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

Advertisements

September 16, 2008

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas has begun what is being described as the biggest search and rescue effort in its history following Hurricane Ike.

At least 2,000 people have been rescued but many thousands more are believed to have ignored the mandatory order to evacuate before Saturday’s storm.

The death toll rose to 30 as Ike swept on from Texas into the mid-US, with heavy rain causing flooding.

Millions of people are without power and Houston is under a week-long curfew as work continues to restore services.

While many schools remained shut, there were signs of a return to normality on Monday, as the city’s two airports resumed limited services and some shops and restaurants opened for business.

Five people died in Galveston Bay, an island city south-east of Houston which bore the brunt of the storm as Ike swept ashore on Saturday, bringing 13ft (4m) waves and 110mph (175km/h) winds.

‘Stay away’

Rescuers feared the toll could rise as they searched areas awash with sewage for those who did not leave before the hurricane hit.

As many as 140,000 people – some 10,000 in Galveston alone – failed to heed the order to evacuate.

Across Texas, 50 helicopters, 1,500 federal, state and local search teams were looking for stranded survivors, and a US navy ship carrying engineers was heading to Galveston to help with rebuilding operations.

We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal
US President George W Bush

Nearly 40,000 evacuees were being housed in 250 shelters across Texas – some with little money and no idea how long they would have to stay.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas urged residents to stay away until it was safe to return to their homes.

“There’s nothing to come here for,” she said. “Please leave.”

Warning that residents of Texas and Louisiana were in for “tough times”, David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), said some people would “be out of their homes for not only weeks, but months”.

Fema has said it will deliver 7.5m meals as well as 5m gallons (20m litres) of water over the next few days.

President George W Bush, who is due to survey the damage on Tuesday, told those affected by the storm: “We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal”.

Although Ike weakened to a tropical depression as it headed beyond Texas, the storm’s US death-toll rose to 30 as torrential rain caused severe flooding and power outages in parts of Louisiana, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois.

Ike killed more than 80 people when it tore through the Caribbean late last week.


Have you been affected by Hurricane Ike? Send us your comments and experiences

September 10, 2008

Narrow UK class gap, urges Harman

Narrow UK class gap, urges Harman

The class gap must be narrowed in an effort to improve people’s life chances, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman has said.

She told the TUC annual conference that “equality matters more than ever” and “is necessary for individuals, a peaceful society and a strong economy”.

Ms Harman called for more “clarity of evidence” to suggest the government was making progress on the issue.

But the Conservatives accused her of re-opening the “class war”.

Union criticism

Ms Harman’s comments come after Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in an interview with Monitor magazine that “social mobility has not improved in Britain as we would have wanted”.

They will be seen by many as an attempt by the government to rally the unions to Labour, after widespread criticism over the level of public sector pay and demands for a windfall tax on energy firms’ profits.

Ms Harman, who is also Commons leader and minister for women and equality, told delegates at the TUC conference in Brighton: “Equality matters more than ever and it is necessary for individuals, a peaceful society and a strong economy.

“We have made great progress on tackling inequality but we know that inequality doesn’t just come from your gender, race, sexual orientation or disability. What overarches all of these is where you live, your family background, your wealth and social class.

“While we have helped millions of people over the last ten years through policies like Sure Start, tax credits and the national minimum wage, we want to do more.

“To advance equality through our public policy, we need clarity of evidence and focus on the gaps in society and how they have changed over the last 10 years.”

Ms Harman announced that the government’s National Equality Unit would be headed by Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics.

She said: “The robust evidence base that the panel will produce will help us properly target measures to address persisting equality gaps and build on the good work that we have already done.”

‘Sidling up’

Ms Harman accused the Conservatives of being “false friends of equality” and of “sidling up to the unions”.

For the Conservatives, shadow leader of the Commons Theresa May said: “I am astounded that Harriet Harman is dismissing the equality issues around race and gender.”

She added: “I also find it surprising that she should raise issues of social equality when she’s part of government that has been in power for over 11 years, presiding over a 900,000 growth in the number of people living in severe poverty and over a country that has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.

