Category Archives: THE WORLD

How the U.S. Could Pressure North Korea Tomorrow: Quit the $100 Bill; North Korea is minting superdollars

How the U.S. Could Pressure North Korea Tomorrow: Quit the $100 Bill; North Korea is minting superdollars | Business | TIME.com.

 

 

 

Photo-Illustration by TIME

Photo-Illustration by TIME

U.S. negotiators are heading into a second day of what have been dubbed “serious and substantial” talks with North Korean officials. Yet amidst all the discussion of how the U.S. will attempt to work with Kim Jong Un, there has been little (open) speculation as to whether Dear Leader Junior might crank up production of $100 and $50 bills. No, not North Korean 100- or 50-won banknotes, worth about as much as old tissues. I’m talking about fake greenbacks — or, as the U.S. Secret Service has dubbed them, “superdollars.”

 

These ultra-counterfeits are light years beyond the weak facsimiles produced by most forgers, who use desktop printers. As an anti-counterfeiting investigator with Europol once put it: “Superdollars are just U.S. dollars not made by the U.S. government.” With few exceptions, only Federal Reserve banks equipped with the fanciest detection gear can identify these fakes.

Yet as unpatriotic as this may sound, perhaps America would be better off if Kim Jong Un were to try and enrich himself with D-I-Y Benjamins. Let me explain, by way of a little background about superdollars.

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The “super” moniker does not stem from any particular talent on the part of the North Koreans. It’s a matter of equipment. The regime apparently possesses the same kind of intaglio printing press (or presses) used by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. A leading theory is that in 1989, just before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the machines made their way to North Korea from a clandestine facility in East Germany, where they were used to make fake passports and other secret documents. The high-tech paper is just about the same as what’s used to make authentic dollars, and the North Koreans buy their ink from the same Swiss firm that supplies the US government with ink for greenbacks.

Forging $100 bills obviously gels with the regime’s febrile anti-Americanism and its aim to undercut U.S. global power, in this case by sowing doubts about our currency. State level counterfeiting is a kind of slow-motion violence committed against an enemy, and it has been tried many times before. During the Revolutionary War, the British printed fake “Continentals” to undermine the fragile colonial currency. Napoleon counterfeited Russian notes during the Napoleonic Wars, and during World War II the Germans forced a handful of artists and printing experts in Block 19 of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to produce fake U.S. dollars and British pounds sterling. (Their story is the basis for the 2007 film “The Counterfeiters,” winner of the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.)

Superdollars can be viewed as an act of economic warfare, but Pyongyang’s motive is probably more mundane: The regime is broke. The 2009 attempt to raise funds by devaluing its already pathetic currency revealed not only the country’s fiscal desperation, but also the abuse Dear Leader was willing to inflict on his people. The won was devalued 100-fold, which meant 1,000 won suddenly had the purchasing power of 10 won. (Imagine waking up to a learn that a slice of pizza costs $250.) Officials set a tight limit on how much old money could be exchanged for new, so whatever value existed within people’s paltry savings evaporated overnight. Compared to devaluation, generating quick cash by counterfeiting some other country’s more stable currency looks downright humanitarian.

(MORE: TIME’s Interview With Warren Buffett)

The superdollar affair has a certain comic-book quality: copying the currency of the evil capitalists so you can buy cognac and missiles. But Washington isn’t laughing. At the end of December, Ireland’s high court rejected a U.S. request to extradite former Workers Party president and IRA veteran, Sean Garland, for his alleged involvement with the superdollar plot. There is also the question of what exactly the North Koreans hope to procure with all of this “money.” According to the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, superdollars may be part of the regime’s effort to acquire materials for nuclear weapons.

Since the superdollars were first detected about a decade ago, the regime has been pocketing an estimated $15 to $25 million a year from them. (Other estimates are much higher—up to several hundred million dollars’ worth.) That sounds like a lot of money, but compared to the $1 trillion in cash circulating in the great ocean of commerce, a few hundred million is chump change. Although certainly costly for small business owners who unknowingly accept a bunch of forgeries, counterfeits probably won’t bring about a crisis of faith in our paper money anytime soon.

Yet taking the long view, maybe a rash of new superdollars from the hermetic regime of Kim Jong Un would be beneficial. How so? Because counterfeits have a way of reminding people of what material money is and how it functions, and that could lead to a discussion of its pros and cons. Cash is, and always has been, such an uncontested part of everyday life that we rarely stop to consider its toll on society as the currency of crime, to say nothing of the heaping expense of printing, transporting, securing, inspecting, shredding, redesigning, reprinting, re-inspecting, and redistributing it ad nauseum, plus the broader costs of prosecuting and incarcerating the thousands, if not millions, of people who commit cash-related crimes. That’s not to suggest we could get rid of paper money tomorrow; we still don’t have a substitute that’s equally convenient, universally accepted, and adequately secure. But that day may be closer than you think. (Coins, however, we could—and should—do away with. As in, right now.)

