Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Alliance between GM and Peugeot Announced

General Motors and PSA Peugeot Citroen have announced a global alliance that will see them develop cars together.

Under the deal, GM will take a 7% stake in Peugeot, making GM the second biggest shareholder in the French firm after the Peugeot family.

The two firms will share engineering development and hope to launch the first common design by 2016.

They hope to save money by combining purchasing and by 2017 they expect to save some $2bn (£1.3bn) a year.

"This partnership brings tremendous opportunity for our two companies," said Dan Akerson, GM's chairman and chief executive.

"The alliance synergies in addition to our independent plans, position GM for long-term sustainable profitability in Europe."

Both companies have been struggling in Europe. GM's European brand, Opel, brand lost $747m (£472m) last year.

Citroen logo
PSA Peugeot Citroen sales fell 9% in
Europe las year
Despite tough trading conditions Peugeot made a profit of 588m euros ($772m, £492m) in 2011, but that was down 48% on the previous year because of falling sales.

Philippe Varin, chairman of the managing board of PSA Peugeot Citro├źn said: "With the strong support of our historical shareholder and the arrival of a new and prestigious shareholder, the whole group is mobilized to reap the full benefit of this agreement."

BBC News

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Smoke billows from Pentagon (11 Sept 2011)
A total of 184 people wee killed at the Pentagon
on September 11, 2001
Partial remains of some victims of the 11 September attacks ended up in landfill, a Pentagon report has found.

Some small portions of unidentifiable remains from the Pentagon, and from the Pennsylvania field where a hijacked plane crashed in 2001, were given to a private contractor for disposal.

The fragments "could not be tested or identified," the review said.

The disposal came to light as the US defence department probed practices at the military's Dover Port mortuary.

The air base at Dover, in the state of Delaware, is the main point of entry to the US for the bodies of troops killed while serving overseas.

However, an investigation by the Washington Post newspaper uncovered evidence that unidentified body parts were being cremated and disposed of in a landfill.  The practice of putting partial unidentified remains in landfill was stopped in 2008.


The official report into the Dover mortuary found that this practice began shortly after the September 11 attacks, when "several portions of remains from the Pentagon attack and the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, crash site could not be tested or identified".

"Every step will be taken to protect the honour and respect that their loved ones richly deserve”
Leon Panetta US Secretary of Defense

It confirmed that the base's mortuary cremated unidentified fragments, then gave them to a biomedical waste disposal contractor. This contractor incinerated the remains and then put any material left over in a landfill site.

Officials at the Dover mortuary assumed that "after final incineration nothing remained", the report says. There is no suggestion that remains of victims who died in New York were handled in this way.

Speaking at a news conference at the Pentagon, retired General John Abizaid said: "We don't think it should have happened."

A total of 184 people died when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Forty people were killed when another plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, after passengers overpowered the hijackers.

The Pentagon review of the Dover practices, chaired by retired US Army General John Abizaid, was hailed by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta.

It "highlights weaknesses in the overall command and oversight structure at the Dover Port Mortuary", Mr Panetta conceded.

In a statement, he promised "the families of our fallen heroes... that every step will be taken to protect the honour and respect that their loved ones richly deserve".

BBC New US & Canada

Monday, February 27, 2012

India strike: Millions expected to take part

Activists of trade unions participate in a rally to show support for the All India General Strike, in Siliguri on 27 February 2012
Unions want universal social security cover for workers
in India's vast unorganised labour sector
Millions of Indian workers are expected to join a strike against high inflation and to demand better working conditions and an end to selling off state firms. The strike has the support of most of India's major trade unions and thousands of smaller unions from across the political spectrum.

Banks, transport, post offices and ports are thought most likely to be affected by the industrial action. But services on India's rail network are not expected to be disrupted.

Although India's inflation rate dropped from 9.1% in December, it remains stubbornly high at 7.5%.

Growth for the financial year ending in March is also expected to be around 7%, lower than the previous forecasts of about 9%.  The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is trying to cut its budget deficit by selling stakes in state-run companies - something the unions object to.

Other demands include measures to curb inflation, universal social security cover for non-unionised workers and enforcement of labour laws.

States such as West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala, where the communist parties have greater influence, are expected to be most affected by the strike.

**BBC News India**

Friday, February 24, 2012

After less than 5 months in office, Haiti Prime Minister resigns

Haiti Prime Minister Garry Conille resigns

Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille leaves a news conference in Port-au-Prince, 6 October 2011.
Garry Conille has only been in the post since October 2011
The prime minister of Haiti, Garry Conille, has resigned after a power struggle within the government. His resignation is likely to set back efforts to re-build the country after the January 2010 earthquake which devastated the capital Port-au-Prince.

He was President Michel Martelly's third nomination when appointed in October, ending a long stalemate. For several weeks there have been reports of power struggles that prompted the UN to intervene.

On Thursday Mariano Fernandez, the special representative of the UN secretary general in Haiti, said there were "repeated crises" between the parliament, president and prime minister.

"[These] undermine the proper functioning of the institutions and the democratic process," he said.

So far President Martelly has not announced any replacement or caretaker prime minister.

UN experience

One of the issues causing division was a parliamentary commission investigating the nationality of government ministers.

Many officials in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean spend considerable time overseas.

The commission is investigating whether some senior administration officials have dual citizenship, which is prohibited under the constitution.

Mr. Conille originally trained as a doctor and had previously worked with the UN.

He was an aide to former US President Bill Clinton when he was a UN envoy to Haiti.