“Labour has made poverty more entrenched and returning to the class warfare rhetoric of 20 years ago is neither helpful nor realistic.”


Do you agree with Harriet Harman? Has your child suffered due to a class gap? Has your family benefited through policies like Sure Start or tax credits?

Send your comments

September 7, 2008

Poles first in Euro dance contest

Poles first in Euro dance contest

Polish Eurovision Dance Contest winners Marcin Mroczek and Edyta Herbus

The Poles beat 13 other couples to win the Eurovision title

Poland claimed first place in the Eurovision Dance Contest, which was held in Scotland on Saturday.

Actor Marcin Mroczek and dancer Edyta Herbus won the votes of watchers throughout the continent with a routine set to Michael Jackson’s music.

Russia finished second and Ukraine were third, while hosts UK finished ninth out of 14 competitors.

A television audience of millions watched the 135 minute program, which came from Glasgow’s SECC.

Graham Norton and Claudia Winkleman hosted the show, which featured 14 couples from Austria, Azerbaijan, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Each couple – one celebrity and one professional dancer – performed a freestyle dance with a national flavor which could have elements of Latin and Ballroom.

Graham Norton and Claudia Winkleman

The show was fronted by Graham Norton and Claudia Winkleman

A panel of expert judges as well as the TV audience voting from home then decided on the winner.

The UK was represented by Vincent Simone and Eastenders actress Louisa Lytton.

It is the second time the contest has been run. Finland won last year’s vote.

“With this competition, we created a fantastic new Eurovision tradition, which we are confident will last for many years to come,” said Bjorn Erichsen, Director of Eurovision TV.

August 28, 2008

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

WarGames

Before the days of flat screen monitors… and Perestroika

The conflict in Georgia has awoken fears of a new Cold War between Russia and its allies and the West, nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But will the animosity come back to haunt Western imaginations as it once did?

“We share the same biology,
regardless of ideology.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too”

That couplet might be a mere piece of lyrical doggerel to any listener born after 9 November 1989, but when Sting released the single Russians in 1985, it came out of a deep mine of anxiety in the West about the course of the Cold War.

Sting

A good period in which to make profound statements…

For nearly five decades, the Cold War provided a rich seam running right through popular culture in the West, throwing out films, music, novels and even computer games that carried the fears, conscious and subconscious, of millions.

In the 1950s, science fiction movies were often allegories about different aspects of Cold War politics. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers was interpreted as a reference to McCarthy-era paranoia, Invaders from Mars as a parable of communist infiltration, and the Day the Earth Stood Still as a simple fantasy that some higher supernatural power would come to try and sort everything out.

After the world reached the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there was another wave of Cold War-inspired fiction, with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove perhaps the most notable example.

With the detente of the 1970s the Cold War thread became less noticeable, but with worsening relations in the early 1980s, both sides of the Atlantic were suddenly replete with fictional Cold War dystopian scenarios.

On the British side people were treated to the agonisingly poignant graphic novel When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs and its film adaptation, as well as 1984’s Threads, about the terrifying aftermath of a nuclear strike. On the other side of the Atlantic, there were the mini-series Amerika and World War III, and the gruesome The Day After with its vivid montages of men, women, children and even horses being vaporized.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood

…and ripe for sensational scare-mongering

On the silver screen WarGames explored the issue of computer hacking against a background of mutually assured destruction , while Red Dawn took the usual brat pack characters complete with preppy letterman jackets, and armed them with AK-47s to fight a Soviet invasion of the US. Popular attitudes towards the Eastern Bloc were shaped by movies like Rocky IV, where the drug cheat Ivan Drago was emblematic of suspicions held against Soviet athletes.

As well as Sting’s Russians, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s chart-topper Two Tribes provided a musical accompaniment to the era. It seems strange to discuss now what was, even then, viewed as often laughable ephemera, but the course of popular culture reflected deep-seated fears, particularly significant among those too young to temper their concerns with a grasp of the political context.

