Global News Blog
A Mayan prophecy that the world will end this week may have the more credulous stocking up on supplies and fleeing to "sacred" mountains in the hope of miraculous last-minute salvation by aliens.
But while the idea that Earth could be shattered into a billion pieces by some sort of interplanetary cataclysm has worried millions of people around the world, the Holy See's chief astronomer suggests that life as we know it is unlikely to come to an end quite so soon.
In an editorial in the Vatican's official daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano – in an issue whose front-page article was entitled “The end is not nigh – at least for now” – Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the director of the Vatican Observatory, criticized "pseudo-prophecies" about the end of the Universe.
“In the media and on the internet there is a great deal of talk of the end of the world, which the Mayan calendar supposedly predicted for Dec 21. If you do a search on Google, you get 40 million results on the topic,” wrote Father Funes, a Jesuit priest from Argentina.
A 5,125-year cycle known in the Mayan calendar as the Long Count comes to an end on Friday and has been widely interpreted by cultists, New Age disciples, and believers in the esoteric as heralding the destruction of the planet.
But in a lengthy discourse on astronomy and Christian belief, he said it was “not even worth discussing the scientific basis of these claims."
He acknowledged that the universe was slowly expanding, but that the destruction of the Earth – if it ever happens – will not occur for billions of years.
In any case, he said, Christians subscribe to the “fundamental conviction that death is not the last word.”
Four hundred years after the Roman Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for heresy based on his belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way round, the Vatican is rather more forgiving of the science of astronomy.
Its observatory is at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the pope, which lies in the hills outside Rome. One of the oldest astronomical research institutes in the world, it also has a research facility hosted by the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Funes, who has a master’s degree in astronomy from the National University of Cordoba in Argentina as well as degrees in philosophy and theology, was made director of the observatory in 2006.
He has not been reluctant to take modern science into account when considering religious tenets. In an interview in 2008, he said it was possible that intelligent forms of life could exist on other planets in the solar system.
Aliens would still be God’s creatures, he said, in an article in L’Osservatore Romano headlined "The extraterrestrial is my brother." The notion did not necessarily contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church, he said, arguing that to dismiss the possibility of alien life would be to underestimate God’s creative powers.
China hasn’t started a military war with Taiwan – as has been feared since the 1940s – but a battle that began on paper last month has met with a fiery pulp-and-ink response that could burn a hole in goodwill between the two once-hostile governments.
Pictures on Beijing’s latest passports show a map of China that includes two parts of Taiwan, including its scenic showpiece Sun Moon Lake. The travel documents also depict islets in the South China Sea as China's, despite competing claims by Taiwan and several Southeast Asian countries.
China, already a regional heavyweight, is believed to have issued 5 million of the passports between April and November when they inflamed a regional dispute with neighbors. Now Taiwan is joining the chorus of protest, not by refusing to stamp them as Vietnam has announced it is doing, and not by issuing their own maps as India has done, but with some provocative stickers with a message to China.
China has claimed Taiwan as part of its turf since the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists set up a government to rival mainland China's about 100 miles offshore after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. The relationship between China and Taiwan has been up and down for the past few decades: Both formal reunification with the mainland and full Taiwanese independence have been suggested, but a tempering of relations has kept many content with the middle ground status quo, with Taiwan considering itself an effectively independent territory.
Still, the maps in China’s passports were taken as a bold affront to that. In response, Taiwan’s main opposition Democratic Progressive Party gave away 10,000 pink stickers at the foreign ministry consular office in Taipei. The stickers that read “Taiwan is my Country” can be slapped onto the back cover of a Taiwan passport or onto a plastic passport protector.
The stickers went fast two weeks ago, so the party copied off another 20,000. “People just love them,” says its policy coordination executive director Joseph Wu. “It’s quite clear that what China is doing trespasses into our sovereignty. Taiwan is not under any country’s jurisdiction.”
Across town, the smaller Taiwan Solidarity Union Party printed out oversized paper effigies of the Chinese passports and marred or burned them at a rally, according to local media.
