Global News Blog
Life in Syria’s government-controlled capital, Damascus, is surprisingly normal. But with the sound of shelling in the suburbs, occasional mortar explosions, and sluggish peace talks in Geneva, residents are unsure how long it will last. In National Geographic, Anne Barnard writes that Syria’s survival may depend on a sense of “Damascene identity” – a model of diversity and tolerance that has enabled the Syrian capital to survive for centuries.
People of varying religious beliefs (Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Jews) have lived and traded together in the Old City for centuries, “not without conflict, but with a common relish for city life and business,” Ms. Barnard writes. Damascus comes “as close as anything to embodying a shared national idea.” The people in Damascus – whether they support the government or the rebels – are united in a desire to preserve the city’s rich history and culture.
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What’s wrong with democracy?
Between 1941 and 2000, democracy spread from 11 countries to 120 – making it “the great victor of ideological clashes of the 20th century,” writes The Economist. But in the early 21st century, setbacks in democratic movements in Egypt, Iraq, Venezuela, Cambodia, and Ukraine have “dispelled the once-popular notion that democracy will blossom rapidly and spontaneously once the seed is planted,” the authors write. Democracy lost its forward momentum, in part, because new democratic countries lack the institutional capacity, or cultural foundation, to make it flourish.
Fledgling governments put too much emphasis on elections, and not enough on creating a firm democratic foundation: limiting the power of the state and ensuring individual rights. “[If] democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young – and carefully maintained when it is mature,” writes The Economist.
Julian Assange’s ghostwriter
Publishers paid WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange $2.5 million for his autobiography in 2011, hiring a ghostwriter to help him write it. But the deal turned into a giant flop, as Mr. Assange delayed, manipulated, and eventually canceled the contract for a book he never really wanted to write, says the ghostwriter, Andrew O’Hagan, in the London Review of Books.
Mr. O’Hagan, whose first draft eventually became an unauthorized autobiography, related to Assange’s initial ideals behind WikiLeaks: that “technology might allow people to watch their watchers, at last, and to inspect the secrets being kept, supposedly in our name, and to expose fraud and exploitation wherever it was encountered in the new media age.”
But behind Assange’s facade as the champion of transparency, he contradicted those principles. “The man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets simply couldn’t bear his own,” O’Hagan writes.
Tech management tips
Failure is common practice in the information technology industry, a fact that the US government has failed to embrace in its implementation of large-scale IT programs. Just look at HealthCare.gov, writes Clay Shirky in Foreign Affairs. In its IT projects, the US government relies too heavily on detailed plans with strict timeliness, a deviation from private industry project management standards.
“On a major new tech project, you can’t really understand the challenges involved until you start trying to build it,” Mr. Shirky writes. “Rigid adherence to detailed advance planning amounts to a commitment by everyone involved not to learn anything useful or surprising while doing the actual work.”
What is needed instead is agile and test-driven development: breaking down a project into small, incremental, and testable chunks. Constant testing allows developers to catch and fix errors early in the process before they become gigantic problems. With HealthCare.gov, the tests that were done were “late and desultory, and even when they revealed problems, little was changed,” Shirky writes.
Future of social networking
With the purchase of messaging service WhatsApp for $19 billion, Facebook is staking a claim in the future of mobile communication – a field that is inundated with start-ups and applications that are changing how people, especially teenagers, communicate via their phones. Facebook’s modus operandi has been to allow users to interact publicly, “a highly unnatural way to interact with friends and acquaintances,” writes Mat Honan in Wired. “It’s akin to standing before a room filled with every single person you know and delivering a presentation about your personal life.”
Teenagers are leaving the social networking site in droves – some 11 million fewer teenagers use Facebook today than three years ago – opting instead for messaging apps, which allow for private conversations and photo and video sharing with people already in the phone’s address book.
“Facebook and its emerging competitors are struggling not just for revenue or home-screen real estate, but for the very future of mobile communication. In 2014, the message is the medium worth fighting over,” writes Mr. Honan.
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Peruvian President Ollanta Humala and his finance minister recently completed a nine-day swing through the Middle East from Feb. 14-22, visiting Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Qatar to sign agreements on trade and promote investment opportunities. Upcoming auctions in Peru include the $6 billion second line of the Lima subway at the end of March, a $4 billion gas pipeline in June, and a $500 million international airport in Cusco sometime this year.
