Global News Blog
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.
You might imagine students to be the first Venezuelans at the beach this weekend as Carnaval celebrations kick off leading up to Mardi Gras on March 4.
Instead, many are organizing, blocking roads, and in some instances erecting barricades to create havoc and prevent their antigovernment movement from fizzling into a long weekend at the beach, says our correspondent in the capital. Yet that’s exactly what the government of President Nicolás Maduro seeks, having extended the national holiday to start Thursday (Feb. 27) and last until March 5, which will be the one-year anniversary of the death of former President Hugo Chavez and a likely rally point for pro-government forces.
“Maduro is extending the Carnaval holiday because he wants people to get out of Caracas and to reduce the tension,” says our correspondent, noting that Venezuelans would normally fill the coast for the long weekend. “I think you’ll see a big effort by [the] government to preserve memory of Chavez and reclaim major roadways.”
This is not the first time that opposition protesters have attempted to block roads and halt traffic in protest of the government, and the practice of burning trash and piling debris along main avenues has come to be called a “guarimba” – a makeshift barricade, usually unmanned. In addition to the guarimbas, a number of municipalities have also canceled Carnaval festivities in a show of respect for those killed in the protests.
“Students are blocking the streets to prevent people from getting out. The opposition is trying to hold onto rank and file hard-liners,” says our correspondent, who has closely followed the demonstrations and spoken with the students.
But he adds that the number of protesters in the streets appears to be dwindling: “There’s a sense in Caracas that protests are on the downturn.”
Official estimates puts the number killed at 13. President Maduro this week said that 50 people had died in connection with... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
Migration is as old as human history, the National Geographic notes in its January issue, but it is likely that today more people than ever before have traveled thousands of miles from home to take jobs that enable them to send money back to relatives in poorer countries.
While the United States is the place with the most international workers, the city with the highest concentration of them is Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where only about 1 in 10 of the residents is Emirati.
Author Cynthia Gorney tracks the experience of a Filipino couple, Luis and Teresa Cruz, working in Dubai while two of their children remain outside Manila in the Philippines. “[T]his isn’t a story about work and wages and GDP,” Ms. Gorney says. “It is a love story: about family bonds, colliding duties and loyalties, and the immense barriers to providing for loved ones’ material and emotional needs....”
Bill Gates: the Washington player
At a time when Bill Gates says he will spend more time at Microsoft advising its new chief executive, Politico takes an in-depth look at how Mr. Gates has expanded his influence on policymaking in Washington, D.C.
Using the vehicle of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with its $40 billion endowment, Gates has become a force on education policy, agricultural issues, immigration reform, and even clean energy, write coauthors Stephanie Simon and Erin Mershon.
The foundation itself does not lobby. Its enormous megaphone is powered by the $3.4 billion in grants it makes each year to a wide variety of politically active organizations. Gates’s influence is also cultivated by making trips to Washington to advise members of Congress and by donating to Bill Clinton’s foundation and appearing alongside the former president.
Gates got off to a bad start in dealing with Congress during 1998 antitrust hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When his performance before the committee was panned, Gates responded by sharply increasing the company’s Washington lobbying presence and its participation in electoral politics.
Teamwork appeal of Goldman Sachs
Anne VanderMey, writing for Fortune magazine, looks at how Goldman Sachs, a firm at which competition is fierce and 70- to 80-hour workweeks are routine, ends up 45th on the magazine’s list of the 100 best places to work. Of course, average pay of $380,000 (skewed by million-dollar paychecks at the top) is one reason Goldman Sachs ranks so well in the survey conducted by the Great Place to Work Institute for Fortune.
But 40,000 words of unfiltered employee comments revealed that more than anything else, Goldman workers said they valued being part of an ultra-elite organization; it’s twice as hard to be hired at Goldman than it is to get into Harvard. Other factors in high employee satisfaction, Fortune says: a tai chi club; Pilates classes five times a week; a champion dragon boat team; and a 10-week, internship-like program to help people return to the workforce after a voluntary career break of two years or more.
How to run the Pentagon right
“The troops are at war, but the Pentagon is not,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once famously said. The Defense Department has a fairly good record of making smart, long-term acquisitions of weapons systems that give the US an advantage over potential enemies. But, as Mr. Gates’s acid comment highlights, the Pentagon proved less adept at meeting the immediate needs of troops on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the January issue of Foreign Affairs, former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says, “the Pentagon is ill equipped to address urgent needs that arise during wartime.” He outlines steps he and others took to help remedy that problem on an ad hoc basis and calls for the Pentagon to “institutionalize those lessons so that it does not have to start anew the next time they are relevant.”
Stranger than fiction
Irony abounds in the Jan. 23 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. Dune Lawrence examines the computer privacy software called Tor, which stands for “the onion router.” By disguising where computer messages originate, experts say, Tor is perhaps the most effective means of defeating online surveillance by intelligence agencies including the National Security Agency. Tor was almost certainly used by Edward Snowden, who stole and turned over to journalists massive amounts of secret NSA documents. In photos, Tor’s logo can be seen on the cover of Mr. Snowden’s laptop.