Taiwan and China have set aside differences over sovereignty since 2008, when the island’s conciliatory President Ma Ying-jeou took office. Mr. Ma’s government has signed 18 deals with China, drawing Taiwan closer to the world economic powerhouse. Talks on those agreements built mutual trust that didn’t exist before.
The island’s foreign ministry says that trust is now being questioned. The ministry’s news release calls China’s passport issue “a provocative act that will … damage the mutual trust laboriously built by the two sides in recent years.”
Taiwanese opposition forces are protesting the Chinese passports because they worry that the government is courting China rather than standing up to it, but analysts say officials in Taipei are just as irked as their skeptics.
“Our government thinks that China betrayed common ground, which is that there’s one China but subject to different interpretations,” says Nathan Liu, an associate international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan, citing the basis for talks and deals since 2008.
Which country produces the biggest share of America’s flat-screen TVs? You know it can’t be China, or we wouldn’t bother asking.
Three years ago, a Pentagon report warned that Mexico was on the brink of becoming a failed state, notes a special report in The Economist. Instead, Mexico’s economic growth has overtaken and surpassed that of Brazil. And as Chinese wages have quintupled in the past 10 years, Mexico’s competitiveness is rising to match its great field position next door to the US Sun Belt. The flat-screen TVs are the least of it. What’s amazing to The Economist is how little Americans know about the progress of their southern neighbor. It estimates that nearly a tenth of current US residents, or their children, are Mexican citizens. But as the Monitor has noted, net migration from Mexico has dropped to zero or lower as opportunities there have expanded.
Many Americans have heard, if vaguely, of Mayan calendars that seem to predict the end of the world coming in a few weeks. But few have heard that recent translations revise that apocalypse into something more like a renewal or fresh start. And that, the magazine argues, looks to be where Mexico is heading.
Lincoln’s example for today’s mess
In these times of winter winds whipping across the “fiscal cliff” at Americans’ feet, compromise is suddenly in again. What was scorned in the tea party upswell of 2010 as caving in to bad Washington habits, is lauded in late 2012 as adult behavior and getting something done.
History, of course, stands on both sides of the compromise question. Abraham Lincoln may have been the self-effacing pragmatist who could hold together a diverse “team of rivals.” But he was not about compromise. This is something the new Steven Spielberg film on Lincoln gets right, says The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. The United States had been straddling various compromises over slavery for years, he says, and there are still arguments over whether Lincoln could have avoided the unprecedented human suffering of the war. But Lincoln instead stood at the end of the line for compromise. His position was absolute, both on union and on slavery.
“Lincoln was an uncompromising man who sponsored violence on a hitherto unimaginable scale; that he paid the highest price himself for the noble but hugely costly morality in which he believed is one of the things that makes his story still so fateful and, in its way, uncompromised.”
John F. Kennedy, not so much
Standing strong and unbending against all foreign adversaries is one of the lessons generations of Americans have drawn from President Kennedy’s “eyeball to eyeball” showdown with Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis 50 years ago. Kennedy’s threat to strike at those missiles risked a nuclear escalation of holocaust proportions. (There is also a movie version, “Thirteen Days,” with Kevin Costner.)
The Soviets blinked first and withdrew the missiles. Lesson learned. But Leslie Gelb, a foreign-policy expert who was in the State Department at the time, argues in Foreign Policy magazine that Americans learned the wrong lesson. They have ignored, played down, or forgotten that Kennedy didn’t just stand down his superpower rival; he worked a deal. His bargain for a missile withdrawal was not only that he promised not to invade Cuba, but that the US withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Part of the deal, Mr. Gelb writes, was that the Soviets wouldn’t mention the Jupiter withdrawal. They didn’t. And the real-leaders-don’t-bargain-with-the-enemy narrative is the one that stuck.
New facts, faded facts, and former facts
These days, not only is there far too much to know, but much of it isn’t true. Some facts actually change over time: The summit of Mt. Everest shifts a few centimeters each year, for example. And some facts – many, it appears – turn out to be not so factual. The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, a book by Harvard-affiliated applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman, finds overarching patterns in scientific findings and conclusions.