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Superdollars, and the untold billions of (electronic) dollars spent combating them could be the wake-up call that finally forces us to think more clearly about the costs of physical money. If killing all cash strikes you as a little too radical, consider for a moment what it would mean to get rid of high-denomination banknotes. Who would be most inconvenienced if Washington were to outlaw $100 and $50 bills tomorrow? Cartel bosses in Juarez, Mexico jump to mind. So do human traffickers in China and Africa, aspiring terrorists in Afghanistan, wildlife poachers, arms dealers, tax evaders, and everyday crooks who hold up mom and pop groceries. And, or course, North Korean government officials.

So then. At the risk of infuriating cash-hoarding militia members, anonymity-obsessed ACLU’ers, the U.S. Treasury, Russian mob, Laundromat owners, and just about every person who has ever hid a purchase from a spouse or income from the government, I would say this to Kim Jong Un and his posse of counterfeiters: Bring it.

David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society, out this month from Da Capo Press. Follow him on Twitter: @davidwolman

Read more: http://business.time.com/2012/02/24/how-the-u-s-could-pressure-north-korea-tomorrow-quit-the-100-bill/?iid=biz-article-mostpop1#ixzz1nVl122r1

Horn of Africa Famine: Millions at Risk

Horn of Africa Famine: Millions at Risk in “Deadly Cocktail” of War, Climate Change, Neoliberalism.

The United Nations has called an emergency meeting to discuss the Horn of Africa drought, which it says has already claimed tens of thousands of lives. Famine was declared in two regions of Somalia on Wednesday where 3.7 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Another eight million people need food assistance in neighboring countries including Kenya and Ethiopia. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls the situation a “catastrophic combination of conflict, high food prices and drought” and has appealed for immediate aid. We go to Nairobi for an update from Kiki Gbeho of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. We also speak with Christian Parenti, author of “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.” “This was predicted long ago by people on the ground,” Parenti says. “It’s a combination of war, climate change and very bad policy, particularly an embrace of radical free market policies by regional governments that mean the withdrawal of support for pastoralists, the type of people you saw with their dead cattle.” [includes rush transcript]

Can disaster aid win hearts and minds?

A Friend in Need – By Charles Kenny | Foreign Policy.

BY CHARLES KENNY | OCTOBER 31, 2011

On Tuesday last week, Turkey reversed its previous stand and decided to accept aid from Israel to help deal with the tragic earthquake that had stricken the country’s east. Shipments of portable housing units began the next day. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quick to emphasize that accepting aid did not signal an improvement in diplomatic relations between the two countries, strained ever since Israel’s raid of a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza in 2010 — likely a response to the perception that aid can buy off recipient governments, even if it can’t change popular attitudes. The irony is that the humanitarian assistance that responds to disasters — unlike the majority of aid that goes to long-term development projects — might be the one case where that logic is sometimes reversed.

At a time when the United States’ aid budget is confronted by an army of hatchet-wielding deficit hawks among the Republican Party’s congressional majority and presidential candidates, some aid proponents are making the case that development and humanitarian assistance are powerful tools to buy friends and influence people. And it is true that aid has long been used to grease the often-rusty wheels of diplomacy. The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel were cemented with the help of an aid package worth an average of $2 billion a year to Egypt. Since 1985, U.S. law has mandated that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) take account of would-be aid recipients’ voting patterns at the United Nations — rewarding larger aid packages to those who vote with America. Political Scientists David Carter at Pennsylvania State and Randall Stone at the University of Rochester note that this kind of carrot-minded approach has been successful, influencing countries’ votes on decisions that the U.S. State Department declares as politically important.Watch movie online The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

Twisting politicians’ arms is one thing, but changing popular attitudes is another matter entirely. Look again at Egypt: Despite being one of the largest recipients of USAID financing over the past 30 years, Pew surveys suggest only 20 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the United States — considerably less than half of the U.S. favorability rating in former Cold War foe Russia. Popular opinion in Egypt is driven by other factors, not least broader U.S. foreign policy in the region. (A propensity to invade neighboring countries doesn’t help.) And development assistance just isn’t a major factor in the financial fortunes of the average citizen. Maybe that was true back in 1990, when net overseas development assistance to the country equaled 36 percent of government expenditures. But by 2008, that figure was just 3 percent — only a little more one-tenth the value of tourism and one-seventh that of manufacturing exports.