Almost as soon as it had intensified, the Cold War quickly ebbed away, and by the end of the 1989, with the Berlin Wall coming down and relations defrosting across the whole of eastern Europe, it suddenly became a bit silly to pick the Soviet state as baddies.

Hollywood had to find new protagonists for a new zeitgeist, and fast.

Bond sabbatical

While rarely casting Russia itself as the main enemy in a storyline, and indeed often featuring a sympathetic KGB general, the James Bond franchise was unmistakably driven by Cold War themes of espionage and fear of weapons technology. It was inevitably affected, says film critic James King.

It was a competition to be modern – consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism
Jane Pavitt

“Bond went into limbo for seven years, for many reasons, but one was that it didn’t feel relevant any more.

“The first film I remember that actually caught up was True Lies. When that came out it was almost a James Bond film and it had a new Hollywood enemy, which was an Arab – this was the new thing.”

Post 9/11 there has been a glut of movies either tackling the threat of terrorism, attacking the politics of the war on terror and Guantanamo Bay, as well as a host of television programmes that have explored the fall-out for Muslim communities on both sides of the Atlantic. A poster for the current movie Shoot on Sight – with its tag line “Is it a crime to be a Muslim?” – is typical.

In the space between the end of the Cold War and Islamist terrorism entering the mainstream mindset as the main threat to the West, movie producers did their best to come up with convincing action movie baddies.

Having been conceived long before the fall of the wall, the Hunt for Red October, an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel, still performed well at the box office in 1990. But in projects conceived after the end of Cold War hostilities, the baddies are very often neo-nationalists or rebels trying to destabilise a friendly Russia (Crimson Tide and Air Force One) or are avaricious terrorists and gangsters of other nationalities (Die Hard).

Cold War the Sequel

The effect of the end of the Cold War on secret services and military personnel came to be a major theme. John Le Carre was one of those spy novel authors who made the transition smoothly. The Russia House marked the last of his novels released during the Cold War, the next three deal with the effect of the thaw on intelligence operatives, while the subsequent four, including the Tailor of Panama and the Constant Gardener are not directly related to the Cold War. But Hodder and Stoughton, his publisher, maintain sales of the Cold War novels were unaffected by the events of 1989.

Threads

Threads – not your average prime-time BBC drama

King is sceptical about whether current Cold War fears will quickly feed back into popular culture.

“Films take a while to get on the screen – I don’t think we will see anything for a year.”

Film producers and publishers may also feel that with the long lead times, tensions could be defused by the time anything gets to market.

They are returning to Cold War classics but not necessarily because of modern fears over relations between the West and Russia. WarGames was recently remade as a straight-to-DVD release although terrorism underpinned the story rather than a renewed Cold War. It has also been recently reported that Red Dawn is to be remade, although the exact plot is unclear.

But as well as those cultural products directly referencing or making allusions to the Cold War, the conflict also provided the backdrop to massive shifts and vigorous battles in everything from product design and modern art to fashion, says Jane Pavitt, curator of the Cold War Modern exhibition opening next month at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“It was a competition to be modern,” says Pavitt. “Consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism in Europe in the 1950s. That’s why fashion and kitchen goods can be seen as part of this.”

For those who were too young to remember the Berlin Wall coming down, or were born afterwards, the unique fears of the Cold War era, and the popular culture they steered, may be hard to appreciate.

But for anyone over the age of 25 in the West, they remain a deeply significant part of our psyche.


Add your comments on this story.