Note first that of all the scientists in human history, a majority are alive and working today. By 1960, mathematician Derek J. da Solla Price concluded that scientific knowledge was doubling every 15 years.
But Dr. Arbesman notes another trend: the decay of what we formerly thought were facts. A review of medical research on liver disease found that it took 45 years for half of it to be proved false or otherwise obsolete. And the discredited share kept growing after that. Another study in 2011 found that of 53 landmark cancer research papers, the conclusions of only six could be reproduced in further research.
Everyone who’s seen Popeye cartoons knows the virtues of spinach. It turns out that the fabulous iron content of spinach is an artifact of a misplaced decimal point by a German chemist in 1870. The mistake was discovered in the 1930s, but spinach’s reputation remains unsullied in the popular mind.
The problem, writes Arbesman, is that “we persist in only adding facts to our personal store of knowledge that jibe with what we already know, rather than assimilate new facts irrespective of how they fit our worldview.”
Good Reads: American manufacturing, Apple's new CEO, and a father-son journey to meet two presidents
Things may finally be looking up for US manufacturing, James Fallows argues in the December issue of The Atlantic.
Even in its battered condition, the American manufacturing sector is still the largest in the world, but its share of the US economy has declined from 20 percent in the early 1980s to just over 10 percent today. In the process, many high-paying jobs moved to China and other lower-wage countries, while Rust Belt communities in the United States were hard hit.
Two trends are likely to get trade winds blowing toward America again, Mr. Fallows contends. First, new technologies emerging in the US, such as 3-D printing, make it easier and faster to design, build, and refine products. Three-dimensional printing allows firms to use computerized molding systems to produce prototypes in minutes or hours. “A revolution is coming to the creation of things, comparable to the Internet’s effect on the creation and dissemination of ideas,” one industrial design expert told Fallows.
At the same time, tumultuous changes in China are reducing its manufacturing advantages, complicating life for outsourcers and exporters. “In China, wages are rising, workers are becoming choosier, public resistance to environmental devastation is growing, and the Chinese ‘investment led’ model is showing strain,” Fallows says.
Apple’s new CEO
Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook talked extensively about management and corporate creativity in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel.
Mr. Cook succeeded Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs. Mr. Jobs was a major shareholder in the Walt Disney Company and had seen how executives there wasted time trying to figure out what Disney himself would have done after the founder of the company had passed away. Jobs “removed a tremendous burden for me,” Cook says, by instructing, “I never want you to ask what I would have done. Just do what is right.”
Apple has taken heat for poor working conditions at massive Foxconn Technology Group factories in China where many of its products are assembled. Cook told Businessweek that Apple would start producing one line of its Mac computers in the US in 2013 – a modest sign of the brightening prospects for US manufacturing mentioned above.
Creativity, in Cook’s definition, is “people who care enough to keep thinking about something until they find the simplest way to do it.” He laughed about corporate innovation departments saying that having one “is always a sign that something is wrong ... you know, put a for sale sign on the door.”
Religious Americans defined
A new Gallup survey about how Americans feel about religion offers fascinating glimpses into the nation’s spiritual life. In the past year, Gallup asked 320,000 people how religious they considered themselves to be and how often they attended religious services.
The answers form the foundation for a new book, “God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America,” by Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport. Overall, some 69 percent of adults consider themselves very religious or moderately religious, while 31 percent say they are nonreligious.
Religiousness is “distributed quite unequally across various subgroups and segments of the U.S. population,” Gallup says.
Religion could become more important in the US in years to come as baby boomers age and the number of Americans 65 and older nearly doubles. According to Gallup, religiousness peaks at 80.
A father, a son, and two presidents
Journalist Ron Fournier shares in the National Journal what he learned about fatherhood while visiting two American presidents in an effort to help his young son deal with a medical condition that hinders social interaction abilities.
This is not a story about disease but rather a deeply moving, first-person narrative about a father’s effort to correct his own shortcomings as a parent and his 15-year-old son Tyler’s wonderful resilience and forgiveness.