“Peru has said it wants to become the hub of Middle East investment in Latin America,” says our correspondent. “Peru is looking for companies to invest in oil, gas, electricity, and the Middle East has money.”
President Humala has already shown a desire to reach out to the region, having hosted the 2012 Summit of South American and Arab Countries that brought together political and business leaders. And in early February, Israel was granted observer status to the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc of Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico.
“Taking a step back, Peru will most likely start free-trade agreements with Israel this year,” adds our correspondent.
Israeli companies have already shown willingness to invest in Peruvian ... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
The revelation that two Iranians had bought and used stolen European passports to board the flight – Pouri Nourmohammadi and Delavar Seyedmohammaderza, according to Interpol – initially sparked theories that a terrorist plot took down the plane.
But it appears that the two Iranians were planning to seek asylum in Europe, by way of Beijing, highlighting a common trend in the region: Iranians, Afghans, or Iraqis make their way to sympathetic countries like Indonesia or Malaysia, and then use stolen documents to find asylum in Europe or elsewhere.
“Indonesia usually gets all of the attention, but a lot of them are in Malaysia, too,” notes our correspondent on the ground in the region. “It’s not something they like to talk about.”
The Australian government’s recent crackdown on asylum seekers using Indonesia as a jumping-off point has drawn attention to the migration in the region.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
Everyone in Nigeria knows the claims of oil sector corruption, but it takes a special kind of public official to discuss them openly. One is Lamido Sanusi, whose efforts to blow the whistle appear to have prompted President Goodluck Jonathan to suspend him from his post as central bank governor last month. Still, Mr. Sanusi’s personal status in Nigeria and record of butting heads suggest that he will be difficult to silence.
While Sanusi is unlikely to stop talking, it’s not clear his claims will have repercussions for Nigeria’s oil sector.
“The sector will probably remain as opaque and nontransparent, avoiding reform as it did following previous investigations,” says our correspondent in Nigeria. “But it’s possible Sanusi’s criticisms will be used by officials such as Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as leverage to push through some reforms related to the sector.”
His moves have also stirred up speculation that he might have political ambitions of his own. Facing off against President Jonathan might seem a natural move. Sanusi’s criticism of late appears directed essentially by default at Jonathan and his party, even though he has avoided singling out anyone by name.
Certainly, Jonathan’s move to suspend him looks like an attempt to silence one critic and cow any others who might emerge. It’s also a further sign that Jonathan intends to run for reelection next year if his party chooses him as its candidate.
But Sanusi has declared himself unfit for party politics and ruled out running for political office. Some Nigerians believe that he wants to leave a legacy. For his part, he says that he wants to see Nigeria – and, more broadly, Africa – live up to its potential.
Sanusi descends from a traditional royal family. His grandfather was an emir and he is himself a prince. His calling, however, is banking. After working as chief risk officer for United Bank for Africa and First Bank of Nigeria, he was appointed central bank governor in 2009 by then-President Umaru Yar’Adua and charged with rescuing Nigeria’s decrepit banking sector.
Immediately, Sanusi started picking fights with Nigeria’s elite. Within four months of taking office he had fired eight executive officers of private banks after evidence was found against them of mismanagement and fraud. More recently ... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
Growing insecurity in Lebanon and across the region has hit many businesses — from tourism to late-night shopping — hard. But entrepreneurs in the security sector are emerging with smart ideas to help residents get on with life. Their apps and products are proving popular not just in Lebanon, but in a broad swath of nations from Iraq to Egypt.
“Lebanon has this long history of conflict, and entrepreneurs are using this expertise to export to the region,” explains our Beirut correspondent, who recently followed several such businesses.
Take for example a new App called ‘I am Alive‘ – built to automatically tweet out that phrase when the user is near to an area where a bombing took place. Another new start-up app triangulates the sound of gunfire to help users avoid possibly dangerous areas. The idea for the latter emerged after a friend of its creator was hit by a stray bullet in Beirut’s shopping district of Hamra. The developer is creating the app in Lebanon, “but his plan to reach a bigger market is somewhere like the United States, where the incidence of gun deaths is actually higher,” our correspondent explains.