When Mr Conille took office he pledged to create thousands of jobs by attracting foreign investment to help rebuild the country.

BBC Latin America & Caribbean

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Harry Potter Gone Wild?! JK Rowling to pen first adult novel

JK Rowling to pen first adult novel

JK Rowling

The seven Harry Potter books have sold more than 450 million copies

Author JK Rowling has announced plans to publish her first adult novel, which will be "very different" to the Harry Potter books she is famous for.

The book will be published worldwide, although no date or title has yet been released.

"The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry's success has brought me," Rowling said.

The writer published seven Potter books, which have sold more than 450 million copies around the world.

The books, about a boy wizard, became a worldwide phenomenon and were turned into eight blockbuster films starring Daniel Radcliffe.

When the final instalment of the book series went on sale in 2007, thousands of copies sold in minutes.

Logical progression

All the Potter books were published by Bloomsbury, but Rowling has chosen a new publisher for her debut into adult fiction.

"Although I've enjoyed writing it every bit as much, my next book will be very different to the Harry Potter series, which has been published so brilliantly by Bloomsbury and my other publishers around the world," she said, in a statement.

"The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry's success has brought me, and with that new territory it seemed a logical progression to have a new publisher."

"I am delighted to have a second publishing home in Little, Brown, and a publishing team that will be a great partner in this new phase of my writing life."

Little, Brown's David Shelley said the company were "thrilled, honoured and proud" to be publishing Rowling's latest novel.

"For me, quite simply, it is a personal and professional dream come true to be working with JK Rowling."

So as of yet no word on what the book(s) will be about but she is sure it will have an adult theme.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Is English or Mandarin the language of the future?

Is English or Mandarin the language of the future?

Mandarin-English dictionary

English has been the dominant global language for a century, but is it the language of the future? If Mandarin Chinese is to challenge English globally, then it first has to conquer its own backyard, South East Asia.

In Malaysia's southernmost city of Johor Bahru, the desire to speak good English has driven some children to make a remarkable two-hour journey to school every day.

Nine-year-old Aw Yee Han hops on a yellow mini van at 04:30. His passport is tucked inside a small pouch hung around his neck.

This makes it easier for him to show it to immigration officials when he reaches the Malaysian border.

His school is located on the other side, in Singapore, where unlike in Malaysia, English is the main language.

It's not your typical school run, but his mother, Shirley Chua thinks it's worth it.

"Science and maths are all written in English so it's essential for my son to be fluent in the language," she says.

The assumption that Mandarin will grow with China's economic rise may be flawed. Consider Japan which, after spectacular post-war economic growth, became the world's second-biggest economy. The Japanese language saw no comparable rise in power and prestige.

The same may prove true of Mandarin. The character-based writing system requires years of hard work for even native speakers to learn, and poses a formidable obstacle to foreigners. In Asia, where China's influence is thousands of years old, this may pose less of a problem. But in the West, even dedicated students labour for years before they can confidently read a text of normal difficulty on a random topic.

Finally, many languages in Asia, Africa and the Amazon use "tones" (rising, falling, flat or dipping pitch contours) to distinguish different words. For speakers of tonal languages (like Vietnamese) learning the tones of Mandarin poses no particular difficulty. But speakers of non-tonal languages struggle to learn tones in adulthood - just ask any adult Mandarin-learner for their funniest story about using a word with the wrong tone.

An estimated 15,000 students from southern Johor state make the same bus journey across the border every day. It may seem like a drastic measure, but some parents don't trust the education system in Malaysia - they worry that the value of English is declining in the country.

Since independence from the British in 1957, the country has phased out schools that teach in English. By the early 1980s, most students were learning in the national language of Malay.

As a result, analysts say Malaysian graduates became less employable in the IT sector.

"We've seen a drastic reduction in the standard of English in our country, not just among the students but I think among the teachers as well," says political commentator Ong Kian Ming.

Those who believe that English is important for their children's future either send their kids to expensive private schools or to Singapore, where the government has been credited as being far-sighted for adopting the language of its former colonial master.

Nearly three-quarters of the population in Singapore are ethnic Chinese but English is the national language.

Many believe that this has helped the city state earn the title of being the easiest place to do business, by the World Bank.

Lost in translation

Notes saying Merry Christmas in different languages
  • Up to 7,000 different languages are estimated to be spoken around the world
  • Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French are world's most widely spoken languages, according to UNESCO
  • Languages are grouped into families that share a common ancestry
  • English is related to German and Dutch, and all are part of Indo-European family of languages
  • Also includes French, Spanish and Italian, which come from Latin
  • 2,200 of the world's languages can be found in Asia, while Europe has 260
Source: BBC Languages
However, the dominance of English is now being challenged by the rise of China in Singapore.

The Singapore Chinese Chamber Institute of Business has added Chinese classes for business use in recent years.

Students are being taught in Mandarin rather than the Hokkien dialect spoken by the older Chinese immigrants.

These courses have proved popular, ever since the government began providing subsidies for Singaporeans to learn Chinese in 2009 during the global financial crisis.

"The government pushed to provide them with an opportunity to upgrade themselves so as to prepare themselves for the economic upturn," says chamber spokesperson Alwyn Chia.

Some businesses are already desperate for Chinese speakers.

Lee Han Shih, who runs a multimedia company, says English is becoming less important to him financially because he is taking western clients to do business in China.

"So obviously you need to learn English but you also need to know Chinese," says Mr Lee.

As China's economic power grows, Mr Lee believes that Mandarin will overtake English. In fact, he has already been seeing hints of this.

