Wednesday, April 30, 2008

202: viewing Zimbabwe positively from next door

I've been eyeing recent headlines about Zimbabwe's electoral fallout with some trepidation, but today's linked article from South Africa's Business Day newspaper offers an optimistic perspective. (It's also informative for those of us outside the Southern African region, as it gives a little more background than most coverage and some analysis of the dynamics affecting Zimbabwean politics.) It's not the sort of article that can be summarized, to be honest, so you'll have to click the title above to read it! Suffice to say that the writer sees hopeful signs - for example, in the pressure from some of Zimbabwe's neighbours, in the recent confirmation of an MDC parliamentary majority, and in the actions of local unions and others over the Chinese arms shipment. That's right, of course - a peaceful transition in Zimbabwe remains possible, even if it may look unlikely, and hope must be kept alive.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

201: shift towards gender equality in Libya

Libya may not generally be thought of as a nation pushing the cause of women's rights, but that could be changing. As today's linked article from the BBC attests, the emancipation of women in Libyan society has come a very long way. Women now make up around 22% of the country's workforce, including in traditionally male dominated sectors such as aviation and the civil service. In the 1970s, by comparison, women made up just 6% of the workforce. Equality for women is protected by law, but expanding entrepreneurship and high-level support for equal rights (such as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi employing female bodyguards) are also key factors. As the article suggests, traditional views of women's roles remain dominant - but the shift towards equality is perceptible, if gradual. (Photo of female pilot from BBC online.)


If you are enjoying RTBH, please don't forget to cast your vote in the Bloggers' Choice Awards. You need to register first, then log back in, before you can vote. The link is here: RTBH is still on the front page for 'Best Blog of All Time' thanks to all your support! Please help me keep it there... Thanks.

Monday, April 28, 2008

200: the anti-aging properties of tomatoes

This story reassured me today. The BBC reported the results of a study by Manchester and Newcastle Universities in the UK, which showed that eating a relatively small amount of cooked tomatoes on a regular basis may protect your skin against aging. Lycopene in tomatoes is an antioxidant, boosting levels of the procollagen that helps skin stay firm and - evidence from this recent study suggests - even providing some protection against UV rays. Good news for any parent whose children only eat pasta with tomato sauce or margarita pizza... (Photo from BBC online.)


It's my 200th post today. Way more than half-way through my original year-long experiment, which has been fairly hard work but lots of fun so far... I'm interested to know what RTBH readers think I should do once the year is over though. Any ideas, please drop me a line at Thanks!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

199: Iraq gets national treasures back

In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, pretty much anything of value in Baghdad was looted it seems. Sadly, this included many historical artifacts from Iraq's National Museum. Indeed, museum administrators believe somewhere between 3000 to 7000 of these remain outstanding, leaving huge gaps in the national collection. However, according to today's linked article from Associated Press, the museum received a boost recently, when Syrian authorities returned 701 artifacts, which they had seized from traffickers. They included gold necklaces, daggers, clay statues and pots, some of which hailed from the Bronze Age and early Islamic era. Iraqi officials are hoping that the moves taken by Syria will inspire other nations - Iraq's neighbours and those further afield - to return looted antiquities. Documenting the nation's past is, after all, critical to rebuilding it for the future. (Photo from AP.)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

198: promise of resolution for Tibet

The pressure on China over its human rights record at home and abroad is growing, in the run up to the Olympics in Beijing later this year. It's not really clear where this will lead... Though today there was at least a ray of hope in relation to the Tibet crisis, as Chinese officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama agreed to meet. As today's linked article from the Irish Times reports, this is seen as an encouraging sign by political leaders around the world, and there is some hope it may lead to a more comprehensive process of dialogue in due course. It's in neither side's interest to allow tension to escalate, so now may well be the time to resolve issues over Tibet's status within China and allow this beautiful region of the world to prosper peacefully.

