globalpost http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost globalpost's Profile Thu, 23 Sep 2010 18:52:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 At India’s Commonwealth Games, shame might be a blessing http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2010/09/23/at-indias-commonwealth-games-shame-might-be-a-blessing/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/09/23/at-indias-commonwealth-games-shame-might-be-a-blessing/#comments Thu, 23 Sep 2010 18:52:05 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/09/23/at-indias-commonwealth-games-shame-might-be-a-blessing/ global_post_logo

This story by Jason Overdorf originally appeared in Global Post.

There’s still a chance that Delhi will pull off the Commonwealth Games next month. In India, anything is possible. There’s even a chance that people will call this futile exercise in mismanagement a success. But that would be a real shame.

Shame is the word of the week here, with 10 days left before the scheduled opening ceremony of what the erstwhile jewel in the British crown once hoped would be the largest and most impressive Commonwealth Games ever. Now, the growing fear is that the event may not come off at all, as the threat looms of a boycott by England, Scotland and Wales.

Even as organizing committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi struggled to persuade a skeptical and hostile press that the city and venues would be ready, the seemingly endless problems mounted.

Gunmen on a motorcycle shot two Taiwanese tourists in a possible terrorist attack over the weekend. On Tuesday a footbridge attached to one of the entrances for the showpiece Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium collapsed, injuring 27 workers and leaving three laborers in critical condition.

As unusually persistent monsoon rain pounded on, a section of the ceiling fell in a few hours later. An epidemic of dengue fever, exacerbated by the delayed construction work, overwhelmed area hospitals. And, horror of horrors for India’s fastidious Hindus and their stiff-upper-lipped onetime rulers alike: Inspectors discovered human excrement in some of the posh flats of the hastily built Games Village.

Several prominent athletes have dropped plans to compete — some making excuses and others citing concerns about health and safety. Scotland and Canada have delayed their teams’ departure for Delhi and other teams have said they may cancel their plans altogether.

There has been a disquieting whiff of postcolonial satisfaction in the foreign reaction to rising India’s comeuppance. Yet a wholesale cancellation might just be the best thing for a nation that — while it can lay claim to tremendous promise — is still struggling to be great.

Many observers will be tempted to see this failure as a fable of false pride ending in just humiliation. But apathy, not hubris, is India’s fatal flaw, and a bracing dose of shame may be exactly what is needed to shake its incredibly capable, but politically inert, middle class into action.

The risk is that this shame will inject new life into the old argument that India suffers from too much democracy — a favorite hobby horse of this bunch. No, India is not China. But the Games fiasco was not the result of parliamentary gridlock or popular protest. The farce was scripted by cronyism, corruption and a complete lack of accountability — all aided by the Indian politician’s complete disregard for the voter’s disgust. Unfortunately, the most shameful are the most shameless.

Amid the clamor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepped in (too late) to rap knuckles on Wednesday, and an extra staff of 1,000 cleaners, sourced from private contractors, was brought in to give the “filthy” Games Village a good scrub. And Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit dismissed fears that the event was shuddering toward collapse, pleading, “There is no reason to worry … . We should look at it as an opportunity. Please become positive.”

But however the Games turn out, Delhi has failed. It has failed to put on an effortless show of false glamor. It has failed to muzzle its muckraking press. It has failed to round up its poor and homeless and ship them into the countryside. And it has failed to persuade a skeptical public that costs skyrocketed to more than 10 times the original estimates simply because the organizers are committed to making this the best games ever. (Forgive me if I find some reason for pride in all that shame.) Now the question is whether Delhi can learn from those failures what Beijing could not learn from its success.

The lesson is not that a poor country should spend all its money on welfare programs, or that developing countries should be content to remain as guests, not hosts, at international events, or that dissent must be silenced to protect national pride. Just as India’s costly space satellites have benefited farmers, the Commonwealth Games slush fund, if managed properly, might have created university dormitories, a functioning sewage system or housing for the poor.

The lesson is that it is futile to create islands of cleanliness and modernity for the rich, if they are to be surrounded by a sea of poverty, sickness and filth. Life will only get better for the wealthy when it gets better for the desperate poor. Until then, as long as there is no respect for labor, no one will take pride in his work, and the wage slaves will just be waiting for the chance to sneak in and take a dump on a rich man’s mattress.

Double points if he’s an elected official.

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Italy pays its people to go on vacation http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2010/09/03/italy-pays-its-people-to-go-on-vacation/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/09/03/italy-pays-its-people-to-go-on-vacation/#comments Fri, 03 Sep 2010 19:43:50 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/09/03/italy-pays-its-people-to-go-on-vacation/ ITALY/

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The following article by Silvia Marchetti first appeared in GlobalPost.

ROME, Italy — “Exploit your holidays to discover your unique, magical Italy,” intones Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in a new TV ad encouraging Italians to vacation at home this year.

For those Italians still unsure of exactly why they should “discover” Italy — according to Berlusconi, a land not just of “sky, sun and sea but also of history, culture and art — the state has thrown in a sweetener: it will help pay for citizens’ summer or winter breaks by granting “holiday vouchers.”

Berlusconi’s government believes that tourism can be a strategic tool in Italy’s economic recovery, but only if Italians spend money for vacations at home instead of abroad.

The coupons are available to all low-income families, especially those with many children, who wish to go to the seaside or mountains but can’t normally afford it. If the state has its way, visits to sunny beaches or historical cities will no longer be a privilege for the few, but a right of the many.

The new series of coupons can be used from Aug. 23 until July 3, 2011, though they’re restricted around the Christmas period. The Tourism Ministry has set up a website [2] through which citizens can apply for vouchers and book vacations, choosing from a wide range of offers and staying at hotels plugged into the government’s initiative.

Under the voucher scheme, the state grants a holiday bonus varying between 20 and 45 percent of a predefined budget, which depends upon the income level of the family and number of members. For example, a family of four with a yearly income of up to 25,000 euros ($32,000) receives a coupon worth 1,240 euros ($1,585), of which the family pays just 682 euros ($872) — the rest (45 percent) is subsidized by the state.

If the same family earns more than 30,000 euros ($38,000) per year, then it is required to contribute 992 euros ($1,268) — in this case the state funds just 20 percent of the entire vacation.

The binding condition of vouchers is that they are used in travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, resorts, camping sites and the like that have signed up to the scheme and which now number more than 4,500.

Andrea Cardone, owner of a beach campground in Liguria, hailed the initiative.

