News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Thousands flee Canada wildfires

Filed under: Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:52 am

Thousands flee Canada wildfires

Two wildfires near a western Canadian city have forced the evacuation of around 17,000 people, officials say.

One of the fires near Kelowna, British Columbia, started on Saturday. It quickly grew to 300 hectares (740 acres) and destroyed up to nine homes.

A second seemingly unrelated fire broke out on Sunday some 10km (6 miles) away and has already consumed 100 hectares.

The cause of the fires are not known. A 2003 fire in the same area destroyed more than 240 homes.

‘Difficult conditions’

No injuries or deaths have been reported in the latest fires.

Map

More than 150 firefighters are battling the blazes, with support from 10 helicopters and eight water bomber planes.

Firefighters said they were facing difficult conditions, with more hot and dry weather to come.

Local media said human activity was suspected to have sparked the blazes because there had been no lightning storms in the area.

Some residents told the Province newspaper that the larger fire may have started near a lumber mill which was also being threatened by the flames.

One resident said big, hot embers were falling all around his home.

Officials closed down a 19km (12-mile) stretch of the highway leading in and out of Kelowna, which is located 350km (217 miles) east of Vancouver.


Are you in western Canada? Are you affected by the issues in this story? Send us your comments and experiences

July 15, 2009

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israeli soldiers deployed on the Israel-Gaza border 28 Decmeber 2008

Soldier testimonies appear to contradict official Israeli statements

A group of soldiers who took part in Israel’s assault in Gaza say widespread abuses were committed against civilians under “permissive” rules of engagement.

The troops said they had been urged to fire on any building or person that seemed suspicious and said Palestinians were sometimes used as human shields.

Breaking the Silence, a campaign group made up of Israeli soldiers, gathered anonymous accounts from 26 soldiers.

Israel denies breaking the laws of war and dismissed the report as hearsay.

The report says testimonies show “the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians” was a result of Israeli military policy, articulated by the rules of engagement, and encouraged by a belief “the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions”.

One soldier is quoted saying: “The soldiers were made to understand that their lives were the most important, and that there was no way our soldiers would get killed for the sake of leaving civilians the benefit of the doubt.”

Paul Wood
From Paul Wood,Courtesy
BBC Middle East correspondent:

Until now, Israel always had a ready answer to allegations of war crimes in Gaza. Claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda. Now the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

The common thread in the testimonies is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

The Israeli military says past allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza were the result of soldiers recycling rumours.

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record in getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the army.

Another says: “People were not instructed to shoot at everyone they see, but they were told that from a certain distance when they approach a house, no matter who it is – even an old woman – take them down.”

Many of the testimonies are in line with claims made by human rights organisations that Israeli military action in Gaza was indiscriminate and disproportionate.

Amnesty International has accused both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in charge in Gaza, of committing war crimes during the 22-day conflict which ended on 18 January.

Israeli officials insist troops went to great lengths to protect civilians, that Hamas endangered non-combatants by firing from civilian areas and that homes and buildings were destroyed only when there was a specific military need to do so.

‘Ill discipline’

Other allegations in the testimonies of the 14 conscripts and 12 reserve soldiers include:

• Civilians were used as human shields, entering buildings ahead of soldiers

You can’t identify too much at night and anything that moves you engage in order not to take risks. It was not defined this way officially, but it was obvious
Anonymous Israeli soldier

• Large swathes of homes and buildings were demolished as a precaution or to secure clear lines of fire for the future.

• Some of the troops had a generally aggressive, ill-disciplined attitude

• There was incidents of vandalism of property of Palestinians

• Soldiers fired at water tanks because they were bored, at a time of severe water shortages for Gazans

• White phosphorus was used in civilian areas in a way some soldiers saw as gratuitous and reckless

• Many of the soldiers said there had been very little direct engagement with Palestinian militants.

The report says Israeli troops and the people who justify their actions are “slid[ing] together down the moral slippery slope”.

“This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions,” Breaking the Silence says.