Friday, April 25, 2008

197: goodbye to malaria

It was World Malaria Day today. A chance to draw attention to one of the world's most deadly diseases and to call for action to eradicate it. For some countries, such as Rwanda, there was also cause to celebrate. As today's linked article from the Rwanda News Agency (posted on reports, the country has seen a reduction in its malaria caseload of more than 60% in only two years. The ingredients of Rwanda's success are nothing new, though - bednets treated with insecticide to prevent the spread of malaria and effective medicines to treat it when it strikes. Most critically, these tried and tested strategies are coupled with political commitment and sound financing. There is more to be done if Rwanda is to say goodbye to malaria, but it's amazing progress, which should give hope and inspiration to affected communities across the world.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

196: making selective abortion more difficult in India

Selective abortion - by which, typically, pregnancies involving female foetuses are terminated - has been outlawed in India for 14 years. Nevertheless, experts estimate that around 10 million girls have been lost to the practice during the last 2 decades. Shockingly, in the Indian state of Haryana, only 770 girls are now born for every 1000 boys. Today brought some hope, however, as the UK's Guardian newspaper reported that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh plans to intensify efforts to end female foeticide. One element of his government's strategy will be to permanently bar doctors who undertake sex determination tests, and to punish them with a heavy fine and up to 3 years imprisonment. Whether PM Singh can also strengthen law enforcement and shift cultural preferences is another matter. But a serious policy is a good start.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

195: Australians stingy with water

I thought this was an interesting piece from BBC online today. It outlines the steps that Australians have taken to conserve water - an increasingly scarce and therefore precious resource in the driest continent on Earth. As rainfall has declined, people across the country have stopped washing their cars, and many households now capture rainwater for purposes such as watering plants and lawns. Many people use timers to limit their daily shower to two minutes. Meanwhile, the country's government is exploring new ways to manage water resources and recently announced a $250m investment in domestic water recycling. It just goes to show that people are capable of making and sustaining meaningful changes to their lifestyle, when it's evident how important it is to do so. Perhaps this may encourage other nations to conserve water, well before their own situation gets this critical.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

194: Ghana prepares for oil

I remember being really excited when I heard last year that oil had been discovered off the coast of Ghana. Then I checked myself. After all, most nations with oil (and to a certain extent other precious natural resources) have failed miserably at redistributing the spoils from its exploitation, and a good number have descended into conflict. Such is 'the resource curse' as it's known... I took some heart from today's linked article from IRIN, though, which suggests that Ghanaians are already keenly aware of the risks posed by the country's imminent oil bonanza and are thinking through how best to cope. According to the article, the debate is not over whether to ensure transparency over oil revenues, but over which model to adopt. There also appears to be widespread acknowledgement that the benefits must be seen through investment in social sectors (e.g. health, education, sanitation). There is a lot more to resolve - and not much time available, as production is expected to start in 2010 - but it seems as if Ghana is already in a better place than many other oil-rich nations. At least, the right questions are being asked, which is a promising start. (Map image from IRIN.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

193: Zambian president joins call to repel Chinese arms ship

Today, Zambia’s president, Levy Mwanawasa, joined the calls for African nations to refuse the Chinese ship An Yue Jiang permission to dock, the New York Times reports. The ship carries arms destined for Zimbabwe and many are concerned that these could be deployed against Zimbabwe's people if the ongoing electoral crisis escalates. Mwanawasa, who is also chair of the Southern African Development Community, joins Kofi Annan (see RTBH post 191) and many others in calling for action to resolve the situation in Zimbabwe - and so far, dockworkers in South Africa and authorities in Mozambique have refused the Chinese ship. This kind of regional solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe is critical at this juncture. It's a rare and needed sign of hope.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

192: encouragement for men with eating disorders

It is rare for men to admit to living with bulimia - and even rarer for high-profile men to do so. Yet, former UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has done just that, describing how he suffered with the condition for around two decades. According to today's linked article from the UK's Guardian newspaper, Prescott's experiences are documented in detail in his forthcoming autobiography, but he recently broached the subject in an article he wrote for the Times newspaper (which will serialize his memoirs). Prescott has received praise for his 'courageous' admission from eating disorder groups. They hope his bravery will encourage men and boys suffering in silence with similar disorders to seek help. For sure, with around 1 million people in the UK alone suffering from eating disorders, this is an issue on which some hope is desperately needed.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