"The decline of the English language probably follows the decline of the US dollar.

"If the renminbi is becoming the next reserve currency then you have to learn Chinese."

More and more, he says, places like Brazil and China are doing business in the renminbi, not the US dollar, so there is less of a need to use English.
Indeed, China's clout is growing in South East Asia, becoming the region's top trading partner.

But to say that Mandarin will rival English is a "bit of a stretch", says Manoj Vohra, Asia director at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Even companies in China, who prefer to operate in Chinese, are looking for managers who speak both Mandarin and English if they want to expand abroad, he says.

"They tend to act as their bridges."

So the future of English is not a question of whether it will be overtaken by Mandarin, but whether it will co-exist with Chinese, says Vohra.

He believes bilingualism will triumph in South East Asia.

It is a sound economic argument, but in Vietnam's case, there is resistance to learning Mandarin.

The country may share a border with China, but the Vietnamese government's choice to not emphasise Mandarin is an emotional one, says leading economist Le Dang Doanh.

Aw Yee Han and his mother

Shirley Chua fears her son's English will suffer in the Malaysian school system

"All the streets in Vietnam are named according to generals and emperors that have been fighting against the Chinese invasion for 2000 years," he says.

Tensions flared up again last May over the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Anti-Chinese sentiment means that young Vietnamese are choosing to embrace English - the language of a defeated enemy. Many families still bear the psychological scars from the Vietnam War with the United States.

Yet there is no animosity towards English because the founding father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, made a clear distinction between the so-called American imperialists who were bombarding Vietnam and the American people, says Le Dang Doanh.

Many Vietnamese who have lost family members during the war are now studying in America, he says.

"We never forget any victim in the past but in order to industrialise and normalise a country, Vietnam needs to speak English."

The Vietnamese government has an ambitious goal to ensure all young people leaving school by 2020 will have a good grasp of the English language.

Bboy dancer Ngoc Tu

Vietnamese Ngoc Tu only listens to music in English

But it's not hard for young Vietnamese to accept English. For some, the language offers a sense of freedom in Vietnam, where the one-party communist state retains a tight grip on all media.

In a public square in central Hanoi, a group of young men are break-dancing to the pulsing beats of western hip hop. Ngoc Tu, 20, says he only listens to English music.

"The Ministry of Culture has banned a lot of [Vietnamese] songs and any cultural publications that refer to freedom or rebellion but... English songs are not censored."

It is debatable whether English or Mandarin will dominate in South East Asia in the future. There are arguments for both on the economic front.

But culturally, there is no dispute.

Even Mandarin language enthusiasts like Singaporean businessman Mr Lee, says that English will remain popular so long as Hollywood exists.

The success of movies such as Kung Fu Panda, an American production about a Chinese animal, has caused a lot of anxiety in China, he says.

There have been many cartoons in China about pandas before, but none had reached commercial success, says Mr Lee.

"The moment Kung Fu Panda hit the cinemas everybody watched it. They bought the merchandise and they learned English."

Is 8 straight hours of sleep daily a realistic and neccessary goal?

The myth of the eight-hour sleep

Woman awake

We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night - but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

Though sleep scientists were impressed by the study, among the general public the idea that we must sleep for eight consecutive hours persists.

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.

His book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern - in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer's Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

A woman tending to her husband in the middle of the night by Jan Saenredam, 1595

Roger Ekirch says this 1595 engraving by Jan Saenredam is evidence of activity at night

Much like the experience of Wehr's subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.

"It's not just the number of references - it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge," Ekirch says.

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

And these hours weren't entirely solitary - people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.

A doctor's manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better".

Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society.

By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness.


When segmented sleep was the norm

  • "He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream." Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1840)
  • "Don Quixote followed nature, and being satisfied with his first sleep, did not solicit more. As for Sancho, he never wanted a second, for the first lasted him from night to morning." Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote (1615)
  • "And at the wakening of your first sleepe You shall have a hott drinke made, And at the wakening of your next sleepe Your sorrowes will have a slake." Early English ballad, Old Robin of Portingale
  • The Tiv tribe in Nigeria employ the terms "first sleep" and "second sleep" to refer to specific periods of the night

Source: Roger Ekirch (Roger Ekirch's website)


He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses - which were sometimes open all night. As the night became a place for legitimate activity and as that activity increased, the length of time people could dedicate to rest dwindled.

In his new book, Evening's Empire, historian Craig Koslofsky puts forward an account of how this happened.

"Associations with night before the 17th Century were not good," he says. The night was a place populated by people of disrepute - criminals, prostitutes and drunks.

"Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night."

That changed in the wake of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation. Protestants and Catholics became accustomed to holding secret services at night, during periods of persecution. If earlier the night had belonged to reprobates, now respectable people became accustomed to exploiting the hours of darkness.

This trend migrated to the social sphere too, but only for those who could afford to live by candlelight. With the advent of street lighting, however, socialising at night began to filter down through the classes.

In 1667, Paris became the first city in the world to light its streets, using wax candles in glass lamps. It was followed by Lille in the same year and Amsterdam two years later, where a much more efficient oil-powered lamp was developed.

London didn't join their ranks until 1684 but by the end of the century, more than 50 of Europe's major towns and cities were lit at night.

Night became fashionable and spending hours lying in bed was considered a waste of time.

"People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th Century," says Roger Ekirch. "But the industrial revolution intensified that attitude by leaps and bounds."