Established businesses are also getting into the game.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
Tired of winter? Imagine being a school superintendent, in charge of closing (or keeping open) 22 schools. The decision of when to hold school and when to close down for bad weather means juggling a lot of variables. So says Joseph Roy, superintendent of Bethlehem Area School District in Pennsylvania, in an interview with his Time-reporter daughter Jessica Roy.
A snow-day decision can be a Catch-22, he explains. “Let’s say we have school and the weather gets horrible and then you’re sending buses home and kids are walking home in dangerous conditions – that’s not good,” he says. “On the other hand, if you make decisions to close or even have a 2-hour delay too lightly and too quickly, you really impact families because not everyone has child care.”
When snow is imminent Dr. Roy rises at 3:30 a.m. to cross-check several weather forecasts and consult with other superintendents in his area before making a final call. After deciding, there’s little time to relax before he braces for e-mails and calls from parents second-guessing his decision.
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A ‘Downton Abbey’ US economy
America runs the risk of becoming a “ ‘Downton Abbey’ economy,” one in which a tiny privileged class thrives while being served by workers struggling to make ends meet. That’s the conclusion of Lawrence Summers, a past president of Harvard University, secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton, and former director of the National Economic Council for President Obama, in an essay on his website, www.larrysummers.com.
But there are solutions. “It is not enough to identify policies that reduce inequality. To be effective they must also raise the incomes of the middle class and the poor,” he writes.
“Tax reform has a major role to play,” he says. Current codes allow “the rich to shield a far greater proportion of their income from taxation than the poor.” Last year’s stock market boom increased the wealth of shareholders by about $6 trillion, but “the lion’s share went to the very wealthy,” he says. If loopholes that benefit only the wealthy were closed, taxes could be cut elsewhere. “Sooner or later inequality will have to be addressed,” he warns.
Look on the bright side of (tech) life
The future looks quite different to techno-optimists than it does to techno-pessimists. Count Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee as head cheerleaders in the optimistic camp. In an essay in The Atlantic they argue that two revolutionary events – the emergence of “real, useful artificial intelligence” and “the connection of most of the people on the planet via a common digital network” (the Internet) – are causing changes not seen since the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago.
Self-driving cars, humanoid robots, and artificial intelligence capable of winning TV’s “Jeopardy!” game show are just “the warm-up acts,” they say. With more of humanity able to access the world’s knowledge via the Web, humans and machines will devise new wonders. “The second machine age will be characterized by countless instances of machine intelligence and billions of interconnected brains working together to better understand and improve our world. It will make mockery out of all that came before.”
A world of car-free passengers
Are ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft, and Gett a natural evolution for transportation in the Internet Age? Or as they circumvent the rules of a highly regulated taxi and limousine industry, do they compromise safety and gouge customers?
Those who use these services send out a text message that they need a ride. But it’s not clear what kind of a vehicle, or driver, will appear at the curb. Or how much the customer will be charged, which is based on an algorithm that measures demand for rides in that area at that moment.
“No one under the age of 40 with a smartphone is going out and getting a cab anymore,” explains a driver for Uber in an article by Brad Stone in Bloomberg Businessweek. Ride-sharing has already spread to 70 cities worldwide; it took in at least $1 billion in 2013.
Replacing taxis and limos may just be the start. Eventually most people may abandon their personal vehicles knowing they can quickly and easily hail a ride, perhaps even a driverless self-driving car. Traffic congestion could be greatly reduced. “One day we may be in a world where we’re all passengers,” says one industry visionary.
Why 18 hours of TV may be good for you
People usually confess to “binge-watching” a whole season of a TV series like “Homeland,” “Game of Thrones,” or “House of Cards” on DVD or via a streaming service with some embarrassment, as if it suggests overindulgence. But binge-watching may be good for you, a kind of “restorative experience” that recharges your mental batteries, akin to taking a walk in a park, going to the theater, or reading a good book, argues writer Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in the online magazine Slate.
Like other restorative experiences, good binge-watching transports viewers away from their everyday lives. They enter “rich and fully realized worlds,” he writes. The deep experience of bingeing is an antidote to the chaos of work and home life, full of constant interruptions. “It’s a way to reclaim their time and attention in a rushing, distracting world.”
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Rule of law in Venezuela is weaker than anywhere else world in the world, as measured in the World Justice Report’s annual index. More than half of all government officials are believed to be involved in corrupt practices, and three-fourths of Venezuelans feel unsafe or very unsafe walking in their neighborhood at night.
