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Shyrine Ziadeh leads one of her three classes at the Ramallah Ballet Center, which she opened in December 2011 with the help of her family. (Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor)

In West Bank, a space for tutus and pirouettes

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / 02.04.13

The Ramallah Ballet Center, where girls in white tights and pink tutus twirl in front of a long mirror, seems a world away from the street below, where butchered lambs hang for sale, resentment lingers from the last intifada, and horns blare as cars snake dangerously close to each other in the narrow streets. 

“Doesn’t the music make you feel so peaceful?” asks studio owner Shyrine Ziadeh, as she surveys her students. “That’s one of my favorite things about dancing.” 

Ms. Ziadeh’s dance studio is the first to open in Ramallah and the only one she knows of in the West Bank, following years of foreign instructors teaching lessons out of their homes or in local schools. (Read more about female entrepreneurs in the West Bank here.)

Ziadeh, who grew up in Ramallah, planned to leave the West Bank to study dance abroad after graduating from Birzeit University four years ago. But she changed her mind after she opened the studio last year and saw how popular her classes are. If she leaves, she fears no one will be there for the students.

“The kids here, they have many talents but no one to support them,” she says. “So when I find a talented girl, I support her with all my heart.” Ziadeh says part of her motivation was the fact that when people around the world think of the Palestinian territories, they don’t see hope or talent, but violence.

Ziadeh sees her studio as place where local kids – she teaches between 30 and 40 students a month – can come to have fun in a safe place.

“I want to show the world that as Palestinians, we have talent and can defend our land not only in violence, but in the arts.”

Ziadeh sees the studio as a success, though it’s not yet profitable. She charges 200 shekels (about $55) a month for two classes a week, but some parents can’t afford to pay. The Orthodox Church that owns the studio space has so far allowed her to pay rent late when needed and she’s still repaying a loan her parents gave her. 

Some Israelis who heard about her business offered to give funding, something she’s so far declined in the hopes that Palestinians will be the ones to provide support.

In a region where the political conflict is reflected in so much of society Ziadeh says Israeli-Palestinian politics have complicated her business. She can’t get the costumes she needs because West Bank stores don’t sell them and she doesn’t have a permit to travel 15 miles to Jerusalem to buy them. Instead, she goes to Amman, Jordan to buy the outfits necessary for performances, or has them made by hand.

Hoping for more boys

Another challenge Ziadeh hopes to overcome is gender. Her classes have been predominately female, but she thinks it’s important to involve boys as well because of the impact dance can have on them. She hopes that boys will start to enroll if she offers hip-hop classes.

“The problem is not with the Arab culture,” she says, citing a friend who teaches more boys than girls in the Egyptian royal ballet. “I think it’s here, the boys want to be more tough.”

Being ready for an intifada is a prominent part of how boys are raised, she says. “[They say] ‘how can I dance when I have to defend my country?’ But they can defend the country by dancing,” Ziadeh says.

Fadia Othman, the mother of one of Ziadeh’s students, says the classes help her 6-year-old daughter to be calmer in school.

Hadeel Kamil, a German-Palestinian gum surgeon who also has a daughter in the class, praises the decision of people like Ziadeh who stay in the Palestinian territories, sharing their talents locally instead of moving to a potentially easier and more lucrative life abroad.

"Palestine deserves people who know how to think," Ms. Kamil says.

What's behind Mexico's silence on immigration debate?

By Correspondent / 01.31.13

The days when a Mexican president would raise the battle cry for US immigration reform are long past.

Since a bipartisan group of US senators unveiled their proposal this week to resolve the status of millions of undocumented workers in the United States, and President Obama outlined a set of principles for reform, the Mexican government has stayed quietly out of the fray – sparking questions here about what, if any, role Mexico should play.

Mexico has more at stake than many other nations whose people leave for US shores: Fully 10 percent of the Mexican population resides in the US. Sixty percent of the 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants living and working in the US are Mexican, according to Pew Hispanic Center.

“The current Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto has been very careful to say that they are not going to interfere in the domestic decisions of the US,” says Jesus Velasco, a political science professor at Tarleton State University in Texas. “It’s silly. The American political system permits that the interests of foreign countries should be represented here.”

Mr. Velasco cited the effective lobbying by the Mexican government on NAFTA in the 1990s. But immigration has been a stickier issue.

