Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On a Wing and a...

Southwest Ordered to Replace Parts on Some Planes

Did you know that federal officials are giving Southwest Airlines until Dec. 24 to replace unapproved parts on about 50 airplanes? You were flying on these planes, by the way.

On the good side, unapproved parts on the rest of the planes can stay.

Home Truth

Pakistan: 4 Militant Bases Destroyed Near Khyber Pass.

And believe it we shall because Pakistan never lies.


Tribal Leaders Say Karzai’s Team Forged 23,900 Votes.

This is what our money and blood has been buying us. We need Christie Blatchford here to remind us again why we really should be shedding our money and blood in Afghanistan. Christie! Are you there?!

U.N. Sees Afghan Drug Cartels Emerging

Though the Afghan opium harvest has declined for the second consecutive year, a new United Nations report says, there is growing evidence that some Afghan insurgent forces are becoming “narco-cartels” — similar to anti-government guerrilla groups in Colombia — that view drug profits as more important than ideology.

Afghanistan’s multibillion-dollar illicit narcotics industry finances much of the country’s insurgency, and the influence of drug money is a major reason the Afghan government is considered among the most corrupt in the world.

Afghanistan’s production of opium, the raw material for heroin, declined by 10 percent this year, and the amount of land used to cultivate opium fell by 22 percent, according to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that is to be formally released Wednesday.

The smaller harvest, largely attributed to market forces and heightened interdiction efforts, is a rare bit of good news for the United States and the coalition of Western governments whose troops and taxpayers are supporting what even American commanders describe as a deteriorating situation as the war approaches its ninth year.

But while United Nations officials suggested that some opium-trafficking guerrillas were now less focused on Taliban ideology, they also reported that perhaps more than 10,000 tons of illegal opium — worth billions of dollars and enough to satisfy at least two years of world demand — is now secretly stockpiled. They said they were concerned that part of this stockpile could be a “ticking bomb” in the hands of people who could use it to pay for “sinister scenarios.”

Opium is easily smuggled and stored and “is an ideal form of terrorist financing,” Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in an interview. “It’s a huge amount of money to have in the wrong hands.” He called on intelligence agencies to investigate the stockpiles.

American officials are also concerned that large stockpiles could bolster guerrilla war chests, despite recent military operations to curb the flow of drug money to the Taliban and other insurgent groups, a senior United States official said. The official, who did not wish to speak on the record, said that the stockpiles were believed to be in Afghanistan and that they were probably under the control of gangs that were principally involved in narcotics trafficking rather than directly controlled by “terror groups.”

But assuming the opium can be smuggled out of the country, the official added, “the real issue is that regardless of what impact we have in the near term on production, distribution and other aspects of the narco network, this level of stockpiles means that funding resources will remain fairly even.”

American troops and Afghan officials in some southern regions where opium proliferates say that the insurgency there appears to be increasingly influenced by financial loyalties rather than ideological or jihadist allegiances, as guerrillas move from taxing and extracting protection money from traffickers to smuggling and refining opium themselves. Estimates of the insurgency’s annual revenue from drugs across Afghanistan vary widely, from $70 million to $500 million, according to a recent Congressional report.

“A marriage of convenience between insurgents and criminal groups is spawning narco-cartels in Afghanistan linked to the Taliban,” Mr. Costa said.

As in some nations, including Colombia and Myanmar, the agency said in a statement, “the drug trade in Afghanistan has gone from being a funding source for insurgency to becoming an end in itself.”

Afghanistan in recent years has produced 90 percent of the world’s opium. United Nations officials said this year’s decline stemmed largely from a steep drop in the value of opium amid a huge supply glut; high prices last year for some other crops that caused farmers to switch; and more aggressive counternarcotics actions by Western and Afghan forces.

They said it was not clear whether the decline would continue, especially if the difference between prices for opium and other crops were to widen to previous levels. Just two years ago, for example, an acre of opium fetched 10 times as much as an acre of wheat, but that ratio has diminished to three to one.

“A market correction is going on while law enforcement has increased the pressure,” Mr. Costa said. “Now, military and economic forces are playing in the same direction.” Actual production of opium declined to 6,900 metric tons this year from 7,700 metric tons last year.