What about Soviet / Eastern Bloc popular culture during the cold war – was it also full of espionage dramas and ‘what if’ nuclear bomb scenarios? As someone old enough to remember it from a British perspective, I realise I have no idea at all how it was perceived and represented in media the other side of the Iron Curtain. I’m sure there is a level of propaganda and also aware that creativity was somewhat stifled, but is there a parallel strand of writing/drama/film-making that we’re all ignorant of over here?
WorldGirl, Enfield, UK

I have grown up at the other side of the Iron Curtain and can assure you: the fear that the Cold War would spiral out of control was just as real on our side, only that we expected the West to make the first move. This was reflected in our popular culture in a similar way as was quoted in the article. I used to think: perhaps both sides are just too afraid of each other, perhaps such fears could be calmed by assuring each other that “we” would not make the first move. However, my views have changed a bit over the years. Having seen how readily the West is prepared to enter into a war (Yugoslavia, twice in Iraq, Afghanistan) and how openly it encroaches on Russia’s borders by supporting various colour-coded revolutions, I am beginning to wonder who was indeed the more aggressive side. For anyone getting into a rage about this posting: just for one moment, try to forget our view that we are always right and that our view on democracy justifies any means to spread it around the world. Try to be unbiased and then read again what I said.
Holger Laux, Bristol, UK

It’s interesting, and perhaps significant, that in times of national perceived potential threat from outside, so much creativity happens. I remember vividly the tension of the 1980s, the big changes in the UK and around the world. In some ways, it was an exciting time because every new day could bring danger. Is that what we humans survive on and does it draw us together?
Krystyna, Sedgley

In the mid 1980’s I can remember being in a 6th form who generally agreed that they would not live to be 30 because nuclear war was both imminent and inevitable. A strange mix of living a normal life but with the constant knowledge of impending disaster. This is probably why I felt so uneasy with the worsening relationship between Russia and the West. The world is, in my opinion, much less stable than it was in the 80s and the politicians are much more dangerous and paranoid than Maggie/Ronnie/Andropov/Chernenko.
John Ferris, Coventry, UK

I’m 27 and can just about remember the Berlin Wall coming down, though I can’t say I remember much more about the cold war. I’d raise your threshold to at least 30!
James, London

How true. I was only nine years old when they installed an air raid siren to the roof of our school. There were lots of discussions about what we would do with our last three minutes of life before the bombs arrived. It sounds trivial now but at the time we were convinced it would happen.
Dawn, Redhill

Reading the above it confirms my gut feeling that it is the Media that stir up scenarios causing more trouble than most just by publishing half of the story and twisting the facts. Even the BBC has succumbed to the drum of the gutter press by allowing the papers to show headlines on some of their programmes such as Breakfast, the BBC does not need to give the like of these people air time they have enough journalists to concoct their own stories, so why of why do they (BBC) despoil their standards with drivel?
Robert, Liverpool

I was born in 1985 so missed the hysteria, but we were subjected to ‘Threads’ in school. I didn’t sleep for weeks and when I did I dreamt of that cat on fire and the melting milk bottles! Haven’t been to Sheffield since!!
Martin Doyle, St Albans

Threads was an excellent – and terrifying – story, and was also the first ‘post-holocaust drama’ to incorporate the concept of the nuclear winter, which had only recently been realised. And it was more than just a story: it included occasional subtitles to spell out what would be happening. It’s hardly likely to get repeated (and would in all likelihood be out of date with its figures), but as an illustration of why not to play with nuclear weapons it was second to none.
Ruaraidh Gillies, Wirral, UK

Please stop doing this. Drumming up panic when there is no need. Even Russia has said they don’t want another cold war. There is NO crisis, just sabre rattling as always.
Rich, UK

Yes a large influence on Culture of the 80’s when I grew up. I went into the RAF and ended up at Greenham Common on the other side from the peace camp. I have still have a Cold War playlist on my iPod with tracks like ‘Two Tribes’, ‘Mad World’ and ’19’. Recent Computer games like Operation Flashpoint also hark back to the Cold War 80s. Are we going into a Second Cold War. Yes and there is nothing the West can do.
Simon CS, Farnham, Surrey, UK

The Cold War was fun and inspired some great films.
Matt, Philadelphia USA

Let’s hope that we don’t go back to the scare-mongering of the early eighties. For once I would like to think that today’s youngsters are a bit de-sensitised to the whole ‘we’re all going to die’ thoughts portrayed back then. I myself started digging out a bunker at the age of seven for our family to shelter in. When I was discovered I claimed it was a copy of Percy Thrower’s Blue Peter sunken garden!!!
Jenny, Wolves