Immigration was once the central theme of the bilateral relationship. A decade ago, former Mexican President Vicente Fox met with President George W. Bush five times in nine months to discuss the issue and in an address to Congress boldly requested action before the end of the year. That was in 2001, just days before the Sept. 11 attacks. The agenda quickly fell apart.

Former President Felipe Calderón wiped immigration off the slate in 2006 and retrained the focus of the US-Mexico relationship on security. Today, six years later, Mr. Peña Nieto appears poised to do the same.

So far the only public comment on the proposals has come from the Mexican ministry of foreign affairs, which said in a brief statement that it “recognizes the commitment demonstrated by an ever larger number of parties” on the issue but noted that reform is an “internal matter” for the US federal government.

Work to do at home

Mexico’s real work today – given that net emigration from Mexico to the US fell to zero in the past year – lies not in promoting reform in the US but in ensuring economic opportunity for people here, says Antonio de la Cuesta, a senior political analyst with Mexico City-based think tank CIDAC.

“The focus has been wrong,” he says. “Mexico waits for the US to do everything. It’s about both countries [taking action].”

Roughly half of Mexicans live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations. Last year, Mexico’s social development agency reported the number of Mexicans living in extreme poverty at 13 million.

Mexican immigration to the US may have slowed because of the recession in the US and increased enforcement at the border, but the conditions that have historically driven people north haven’t yet changed. For many Mexicans, a daily wage here amounts to less than the hourly wage in the US.

There are consequences for Mexico, too, in whatever the US decides, says Mr. De la Cuesta. For example, he asks, would Mexicans living in the US bring additional family members north, and stop sending the remittances that rank among the country’s top three income sources?

Mexico needs a “complementary” proposal, he says: solutions for poverty.

“Mexico has a lot to say in this respect,” he says, “and no reason to interfere.”

New metrobus lines in Mexico City have helped to ease traffic congestion. (Bernardo Montoya/Reuters/File)

Good Reads: Mexico City cleans up, avoiding 'truth,' and a rare visit to North Korea

By Staff writer / 01.30.13

Mexico City has long had a dark cloud hovering over it – both literally and figuratively – when it comes to traffic woes and vehicle emissions. As recently as 2011, residents of Mexico’s vibrant capital city reported “enduring the most painful commute,” according to a report in National Geographic. “Based on factors such as roadway traffic, stress levels, and commute times, the city scored worse than 19 cities, including Beijing, China, and Nairobi, Kenya.”

So it might come as a surprise that this megacity, home to 20 million people and more than 4 million vehicles, was recently selected to receive the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s Sustainable Transport Award.

National Geographic describes Mexico City’s progress, noting that over the past two years the city has taken great strides to become more pedestrian-friendly with car-free walkways and plazas, new bus lines, a bike-sharing program, and a system of parking meters.

Sure, traffic still exists and air quality isn’t perfect, but anyone who has been to the bustling metropolis knows the hurdles the city has had to confront and what great progress must have been made to entitle it to an award of this sort.

Avoiding the truth

“In the three or four decades after 1490, the human experience on planet Earth arguably changed more than it had since the Year One,” writes Todd S. Purdum in Vanity Fair. And the life-altering changes that took place – from international exploration connecting the Eastern and Western Hemispheres for the first time to the creation of movable type – may have been the most revolutionary years civilization has seen. Until now.

“[W]e know almost everything” today, Mr. Purdum notes. That’s thanks in part to a second round of radical change that started a few short decades ago and continues in full force. Changes such as the “ricochets” of money and people around the world, and the simplification of information sharing via the Internet. But our newfound knowledge and interconnectivity doesn’t necessarily mean we understand our environment or “The Truths” that confront us.

Unlike our forefathers – who may not have had enough information to understand that the “sweating sickness” (malaria) that suddenly plagued coastal England was linked to the slave trade, or who couldn’t foresee that the printing press might also launch freethinking and religious wars – we aren’t in the dark. We have overwhelming amounts of information that wash over us daily that we can’t seem to process.

Consider the lasting debate over global warming, despite the volumes of real-time proof.

“Fixed cameras can capture the melting of glaciers through time-lapse photography, but they can’t quell the doubts of climate-change deniers,” Purdum offers as one example.