Israel said the purpose of Operation Cast Lead had been to end rocket fire from Gaza aimed at its southern towns.

Palestinian rights groups say about 1,400 Palestinians died during the operation. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict, including 10 soldiers serving in Gaza.

According to the UN, the campaign damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, 39 mosques and two churches.

Investigations

Reacting to the report, Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich said:

“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] regrets the fact that another human rights organisation has come out with a report based on anonymous and general testimony – without investigating their credibility.”

She dismissed the document as “hearsay and word of mouth”.

“The IDF expects every soldier to turn to the appropriate authorities with any allegation,” Lt Col Leibovich added. “This is even more important where the harm is to non-combatants. The IDF has uncompromising ethical values which continue to guide us in every mission.”

There have been several investigations into the conduct of Israel’s operation in Gaza, and both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the territory, have faced accusations of war crimes.

An internal investigations by the Israeli military said troops fought lawfully, although errors did take place, such as the deaths of 21 people in a house that had been wrongly targeted.

A fact-finding team commissioned by the Arab League concluded there was enough evidence to prosecute the Israeli military for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that “the Israeli political leadership was also responsible for such crimes”.

It also said Palestinian militants were guilty of war crimes in their use of indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians.

January 24, 2009

Obama lifts ban on abortion funds

Obama lifts ban on abortion funds

US President Barack Obama has lifted a ban on federal funding for foreign family planning agencies that promote or give information about abortion.

The US is one of the biggest supporters of family planning programmes globally, but former president George W Bush blocked funds for abortion services.

Powerful anti-abortion groups in the US have criticised the lifting of the ban.

But aid agencies welcomed the move, saying it would promote women’s health, especially in developing countries.

A White House spokesman said Mr Obama signed the executive order without asking for coverage by the media late on Friday afternoon.

The issue of abortion services remains controversial in the US, pitting pro-life conservative groups against more liberal, pro-choice Americans who back a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

This may be why President Obama signed the order with so little fanfare.

Highly contentious

Organisations that had pressed Mr Obama to make the abortion-ban change were jubilant.

They called the funding ban the “gag rule” because it cuts funds to groups that advocate or lobby for the lifting of abortion restrictions.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America hailed the president for “lifting the stranglehold on women’s health across the globe with the stroke of a pen.”

“No longer will health care providers be forced to choose between receiving family planning funding and restricting the health care services they provide to women,” the organization said in a statement.

But anti-abortion groups were quick to criticise the reversal of the funding ban.

“President Obama not long ago told the American people that he would support policies to reduce abortions, but today he is effectively guaranteeing more abortions by funding groups that promote abortion as a method of population control,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

A 1973 decision by the US Supreme Court legalised abortion.

A Gallup poll conducted last year showed that 54% of Americans think abortion should be allowed under certain circumstances, 28% believe it should be legal under any circumstances, while 17% back a total ban.

See-saw issue

The policy has become a see-saw issue between Republican and Democratic administrations.

Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, repealed the policy when he took office in 1993 and George W Bush reinstated it in 2001.

The ruling is also known as the Mexico City Policy, because it was first introduced at a UN conference there in 1984 by former Republican President Ronald Reagan.

In a move related to the lifting of the abortion rule, Mr Obama is also expected to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in the next budget, the AP news agency reported.

The Bush administration contended that the fund’s work in China supported a Chinese family planning policy of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilisation, claims the UNFPA has vehemently denied.

In a separate move earlier on Friday, US regulators cleared the way for the world’s first study on human embryonic stem cell therapy.

While the decision of the US Food and Drug Administration is independent of White House control, Mr Obama is widely expected to adopt a more pragmatic and science-oriented approach to stem cell research.

September 14, 2008

Taxi drivers ‘have brain sat-nav’

Taxi drivers ‘have brain sat-nav’

Sid James in a London cab (BBC)

The knowledge: London cabbies are famous for knowing their way around

Scientists have uncovered evidence for an inbuilt “sat-nav” system in the brains of London taxi drivers.

