Monday, March 31, 2008

172: support for the world's tallest man

I found this touching story on Christian Science Monitor today and just had to post it. Some of you may have heard of Leonid Stadnik, the Ukrainian man confirmed last year as the world's tallest. At 8 ft 5 inches, life is not easy for Leonid - who has been growing constantly since undergoing a brain operation at the age of 14. He struggles to support his large frame at times and must stoop to move about his mother's home, where he still lives. Fortunately, however, his growth now seems to have slowed, and since the publicity associated with his Guinness Book of Records listing he has received support locally and from overseas. Well-wishers have helped him acquire custom-made shoes and clothes and a giant bicycle. Then, last week, Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko presented him with a new car! After so many years of suffering, it seems that Leonid can finally relax a little and may even be able to return to work - he had worked as a vet until he could no longer find suitable footwear. Indeed, he says his dreams are coming true... His local internet service provider recently gave him a computer, too, so I suspect the world may hear more from Leonid himself via the web, as his new life evolves... (Photo from Reuters via CSM.)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

171: blind man breaks sound barrier

A great story to end the week. Today's linked article is from the UK regional newspaper The Yorkshire Post, and it reports the latest daring adventure by blind fundraiser and motivational speaker Miles Hilton-Barber - who today became the first blind man to break the sound barrier. He did so by flying a fighter jet at speeds of up to 1,100 mph, reaching 50,000 ft in less than two minutes! Hilton-Barber and his sighted co-pilot set the record in the skies above Cape Town, South Africa, in a bid to raise £50,000 (about $100,000) for the charity Seeing is Believing, which was established by Standard Chartered bank in 2003 with the aim of restoring sight to blind people across the developing world. Hilton-Barber's support for the charity is long-standing, as is his adventurous spirit - some of his other extreme pursuits include flying microlight from the UK to Australia, bobsleighing solo down an Olympic track, scaling the Himalayas, and running several marathons in harsh conditions. Pretty inspiring stuff!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

170: vying for the crown of carbon neutrality

The race between the world's nations, and even regional blocs, to be green is emerging as a recurrent theme on Reasons to be Hopeful. So in that context I was interested to find today's linked article, in the UK's Independent newspaper. It reports that four countries - Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand - have formally signed up to the goal of carbon neutrality. Their commitment was formally registered at the UN Environment Programme's annual governing council meeting recently, where all the countries set dates for the achievement of carbon neutrality, Costa Rica as early as 2021. The result is likely to be a much cleaner environment all round, at least locally within the countries concerned. But it is also a striking example of the kind of determination that is required to tackle and cope with global climate change. It's great to see such a diverse group of nations show leadership in pursuit of such an ambitious target. Definitely a reason to be hopeful.

Friday, March 28, 2008

169: saving a cat

A note of hope was sounded today for Europe's last native big cat, the Iberian lynx. According to today's linked article from the Belfast Telegraph newspaper, Spain's captive breeding programme is beginning to pay off, with another round of cubs born last week. Unfortunately, it is normal for only two cubs per litter to survive, so reproduction rates are slow. In addition, the species' gene pool is becoming weaker over time - though breeding programme staff have several strategies to expand and strengthen it. The last remaining challenge is to protect the lynx's wetland habitat - again, strategies are in place, but the threats are significant and it's not clear that the lynx will ever be able to thrive in its native habitat. For now, however, this beautiful cat is protected and able to reproduce in captivity, giving it at least some hope of long-term survival.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

168: science for development

I was intrigued by this article in The Scientist today - well, it's more of an opinion piece really... The article argues that, having witnessed years of neglect - in terms of the level of funding dedicated to addressing health challenges facing the developing world - the world of science is back on track to benefit the poor. I'm not sure that is quite true, yet - but certainly as the article argues, greater investment is evident, from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and many other public and private donor agencies. This could go much further. And the biggest gains will be made when profit-making enterprises agree that there is a market worth serving across Africa and in other low-income countries. But, if The Scientist and other major journals and magazines pay attention to areas of need, that is a good start. Let's hope we see more of it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

167: mood change in Zimbabwe?