The chore of no more chores

Have you ever dreamed of coming home from work and having that pile of dirty laundry miraculously washed and folded? Or of having that book that’s been taunting you from your bedside table read in time for your next book club meeting? You, dear reader, are not alone.

“Oh, to be rich and powerful,” Patricia Marx writes in the opening of her New Yorker article “Outsource yourself: The online way to delegate your chores.” Ms. Marx takes her readers through a humorous journey of “test driving” the world of online services. There, “Task Rabbits” (errand runners) and “virtual personal assistants” can be hired to do everything from writing a brief history of outsourcing in the US for an article (hers) or even to read Proust and come up with insightful musings to impress book club friends (hers again).

There are numerous websites and Internet communities dedicated to outsourced work. But, as you might imagine, Marx’s adventures reveal that after spending time soliciting errand runners for simple tasks and then sifting through bids on these chores, it might just be quicker to do them yourself.

Turn up the heat, North Korea

Sophie Schmidt, daughter of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, tagged along in January when her father took part in a nine-person US delegation to North Korea, organized by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Ms. Schmidt, a grad school student, made a number of enlightening observations about the “hermit kingdom” on her blog, Sophie in North Korea.

In a post titled “It might not get weirder than this,” Schmidt writes, “Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.” She notes under “Top Level Take-aways” that “Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.” It was also extremely cold and none of the sites they toured – schools, malls, and government buildings – were heated, despite frigid temperatures. 

“It is quite extraordinary to have the Honored Guest Experience in such conditions: they’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.”

New record for the biggest wave ever surfed? (+video)

By StaffCSMonitor.com / 01.30.13

Was Garrett McNamara humming 'Oops, I did it again?" as he rode a 100-foot wave off Portugal?

On Monday, McNamara may have broken his own record for the largest wave ever surfed. McNamara returned to Nazaré, Portugal, where he set a record a little more than a year ago.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported last May: The Guinness World Records recognized a 44-year-old Hawaii pro surfer for catching a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, saying the November [2011] feat beats a 2008 record for the biggest ridden by more than 1 foot.

Nazare is known as a prime spot for big rides.  The waves roll in off the Atlantic Ocean and travel along an undersea canyon that generate some of the biggest waves on the planet. The Nazare canyon is about 16,000 feet deep in places, and about 140 miles long.

On Monday, :"The conditions in Nazaré were heavenly perfect. Light southern winds and strong swell coming from northwest and hitting the local canyon as it should," according to SurferToday.com.

McNamara is waiting confirmation of the size of the latest wave and whether a new record was set.

McNamara, who began surfing at age 11 and went pro at 17, said the achievement became more important to him when he realized it could help him urge more people to follow their passions.

"The world would be a much better place if everyone was doing what they wanted to do," he told the Associated Press last year after he set the record.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting on economic issues in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Friday. The Russian president eyes a possible trip to Antarctica. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Presidential Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP)

Putin eyes trip to Antarctica, shuns elder image

By Correspondent / 01.29.13

Russian President Vladimir Putin is rejecting the advice of some of his PR specialists to dial back his trademark action-hero persona and instead cultivate the image of a "wise patriarch," according to the pro-government Moscow daily Izvestia.

President Putin, who's now over 60, has insisted on a full slate of his traditional macho stunts this year, including scuba diving, hockey playing, actions to protect endangered animal species, and a possible visit to a science station in Antarctica, Izvestia says.

"Vladimir Putin will continue his active hobbies. Maybe he will go scuba diving in the summer. He continues the fight to preserve endangered species," the paper quotes Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying.

"As for a more 'patriarchal' style? Well, he has his own style, and that's his personal choice," he added.

Putin has been plagued with rumors of ill-health ever since he was seen limping at last September's APEC summit in Vladivostok. The Kremlin reacted indignantly to journalists' questions about his condition – which only seems to have inflamed the rumor-mill – and at some point Mr. Peskov conceded that the president was suffering from back pains.

Some pollsters argue that a recent dip in Putin's public approval rating, to about 62 percent from his usual 70 percent or so, might have been due to the uncertainties about his health.

"Putin's rating is down a bit, but it's a small fluctuation and doesn't spell a stable trend," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center in Moscow.