They used magnetic scanners to explore the brain activity of taxi drivers as they navigated their way through a virtual simulation of London’s streets.

Different brain regions were activated as they considered route options, spotted familiar landmarks or thought about their customers.

The research was presented at this week’s BA Science Festival.

Earlier studies had shown that taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus – a region of the brain that plays an important role in navigation.

Their brains even “grow on the job” as they build up detailed information needed to find their way around London’s labyrinth of streets – information famously referred to as “The Knowledge”.

“We were keen to go beyond brain structure – and see what activity is going on inside the brains of taxi drivers while they are doing their job,” said Dr Hugo Spiers from University College London.

Taxi driver's brain

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to obtain “minute by minute” brain images from 20 taxi drivers as they delivered customers to destinations on “virtual jobs”.

The scientists adapted the Playstation2 game “Getaway” to bring the streets of London into the scanner.

After the scan – and without prior warning – the drivers watched a replay of their performance and reported what they had been thinking at each stage.

“We tried to peel out the common thoughts that taxi drivers tend to have as they drive through the city, and then tie them down to a particular time and place,” said Dr Spiers.

The series of scans revealed a complex choreography of brain activity as the taxi drivers responded to different scenarios.

The hippocampus was only active when the taxi drivers initially planned their route, or if they had to completely change their destination during the course of the journey.

The scientists saw activity in a different brain region when the drivers came across an unexpected situation – for example, a blocked-off junction.

Another part of the brain helped taxi drivers to track how close they were to the endpoint of their journey; like a metal detector, its activity increased when they were closer to their goal.

Changes also occurred in brain regions that are important in social behaviour.

Taxi driving is not just about navigation: “Drivers do obsess occasionally about what their customers are thinking,” said Dr Spiers.

Animals use a number of different mechanisms to navigate – the Sun’s polarized light rays, the Earth’s magnetic fields and the position of the stars.

This research provides new information about the specific roles of areas within the brains of expert human navigators.

Human error suspected in LA crash

Human error suspected in LA crash

Human error is being blamed for a train collision on the outskirts of Los Angeles, California, which has claimed the lives of at least 24 people.

The driver of a train with 222 passengers aboard apparently ignored a red signal, causing it to hit a freight train head on, the rail company says.

The passenger train hit the freight train with such force, its engine was shoved back inside the first carriage.

Officials say the chances of finding any further survivors are very remote.

Firefighters have cut through the roof of the train, which is a double-decker, removing chunks of metal piece by piece.

Sniffer dogs have been brought in to try to detect any signs of life.

A spokeswoman for the rail company Metrolink, Denise Tyrrell, told reporters:

“At this moment we must acknowledge that it was a Metrolink engineer that made the error that caused yesterday’s accident.”

It was not immediately clear whether the driver had survived.

The death toll is expected to rise as more bodies are uncovered. More than 80 people are in hospital.

Commuter train

The worst rail crash in the US for 15 years happened at 1632 local time (2332 GMT) on Friday, at a time when the passenger train was carrying 222 people, most of them commuters.

I heard a loud crash and I saw black smoke… some people were mangled pretty bad
Phil Thiele, Metrolink passenger

The passenger train was travelling from Los Angeles to Moorpark, north-west of the city.

It collided with a Union Pacific freight train on a curving stretch of track in Chatsworth, in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles county.

The front coach of the Metrolink passenger train derailed and was crushed by the engine after the collision. Two other coaches of the train remained upright.

Aerial images of the crash scene showed teams of rescuers using ladders to reach injured people inside the mangled front coach.

The Union Pacific freight train was badly damaged in the accident. Officials say two people – the driver and the conductor – were on board the train.

“I heard a loud crash and I saw black smoke… some people were mangled pretty bad,” Phil Thiele, one of the passengers in the front coach, told the Los Angeles Times.

He said he tried to help one man who was pinned between seats: “I tried my damnedest to get him out but I just couldn’t.”