I found this amazing piece on BBC online today. It's one of a series of 'diary entries' on the site, by a young woman in Harare. Esther (not her real name) writes today that the mood is palpably more optimistic in the Zimbabwean capital and across the country, as the nation gears up for elections on 29 March. Esther talks of 'high excitement' about the possibility of change, though says that some fear the election may already be rigged. (She also talks of goodies that her sister bought her family recently - such as mushrooms and bacon, which they hadn't eaten for months and months... ) The key thing is that - based on Esther's account and those elsewhere in the press - the people of Zimbabwe seem less intimidated and more confident about exercising their right to vote. By next week, we will know whether this increased optimism has been rewarded...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

166: accessing information in China

A very interesting story about the spread of information today. The BBC news website reports that it has just become accessible to (potential) readers in China, having been blocked for many years. No official announcement has been made regarding the relaxation of internet restrictions, but the Chinese government has said for some time that news reporting - particularly by foreign correspondents - would be made easier in the run-up to the Olympics this summer. But, if this dismantling of the great firewall of China continues beyond the Olympics it could be very significant indeed, unleashing the power of the web across the country - with all the benefits that entails, such as enabling the sharing of knowledge, facilitating enterprise and innovation, and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Definitely one to watch.


As an aside, I know that Reasons to be Hopeful has been blocked in China until now (though not in Hong Kong, for example). If anyone gets access from the Chinese mainland, please let me know! Thanks.

Monday, March 24, 2008

165: speed shark

Hot on the heels (or tail fin) of the sea-rescue dolphin (post 153 on this blog), today's article from the UK's Independent newspaper tells of a young shark's race for freedom. The juvenile white shark, known as 'Streak', was caught up in fishing nets last summer and then spent some time recovering at a Monterey Bay aquarium. He was recently released from captivity and has apparently traveled more than 1000 miles in around six weeks, which makes him the fastest juvenile white shark ever to be tracked and certainly faster than the scientists monitoring him expected. It just goes to show how much more there is to discover about the creatures that share this planet with us! (Photo of Streak whilst at Monterey Bay from the Independent.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

164: new forms of social investment

This is a very intriguing little story. The UK's Times newspaper reports today that the UK government plans to launch a new 'social stock exchange'. The objective would be to allow social enterprises - such as fair trade brands, housing co-operatives and community ventures - to raise funds. The plan, which is being drawn up with the US non-profit Rockefeller Foundation, also includes the creation of an ethical investment bank that (somewhat controversially perhaps) will draw on around £250m ($500m) lying in 'dormant bank accounts' (i.e. those that have not been touched for many years and whose owners cannot be found). It's an interesting idea, and definitely worth exploring. The question, I guess, is how to take what the dominant form of capitalism does so well - such as putting money behind innovation - and then use that to address some of things it doesn't do so well, like improving equity and protecting common property resources. A 'social stock exchange' may just be the answer - or part of it, anyway... Definitely one to watch.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

163: the tide turns for renewable energy

Great news today from the UK's Independent newspaper, which reports the start of a new era in British power generation - tidal power. According to the article, the UK has the best tide and wave energy resources anywhere in the world - particularly in areas such as the seas north of Scotland and Northern Ireland and off the Cornish coast in South-West England, but also at the mouths of its many rivers, loughs and estuaries. In addition, UK engineers appear to be leading the way in development of new technologies. For years, innovation in this area has been hampered by a lack of government and investor support, but a few niche engineering companies worked to develop demonstration technologies and prove the concept. The fruits of their labour are now evident, and the UK government has bought in. Implementing this new technology won't be easy, but I think we can bet on these engineers not giving up, especially once the tide of public opinion is behind them.

Friday, March 21, 2008

162: steps towards a unified Cyprus?