"These fluctuations occur for various reasons, and we attribute the latest dip to rumors about Putin's health. It's logical, because his image has always been based on his robust health and capacity for extreme actions.... I think he will repeat such actions because they confirm his own view that he controls his health much as he controls the country," Mr. Grazhdankin says.

Until recently, Putin had been regularly practicing at nights on a Moscow ice rink with Russian hockey pros – and occasionally with journalists – in preparation for what some Moscow sources whisper might be an exhibition game Putin was hoping to hold with other world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Past stunts

Last September Putin took to the skies in a motorized hang glider to guide a group of endangered Siberian cranes onto their correct migratory flight path.

At other times he has shot a Siberian tiger with a tranquilizer gun, harpooned a grey whale with a crossbow, and tagged a captured polar bear on an Arctic ice flow (all in the interest of science).

According to Izvestia, Putin accepted an invitation from Chilean President Sebastian Pinera during a meeting in the Kremlin last September to visit Chilean and Russian science bases in Antarctica sometime early this year.

Peskov told the newspaper that the date has yet to be decided, "but since Putin is occupied with ecological issues, he will work with this question."

Some professional spin doctors argue that Putin would be wise to go with the flow of advancing age and cultivate a different, more realistic image for himself. 

"A good PR specialist should not concoct beautiful lies, but find some merit in the client to focus on, tell people about, to show him in the best possible light," says Stanislav Radkevich, director of PR-3000, a Moscow think tank.

"In Putin's case, it should be connected with positive changes in the country that he has championed.... He needs to develop the image of a wise reformer, a competent leader, who is thinking about the fate of the country," he adds.

Elder image? Nyet.

But other experts argue that Putin will never accept the image of an aging, sedentary leader.

"At the beginning of his new term there was a lot of talk about how Putin might now be positioned [in the media], because of his age, as a wise man sitting in his study and handing down advice," says Leonid Polyakov, a political scientist with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

"Then Putin had a spinal trauma during a training session, and his spokesman confirmed that. His response to that appears to be that he is definitely not going to become the old man in the Kremlin....  I'm absolutely sure we're going to see more of Putin on horseback, jumping by parachute, taming tigers, and so on," he says.

"The explanation is simple. He just likes it. Sport is a way of life, Putin's still in good shape, and he simply can't stop."

An Indian Hindu man stands with a cow as he waits for alms at Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganges and Yamuna and mythical Saraswati at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, last week. Cows are everywhere in India, but the cow is considered holy in the Hindu-majority country. There are 26 breeds of cow in India. The hump, long ears, and bushy tail distinguish the Indian cow. (Kevin Frayer/AP)

Cow smuggling ... it's how Bangladesh gets its beef

By Shaikh Azizur RahmanContributor / 01.26.13

In Muslim majority Bangladesh beef is in high demand. 

More than 90 percent of the 160 million people who live there are Muslims and for them beef is a delicacy. 

The country's meat producers estimate that slaughterhouses need up to 3 million cows every year to feed Bangladeshi appetites, and to help meet demand, Bangladesh is eyeing neighboring India. Cows are everywhere in India, but the cow is considered holy in the Hindu-majority country. In fact, slaughtering cows is banned in many Indian states, and New Delhi refuses to export them.

That refusal hasn't done much to deter the demand for beef in Bangladesh, however.  In fact, say officials in Dhaka, beef has become so valuable it's spurred a dangerous cow smuggling trade across the India-Bangladesh border. 

More than 2 million cows are smuggled from India to Bangladesh every year and most of the illegal trade takes place through the Indian border state of West Bengal, says Bimal Pramanik, an independent researcher in Calcutta, India.

“Bangladeshi slaughterhouses cannot source even 1 million cows from within the country. If Indian cows do not reach the Bangladeshi slaughterhouses, there will be a big crisis there,” says Mr. Pramanik, adding that 3 out of every 4 cows slaughtered in the country are from India. 

“In this thriving trade, [herds of] cows worth 50 billion rupees [$920 million] are sent across to Bangladesh every year. It’s the sheer economics of the trade that drives the smuggling,” says Pramanik.

Cattle smugglers say they routinely bribe the police, customs, Border Security Force guards, and even some politicians in India to look the other way.

However, locals call this part of the border the “Wall of Death,” for the smuggling-related tensions that sometimes turn into violence. In 2012, security forces killed 48 Bangladeshis along the border, according to the Bangladeshi human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra

But Bangladeshis say there is a simple way to end violence along the border.