191: Annan speaks out on Zimbabwe

Kofi Annan hailed the success of African leaders in resolving the Kenyan post-election crisis today - and suggested the same kind of commitment will be necessary to solve the mounting crisis in Zimbabwe. According to today's linked article from BBC online, the former UN Secretary General made his comments in Nairobi, where he had held talks with Zimbabwean opposition leaders. Annan said the situation in Zimbabwe was dangerous and would have impacts beyond the nation's borders. Meanwhile, Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has apparently fled the country, and his party is refusing to contest any presidential election run-off unless security and independent monitoring can be guaranteed. Certainly, the country's future is hanging precariously in the balance, and Annan's call to action is both important and timely... Meanwhile, arms from China bound for Zimbabwe were blocked entry through the South African port of Durban, as unionized dockworkers refused to unload them, citing concerns about the situation in Zimbabwe, and branding SA premier Thabo Mbeki's stance towards the crisis inadequate. A principled act, certainly - as is Annan's speaking out. The coming days will tell whether either has had an impact.

Friday, April 18, 2008

190: Pope works to unify

Some local positivity, today - well, local to me at least. The Pope is visiting New York right now - and I'm trying not to be too upset by the road blocks impeding my movement about the city or the fact that my lunch date stood me up today to go and listen to Benedict XVI instead... However, as today's linked article from the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, the Pope is making significant attempts to create unity during this trip - following a multi-faith meeting in Washington DC earlier this week, he visited a Manhattan synagogue today, exchanging gifts and bringing Passover greetings to the local congregation. These aren't his only attempts to build bridges this week, either - he has spent time with victims of child abuse by Catholic priests and many have commented on his acceptance of the Church's culpability in this respect. These are important steps, for people of all faiths across the globe, in an era where understanding between different peoples seems more critical than ever. (Photo from Lexington Herald-Leader.)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

189: 'extinct' turtle found in Vietnam

Good news from Vietnam today, where scientists recently (re)discovered a species of turtle that they had thought might be extinct. The soft-shelled Swinhoe's turtle was found by researchers from Cleveland zoo, in a lake near the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. As today's linked article from Vietnam's Thanh Nien newspaper reports, the search for the turtle took 3 years. It's highly endangered, having been decimated by hunting, habitat destruction and pollution - and, although this find suggests the turtle is more resilient than previously thought, it remains under threat, with significant demand for turtle products across the region and specifically in China. However, the Swinhoe turtle is apparently revered in Vietnamese legend - a status that may afford it some protection from now on. (Photo from Thanh Nien.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

188: realizing our rights, very gradually...

Until I read this article in the Guardian today, I'd managed to forget that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates its 60th birthday this year. The article reminds us of that fact, but also asks 'how far have we come?'... have racial and gender equality improved, in ways that enable all to realize their rights? Apparently, a recent poll by, which surveyed 15,000 people across 16 countries, suggests that in most communities there is at least a perceived improvement in equality. For example, in all but two of the countries surveyed - Palestine and Nigeria - a significant majority of people (71% overall) believe that women have progressed towards equality with men in recent years. Indeed, 86% rated gender equality 'important' overall, and 59% felt that people of different races and ethnicities are now treated more equally. As the article points out, such perceptions are likely to reflect genuine positive change - but, even if they don't, they surely reflect a shared understanding that human rights matter (in other words, people 'say it' even if they don't 'make it happen'). Slow progress perhaps, but at least the trajectory is positive.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