“The vouchers brought me 15 additional clients this year, all families with children. It makes me earn something extra and the base of my guests widens.”

His colleague Luigi Piras, who runs a hotel-pizzeria in Sardinia, agreed: “This place is quite isolated and in times of economic crisis even one coupon-client can make a difference.”

But not all types of accommodation are favored. Venice’s four-star Hotel La Fenice et des Artistes, close to Saint Mark’s Square, even with the bonuses remains way too expensive.

“So far none of our clients have used the coupons, I guess Venice is just not a voucher destination,” said manager Nadia Baldissera.

In August, bowing to pressure from industry, the Tourism Ministry extended the voucher system to foreigners who are residing — and thus paying taxes — in Italy.

“I personally told the minister [Michela Vittoria Brambilla] that it was a mistake to exclude foreigners at the start,” said Christian Seymons, a Frenchman who restyled a Renaissance country resort near Florence, The Hedgehogs’ Hamlet, and has so far hosted two coupon-families. “Now it’s quite late, summer’s almost over and it’s a real pity because 90 percent of my clients are foreigners and I think they should have as well the opportunity to discover Italy.”

The coupon has the goal of supporting what minister Brambilla describes as “social tourism.” When she presented the new vouchers at a press conference in early August, she talked of “high-quality tourism [3] that blends art, history and leisure” saying holidays are “an important moment for relax, physical and mental wellness, social cohesion and cultural enrichment essential in bettering life quality.”

In introducing the scheme, Italy is following the example set by other European countries, including France, where the recent introduction of coupons has led to a 5-percent increase in demand for hotels and resorts. Since the release of the first coupons in January, some 7,000 Italian families have taken advantage, generating a domestic tourism revenue of 5.5 million euros ($7 million), according to data from the ministry.

The vouchers might turn into a helpful instrument to recover part of the money Italians have spent in outbound tourism. Quoting data by the Bank of Italy — more than 13.771 billion euros ($17,606 billion) spent by Italians during their vacations abroad in 2009 — Berlusconi’s office posted a note on the government’s website aimed at convincing nationals to spend their holidays (and money) at home in order to support Italy’s economy and not that of other countries.

Some Italians are favorable to the coupon strategy, others not. Daniele Bolgi, a 55-year-old Roman shopkeeper with four kids, says he will not apply for the vouchers and suggests a more direct means of supporting struggling families.

“It would be better if the bonus went in our salary so we could spend it as best we wish,” he said.

On the other hand, bank employee Maria Bianchi, a divorced woman with two daughters, plans to go to the seaside in September thanks to the coupons.

Photo caption: Gondolas are seen berthed in the waters of Venice. REUTERS/Sharon Lee

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Italy: land of the rich Russian http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2010/08/20/italy-land-of-the-rich-russian/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/08/20/italy-land-of-the-rich-russian/#comments Fri, 20 Aug 2010 14:14:52 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/08/20/italy-land-of-the-rich-russian/ LEISURE ITALY ISLANDS

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The following article by Silvia Marchetti first appeared in GlobalPost.

ROME, Italy — Ischia and Capri, two tiny islands in the Gulf of Naples, are fighting over big money. That is, Russian money.

Ischia, a thermal baths and spa destination, complains that its Russian clients prefer shopping on the neighboring isle because it has a wider choice of luxury boutiques. On both islands, nearly all hotels and restaurants have menus written in Cyrillic and employ waiters whose mother tongue is Russian, while shops display price-tags in both euros and dollars.

It’s indeed worth the trouble. Luring tourists from Russia is a lucrative pursuit in Italy. Many of the most breathtaking and expensive locations have been virtually colonized by them.

They’re the former Soviet Union’s new nobility — billionaire businessmen, bankers and investors who travel across the peninsula in limousines, yachts and helicopters (for 2,000 euros an hour), picking the most romantic scenery for the purchase of dreamlike castles and sea manors.

Thanks to their cash (dollars, no credit cards), commercial ties between Italians and Russians are flourishing more than ever, helped along by the “special friendship” between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Putin’s daughters are frequent guests of the Italian media tycoon-turned-politician.)

The numbers of Russians vacationing in the region has eclipsed that of Americans, who flooded the area after World War II.

In the first three months of this year, the Italian embassy in Moscow issued about 52,000 visas to Russians bound for Italy (for holiday and business). According to parallel data from Italy’s central bank on inbound global tourist flows, roughly 23,000 Americans arrived in Italy during the same period, along with about 23,500 French and about 9,000 Spaniards.

The Adriatic Riviera in the north, the elite Emerald Coast in Sardinia and the Amalfitan villages of Positano and Sorrento have transformed into settlements of Russian oligarchs who spend months in fashionable hotels, rent summer villas for 100,000 euros per month and are willing to disburse some 20 million euros to buy beach apartments.
Billionaires from Moscow kill time with Carnival-like parties and trips in private submarines.

On the Adriatic Riviera the Russian tourist demand is far above the supply of both hotels and flats.

In the city of Forte dei Marmi, two-thirds of the buildings are second houses of rich managers based in Moscow, according to leading daily Corriere della Sera, resulting in soaring real estate prices, which have forced the local authorities to pass a law securing part of the town’s homes to local residents.

The Italian tourist office has recorded a 30 percent rise in the number of Russians visiting the towns of Rimini and Riccione and charter flights from Moscow have increased five-fold in the last five years.

A recent survey carried-out by Global Refund found that Russians, who typically spend more on Made-in-Italy products — shoes, clothes, jewelry and sparkling wine called “Spumante” (Italy’s variation on Champagne) — represent 83 percent of the total tourist market share in terms of expenditure on goods. Russians spend more on products made in Italy than do citizens of any other European country.

Russian oligarchs and real estate investors particularly seem to favor Italy. The owner of the Chelsea soccer team, Roman Abramovich, is a regular client — and partner in — one of the most exclusive resorts in Sardinia, Forte Village. The resort features about 20 restaurants and 40 hotels and enjoys total revenue of 75 billion euros. Abramovich each year holds the Chelsea Soccer School, a summer camp where young professionals from the famous English team train to become junior Beckhams and Ronaldinhos.

Roman is a regular in the island region, often touring the exclusive shopping areas of Porto Cervo and Porto Rotondo either on his 170-meter-long “Luna” yacht or on a jet departing from the 1,200 square-meter mansion he recently purchased at Cala di Volpe, which among other extravagant facilities features a private port.