It turns out that Tor started as a government project with heavy involvement by the US Navy. Businessweek found that half of the revenue for the Tor Project, which updates the software and runs the system of 5,000 computers that conceal Internet traffic, comes from government grants. While the software can be used by criminals seeking to avoid detection, it also can provide privacy for potential victims. “Tor’s biggest problem is press,” says Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties advocacy group in San Francisco. “No one hears about that time someone wasn’t stalked by their abuser.”
The Austrian finance minister’s pro-sanctions comments Wednesday lend significant weight to European Union talk of targeted freezes on Ukrainian leaders’ accounts, says our correspondent in Kiev. But the EU would have to move fast before Ukrainian money is removed from Austrian banks and protesters grow even more frustrated with the pace of EU support.
“Austria is a favorite place for Ukrainian oligarchs to launder money,” says our correspondent. “What it would take to get an EU-wide freeze on accounts, and who would be on the list of accounts, that’s another matter…. I did hear last night that oligarchs may already be shifting their accounts out of Cyprus and Austria, out of the EU, into places like the Cayman Islands. So the EU probably would have to move fast if they want this to have teeth.”
The logic for targeting the money of Ukraine’s Russian-leaning oligarchs is to soften them toward a negotiated settlement to the crisis. Other outcomes strike our correspondent as less likely. While an army intervention is bandied about, Ukraine’s military is made up of conscripts who are unlikely to shoot on their own people. The army also does not command a lot of respect in Ukraine, making it an unlikely unifier. Neither is an actual splitting of the country likely – a Ukrainian identity has solidified in the post-Soviet years. “There is something called Ukraine, there is a there there,” our correspondent says, noting linguistic ties and the fading of Russian self-identification.
Negotiations, however, face steep hurdles. One is the increased radicalization of the protesters as... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
Thailand’s anticorruption body announced Tuesday that it will file charges against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra related to a troubled rice-subsidy scheme. As the long arm of the law reached to the top of the Thai government, long-running street protests grew more violent with the death of four people in gun and grenade clashes.
It was a bad day for Ms. Yingluck, whose days are looking numbered.
“This indictment is a really serious turn of events for Yingluck,” says our correspondent in Bangkok. “The rice scheme is the slow-burning element to this political crisis, which wasn’t immediately interesting or headline grabbing, but has been showing over time to be maybe her biggest undoing.”
The failed scheme has turned some farmers – normally Yingluck’s core supporters – into some of the most hard-core opponents of the regime, our correspondent adds. “It has also provided the judiciary [and] some of these government bodies a solid reason to go after her under the law.” For more on the particulars of the rice scheme, read our earlier coverage here.
Yingluck’s party supporters, so-called Red Shirts, have promised to protest nationwide if her government falls. Analysts tell our correspondent that the next government in that scenario would be some form of committee, which would try to pass various election reforms. But the committee may not be able... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
There are few scientific phenomena more vivid than black holes. These collapsed stars pack in so much gravitational force that not even light can escape their grasp. But a new paper from physicist Stephen Hawking declares that “there are no black holes.”
Mr. Hawking does not deny the existence of a massive gravitational phenomenon lurking at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Instead, he says the way scientists imagine black holes is wrong. The problem, explains Geraint Lewis on Space.com, lies in how we use math to describe things we can’t actually see.
Our current understanding of black holes relies on two different concepts: Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity (which explains gravity) and quantum mechanics (which wants nothing to do with gravity). Until scientists come up with ways to better link the two, Mr. Lewis says, “the best we can do at the moment is sticky-tape the equations together.” This fudging leads to flaws in how we describe black holes, says Hawking.
Lewis’s full piece explains this new theory about not-quite-black holes and why some scientists are skeptical of the idea.
Where are the black recording artists?
Three big names took home most of this year’s big Grammy awards: robot-helmeted Daft Punk, New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, and the jokey rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They all are heavily influenced by hip-hop, a genre that has penetrated deep into American culture. And they are also white.
In 2013, not a single African-American artist had a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. “That’s never happened before in the chart’s 55-year history,” writes Chris Molanphy in Slate. “In 2004, literally every song that topped the Hot 100 was by a person of color.”
Several trends may have contributed to this massive reversal. Billboard’s secret formula now includes digital purchases and YouTube views, not just radio airtime play and CD sales. Many of last year’s most popular songs did feature people of color, such as Pharrell Williams’s prominent role in Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Also, several major black artists, such as Beyoncé and Kanye West, released music in 2013 that focused more on the complete album than individual tracks.
When a name isn’t just a name
The US Patent and Trademark Office must decide if the term “Washington Redskins” is offensive. A lawsuit brought by a group of native Americans argues that the National Football League (NFL) team should lose its registered trademark status because the name is disparaging. The federal agency “is expected to make its decision at any time,” according to Theresa Vargas of The Washington Post, which found that precedent leans heavily against the football team.