Aid’s limited impact on public opinion usually applies even when the aid is specifically focused on winning converts. A study by consultant Michael Kleinman and Mark Bradbury, a director at the Rift Valley Institute, looked at U.S. military aid for small projects in Kenya designed to improve popular support for the U.S. military presence there, and found that it didn’t. Attitudes were shaped by faith, the relationship between target populations and the Kenyan state, U.S. foreign policy, and events in Somalia — not by a U.S.-financed well or asphalt road. A German aid agency-financed 2010 study, using repeated surveys in Afghanistan’s Takhar and Kunduz provinces, found that in a comparatively peaceful period between 2005 and 2007, development aid did have a small, short-lived positive impact on the general attitudes of Afghan respondents towards foreign peace-building operations in their backyard. But this impact disappeared as threat perceptions rose between 2007 and 2009. Not surprisingly, other factors — in this case, how many people were getting shot — were just more important than who was cutting the checks.

But there is evidence of an exception to the rule that money can’t buy love, and it involves disaster assistance. Four years after a 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, economists Tahir Andrabi of Pomona College and Jishnu Das of the World Bank surveyed attitudes towards foreigners in the region. They found trust in foreigners was significantly higher in areas where humanitarian aid had been concentrated than in other areas — dropping off by six percentage points for each 10 kilometers of distance from the fault line.

Why might recipients react differently and more positively to disaster relief assistance than they do to other forms of aid? In part it is surely related to the simple gratitude felt by people who have just lost much of what they had in a flood or earthquake. But it is also more plausible that such aid is given without a broader political motive. Although U.S. food aid flows according to the size of the surplus domestic crop as much as recipient need, using humanitarian relief to reward or punish countries for U.N. voting records or other diplomatic policies presents a practical challenge — you can’t schedule a disaster. Recipients appear to understand that, and are more likely to view such aid as given in good faith. In the Pakistan case, for example, Andrabi and Das note that the positive impact on attitudes was related to a significant on-the-ground presence of foreigners who were assumed to have purely humanitarian motivations — aid distribution was not perceived to be (and wasn’t) linked to war-fighting efforts.

Aid is likely to be a more effective foreign policy tool when it comes to persuading governments to do things that lack popular support. Creating that popular support in the first place is much harder. Perhaps Turkey’s Davutoglu is right to say that even government relations won’t improve in the case of Israeli disaster aid — after all, U.S. humanitarian support in the aftermath of Iran’s Bam earthquake only temporarily thawed diplomatic tensions. On the other hand, maybe the assistance can play a small role in improving popular opinion towards Israel in Turkey. For good or ill, that’s one more reason for governments to respond with open hearts and open checkbooks whenever disaster strikes worldwide.

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China's Hydropower

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China’s Hydropower: Scientific American.

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WATER FALL: Unusually low water levels in many Chinese rivers has contributed to a big drop in hydropower production. Image: Tomasz Dunn/Flickr

SHANGHAI — China has set ambitious goals for itself to develop hydropower to help mitigate the risks of climate change, but increasing extreme weather events likely rooted in climate change are now sabotaging the goals’ foundations.

The latest blow came in September, when many major rivers across China ran into an unusual shrinkage, with less than 20 percent water remaining at some stretches. As a result, the nation’s hydroelectric generation dropped by almost a quarter compared with last year. There has been an ever-widening decrease in power each month since July, according to a recent government statement.

As water stocks in key hydro stations decline, the regular dry season is approaching. The resulting stress on hydroelectric generation will last into next year, the statement said.

The Chinese government has yet to explain why the water flows slumped. But experts blamed it on climate change, warning of more future droughts in areas traditionally blessed with water.

If this expectation comes true, it will hamper China’s hydropower sector, which contributes most of the country’s carbon-free electricity. It will also threaten a national strategy in transmitting electricity from resource-rich western China to feed the country’s power-hungry manufacturing sector, most of which is in the east.

For Guangdong province, located on China’s east coast, this threat has already turned into a daily reality. Since its western neighbors this year failed to send as much electricity as usual, the manufacturing hub, with a capacity to produce more than half of the world’s desktops and toys, is forced to conserve electricity.

Turbines left high and dry
China Southern Power Grid, the region’s electricity distributor, attributed the energy shortage partly to the evaporation of hydropower.

As of July, on average, not even half of its installed hydropower capacity found water to turn turbines, the company’s statistics show. And several major hydro stations, built as part of the west-to-east electricity transmission plan, failed to do their jobs.

Goupitan, the largest hydroelectric generator in Guizhou province, reportedly produced only 10 percent of its normal output per day, due to shrinking water flows. And in another hydro station called Longtan, located in the Guangxi region, this year’s missing rain dropped its reservoir’s water level to a point dozens of meters lower than previous years.

“This will definitely negatively affect our hydroelectric production from now to next summer,” said Li Yanguang, who is in charge of public relations in the power station. Asked whether next summer — a regular rainy season — could make the situation better, Li answered in a cautious tone.