The most striking decline was in Helmand Province, the dominant producer, where cultivation fell by one-third. In addition to market forces and more robust counternarcotics efforts, the United Nations cited efforts by Helmand’s governor, Gulab Mangal, and an American- and British-backed anti-poppy program in the province.

Mr. Costa said efforts by the United States and other NATO forces to take a more direct role were becoming a powerful deterrent. But he also appeared to be critical of the recently disclosed decision by the Pentagon to place 50 Afghan traffickers on a target list to be captured or killed. American officials have said the 50 are also tied to the Taliban.

“Drug lords should be brought to justice,” he said in a statement. “Not executed in violation of international law or pardoned for political expediency.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Australia still land of the 'fair go'

AUSTRALIANS still get "a fair go", with income inequality falling sharply this century, according to the organisation that represents 30 of the world's richest countries.

Parents' incomes and education had little bearing on the success of their children, making Australia one of the most socially mobile countries in the world, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found.

The narrowed gap between Australia's rich and poor went against a trend of greater inequality in more than three-quarters of OECD countries during the past 20 years, with the gap widening most dramatically in Canada, Germany, Norway and the US.

While the Australian Government did not spend as much as most OECD governments on cash benefits for families and disadvantaged people, it targeted such benefits more tightly on low-income households than any other country in the OECD.

"Only Belgium, Denmark and Sweden do more to support low-income households through the tax-transfer system," the OECD said in a report called Growing Unequal.

But the efficient welfare state seemingly overlooked older Australians, with poverty among those older than 65 worsening during the past decade to 2005, compared to other developed countries. About half of Australian singles over 65 were living in poverty, the third highest in the OECD.

Child poverty rose in countries such as New Zealand, Germany and Canada.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Normally, the September issue of any fashion magazine comes with pages upon pages of stick-thin models parading around in the latest haute couture.

What one does not expect to see is a normal-looking woman sitting naked and exposing(or showing off, as in this case) a normal-looking belly! But Glamour Magazine showcased just such a woman on page 194 (well, perhaps 'showcased' is a bit of a strong term for this) of their September issue and the response, reportedly, has been tremendous. The woman is 20-year-old model Lizzi Miller who at a size 12 is considered plus sized by fashion industry standards.

From someone who doesn't sport rock hard abs, (to quote Eric Bana from a recent interview, 'Abs are for people with no friends.') it's quite refreshing to see a woman with a normal body gracing the glossy pages of a fashion mag.

It's a small step I suppose, and it's taken the industry a long time to start recognizing a variety of female body types, but it is good to see a gradual change in our perception and representation of the female form.

It would be nice to see some real men in magazines as well, instead of the chiseled, mannequin-like robotic forms we do see.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

China Racing Ahead of U.S. in the Drive to Go Solar

President Obama wants to make the United States “the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy,” but in his seven months in office, it is China that has stepped on the gas in an effort to become the dominant player in green energy — especially in solar power, and even in the United States.

Chinese companies have already played a leading role in pushing down the price of solar panels by almost half over the last year. Shi Zhengrong, the chief executive and founder of China’s biggest solar panel manufacturer, Suntech Power Holdings, said in an interview here that Suntech, to build market share, is selling solar panels on the American market for less than the cost of the materials, assembly and shipping.

Backed by lavish government support, the Chinese are preparing to build plants to assemble their products in the United States to bypass protectionist legislation. As Japanese automakers did decades ago, Chinese solar companies are encouraging their United States executives to join industry trade groups to tamp down anti-Chinese sentiment before it takes root.

The Obama administration is determined to help the American industry. The energy and Treasury departments announced this month that they would give $2.3 billion in tax credits to clean energy equipment manufacturers. But even in the solar industry, many worry that Western companies may have fragile prospects when competing with Chinese companies that have cheap loans, electricity and labor, paying recent college graduates in engineering $7,000 a year.

“I don’t see Europe or the United States becoming major producers of solar products — they’ll be consumers,” said Thomas M. Zarrella, the chief executive of GT Solar International, a company in Merrimack, N.H., that sells specialized factory equipment to solar panel makers around the world.

Since March, Chinese governments at the national, provincial and even local level have been competing with one another to offer solar companies ever more generous subsidies, including free land, and cash for research and development. State-owned banks are flooding the industry with loans at considerably lower interest rates than available in Europe or the United States.

