Daily Archives: January 14, 2012

Afghanistan’s poor face difficult decisions amid winter cold

Boys warm themselves amid the morning cold on the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital, which has experienced a large influx of refugees from around the war-torn country. (Ahmad Jamshid, Associated Press / January 4, 2012)

Seasonal hardship is nothing new for Afghans, but a combination of factors is making this winter harder to bear as the number of displaced soars in Kabul.

Los Angeles Times | Jan 9, 2012

By Laura King

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan—In the gray light of each cold dawn, the parents of 10-month-old Shoaib hold their own breath as they listen for the rasp of his, waiting to see whether their coughing, feverish little boy has survived another night.

Winter’s chill has settled over the Afghan capital, and with it, privation is sharpening, especially among the city’s poor. Nighttime temperatures regularly fall into the teens, or even lower. The season’s first snow is on the ground, the open sewage ditches are crusted over with ice, and in shantytowns such as the one where Shoaib’s family lives, survival turns on a series of cruelly simple calculations.

“If I buy food, I can’t afford to buy firewood. And if I buy firewood, I can’t buy food,” said Shoaib’s father, Faida Mohammed, a 40-year-old laborer who lives with his family of 12 in a two-room lean-to alongside one of Kabul’s busier traffic circles. “If we eat lunch, we won’t have dinner. If we eat dinner, there’s nothing for breakfast in the morning. All the time, you have to choose.”

Seasonal hardship is nothing new for Afghans, but a combination of factors is making this winter harder than usual to bear. The number of refugees from other parts of the country, known as internally displaced people, has ballooned to an estimated half a million. Many end up in the capital after fleeing fighting elsewhere, and make their homes in slum encampments that authorities euphemistically call “settlements.”

Parwan Du, where Shoaib’s family lives, began as a few tents on an open lot, some using crumbling mud-brick walls as supports for flimsy shelters made of plastic sheeting and plywood. Now it is home to about 230 people, some of whom have been there for years.

With the city’s population thought to have tripled to about 4 million during this decade of war, the few services on offer are stretched thin. Electricity falters; potholed streets grow more impassable as newly fallen snow turns to icy slush and then to clinging mud before the cycle begins again. Prices of staples such as cooking oil have lately jumped, driven up in part by a Pakistani border blockade, imposed after U.S. airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.

As people forage for fuel, the city’s few trees are stealthily denuded of low-hanging boughs. On a recent day, few looked twice at a ragged man dragging a scavenged branch three times his height along a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, its dead leaves swirling under the wheels of passing cars. Smoke from wood and coal fires used by most households for heating veils the capital in an acrid brown haze.

In a city where much of public life takes place outdoors, the cold gives many passersby a hunched, pinched look, especially as the early dusk falls. Customers linger in corner bakeries, seeking the ovens’ warmth. Outdoor vendors and beggars gather around smoky trash fires in metal barrels. Feral dogs forage for scraps, thrusting their snouts through a dusting of snow.

Afghanistan’s Meteorological Authority says this winter has not produced historical lows, but is forecast to be colder than the preceding few. During Taliban times, the agency’s records for most of the last century were destroyed, because the fundamentalist Islamic group regarded meteorology as a form of sorcery.

With the falling temperatures, winter aid has become more crucial. Late last month, the United Nations refugee agency handed out blankets, plastic sheeting, warm clothes and fuel to about 300 families in Deh Sabz, an impoverished district of Kabul. But the demand far outstrips the supply, aid workers say.

“The ones we are helping are the most desperate we can find,” said Mohammad Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “There are many, many others who are also suffering.”

Despite billions of dollars in international assistance over the last decade, urban poverty is becoming more entrenched across Afghanistan, aid workers say. The U.N. World Food Program, which normally expends most of its efforts in the countryside, recently launched a food voucher system in Kabul, giving nearly 19,000 poor families about $25 a month for basic supplies.

Rural families, with close extended clan ties and the ability to engage in subsistence farming, sometimes fare better than their cousins in the city.

“At home, in our village, we would all help each other if we were hungry or cold,” said Faida Mohammed, the father in Parwan Du. “But here, if I go to my relatives or close friends to ask for a little firewood, they are very quiet, and then they say, ‘Brother, I have nothing to give you.'”

The unending quest to keep warm sometimes yields deadly results. Officials from Kabul’s overstretched fire department say 95% of the emergency calls involve house fires, often the result of faulty wiring or blankets hung as insulation too close to an open flame.

In many poor homes, the only source of heat is a brazier-type stove called a sandali, often used with a quilt strung on a wooden frame that traps its meager warmth, but also potentially deadly charcoal fumes. Even in more affluent households, the concrete-slab construction that is a legacy of the Soviet era carries a deep, persistent chill, and central heating is a rarity.