“This totally depends on weather,” he said. “We can’t predict that.”

Hydro growth plan sticks despite falling power output
But Lin Boqiang, one of China’s leading energy experts, is confident that the nation’s hydroelectric generation may just go in one direction: getting worse.

“If climate change caused this year’s water flow decreases, which I think it did, and then its impact [on rivers] will be a long term. It will take a toll on China’s hydroelectric output, and also push up the cost of using it,” explained Lin, who directs the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University.

But still, from Lin’s point of view, such setbacks can’t compete with the Chinese desire for tapping more water power. China, already the world’s largest hydropower user, plans to add another 120 gigawatts by 2015 — a crucial step toward greening 15 percent of its power mix by the end of the decade.

Yang Fuqiang, a senior climate and energy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that China’s hydropower plan will stand, though not primarily for energy supply concerns.

Although a climate-resilient approach is factored into the designs of hydro projects, China is still likely to suffer from hydroelectric output decline, says Yang. But the nation can seek more clean energy from the sun or wind, which won’t be affected by climate change, and get the electricity generated elsewhere via a smart grid, he said, referring to an advanced transmission infrastructure China has been building.

So what’s the point of keeping hydro?

“In the future, the importance of hydro projects won’t be on power generation, but on water management,” Yang explained. “It helps control floods, ensure ships transportation and reserve water — a function that [water-scarce] China needs badly.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

Will the Thailand floods drown the hard drive?

Will the Thailand floods drown the hard drive? | ExtremeTech.

Looks like rain...

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There’s fresh news on the imminent hard drive shortages the IT industry is facing, and it isn’t particularly good. Asus’s CFO, David Chang, has warned that the company’s supplies of HDDs will run out by the end of November.

“Substitutes for HDD are very few, so if the situation persists, not only notebook production will be affected but also desktops, and other component shipments will also drop,” Chang told Reuters. Retail prices on HDDs are already skyrocketing. The 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3?s price has risen to $79 at Newegg, up from $69 not two weeks ago. It’s now the only 1TB drive south of a Benjamin. WD’s Caviar Green series is now up to $109 with high performance drives like the Caviar Black all the way back to $169 for a 1TB model.

Hitachi’s Deskstar 7K3000, which debuted this spring at $180 for a 3TB drive, is now selling on Newegg for a cool $399. Consumer prices are being driven by speculation, though its impossible to say if Newegg or the drive manufacturers themselves are responsible. Between the two, Newegg seems the more likely suspect. Raising HDD prices immediately may win the HDD manufacturers greater profits in the short term, but it erodes the crucial cost/GB ratio between HDDs and SSDs. Even at current retail prices, there’s still no real subsitute for a hard drive. At a certain point, however, customers will stop preferring large capacity drives at purchase, and begin opting for smaller SSDs, possibly with plans to pick up a USB 3.0-powered external once HDD prices fall again.

WD Factory, Thailed

The best way to keep that from happening is for the HDD manufacturers to keep as tight a reign on OEM costs as possible. Thus far, the price spikes here have been more modest; Asus reports jumps of 20-40 percent on certain models. Drive sourcing could become a major problem in the months to come as this type of shortage provides explosively fertile ground for a gray market in HDDs and HDD components. OEMs on razor-thin margins are going to be under enormous pressure to keep costs low, and aren’t likely to ask too many questions when it comes to securing drives.

Thailand, meanwhile, has no quick relief to offer. The government has stated that it hopes to have factories up and running again in three months, though it will take still more time for swamped industrial complexes to return to full output.

Space Junk Collision Could Set Off Catastrophic Chain Reaction, Disable Earth Communications

Pentagon: A Space Junk Collision Could Set Off Catastrophic Chain Reaction, Disable Earth Communications | Popular Science.

 

Orbital Debris The dots on this NASA-generated chart represent known pieces of large orbital debris. NASA

Every now and again someone raises a stern warning about the amount of space junk orbiting Earth. Those warnings are usually met with general indifference, as very few of us own satellites or travel regularly to low Earth orbit. But the DoD’s assessment of the space junk problem finds that perhaps we should be paying attention: space junk has reached a critical tipping point that could result in a cataclysmic chain reaction that brings everyday life on Earth to a grinding halt.

Our reliance on satellites goes beyond the obvious. We depend on them for television signals, the evening weather report, and to find our houses on Google Earth when we’re bored at work. But behind the scenes, they also inform our warfighting capabilities, keep track of the global shipping networks that keep our economies humming, and help us get to the places we need to get to via GPS.

According to the DoD’s interim Space Posture Review, that could all come crashing down. Literally. Our satellites are sorely outnumbered by space debris, to the tune of 370,000 pieces of junk up there versus 1,100 satellites. That junk ranges from nuts and bolts lost during spacewalks to pieces of older satellites to whole satellites that no longer function, and it’s all whipping around the Earth at a rate of about 4.8 miles per second.