Mr. Fournier was able to arrange visits for Tyler with former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush because of his time as White House correspondent for The Associated Press. Fournier’s wife, Lori, suggested the road trip, saying, “You can use a job that took you away from Tyler to help him.” The duo ultimately visited 12 historical destinations together.
President Bush, “a man who famously doesn’t suffer fools or breaches of propriety, gave my son the benefit of the doubt,” Fournier says. “I was beginning to think that people are more perceptive and less judgmental toward Tyler than his own father is.”
President Clinton warmly welcomed Fournier’s son but at one point launched into a lengthy monologue about Teddy Roosevelt’s role as a bridge to the 20th century, clearly boring Tyler. “Suddenly I saw Tyler in another light. If even Bill Clinton, the most talented people person in a generation, can miss obvious social cues, why worry so much about my son?” Fournier says.
Amateur historians had been searching for months for the relic – a six-wheel, two-ton amphibious DUKW vehicle that sank during a storm on Lake Garda on the night of April 30, 1945 – but were only able to confirm their find on Monday.
The DUKW, pronounced “duck,” was carrying supplies and ammunition to an American military camp near the town of Torbole, at the northern tip of the lake, but sank as a result of gale force winds that were battering the area that night.
The truck was carrying 24 US soldiers aged between 18 and 25 from the 10th Mountain Division, only one of whom survived the accident. The men who died were from the division's 605th Field Artillery Battalion, as well as a driver from the Quartermaster Corps.
Days before armistice
The sinking happened just days before the end of fighting in Europe and the armistice with the Germans, on May 8, 1945.
“It was the biggest disaster to happen in modern times on Lake Garda,” said Mauro Fusato, the leader of the team that found the DUKW.
The wreck of the vehicle was found with sonar lying at a depth of 905 feet – one reason why it had not been located before.
“On Sunday, the sonar gave us an initial image, but it wasn’t clear enough to be able to say for sure that it was the DUKW,” Mr. Fusato told Ansa, an Italian news agency.
“On Monday, though, we used a remote-controlled camera and we saw it. It is intact and sitting upright.”
The next step is to try to identify any human remains that may still be lying around the wreck, as well as military equipment, insignia, and personal possessions. “There are lots of objects around it, which could be the skeletons or remains of the soldiers who drowned,” said Fusato.
Any operation to recover them would be highly complex and technically challenging, however. The wreck lies too deep for divers, and there are old fishing nets and other debris on the lake bed that could snag underwater subs. Ultimately it will be up to the US government to decide whether to proceed with a recovery, the researchers said, adding that they had informed American diplomats of the discovery.
Beijing’s finest, ever vigilant on the law-and-order front, have set themselves a challenging new task: to eradicate the phenomenon known as “crossing the road, Chinese-style.”
A new “strike hard” campaign, launched last week, is aimed at “bringing order to traffic and security” at the city’s intersections, according to the Beijing municipal police website.
Good luck to them.
The police appear to have been goaded into action not so much by the anarchy that has long reigned on most Beijing streets, but by an online comment that went viral a few weeks ago.
A blogger remarked – entirely accurately – that crossing the road with Chinese characteristics has nothing to do with whether the lights are red or green. The determining factor is how many people are waiting on the curb. Once a crowd has reached critical mass, it moves.
As more and more Beijingers buy cars, and drive them without necessarily bothering to get a license, life for the city’s crowds of pedestrians and its diminishing band of cyclists has grown increasingly hazardous.
Pedestrian fatalities in China are 18 times higher, per 100,000 motorized vehicles, than in the United States, according to Ni Ying, who did her doctoral thesis on the dangers of Chinese crossroads.
“High rates of pedestrian noncompliance and low rates of driver-yielding behavior” accounted for the Chinese statistics, she concluded.
Jaywalking is a national habit that the capital’s police would like to break, but they are not training their sights on pedestrians alone. The goal, says the official website warning, is also to enforce drivers’ lane discipline and to stop cyclists crashing red lights, carrying passengers on the back seat, and riding the wrong way up cycle lanes.
This is nothing less than an assault on a fundamental right that all Chinese citizens hold dear: to do precisely as they please on the public highway.