Strong evidence of this shifting attitude is contained in a medical journal from 1829 which urged parents to force their children out of a pattern of first and second sleep.

"If no disease or accident there intervene, they will need no further repose than that obtained in their first sleep, which custom will have caused to terminate by itself just at the usual hour.

Street-lighting in Leipzig in 1702

A small city like Leipzig in central Germany employed 100 men to tend to 700 lamps

"And then, if they turn upon their ear to take a second nap, they will be taught to look upon it as an intemperance not at all redounding to their credit."

Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body's natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.

This could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, he suggests.

The condition first appears in literature at the end of the 19th Century, at the same time as accounts of segmented sleep disappear.

"For most of evolution we slept a certain way," says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs. "Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology."

The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block could be damaging, he says, if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, as this anxiety can itself prohibit sleeps and is likely to seep into waking life too.

Russell Foster, a professor of circadian [body clock] neuroscience at Oxford, shares this point of view.

"Many people wake up at night and panic," he says. "I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern."

But the majority of doctors still fail to acknowledge that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.


Stages of sleep

Every 60-100 minutes we go through a cycle of four stages of sleep
  • Stage 1 is a drowsy, relaxed state between being awake and sleeping - breathing slows, muscles relax, heart rate drops
  • Stage 2 is slightly deeper sleep - you may feel awake and this means that, on many nights, you may be asleep and not know it
  • Stage 3 and Stage 4, or Deep Sleep - it is very hard to wake up from Deep Sleep because this is when there is the lowest amount of activity in your body
  • After Deep Sleep, we go back to Stage 2 for a few minutes, and then enter Dream Sleep - also called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep - which, as its name suggests, is when you dream

In a full sleep cycle, a person goes through all the stages of sleep from one to four, then back down through stages three and two, before entering dream sleep


"Over 30% of the medical problems that doctors are faced with stem directly or indirectly from sleep. But sleep has been ignored in medical training and there are very few centres where sleep is studied," he says.

Jacobs suggests that the waking period between sleeps, when people were forced into periods of rest and relaxation, could have played an important part in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally.

In many historic accounts, Ekirch found that people used the time to meditate on their dreams.

"Today we spend less time doing those things," says Dr Jacobs. "It's not a coincidence that, in modern life, the number of people who report anxiety, stress, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse has gone up."

So the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, think of your pre-industrial ancestors and relax. Lying awake could be good for you.

Craig Koslofsky and Russell Foster appeared on The Forum from the BBC World Service. Listen to the programme here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

One Step Forward, 2 Steps Back. If Our Goal Is Peace, These Actions Cannot Be Tolerated

Nato apologises for Afghan Koran 'burning'

Protest at Bagram air base
A large crowd of protesters gatherd outside the sprawling Bagram air base

The Nato commander in Afghanistan has apologised over reports foreign troops may have burnt copies of the Koran.  Announcing an inquiry, US Gen John R Allen said any "improper disposal" of religious materials was inadvertent.

Reports suggest the books were taken from prisoners after the US uncovered a secret Taliban message system.

Rumours that a Koran had been burnt led to protests outside the US base at Bagram north of Kabul. One man was hurt when Nato troops fired rubber bullets.

President Hamid Karzai condemned the reports that the Koran had been burnt, as did the Taliban who said the incident would hurt the feelings "of one billion Muslims around the world".

Police stated that at least 1,000 people took part in the demonstration earlier on Tuesday and that some elders went into the base to talk to Nato officials.


image of Andrew North
The US military in Afghanistan is in full damage-limitation mode. Gen Allen has already made two contrite television apologies, and called President Hamid Karzai.  But Afghan security forces have been put on alert across the country because of fears of a repeat of the violence that followed news of a Koran being burnt last year by a hardline preacher in Florida.  The spark for the latest incident may have originated with the Americans uncovering a secret message system being used by suspected Taliban prisoners. The Americans confiscated these religious materials from prisoners because they believed they were using them to communicate with each other, two senior Afghan officials told the BBC. A US spokesman said they could not comment on reports of this message system until an investigation was complete, but he did not deny it.

Afghan officials told the AP news agency that the Korans were in rubbish that two soldiers with the US-led coalition transported in a lorry late on Monday night to a pit on the base where waste is burned.

When five Afghans working at the pit noticed the religious books in the rubbish, they stopped the disposal process.  "Foreign troops tried to burn a container of holy Koran books at three o'clock in the morning, but the Afghan mujahideen employees working at the base did not allow them," protester Mohammad Zahir stated.

A BBC reporter at the protests said he saw people crying over claims that foreign troops had set fire to the Koran, while others threw stones and fire bombs at the security forces. A photographer for the AFP news agency said that guards at the base fired rubber bullets from a watchtower as the crowd shouted "Allahu akbar," (God is great).

Afghan officials told the BBC that the Americans had confiscated books and other documents from suspected Taliban prisoners at the Parwan detention centre next to Bagram base because they believed they were using them to send messages to each other.
It is thought that documents containing extremist inscriptions were taken from the library, the BBC's Andrew North in Kabul says. An unknown quantity of these materials were then burnt, according to military officials, among them some Korans.

Sincere apologies

In his statement, Gen John R Allen said that the investigation would examine whether troops "improperly disposed of a large number of Islamic religious materials which included Korans".

"The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities," the statement said.

"We are thoroughly investigating the incident and we are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again. I assure you… I promise you… this was not intentional in any way."