Interesting news from Cyprus today, as reported in this linked article from Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. Cyprus has been divided into Greek and Turkish zones for more than three decades, and UN peacekeepers have been there even longer, as the island's affiliation remains disputed. Indeed, according to the article, Nicosia is Europe's last divided capital city. But today the leaders of Greece and Turkey agreed to relaunch reunification talks within the next three months, to be held under the auspices of the UN Secretary General. They also agreed to take steps immediately to reopen a key crossing point in Nicosia. For now, at least, there seems to be a renewed sense of goodwill and optimism on both sides. If that continues, a solution may yet be found to one of Europe's most intractable conflicts. Definitely a reason to be hopeful.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

161: happiness is... giving it all away

There seems to have been a wealth of stories (pun intended) about how 'money can't buy happiness' recently. Today, a story in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper cites research that questions that assertion. Through a series of different studies, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School set out to explore whether people were happier when they spent their money on themselves or on others. One study involved giving students between $5 and $20 and then asking them either to spend it on themselves or to buy a gift for someone else; another study quizzed recipients of work bonuses on how they spent the windfall and on how happy they felt (before and after). In both these cases, and others, people were happier when they had spent money on others - buying a gift or making a charitable donation, for example. And, as other experts quoted in the article pointed out, it needn't be money you give away - spending time helping others or sharing your skills will probably fill your emotional tank in much the same way. So - help others and help yourself. Sounds like 'having your cake and eating it' really is possible...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

160: diamonds are Botswana's best friend

This is a really great story! The article I'm posting today is from BBC online - but for a more technical, local perspective, you can also read up via the Botswanan news site Mmegi here. Both articles document Botswana's exciting new foray into diamond processing. For years, Botswana has had one of the most successful diamond mining industries in the world, but the stones have been processed abroad - meaning fewer jobs for Batswana (the people of Botswana) and a relatively modest profit from the sector. As of last night, however, that all changed. Diamond magnate De Beers has joined with the Government of Botswana to launch a joint enterprise, the Diamond Trading Company Botswana, which will sort, value, market and sell diamonds from the Debswana mines - which account for 22% of global output in the sector! In addition to the skilled workforce this will support, there are expected to be significant spin-offs in other local industries - such as banking, IT, transportation and tourism. This is as it should be. Many poor countries do not extract sufficient value from their natural resources and agricultural produce, exporting them raw or with limited processing, and others further up the supply chain reap the rewards. The Botswana diamond industry promises to show how things can be done differently, through partnership and investment in the right places. Worth replicating. (Photo from BBC online.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

159: a risk worth taking

I found this lovely story in the New York Times today. You can access a video alongside the article. Both tell the story of Melanie Joy McDaniel, who was diagnosed with an inoperable and malignant brain tumor as a baby. Her parents, faced with few options, decided to put her on a new and experimental (and therefore risky) treatment offered by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which worked by stopping the flow of blood to her tumor so it couldn't grow. Their gamble paid off. Melanie is now seven, and doctors can find no sign of her tumor - though they can't guarantee it won't return some day. For now, though, Melanie is enjoying her school and playing with her siblings. And other children may now benefit from the same treatment, with slightly more reassurance and less risk.

Monday, March 17, 2008

158: cross-border harmony

Well, I indulged my penchant for BBC slideshows again today. A really great story, about a free concert staged yesterday (Sunday) on the bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, as a show of peace and unity between the two nations. The 'Peace Without Borders' concert was the brainchild of Colombian musician Juanes. It came after several weeks of tension in the region as leaders in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador clashed over how to deal with FARC rebels, and specifically Colombia's assassination of FARC leader 'Raul Reyes' on Ecuadorian soil. However, the concert was not intended to be a political event, rather a musical bonding - and it certainly looks as if the fans were unified in their enjoyment of it. Another great example of the power of music in overcoming difference. (For others, see posts Sixty, Ninety-Three and 138 on this blog.)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