"If India begins exporting cows to Bangladesh, such untoward incidents will stop," said the Bangladeshi Commerce Minister Golam Mohammad Quader.  "We are really keen to import cows from India, and want all illegal activities involving cow trade across the border to end," he said.

The former head of India's Border Security Forces Utthan Kumar Bansal recently agreed: 

“The menace of smuggling might be best controlled if the trade across the border is made legal. The legalization of export of cows could also help curb tension on the volatile border,” Mr. Bansal said.

Although Bansal’s comment did not trigger any government reaction in India, some right wing Hindu groups said they would never let India export cows to any country. 

Radhakanta Saha, who is a World Hindu Organization leader and heads a volunteer group that aims to prevent cow smuggling in West Bengal, said: “The cow is our mother. We shall begin country-wide agitation if India decides to export cows to a country where they are likely to be slaughtered for ... meat.”

The Dalai Lama speaks on the opening day of India's Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, India, Thursday. (Deepak Sharma/AP)

What the Dalai Lama said about the India rape case at the Jaipur Literature Festival

By Fahad ShahContributor / 01.25.13

Crowds lined his path and leaned off arched terraces to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama at his first ever appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The annual gathering, Asia's largest, of literati in this city of desert palaces has begun to attract global celebrities in recent years, with even Oprah Winfrey holding court here last year.

The Tibetan spiritual leader addressed a crowd of about 4,000 in a conversation with his biographer Pico Iyer

Calling the 20th century a century of bloodshed and violence, the Dalai Lama urged that the “21st century be a century of dialogue.” The title of his talk, "Kinships of Faiths: Finding the Middle Way," headlined his hopes for comity even in the potential divisive realm of religion. 

In his words, secularism is mostly misunderstood as being against religion. He said in India every religion is respected and our fore fathers framed the constitution of India by keeping space for every religion. "There are so many religions in India but the country is stable," he said.

The Delhi rape case came up, when a reporter asked his view on the Indians demanding capital punishment for the rapists.

"I have been noticing crimes in big cities like Bombay and Delhi… when these kinds of things happen people take it for granted. Now the time has come that we must make efforts for special protection to women, physically and men’s protection is education," said the Dalai Lama. 
The rape case trial opened yesterday. Before the trial opened Indians were debating whether the accused should be chemically castrated or even put to death if found guilty. The Dalai Lama expressed his dislike of capital punishment. “Since many decades Amnesty International started a movement banning death sentence. I signed it. I do not like death penalty but it is up to the country's law to decide,” he told the reporters after his session.
He also asserted that the independent Tibet should be a secular and democratic country. The Dalai Lama spoke about the China-Tibet dispute, although conceding that he has now retired from his political role. He urged good relations between India and China are must as they are the “most populous nations in the world” and put forth India as an example for China to learn to be democratic.
This year 285 speakers will be speaking during the five day schedule. Last year, around 120,000 people had attended the five day festival

Contrary to reports, the Irish haven't legalized drunk driving

By Correspondent / 01.23.13

Reported around the globe as a license to drive drunk, an Irish council's motion to permit rural pub-goers to get behind the wheel not only lacks force of law, it's also a slightly odd solution to a serious issue.

It's not often that a vote by five county councilors in rural west Ireland makes headline news, but Danny Healy-Rae managed it this week when he and four colleagues passed a motion to allow drinkers to drive home – albeit at a severely restricted speed and only on barely-used backroads.

The political response? The same as that of the Irish public: bafflement and embarrassment.

Leo Varadkar, minister for transport, said he disagreed with the council's motion and stressed the affect of the story spreading across the globe. "It doesn't really send out a good message internationally about Ireland," he said.

One fact that has barely been reported in the scramble to play-up rural Irish alcoholic clichés: It's not going to happen. As a county council motion, the proposal has no legal status.

Irish people are keenly aware of the country's drink-sodden image, with many feeling Mr. Healy-Rae's motion plays to outdated prejudices about the country.

The move may not seem so out of the blue as it first sounds, though. Not quite, anyway.

Healy-Rae proposed the motion as a response to isolation in rural areas, particularly among the elderly and would help to counter "depression and suicide." He said permits could be issued allowing holders to have "two or three drinks" and then still drive home.

