Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Obama's Presence Reassures Allies

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and President Barack Obama (23 April 2014)

The first objective of President Barack Obama's four-nation trip to Asia has already been accomplished - literally his arrival in Japan. After previous postponements for multiple domestic crises, including last autumn's government shutdown, Mr Obama's return to the region is itself reassuring, a personal manifestation of the foreign policy "pivot" to Asia the administration enunciated two years ago but has struggled to translate in concrete terms.

Now that Mr Obama is back in the region - his fifth visit as president - what challenges will he confront, what does he hope to accomplish and what do those people want to hear from him?
He arrives in a region that is distracted, concerned and uncertain. Two countries he will visit, South
Korea and Malaysia, are preoccupied with significant tragedies. The recent sinking of a Korean ferry claimed as many as 300 lives, the majority of them high school students. Malaysia is consumed with the ongoing multinational search for the wreckage of Malaysia Flight 370 and the 239 passengers and crew aboard. The Malaysian government has been subject to significant regional criticism for its confused handling of the disappearance and search. It will undoubtedly welcome the opportunity to change the subject, if briefly. Mr Obama's visit is the first by an American president in almost 50 years.

Another country on Mr Obama's itinerary is the Philippines, still recovering from November's
Typhoon Haiyan that killed more than 6,000 people and left four million displaced. Greater regional co-operation on disaster response and humanitarian relief will be on the agenda.
Japan and Korea, key American regional allies, continue to squabble over politically charged statements and actions that have much more to do with the past than the present. The president arranged a trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President
Park Geun-hye last month on the margins of the nuclear summit in the Netherlands to try to restart high-level dialogue and refocus attention on current challenges such as North Korea.

Ironically, North Korea frequently takes provocative actions during such trips in an effort to steal some attention. Mr Obama will spend some time in Tokyo reviewing Japanese plans to broaden its defence role in the region, and in Seoul discussing revised US-South Korea security arrangements.
Any antics from Pyongyang will be a useful reminder of why the US presence in the region matters.
Mr Obama's trip does not include a visit to China, but Beijing will be in the background throughout and will be listening attentively to what the president says at each stop.

Children in Tacloban, Philippines (20 April 2014) 

With the Philippines still rebuilding after the autumn's Typhoon Haiyan, regional humanitarian co-operation is likely to be on the agenda in Manila

The region has welcomed renewed American engagement to balance an assertive China. Each country he visits has some kind of territorial dispute with China and will be looking for assurances the US will be there if push ever comes to shove. The US and the Philippines will announce enhanced defence co-operation during his stop in Manila, including the regular rotation of US forces back to Philippine bases.
Mr Obama faces a delicate balancing act, reasserting America's commitment to the region and the importance of its security relationships without feeding China's concerns that Washington's actual policy is not engagement but containment.
While the president is in Asia, he will keep an eye on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. America's allies are as well, trying to judge what it means to Washington's global commitments. Mr Obama will have his own questions, such as whether Japan and others are prepared to impose meaningful economic sanctions against Russia if it moves aggressively into eastern Ukraine.
Beyond security, trade will also be on the agenda. Japan and Malaysia are engaged in negotiations regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). South Korea and the Philippines are waiting in the wings. Mr Obama's ability to announce some progress with Tokyo on outstanding market access issues related to Japanese agricultural products and American automobiles will be a strong signal that there are mutually beneficial policies behind the American pivot.

The presidential itinerary
 23-24 April: Japan
25-26 April: South Korea
26-27 April: Malaysia
28-29 April: Philippines
Source: White House

The Planet is Angry

Volcanoes in Peru and Guatemala continued emitting ash and lava as part of increased volcanic activity over the past few days. (April 23)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Paralympian Oscar Pistorius exits the courtroom after his murder trial was postponed at the high court in Pretoria on March 28, 2014.
Paralympian Oscar Pistorius exits the courtroom after his murder trial was postponed at the high court in Pretoria on March 28, 2014. Werner Beukes—AFP/Getty Images

A South African columnist claims a "reliable source" told her that the accused took acting lessons before his day in court, an allegation the athlete's legal team has categorically denied.
A spokesperson for Oscar Pistorius has denied accusations that the athlete had taken acting lessons before taking the stand to defend himself from charges he murdered his girlfriend.
A South African newspaper columnist alleged that the Olympic athlete’s emotional testimony—during which he has repeatedly wept uncontrollably—wasn’t genuine. “I have it from a reliable source that you are taking acting lessons for your days in court,” Jani Allan wrote in an open letter to Pistorius on her website. “Your coach has an impossible task… Oscar, you are the latest in a long line of faux heroes.”
Pistorius, 27, testified that he mistakenly shot girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp four times through a locked bathroom door, thinking that she was a home invader.
A statement by Anneliese Burgess, the media manager for the Pistorius family, said Tuesday that the allegation was not just “totally devoid of any truth” but that it “makes a mockery of the enormous human tragedy involving the Steenkamp family and our client and his family.”
Pistorius’ trial will resume May 5.
 So , maybe all the boo hoos ,whining, and heaving into a bucket was faked to get sympathy. Well, anything is possible...especially if you have money up the yin yang and a daddy with a lot of clout.