Previous tension points
  • January 2012: US and UN officials describe a video clip of US marines urinating on dead Afghans as "disgusting" and "inhuman"
  • April 2011: US President Barack Obama describes March 2011 Koran burning by a radical US pastor as "intolerance and bigotry". The incident triggered protests which left at least 24 people dead in Afghanistan
  • April 2008: Dutch and Danish governments evacuate their embassies in Kabul after protests against cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad which was reprinted by Danish newspapers

Gen Allen went on to offer his "sincere apologies for any offence this may have caused", to the president of Afghanistan, the Afghan government and "the noble people of Afghanistan".

Later, the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) force said it intended to invite Afghans to join the investigation "so we are transparent with this issue".

"These were religious materials that were gathered up at the detention facility in Parwan and inadvertently given to troops for burning," the Isaf statement said.

"We are still trying to determine if and/or how much got burned before the mistake was discovered.

"If a Koran was damaged, we will find out how it happened and make certain that this does not happen again."

Correspondents say that it was a remarkably candid statement by Gen Allen - played repeatedly on Afghan television - apparently aimed at damage limitation after similar incidents led to violence and attacks on foreigners.

Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa strongly condemned the alleged Koran destruction, which he described as a "shameful move by some stupid individuals".

The BBC's Andrew North, in Kabul, says that reports of the Islamic holy book being mistreated, whether substantiated or not, have proved incendiary in Afghanistan in the past.

The Taliban and other groups have sometimes been accused of spreading such reports to spark violence, but last year protests erupted in Afghanistan after news emerged that an American preacher had set a Koran on fire in Florida.

At least 14 people, seven of them UN workers, were killed in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. Another 10 people died in unrest in Kandahar the following day. Dozens of others were injured.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Man survived 2 months without food?!

Who, What, Why: How long can someone survive without food?

A Swedish man, found in a car buried under snow, says he survived for two months without food by eating handfuls of snow. But how long can people go without food?

The circumstances surrounding Peter Skyllberg's survival are still being investigated. However, photographs taken of the inside of the car show empty food and drink wrappers, which could mean the 44-year-old had some sustenance.

The car was found on Friday at the end of a forest track more a little less than a mile from a main road in northern Sweden. Police say the temperature in the area had recently dropped to -22F (-30C).

Skyllberg says he had been inside the car since 19 December 2011.

Experts believe it is possible for the human body to survive without food for up to two months.

It's not the first example of humans subsisting on next to nothing for long periods of time.

The answer

  • It is possible to survive for about 60 days without food - but usually in warmer conditions
  • Snow on the car may have created an "igloo effect"
  • Being inside a car might have conserved calories


Japanese hiker Mitsutaka Uchikoshi survived 24 days in 2006 without food and water after he went missing during a climbing trip in western Japan. He was found with a body temperature of 71F (22C) - nearly 15C below normal. After being treated for severe hypothermia and other health complications Uchikoshi returned home, leaving some doctors puzzling over his miraculous recovery.

Last year, a 56-year-old woman from British Columbia survived nearly 50 days in the Nevada wilderness on trail mix, sweets and stream water after being stranded in the mountains while her husband went in search of help. Hunters found Rita Chretien conscious and able to speak, although she had lost 20-30lb as a result of the ordeal.


Survival through hibernation

Mount Rokko

In 2006, Mitsutaka Uchikoshi survived for three weeks without food and water after what experts described as falling into a state akin to hibernation. Mitsutaka had climbed Mount Rokko in western Japan (pictured) but descended on his own. He is thought to have tripped and lost consciousness on the snowy mountainside. He was found 23 days later with a body temperature of just 22C (72F) with a barely discernible pulse and suffering from multiple organ failure. Doctors believe he had fallen into a hypothermic state at a very early stage, which they said was similar to hibernation


The American illusionist David Blaine spent 44 days in 2003 suspended in a glass box by the River Thames in London without food. In the 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi survived 21 days on sips of water during a display of civil disobedience.

But even in the chronicles of food and water deprivation, Skyllberg's recent 60-day stint is an extreme case.

"It is at the bounds of possibility but not completely untenable," said Dr Mike Stroud, senior lecturer of Medicine and Nutrition at Southampton University.

Stroud, who accompanied veteran British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes across the Antarctic, said it was possible to survive 60 days without food.

"That is about the time hunger strikers in prisons tend to die," said Stroud. "But they are normally in warmer conditions." In 1981, Republican prisoner Bobby Sands died in Northern Ireland's Maze prison after a hunger strike lasting 66 days.

There are a number of factors that can influence a person's ability to survive, says Stroud, such as the way in which the body's metabolism slows down to conserve energy.

"The average resting human body, doing absolutely nothing, produces about 100 watts of body heat, which could function a light bulb," he says. "But under these circumstances the body will begin to make less and less heat to keep you warm. That's where a heavier body would have more of an advantage."

Stroud also says the amount of body fat a person has at the beginning of the ordeal may not count as much as one might imagine.


Himalayan ordeal

Himalayas generic
In 1992 Australian James Scott was lost for 43 days in the Himalayas during the winter. He sheltered under a rock ledge and survived on melted snow, two chocolate bars and a caterpillar. He was finally able to make his way out into a clearing and was spotted by a helicopter. He says he remained positive that he would be rescued.


"The body needs more than just calories - it will start to shut down its organs one by one. But it could still take up to 60 days for that to happen."

Catherine Collins, spokeswoman for the British Dietetics Association explains that "the body can remodel during starvation to minimise the amount of calories it needs".

When the body stops getting food, it has to live on the stored sugars. The liver and muscles store glucose - the primary fuel source - as glycogen. This glycogen can then be converted into glucose.