Were you affected by the crash? You can share your experience

How to be a good president

How to be a good president

Barack Obama says the most important quality is vision for the future. No, says John McCain, the key requirement is experience – or at least that’s what he said until he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Ronald Reagan

A former film star, Ronald Reagan was an excellent communicator

Both want the most powerful job in the world – but neither they, nor anyone else, can agree on what, precisely, are the qualities needed to serve as president of the United States.

Indeed, there is not even a job description – only an oath of office demanding the president defend the US constitution.

What’s more, the job keeps changing, evolving constantly in the 230 years since the founding of the republic.

Still, an understanding has gradually emerged of the key qualities required of a president.

The trouble is, they are so many and various, it’s almost impossible to imagine any normal human being matching up.

Preacher and protector

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt described the presidency as a “bully pulpit,” Americans have expected first-class rhetorical skills from their leaders.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton

Mr Obama’s camp hopes to capitalise on Bill Clinton’s lasting popularity

A president must be able to inspire, to preach, to stir the American people to greater things.

In the modern era, Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all had a great talent for communication; so too did Bill Clinton, though in a different style.

The presidents who have struggled – both George Bushes and Jimmy Carter come to mind – were those who lacked oratorical gifts.

But the job requires more than that. Americans look to their president as a protector, someone who will keep the country strong and ward off its enemies.

Roosevelt was a great war leader. As the former Allied commander during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower made Americans feel similarly secure.

Rightly or wrongly, Americans still revere Reagan for winning the Cold War.

Minimum mendacity

Foreign policy acumen is a related and essential element in the presidential kit of parts.

Richard Nixon meets John McCain in 1973

Nixon and John McCain could both claim foreign policy expertise

It’s why Mr McCain makes so much of his own experience in international affairs – and why the Obama camp equally emphasizes Sarah Palin’s lack of a foreign policy record.

The first George Bush’s reputation rests on his skillful handling of the post-Cold War world, while his son will have to persuade future historians that he did not make terrible blunders abroad.

Yet skill on the world stage is not enough to guarantee the respect of posterity.

Richard Nixon regarded himself as a geo-strategic sage, thanks to his opening to China, but he is still known by a single word: Watergate.

Domestic scandal trumps international accomplishments. Put that down as another lesson for those keen to learn how to be a good president: you need to be, if not saint-like in your honesty, at least not so mendacious that you get tangled up in your own deceptions.

It helps if you’re someone who can get things done. Lyndon Johnson will forever be saddled with the disaster of the Vietnam war, but he retains respect for passing a canon of social legislation – from civil rights to his war on poverty – that genuinely improved millions of lives.

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter was seen as a decent but aloof president

That was largely down to his mastery of the often arcane ways of the senate, which he had once dominated as majority leader.

That hard-headed, practical ability to get results is often underestimated.

In the words of British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Johnson “pushed through so much legislation which has changed the way we think about equality, equal rights and human dignity, and I think that is a huge accolade”.

Star quality

It’s good if you’re a palpably decent man, as Jimmy Carter was – but less good if that makes you seem lofty, prissy or aloof, as Carter often seemed.

It’s good if you can keep the country at peace and the economy in rosy health – as Bill Clinton did – but less good if you let that get overshadowed by personal indiscipline, as he did.

Finally, in the modern era, the president needs a compelling personal story, great charisma and as much screen presence as a movie star.

As I discovered making “President Hollywood”, the demands of Washington DC and Tinsel Town are remarkably similar.

Which man matches up to this impossible checklist, Barack Obama or John McCain? Well, the American people will decide that on 4 November.

But they had better get used to one thing right away: the president with every one of these essential qualities simply does not exist.

August 14, 2008

Hope over ‘quick’ bird flu test

Hope over ‘quick’ bird flu test

Avian flu virus

Bird flu cannot easily infect humans at present

UK scientists say they are developing a portable testing machine that will detect cases of bird flu in two hours.

Currently it takes about a week to identify the different flu strains because laboratory tests are needed.

Nottingham Trent University developers say their equipment is designed to be used at the scene of a suspected outbreak or taken to a patient.