Suntech, based here in Wuxi, is on track this year to pass Q-Cells of Germany, to become the world’s second-largest supplier of photovoltaic cells, which would put it behind only First Solar in Tempe, Ariz.

Hot on Suntech’s heels is a growing list of Chinese corporations backed by entrepreneurs, local governments and even the Chinese military, all seeking to capitalize on an industry deemed crucial by China’s top leadership.

Dr. Shi pointed out that other governments, including in the United States, also assist clean energy industries, including with factory construction incentives.

China’s commitment to solar energy is unlikely to make a difference soon to global warming. China’s energy consumption is growing faster than any other country’s, though the United States consumes more today. Beijing’s aim is to generate 20,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2020 — or less than half the capacity of coal-fired power plants that are built in China each year.

Solar energy remains far more expensive to generate than energy from coal, oil, natural gas or even wind. But in addition to heavy Chinese investment and low Chinese costs, the global economic downturn and a decline in European subsidies to buy panels have lowered prices.

The American economic stimulus plan requires any project receiving money to use steel and other construction materials, including solar panels, from countries that have signed the World Trade Organization’s agreement on free trade in government procurement. China has not.

In response to this, and to reduce shipping costs, Suntech plans to announce in the next month or two that it will build a solar panel assembly plant in the United States, said Steven Chan, its president for global sales and marketing. “It’ll be to facilitate sales — ‘buy American’ and things like that,” Mr. Chan said, adding that the factory would have 75 to 150 workers and be located in Phoenix, or somewhere in Texas.

But 90 percent of the workers at the $30 million factory will be blue-collar laborers, welding together panels from solar wafers made in China, Dr. Shi said. Yingli Solar, another large Chinese manufacturer, said on Thursday that it also had a “preliminary plan” to assemble panels in the United States.

Western rivals, meanwhile, are struggling. Q-Cells of Germany announced last week that it would lay off 500 of its 2,600 employees because of declining sales. It and two other German companies, Conergy and SolarWorld, are particularly indignant that German subsidies were the main source of demand for solar panels until recently. “Politicians might ask whether this is still the right way to do this, German taxpayers paying for Asian products,” said Markus Wieser, a Q-Cells spokesman. But organizing resistance to Chinese exports could be difficult, particularly as Chinese discounting makes green energy more affordable.

Even with Suntech acknowledging that it sells below the marginal cost of producing each additional solar panel — that is, the cost after administrative and development costs are subtracted — any antidumping case, in the United States, for example, would have to show that American companies were losing money as a result. First Solar — the solar leader, in Tempe — using a different technology from many solar panel manufacturers, is actually profitable, while the new tax credits now becoming available may help other companies.

Even organizing a united American response to Chinese exports could be difficult. Suntech has encouraged executives at its United States operations to take the top posts at the two main American industry groups, partly to make sure that these groups do not rally opposition to imports, Dr. Shi said.

The efforts of Detroit automakers to win protection from Japanese competition in the 1980s were weakened by the presence of Honda in their main trade group; they expelled Honda in 1992.

Some analysts are less pessimistic about the prospects for solar panel manufacturers in the West. Joonki Song, a partner at Photon Consulting in Boston, said that while large Chinese solar panel manufacturers are gaining market share, smaller ones have been struggling.

Mr. Zarrella of GT Solar said that Western providers of factory equipment for solar panel manufacturers would remain competitive, and Dr. Shi said that German equipment providers “have made a lot of money, tons of money.”

The Chinese government is requiring that 80 percent of the equipment for China’s first municipal power plant to use solar energy, to be built in Dunhuang in northwestern China next year, be made in China.

Dr. Shi said his company would try to prevent similar rules in any future projects. The reason is clear: almost 98 percent of Suntech’s production goes overseas.

US study finds multitaskers often bad at it, unable to process lots of information

The people who multitask the most are the ones who are worst at it.

That is the surprising conclusion of researchers at Stanford University, who found multitaskers are more easily distracted and less able to ignore irrelevant information than people who do less multitasking.

The researchers studied 262 college undergraduates, dividing them into high and low multitasking groups and comparing such things as memory, ability to switch from one task to another and being able to focus on a task. Their findings are reported in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When it came to such essential abilities, people who did a lot of multitasking didn't score as well as others.

Still to be answered is why the folks who are worst at multitasking are the ones doing it the most.