When this runs out, fat is then converted into a secondary energy supply called ketone bodies. After the fat runs out, she says, the body must take recycled protein from the system and eventually from the muscles to convert to energy. But this, she says, is "very expensive" fuel for the body because "it's wasting important tissue reserves".

"It's like being in a cold house and burning Chippendale furniture instead of firewood," she says.

However, the resulting muscle loss slows the body's furnace, causing it to burn calories at a slower rate. "So whatever calorie supply you have will last you longer," she says.

"In a way you're trying to eke out what you've got left to help you survive."

Reporting by Lauren Everitt and Chi Chi Izundu.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Pharmacy on a chip' gets closer

Implant device

The clinical trial reports the working of the implant device in seven women from Denmark

The futuristic idea that microchips could be implanted under a patient's skin to control the release of drugs has taken another step forward.

US scientists have been testing just such a device on women with the bone-wasting disease osteoporosis. The chip was inserted in their waist and activated by remote control.

A clinical trial, reported in Science Translational Medicine, showed the chip could administer the correct doses and that there were no side effects.

The innovation has also been discussed here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

One of the designers, Prof Robert Langer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), claimed the programmable nature of the device opened up a fascinating new avenue for medicine.

"You could literally have a pharmacy on a chip," he said. "You can do remote control delivery, you can do pulsatile drug delivery, and you can deliver multiple drugs."

The work is described as the first in-human testing of a wirelessly controlled drug delivery microchip. The technology at its core has been in development for more than 15 years.
Programmed to dose
It sees the fingernail-sized chip connected to an array of tiny, individually sealed wells of a drug product - in this case, a parathyroid hormone, teriparatide, which is used to counter bone density loss. Fully packaged, the device is about the size of a heart pacemaker.

The drug wells are capped by a thin membrane of platinum and titanium. A dose can only get out when a well membrane is broken, which is achieved through the application of a small electrical current.
"Although it was a very small study, the findings are certainly exciting”
Julia Thomson National Osteoporosis Society

The chip controls the timing, and because it is programmable, the dosages can be scheduled in advance or - as in the newly reported study - triggered remotely by a radio signal.

The device was tested on seven women between ages of 65 and 70 from Denmark. In their paper, the scientists report that the implant delivered the drug teriparatide just as effectively as the injections pens that often used to administer such treatment, and that there were indications of improved bone formation (although drug efficacy was not formally assessed in the trial). Critically, no side effects were noticed.

The innovation started out as a research project in MIT but is now being developed by a spin-off company, Microchips Inc.

The firm is trying to scale up the system so that more doses can be included. In the trial, only 20 wells were present. Microchips Inc believes drug delivery devices containing hundreds of wells are possible.

However, the team acknowledges that a marketable product is still at least five years away.

Clinical promise

Commenting on the research, John Watson, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego, listed areas where improvements would be needed.

"In the study, the device failed in one patient (an 8th patient, not included in their analysis), and the manufacturing process yielded only one device with all 20 reservoirs of drug," he said.

"Nevertheless, all doses present were released from the seven devices. Several years are still needed to bring this technology to approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and to the clinical promise reflected in this small study."

Automated drug delivery systems are likely to prove popular with patients who currently have a daily regimen of self-administered injections. Julia Thomson, a nurse with the UK's National Osteoporosis Society, said such innovations could improve compliance among patients, some of whom will stop injecting because of the hassle.

"These implants form a new and novel approach to the way in which parathyroid hormone is administered, and although it was a very small study, the findings are certainly exciting," she said.

"The downside with parathyroid hormone has always been that women have to inject themselves on a daily basis so a new implant, like this, would certainly address compliance issues."

Ultimately, say the Massachusetts researchers, one could envisage sensors being combined with chips that hold reservoirs of different kinds of drugs, creating a system which could adapt treatments in response to changing conditions in a patient's body. and follow him on Twitter

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Payroll tax cut: US Congress reaches deal

A US congressional panel is reported to have reached a tentative deal on extending a payroll tax cut, ending weeks of uncertainty.

Sen Jack Reed speaks during a meeting of the House-Senate Conference Committee 7 February 2012
Passions flared as the House-Senate panel neared a deal
on the tax cut renewal

The deal would extend the tax cut until the end of 2012, adding $100bn to the US deficit.

Agreement came after Republicans dropped calls for spending cuts to offset the expense, and Democrats put aside requests for other tax breaks. The payroll tax sparked an impasse in Congress at the end of 2011.

In reaching the deal, the joint House-Senate panel has also agreed to extend unemployment benefits.

"I do expect, if the agreement comes together like I expect it will, the House should vote this week," House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday.

The Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, said: "We're way down the road from where we were just a few days ago."

Extending the cut, originally passed in 2010, was part of a wide-ranging jobs plan launched by President Barack Obama in September 2011.

Mr. Obama held a news conference on Tuesday to urge Congress to pass an agreement.

Off the table

Republicans had wanted to reduce the extension of unemployment benefits from 99 weeks to 59 weeks. The White House has called for a 79-week extension as a compromise.

Under the emerging terms of the deal, Republicans are said to have dropped a condition that potential recipients of unemployment benefits must be drug-tested first.

Meanwhile, negotiators are considering ways to pay for the extension of jobless benefits. They include increasing the pension contributions paid by US government workers, as well as cutting funding from a healthcare drive that promotes healthy living, correspondents say.

Republicans in the House of Representatives were put on the defensive as 2011 drew to a close after negotiations broke down on how to pay for the cut.