I remember being absolutely terrified of nuclear war growing up. It was an all too real possibility. The intro to “Two Tribes” used to frighten me, and “Threads” is just as disturbing to watch now as it ever was. We also had the misfortune to live nine miles from the RAF/US Navy bases and oil refineries making us a prime target. When the Air Force did their low-flying exercises in the middle of the night, I’d lie awake waiting for a bomb blast to follow. That said, I think the idea of being nuked at any moment really beefed up Western popular culture at the time.
Mandi, Cardiff, Wales

They don’t need to drop the bomb. Russia has between 1/4 and 1/3 of the world’s oil and natural gas.

All they have to do is turn the taps off.
Philip Le Roux, Aldershot HANTS UK

August 12, 2008

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Ghada Abdelaal with her book Ayza-Tgawwiz

Abdelaal’s story started as an online log – now she’s working on a sitcom

“I want to get married” is a perfectly normal thing to say for a young Egyptian man. But when a girl says it in such a conservative society – let alone writes a book with that title – she is making a political statement.

“Girls are not supposed to be actively seeking something, a girl simply exists for someone to marry or divorce her,” says the author of the top-selling book, Ghada Abdelaal. “To say she wants something is seen as impolite.”

The book started as a blog, before it was spotted by an Egyptian publisher and printed as a series of comic sketches in which flawed and failed suitors knocking at her parents’ door.

A paranoid policeman, a hirsute fundamentalist, a pathological liar and other hilarious caricatures portrayed in sparkling Egyptian vernacular.

Marriage anxiety

The veiled, softly-spoken Abdelaal is a sharp and witty observer of social incongruity in Egypt, a feisty spirit trying to tear up stifling tradition.

They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married
Ghada Abdelaal

She says her target is not Egyptian men but a tradition known as “gawwaz el-salonat” (living room marriage), where a stranger is brought to the family home and the daughter must decide whether to marry him on the basis of this brief encounter.

“People who go for a picnic need to know each other a little longer than that – let alone make a lifelong commitment.”

The book’s popularity – it is in its third print run with a sitcom in the offing – reflects a widespread anxiety in Egyptian society. More and more young people cannot afford to get married.

Although the book focuses on finding Mr Right, she acknowledges finding an affordable flat remains an almost insurmountable obstacle. Many young people stay engaged for years before they can save up enough money.

“By the time they actually get to live together, they are already tired of each other,” says women’s rights activist Nihad Abou El Qoumsan. This causes the unusually high rate of divorce among the newlyweds in Egypt, she says.

Such is the impact of property prices on the marriage crisis, a popular talk show has invited engaged couples to join a draw to win a flat.

A new apartment will be given away by a wealthy businessman every day of the fasting and holiday month of Ramadan, in September. Huge numbers have registered.

Sexual frustration

Some describe it as a social time bomb. Religious customs mean there is no sex before marriage. So how do young people react to this situation?

I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated
Anthropologist Hania Sholkamy

Sociologist Madeeha al-Safty of the American University in Cairo believes one consequence is sexual harassment of women and rape reaching unprecedented levels in Egypt.

“If you are frustrated, there is the possibility that you take it out [through] violence.

“Some people choose the safer way in moving towards a more religious attitude – not necessarily extremism, but it might reach the point of extremism,” she adds.

But anthropologist Hania Sholkamy hesitates to link the problems of sexual harassment and rape to the marriage crisis.

“I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated. There are many millions of people who are extremely frustrated, but they do not harass women.

“I think the issue is one of violence and gender disparities, pure and simple.”

Gender disparities is a theme running throughout Abdelaal’s book, from the provocative title questioning the woman’s passive role in a traditional society to the way children are brought up.

“They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married.

“Even after she goes to school they tell her that a girl’s only future is in her husband’s home. So what happens when a girl for any reason cannot get married. Should she set fire to herself?”

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.