Is it Nessie? ...Maybe

Apparently Loch Ness Monster hunters should've just asked Siri where to find the mythical beast.
A group of Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts say they've sighted the legendary Scottish beast via satellite images on Apple Maps. The creature, which purportedly is seen periodically in Scotland's Loch Ness, was spotted this time by members of the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club using the Apple software. They have been puzzling over the dubious image for the past six months.

loch ness zoomed

Excitable spotters say the low-resolution image can't be anything other than "Nessie," which looks to have large flippers and a long, ghostly white silhouette.
"We’ve been looking at it for a long time trying to work out exactly what it is," said Gary Campbell, president of the club, to the Daily Mail. "It looks like a boat wake, but the boat is missing. You can see some boats moored at the shore, but there isn’t one here."
Campbell told ABC News the group submitted the image to Scottish Canals, the government agency which manages the country's inland waterways. The agency couldn't identify it, either.
"Nobody has been able to explain what it is," Campbell told ABC. "It's pretty large, so it's not a seal or an otter. It's also not a whale or basking shark as some people claim, because they wouldn't go in fresh water."
Skeptics, however, have been quick to point out the Apple Maps image looks an awful lot like boat wake. Mick West of, a site devoted to investigating and debunking "mysteries" of this sort, maintains it's boat wake, but says the boat is barely visible because of the low contrast in the Apple Maps image.
Sightings of the Loch Ness Monster date back at least 1,500 years, reports PBS, to a carved stone in northern Scotland which depicts "a strange beast with an elongated beak or muzzle, a head locket or spout, and flippers instead of feet." One and a half millennia later, we're apparently still captivated by the idea, albeit with slightly updated technology.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Taking the church to the people

Guelph, Ontario, Canada is home to The Manor, a gentleman’s club ( strip club) but on Sundays,it's a church of sorts for Jack and Sharon Ninaber’s Christian fellowship services. Easter Sunday was the inaugural service at the club.

The surprising association of religion and adult entertainment was a concept that began several months ago. “If you told me I would be doing this six months ago I would be like laughing at you and saying, ‘You’re out of your mind, that's crazy,’” said Jack Ninaber, a former pastor at local Grace
Community Church.


Jack Ninaber said“It really all began when my wife and I made a point of  dropping off some grocery gift certificates to the people at Sue’s Inn.” A hotel attached to the strip club, Sue’s Inn has served as low-income transitional housing in recent years for the area’s homeless and those struggling with addictions. The Ninabers, wanted to bring religion to those that may be uncomfortable in a traditional church setting. That desire, combined with the location of the people they hoped to reach, led the couple to inquire about using the bar at The Manor for services.

Sharon Ninaber
Getting approval from The Manor proved to be the simple part. The Ninabers had to contend with the city when their request to hold services at the strip club was first denied because “the club wasn’t zoned for a religious institution.” When Mr. Ninaber spoke to the city and explained that they wouldn’t be holding traditional church services but rather social gatherings, they were given the okay.
According to Jack Ninaber’s blog, the first Sunday gathering was to begin at 12:30 p.m. with free lunch to “be followed by a time of worship music, testimonies, the Gospel shared in creative ways and prayer ministry.”

The strip club banner is taken down during services

Traces of the strip club are covered during the services but reaction is still split when it comes to the unorthodox location. Sharon Ninaber said, “Some people think we’re crazy. Some people think it’s really great.” Sam Cohen, owner of The Manor said, “Speaking to people in the adjacent areas and our tenants, they all thought it was a good idea. They normally don't go to church so they felt like if there was a service here they would probably show up.”
The place was full on Easter Sunday, and the Ninabers hope that they will return each Sunday. I think it was a wonderful and innovative idea. Take the church to the people. It will do a lot more good.

How to Live Forever


If more and more people are living past 100, how much older can we survive to, in theory, asks Frank Swain. And what would it take to achieve this in practice?

On the Art of Prolonging Life was penned by a Dr Huseland (“one of the soundest minds in Germany”) in 1797, concluding eight years of study on the topic. He identified among the many factors associated with long life: a moderate diet that was rich in vegetables and short on meat and sweetened pastries; an active lifestyle; good care of your teeth; weekly bathing in lukewarm water with soap; good sleep; clean air; and being born to parents who themselves lived long lives. Toward the end of his essay, translated for the American Review, the doctor wistfully speculated that “human life may be prolonged to double the extent of what is supposed to be its present limits, without losing activity and usefulness.”
By Huseland’s estimates, half of all children born would die before their tenth birthday, an alarmingly high mortality rate. However, if the child could run the gauntlet of youth fraught with smallpox, measles, rubella, and other childhood diseases, they stood a fair chance of making it all the way to their mid-thirties. In ideal circumstances, Huseland thought it possible that a lifetime could stretch for two hundred years.
Is there more to these claims than the fanciful imagination of an 18th century doctor? James Vaupel doesn’t think it’s out of the question. “Life expectancy is increasing two-and-a-half years every decade,” he says. “That’s twenty five years every century.” As director of the Laboratory of Survival and Longevity at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, Vaupel studies longevity and survival in human and animal populations. He says that the pattern of improvements to mortality has shifted greatly in the past 100 years. Before 1950, most of the gains in life expectancy were made by combating the high infant mortality that Huseland noted. Since then, however, it’s been the over-60s and most recently the over-80s who’ve seen the greatest decreases in mortality. In other words, we are not just surviving childhood in greater numbers, we’re living longer – a lot longer.
Worldwide, the number of centenarians – people over the age of 100 – is predicted to increase 10-fold between 2010 and 2050. As Huseland testified, a strong component in whether you’ll live to see this milestone lies in the age of your parents; that is, there is a genetic component to long life. But the rise in centenarians can’t be explained by genetics alone, which clearly haven’t changed much in the last couple of centuries. Rather, it’s a host of improvements to our lives that cumulatively improve our chances of living longer and stronger, many of which echo the factors identified by Huseland. The reasons include better healthcare, improving medical treatments, public health measures like cleaner water and air, better education, and improved standards of living such as houses that are warm and dry. “Mostly it’s down to having more medicine and money,” says Vaupel.