The fear is that with so much junk already up there, a collision is numerically probable at some point. Two large pieces of junk colliding could theoretically send thousands more potential satellite killers into orbit, and those could in turn collide with other pieces of junk or with satellites, unleashing another swarm of debris. You get the idea.

To give an idea of how quickly a chain reaction could get out hand consider this: in February of last year a defunct Russian satellite collided with a communications satellite, turning 2 orbiting craft into 1,500 pieces of junk. The Chinese missile test that obliterated a satellite in 2007 spawned 100 times more than that, scattering 150,000 pieces of debris.

If a chain reaction got out of control up there, it could very quickly sever our communications, our GPS system (upon which the U.S. military heavily relies), and cripple the global economy (not to mention destroy the $250 billion space services industry), and whole orbits could be rendered unusable, potentially making some places on Earth technological dead zones.

World will miss economic benefit of 1.8 billion youth

UN: World will miss economic benefit of 1.8 billion young people | Environment | guardian.co.uk.

Population report says lack of education, infrastructure and jobs will mean a generation’s potential will be wasted

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Shoeshine boys wait for customers in New Delhi, India

Shoeshine boys awaiting customers in New Delhi, India. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/AP

The world is in danger of missing a golden opportunity for development and economic growth, a “demographic dividend”, as the largest cohort of young people ever known see their most economically productive years wasted, a major UN population report warned on Wednesday.

The potential economic benefits of having such a large global population of young people will go unfulfilled, as a generation suffers from a lack of education, and investment in infrastructure and job creation, the authors said.

“When young people can claim their rights to health, education and decent working conditions, they become a powerful force for economic development and positive change. “This opportunity [for] a demographic dividend is a fleeting moment that must be claimed quickly or lost,” said the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), in its Global Population Report, published just days before the UN forecasted the world population will pass 7 billion. Of this 7 billion, 1.8 billion are aged between 10 and 24, and 90% of those live in the developing world.

The report also reveals average life expectancy across the globe has risen by 20 years since the 1950s, from 48 to 68, as healthcare and nutrition have improved, while infant mortality has fallen fast, from 133 deaths per 1,000 births in the 1950s to 46 per 1,000 today.

These successes area a cause to celebrate, the United Nations said. Fertility has also halved, from 6 births per woman to 2.5 over the same period, though there are stark regional differences – fertility is 1.6 births per woman in east Asia but 5 per woman in some parts of Africa.

The report found a “vicious cycle” of extreme poverty, food insecurity and inequality leading to high death rates, that in turn encourages high birth rates. Only by investing in health and education for women and girls can countries break the cycle, as improving living conditions will allow parents to be more confident that their children will survive, and therefore have smaller families.

Crucial to this will be allowing women and girls greater freedom and equality, in order to make their own choices about fertility. Hundreds of millions of women would prefer to have smaller families, but are unable to exercise this preference owing to a culture of repression.

“Governments that are serious about eradicating poverty should also be serious about providing the services, supplies and information that women need to exercise their reproductive rights,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UNFPA. On the empowerment of woman, he said at a press conference in London: “we have come a long way, but we are not there yet. There is no group that gives up power voluntarily. Men will not give up power to women voluntarily. Women have to fight. Women need to work together.”

One way of doing so highlighted in the report is to provide a good level of sex education to adolescents, and access to modern methods of contraception.

The report said: “When women have equal rights and opportunities in their societies and when girls are educated and healthy, fertility rates fall … the empowerment of women is not simply an end in itself, but also a step towards eradicating poverty.”

The difference between a future of high fertility rates and one where people are better able to choose is stark: if fertility rates in areas of high population growth come down towards the global average, the world will reach a global population of about 9.3bn in 2050, and about 10bn in 2100. But if fertility rates remain high in the most populous countries, the 2100 population will be more than 15bn.

Osotimehin said countries must do more to help themselves: “It is unacceptable for countries to rely on donor money for reproductive health. The welfare of their people is their mandate.” He said it would cost only $2bn to give access to family planning to the 250 million women who would like it but lack access. “The budget of the average developing country does not give enough money to issues of women and reproductive health. That has to change. If it does not change, it becomes unsustainable.”

But he also said donors were failing to make sufficient commitments. “Family planning has not been funded as it should have been. Donors need to provide resources … there has been a reduction [in money made available].”

Osotimehin also said at the press conference that the opportunity had been missed to educate people on reproductive health and family planning, during a drive to prevent HIV infection, echoing comments he made to the Guardian earlier in the month.