Col. Yar Mohammed, the deputy Kabul fire chief, said leaky canisters of natural gas, used for heating and cooking, pose a particular hazard. In one home, he recalled, a recent gas explosion that killed several family members was so powerful that panicky neighbors called police to report that the house next door had been hit by a rocket.

“With all the people who die in the war, it is terrible to see more die in preventable accidents like this,” he said.

But most wintertime deaths involve a quieter slipping away. In Parwan Du, where sickness stalks nearly every flimsy shelter, Shoaib’s parents were filled with dread when a neighbor’s baby died in the night a week earlier. The children run about barefoot, sometimes napping in the weak winter sunlight if the previous night’s cold made it too hard to sleep. The only food in the house was a plastic bag filled with stale bread, begged from a nearby restaurant.

“We hope that the government will help us someday,” said the family’s matriarch, Faida Mohammed’s 60-year-old widowed mother, Zeliha. “But these days, we think our only help will come from God.”

India continues to reel under severe cold, death toll rises to 165

timesofindia.indiatimes.com | Jan 13, 2012

NEW DELHI: Cold wave conditions held fort across north India today as the bitter chill claimed six more lives in Uttar Pradesh, taking the country-wide toll to 165 this winter.

In the national capital, it was yet another chilly day with the minimum settling at 5.3 deg C while the maximum was recorded at 18.7 degrees, both the readings being two notches below the normal level, the MeT office said.

Six more people, including two women, died overnight in the extreme weather in Uttar Pradesh, officials said, adding the fresh fatalities occurred in Fatehpur district.

Najibabad was the coldest place in the state recording a low of two deg C.

In Kashmir Valley, freezing cold prevailed. Kargil town in Ladakh recorded a minimum temperature of minus 19.6 degrees Celsius becoming the coldest place of the region this season.

Leh town, also in Ladakh region, recorded a minimum of minus 18.2 deg C, while Gulmarg skiing resort in north Kashmir settled at a low of minus 16.5 degrees, the weather office said.

Summer capital Srinagar continued to remain in the grip of intense cold as the night temperature dipped to minus 3.6 degrees Celsius.

Giving no respite to the people, biting cold prevailed in Punjab and Haryana, with mercury plummeting to several notches below normal in most parts of the region.

Adampur in Jalandhar remained the coldest place in Punjab at a shivering 0.4 degree Celsius.

Similarly, mercury in Amritsar and Narnaul dipped by upto four degrees below normal with minimum temperatures of 1.5 deg C each.

While Chandigarh had a low of 4.8 deg C, Ludhiana and Patiala recorded a minimum of 3.9 deg C and five degrees respectively, three degrees below normal.

Ambala, Karnal and Rohtak in Haryana recorded lows of 4.9 deg C, three deg C and 4.1 deg C respectively, plummeting by up to three notches, the MeT Dept said.

Radioactive Tissue Box Holders “No Immediate Threat” To Health, Agency Claims

Tissue boxes like this one sold at Bed Bath and Beyond contain low levels of radioactive material.

chicago.cbslocal.com | Jan 13, 2012

CHICAGO (CBS) — Tissue boxes contaminated with low levels of radioactive material, sold at Bed, Bath and Beyond, pose “no immediate threat” to the public, officials said Friday.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency said Friday it is coordinating with federal officials and Bed, Bath and Beyond to identify and secure the tissue box holders contaminated with cobalt-60.

While they present no immediate health risk, according to a release from IEMA, the agency is working with federal officials to prevent unnecessary radiation exposure by anyone who comes in contact with them.

The contaminated items are in the Dual Ridge Boutique product line, model number DR9M. They were manufactured at a facility in India and shipped to a Bed, Bath and Beyond distribution site in New Jersey. The items were shipped to the company’s stores in 20 states, including at least two stores in the Chicago area — 1800 N. Clybourn in Chicago and 3232 Lake Ave. in Wilmette.

On Wednesday, staff from IEMA’s Bureau of Radiation Safety visited both locations where store officials had already removed and secured the entire product line from store shelves, the release said.

At the Chicago store, four tissue box holders were found to have elevated radiation levels. At the Wilmette location, three tissue box holders with elevated radiation levels were identified. Several other bath accessory items within the same product line, which had also been removed from store shelves, showed no signs of radioactive contamination.

At both stores, the contaminated items were segregated and secured to prevent further exposure to employees or customers.

As a reference of the relative risk of these items, a person who spends 10 hours within one foot of the holder would receive a dose equivalent to a single chest x-ray, the release said.

On Friday, IEMA is sending staff to seven additional Bed, Bath and Beyond stores in the Chicago area that received items in the product line since September. At this time, it doesn’t appear any of the affected items were shipped to stores in other areas of the state.