157: keeping pace with parasites

I had the usual Sunday 'good news blight' experience today, but eventually found a promising story on Reuters. Another health research discovery! Not in relation to cancer this time, though. Instead, schistosomiasis - a parasitic disease, which affects more than 200 million people across at least 70 countries and causes severe illness or death. It's also a very neglected disease, in terms of the limited resources dedicated to researching it. But evidently some good research is happening, as scientists from Illinois State University and the US National Institutes of Health have just discovered a new compound that appears to harm the parasite without harming its host, and which could therefore form the basis of new therapies. This would be very welcome, since there is currently only one drug that is effective in treating schistosomiasis, and concerns about drug resistance are emerging. So it's a race against time, in other words... Fortunately, thanks to this recent discovery, we may just win that race.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

156: yet more promise in cancer research

There was yet more good news in the battle against cancer today, following the breast cancer breakthrough earlier this week (this blog, post 154). Scientists at Harvard University have identified a key enzyme that facilitates cancer cell growth. The enzyme, PKM2, is one of two forms of 'pyruvate kinase' and helps cancer cells consume the glucose they need to grow. Therapy that blocks or destroys PKM2, therefore, could help limit the growth of cancerous tumors. Indeed, according to today's linked article from the BBC, a drug is already in development that could work in this way. Though the results may be a little way off just now, it certainly is an exciting time in cancer research...

Friday, March 14, 2008

155: fairy tale ending for school librarian

This is a wonderful tale about a tale... a school librarian and storyteller from Baltimore USA, whose tales of medieval life written for fifth graders to recite wound up as a beautifully illustrated children's book - and then scooped the prestigious Newbery Medal 2008. Today's linked article from Christian Science Monitor reports that Laura Schlitz, the shy librarian and modest author, is now a true celebrity in her local community - in addition to finding national renown. Her award-winning book, 'Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village', tells of the harsh realities of medieval life through a combination of poetry and prose, and is designed to be read aloud. It has been compared to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, no less... Indeed, Schlitz has now published a few more of her stories, all to rave reviews, and has another book in the making. Fame for the librarian next door, then - and a golden ray of hope for all of us mere mortals who have yet to reveal our creative offerings to the world! (Picture of Schlitz storytelling from CSM.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

154: breast cancer breakthrough

A major breakthrough in diagnosing and treating breast cancer was announced today, as reported by the UK's Independent newspaper. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, believe they have identified the gene that causes cancerous tumors to spread. The gene in question is responsible for a protein called SATB1, which is known to stimulate the growth of breast cancer tumors and the breaking away of cancerous cells - a process called metastasis that significantly increases the risk of death from the disease. But this recent discovery brings hope, raising the prospect that new tests and drugs could be developed to predict, diagnose and then treat the most virulent forms of breast cancer. And with around half a million deaths from breast cancer across the world each year, this is a breakthrough that could benefit a lot of people...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

153: dolphin rescues whales in New Zealand

Well, I've never seen anything quite like this! News emerged today of the rescue in New Zealand of two beached pygmy sperm whales - by a dolphin! Moko the dolphin is a regular on these particular beaches, often turning up to play with local swimmers. Unfortunately, this is also an area where whales beach themselves regularly. On this particular day, conservation officers had been trying to rescue the two whales - a mother and her calf - for more than 90 minutes, and they were about to give up. According to the video and article linked here, from TVNZ / CNN, Moko showed up at the proverbial eleventh hour, and within minutes had communicated with the whales (nobody is quite sure how) and they followed the dolphin out to sea. According to the NZ conservation officer involved, Malcolm Smith, this is the first such incident to be recorded anywhere in the world. Not that Moko was in any way overwhelmed by the unusual situation - she was back swimming on the beach with the locals later that afternoon... So nature amazes us once again... (Photo image from TVNZ footage.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

152: a drive for women's rights

Following through on post 149 on International Women's Day, I found this story on the BBC website. Apparently, several women in Saudi Arabia have been protesting the ban on women driving. For International Women's Day they went one step further, making a video of a woman driving on the public highway (as opposed to within a private compound, which is allowed) - and this was later distributed via YouTube. In the video, the driver calls for an end to the ban and relays her hope that by International Women's Day 2009 things may have changed. Certainly, momentum is building for change, with several Islamic scholars in support. And if progress can be made on this issue, then there is hope for the advancement of other rights too.