With high population growth, many scientists predict thatthe pressure on food and agricultural productivity and other natural resources may become intolerable, and conditions for the poorest people will deteriorate further, rather than improving.

John Cleland, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The escape from poverty and hunger is made more difficult by rapid population growth.”

Rapid growth will also exacerbate the impact of other global problems, such as climate change and other environmental impacts. Steven Sinding, a population expert at Columbia University, said: “The pace of growth poses enormous challenges for many of the poorest countries, which lack the resources not only to keep up with demand for infrastructure, basic health and education services and job opportunities for the rising number of young people, but also to adapt to climate change.”

Separately on Wednesday, the Official for National Statistics forecast that the UK population would grow to 70 million by 2020, up from 62.3 million in 2010.

Fallout forensics hike radiation toll

Fallout forensics hike radiation toll : Nature News.

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March released far more radiation than the Japanese government has claimed. So concludes a study1 that combines radioactivity data from across the globe to estimate the scale and fate of emissions from the shattered plant.

The study also suggests that, contrary to government claims, pools used to store spent nuclear fuel played a significant part in the release of the long-lived environmental contaminant caesium-137, which could have been prevented by prompt action. The analysis has been posted online for open peer review by the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Andreas Stohl, an atmospheric scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research in Kjeller, who led the research, believes that the analysis is the most comprehensive effort yet to understand how much radiation was released from Fukushima Daiichi. “It’s a very valuable contribution,” says Lars-Erik De Geer, an atmospheric modeller with the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm, who was not involved with the study.

The reconstruction relies on data from dozens of radiation monitoring stations in Japan and around the world. Many are part of a global network to watch for tests of nuclear weapons that is run by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna. The scientists added data from independent stations in Canada, Japan and Europe, and then combined those with large European and American caches of global meteorological data.

Stohl cautions that the resulting model is far from perfect. Measurements were scarce in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident, and some monitoring posts were too contaminated by radioactivity to provide reliable data. More importantly, exactly what happened inside the reactors — a crucial part of understanding what they emitted — remains a mystery that may never be solved. “If you look at the estimates for Chernobyl, you still have a large uncertainty 25 years later,” says Stohl.

Nevertheless, the study provides a sweeping view of the accident. “They really took a global view and used all the data available,” says De Geer.

Challenging numbers

Japanese investigators had already developed a detailed timeline of events following the 11 March earthquake that precipitated the disaster. Hours after the quake rocked the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, the tsunami arrived, knocking out crucial diesel back-up generators designed to cool the reactors in an emergency. Within days, the three reactors operating at the time of the accident overheated and released hydrogen gas, leading to massive explosions. Radioactive fuel recently removed from a fourth reactor was being held in a storage pool at the time of the quake, and on 14 March the pool overheated, possibly sparking fires in the building over the next few days.

Click for larger image

But accounting for the radiation that came from the plants has proved much harder than reconstructing this chain of events. The latest report from the Japanese government, published in June, says that the plant released 1.5?×?1016?bequerels of caesium-137, an isotope with a 30-year half-life that is responsible for most of the long-term contamination from the plant2. A far larger amount of xenon-133, 1.1?×?1019?Bq, was released, according to official government estimates.

The new study challenges those numbers. On the basis of its reconstructions, the team claims that the accident released around 1.7?×?1019?Bq of xenon-133, greater than the estimated total radioactive release of 1.4?×?1019? Bq from Chernobyl. The fact that three reactors exploded in the Fukushima accident accounts for the huge xenon tally, says De Geer.

Xenon-133 does not pose serious health risks because it is not absorbed by the body or the environment. Caesium-137 fallout, however, is a much greater concern because it will linger in the environment for decades. The new model shows that Fukushima released 3.5?×?1016? Bq caesium-137, roughly twice the official government figure, and half the release from Chernobyl. The higher number is obviously worrying, says De Geer, although ongoing ground surveys are the only way to truly establish the public-health risk.

Stohl believes that the discrepancy between the team’s results and those of the Japanese government can be partly explained by the larger data set used. Japanese estimates rely primarily on data from monitoring posts inside Japan3, which never recorded the large quantities of radioactivity that blew out over the Pacific Ocean, and eventually reached North America and Europe. “Taking account of the radiation that has drifted out to the Pacific is essential for getting a real picture of the size and character of the accident,” says Tomoya Yamauchi, a radiation physicist at Kobe University who has been measuring radioisotope contamination in soil around Fukushima.

Click for full image

Stohl adds that he is sympathetic to the Japanese teams responsible for the official estimate. “They wanted to get something out quickly,” he says. The differences between the two studies may seem large, notes Yukio Hayakawa, a volcanologist at Gunma University who has also modelled the accident, but uncertainties in the models mean that the estimates are actually quite similar.

