US had slipped from an annual surplus of about $15bn (£9.6bn) to a deficit of $6bn because of US efforts to revive its economy through loose monetary policy.

“The exchange rate is one of the main drivers of economic policy, more so even than productivity,” he said.

Mr Mantega added that China’s “undervalued currency” was also distorting world trade.

He has been finance minister since 2006. In September last year he accused some rich countries of deliberately devaluing their currencies to boost exports and make their economies more competitive.

The Brazilian real has increased by 39% against the US dollar in the last two years.

Its value has been going up steadily as Brazil’s economy has grown, making Brazilian exports less competitive.

Brazil has been swamped by a flood of foreign capital that is taking advantage of low interest rates in the developed world to chase high returns in emerging economies, the BBC business reporter Linda Duffin says.

The International Monetary Fund warned in October that some countries appeared to be trying to use their currencies “as a weapon” and the issue of currency manipulation was discussed at the G20 summit in November.

– To the original…

Missing China activist Gao Zhisheng ‘tortured’

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

One of China’s most prominent human rights activists, Gao Zhisheng, has told of his torture by police during more than a year in secret detention.

The lawyer told the Associated Press he was stripped naked, beaten and pistol-whipped until he feared for his life.

Mr Gao gave the interview last April – just two weeks before he went missing.

He asked that his account only be published if he disappeared or arrived “someplace safe” like the US. Mr Gao has not been seen for several months.

The AP said it decided to publish his account given the length of his current disappearance.

Mr Gao is one of China’s leading human rights defenders. In 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “inciting subversion” but the jail term was suspended for five years.

Death threats

Mr Gao said that during his 14-month ordeal he had been moved between Beijing, his native province of Shaanxi and the far western region of Xinjiang.

He said weeks of inactivity were punctuated by outbursts of brutality.

He described being bound with belts and hooded, while his jailers threatened to kill him.

“You must forget you’re human. You’re a beast,” Mr Gao said his tormentors told him in September 2009.

He said he was told by Beijing police that he was “not good enough” for prison. “Whenever we want you to disappear, you will disappear,” he quoted police as saying.

In October, Mr Gao’s daughter, Grace Geng, appealed to US President Barack Obama for help in an open letter.

She said her father had been abducted and tortured “for exercising his right to freedom of speech”.

She said she too, aged 12, was beaten by police and barred from going to school; she finally fled China with her mother and brother in 2009.

Human rights advocates often cite Mr Gao’s case along with that of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed academic awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, as examples of what they say is the Chinese Communist Party’s increasing persecution of human rights defenders in China.

– To the original…

Indian shaman ‘poisons women in witchcraft test’

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

An Indian shaman who allegedly forced women to drink a potion to prove they were not witches has been arrested.

Nearly 30 women fell ill after they were rounded up in Shivni village in central Chhattisgarh state on Sunday and made to drink the herbal brew.

A senior police officer told the BBC that six villagers had also been arrested.

Witch hunts targeting women are common in east and central India, and a number of accused are killed every year.

Most of the cases take place in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar.

Police spokesman Rajesh Joshi told the BBC that an 18-year-old villager was accused of witchcraft because she had been unwell.

“Her father Sitaram Rathod and other villagers suspected that it [her illness] could be due to an evil spell cast by a witch,” Mr Joshi said.

“They [the villagers] called for an ojha [witch doctor] to ward off the spell.”

Authorities said the shaman, named as Bhagwan Deen, had been helped by a few other residents as he rounded up nearly all the adult women in the centre of the village.

He concocted the potion test after conducting rituals which failed to expose the alleged witch.

“The shaman then forced the women to consume a drink that he had made out of a local poisonous herb,” Mr Joshi said. “He said that after drinking the brew, the real witch would voluntarily confess.”

Of the nearly 30 women taken to hospital after the incident, around 25 women have since been discharged.

But police said five remained in hospital, including a 70-year-old woman who was in a serious condition.

– To the original…

Somalia’s al-Shabab bans mixed-sex handshake

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Men and women have been banned from shaking hands in a district of Somalia controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabab.

Under the ban imposed in the southern town of Jowhar, men and women who are not related are also barred from walking together or chatting in public.

It is the first time such social restrictions have been introduced.

The al-Shabab administration said those who disobeyed the new rules would be punished according to Sharia law.