Since 1992, the patent office has refused to issue trademarks to at least 11 other applicants that had hoped to use the term, according to the Post. The most recent rejection came in January, when the agency turned down a trademark on “Redskin Hog Rinds” because the name contained “a derogatory slang term.”
If officials strike down the NFL’s team trademark, owner Daniel Snyder will not be forced to change the name of the Washington team. Losing the trademark simply means anyone could use the name without licensing it from Mr. Snyder or the NFL.
Ever shifting new-media landscapes
Longtime political columnist Ezra Klein has left The Washington Post to start an online news venture. “Today, we are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened,” he writes in his announcement of the as-yet-unnamed news site on The Verge.
Pushing for better, more context-heavy news seems to be a mantra among a new coterie of journalists. At least four new-media news outlets plan to open their doors in 2014, driven by popular reporters that have left their old-media jobs behind. Nate Silver, once the numbers whiz at The New York Times, will team up with ESPN and ABC News to rebuild his FiveThirtyEight politics blog. Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher of The Wall Street Journal just launched a new technology outlet called Re/code. EBay founder Pierre Omidyar has promised former Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald $250 million to set up an online, nonprofit/for-profit fusion venture. All four will ostensibly fight for the same audience: the educated, curious elite that advertisers love – as do countless other news outlets.
How Slender Man became ‘real’
A new monster has joined the ranks of vampires and Sasquatch – creatures of folklore with countless creepy tales and imaginative retellings. Slender Man is the Internet’s monster. Online searches turn up pages of historical “evidence” pointing toward a tall, faceless figure with impossibly gangly arms and a penchant for sneaking up on children in the woods. There are videotaped sightings on YouTube, stories of run-ins, and woodblock prints depicting the monster – so much fan-created mythos that some people refuse to believe that Eric Knudsen invented Slender Man in 2009. WNYC’s podcast TLDR interviewed Mr. Knudsen about the monster that has taken on a life of its own.
The “no” campaign on the question of Scottish independence just rolled out its big guns. The three top political parties in the United Kingdom came out Thursday to jointly promise that no matter who forms the next government, none of them would agree to join a currency union with an independent Scotland. The timing of this explicit threat of economic chaos – seven months ahead of the referendum – suggests the “no” campaign was growing nervous about recent warming of the Scottish electorate toward independence, says our correspondent in Glasgow.
“This is the ‘no’ campaign’s big weapon, and they hit it now, they hit early. So they had been rattled. You have to imagine if they did what they are doing now a month before polling, they would have almost wiped the ‘yes’ campaign out. There’s still potentially time for the ‘yes’ campaign to change it,” our correspondent says. But this pocketbook uncertainty – with voters saying the economy is their No. 1 concern – will be the “yes” campaign’s biggest challenge ahead.
Scotland’s “yes” campaign has been arguing that an independent Scotland would keep the pound sterling as its currency. The plan would be to negotiate a formal monetary union with the remaining UK where the Bank of England would become accountable to both countries.
The UK political leadership said Thursday it would not negotiate any such deal, pointing to a new UK Treasury report that draws negative parallels between the proposed Sterling Area and the eurozone. Scottish voters will well remember, our correspondent says, that during the eurocrisis, governments with a shared currency but diverging political authority lost the needed flexibility to individually adjust monetary policy. “[T]he experience of the global financial crisis suggests that countries with more flexible macroeconomic policy regimes, in particular with more direct control over their monetary policy, can be better equipped through periods of very severe economic stress,” the report reads.
Scotland could, of course, simply continue to use the currency without a negotiated union. And some commentators have mentioned examples... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas and other cities Wednesday in the biggest antigovernment protests yet during the 10-month term of President Nicolas Maduro. Pro-government demonstrators also turned out, sparking confrontations that reportedly left three people dead.
Demonstrators also took to the Internet, circulating the Twitter hashtag #LaSalida (The Exit) as a rally call for Mr. Maduro to step down. Student protesters have been a powerful political force in Venezuela, having fueled the 2002 coup against former President Hugo Chavez (he was reinstated by the military after 47 hours). Maduro himself has arrested at least 19 antigovernment demonstrators whom he calls “coup-seekers."
“I tend to believe that if students continue to go into streets then people will follow behind,” says our correspondent in the nation’s capital. “This could be an opportunity for the opposition."
But the opposition is weakened by disunity.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.
The US embassy in India announced Tuesday that the ambassador will meet with prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, signaling a new State Department approach to a man who was once denied a US visa over human rights concerns.
For American firms doing business in India, a little fence-mending between US and Indian officialdom is surely a welcome development. The two countries are fresh off an emotionally-raw diplomatic feud this winter that called into question the warmth of their post-cold-war embrace.
By requesting a meeting with Mr. Modi, the US is signaling that the overall relationship is too important to be spoiled by tensions with individual leaders. And it suggests that the State Department agrees with the Indian media consensus that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is in a strong position heading into national elections this May.
“The understanding here is that the US has to do this because he is prospectively now the next prime minister,” says our correspondent in India.
The embassy may also be listening to the business community, our correspondent adds.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.