Learning to 'Beijing it'
I walk, ride my bike, and drive my car all the time in Beijing, and frankly it is a miracle that I am still alive. Not least because after living here for six years, I have gone native when it comes to traffic etiquette.
I still recall the sense of pride with which I rode my bicycle the wrong way up a street for the first time, taking a call on my mobile phone. I felt like a true Beijinger. And the quaint idea that I should stop at a red light rather than weave a path through the cars getting in my way is one that I abandoned a long time ago.
I am better behaved behind the wheel of my 1980s Jeep Cherokee (an ideal, bullock-like vehicle in which to navigate the city’s traffic). But even then the frustration of watching other drivers jam up an intersection by ignoring the simplest rules of the road, not to mention elementary courtesy, can tempt me to barge into the melee myself.
In my family, we have coined a verb for the sort of inconsiderate and patently illegal behavior to which my wife and I occasionally sink, such as sailing past a highway traffic jam in the emergency vehicle lane: We call that “to Beijing it.”
If the city police have their way, that kind of description will soon be history. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The Beijing police department is running a little quiz on its “weibo,” a Twitter-like platform, asking people why they think Beijingers are so careless on the road. The two most popular answers so far are “a weak sense of the law” and “low levels of public morality and civic responsibility.”
It will take more than a few traffic fines to deal with those problems, I’m afraid. And I say that as one who, to his shame, knows whereof he speaks.
• A news roundup
A United States special operations member was killed during a weekend rescue mission in Afghanistan that freed an American doctor, raising questions about the safety of aid workers in the region as it prepares for a drawdown of US combat troops by 2014.
Dr. Dilip Joseph, a US citizen, and two others who work for a faith-based nonprofit organization, were captured by Taliban on Dec. 5 while they were returning from a rural health clinic outside the capital, Kabul.
The early Sunday raid that successfully rescued Dr. Joseph, a three-year employee of the Morning Star Development, an organization in Colorado Springs, Colo., came after 3-1/2 days of negotiations that reportedly included demands for a $100,000 ransom, according to the Colorado Springs' Gazette newspaper.
The rescue highlights the fact that, despite international efforts to control violence, kidnappings for ransom are still a frequent and lucrative business in the area, Foreign policy reports.
Much of the threat is simply criminal. There is a burgeoning kidnapping industry in Afghanistan, part of the conflict economy that has been fed by tens of billions of dollars the international forces and community have pumped into the country since 2001. Most kidnappings end either in the payment of a ransom or the death of the hostage, and ransoms for foreigners can approach half a million dollars – though it's wealthy Afghans who are most often the victims.
Joesph and the other two local Morning Star Development staff members were kidnapped on Dec. 5 by a group of armed men while returning from a visit to one of the organization’s rural medical clinics in eastern Kabul Province. They were eventually taken to a mountainous area about 50 miles from the Pakistani border.
It was not clear who was behind the kidnapping. Although US sources told NPR that seven members of the Taliban were killed in the raid, some Afghans believe the kidnappers were smugglers, according to CNN.
According to Morning Star Development’s website, negotiations began almost immediately and led to the release of two other employees on Saturday. About 11 hours later, after intelligence reports indicated the situation was life-threatening, the special forces team moved in.
According to Fox News, the special forces member who was killed was part of the Navy SEAL Team Six – the same special operations group used for the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, though it's unknown if he took part in that raid last year.
President Obama issued a statement about the fallen solider, saying that "he and his teammates remind us once more of the selfless service that allows our nation to stay strong, safe, and free."
The doctor's family reportedly paid a $12,000 ransom for his release, but Morning Star Development stressed that it had not paid anything for ransom.
The Gazette described the Morning Star Development organization as a “lower-profile faith-based organization in Colorado Springs.”
Its founder, Daniel Batchelder of Colorado Springs, told The Gazette in 2010 that the organization “does evangelical work in countries where the law permits. In Afghanistan, where Islam is the predominant religion, employees refrain from proselytizing."
Though Morning Star Development, which was created in 2002, had just seven employees in Colorado Springs in 2010, the nonprofit has a rather large overseas budget.