In the study, the researchers first had to figure out who are the heavy and light multitaskers. They gave the students a form listing a variety of media such as print, television, computer-based video, music, computer games, telephone voice or text, and so forth.

The students were asked, for each form of media, which other forms they used at the same time always, often, sometimes or never. The result ranged from an average of about 1.5 media items at the low end to more than four among heavy multitaskers.
Then they tested the abilities of students in the various groups.

For example, ability to ignore irrelevant information was tested by showing them a group of red and blue rectangles, blanking them out, and then showing them again and asking if any of the red ones had moved.

The test required ignoring the blue rectangles. The researchers thought people who do a lot of multitasking would be better at it.

But they're not. They're worse. They're much worse. The high media multitaskers couldn't ignore the blue rectangles. They couldn't ignore stuff that doesn't matter.

Perhaps the multitaskers can take in the information and organize it better? Nope.
They are worse at that, too.

OK, maybe they have bigger memories. But that is not the case either.

Finally, researchers tested ability to switch from one task to another by classifying a letter as a vowel or consonant, or a number as even or odd. The high multitaskers took longer to make the switch from one task to the other.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

ADD As a Social Invention

In 1851, a Louisiana physician and American Medical Association member, Samuel A. Cartwright, published a paper in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal wherein he described a new medical disorder he had recently identified. He called it drapetomania (from drapeto, meaning "to flee," and mania, an obsession), and used it to describe a condition he felt was prevalent in runaway slaves. Dr. Cartwright felt that with "proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented."

In the last 20 years, we have witnessed the birth of a new medical disorder--attention-deficit disorder--which has grown from a relatively rare neurological condition (under other names) during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s to a condition today said to afflict millions of children and adults (a recent Time magazine cover story even suggested that President Clinton may have ADD and could be "only a pill away from greatness"). Attention-deficit disorder (or, more recently, "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder"--the syndrome has changed names at least 25 times in the past 120 years) has the support of thousands of scientific studies, the American Psychiatric Association, the U.S. Department of Education, and many other solid institutions in this country and worldwide. Yet, like Dr. Cartwright's "drapetomania," ADD may in fact come clothed in scientific respectability yet have disturbing social overtones which are scarcely acknowledged by the wider educational community.

Social critic Ivan Illich once wrote that "each civilization defines its own diseases. What is sickness in one might be chromosomal abnormality, crime, holiness, or sin in another. For the same symptom of compulsive stealing one might be executed, tortured to death, exiled, hospitalized, or given alms or tax money." So far, few attempts have been made to analyze the social meaning of "attention-deficit disorder" in our time. However, one does not have to probe too far beneath the surface to discover some interesting-and troubling-features of ADD

Why, for example, does identification Of ADD vary so widely from one social context to another? Studies reveal that up to 80 percent of the time, ADD cannot be identified in the physician's office, presumably because the one-to-one social context with a (frequently) male authority figure mediates against the occurrence of symptoms. In another study, trained clinicians from different countries were shown tapes of children and asked to diagnose them. In a country with stricter behavioral norms--for example, China--there was a greater likelihood of an ADD diagnosis than in a country such as the United States. On the other hand, in some countries, such as England, a diagnosis of hyperactivity is much less likely (one study on the Isle of Wight identified only two children out of 2,199 as hyperactive).

One has to ask, then, what are some of the underlying social influences that may have served to shape the invention Of ADD as a category of disorder in our culture? The answer to that question, I believe, is complex and many-faceted. On one level, it's possible to revive some of the concerns that Nicholas Hobbs, a former president of the American Psychological Association, had in the mid-1970s concerning the labeling of children. Mr. Hobbs pointed out that "a good case can be made for the position that protection of the community is a primary function of classifying and labeling children who are different or deviant." He noted that the Protestant work ethic (as elaborated upon by social theorists such as Max Weber) may be one set of American values which may permeate our nation's penchant for classifying unruly children. Mr. Hobbs writes: "According to this doctrine ... God's chosen ones are inspired to attain to positions of wealth and power through the rational and efficient use of their time and energy, through their willingness to control distracting impulses, and to delay gratification in the service of productivity, and through their thriftiness and ambition." Such a society might well be expected to define deviance in terms of distractibility, impulsiveness, and lack of motivation--the same traits frequently used to describe children suffering from ADD.

