News & Current Affairs

July 21, 2009

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Total solar eclipse photographed in Egypt, 2006 (Darren Baskill)

Stargazers will travel long distances to see the eclipse

Millions of people in Asia will see the longest total solar eclipse this century on Wednesday as swaths of India and China are plunged into darkness.

Scores of amateur stargazers and scientists will travel long distances for the eclipse, which will last for about five minutes.

The eclipse will first appear in the Gulf of Khambhat just north of Mumbai.

It will move east across India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China before hitting the Pacific.

The eclipse will cross some southern Japanese islands and will last be visible from land at Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Elsewhere, a partial eclipse will be visible across much of Asia.

The previous total eclipse, in August 2008, lasted two minutes and 27 seconds. This one will last six minutes and 39 seconds at its maximum point.

Alphonse Sterling, a Nasa astrophysicist who will be following the eclipse from China, scientists are hoping data from the eclipse will help explain solar flares and other structures of the sun and why they erupt.

“We’ll have to wait a few hundred years for another opportunity to observe a solar eclipse that lasts this long, so it’s a very special opportunity,” Shao Zhenyi, an astronomer at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China told the Associated Press news agency.

Solar scientist Lucie Green, from University College London, is aboard an American cruise ship heading for that point near the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, where the axis of the Moon’s shadow will pass closest to Earth.

“The [Sun’s] corona has a temperature of 2 million degrees but we don’t know why it is so hot,” she said.

“What we are going to look for are waves in the corona. … The waves might be producing the energy that heats the corona. That would mean we understand another piece of the science of the Sun.”

The next total solar eclipse will occur on 11 July next year. It will be visible in a narrow corridor over the southern hemisphere, from the southern Pacific Ocean to Argentina.

TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE
Infographic (BBC)
In the area covered by the umbra (the darkest part of the shadow), a total eclipse is seen
In the region covered by the penumbra (where only some of the light source is obscured) a partial eclipse is seen

solar

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September 19, 2008

Japan minister quits in rice row

Japan minister quits in rice row

Seiichi Ota. File photo.

Mr Ota only took over his portfolio in August this year

Japan’s farm minister, Seiichi Ota, has tendered his resignation because of a food scandal involving tainted rice.

Mr Ota’s ministry has admitted it was told in January 2007 that a food company was distributing rice tainted with pesticide.

Mr Ota had earlier said he saw no need to make “too much of a fuss over it”.

It has since emerged that the rice, destined for industrial uses, was resold as a food product and served to the elderly.

The rice has been found to be tainted with pesticides and mould, and was known to be unfit for human consumption.

No-one has been reported as ill as a result of eating the rice; a government official said this was because the density of contaminants was low.

“I met Prime Minister [Yasuo] Fukuda and told him my decision to resign, considering the seriousness of the tainted rice problem for the society,” Mr Ota said.

Japanese broadcaster NHK said his resignation had been accepted.

Japan faces general elections soon, possibly as early as next month.

Contamination spreads

As information trickled out, it became clear that the bad rice was sold to more than 300 firms, including brewers, food ingredient wholesalers and sweet makers.

A government report released this week showed that the rice was imported from China, Vietnam and elsewhere, and intended for use in the making of glue and other industrial products.

Instead, the Osaka-based Mikasa Foods company sold the rice on to firms which used it for making foods that have been distributed to hospitals and care homes.

Young people have also been affected as the bad rice was used in making some snacks sold in convenience stores, and in school lunches.

Japanese media reported that police said on Wednesday that the president of one of the small companies that had bought the rice from Mikasa Foods, had committed suicide by hanging himself.

When Mr Ota’s ministry first heard of the tainted rice entering the food chain, he said it was unable to uncover any wrongdoing.

Mr Ota only took over the portfolio in August this year.

The minister has come under fire after admitting his ministry “overlooked” the illegal distribution of rice unfit for human consumption.

Our correspondent says Mr Ota is known for his slips of the tongue, such as his expressed confidence that no-one would die from eating tainted rice and that no fuss was necessary.