Friday the 13th: History, Origins, Myths and Superstitions of the Unlucky Day

Historically, the arrest of Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, did occur on Friday, Oct. 13, 1307

ibtimes.com | Jan 13, 2012

By Julia Greenberg

Watch out! Today is Friday the 13th, known by many as the unluckiest day of the year.

While many will laugh off the superstitious day, others will remain in bed paralyzed by fear and avoid daily tasks, conducting business or traveling. In the U.S., an estimated 17 to 21 million people suffer from a fear of Friday the 13th, according to a study by the North Carolina Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute.

The phobia, known as friggatriskaidekaphobia, is not uncommon. The word comes from “Frigga,” the name of the Norse goddess for whom “Friday” is named, and “triskaidekaphobia,” or fear of the number thirteen. It is also sometimes called “paraskevidekatriaphobia,” from the Greek “Paraskevi” for Friday, “Dekatreis” for thirteen and “phobia” for fear.

There will be three incidences of the superstitious day this year, Jan. 13, Apr. 13 and July 13. In the Gregorian calendar, Friday the 13th always occurs at least once a year and can appear up to three times in any one year.

History and Origins of Friday the 13th

The origin of fears surrounding Friday the 13th is unclear. There is reportedly no written evidence of Friday the 13th superstition before the 19th century, but superstitions surrounding the number 13 date back to at least 1700 BC.

In the ancient Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi, dating to about 1772 BC, the number 13 is omitted in the list of laws.

There has also been a longstanding myth that if 13 people dine together, one will die within a year. The myth comes from both the Last Supper, when Jesus dined with the 12 Apostles prior to his death, and a popular Norse myth, in which 11 close friends of the god Odin dine together only to have the 12-person party crashed by a 13th person, Loki, the god of evil and turmoil.

In fact, the number 13 has been considered cursed across the world for thousands of years. The number 12 is historically considered the number of completeness, while its older cousin, 13, has been seen as an outlier. There are 12 months of the year, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 hours of the clock, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles of Jesus, 12 Descendants of Muhammad Imams, among many incidences of the pattern historically.

In 1881, an organization was started called The Thirteen Club in an attempt to improve the number’s reputation. The 13 members walked under ladders and spilled salt at the first meeting in an attempt to dissuade any negative associations with the number.

Despite these efforts, the number 13 continues to have an unlucky association today. Thirteen is so disliked that many cities do not have a 13th Street or a 13th Avenue, many high-rise buildings avoid having a 13th floor, some hospitals avoid labeling rooms with the number 13 and many airports will not have a gate 13.

Friday has also long been considered an unlucky day.  One theory hypothesizes that Friday has been considered unlucky because Jesus was crucified on a Friday according to Christian Scripture and tradition. Another states that the superstition regarding Friday comes from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” published in the 14th century, where Friday is considered a day of misfortune and ill luck. In numerous publications in the 17th century, Friday the 13th was outlined as an unlucky day to take a trip, to begin a new project or to have a major life change (such as a birth, a marriage, among other events).

The first recorded reference in English of Friday the 13th is in Henry Sutherland Edwards’ 1869 biography of Gioachino Rissini, where Edwards writes: “Rossini was surrounded to the last by admiring and affectionate friends; Why Friday the 13th Is Unlucky.”

Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, author of “Thirteen: the story of the world’s most popular superstition,” however, suggests in his book that because references to “Friday the 13th” were nonexistent before 1907, the popularity of the superstition must come from the publication of Thomas W. Lawson’s popular novel, “Friday, the Thirteenth.” In the novel, a stock broker takes advantage of the superstition to create a Wall Street panic on Friday the 13th.

Wall Street has fostered a fear of Friday the 13th for decades. In Oct. 13, 1989, Wall Street saw, what was at the time, the second largest drop of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in history. The day was nicknamed the Friday-the-13th mini-crash.

Friday the 13th was also discussed in the popular 2003 novel, “The Da Vinci Code.” In the book, a connection is drawn between the slaughtering of the Knights Templar by the Church and Friday the 13th. Historically, the arrest of Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, did occur on Friday, Oct. 13, 1307, however the association between Friday the 13th and bad luck is thought to be a modern interpretation of the event.

Superstition or Reality?

Many studies have been conducted to investigate the risk of accidents on Friday the 13th.

According to research completed at the Dutch Centre for Insurance Statistics (CVS) in 2008, there were fewer accidents and reports of theft or fire on Friday the 13th than on other Fridays.

“I find it hard to believe that it is because people are preventatively more careful or just stay home, but statistically speaking, driving is a little bit safer on Friday 13th,” CVS statistician Alex Hoen told the Verzekerd insurance magazine.

Between 2006 and 2008, CVS found that there were an average 7,800 traffic deaths on each Friday, but the average fell on Friday the 13th when there were only 7,500 deaths. Similar statistics were found in a comparison of normal Fridays and Friday the 13th for fires and robberies.