Other high-profile Russians have followed his example, spending millions of euros for an Italian estate.

Among them is Rustam Tariko (also known as the Vodka King), Alisher Usmanov (a metal magnate and manager of Gazprom, the Russian oil giant), Vasili Anisimov (a gold producer who bought his mansion from Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario) and Ildar Karimov (a television tycoon). Owning a property in one of Sardinia’s top locations is a status-symbol for Russia’s jet-set society.

Another upcoming Russian destination in Italy is Alberobello, in the Apulia region. Here, real estate investors from Moscow and St. Petersburg are spending millions of euros to buy old farms and prehistoric white, cone-shaped stone village houses called “Trulli,” despite them being listed as UNESCO heritage sites.

Italian real estate agent Piero D’Amico underscored the importance of the Trulli: “They’re much more than houses, they represent a part of the local history, traditions, hospitality, scenery and culture” very much admired by Russian clients.

In the “Little Russia” of Italy, there’s even a place for spirituality: the church of Liscia di Vacca, a small town on the Emerald Coast, hosts orthodox masses celebrated by a real Russian pope.

Each morning locals are flabbergasted to see the parking place in front of the entrance crammed with Ferraris and Mercedes Benzes.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the name of Rustam Tariko.

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Photo caption: Capri, Italy. August 16, 2006 file photo.  REUTERS

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Google street view: shades of Nazi spy era? http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2010/08/19/google-street-view-shades-of-nazi-spy-era/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/08/19/google-street-view-shades-of-nazi-spy-era/#comments Thu, 19 Aug 2010 19:37:20 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/08/19/google-street-view-shades-of-nazi-spy-era/ global_post_logo

The following article by Krista Kapralos first appeared in GlobalPost.

FRANKFURT, Germany — It wasn’t too long ago that apartment dwellers in Germany assumed that someone, somewhere in the building, was taking notes on everything they did. Even people who owned their own homes could never be certain whether a government mole was listening in on their conversations.

“Making sure the law was kept,” said Jobst Krause, a 67-year-old Frankfurter, of the surveillance during the Nazi era.

Krause is too young to have experienced the worst of Nazi surveillance, and he lived in West Germany when the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police force, kept tabs on citizens. But he understands the pang of worry that shot through the hearts of many Germans last week when Google, the American search engine giant, announced that it would launch its Street View application in Germany before year’s end.

Google began sending camera-equipped cars throughout Germany’s 20 largest cities in 2008. Once launched, the Street View program will offer panoramic, ground-level photographs of most streets in those cities, allowing Web surfers to virtually tour those cities as if they were walking or driving.

The program was launched in the U.S. in 2007, and has since spread through 23 countries. But Google found fierce resistance in Germany, where strict privacy laws and suspicion about the company’s reasons for widespread data collection have led to a handful of investigations.

Data protection officials in the regions where Google sent its Street View camera cars insisted that license plates, faces and other identifying elements be obscured, and that residents be able to take a virtual eraser to pictures of their homes.

That’s standard procedure for any country with Street View, Google spokesman Stefan Keuchel said. The difference in Germany is that people can request that pictures of their homes be removed from the archive before those pictures ever appear online. Elsewhere in the world, Keuchel said, people can only request removal after the program is launched.

Since May 2009, between 10,000 and 99,999 Germans (Google refuses to release the exact number) have since asked that photographs of their homes be destroyed.

“People are able to contact us via email, fax or written letter,” Keuchel said.

That’s the problem, said Jan Schmidt, an interactive media expert at the Hans-Bredow-Institut in Hamburg.

“The German view would be, ‘I want to be asked first,’” Schmidt said.

German data protection officials required that Google notify residents several weeks before cars with cameras rolled through their neighborhoods. Residents could, for example, tidy up their front lawns or choose another day to sunbathe in the nude. But they couldn’t stop the cameras from taking photographs. Even if that were possible, many Germans didn’t have any idea what Street View was, nor did they know to watch out for a notification that a car with a camera was set to drive down their road.

Another problem is that people are forced to share personal data with Google in order to opt out, said Johannes Caspar, a Hamburg-based data protection official who is a primary liaison between regional governments and Google. They must confirm their names and place of residence to get their homes removed from the archive.

Caspar said he was surprised last week when Google announced Street View’s coming launch.

“We have raised the question, ‘What will Google do with this new data they get because people want to get their houses deleted?’” Caspar said. “And we’re waiting for Google to have concrete answers.”

Any information Google received from residents who wished their homes to be obscured in Google Street View would be deleted after use, said Keuchel of Google.

“In order for us to blur a house, we need basic information, like name and address,” he said. “We are not interested in that data, and we are not using that data for any purpose other than deletion.”

While Germany struggled to regulate Google’s activities, Caspar said, other companies, including Microsoft, were planning to create similar mapping programs.

“We need a concrete law” to govern how companies gather and use information, he said.

Meanwhile, Google this week launched an online form through which people, until mid-September, can request deletion from Street View. Already there are questions about how the form works. What if someone living in a large apartment building wants to opt out? (Just one request is enough to smudge an entire building, Keucher said.) Can a cafe owner pose as his opponent to get the other cafe virtually deleted? (Every deletion request must be confirmed with a PIN number sent via snail mail.) Is it possible to opt back in? (Google plans to permanently destroy photos requested for deletion. That means a resident can’t opt back in until another Google camera car makes the rounds.)

All the hubbub over privacy, Keucher said, is a distraction from what Germans really want: Interactive mapping tools. Among all the countries that do not yet have Street View, Germans are the top users, Keucher said. Every week, a few hundred thousand people (he didn’t have the exact number) virtually tour other parts of the world.

Still, about 30 percent of all Germans aren’t online, Schmidt said, adding that the people protesting Street View most likely didn’t understand what it was.

“They might even think that Google is putting live cameras in front of their house,” he said. “A part of the protest is coming out from not knowing what it is all about. And from this, they’re saying, ‘I’d better be on the safe side.’”

Schmidt plans to sit down with the people who live in the seven other apartments in his building to decide whether to opt out. In his view, the issue isn’t about privacy. It’s about a business collecting public data for the purpose of profit.

“I don’t want to restrict access to public streets, but I don’t think it’s OK to use public places and extract money from them,” Schmidt said. Germans had always been private people, he said, but the constant monitoring that occurred during the Nazi era — and in East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell — meant they were more protective than ever of their private lives.