The senior bureaucrat at the agriculture ministry had already resigned.

September 18, 2008

September 13, 2008

Greenland seeks whaling breakaway

Greenland seeks whaling breakaway

Whalemeat hung out to dry in Uummannaq, Greenland

Whales and other marine mammals are traditional foods in Greenland

Greenland is attempting to remove its whale hunt from the jurisdiction of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Its whalers are angry that the IWC has twice declined to permit the addition of humpback whales to its annual quota.

The move could eventually make Greenland the only state outside the commission to hunt the “great whales”.

The news comes on the eve of a Florida meeting aimed at finding compromise within the fractured IWC.

The meeting is the latest stage in a “peace process” which began more than a year ago.

But documents sent in by governments’ delegations – seen by BBC News – suggest fundamental divisions remain.

Divided rule

Greenland’s Inuit communities catch minke, fin and bowhead whales under regulations permitting hunting where there is a “nutritional and cultural need”.

At the 2007 and 2008 IWC meetings, Greenland – represented by Denmark, its former colonial ruler – requested adding an annual quota of 10 humpback whales.

The requests were turned down owing to concerns that Greenland had not demonstrated a real need for the meat, and that its existing hunting was too commercial in character.

WSPA

Now, a letter has gone from the fisheries ministry of the territory’s home-rule administration, based in Nuuk, to Denmark’s foreign ministry, asking that Greenland withdraw from the IWC.

It is not clear whether Greenland is asking for Denmark to leave the organization, or to stop representing it, or to re-draw the areas of responsibility of the Copenhagen and Nuuk administrations to make whaling a completely home-rule issue.

Danish officials declined to elaborate, and Greenlandic fisheries officials did not respond to requests for clarification.

The issue is expected to take several months to resolve.

Separate lives

A withdrawal by Greenland would have serious implications, because outside the IWC, its hunts would be able to expand without international oversight.

But there is resentment in several Arctic countries over what is seen as the imposition of “western cultural values” on communities that take most of their food from the sea.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s government represents Greenlanders in the IWC

Some ask the question, too, of why whaling is regulated globally when fisheries are managed through regional bodies.

The establishment of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (Nammco) in 1992 by Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands is an indication that some northern countries are looking for a different way to manage what they regard as their marine resources.

In its annual meeting earlier this month, Nammco concluded that Greenlanders should have an annual quota of no more than 10 humpbacks.

For the moment, Greenland is adhering to the IWC ruling rather than Nammco’s recommendation; but given its latest move, that cannot be guaranteed to endure.

The establishment of a similar body to Nammco for the North Pacific is one of the options mooted by Japanese officials if the IWC becomes, in their view, beyond redemption.

Bridging the gap

With a view to healing the fissures within the IWC, chairman William Hogarth embarked more than a year ago on talks to explore whether some meeting of minds was possible.

Some anti-whaling activists decry the process because it could open the door to a limited lifting of the 1986 moratorium on commercial hunting.

But others believe it is the only viable way to reduce the annual global kill, which – if quotas are fulfilled – stands at more than 2,000.

A working group of 28 countries – not including the UK – will now meet in Florida, Dr Hogarth’s home patch, to debate the issues that divide the organisation.

Thirteen countries have sent in statements of position, or comments, on the 33 issues that were agreed at the IWC plenary as needing attention.

Japan, as it has done regularly, says its traditional whaling communities should be permitted annual quotas.

THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Under the global moratorium on commercial whaling, hunting is conducted in three ways:
Objection – A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
Scientific – A nation issues unilateral ‘scientific permits’; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
Aboriginal – IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat

It envisages that such whaling would have a large element of international oversight, and that the number of whales caught would be deducted from the annual scientific hunt in coastal waters.

But it makes no mention of its annual Antarctic catch, the major bone of contention for anti-whaling nations.

Some anti-whaling countries indicate a willingness to compromise on fundamental issues.