Monday, March 10, 2008

151: hope for the pygmy hippo

A fascinating story today, about the resilience of the rare pygmy hippo. I'd been hoping it would pop up on a Liberian news site, but it hasn't yet, so here is the Sky News version (click on the post title above to go to the article, as usual). A team of scientists led by the Zoological Society of London recently went to Liberia's Sapo National Park to track the rare and endangered pygmy hippo. There are thought to be only 3000 pygmy hippos left in the wild, across Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, so the scientists thought they had their work cut out. However, by placing cameras in the hippo's natural habitat, the scientists quickly discovered that the species is alive and well - despite severe threats to its habitat and a series of civil wars across the region. Once again, it seems, we have an example of nature stubbornly resisting threats to its bounty - and a surprising benefit from today's obsession with electronic surveillance, since both the hippos and any poachers can now be caught on camera... (Photo from said camera via Sky News!)

Sunday, March 9, 2008

150: British youth banding together

The brass band is something of a declining tradition in the UK these days. Hailing from the military, but given new passion and vigor in northern England's industrial communities, brass bands matched the destiny of the coal mines and ship yards. However, today's linked article from the UK"s Guardian newspaper suggests that - in some communities at least - they may be undergoing something of a revival, as kids take up the tuba / trumpet / cornet and get together to play. And, as several parents cited in the article point out, this keeps kids out of mischief - and keeps a sweet sounding tradition alive.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

149: demonstrations of solidarity

Another one of those beautiful BBC 'stories in pictures' today. It documents demonstrations and other events organized by women across the world, for International Women's Day. Some of the photos are of protests - some in countries where women's rights are most compromised, and some highlighting specific challenges, such as the trafficking of women. Other photos depict events celebrating women's achievements. Though women's rights in many countries have improved, it's great to see so many people mobilizing in support of those who still suffer indignity and oppression. All in all, it's a reminder of how far the world has come - and of the need for further progress ... (Photo from the BBC slideshow.) International Women's Day has its own website, which is well worth a look:

Friday, March 7, 2008

148: mother saves her seven children

Do you remember the story of the baby in Germany, thrown (safely) from a fourth-floor window to escape a fire (post 117 on this blog)? Imagine a mother doing that for all her children... Canadian newspaper, The Gazette, reported today on the heroism of single mother of seven Marjorie Jean-Baptiste, who did just that. Jean-Baptiste, who lives in Montreal, discovered a fire raging on the lower floors of her townhouse and escaped with six of her children to the second floor. As the fire spread, she decided to drop each of her children into the piles of snow below - an act that almost certainly saved their lives. She wouldn't jump herself, however, until she knew her remaining child was safe. In fact, her 4-year-old daughter had walked from the building by herself - though she was badly burnt in the process. The mother and all seven children are now recovering.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

147: African airwaves

Today's story, from Business Daily (based in Nairobi), is really encouraging. Using data from a recent report, it documents the rapid growth of African media - from TV news to talk radio. Since many African countries deregulated the sector, viewer and listenership figures have soared. New technologies, including mobile telephones and internet access, have further heightened people's interest in accessing news and entertainment. The result is a much greater interconnectivity and awareness of current affairs across the continent, and some significant business opportunities - plus loud music coming from radios everywhere, apparently! And as the market gets more competitive, expect to see better quality programming too - well, that and American Idol, Ghanaian Idol, Zambian Idol, Rwandan Idol... (Photo from Business Daily.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

146: sharing faith

News today from 'Voice of America' that the Pope plans to host a major meeting later this year between Catholic leaders and Islamic scholars, in an attempt to forge greater understanding between the two faiths. Such meetings are likely to become a regular feature, apparently. This is very welcome. There is little doubt in my mind that religious orientation is becoming a much more important factor in the way people differentiate themselves, across Europe for example. Yet sectarian differences should not become yawning chasms, and as misunderstanding and mistrust seemingly abound, religious leaders must take action. So this agreement between Muslim and Catholic leaders is very timely and definitely holds some promise. Let's hope they can find common ground.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

145: the last frontier, crossed?