“Privacy is very important in Germany,” he said.

For otherwise informed Germans, there is also concern that Google might not be entirely honest about the information it keeps in its archives. The company admitted this year that its camera cars had grabbed unsecured wireless data in addition to street-level photos. Google later agreed to surrender the data to authorities in Germany and other countries where the collection had taken place.

Krause, the Frankfurter who views Google’s actions through a historic lens, said he doesn’t have a problem with the outside of his apartment building appearing online, but he’s concerned that Street View might be just the beginning of Google’s plans.

“There are rumors that Google deals with our addresses,” he said. “But I don’t know what’s true.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a response from Google on the issue of personal data collection and privacy.

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In Gaza, it’s not easy being green http://blogs.reuters.com/environment/2010/08/in-gaza-its-not-easy-being-green/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/08/16/in-gaza-its-not-easy-being-green/#comments Mon, 16 Aug 2010 15:24:47 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/08/16/in-gaza-its-not-easy-being-green/ global_post_logo

— This story by Theodore May originally appeared in Global Post. —

In the small central Gaza town of Deir el Belah, one family has made a cottage industry out of green innovation.

“There was a period in Gaza when there was no gas or you had to wait for hours in line to get gas. So we made the oven according to our needs,” said Maher Youssef Abou Tawahina, who, along with his father, runs a hardware shop in town.

Abou Tawahina is referring to a solar-powered oven that he and his family invented two years ago. The oven, which sits in the family’s backyard, takes five minutes to heat up using electricity. Then, its glass ceiling uses the sun to continue the heating process. The oven is not quite hot enough for baking bread, he said, but it’s perfect for roasting chicken.

The idea of the solar-powered oven was so well received around Deir El Belah that orders poured in from around the neighborhood. Abou Tawahina said that he and his father built over 30 of them until the insulating glass became unavailable on the market.

A dozen miles up the road, in northern Gaza City, high energy costs also drove Waseem El Khazendar to innovate for his own survival.

When gasoline in Gaza reached $4 per liter, El Khazendar said, he could hardly afford to drive his car, even within the tight confines of Gaza.

As a result, El Khazendar, who was trained as an engineer in Cairo, created Gaza’s first-ever electric car.

His innovation made waves throughout Gaza. Palestinians flocked to his office to see the car. Local news outlets, too, were fascinated.

El Khazendar, however, eventually parked his little electric Peugeot in the wrong place — a factory his family owned in north Gaza, when the war between Hamas and Israel began. The Israeli air force bombed the factory, destroying the car.

These are Gaza’s green entrepreneurs.

In this isolated and war-torn territory, however, they are few and far between. Hamas, which effectively runs Gaza, is crushing green initiatives that might contradict the group’s message that Palestinians here are suffering because of an Israeli blockade of goods along its border.

“The policy of Hamas is to show we are not developing,” said Fouad El-Harazin, a Palestinian-American who founded the National Research Center, an organization in Gaza that is trying to find the funding and supplies to kick start a solar energy project here.

“We depend on Israel with everything,” he added. “We want to depend on ourselves.”

El-Harazin, among others, said that a green Gaza could mean an independent Gaza. But while Israeli border restrictions make importing solar energy equipment difficult, it is Hamas that is actively working against green energy projects here.

“Hamas will say, ‘Why did you do that? Do you want to show we have good development? Take it down!’” El-Harazin said.

Israel enacted its blockade on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas took control of the area in what amounted to a military coup. With Gaza’s other neighbor, Egypt, also participating in the blockade, few goods make it across the border, meaning that many products — including construction materials like cement — have become scarce here.

Much of the international community has condemned the blockade, saying it creates a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep political pressure on Hamas, which lists the destruction of the Jewish state among its chief priorities.

Switching to green energy and building techniques, analysts said, could help Gaza thwart Israel’s obstruction.

A recent project by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza aimed to build houses using mud instead of cement and steel, which are on the list of items Israel prohibits from entering Gaza.

New houses are essential for Palestinians to keep up with their booming population. Palestinians have also, for the most part, been unable to rebuild houses damaged or destroyed in last January’s war with Israel.

So with a local company providing the design work, the United Nations’ relief agency began its project to build mud houses.

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“At first the local government encouraged using mud as alternative
building material because cement and steel were not allowed to enter
Gaza,” said Ahmed Mohaisen, a professor of architecture at the Islamic
University of Gaza.

Quickly, though, the government had a change of heart.

“They were afraid that when the international community saw that
the people had found another way to build buildings, the pressure would
go down for Israel to open the gates,” Mohaisen said.

While both Hamas and Israel have all but ensured that alternative
energy projects can’t progress in Gaza, some small-scale entrepreneurs
have managed to achieve some small degree of success.

El Khazendar, whose green innovation became a casualty of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, isn’t sure he’ll build a new electric
car, saying that he’s too devastated by the loss of the last one.

He does, however, offer words of encouragement to future
Palestinian green innovators, suggesting that the common man controls
the future of Gaza’s environmental movement, despite an adversarial
government.

“Because you need it, you do it,” El Khazendar said. “If I do it, many people can do it.”

Editor’s note: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the
Great forged a path from Greece through the modern Middle East to
Persia. It was a path of conquest that empires would follow through the
ages. Traces of each can be seen today in the culture, monuments,
continuing military presence and people along the route, which ended
for Alexander in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. In this project,
GlobalPost correspondent Theodore May sets out to see how Alexander’s
influence lives on. He will be blogging about his travels at Backpacking to Babylon.

// ]]> ]]> http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/08/16/in-gaza-its-not-easy-being-green/feed/ 289 7 circles of Juarez: teenage assassins http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2010/07/14/7-circles-of-juarez-teenage-assassins/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/07/14/7-circles-of-juarez-teenage-assassins/#comments Wed, 14 Jul 2010 14:51:26 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/07/14/7-circles-of-juarez-teenage-assassins/ global_post_logo

This article by Ioan Grillo originally appeared in GlobalPost.


Caption: A police man walks at a crime scene where three people were gunned down in a drive-by shooting in downtown Ciudad Juarez April 28, 2010. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — At less than 5 feet 6 inches with acne and a mop of curly hair, 17-year-old Jose Antonio doesn’t look particularly menacing.

But in his tender years, he has seen more firefights and murders than many soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Indeed, Jose Antonio has come of age in a war zone. And he has served as a soldier, siding squarely with the insurgent drug gangs of Juarez.