Alternatively, ADD may have arisen in our society precisely because of the loss of those same values. As Harvard University professor Lester Grinspoon and his collaborator Susan B. Singer pointed out over 20 years ago, "our society has been undergoing a critical upheaval in values. Children growing up in the past decade have seen claims to authority and existing institutions questioned as an everyday occurrence. ... Teachers no longer have the unquestioned authority they once had in the classroom. ... The child, on the other side, is no longer so intimidated by whatever authority the teacher has." Grinspoon and Ms. Singer felt that "hyperkinesis" [the term used in the 60s and early 70s to designate ADD-type behaviors], whatever organic condition they may legitimately refer to, has become a convenient label with which to dismiss this phenomenon as a physical 'disease' rather than treating it as the social problem it is."

Another cultural view might look at the rise of electronic media as a contributing factor in the emergence of "attention deficit disorder." The fact is, we live in an attention-deficit society. During the 1992 political campaign, CBS News attempted to introduce an innovation in its newscasts: 30-second sound bites from the politicians to give the viewer more 'depth" into their views. The project had to be abandoned because the average adult viewer could not sustain his or her attention that long (the industry average for sound bites is around seven seconds). If this is true of adults--who grew up during the days of radio and early TV--then how much truer it is of today's children, who are inundated with Nintendo, the Internet, MTV, multimedia, and more.

These kids live life in the fast lane, and have evolved new ways of paying attention to cope with the increased pace. Media expert Tony Schwartz pointed out that "today's child is a scanner. His experience with electronic media has taught him to scan life the way his eye scans a television set or his ears scan auditory signals from a radio or stereo speaker." What kinds of cultural values, then, might be present in a situation where an adult brought up in Marshall McLuhan's linear, one-step-at-a-time, print-oriented culture is responsible for assessing ADD in a child who has been fed on fast-paced electronic information from birth?

Such children may have particular difficulties in traditional classroom environments where they must sit for long periods of time, listen to monotone lectures, and pore over textbook and worksheet material that bears little resemblance to real life. Interestingly, research suggests that children labeled ADD do most poorly in environments that are boring and repetitive, externally controlled, lack immediate feedback, or are presided over by a familiar, maternal-like authority: in other words, the typical conservative "back to basics" classroom (a classroom that currently seems to be undergoing a resurgence in popularity).

Unfortunately, this kind of classroom is deadly not only for the so-called ADD kid but for all kids. John Goodlad's monumental study of 1,000 U.S. classrooms in the 1980s was particularly instructive on this issue. The study, A Place Called School, was especially critical of the lack of exciting learning activities: "Students reported that they liked to do activities that involved them actively or in which they worked with others. These included going on field trips, making films, building or drawing things, making collections, interviewing people, acting things out, and carrying out projects. These are the things which students reported doing least and which we observed infrequently." All children suffer from this deprivation, but it may be that children labeled ADD react most intensely to this lack of stimulation. Several studies, especially those by Sydney Zentall at Purdue University, suggest, in fact, that just as the amphetamine-like substance Ritalin may help stimulate manv of these kids to an optimal level of arousal, so too can stimulating learning environments also help to focus and calm. I'm reminded here of the canaries that were kept by coal miners deep in the mines. If the level of oxygen fell below a certain level, the canaries would fall over on their perches and die, warning the miners to get out fast. It's possible that children who have been labeled ADD are the canaries of modern-day education; they may be signaling us to transform our nation's classrooms into more dynamic, novel, and exciting learning environments. ADD may, then, be more accurately termed ADDD, or attention-to-ditto-deficit disorder.

Finally, just as it is essential to see Dr. Cartwright's drapetomania as a product of the racial bigotry of his times, so too it's critical that we not sidestep the way in which racial prejudices enter into the ADD controversy in today's admittedly less bigoted but nevertheless still racially troubled times. ADD was in fact stopped from being declared an officially handicapping condition by Congress in 1990, largely because of the efforts of a coalition of 17 educational, social, and political organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Among the concerns raised by the coalition was the strong feeling that ADD could be used to stigmatize minority groups. Debra DeLee, then a spokesperson for the National Education Association, wrote: "Establishing a new category [ADD] based on behavioral characteristics alone, such as overactivity, impulsiveness, and inattentiveness, increases the likelihood of inappropriate labeling for racial-, ethnic-, and linguistic-minority students." The work of award winning journalists such as Todd Silberman and his colleagues at the The Raleigh News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., have shown how special-education classes are often disproportionately filled with minority students.