187: corals recover from nuclear bomb blast

I found this pretty amazing story in several places today. I am posting the version from MSNBC as it has the best pictures! It outlines recent research (conducted by a team of scientists hailing from the Marshall Islands, Australia, Hawaii, Italy and Germany) indicating the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific may have now recovered from the huge atomic blast it suffered in 1954. The atoll was the site of the US testing of a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb (1000 times more powerful than that dropped on Hiroshima). The blast apparently vaporized whole islands and produced a mushroom cloud 62 miles high. Nevertheless, whilst areas above ground remain contaminated today, the scientists discovered areas below water where coral had regrown - even in the bomb crater - and was now plentiful, housing a variety of fish species that appeared to be 'thriving'. The scientists have been quick to point out that the negative effects of climate change on coral reefs could be more long-lasting. But it is nevertheless astounding that nature can recover from such a significant hit - and for the nearby Marshall Islands it brings hope that their community may thrive once again, just like the coral.

Monday, April 14, 2008

186: tackling child pornography

Not a nice topic of discussion today, I'm afraid - but definitely good news. BBC online reports that Google engineers have developed software to rapidly analyze images (even if they've been distorted) in order to help track, identify and prosecute child pornographers. The software, which uses pattern recognition techniques to sort images far quicker than analysts could alone, was developed for the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). It's extremely good to know that cutting edge technologies are finally being dedicated to tackling child pornography. The NCMEC project was actually instigated by Google staff, through a company scheme that allows them to work on their own initiative for 20% of their time. That's just the kind of innovation society needs.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

185: a framework for Kenya's future

Today, after months of political unrest and uncertainty following last December's flawed elections, the roles within Kenya's 'Grand Coalition' cabinet were announced. As today's linked article from Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper reports, ODM party leader Raila Odinga becomes Prime Minister, with Mwai Kibaki as President. Ministerial roles have been allocated across the two main political parties, PNU and ODM, and each party will fill one of two Deputy Prime Ministerial posts. It is just the beginning of the process to rebuild the nation, of course, and - as the Daily Nation argues - partisan interests will need to be put aside if the country is to restore peace and get back on track economically. For now, though, it seems many Kenyans are breathing a sigh of relief. At least this crucial first step has been taken...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

184: the UK's new café culture

Even though British kids may be shunning science at school, it seems Brits of drinking age are lapping it up. That's the message from today's linked article from the UK's Observer newspaper, which reports on the growing popularity of 'science cafés' across the country. These are places where you can go and get a drink - normally, though not necessarily, alcoholic - and listen to a 'stand up scientist'. Not just listen, in fact, as these are interactive lectures where you are encouraged to quiz the speaker and engage in debate. There are more than 30 science cafés across the UK so far, loosely co-ordinated by a body called Café Scientifique (which modelled itself on the French Café Philosophique movement founded by Marc Sautet). The UK initiative has now given rise to a worldwide movement, with around 60 cafés operating in the US and another 120 elsewhere. Most encouragingly, the article suggests, it seems that what draws the crowds is not 'dull theorising', but the potential of science to change the world for the better. Hopeful indeed...

Friday, April 11, 2008

183: connecting to the future

I found this fascinating article today, in the New York Times magazine. As such, it's long and detailed, but very digestible and well worth the read. It documents the rapid growth in access to mobile telephones across the world, including in some of the poorest communities, and the opportunity this presents to improve access to other services, such as banking and healthcare. Indeed, a focus for the article is the work done by Nokia and other companies to research the needs and preferences of mobile phone users (or would-be users) across Africa and Asia. There is talk of developing a basic $5 phone and chargers that work by being whirled around (thus avoiding the need for constant electricity) ... Demand for mobile phones is huge and the developmental benefits potentially very significant. One study a few years ago suggested that for every 10 additional phones per 100 people, 0.5% was added to a country's GDP. And, according to the NYT article, many in developing countries - from fishermen, to doctors, to housekeepers (and even prostitutes) - testify to the positive impact a phone has had on their efficiency and earning power. This is one technology that really is revolutionizing the way people across the world interact - and so far we may only be scratching the surface of its potential. (Photo from NYT.)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