He said he first picked up a gun at 12 years old, when he joined the calaberas, or “skulls,” one of the gangs that rule the slums that climb up sun-baked hills on the west side of this sprawling border city.

By 14, he had his hand in armed robberies and drug dealing and was involved in regular gun battles with rival gangs, he confessed to police.

At 16, he was nabbed for possession of a small arsenal of weapons — including two automatic rifles and an Uzi — and accessory to a drug-related murder. He was sentenced to three years and one month in the “Juarez School of Improvement,” the city’s juvenile detention center known more for the hardened and desperate young adults who emerge than for any kind of improvement.

“Being in shoot-outs is just pure adrenalin,” he said, smiling, as he sat in the youth prison’s dining area behind a towering outer wall that is protected against gunfire by sandbags and guards hidden behind ski masks for their own protection.

Teenagers and young men like Jose Antonio provide a vast army of recruits for the drug cartel armies, which produce cheap assassins-for-hire who have drowned the streets in blood.

There have been more than 5,500 murders in Juarez since January 2008. More than 1,400 of the victims, or about a quarter of the total, are under 24.

Back in the 20th century, Mexican “gatilleros,” or triggermen, were mostly older professionals, who dispatched their victims in the dark of the night — a life described in a 1983 book “The Black of the Black,” by Jose Gonzalez.

“I started killing at age 28 and in my conscience know of more than 50 individuals I have sent to the other world,” wrote Gonzalez.

But in the explosive war for control of Juarez’s trafficking routes and street corners, many killers are teenagers or in their early 20s, enlisted from bloodthirsty street gangs.

While the older triggermen used to make small fortunes for their sanguine trade, gang members say they will now carry out a murder for as little as $100.

“There is killing every single day. So now it’s no big deal,” Jose Antonio said, unblinking. “You see dead bodies and you feel nothing.”

Prison authorities agreed to let Jose Antonio and other inmates speak on the condition that full names or photos not be used. Speaking to the press can be seen as informing and alleged “suplones,” or snitches, are regularly murdered here.

The School of Improvement now holds 63 inmates under the age of 19, convicted of crimes including homicide, kidnapping and rape. More than 90 percent are gang members, said prison psychologist Elizabeth Villegas, but they represent only a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of gangbangers on Juarez’s streets.

“Most come from broken families and don’t recognize rules or limits,” Villegas said. “They don’t feel anything that they have murdered people. They just don’t understand the pain that they have caused others.”

Drug cartels know that teenage assassins face little time in jail. Under Mexican law, a minor can receive a maximum sentence of five years whatever the crime. If the same deeds were committed over the border in Texas, they could be imprisoned for up to 40 years, or for life if they were tried as adults.

Jose Antonio’s family is typical of those populating the slums that have sprawled on the outskirts of Juarez in recent decades.

His parents immigrated from a country village in the southern state of Veracruz to sweat for $6 a day in assembly plants owned by Japanese and American firms.

While they held old-fashioned country customs, celebrating village saint days and respecting the power of local patriarchs, he grew up in a city of 1.3 million, flooded with drugs heading north, and guns and contraband consumer goods flowing south.

His parents labored for long hours on production lines, leaving him alone for much of the day and he quickly become involved in the “Calaberas” street gang.

“The gang becomes like your home, your family. You feel part of something,” he said. “And you know the gang will back you up if you are in trouble.”

A recent study found that 120,000 Juarez youngsters aged 13 to 24 — or 45 percent of the total — are not enrolled in any education or do not have any formal employment.

Drug cartels step in to provide jobs, using their operatives in the slums to look out for talented young gunslingers for hire, the imprisoned gang members explained.

The incorporation of street gang members into the cartel armies has lead to bloody repercussions.

When a few members of a gang are identified as working for a cartel, a rival cartel often tries to wipe out the entire gang, massacring the youth of certain neighborhoods.

The mother of one imprisoned gang member showed a deserted street corner outside her home.

“A year ago there was about 20 kids hanging around here. Now almost all of them have been killed,” she said, asking her name be withheld in case of repercussions. “I am glad my son is in prison or else he probably would have been murdered by now too.”

Social worker Sandra Ramirez counsels teenagers in the slums and has seen dozens of youngsters get recruited into the ranks of organized crime in jobs including look-outs and drug sellers as well as assassins.

She said that parents here often neglect their children, with many broken homes and demanding jobs in assembly plants or in the city’s huge sex industry.

“We have been a permissive society and let a lot of things pass,” she said. “I work with one 14-year-old, whose parents are broken up and each has a new family. He doesn’t feel he has a family himself so he spends all day on the street and that is where he has started criminal activities.”

However, she said the government has also grossly disregarded the slums, failing to provide adequate schools or job opportunities.

“The government just puts Band-Aids on the problems … . It is only them (the cartels) that are coming to these kids and offering them anything,” Ramirez said. “They offer them money, cell phones and guns to protect themselves. You think these kids are going to refuse? They have nothing to lose. They only see the day to day. They know they could die and they say so. But they don’t care. Because they have lived this way all their lives.”

More GlobalPost stories:

Video: who is fighting, who is dying and why

Video: why police can’t stop the killings

Timeline: the meltdown of Juarez

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China suicides: 5 things you need to know http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2010/06/02/china-suicides-5-things-you-need-to-know/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/06/02/china-suicides-5-things-you-need-to-know/#comments Wed, 02 Jun 2010 16:33:59 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/06/02/china-suicides-5-things-you-need-to-know/ global_post_logoThis article by Kathleen E. McLaughlin first appeared in GlobalPost.

BEIJING, China – Ten suicides this year at Foxconn’s electronics factory in southern China have cast a renewed spotlight on China’s migrant workers, who staff the production lines that make iPads, mobile phones and just about everything else for the world’s electronics consumers.

In an open letter this month, prominent Chinese sociologists called on the government to reform the country’s production model, which depends on churning through low-paid quasi-legal migrants. China has an estimated 150 million to 200 million domestic migrant workers.

“We have made them live a migrant life that is rootless and helpless, where families are separated, parents have no one to support them, and children are not taken care of,” the scholars wrote. “In short, this is a life without dignity.”

Meanwhile, Apple CEO Steve Jobs wandered into the suicide fray Tuesday, telling a customer by email that Apple is “all over this.”