Argentina, for example, says that “issues such as scientific whaling and (Japanese) small-scale coastal whaling should be re-examined in the light of a spirit of commitment and within the framework of a dialogue which will allow us to leave aside the winner/loser rationale which has lately prevailed at IWC”.

But other anti-whaling countries, such as the Netherlands, are adamant that the commercial whaling moratorium should stay; that scientific hunting, which is presently in the gift of individual governments. must be brought under IWC control; and that no countries beyond Iceland, Japan and Norway should be permitted to start whaling.

South Korea, meanwhile, appears to suggest that it might ask for a quota if the moratorium were to be lifted, saying that some of its communities have a whaling culture dating back thousands of years, and that “the ever-lasting whaling moratorium is destined to give rise to continuing socio-economic hardships to the communities concerned.”

And Norway has weighed in to the Greenlandic humpback issue, saying that the IWC’s refusal of a quota showed “an appallingly patronizing attitude vis-a-vis the needs of indigenous communities”.

Dr Hogarth’s aim is to have a package of measures agreed before the next IWC plenary in mid-2009. The indications are that much hard bargaining lies ahead if his wish is to be fulfilled.

September 5, 2008

Envoys meet for North Korea talks

Envoys meet for North Korea talks

A file photo from February 2008 of a US inspector studying disabled nuclear equipment at Yongbyon plant in North Korea

A sticking point in talks has been how to verify North Korea’s disarmament

Negotiators from the US, South Korea and Japan are to meet in Beijing to discuss the deadlock over North Korea’s nuclear program.

The talks follow initial moves by North Korea to reverse steps to dismantle its nuclear plant at Yongbyon.

North Korea accuses the US of failing to meet its obligations under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament deal.

This week it began moving some disassembled parts out of storage and back to the Yongbyon reactor.

“We need to break the deadlock at an early date,” South Korean negotiator Kim Sook said as he left for Beijing.

“It is an important moment in which North Korea should resume the disablement measures and enter the six-way talks process.”

Stand-off with US

North Korea agreed in February 2007 to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and diplomatic concessions.

Foreign camera crews prepare to film the demolition of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear plant in North Korea on 27 June

In June it handed over long-awaited details of its nuclear facilities. In return, it expected the US to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But the US wants North Korea to agree to a process of verifying the information – something the two sides have so far failed to do.

Last week North Korea announced it had halted disabling work at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Officials from countries negotiating with North Korea now say that it is moving some equipment out of storage and back to the plant.

Envoys from the US, Japan and South Korea will hold a hastily-arranged meeting later on Friday. A Chinese negotiator will join the talks on Saturday.

“There is no information on whether North Korean officials will come to Beijing,” the South Korean envoy said.

Probe delay

In a separate development, North Korea has announced that it will delay a fresh probe into the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies.

In 2002, it admitted that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens. Five have been returned and Pyongyang says the other eight died.

But Japan insists that North Korea abducted more people than it acknowledges, and wants more proof of the eight deaths.

North Korea said it would hold off on the probe until it established the policies of the new Japanese leader.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced his resignation earlier this week and the current favorite to replace him is the ruling party secretary-general, Taro Aso.

A well-known hawk, he has called for a tougher line towards North Korea – something that will worry the communist state.

September 1, 2008

Peru’s first ‘visionary’ editor

Peru’s first ‘visionary’ editor

Doris Gibson, who 58 years ago founded Peru’s leading news magazine, has died at the age of 98. Her strength of character and determination helped the magazine withstand military dictatorships and repressive governments, as Dan Collyns reports.

Front page of Caretas showing a portait of Doris Gibson

Caretas magazine is famous for its mocking of the authorities

She began with 10,000 soles (£2,066), which her uncle had given her, and a typewriter in a single room.

The magazine was going to be called Caras y Caretas – faces and masks – but as Peru was under a military dictatorship at the time they decided to call it just Caretas to symbolize the repression they were living under.

They planned to revert to the original title after the dictatorship but it never happened.