This is a fascinating article! There has been much talk of late about one of the last remaining frontiers in US politics - gender. The UK's Guardian newspaper reports today on another place where gender barriers are still very evident - the farm. But it seems that frontier is being crossed too. More and more women are going into farming in the UK, often through inheritance. And, according to today's linked article, many are successfully evolving their farms as businesses - moving into organics, combining farming and tourism, even opening up their farms to local schools! It's certainly changing the face of British farming, and some feel threatened by that no doubt... Though if - as the article suggests - diversification (in more ways than one) helps the industry survive, criticism may wane ... and the barriers may disappear for good.


I had to add a little link here, to a 'follow up' story on yesterday's post. There are some lovely articles around today about the reunification of Kashmir Singh with his family - here is one from the BBC. If you go to the BBC story, you'll find some beautiful photos there too. Happy reading!

Monday, March 3, 2008

144: Indian prisoner released after 35 years alone

This story is a paradox - both tragic and hopeful in equal measure. '' reported today on the release of Kashmir Singh, an Indian man imprisoned on death row in 1973 - in Pakistan. Singh (now known as Ibrahim, having converted to Islam after 6 months in prison) was arrested on charges of spying, but another man arrested and imprisoned with him was released after 10 years. Somehow, Singh remained in prison, spending 23.5 hours a day in a tiny cell and never once receiving a visitor. He was lost to his relatives, and it seems to the authorities, until he was found by Pakistan's Minister for Human Rights, Ansar Burney. The minister had responded to Indians in the UK who highlighted Singh's case, and he then petitioned Pakistani President Musharraf for the man's release. Musharraf agreed, and Singh will travel to India tomorrow, to be reunited with his (patient) wife and children. An amazing story, and one that raises hope for many other prisoners in Singh's position - on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. (Photo of Singh after his release from AFP/Getty.)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

143: celebrating at last

This is a very touching story. The BBC reported today on the story of Stephen Smith, a British man who won a £19m lottery jackpot just over a month ago, but who had been unable to truly enjoy his winnings due to poor health. Having suffered from an aortic aneurysm for several years, he had to remain within 30 minutes of a hospital in case it burst. His lottery winnings bought him confidence, he says, that his wife would be financially secure - even if his health failed. Then, last week, he was rushed to hospital with chest pains and underwent emergency surgery. Fortunately, the surgery was successful and seems to have secured his health. So Stephen can finally celebrate in style, and plans to visit Italy with his wife at Christmas - 'a dream come true'. Indeed, all Stephen's dreams seem very modest, which is what makes this tale so touching. And, he says, his newfound health has given him more happiness than the money...

Saturday, March 1, 2008

142: India's miracle baby doing well

You may have heard this amazing story from Reuters / Indian Express already. Not surprisingly, it has attracted a lot of attention! Earlier this week, a pregnant woman in India unexpectedly gave birth to her daughter - two months prematurely - whilst in a train toilet. The baby slipped down the toilet and onto the tracks, but amazingly survived the (less than sanitary) fall and was found lying beside the tracks about two hours later! She was cold and crying, but without serious injury. She is now in hospital, though recovering well, as recent reports from the Times of India suggest. The Indian press has dubbed her the 'miracle baby', and she has attracted many well-wishers - including the train driver and doctors at the hospital (which has said it will not charge the baby's impoverished parents for her care). No doubt she'll have many more well-wishers across the world, as word spreads of her ignoble but determined start to life.