To help make sense of the controversy, here are five things you need to know about China’s wandering masses of migrants, living in the shadows of the country’s economic boom:

1. What’s so unique about migrant workers in China?

Moving around in China is not simple. Because of a decades-old household registration system that ties a people to their place of birth, Chinese citizens are limited in moving around the country. A person’s hukou, or residence permit, determines nearly every facet of life. Human-rights groups have decried the plight of China’s internal migrants and their place as second-class citizens in their own country.

Workers who move from farms to factory towns do so at great personal sacrifice, often leaving their own children behind. Though some rules have changed in recent years, most migrant workers are ineligible for benefits like health care and schooling for their kids in the cities where they work. Urban, educated migrants typically have access to better social welfare benefits than rural residents who make up the bulk of factory lines.

2. What are the consequences of China’s domestic migration policies?

The dilemmas and negative consequences of migrant workers are well-documented and include:

Broken families, when parents move for work but must leave their kids behind so they can stay in school. At least 25 million children have been left in rural areas by migrant parents.

Low wages with little recourse to complain.

Health catastrophes, when workers are injured or fall ill away from home and can’t get medical treatment.

Subpar living conditions like overcrowded factory dorms.

3. If the risks and sacrifices are so great, why do so many Chinese migrate?

Simply put, the opportunities and rewards are far greater. Factory work, though low-paid compared with salaries earned elsewhere, is more lucrative than farming. A young factory worker can save enough money to build a new family home. For younger migrants, factory jobs offer enticing social opportunities as well. The workshops of the Pearl River Delta are populated with young workers and Foxconn’s massive plant feels like an entire city of people mostly under 30.

4. Why doesn’t the government end the household registration system?

In a word, chaos. Experts say if the government abolished the hukou system tomorrow, cities would flood with tens of millions more people than infrastructures could handle. Since hubs like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have better standards of living and the best health care and other services, those cities in particular would be overwhelmed. Critics say migration law also keeps a portion of the population beholden to low-wage manual labor like factory work, an important pillar of China’s economy.

5. What is the government doing to address the issue?

Gradual hukou reform, along with economic development in rural areas. Much reform has come at local levels, especially in places like Shenzhen where migrants account for roughly 80 percent of the population. Some cities have begun offering health care benefits to migrants and schooling for their children. In addition, the central government is investing heavily in infrastructure and other measures to boost the economies of places like Sichuan province, China’s top exporter of migrant labor. As a result, migration has slowed. But for most migrants, change has come too slowly.

Read more GlobalPost stories here:

Some Arab sympathy for burqa bans

Caribbean re-emerges as a drug corridor

Battle to save Malwi’s Mount Mulange

A Bollywood-Hollywood dud

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Holiday in the “axis of evil” http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2010/05/28/holiday-in-the-axis-of-evil/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/05/28/holiday-in-the-axis-of-evil/#comments Fri, 28 May 2010 18:26:35 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/05/28/holiday-in-the-axis-of-evil/ global_post_logo

This article by Stephen Kinzer originally appeared in GlobalPost.

YAZD, Iran —“You are American?” a surprised Iranian asked me as I sat down near him in a restaurant famous for eggplant and pomegranate stews. “How did you get a visa?”

Ever since 2002, when U.S. President George W. Bush named Iran a member of the world’s anti-American “Axis of Evil” — or perhaps since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the searing hostage crisis that followed — the idea that American tourists would visit Iran has seemed to border on the bizarre. Yet an adventurous few do come, and most find a welcome far beyond what they had imagined.

In no other country is there such an imbalance between the wealth of tourist attractions and the dearth of tourists. If Iran were a fully open country, sites like the awe-inspiring ruins at Persepolis or the dazzling mosques of Isfahan would be jammed with visitors from around the world. Instead they are all but empty, offering visitors one of the world’s richest travel experiences.

During a two-week trip through Iran in May, I ran across groups of intrepid travelers at almost every stop. All marveled at what they saw.

“It’s great to be here before the crowds come,” Jamie Whittington, who came with a tour group from California, said as she surveyed an ancient Zoroastrian “tower of silence,” where corpses were once placed on ceremonial slabs for vultures to consume. “This place is waiting to be discovered.”

In the lobby of a Tehran hotel, I met an 81-year-old woman from Berkeley who said that when she told friends she was traveling to Iran, “they thought I had a screw loose.”

“My husband was more nervous than I was, and he called the State Department to ask their opinion,” she said. “They told him that the two governments don’t get along, but Americans are welcome in Iran. I was impressed that the State Department would say that.”

According to reports in the American press, U.S. intelligence agencies are engaged in covert operations against Iran. Perhaps as a result, tourists who come here are not allowed to roam freely. They must travel in groups, engage Iranian guides and stick to established tourist sites. A tour organizer who sought to arrange a visit to the hometown of former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a secular democrat who was prime minister from 1951 until he was toppled in a CIA-backed coup in 1953, was told that it is not open to foreigners.

Nonetheless, the variety of sites on the approved list is rich and varied. I met a tour guide from New Zealand, Harry McQuillan, who had just taken his group on a trip through the Zagros Mountains that culminated in a festive tribal wedding.

“When people in New Zealand think of Iran, they think of oil, desert and Arabs,” he told me. “They are absolutely astounded when they get here. The people are wonderful and the sights are some of the most spectacular in the world.”

Americans have the same reaction, compounded by their amazement at how warmly they are greeted. Iranians love to approach foreigners, and when they hear the phrase “We are American,” they often shriek with delight.

“We are so happy to see American people in Iran,” a woman in Kirman, beaming with joy, told the group I traveled with. “We know they say very bad things about us there, but we like Americans so much.”

In recent years, the Iranian authorities have worked to improve the tourist experience. New hotels have been built and old ones have been renovated. Few are up to international standards, though, and traveling here still requires some adjustments.

Women, including female tourists, must wear head scarves at all times. Possessing or consuming alcohol is illegal. Few restaurants offer anything other than kebabs and stew. Signs at many sites are in Farsi only. Economic sanctions have made U.S.-issued credit cards useless in all but a few places. Western-style conveniences are hard to find; in the first-class lounge at Imam Khomeini Airport, the toilet is a hole in the floor.

“I took a group of Iranians to Singapore and Malaysia recently,” one Iranian tour guide told me. “Those are nice places, but their tourist sites are almost nothing compared to what we have in Iran. But what little they have, they display and protect and promote much better than we do. They have first-class hotels. Everything a tourist could possibly want is at your fingertips. Iran has more to offer tourists than almost any other country in the world, but our infrastructure isn’t up to world standards.”