Soon afterwards, the magazine was shut down for the first time. It was to be the first of eight closures, most of them during another military dictatorship in the 1970s of General Juan Velasco.

“She would be very creative in how she overcame the closures,” says her granddaughter Diana. “With her everything was possible.”

Genteel poverty

She was born in Lima, by accident, in 1910.

In those days, people travelled by boat between the capital and Arequipa, Peru’s upmarket second city nestled in the Andes to the south.

Her mother was aboard ship and about to head home to Arequipa when her waters broke and she had to go ashore to give birth.

She was the daughter of Percy Gibson, a poet who rebelled from his wealthy merchant family of British descent to live a literary life.

Doris’ younger sister Charo says he never worked a day in his life and she and her many sisters grew up in genteel poverty.

Bohemian life

Doris Gibson

Doris’ son described her as an instinctive fighter

At a young age Doris married an Argentine diplomat, Manlio Zileri, and bore an only son, Enrique, who went on to become the longest-standing editor of Caretas, earning a reputation as Peru’s best journalist.

Just a few years later she was granted one of staunchly-Catholic Peru’s first divorces and she began an intensely bohemian life surrounding herself with artists, intellectuals and politicians.

Doris was a very beautiful young woman and famous for her long, shapely legs. She had a relationship with the artist Servulo Gutierrez to whom she was both a lover and a muse.

He famously painted a life-size nude portrait of her which – following an argument – he sold to a wealthy businessman.

She was independent at a time when women were dependent on their husbands

Her granddaughter Diana says she went to the man’s house with a photographer from the magazine.

They said they needed to photograph the painting in the sunlight, so they put it outside on the car and promptly drove away with it.

“I don’t want to be nude in your house,” she told the man when he called to ask for it back.

Defiance

Despite her upper-class background her friends say she had an old-world warmth for all the people she knew from the shopkeeper down the road to her domestic servants.

Having money, or not, was a question of luck, she was fond of saying.

The magazine is famous for its front covers. Always visually audacious, ironic and mocking authority

Her warmth was also volcanic, says her son Enrique, like the famous Misti volcano which overlooks her home town of Arequipa. Their arguments were legendary.

But she also aimed that fire at successive repressive governments which tried to silence the most important political magazine in Peru.

She confronted soldiers when they raided the office and had photographers poised to record the break-ins.

“Mala hierba nunca muere” – Bad weeds never die – exclaimed the leaflets she had scattered throughout Lima as if freedom of speech would grow up through the cracks in the pavement.

Caretas could not be silenced.

The magazine is famous for its front covers. Always visually audacious, ironic and mocking authority.

When Alberto Fujimori’s birthplace – and thus eligibility to be president – was called into question in 1997, his head was superimposed on the rising sun of the Japanese flag with the words: Once again: Where was he born?

“She was instinctively a fighter,” says her son Enrique, “and a natural businesswoman.”

Visionary

For years she lived on the eighth floor in the same building as the magazine. It survived for all its years due to her intense presence which inspired fierce loyalty in her journalists.

Doris Gibson

Doris’ determination helped Caretas withstand Peru’s military regimes

She was independent at a time when women were dependent on their husbands.

A feminist before the movement had begun, and according to many, a visionary who influenced the course of Peru’s recent history through the brave and defiant reporting of the magazine she created.

For some time we shared the top floor of a block of flats.

Her carer, Chela, invited me across the hall to meet her. The flat she shared with her younger sister Charo was like a museum. Full of copper pans, paintings and artefacts.

She had just celebrated her 97th birthday. Her cheeks were hollow and her eyes had sunken into her skull, but she looked straight at me.

She held my hand in her tight grip, pulling me forward slightly as she tried to utter some words. I told her who I was and Chela repeated what I had said at volume.

As I walked out of the room I saw a black and white photograph portrait of a beautiful, bright eyed young woman. She had dark flowing hair, porcelain skin and rosebud lips. It was Doris, aged 16.