The issues that I've raised above are almost never discussed in the ADD community. The general consensus seems to be that ADD is a discrete medical entity that exists in any and all social contexts, but is harder to identify in some social settings (requiring more acute diagnostic skills) or simply wasn't identified in earlier times or in other cultures because of the lack of proper scientific knowledge. It holds stubbornly to its medical paradigm and resists the influence of other worldviews (including the sociological one presented here), hoping that the world will eventually unite in accepting ADD as a legitimate medical disorder. One wonders, however, as societal values and structures change over time, whether "attention-deficit disorder" will go the way of all historical labels (remember that "moron" was once a diagnostic term in the 1930s) and give rise to new terms, and new groups of "disordered children."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Muslim woman barred from Paris pool for `burquini'

Sama Wareh walks along the sand dressed in swimwear designed to comply with Muslim sensibilities.

PARIS – A Muslim woman who tried to go swimming in a head-to-toe "burquini" has been banned from her local pool in the latest tussle between religious practices and secular authority in France.

Officials on Wednesday insisted they banned the woman's use of the Islam-friendly swimsuit because of France's unusually strict hygiene standards in pools — not because of official hostility to wearing overtly Muslim garb.

Under the policy, swimmers are prevented from wearing any street-compatible or baggy clothing, such as Bermuda shorts, in favor of figure-hugging suits.

The woman, a 35-year-old convert to Islam identified only as Carole, complained of religious discrimination after trying to go swimming in her burquini in the Paris suburb of Emerainville.

She was quoted as telling the daily Le Parisien newspaper that she had bought the burquini after deciding "it would allow me the pleasure of bathing without showing too much of myself, as Islam recommends." "For me this is nothing but segregation," she added.

The issue of religious attire is a hot topic in France, where head-to-toe burqas or other full-body coverings worn by Muslim fundamentalists are in official disfavor.

French lawmakers recently proposed a ban on the burqa and other voluminous Muslim attire. President Nicolas Sarkozy backs the move, saying such clothing makes women prisoners.

But Daniel Guillaume, a regional official in charge of swimming pools, said Carole's poolside rebuff had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with public health standards.

He said swimmers throughout France must wear special clothes to the pool, whereas a burquini could be worn all day long, collecting everything from food spills to sweat along the way.

"These clothes are used in public, so they can contain molecules, viruses, et cetera, which will go in the water and could be transmitted to other bathers," Guillaume said in a telephone interview.

"We reminded this woman that one should not bathe all dressed, just as we would tell someone who is a nudist not to bathe all naked," he said.

Guillaume said France's public health standards require all pool-goers to don appropriate attire — swimsuits for women and tight, swim-specific briefs for men — and caps to cover their hair. Bathers also must shower before entering the water.
Guillaume said Carole had tried to file a complaint at a local police station, but her request was turned down as groundless.

Carole told the daily Le Parisien she would protest with the help of anti-discrimination groups.

One has to acknowledge however, irrespective of what side of the divide you are on, that esthetically, the 'burquini' leaves a little to be desired, just a little.

Canadian cellphone rates among world's worst

The average Canadian cellphone user is paying among the highest bills in the developed world, according to a new international study.

Using a comparison package of 780 calls made, 600 text messages and eight multimedia messages sent per year, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that Canada has the third-highest wireless rates among developed countries. The United States had the highest rates for this "medium-usage" package, followed by Spain.

Canadians falling into this usage category shelled out an average of $500 US a year for their cellphone service, compared with $635 for Americans and $508 for Spaniards. Dutch users had the cheapest rates, with an annual expenditure of only $131 for the sample plan.

Canadians who were light or heavy users ranked slightly better in the OECD's annual Communications Outlook, released Tuesday. Light users, defined as those making 360 calls a year and sending 396 text messages and eight multimedia messages, spent $195 US a year on average — the 11th-most expensive among the 30 OECD member countries.
Heavy users, those making 1,680 calls a year and sending 660 text messages and 12 multimedia messages, spent $563, which ranked near the middle of the pack at 12th.
The poor showing was not surprising — the Canadian government has acknowledged that rates are too high and are contributing to lagging cellphone usage. Canada now ranks last for cellphone users per capita in the OECD, having been surpassed by Mexico since the organization's previous study.