It will enable them to identify strains lethal to humans far quicker, potentially saving lives, they say.

In Indonesia there has been an 81% death rate among people with the H5N1 strain, but survival chances increase greatly the earlier it is treated.

So far, tens of millions of birds have died or been slaughtered as a result of bird flu in Asia and beyond.

At the moment, the H5N1 strain, while highly infectious among poultry, is not easily passed to humans, and cannot be passed from human to human.

Mutation fear

Scientists fear that a strain of bird flu, possibly H5N1, could eventually mutate and cross the “species barrier”.

It could then gain the ability to pass easily from person to person and perhaps lead to a dangerous global pandemic, they fear.

Once it does manage to infect a human, H5N1 is usually a killer.

In Indonesia, one of the worst-affected countries, 102 people, mostly those in close contact with infected poultry, have fallen ill, with four out of five dying.

One of the problems is that the early symptoms, such as cough and fever, are shared by other, common infections, delaying diagnosis.

Research published in The Lancet medical journal suggested that development of better diagnostic methods, and better ways of looking after patients could improve their chances.

If identified within a few days, H5N1 can be treated using anti-viral drugs and the chances of survival increase significantly.

UK experts have called for a national surveillance programme to detect H5N1 cases in Indonesians.

Saliva test

However, Dr Alan McNally, from Nottingham Trent University, believes his technology could make a difference.

All that is needed is a swab of saliva from a patient’s mouth, and it can detect molecules specific to H5N1 or other bird flu strains.

Dr McNally said: “There’s a large train of thought that one of the best ways of dealing with avian influenza is by detection and containment.

“The ability to detect and type the influenza virus immediately is essential in setting up controls as quickly as possible to minimize the spread of any potential pandemic virus.”

The £2.3m project, which hopes to come up with a version of the machine that can fit within a briefcase, is being funded by the European Union.

August 8, 2008

Freeman discharged from hospital

Freeman discharged from hospital

Morgan Freeman (file photo)

Morgan Freeman received an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby in 2005

Hollywood star Morgan Freeman has been discharged from a  hospital where he was recovering after a car crash.

In a short statement issued after his release, Freeman said that he was well.

He suffered a broken arm and had to undergo surgery after his car overturned and landed in a ditch near his home in Mississippi on Sunday.

A female passenger was also injured. On Wednesday Freeman’s lawyer said the 71-year-old actor and his wife of 24 years, were getting divorced.

Bill Luckett said: “And for legal and practical purposes the pair have been separated since December 2007.”

Freeman married costume designer Myrna Colley-Lee in June 1984.

The cause of the accident is unclear. Police said it was possible that the actor had fallen asleep at the wheel.

There is no word on the condition of his passenger, Demaris Meter of Memphis.

Freeman won a best-supporting actor Oscar for boxing drama Million Dollar Baby in 2005.

Last year it was announced the actor would play former South African president Nelson Mandela in forthcoming film The Human Factor.

His first credited film appearance was in the 1971 movie Who Says I Can’t Ride a Rainbow!

Prior to that, he had worked as a mechanic in the US Air Force.

August 7, 2008

Actor Freeman ‘in divorce action’

Actor Freeman ‘in divorce action’

Myrna Colley-Lee and Morgan Freeman

Divorce rumours about Colley-Lee and Freeman surfaced in June

Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman and his wife of 24 years  are to divorce, according to his lawyer.

Bill Luckett told US cable TV show Access Hollywood that Freeman and costume designer Myrna Colley-Lee “are involved in a divorce action”.

He added: “And for legal and practical purposes the pair have been separated since December 2007.”

The 71-year-old Dark Knight star is recovering after being involved in a serious car accident on Sunday.

Freeman was driving a car belonging to his friend, Demaris Meyer, when he lost control and veered off a highway close to his home in Charleston, Mississippi.

The car flipped over several times before landing in a ditch.