According to a 1993 study in the British Medical Journal, however, there is a significant level of traffic-related incidences on Friday the 13th as opposed to a random day, such as Friday the 6th, in the UK.

“Friday 13th is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52%. Staying at home is recommended,” the report concluded.

According to CNBC, Friday the 13th is a calm day for the stock market, average gains proving to be only 0.2 percent or less. However, in three out of five of the most recent Friday the 13ths, CNBC reports that major averages ended “down.”  The North Carolina Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute also reports that between 800 and 900 million dollars are lost in the U.S. each year due to shoppers remaining at home or deciding not to travel.

Popular Myths and Superstitions

Whether there is any merit to the superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th will remain uncertain, but that will not stop millions of people across the world from worrying about the unlucky day.

There are a number of popular myths and superstitions surrounding the day, most famously:

If you cut your hair on Friday the 13th, someone in your family will die.
If a funeral procession passes you on Friday the 13th, you will be the next to die.
Do not start a trip on Friday or you will encounter misfortune.
If you break a mirror on Friday the 13th, you will have seven years of bad luck.
A child born on Friday the 13th will be unlucky for life.
Ships that set sail on a Friday will have bad luck.
If you walk under a ladder or if a black cat crosses you on Friday the 13th, you will have bad luck.

Justice Elena Kagan: “It’s like nobody can use dirty words or nudity except for Steven Spielberg.”

ABC | Jan 10, 2012

Supreme Court Hearing on Indecency Leaves One Justice Blushing

In an hour-long argument, punctuated by lively exchanges, and even one blushing Justice, the Supreme Court grappled on Tuesday with the government’s policy on indecency on the airwaves.

The case stems from celebrities-such as Cher and Nicole Richie-uttering swear words during live television in primetime, as well as an episode of ABC’s show “NYPD Blue” that depicted partial nudity.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — charged with regulating the public airwaves — found that the incidents violated its prohibitions against the broadcast of indecent material before 10 pm.

But lawyers for broadcasters such as Fox Television and ABC, Inc., argue that the FCC’s policy is unconstitutionally vague and chills free speech. Facing daunting fines, the broadcasters argue that the government should no longer treat broadcast speech more restrictively than other media when it comes to the regulation of indecency over the airwaves.


Ex-FCC Commissioner Michael Copps on Media Consolidation, Broadband Expansion, Threats to Journalism

The eight justices hearing the case (Justice Sonia Sotomayor was recused because she dealt with the issue as a lower court judge) showcased several aspects of the dilemma.

Justice Antonin Scalia most vocally defended the government’s position that the policy serves an important interest in protecting children from indecency.

“It’s a symbolic matter,” he said. “The government is entitled to insist upon a certain modicum of decency.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, the only justice with small children, suggested that the broadcast networks are a safe harbor for parents hoping to shield their children from indecency.

“What the government is asking for, is a few channels where you can say, ‘I’m not going to-they are not going to hear the S -word, the F -word.’”

Justice Anthony Kennedy brought up a core issue, and a key part of the broadcasters argument, regarding the pervasiveness of cable and the Internet.

Kennedy asked Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr, “But you’re saying that there’s still a value, an importance, in having a higher standard..for broadcast media. Why is that , when there are so many other options?”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the FCC’s policy problem seemed to be “an appearance of arbitrariness about how the FCC is defining indecency in concrete situations.”

She pointed out that the government allowed the use of expletives in the broadcast of Steven Spielberg’s war movie, “Saving Private Ryan.”

Justice Elena Kagan said, “the way this policy seems to work, it’s like nobody can use dirty words or nudity except for Steven Spielberg.”

The broadcasters urge the Court to overturn 34-year-old precedent in a case called FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. At issue in that case was a broadcast of comedian George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue which was aired on a radio broadcast in the middle of the afternoon. After complaints from the public, the FCC ruled that the broadcast was indecent and could be subject to sanctions. The Supreme Court rejected a First Amendment challenge to the FCC’s determination finding “of all forms of communication, broadcasting has the most limited First Amendment protection.”

Carter G. Phillips, arguing on behalf of Fox Television, said that the FCC’s policies, which have been expanded since the Pacifica decision, have caused “thousands and thousands” of complaints so that “the whole system has come to a screeching halt because of the difficulty of trying to resolve these issues.”

One of the most humorous exchanges during the argument came when Seth Waxman, representing ABC, noted that the FCC has a pending complaint about an opening episode of the last Olympics, which included a naked statute similar to those actually depicted in the courtroom walls.

The justices began to look at the marble friezes in the courtroom depicting statues of historical figures.

“Right over here, Justice Scalia,” Waxman said pointing to the wall, “there’s a bare buttock there, and there’s a bare buttock here. ..frankly I had never focused on it before”

“Me neither,” said a laughing, blushing Scalia.