Canadians are also getting hosed for their internet access, according to the OECD Communications Outlook study. Canada has the second-most expensive high-speed connections, or those ranging between 12 and 32 megabits per second, next to only the Slovak Republic. Such a connection costs around $90 US per month in Canada, well above the OECD's average of $53.

Medium-speed connections, or those between 2.5 and 10 megabits, are eighth-most expensive out of 30 countries at about $48, above the $43 average. Low-speed connections, under 2.5 megabits, are ninth-most expensive at around $33, slightly above the OECD average of $32.

In late 2007, the then industry minister, Jim Prentice, moved to encourage competition by reserving airwaves for new cellphone carriers. A trio of new companies — Public Mobile, Globalive and DAVE Wireless — are expected to begin offering services by the end of this year or early in 2010.

Canadian wireless carriers have in the past questioned the OECD's methods and said it is difficult to compare cellphone plans across countries because of the variables involved. For one, Canadian and U.S. carriers also charge customers for incoming calls, a practice not common in many European and Asian countries, where only the calling party pays. Incoming minutes aren't tallied.

This has skewed usage patterns in North America, with Canadians and Americans using significantly more airtime than customers in other parts of the world.
Taylor Reynolds, communication analyst and economist for the Paris-based OECD, acknowledged such differences do make it difficult to get true comparisons.
"North Americans do tend to make a lot more calls than in other countries," he said. "This is a challenge when we have to define a 'typical' consumption pattern for all OECD countries. The number of calls are too low for some countries and too high for others."

The total cost of ownership of high-end devices such as the iPhone has also been considerably higher because Canada is the only OECD country to require three-year contracts. Most countries have two-year limits on contracts. Canadian carriers have recently begun offering such devices without contracts, albeit with hefty up-front fees.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

India's land and air getting more polluted: Govt

About 45 per cent of India's land is degraded, air pollution is increasing in all its cities, it is losing its rare plants and animals more rapidly than before and about one-third of its urban population now lives in slums, says the State of Environment Report India 2009 brought out by the government.

The report, prepared by NGO Development Alternatives under the aegis of the ministry, says 45 per cent of India's land area is degraded due to erosion, soil acidity, alkalinity and salinity, waterlogging and wind erosion.

It says the prime causes of land degradation are deforestation, unsustainable farming, mining and excessive groundwater extraction.

On the bright side, the report shows how over two-thirds of the degraded 147 million hectares can be regenerated quite easily, and points out that India's forest cover is gradually increasing.

Presenting the salient features of the report to the media, Development Alternatives President (Development Enterprises) George C Varughese said one of its most worrisome findings was that the level of respirable suspended particulate matter -- the small pieces of soot and dust that get inside the lungs -- had gone up in all the 50 cities across India studied by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Central Pollution Control Board.

"In these 50 cities, with their population of 110 million, the public health damage costs due to this was estimated at Rs 15,000 crore in 2004," Varughese said.
The main causes of urban air pollution were vehicles and factories, he pointed out, appealing for a major boost to public transport.

While India still had some cushion when it came to water use, this scarce resource would have to be managed very carefully, the report says. It identifies lack of proper pricing of water for domestic usage, poor sanitation, unregulated extraction of groundwater by industry, discharge of toxic and organic wastewater by factories, inefficient irrigation and overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides as the main causes of water problems in the country.

While India remains one of the world's 17 "megadiverse" countries in terms of the number of species it houses, 10 per cent of its wild flora and fauna are on the threatened list, Varughese pointed out. The main causes, according to the report, were habitat destruction, poaching, invasive species, overexploitation, pollution and climate change.

The report points out that while India contributes only about five per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions that are leading to climate change, about 700 million Indians directly face the threat of global warming today, as it affects farming, makes droughts, floods and storms more frequent and more severe and is raising the sea level.

In the section on urbanisation, the report points out that 20 to 40 per cent of people living in cities are in slums. Varughese said there were good projects to upgrade their lives and improve the environment at the same time, but the problem was that most of the money from schemes like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission was taken away by the big cities, "while the major problem is in about 4,000 small and medium towns".

Aung San Suu Kyi

Reading about Aung San Suu Kyi I am so glad I live in Canada. Aren't you?