It employed 153 people in Afghanistan at one point, funded by an annual budget of about $900,000, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), an accreditation agency dedicated to funding transparency in Christian organizations. Approximately 90 percent of the budget is spent on community and economic development in the rural areas of Afghanistan.
Kidnappings in Afghanistan
Some recent high-profile kidnappings have ended with negotiations and release, but other aid workers have also been killed:
Two foreigners were reported missing in October by a provincial reconstruction team in volatile Wardak, west of Kabul, and were feared to have been kidnapped, Afghan police told Reuters, and investigation is reportedly underway. And in May, two Western female doctors working for a Swiss medical charity were kidnapped with two Afghan colleagues by gunmen in northeastern Afghanistan. They were later rescued by NATO special forces soldiers.
Last year, two French journalists were released after 547 days in Taliban captivity (see the Monitor report here). In 2010, a British aid worker was kidnapped and used as a bargaining chip to free neuroscientist Dr. Daafia Siddiqui. And in 2008, the Monitor reported on a group of 23 South Korean church volunteers who were kidnapped in southern Afghanistan. Two were killed before the others were released.
Serious concerns have been raised about chemical weapons in Syria as unnamed US officials on Wednesday told NBC News that Syrian forces have loaded sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into bombs that can be dropped by planes.
The officials said the bombs had not been loaded onto planes and there was not yet a decision from Syria's leader to use them.
President Obama has said the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a “red line” that would draw the US into the war. Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied that he’s planning to use them, unless international forces intervene. And Syrian officials have called recent accusations a “pretext for intervention.”
The international community is now debating if and how to respond to this latest development.
As the situation unfolds, for many unfamiliar with sarin gas there may be some question as to what it is and just how deadly it can be. Though it’s classified as a weapon of mass destruction and is extremely lethal, it is not in the same league as nuclear weapons.
“Chemical weapons are not nuclear weapons. In order to produce a lot of damage they have to be distributed very efficiently. The problem with them is that they can be very deadly and efficient if used in population centers and their effects are indiscriminate,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
“The explosion of a single chemical shell would not necessarily be a catastrophe if it went off accidentally at one of these storage sites, but the deliberate use of one chemical shell in a population center could be very deadly,” adds Mr. Kimball.
Sarin is a colorless and odorless nerve agent that can be attached to missiles and artillery rounds and is primarily lethal when inhaled but can also penetrate skin and clothing.
It evaporates quickly, though under the right conditions it can linger for up to five days. As a result, a sarin attack requires little clean up and areas affected by sarin can be quickly reoccupied, making it a desirable weapon for military units looking to advance without destroying infrastructure and equipment.
It was first developed in Germany in 1938, but there was no known use of it as a weapon, until 1988 when Iraq used it against the Kurdish town of Halabja. The Iraqi military is also believed to have used sarin against Iran during the war between the two countries that spanned from 1980 to 1988.
Most recently, it was used by the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo which manufactured their own form of impure sarin gas and released it on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The attack killed 12 and injured at least 5,500 people.
It’s unclear exactly how much damage would be caused were Syrian jets to drop bombs filled with sarin gas on an apartment block or populated area, but experts say the attack would likely be lethal and devastating, creating a major impact.
Tonight, as is the tradition on Dec. 5 in The Netherlands and Belgium, many children will receive gifts from Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas. But there's another, more recent tradition that accompanies the holiday as well: the debate over Sinterklaas's traditional helper, Zwarte Piet, or "Black Pete."
For decades, the celebration of Sinterklaas has been surrounded by a discussion about whether Black Pete, who is traditionally portrayed by whites in blackface and wigs of curly black hair, is racist. This year is no different: One of Amsterdam's aldermen on Monday said that it is time to say farewell to the saint's black servant.
“When the Sinterklaas celebrations began, there was no Black Pete, and it's time to continue without Black Pete,” Andrée van Es said on Monday in the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool.
Sinterklaas is a tradition that has been traced back as far as the 15th century, and originally, Black Pete was a cruel man who would punish children who didn't behave. But it wasn't until Jan Schenkman's popular book "Saint Nicholas and His Servant" was published in 1850 that Sinterklaas – and Black Pete – truly became a national celebration in The Netherlands.