August 23, 2008

Somali insurgents ‘take key port’

Somali insurgents ‘take key port’

Wounded man in Mogadishu

Mogadishu’s main market was also bombed on Tuesday

Islamist insurgents in Somalia say they have taken control of the southern port of Kismayo amid fighting that has left dozens of people dead.

A spokesman for al-Shabab, Mukhtar Robow, told the BBC his militia had wrested the city from a local clan militia during a third day of clashes.

A UN official said about 100 people had been killed and up to 25,000 displaced.

There has also been fierce fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, and hijackings by pirates off the north Somali coast.

Al-Shabab is a radical wing of the Union of Islamic Courts, which ruled much of Somalia in 2006 before being ousted and launching a rebellion.

Humanitarian crisis

Kismayo, Somalia’s third city, is strategically important because it serves as a port for the south of the country.

On Friday at least 15 people were reported to have died in the Kismayo fighting and 18 injured, with dozens killed over three days of clashes.

I saw a single wheelbarrow full of bread being mobbed by a crowd of people
Kismayo resident

Mark Bowden, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme that about 100 people had been killed in Kismayo and as many as 25,000 displaced.

“After four hours [the fighting] ended up in the northern corner of the town, now the town seems to be under the control of al-Shabab,” a human rights worker in the port told on Friday.

Residents said Islamist fighters were patrolling the streets, and that sporadic shooting was continuing in parts of the city.

The fighting is said to have caused an acute humanitarian crisis.

Many people have no access to food and all business activity is reported to have stopped.

“The last three days of fighting has severely affected the town, where people remained in doors,” one resident said.

“Now I am out, to my surprise, I saw a single wheelbarrow full of bread being mobbed by a crowd of people.”

Market hit

In Mogadishu on Thursday, some mortars landed near the compound of President Abdullahi Yusuf, who was out of the country.

Another landed near a mosque in the busy Bakara market, killing at least six people, a witness told the BBC.

Map of Somalia

Witnesses said government troops and their Ethiopian allies responded by opening fire, killing several civilians.

At least 20 people were reported to have been killed in fighting in the capital, though the city was calm on Friday.

Ethiopian troops entered Somalia in December 2006, to oust Islamist forces from Mogadishu.

The police chief in the capital said people who wanted to sabotage talks in neighboring Djibouti between Somalia’s provisional government and its Islamist rivals were behind the most recent violence, our correspondent reports.

Piracy

Somalia has been without a functioning national government since 1991 and has suffered ongoing civil strife.

The UN’s World Food Programme is expanding its programme to feed 2.4 million people in Somalia by the end of the year.

Aid efforts have been hampered by the violence, and the delivery of aid has been threatened by piracy near Somalia’s coast.

On Friday, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said pirates had seized a German cargo ship off the Somali coast a day earlier.

Earlier, a Japanese tanker and an Iranian bulk carrier had been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, a busy international shipping route to the north of Somalia.

An IMB spokesman said a warship from an international force was tracking the hijacked ships.

Another ship, a Malaysian oil tanker with 39 crew was captured in the same area on Tuesday.

August 14, 2008

Japanese satellite rides skyward

Japanese satellite rides skyward

Ariane launch (Esa)

An early evening launch for Ariane

The first wholly home-designed and built telecommunications satellite for Japan has gone safely into orbit.

The Superbird-7 spacecraft went up on an Ariane rocket from Europe’s Kourou launch facility in French Guiana.

Built by the Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, the satellite will deliver TV and other services to Japan and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Currently, all Japanese broadcasters and commercial telecoms carriers use space platforms made in the US.

As is customary for an Ariane, the latest mission delivered two satellites into orbit.

The second was the AMC-21 spacecraft, a TV and internet platform whose services will be focussed on North and Central America.

The rocket left the ground at 1744 local time (2044 GMT) and released the Superbird-7 just under half-an-hour later, with the AMC-21 following shortly afterwards.

This flight was the fifth Ariane mission of 2008. Two further flights are planned in the coming months – making this year’s schedule the busiest since the vehicle’s commercial introduction in 1999.

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