"They're traveling on very minor roads, often on tractors, with very little traffic and it's not right they're being treated the same as the rest of the traveling public and they have never killed anyone," he said. "The only outlet they have then is to take home a bottle of whiskey," he says, "and they're falling into depression, and suicide for some of them is the sad way out."

To be sure, pubs in country areas of Ireland are at the center of community life and are more than just drinking dens, which is something even the motion's critics acknowledge. And going to the pub and drinking nonalcoholic drinks is already an option, as is the option of hiring a bus.

Healy-Rae is a member of a colorful County Kerry political dynasty known for rural populism – and occasional support for strange causes including, most recently, removing the number 13 from vehicle license plates.

He is also a pub owner – as are three more of the total five councilors who supported the idea. Three voted against the idea, seven abstained, and 12 were absent from the meeting.

Despite widespread criticism, the motion has attracted some support. Independent Galway councilor Michael Fahy says he will raise the idea at the next council meeting.

The chances of the government agreeing to the idea? Less than the amount of alcohol in a glass of tap water. The country has worked hard in recent decades to reduce road deaths, both by upgrading the road network and by stricter enforcement of the rules of the road.

Ireland's road death rate hit an all-time low in 2012, with 161 lives lost, 25 fewer than the previous year. It is has the sixth lowest road death rate the in EU.

Female staff members of a luxury hotel exhibit their skills after a 10-day self-defense course initiated by the hotel management and Delhi Police women’s wing in New Delhi, India, Jan. 17, 2013. A brutal rape of a 23-year-old student last month has sparked a national debate about the treatment of women and the inability of Indian law enforcement to protect them. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

Good Reads: 'purdah' culture in India, born good, finding purpose, a Jedi response

By Staff Writer / 01.21.13

“My first sense as a young girl of sexual menace came from my Indian grandfather. Let me be clear: He never even remotely sexually threatened or molested me. But he made sure I knew that the world in which I, a girl, was growing up was innately perilous to women.”

So starts an illuminating first-person recollection of an American learning the rules of purdah – or concealment of women from men – on visits to relatives back in India. Her grandfather upbraided her for uppity talk and anything but simple dress, to teach her that the more invisible she was, the more safe she would be.

Mira Kamdar, writing on the Asia Society website, connects these lessons to the recent gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi: “It is clear ... that a purdah mentality still dogs Indian society. A woman who can be seen is seen as a woman available for violation.” But, at the same time, “[r]apid modernization and urbanization in India have made women, especially young women, visible as never before.”

Babies born good

Parents, it turns out that your bundles of joy could also be described as budding altruists. Writing for the Smithsonian magazine, Abigail Tucker writes on a heartwarming new area of research that’s finding babies showing preferences for “good guys” over “bad guys” and a proclivity to help and care for others.

“These findings may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has seen toddlers pull hair in a playground tunnel or pistol-whip one another with a plastic triceratops,” notes Ms. Tucker.

But a series of cleverly designed experiments at Yale and Harvard universities are seeing an orientation toward the good long before parents would seem to have had much chance to shape behavior.

The eureka moment for one researcher came while passing a ball back and forth with a toddler. The ball got away from the scientist, and rather than get it, he faked an inability to reach it. Seeing his struggle, the toddler got up to retrieve it for him. Other experiments involved puppet shows in which one color puppet is shown helping or hindering another. Eye-tracking tests found infants as young as 3 months old preferring the helper. 

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of meaning

Whether we are born with it, or taught it, altruism looks to be key to our well-being as adults.

Emily Esfahani Smith, writing for The Atlantic, highlights a new psychological study that suggests “a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different.” Researchers interviewing 400 Americans found meaning in life to be tied up with being a “giver,” while happiness was more linked with being a “taker.” Meaning is also found in contemplating the future and the past, while happiness is fixated on the present – and is consequently more fleeting.

From the nation’s foundational documents to the self-help aisles of bookstores, Americans are famously in pursuit of happiness. But that’s something of a mug’s game: “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research,” Ms. Smith writes.

The magazine goes on to cite data that roughly 40 percent of Americans have not found a “satisfying life purpose.”

There will be no Death Star

A group of Internet pranksters raised the 25,000-plus signatures needed to get a response from the White House on their petition to have the US build a Death Star. The White House, to no one’s surprise, replied that the country would not be building the moon-shaped space station from the “Star Wars” films that could blast planets into space dust. But the wording of the response, glorious it was.

“Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars” – $850,000,000,000,000,000, according to one study – “on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?” wrote Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Budget at the White House Office of Management and Budget, and arguably the best communicator to emerge from the intersection of space science, accounting, and the federal government.

This smooth-talking Jedi then went on to highlight the gee-whiz stuff the government and the private sector are doing in space.
“[W]e’ve got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we’re building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun. We are discovering hundreds of new planets in other star systems and building a much more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that will see back to the early days of the universe.”

In other news, the White House has just upped the signature threshold for a response to 100,000.

Indians bathe on the banks of the River Ganges River beside the landmark, Howrah Bridge on a cold winter morning in Kolkata, India, last week. (Bikas Das/AP)

Famous bridge in India is in danger of coming down ... because of spit

By Shaikh Azizur RahmanContributor / 01.20.13

It was first reported in 2010 that the pillars of Kolkata’s landmark Howrah bridge were being used as spittoons by pedestrians who chewed gutkha – a tobacco product popular with millions in India.

Engineers who surveyed the cantilever structure then reported that the struts supporting the girders of the bridge had already lost half of their metal casing: The corrosion was apparently caused by acids in the gutkha.

Soon the Lions Club of Howrah launched a “Save Howrah Bridge from Spit” campaign urging people not to spit on the bridge.  

The campaign spread across the city of Kolkata, where reddish-brown gutkha stains are visible almost everywhere — pavements, streets, office staircases, business houses, and residential complexes. Prominent citizens of Kolkata joined the campaign in an effort to rid the city of the ugly stains.

Gutkha is a commercially produced pre-packaged mixture of crushed betel nut, tobacco, lime, paraffin, and other “secret” ingredients, many of which are carcinogenic and addictive.

Some brands of gutkha also contain lead, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and cadmium, which are as bad as nicotine. To make its shelf life longer, magnesium carbonate – which is used in fire extinguishers and is a known carcinogen – is also added to gutkha.

Activists reported about a year ago that one-third of men and one-fifth of women across India are addicted to chewing tobacco and gutkha was its most popular form.

Because of its candy-like flavor and dirt-cheap prices — 4 to 6 cents per sachet — gutkha has become increasingly popular among children, who chew and even eat it. An estimated 5 million of India’s children are addicted to gutkha, and every day another 5,000 try it for the first time, according to reports last year by the American Cancer Society.

Research indicates that tobacco kills 1 million Indians annually and that gutkha alone leads to 80,000 cases of oral cancer every year — the highest incidence in the world. In recent years an anti-gutkha campaign has picked up steam across the country with several nongovernment organizations lobbying for a ban on gutkha.

In August 2011, India’s Food Safety and Standard Authority issued a regulation declaring that no foodstuff, including gutkha, could contain tobacco. Last year some states began following the order by banning gutkha.

With Andhra Pradesh and Odisha states having banned it earlier this month, the manufacture and sale of the product has now been prohibited in 17 of India’s 28 states and 3 of the 7 union territories (UTs), including New Delhi. However, reports in many local newspapers suggest that gutkha is being smuggled from other regions and is still being sold in many states.

Kolkata-based anti-gutkha campaigner Sekharesh Ghoshal said that states and union territories should cooperate and ban the tobacco in the national interest.

“Sachets of gutkha display a warning that it’s dangerous for health. Yet gutkha users do not pay any attention to such health risks and keep on chewing it,” says Dr. Ghoshal.

“Unless gutkha is banned and actually made unavailable in the market, you cannot stop people from using it. A ban only in parts of the country is of no help.”

But in many states the gutkha companies are fighting the ban by taking the local government to court.

They argue that gutkha is a tobacco product that cannot be classified as a foodstuff, and therefore cannot be banned. Still, courts in most states have upheld the ban.

Bela Naskar, the mother of two child addicts in a slum in Kolkata, says she vehemently supports a ban on gutkha.

“My 10- and 13-year-old sons have been into gutkha for some years. They take several sachets of it every day. It’s bad for their health. But they don’t listen to my warnings.”

“We really need a ban on gutkha in our state,” Ms. Naskar says. “Otherwise I shall not be able to rid my children from this dangerous addiction.” 

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