182: saving whole ecosystems

Some hugely encouraging news from the UK's Independent newspaper today. Over the last decade, apparently, a quietly ambitious experiment has been underway in Madagascar, one of the world's richest sources of biodiversity. A team of scientists has been mapping 2315 species of insects, mammals and plants, to determine where they remain on the island. They then designed computer software that could analyze the habitat range of each species, to show how they interrelate and to determine the best way to protect them. It's the first time such a large number of species has been assessed - but the scientists involved say working at this kind of scale is necessary if conservation efforts are to succeed. Indeed, their approach may well work in other areas of the world, though for now the focus is on preserving Madagascar's amazing ecosystem and the nearly 13,000 species that are found only there... (Stunning photo of giant leaf-tailed gecko from the Independent.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

181: quiet but successful nation building

Today's linked article, from the New York Times, is actually a book review. But in its summary of the book in question, it has captured a really hopeful tale - the gradual building of a 'virtual nation', that of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurd-dominated northern provinces of Iraq were protected by a no-fly zone during the latter years of Saddam Hussein's rule and have been largely left to their own devices since his regime collapsed. During that time, the article (and the book it reviews) suggests, Kurdistan has emerged as a relatively stable, democratic enclave that - thus far at least - has managed to avoid the violence that dominates other regions of Iraq. Why? Well, Kurdistan's limited self-government would seem to be the key, both to present stability and to a hopeful future for the Kurdish people. (Gorgeous photo from NYT.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

180: the modest cost of saving lives

I thought this opinion piece, featured in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper today, was both thought-provoking and encouraging. It documents the kinds of interventions that can be made, at relatively little cost, to improve nutrition and well-being in the poorest communities of the world. Things like deworming, iodinized salt and vitamin-enriched basic foodstuffs (reminding me of RTBH post 118, on the role of vitamin and mineral supplements in preventing severe malaria) that have been proven in some settings but are not yet universal. These fundamentals cost a few cents per person per year, but could go a long way to reducing malnutrition if effectively and comprehensively promoted. This reminder - that we can and should do better in tackling hunger - is even more relevant now, with food shortages fueling price increases across the globe. For a limited investment in tackling malnutrition, a good deal of hope could be generated.

Monday, April 7, 2008

179: man's sight restored after 66 years

This is a wonderful little tale. An 87-year-old Scottish man has had his sight restored after losing it during a wartime bombing 66 years ago, the BBC reported today. John Gray, a firewatcher, was injured when the building he was in collapsed - he was the only survivor pulled from the building, but he sustained a head injury and lost his sight in his right eye. He lived with this stoically until the sight in his other eye began to deteriorate, and doctors agreed they should try and restore sight to the injured eye. Following surgery to replace the scarred lens in his right eye, and some time to allow his brain to adjust, Mr Gray can now see well enough to read and even to sit a driving test. Not surprisingly, he's pretty happy about the outcome. But his story also holds hope for others - since it demonstrates the advancements in technology and knowledge that could lead to others' sight being restored where this was previously thought impossible. (Photo from BBC online.)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

178: new super-internet just months away

The UK's Times newspaper must be publishing more good news stories, because I seem to find quite a few hopeful articles there these days. Today's Times offering intrigued me. It documents progress in developing 'the grid' - a new, superfast internet equivalent, designed to investigate the origins of the universe (yes, just a little project...). It will go live in a few months' time, but is now being opened up to academic and research institutions beyond the original project, to include those in fields such as molecular biology and astronomy. Already, the power of 'the grid' has been deployed to help scientists assess 140 million compounds to identify those with the potential to treat malaria (a process that would have apparently taken a regular internet-linked PC around 420 years!). For more about the grid's huge potential, read today's linked article - suffice to say that it may make holographic video-conferencing feasible (I'm sure that I'm not the only one envisioning 'Red Dwarf'... well, at least RTBH readers in the UK will know what I mean). And although it's unlikely that we'll be able to access the grid directly from our own homes, telecoms companies and businesses may, and as a result the way we collaborate and communicate across the world could be revolutionized - once again...