Not our correspondent in the South American country, who was robbed twice in the past month in his Caracas neighborhood – where he’d lived for the previous eight months without incident. Indeed, violence is escalating and law enforcement is spiraling out of control amid weeks of antigovernment protests and clashes with military police.
“My neighborhood is the epicenter of the protests and crime has risen substantially,” says our correspondent. “The local police have stepped back with the entry of the national guard, and a lot of thugs and gangs have capitalized on it.”
Our correspondent’s latest brush with crime happened last week around 11 p.m. when he opted to walk home two blocks rather than call a taxi. A band of motorcyclists passed him, then circled back and surrounded him, stealing his iPhone and about $10 cash.
“I started running but they trapped me,” he says.
Such motorcycle robberies are somewhat common in Venezuela, which is why the government in January imposed a nighttime curfew on two-wheelers as part of an attempt to crack down on crime. The move came after the shooting death of a former Miss Venezuela. Some international companies have imposed evening curfews on their employees amid the escalation in violence.
The Rule of Law Index, which is based on surveys with 100,000 households and experts to measure factors such as protection of fundamental rights and order and security, also found that Venezuela ranks ...For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
India’s election dates are set, setting the stage for the most dramatic election in the world’s largest democracy in years.
But it also means no policy pronouncements out of Delhi until after the polls close in mid-May.
Elections across the country will start April 7 and continue in phases, with ballots cast in various parts of the enormous country through May 12. The results will be announced May 16.
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Under Indian law, designed to ensure that elected officials don’t use the machinery of government for electioneering purposes, “the regular functioning of government goes on, but they can’t announce any new projects or policies” until after the election, notes our correspondent on the ground.
For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
By all accounts, Oscar Pistorius never let his lack of legs slow him down.
Pistorius was born without fibulas (calf bones), and at 11 months old, his parents made the difficult choice to have both of his legs amputated below the knee, enabling him to be fitted with prosthetic legs. Within six months, he was walking.
As a boy, Pistorius was always athletic and played on sports teams at school, including cricket, wrestling, and boxing. He also played rugby at Pretoria Boys High School, but at one point, injured his knee. As part of his rehab work after the injury, he began running track at age 16.
RECOMMENDED: Oscar Pistorius: 'The Blade Runner' on trial
That choice set him on a path to become an Olympic sprinter known as the "Blade Runner" or as some media dubbed him: "the fastest man on Earth with no legs."
Six months after his rugby injury, Pistorius ran in his first competitive 100-meter race for Pretoria Boys High School. His time: 11.72 seconds, shattering the existing Paralympic world record of 12.20 seconds, according to Pistorius's own website.
About six months after that race, Pistorius was invited to the US offices of Össur, the company that manufactures Flex-Foot Cheetahs – a carbon-fiber, flexible limb designed for jumping and sprinting. In September of that year, while wearing a pair of Cheetahs, Pistorius won a gold medal in the 200-meter race and a bronze at the 100-meter race in the 2004 Athens Paralympics.
He soon began competing against runners with no prosthetic limbs – and that became a source of controversy.
In 2007, the International Association of Athletic Foundations banned Pistorius from competing, stating that his carbon-fiber Cheetahs gave him an unfair advantage. He fought the ruling and was eventually allowed to compete and qualified for the 400-meter race in the 2012 London Olympics. He was eliminated in the semi-finals of the race, but became the first amputee athlete to compete at the Olympics.
Now on trial in South Africa, charged with murdering his girlfriend, Pistorius's prosthetic limbs are likely to figure in the case.
Pistorius admits to shooting Reeva Steenkamp on Feb. 14, 2013, but he maintains he mistook the model and reality TV star for an intruder in his home and shot her in self-defense.
"If Pistorius' team can prove that he did not have his prosthetic legs on when he shot – and forensic experts may decipher that from the height of bullet holes in the door and the trajectory of the bullets – it will help his defense against the premeditated murder charge and hinder the prosecution, which initially insisted he fired after taking the time to put on his artificial limbs," according to the Associated Press.
Would Pistorius, a life-long user of prosthetic limbs, be more or less likely to put on his legs if he thought there was an intruder in the house?