Nonetheless, the gains offered by better healthcare and living conditions still leave many people dissatisfied, and the appetite for life-extension therapies shows no sign of abating. One popular approach is caloric restriction. In the 1930s, researchers noticed that mice fed on a near-starvation diet lived far longer than those allowed to eat until full. A subsequent study on rhesus monkeys also showed this, but this was contradicted by a 20-year-long study by the US National Institute on Ageing, which found that although rhesus monkeys kept on a calorie-restricted diet developed age-related diseases slightly later than controls, they did not live longer on average. The authors noted that though caloric restriction in long-lived animals conferred some benefits, these were subject to a complex interplay of genetics, nutrition and environmental factors.
Another great hope is resveratrol, a chemical produced naturally by plants, notably in the skin of grapes. Whether vineyards can be said to hide the fountain of youth, however, remains doubtful. but As yet, no study has shown that taking resveratrol can increase human lifespan.

But why do we age at all? “Every day we suffer damage and don’t perfectly repair it,” explains Vaupel, “and this accumulation of unrepaired damage is what causes age-related disease.” It’s not a trait that is shared by all living organisms. Hydra for example – a group of simple, jellyfish-like creatures – are able to repair almost all the damage they suffer, and readily slough cells that are too injured to heal. In humans, it’s damaged cells like these that can give rise to cancerous tumours.
“Hydras allocate resources primarily toward repair, rather than reproduction,” says Vaupel. “Humans, by contrast, primarily direct resources toward reproduction, it’s a different survival strategy at a species level.” Humans may live fast and die young, but our prodigious fertility allows us to overcome these high mortality rates. Now that infant mortality is so low, there’s really no need to channel so many resources into reproduction, says Vaupel. “The trick is to up-regulate repair instead of diverting that energy into getting fat. In theory that should be possible, though nobody has any idea about how to do it.” If the steady accretion of damage to our cells can be arrested – there isn’t any reason why we should have to die at all. 
It would be wonderful to get to a world where all death is optional. Right now, essentially all of us are sentenced to the death penalty, even though most of us have done nothing to deserve it.” So says Gennady Stolyarov, transhumanist philosopher and author of Death Is Wrong, a controversial children’s book that encourages young minds to reject the fatalist notion that death is inevitable. Stolyarov is fervently opposed to what he sees is simply a technological challenge waiting for the appropriate level of money and manpower to solve it.
Agents of change
One focus for technological intervention are telomeres. These caps on chromosomes shorten every time your cells divide, putting a hard limit on the number of times your cells can reproduce themselves.  There are good reasons to have these limitations in place. Occasional mutations can allow cells to divide without shortening their telomeres, giving rise to “immortal” cell lines. However, in an uncontrolled situation, these immortal cells would be very bad news for the person they are in, bloating into cancerous tumours.
“One hundred and fifty thousand people in the world die each day. “So even if we can hasten the arrival of these technologies by one day, we will have saved a hundred thousand lives.” “There’s a good chance that it will happen in our lifetimes."
 Stolyarov concedes that it might be possible to rapidly accelerate life expectancy through medical breakthroughs. But he warns that equally, there may be difficulties in the future that we don’t anticipate. “Disease, economic crisis, and climate change might cause increases in mortality,” he says.
       Telomeres, the protective ends of chromosomes, are linked to ageing of cells (Science Photo Library)
Stolyarov is hoping to kindle a small spark of hope into an eternal flame. “What I think is necessary right now is a determined push to dramatically accelerate the pace of technological progress,” he says. “We have a fighting chance right now, but in order to make it happen we have to be the agents of change.”
For now, readers will have to take comfort in the knowledge that there are well-documented ways to try to avoid the Western world’s two biggest killers – heart disease and cancer – through a combination of exercise, healthy eating, and moderation when it comes to alcohol and red meat. Very few of us actually manage to live by these criteria, perhaps because we think a shorter life filled with rich food and wine is a worthy trade. Which leads to the conundrum – if eternal life was possible, would you be willing to pay the price?

Sunday, April 20, 2014