Since the 1930s, the country has held an official parade where Sinterklaas is accompanied by multiple Black Petes. For a long time, these Petes also had curly hair and big earrings, and talked with an accent of Surinam – the South American country that was a Dutch colony until 1975.
In the 1980s, several Surinamese action groups called for the end to Black Pete, and while they did not stop the tradition, they did prompt efforts to change it: for example, there were some attempts to make Petes of various colors in the 1990s.
The traditional explanation for Pete's blackness is derived from the fact that he climbs down the chimney to put gifts in the children's shoes, thereby covering himself in soot. Ms. Van Es suggests that this version should be more prominently reflected in the Black Pete's appearance: just some dark smudges on the face, instead of a completely painted black face.
Even some people closely associated with the celebration see room for change. Actor Bram van der Vlugt, who played Sinterklaas on national television from 1986 to 2010, recently noted in an interview that the helpers on TV have already lost their Surinam accents. “I have also argued for just calling them Pieten instead of Zwarte Pieten. The tradition has been modified before.”
To a foreigner's eye, this all might seem quite absurd. Two American stand-up comedians, Greg Shapiro and Pep Rosenfeld, have been living in the Netherlands for around 20 years, and still are offended by the existence of Black Pete.
“I just can't get used to it," Mr. Shapiro told newspaper nrc.next in a recent interview. "It's an army of black slaves!”
The comedians have put their frustrations in a comedy show, "There’s no Such Thing As Sinterklaas," which includes their plea for a Black Pete reboot.
Kate, formerly Kate Middleton, is currently in hospital being treated for morning sickness. Verifiable facts are thin on the ground, but one thing is known for sure: regardless of the sex of the child, he or she is likely to reign – eventually.
Primogeniture, the rule that male children take precedence in succession to the throne, has been scrapped. The centuries-old tradition was ended last year at a meeting of the Commonwealth of Nations, a supra-national group of countries mostly consisting of former parts of the British Empire.
The laws to do this haven't even been tabled yet, though they may take on a new urgency given the announcement.
Then again, perhaps not that much urgency given it will be a long time before this child basks in the regal glory of coronation anthem, Handel's Zadok the Priest: Queen Elizabeth II shows no signs of quitting the throne at all.
During the 1990s, speculation was rife that she would stand aside to let her eldest son Prince Charles become king. It didn't happen, and is rarely spoken about today.
At this point you may be thinking this is all uncannily like reading tea leaves, and, indeed it is. The monarchy doesn't make much in the way of planning announcements and the speculative stories based on sources "close to" various royals are a stock-in-trade of the British press, particularly, though by no means exclusively, the tabloids.
Getting back to the facts, what we know is that Prince Charles, now 64, is heir apparent to the throne, followed by his eldest son William, aged 30. After him will be the new child and everyone else in line to the throne, such as William's brother Prince Harry (Henry), (currently third-in-line) and uncle, Prince Andrew, (currently fourth-in-line) get bumped one place.
It is unclear whether Queen Elizabeth's second child, Princess Anne, 62, will enjoy a move up due to the end to primogeniture, or languish tenth in line, soon to be eleventh.
The announcement that the Duke and Duchess were expecting was made in a press release and, in a first for royal social media, a rather terse, tweet. (Not a bad day for hierarchy fans on Twitter: the Pope, who is head of state of the world's smallest country, the Vatican City State, joined the social network).
Not everyone is pleased by the news of the royal pregnancy. An online poll undertaken by the republican-leaning Guardian newspaper is currently giving a 64 percent thumbs down to the question: "Do you share David Cameron's delight at news the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant?" Goodness.
The newspaper also published a snarky comment piece lightning fast.
(This writer's own Facebook feed has cleaved – unsurprisingly, given I'm in Ireland – with about a third excitedly congratulating the couple they will never meet and a further third unreasonably hot under the collar about the potential expansion of the royal line. The final third are, mercifully, silent on the issue.)
On which note, I shall resume my own dignified silence.