Arm injuries

Bill Rogers, who saw the accident happen, recalled a conversation he had with Freeman at the scene: “He said that she had offered him a ride home; that they were friends, and she didn’t really know the way and so he was going to drive the vehicle.”

The pair were airlifted to Memphis’s Regional Medical Centre, about 90 miles (145km) north of where the accident occurred.

The actor suffered a broken arm, broken elbow and minor shoulder injuries.

Mr Luckett, who also co-owns a blues club with Freeman, visited the actor in hospital on Wednesday. He said: “It’s going to take a few months because he got banged up pretty badly actually.”

“He’s in good spirits today and he hopes his golf swing is going to be better than ever now with his fixed arm,” the lawyer added.

Freeman married Myrna in June 1984. He also has two children with his first wife, Jeanette Adair Bradshaw, whom he was married to for 12 years from 1967.

Mechanic

Freeman won a best supporting actor Oscar for boxing drama Million Dollar Baby in 2005.

He has twice been nominated in the leading actor category – for The Shawshank Redemption in 1995 and Driving Miss Daisy in 1990.

Last year it was announced the actor would play former South African president Nelson Mandela in forthcoming film The Human Factor.

His first credited film appearance was in the 1971 movie Who Says I Can’t Ride a Rainbow!

Prior to that, he had worked as a mechanic in the US Air Force.

His film appearances include Se7en, Unforgiven and the rebooted Batman franchise.

US claims informant is fraud boss

US claims informant is fraud boss

TJMaxx strore in California

TJX, which owns TJ Maxx, was one the firms whose records were hacked

A former informant of the US secret service has been accused  of being the ringleader in the country’s biggest and most complex identity theft case.

The US Department of Justice claims that Albert “Segvev” Gonzalez and 10 others stole, and then sold more than 40 million bank card numbers.

They allegedly got the data by driving around, finding vulnerable internet networks, and accessing shop records.

Prosecutors said the alleged fraud was an “international conspiracy”.

“During the course of the sophisticated conspiracy Mr Gonzalez and his co-conspirators….hacked into wireless computer networks of major retailers,” said the US Department of Justice.

The method, known as “wardriving”, involves tracking down vulnerable internet wireless signals and using systems to decipher credit and debit card information from a retailer’s system.

While technology has made our lives much easier it has also created new vulnerabilities
Michael Sullivan,
US secret service director

The Department of Justice said that companies affected included TJX Companies, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Boston Market and Barnes & Noble among others.

MasterCard spokesman Chris Monteiro told the BBC: “If a cardholder is concerned at all about the security of their account they should immediately contact their issuing financial institution.”

‘New vulnerabilities’

While the Department of Justice has not put a price on the scale on the scam it says it is the largest and most complex identity fraud to date.

“While technology has made our lives much easier it has also created new vulnerabilities,” said US secret service director Michael Sullivan.

“This case clearly shows how strokes on a keyboard with a criminal purpose can have costly results,” he added

He urged consumers, firms and governments worldwide to develop further ways to protect sensitive personal and business information and detect those that “conspire to exploit technology for criminal gain”.

Perry Tancredi, senior product manager for fraud detection at payment security company VeriSign said that: “Regardless of how strong the security measures, and how vigilant, the weak part of the chain is there is always a human who is responsible and who has overall control over the information.”

Charges

Mr Gonzalez of Miami has been charged with computer fraud, wire fraud, access device fraud, aggravated identify theft and conspiracy.

Mr Gonzalez, who is in New York in pre-trial confinement, now faces a maximum penalty of life is prison.

Charges were also listed against Christopher Scott and Damon Patrick, both of Miami.

The other named individuals in the case were Maksym “Maksik” Yastremskiy of Kharkov, Ukraine, Aleksandr “Jonny Hell” Suvorov of Sillamae, Estonia.

Charges were also levelled against Hung-Ming Chiu and Zhi Zhi Wang, both from China, and someone known only by the nickname “Delpiero”.

Sergey Pavolvich, of Belarus, and Dzmitry Burak and Sergey Storchak, both of Ukraine, were also charged.

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