Despite opposing tax rises in general, the Republican desire to ensure any renewal of the tax break was fully funded and did not add to the deficit saw the White House cast them as opponents of a middle-class tax cut.

After a climbdown by Mr Boehner, Republicans eventually agreed to a two-month extension while the House and Senate panel brokered a year-long deal.

By dropping the requirement of offsetting spending cuts, Republicans moved away from making the cut an election-year issue.

"The mood is to get it off the table," Florida House Republican Dennis Ross told the Associated Press. "We've got to move on to another issue."

The tax break is estimated to a household making $50,000 about $20 per week.

**courtesy of BBC NEWS US & Canada**

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

China's (potential) new leader has taken a trip to the US. Hear what he had to say

China's Xi Jinping in closely-watched visit to the US

Xi Jinping. File photo

Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping alluded to regional concerns over the US presence in the Pacific

The man likely to become China's next leader, Vice-President Xi Jinping, has begun a closely watched visit to the United States.

In comments to a US newspaper ahead of his trip, Mr Xi sounded a note of warning to the US over its military stance in the Pacific.

He said scaling up military activity was not what countries in the region wanted to see.

He is due to meet President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday.

"This will be an opportunity for the leaders of both countries to really sit down and talk about our differences," said US Ambassador to China Gary Locke after greeting Mr Xi.

He added that the leaders would also be able to "really focus on the common interests that both the US and China have".


Who is Xi Jinping?

  • China's likely next leader, expected to lead the country from 2013
  • Currently China's vice-president and vice chair of the Central Military Commission (which controls the army)
  • Son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the Communist Party's founding fathers
  • Joined the party in 1974
  • His wife, singer Peng Liyuan, describes him as frugal, hardworking and down-to-earth

Mr Xi, 58, is widely expected to succeed President Hu Jintao, who must retire as head of the Communist Party later this year and from the presidency in 2013.

His visit comes a year after Mr Hu's trip to Washington, which he referred to in his comments published in The Washington Post provided by the Chinese government.

He is making the week-long trip as a guest of US Vice-President Joe Biden, who made a high-profile visit to China late last year.

Mr Xi was welcomed by Mr Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House's Roosevelt Room on Tuesday morning.

Emphasising the importance of friendly ties between the two countries, Mr Biden said that while "we are not always going to see eye to eye", both nations would speak "candidly" about their differences.

"We have very important economic and political concerns that warrant that we work together," he said.

Mr Xi said in his remarks that he hoped the visit would "strengthen consensus... and deepen our friendship".

Mr Xi also will meet Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. On Wednesday, he will travel to Iowa to meet his hosts from his first visit to the US in 1985 when he was a county official.

He is also scheduled to visit a farm in Iowa on Thursday before flying to Los Angeles, California, to meet business leaders there.

As well as comments focusing on the US role in the Pacific, Mr Xi said that what has happened over the last 40 years "tells us that a sound and stable China-US relationship is crucial for both countries".

Correspondents say the US-China relationship has become an increasingly delicate one over a series of security and economic issues.

Washington has been putting pressure on Beijing over the value of its currency and turning the heat up on what it has called unfair trade practices.

Frictions and differences

Pro-Tibet demonstrators in front of the White House in Washington. Photo: 13 February 2012

Pro-Tibet demonstrators held a rally outside the White House

In his comments, Mr Xi emphasised that China had taken ''active steps'' to address these concerns.

''Frictions and differences are hardly avoidable in our economic and trade interactions,'' he said.

''We must not allow frictions and differences to undermine the larger interests of our business co-operation.''

China, on the other hand, has voiced concern over the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and displeasure over arms sales to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.

China and the US, Mr Xi said, had ''converging interests'' in the region and there was ''ample space'' for both in the Pacific Ocean.

"We also hope that the United States will fully respect and accommodate the major interest and legitimate concerns of Asia-Pacific countries," he wrote.

Mr Xi's trip also comes amid increased tension over protests and tightened security in Tibet.

Human rights activists staged a protest outside the White House, carrying banners that read "Tibet will be free".

Mr Xi is also scheduled to visit Ireland and Turkey, following the US trip.

**Courtesy of BBC News China**

Monday, February 13, 2012


Obama budget plan to tax the rich

US President Barack Obama unveils 2013 federal budget in Virginia 13 February 2012
Barack Obama's budgt sets ot a vision that will
frame political debate in an election year


US President Barack Obama has proposed to raise taxes on the wealthy in his 2013 budget, prompting an election year spending showdown with Republicans.

The proposal includes $1.5 trillion in new taxes, much from allowing Bush-era tax cuts to expire.

He will also call for a Buffett Plan tax hike on millionaires, and infrastructure projects.

Republicans said the budget, which must be agreed between the White House and Congress, would not curb the deficit.

Mr Obama unveiled the details in an address to students at a college in Virginia on Monday morning.

At its core is the idea that the wealthiest Americans should pay more in tax and that, in the short-term, a chunk of that extra revenue should be spent on job creation, manufacturing and upgrading the nation's schools.
"I think there is pretty broad agreement that the time for austerity is not today”
Jack Lew White House chief of staff

Republican leaders, who portray Mr Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal stoking class warfare, have pronounced the budget dead on arrival.

But in his budget message, Mr Obama said: "This is not about class warfare. This is about the nation's welfare."

"This is about making fair choices that benefit not just the people who have done fantastically well over the last few decades but that also benefit the middle class, those fighting to get into the middle class, and the economy as a whole," he added.