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In winters past, majestic monarch butterflies blanketed 16.6 acres of Mexican forest with a patchwork of fluttering orange and black stripes. This year, the entire winter population fit into just 1.7 acres, a decrease of 90 percent, reports Tracy Wilkinson for the Los Angeles Times. While illegal logging in Mexico has destroyed the oyamel fir forests where the insects winter, herbicides in the United States have wiped out much of the country’s milkweed, the only plant that monarch caterpillars eat.
Scientists, artists, and environmentalists have issued a desperate plea to the leaders of Mexico, Canada, and the US to salvage the beloved butterflies’ breeding grounds in a letter delivered to representatives of the three governments last month. “As Mexico is addressing the logging issues, so now must the United States and Canada address the effects of our current agricultural policies,” the letter says.
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The other identity theft
While credit-card identity theft routinely makes headlines, another, more lucrative form of identity theft is on the rise, reports Michael Kranish for The Boston Globe. Thieves of all kinds have found a way to use stolen Social Security numbers to extract billions from the Internal Revenue Service in fraudulent tax refunds, according to a US Treasury audit.
The scam has become so common that the IRS has had to issue a special PIN to 1.2 million taxpayers who have previously been the target of such identity theft, up from just 250,000 in 2012. The problem persists because the IRS is required to pay all returns as soon as possible by a congressional mandate, Mr. Kranish reports. “Under the current system, the IRS cannot always be certain that a return is filed by the person whose name and Social Security number is on it, but it often pays the refund anyway.” In one instance, the IRS delivered 2,000 refunds to the same address.
Monsanto ditches GMOs for crossbreeding
Americans love to hate Monsanto. The Fortune 500 company has been blamed for the rise of rat poison as an artificial sweetener, the evolution of pesticide-resistant weeds, and the introduction of so-called Frankenfoods into the American diet. However, Monsanto’s latest foray into the produce aisle has taken a decidedly natural turn, writes Ben Paynter for Wired.
Monsanto’s newest “superveggies” – a sweeter and crunchier lettuce, an antioxidant-rich broccoli, and a less tear-inducing onion – “have all the advantages of genetically-modified organisms without any of the Frankenfoods ick factor.” While these veggies are born in a lab, they are created using the same process of crossbreeding that farmers have employed for centuries. “Keep them away from pesticides and transport them less than 100 miles and you could call them organic and locavore too,” Mr. Paynter writes.
The difference is Monsanto brings to the lab extensive knowledge about each plant’s genome, and consequently can breed new strains more precisely than the farmer can in the field. “In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years.”
E.E. Cummings: the beloved heretic
“History has given us very few heretics who have not been burned at the stake,” writes Susan Cheever in Vanity Fair. E.E. Cummings “was our generation’s beloved heretic, a Henry David Thoreau for the 20th century.” As the daughter of acclaimed novelist John Cheever – one of Cummings’s entrusted friends – Ms.Cheever was privy to a three-dimensional version of the poet not usually visible to fans.
Cheever provides a glimpse of a man who ate burgers at White Castle, would “stand on his head for a laugh,” and managed “to live elegantly on almost no money.” Her father deeply admired Cummings and subsequently peppered his own life advice with lessons that he gleaned from the poet and his partner Marion Morehouse. Thus she learned not to be “so open-minded that your brains fall out” and that “being right was a petty goal – being free was the thing to aim for.”
What we don’t know about science
“Does the Earth go around the Sun or does the Sun go around the Earth?” Roughly, one-quarter of Americans incorrectly answered that the sun revolves around the Earth in the National Science Foundation’s most recent science literacy survey, reports Eleanor Barkhorn for The Atlantic. More than 15 percent of respondents were unaware that continents continue to shift location, and nearly half believed atoms to be smaller than electrons. According to the twice-a-year survey, Americans’ scientific literacy has remained relatively constant and on par with that of other developed nations over the past two decades.
Some of the responses may tell us more about Americans’ beliefs than scientific knowledge, Ms. Barkhorn writes. When statements about evolution and the big-bang theory were presented as facts, only 48 percent and 39 percent of Americans, respectively, responded that they were “true.” However, when the same statements were attributed to evolutionary theory and astronomers, 72 percent and 60 percent, respectively, responded “true.” “This seems to indicate that many Americans are familiar with the theories of evolution and the Big Bang; they simply don’t believe they’re true,” she writes.
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Editor's note: The original print version of this story incorrectly identified E.E. Cummings' companion Marion Morehouse.