The BBC’s Mohamed Moalimuu in Mogadishu says the penalty would probably be a public flogging.

The militant group has already banned music in areas that it controls, which include most of central and southern Somalia.

Somalia has not had a stable government since 1991.

The UN-backed government only controls parts of Mogadishu and a few other areas.

– To the original…

The Decline And Fall Of The American Empire

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

– I spend part of my evening last night reading “The Decline And Fall Of The American Empire” by Professor Alfred McCoy.

– Some friends of mine in an on-line discussion group were passing it around and discussing it.  Once I read it, I sent it along to others of my friends as well.   It’s a view (several, actually) of how the American decline might play out.  As Baby-Boomers and younger, we’ve all grown up in an American dominated world and it is hard for any of us to imagine such a global sea-change could happen.   But I, like McCoy, believe it is coming.

– It’s a good read and not too long.   Give it a shot it you have a few moments.

– Dennis

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Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025

A soft landing for America 40 years from now? Don’t bet on it. The demise of the United States as the global superpower could come far more quickly than anyone imagines. If Washington is dreaming of 2040 or 2050 as the end of the American Century, a more realistic assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025, just 15 years from now, it could all be over except for the shouting.

Despite the aura of omnipotence most empires project, a look at their history should remind us that they are fragile organisms. So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003.

Future historians are likely to identify the Bush administration’s rash invasion of Iraq in that year as the start of America’s downfall. However, instead of the bloodshed that marked the end of so many past empires, with cities burning and civilians slaughtered, this twenty-first century imperial collapse could come relatively quietly through the invisible tendrils of economic collapse or cyberwarfare.

But have no doubt: when Washington’s global dominion finally ends, there will be painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life. As a half-dozen European nations have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.

Available economic, educational, and military data indicate that, when it comes to U.S. global power, negative trends will aggregate rapidly by 2020 and are likely to reach a critical mass no later than 2030. The American Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II, will be tattered and fading by 2025, its eighth decade, and could be history by 2030.

– To the full article…

– Research thanks to John P.

Wonder drug

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Aspirin continues to amaze

FOR thousands of years aspirin has been humanity’s wonder drug. Extracts from the willow tree have been used for pain relief in folk medicine since the time of the ancient Greeks. By 1897 a synthetic derivative (acetyl salicylic acid) of the plant’s active ingredient (salicin) was created. This allowed aspirin to become the most widely used medicine in the world.

In recent years its benefits as a blood-thinning drug have led to it being prescribed in low doses of around 50mg to reduce deaths from stroke and heart attack. There were also hints that aspirin may help prevent some cancers. But these were mostly based on observational studies, which can be misleading.

The gold standard of scientific evidence is the randomised controlled trial, preferably one with a lot of people and held over a long time. The results of just such a trial, published in the Lancet, suggest that aspirin is indeed an astonishing drug. Peter Rothwell at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and his colleagues looked at deaths due to cancers during and after randomised trials of daily aspirin. The trials had actually been started to look at how useful aspirin was for preventing heart attacks and strokes. Nevertheless, the data from the 25,570 patients enrolled in eight trials was also revealing about cancer.

In trials lasting between four and eight years, the patients who had been given aspirin were 21% less likely to die from cancer than those who had been given a placebo. These results were based on 674 cancer deaths, so are unlikely to represent the kind of statistical oddity that can beset studies on cancer risks that sometimes create headlines.

The benefits of aspirin were also apparent many years after the trials had ended. After five years, death rates for all cancers fell by 35% and for gastrointestinal cancers by 54%. A long-term follow-up of patients showed that the 20-year risk of cancer death remained 20% lower in those who had taken aspirin.

– more…

– research thanks to Tony H.

Enough is enough, say climate scientists

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

A group of climate change scientists who are convinced mankind is slowly destroying the Earth have written an impassioned plea to be taken seriously.

255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences have written an open letter to the Guardian newspaper in the UK, in defence of climate research.

The letter begins by admitting that scientific findings are not always one hundred per cent accurate. And it acknowledges that pioneers like Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein achieved their lofty reputations by challenging what was – at the time – conventional scientific wisdom.

However, the letter goes on to say, there are certain things that are so universally accepted that they can now be considered ‘facts’: our planet is about 4.5bn years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14bn years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today’s organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution).

Anthropogenic (ie, caused by man) climate change should be listed among these “certainties” of science, the letter claims.