His plan to allow George W Bush-era tax cuts to expire would affect families making $250,000 or more per year.

The president would also put in place a rule named after billionaire Warren Buffett to tax households making more than $1m annually at a rate of at least 30%.

In a populist touch, over the next decade, the plan would levy a new $61bn tax on financial institutions, in an effort to recover the costs of the financial bailout. And it would raise a further $41bn by cutting tax breaks for oil, gas and coal companies.

Ducking responsibility

But Republicans are unhappy that the blueprint would entail a fourth year in a row of trillion-dollar-plus deficits.

"He's just going to duck the responsibility to tackle this country's fiscal problems," Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, told the Associated Press news agency.

The spending plan, which would take effect on 1 October, projects a deficit for this year of $1.33 trillion, with the amount shrinking to $901bn by 2013 and $575bn in 2018.

Mr Obama has also proposed more than $100bn in investments for transportation projects, revamps for tens of thousands of schools and for the hiring of teachers and emergency service workers.

The plan would defer major spending cuts until the economy is on a more steady footing, a priority as Mr Obama seeks re-election in November.

"I think there is pretty broad agreement that the time for austerity is not today," new White House chief of staff Jack Lew told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday.

**courtesy of BBC US&Canada**

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Researchers develop new system to 'eliminate' batteries

Batteries generic
The university claims the new system could reduce the
number of batteries sent to landfill sites

Researchers at the University of Bedfordshire have developed a new technique for powering electronic devices.

The system, developed by Prof Ben Allen at the Centre for Wireless Research, uses radio waves as power.

Believed to be a world first, the team claims it could eventually eliminate the need for conventional batteries.

The university has now filed a patent application to secure exclusive rights to the technique.

Spare time

Prof Allen and his team, including David Jazani and Tahima Ajmal, have created a system to use medium wave frequencies to replace batteries in small everyday gadgets like clocks or remote controls.

The new technique uses the "waste" energy of radio waves and has been developed as part of the university's research into "power harvesting".

Prof Allen said that as radio waves have energy - like light waves, sound waves or wind waves - then in theory these waves could be used to create power.

"The emerging area of power harvesting technology promises to reduce our reliance on conventional batteries," he said.

"The emerging area of power harvesting technology promises to reduce our reliance on conventional batteries”

Prof Ben Allen University of Bedfordshire

"It's a really exciting way of taking power from other sources than what we would normally think of."

The team are now waiting for the results of the patent application to secure recognition of the technique.

Prof Allen said that the team's achievements had all been done in their "spare time".

"Our next stage is to try and raise some real funds so that we can take this work forward and make a working prototype and maybe partner up with the right people and take this to a full product in due course," he said.

"Power harvesting has a really important part in our future because, just in this country, we dispose of somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes of batteries in landfill sites every single year - that is toxic chemicals going into the ground.

He added that development of the product could also be "commercially beneficial".

"The market for this is several billion pounds, we've seen market predictions for 2020 which have these kinds of figures so there's a lot of commercial potential in this area," he said.

Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Bedfordshire, Prof Carsten Maple, said: "This type of work is a reflection of the university's growing reputation and experience in conducting innovative research."

**courtesy of BBC Beds, Hertz and Bucks**

Thursday, February 9, 2012


US banks agree $25bn mortgage settlement

Five of the biggest US banks have agreed to provide $25bn in assistance to homeowners to settle claims over improper foreclosure practices.

Bank of America sign
Bank of America is among those involved in the
settlement deal

The deal, struck with the US government and most US states, follows allegations of abusive practices by lenders during the country's housing collapse.

The banks involved are Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase and Ally Financial.

President Barack Obama said that homeowners were not treated fairly.

"Many companies that handled these foreclosures didn't give people a fighting chance to hold on to their homes," Mr Obama said.

"In many cases they didn't even verify that these foreclosures were actually legitimate."

Settlement terms

The settlement follows a year of wrangling and is the biggest struck between the US government and a single industry since 1998.

The deal will cut loan payments for victims and provide compensation.

Homeowners will each receive $2,000.

The abuses happened after the US housing bubble burst five years ago.

Many companies processing foreclosures - or repossession orders - failed to verify documents.

Some employees signed papers they had not read or used fake signatures to speed up the process, an action dubbed "robo-signing".

By settling, the five banks will avoid civil lawsuits.

All US states except Oklahoma were involved in the agreement.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the deal represented the "latest step forward in righting the wrongs that led to our nation's housing-market collapse and economic crisis."

Californian borrowers will recieve almost half of the $25bn settlement, which does not include mortgages originated by the giant mortgage backers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together make up the bulk of home loans in the US.

California's Attorney General, Kamala Harris, said she would try to reach a deal with the two lenders.

She said: "I will continue to fight for principal reductions for the approximately 60% of California homeowners whose loans are owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."


This deal is significant because it is likely to help as many as 2 million American households and it could help to reshape mortgage lending practices.

But this by no means solves all of America's housing woes. Critics say this deal may prove more help to the banks than to struggling home-owners and the collapsed housing market.

For one, the banks can now put this behind them without a deeper investigation into any wrong-doing. They have already set aside money to pay for the settlement.

Meanwhile, borrowers who lost their homes to wrongful foreclosure are unlikely to get them back.

And this deal does nothing to help the one in four borrowers who are struggling with negative equity and who have continued to repay their mortgages on time.

This is a step in the right direction but there is still much more work to rehabilitate America's housing market.

**courtesy of BBC News Business**