The new analysis also claims that the spent fuel being stored in the unit 4 pool emitted copious quantities of caesium-137. Japanese officials have maintained that virtually no radioactivity leaked from the pool. Yet Stohl’s model clearly shows that dousing the pool with water caused the plant’s caesium-137 emissions to drop markedly (see ‘Radiation crisis’). The finding implies that much of the fallout could have been prevented by flooding the pool earlier.

The Japanese authorities continue to maintain that the spent fuel was not a significant source of contamination, because the pool itself did not seem to suffer major damage. “I think the release from unit 4 is not important,” says Masamichi Chino, a scientist with the Japanese Atomic Energy Authority in Ibaraki, who helped to develop the Japanese official estimate. But De Geer says the new analysis implicating the fuel pool “looks convincing”.

The latest analysis also presents evidence that xenon-133 began to vent from Fukushima Daiichi immediately after the quake, and before the tsunami swamped the area. This implies that even without the devastating flood, the earthquake alone was sufficient to cause damage at the plant.

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The Japanese government’s report has already acknowledged that the shaking at Fukushima Daiichi exceeded the plant’s design specifications. Anti-nuclear activists have long been concerned that the government has failed to adequately address geological hazards when licensing nuclear plants (see Nature 448, 392–393; 2007), and the whiff of xenon could prompt a major rethink of reactor safety assessments, says Yamauchi.

The model also shows that the accident could easily have had a much more devastating impact on the people of Tokyo. In the first days after the accident the wind was blowing out to sea, but on the afternoon of 14 March it turned back towards shore, bringing clouds of radioactive caesium-137 over a huge swathe of the country (see ‘Radioisotope reconstruction’). Where precipitation fell, along the country’s central mountain ranges and to the northwest of the plant, higher levels of radioactivity were later recorded in the soil; thankfully, the capital and other densely populated areas had dry weather. “There was a period when quite a high concentration went over Tokyo, but it didn’t rain,” says Stohl. “It could have been much worse.” 

Additional reporting by David Cyranoski and Rina Nozawa.

Worst Food Additive Ever is in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Produces Collateral destruction and misery

Worst Food Additive Ever? It’s in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Destroys Rainforests and Enslaves Children | Food | AlterNet.

The production of this ingredient causes jaw-dropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.
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On August 10, police and security for the massive palm oil corporation Wilmar International (of which Archer Daniels Midland is the second largest shareholder) stormed a small, indigenous village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They came with bulldozers and guns, destroying up to 70 homes, evicting 82 families, and arresting 18 people. Then they blockaded the village, keeping the villagers in — and journalists out. (Wilmar claims it has done no wrong.)

The village, Suku Anak Dalam, was home to an indigenous group that observes their own traditional system of land rights on their ancestral land and, thus, lacks official legal titles to the land. This is common among indigenous peoples around the world — so common, in fact, that it is protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indonesia, for the record, voted in favor of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Yet the government routinely sells indigenous peoples’ ancestral land to corporations. Often the land sold is Indonesia’s lowland rainforest, a biologically rich area home to endangered species like the orangutan, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger, and the plant Rafflesia arnoldii, which produces the world’s largest flower.

So why all this destruction? Chances are you’ll find the answer in your pantry. Or your refrigerator, your bathroom, or even under your sink. The palm oil industry is one of the largest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia. Palm oil and palm kernel oil, almost unheard of a decade or two ago, are now unbelievably found in half of all packaged foods in the grocery store (as well as body care and cleaning supplies). These oils, traditional in West Africa, now come overwhelmingly from Indonesia and Malaysia. They cause jawdropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.

“The recipe for palm oil expansion is cheap land, cheap labor, and a corrupt government, and unfortunately Indonesia fits that bill,” says Ashley Schaeffer of Rainforest Action Network.

The African oil palm provides two different oils with different properties: palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is made from the fruit of the tree, and palm kernel oil comes from the seed, or “nut,” inside the fruit. You can find it on ingredient lists under a number of names, including palmitate, palmate, sodium laureth sulphate, sodium lauryl sulphate, glyceryl stearate, or stearic acid. Palm oil even turns up in so-called “natural,” “healthy,” or even “cruelty-free” products, like Earth Balance (vegan margarine) or Newman-O’s organic Oreo-like cookies. Palm oil is also used in “renewable” biofuels.