Countries seeking to raise their tourism standards often launch joint ventures with American or European hotel chains and tour operators accustomed to serving Westerners. Because Iran is under economic sanctions and faces political uncertainty, however, many potential partners shy away from investing here. That will likely remain the case until Iran strikes some kind of broad political deal with the U.S. and the European Union.

Slightly more than 2 million tourists visited Iran last year — a tiny number compared to the 25 million who visited neighboring Turkey, pumping more than $20 billion into the Turkish economy. Most come from the U.S. and Europe. Fewer are coming this year, partly as a result of fears sparked by the violent protests that followed last June’s disputed election. One hotel alone, the Shiraz Homa, reported 2,000 cancellations as news of the protests spread around the world.

“People in other countries turn on their televisions and they see people getting shot in Iran, so they’re afraid to come here,” said a young man who is studying tourism planning at Tehran University. “There is no reason to be afraid, but I can understand why they are.”

But John Woods, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Chicago, who led an archeology-focused tour here in May, said the undercurrent of political tension intrigues some outsiders.

“There’s a kind of deadly fascination about what’s going on here,” he said. “The very fact that it seems somewhat dangerous and iffy is part of what appeals to some people.”

The danger of visiting Iran, though, exists only in the minds of people who make assumptions about this country without visiting. Janet Moore, director of the California travel agency Distant Horizons, said that in her 10 years of organizing tours to Iran, “not a single one of my tourists has ever had a problem.” Travelers I met here, without exception, bubbled over with enthusiasm.

“I was very surprised — by the sights, the people and the level of development,” said Huguette Combs, a Swiss-American who lives in San Francisco. “I was also expecting more of a police presence. There’s hardly any as far as I can tell. It’s an eye-opener to me.”

The director of a Tehran travel agency said years of violence in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan have scared many tourists away.

“People don’t know that Iran is a very safe island in this region,” he said. “As long as there is instability in our region, we’re going to have this problem. Another problem is our image. Every day something comes up about Iran, and it’s mostly negative. We haven’t done much to introduce Iran to the world. People don’t know about Iran, which is partly our fault. When they learn what Iran really is, this country is going to be packed with tourists. There will be long lines at tourist sites. I’m very optimistic about this. It’s going to happen.”

A sign in one of the airport departure lounges sums up the odd mixture of political hostility and private friendliness that shapes U.S.-Iran relations. “This revolution is not recognized anywhere in the world without the name of Imam Khomeini,” it says. “Have a nice trip.”

Other stories from GlobalPost can be found here:

My father, my lover: Priests struggle with celibacy

McDonalds calls local foods campaign a success

China suicides: is Apple headed for a consumer backlash?

5 things you need to know about Kim Jong Il’s brain

Has Colombia found its Obama?

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What’s up with all the earthquakes? http://blogs.reuters.com/environment/2010/04/15/whats-up-with-all-the-earthquakes/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/04/15/whats-up-with-all-the-earthquakes/#comments Thu, 15 Apr 2010 16:37:28 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/04/15/whats-up-with-all-the-earthquakes/ QUAKE-CHINA/

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This article by Julia Kumari Drapkin originally appeared in Global Post. The views expressed are her own.

The quake that hit China Wednesday was the latest in a string of earthquakes in the news lately. Many people are wondering what’s going on, so we decided to ask NASA. Eric Fielding is a geophysicist who uses satellites to study earthquakes at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California.

GlobalPost: So first question is the one on everybody’s mind. What on earth, literally, is going on? What’s up with the earthquakes?

Eric Fielding: The most important thing to remember is there are earthquakes all the time, someplace in the world. In a normal year, there are around 16 earthquakes with magnitudes 7 or higher. So far this year we’ve had six earthquakes like that. So we’re well within the expected range for a three or four month period.

Is there ever a pattern to a series of earthquakes?

There are certainly cases where one area experiences a sequence of earthquakes over time. The most famous and well studied are the sequences that occurred on the North Anatolian Fault in Turkey. The first one was in 1939 and there was a series of seven major earthquakes, the most recent being the 1999 earthquake that destroyed Izmit, Turkey. They were all along the same fault; each one increased the stress on another section of the fault and caused the next section to go. That’s the classic example people use of one earthquake triggering another. There were two earthquakes in 1999, about a month and a half apart.

There was an earthquake that happened in Salta, Argentina, right after the one in Chile. Was that related? The seismic waves would have had to travel through the Andes.

I’d say that was a little further distance than we’d expect. We want to find out more about exactly what happened during that earthquake and how it might be related. We’re hoping to get some radar data from that earthquake but we’re still waiting for the satellites.

There’s a lot of new information to analyze then?

Lately there’s a lot to look at. People like me, who study earthquakes, are getting a little overwhelmed this year. I almost don’t want to turn on the news. But the ones we’ve had this year are more newsworthy. The one in Haiti caused a lot of devastation, the one in Mexico was very close to California. We even felt it here in Los Angeles. The Sumatra earthquake is more expected, they have a magnitude 7 or 8 earthquake every two to three years. The Chile fault line had been identified as overdue for an earthquake and it happened this year.

Are there any lingering questions in your mind with regard to the recent activity? Or do you think it’s completely expected, completely normal?

These earthquakes in general are sort of random — sometimes by chance you’re going to get a coincidence of several earthquakes in a region like the Pacific Rim in a few months. It’s like flipping a coin and getting heads four times in a row. It happens.

Do humans do anything that causes instability or triggers earthquakes?

There are a few cases that we know of where human activity causes small earthquakes – like oil fields where they inject water or steam into the ground to get the oil out more effectively. That can trigger very small earthquakes, on the Richter scale of 1 or 2. Other cases are very large dams where the weight of the water has caused enough stress on the nearby rocks to trigger small earthquakes. But very large earthquakes start at great depths in the earth. And at those depths it’s impossible for humans to have any effect. It’s just too deep in the ground. The Chile earthquake started 40 miles beneath the surface.

What are scientists looking into with regard to ecosystem relationships? How about atmospheric pressures?

There was a recent study published a few months ago that showed that some very small earthquakes in the San Andreas Fault were related to changes and stress due to the tides. The gravity of the moon pulls on the oceans but the solid part of the earth moves up and down by a tiny amount too. You don’t normally detect it with your eye, but sensitive instruments can measure what we call earth tides. Small earthquakes on the San Andreas Fault strongly correlate with these solid earth tides. But that area on the San Andreas has special characteristics. So far we haven’t found that tides correlate to most regular earthquakes.