Saturday, April 5, 2008

177: hoping for a long and happy life

I had to post this story today, as I know that many of you were hoping for a story about the benefits of drinking alcohol (!) following those about drinking coffee (post 174) and green tea (post 175). Well, today I found this interesting piece in the UK's Independent newspaper, about the large number of French citizens now living to the age of 100 or more. Though the populations of the two countries are similar in size, there are around 20,000 centenarians in France compared to about 11,000 in Britain. It is thought that climate and high-quality accessible healthcare may have something to do with this longevity, but experts believe the typical French diet - higher in olive oil, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables than the typical British and US diets - and the benefits of drinking red wine are important factors. So, if you hope to live a long and happy life, enjoying red wine with a leisurely, healthy meal may be a good place to start. Doesn't sound too challenging, does it?

Friday, April 4, 2008

176: safari dreaming

In recent days, I've been searching around for any good news to come out of Zimbabwe. Nothing from the electoral process as yet, sadly, but there was a glimmer of hope within this article in the Times (UK) today. It suggests that tourism industry players - both within Zimbabwe and beyond - are cautiously optimistic about the current political situation and are poised to restart operations there as soon as stability returns. The African Travel and Tourism Association believes that for every 10 tourists visiting the country, one job is created, the income from which is sufficient to feed 10 local people. Indeed, tourism's contribution to the economy has been very significant in the past. Prior to 2000, great safari opportunities and the magnificent Victoria Falls made Zimbabwe one of the continent's top tourist destinations - which suggests it can be again, once tourists feel confident in the country's economic and security situation. There is hope then. If a solution can be found to the current political crisis, there appear to be plenty of people ready to back Zimbabwe and to build a sustainable future.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

175: would you like some tea with that antibiotic, sir?

This story from Newsweek leapt out at me after yesterday's good news about coffee. Now, some hope for tea drinkers - green tea drinkers, to be exact. Green tea has long been known to be high in antioxidants, which help protect against cancer. But recent research conducted in Egypt suggests it may help enhance the effectiveness of certain medicines too. The researchers, from the University of Alexandria, tested green tea in combination with antibiotics against 28 disease-causing microbes and found that the tea enhanced the antibiotics' potency in every case. This was true even for drug resistant microbes - i.e. the green tea appeared to render those microbes susceptible to antibiotics once again! Pretty amazing stuff. So coffee in the morning, then tea for the rest of the day - that should see you straight... (Photo from Newsweek.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

174: hope for coffee drinkers

Well, this certainly gave me some hope today. I knew there was a good reason for my daily caffeine kick - besides the obvious one, i.e. that it wakes me up in the morning. According to research cited in today's linked article from BBC online, the daily caffeine equivalent of one cup of coffee may strengthen the 'blood brain barrier' that protects the central nervous system from chemicals circulating in the bloodstream. Experiments conducted by the University of North Dakota - albeit on rabbits, rather than humans - found that caffeine produced this effect even in those on a high cholesterol diet (which is generally thought to weaken the blood brain barrier). This new evidence could help focus new research into the prevention of neurological disorders like Alzheimer's and strokes - as well as preventing me (and all the 'happy bunnies') from giving up my caffeine boost! (Photo from BBC online.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

173: Cuban reforms pick up pace

This story was fairly widely reported today, but I picked up the version in The Economic Times of India. Raul Castro, the recently confirmed President of Cuba, announced another set of reforms today aimed at freeing up the country's economy and improving citizens' living standards. Consistent with promises made on his appointment, Castro is beginning to dismantle some of the restrictions Cubans have faced for years. For example, all Cubans will now be able to stay in major hotels, and buy goods such as mobile telephones, microwaves and personal computers - provided they can afford to, of course (and the average government salary is just around $20 per month!). In a parallel move designed to increase productivity and prosperity (and perhaps export revenue), Castro announced that all unused government land would be made available to farmers and their associations, for the cultivation of coffee, tobacco and other crops. The details of all these initiatives will become clearer over the coming weeks and months, and their effects will take yet longer to assess, but this article suggests most Cubans welcome Castro's reformist zeal. Certainly, it feels like the beginning of a new era...