A hectare of land (2.47 acres) produces, on average, 3.7 metric tons of palm oil, 0.4 metric tons of palm kernel oil, and 0.6 tons of palm kernel cake. (Palm kernel cake is used as animal feed.) In 2009, Indonesia produced over 20.5 million metric tons, and Malaysia produced over 17.5 million metric tons. As of 2009, the U.S. was only the seventh largest importer of palm oil in the world, but as the second largest importer of palm kernel oil, it ranks third in the world as a driver of deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Indonesia has lost 46 percent of its forests since 1950, and the forests have recently disappeared at a rate of about 1.5 million hectares (an area larger than the state of Connecticut) per year. Of the 103.3 million hectares of remaining forests in 2000, only 88.2 million remained in 2009. At that time, an estimated 7.3 million hectares of oil palm plantations were already established, mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Indonesia plans to continue the palm oil expansion, hoping to produce an additional 8.3 million metric tons by 2015 — this means a 71 percent expansion in area devoted to palm oil in the coming years.

At stake are not only endangered species and human lives, but carbon emissions. One of the ecosystems at risk is Indonesia’s peat swamps, where soil contains an astounding 65 percent organic matter. (Most soils contain only two to 10 percent organic matter.) Laurel Sutherlin of Rainforest Action Network describes the draining and often burning of these peat swamps as “a carbon bomb.” Destruction of its peat swamps as well as its rainforests makes Indonesia the world’s third largest carbon emitter after the U.S. and China.

Among the horror stories coming out of Southeast Asian palm oil plantations are accounts of child slave labor. Ferdi and Volario, ages 14 and 21, respectively, were each met by representatives of the Malaysian company Kuala Lampur Kepong in their North Sumatra villages. They were offered high-paying jobs with good working conditions, and they jumped at the opportunity. According to an account by Rainforest Action Network: “The two worked grueling hours each day spraying oil palm trees with toxic chemical fertilizers, without any protection to shield their hands, face or lungs. After work, Ferdi and Volario were forced inside the camp where they’d stay overnight under lock and key, guarded by security. If they had to use the bathroom, they’d do their best to hold it until morning or relieve themselves in plastic bags or shoes.” They escaped after two months and were never paid for their work.

What is the industry doing about such horrific claims? It has established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Kuala Lampur Kepong, Wilmar International, and Archer Daniels Midland are all members, and so are their customers, Cargill, Nestlé and Unilever, as well as environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. But, according to Sutherlin, membership in RSPO means nothing — other than that an organization paid its dues. “That’s the first level of greenwash,” says Sutherlin.

RSPO certifies some products and companies, and Sutherlin says that does have some meaning, but leaves major loopholes open. For example, there are no carbon or climate standards, and there have been problems with the implementation of social safeguards. “It’s been a spotty record about their ability to enforce the standards for how people are treated and how communities are affected,” notes Sutherlin. Yet, he says, RSPO is “the best game in town.”

Rather than simply relying on RSPO’s certification, Rainforest Action Network has focused its campaign on the U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill, which has a hand in fully 25 percent of palm oil on the global market. Rainforest Action Network is asking Cargill to sign on to a set of social and environmental safeguards and to provide public transparency on its palm oil operations. If Cargill cleans up its act, perhaps it will help put pressure on other major multinationals like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé, which also source palm oil from unethical suppliers like Wilmar International.

Journalists have also criticized environmental groups for “cozy relationships with corporate eco-nasties.” The World Wildlife Fund has come under attack for its partnership with Wilmar, the corporation that attacked a Sumatran village. Its involvement in RSPO serves as a reminder of the accusations in a 2010 Nation article, which claimed that “many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight are busy shoveling up hard cash from the world’s worst polluters–and burying science-based environmentalism in return.” (WWF says it received no payment from Wilmar in this particular case.)

The ugly issue of palm oil even touches the beloved American icon, the Girl Scout cookie. When Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen began a project to save the orangutan for their Bronze Awards, they discovered the link between habitat loss and palm oil. Then they looked at a box of Girl Scout cookies and found palm oil on the list of ingredients. The two 11-year-olds — who are now ages 15 and 16 — began a campaign to get the Girl Scouts to remove palm oil from its cookies.

It took five years to get a response from the supposedly wholesome Girl Scouts USA (whose 2012 slogan is “Forever Green“). While the organization ignored its own members for several years, it was unable to ignore the coverage the girls received from Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and several major TV networks. Once the story was so well-covered by the media, Girl Scouts USA responded, promising it would try to move to a sustainable source of palm oil by 2015. In the meantime, it would continue buying palm oil that could have come from deforested lands or plantations that use child slave labor, but would also buy GreenPalm certificates, which fund a price premium that goes to producers following RSPO’s best practice guidelines.

So what should consumers do? For the time being, avoiding products containing palm oil is probably your best bet. Since palm oil is so ubiquitous this will likely mean opting to buy fewer processed foods overall. Don’t forget to check your beauty and cleaning products, too. In a handful of cases, such as Dr. Bronner’s soaps, palm oil comes from fair trade, organic sources. But this is hardly the norm, and with the immense amount of palm oil used in the U.S., it’s unlikely that sustainable sources could cover all of the current demand.

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