Is the timing of earthquake activity related to volcanic activity?

Well actually, people are very interested in looking at the volcanoes that are close to the large earthquake in Chile because of Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin?

Charles Darwin observed the volcanoes erupting in that same part of Chile not long after a large earthquake in 1835. In fact we believe that this year’s earthquake could be a repeat of the earthquake that Charles Darwin observed then. He was on the Beagle and he wrote about it in his book. The observations he made were in exactly the same section of the coast near Concepcion, Chile. He was nearby on the ground at the time of the earthquake. He noted the uplift of the coastline, quite similar to what we observed in the earthquake this year.

And people are looking at the volcanoes near Chile now?

I’m sure the Chileans have people monitoring them on the ground, but there are people studying them remotely, using radar interferometry. We can see that some of the volcanoes have some deformation. People are still working on this so these are still preliminary results.

Last question: What’s the big question? What’s the most important thing that geophysicists like yourself want to know about earthquakes?

The question of how activity on one fault affects activity on nearby faults is one that I’ve been working on for quite a while. The North Anatolian fault in Turkey fits the theory that faults occur in a sequence, but there are lots of places where the faults don’t occur in a sequence. So we’d really like to know more about how that process works. That would give us a much better way to evaluate seismic risk.

More articles from GlobalPost:

Assessing Oceans’ health

China: The yuan diaries

Putting teeth in the fight against rape

How Saudis really see Americans

Yemen: Where men marry children

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Photo shows rescuers searching for victims while local residents stand behind on the rubble of a collapsed building after a 6.9-magnitude earthquake hit Jiegu Town of Yushu County, Qinghai province April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Alfred Jin

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Outsourcing homework to India http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2010/04/05/outsourcing-homework-to-india/ http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/04/05/outsourcing-homework-to-india/#comments Mon, 05 Apr 2010 19:02:45 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/globalpost/2010/04/05/outsourcing-homework-to-india/ India-BookThis article by Saritha Rai originally appeared in Globalpost.

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BANGALORE, India — Six days a week in the wee hours of the morning, Saswati Patnaik logs into her home computer. The homemaker — and tutor for a Bangalore company called TutorVista — rises early to help American high school students write English term papers, prepare S.A.T. essays or finish homework assignments.

Outsourcing, of course, started as a way for American companies to lower costs by shifting work to cheaper locations. After nearly two decades, that practice has become so mainstream that hundreds of U.S. businesses — from Wall Street banks to law firms, architects and others — routinely outsource to India.

But now a growing number of individual Americans are following in the footsteps of businesses — and outsourcing homework. For $99 a month, American customers of TutorVista get unlimited coaching in English, math or science from Patnaik or one of her 1,500 fellow tutors. Similar personalized services in the United States charge about $40 an hour.

“The economic downturn has pushed education to the top of the average American family’s monthly household budget,” said Krishnan Ganesh, CEO and founder of TutorVista. “More Americans feel that education is their only safety anchor, the only thing that can help them stay competitive in this world.”

The company’s customers are overwhelmingly from the U.S., but Canadians, Koreans, British and Australians also sign up for lessons. To meet this growing demand, TutorVista is adding another 1,500 teachers across India in the next few weeks. To be sure, homework outsourcing is no longer a novelty. Several Indian companies offer the service, operating like call centers with tutors sitting in a common office. But companies like TutorVista are now extending the trend directly from the homes of Indian tutors to those of American students.

Technology has already made communication seamless from anywhere-India to anywhere-United States, said CEO Ganesh. There is no stopping the trend now.

On this particular morning, Patnaik is working with students from Atlanta and New Jersey. She logs into the TutorVista portal, using webchat to greet her student. “Hello, Brittney,” she says. Her student responds back immediately. They switch to audio, and Patnaik asks, “How have you been?” A polite sentence or two later, she queries, “How may I help you today?”

The ninth grader has a quiz on Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” the next day. The two discuss the novel and its characters. Patnaik probes Brittney on a few chapters and asks her several questions. She writes the themes in the novel on the digital pad and they discuss as the words show up on their respective computer whiteboards.

Among the Indian tutors working for TutorVista are fresh graduates looking for an opening in a slack job market, stay-at-home mothers, and women with young children, retired professionals and even those confined to their homes by illness or other circumstances.

Saswati Patnaik, for instance, says she made her career choice because she is homebound for health reasons.

In small Indian towns such as Kasargod in the south and Faridkot in the north where career choices are limited, these outsourcing jobs have become an important new source of income. Teachers can earn from 10,000 rupees (more than $200) to twice that sum, depending on the hours and the grades they teach.

American teenager Maureen Baker, a high school senior in New York, says she enrolled with TutorVista a year ago because her father felt it would give her better control over time and resources. Baker is in an advanced program in math and science.

At peak times, TutorVista’s teachers coach 2,500 American students in one-to-one sessions that last between 30 minutes to an hour. On an average day, the company serves about 3,500 students.

The slight communication barrier, an occasional technological problem and the quality of tutors present a challenge for the students, said Baker. But there are many advantages, she said. “I have my share of tutors who do an outstanding job and make the sessions enjoyable and productive.”

Tutors like Patnaik say some of the students are outstanding but many do not focus enough. “American kids don’t face the kind of academic pressure that Indian kids have to cope with both at school and at home,” said Patnaik, who has been tutoring for more than two years.

Older teachers face a culture shock when the kids they are tutoring call them by their first names or criticize them openly. In India, teachers are seldom faulted and always respectfully addressed “Ma’am” or “Sir.”

There are other wrinkles as well. For instance, TutorVista has to steer its tutors away from India’s rote learning system to the more open, interactive American way.

Still, that hasn’t mollified some critics (mainly teachers in the U.S.), who have raised concerns about the quality of instruction and the lack of uniform standards and testing. For its part, TutorVista says bridging cultural gaps presents its own share of challenges — like, for example, conversing with American teens. So in the next few weeks, Indian tutors will learn to use “awesome” as praise, and illustrate a math problem using donuts instead of mangoes.

More from GlobalPost:
Teaching Twitter in Havana

In India, Passover is a balancing act

A Pharaonic fish tale from Cairo

A Brooklyn neighborhood maintains strong ties to Haiti even as world attention dims

Pictured above: A vendor arranges books by the roadside in the old quarters of Delhi August 20, 2006. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

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