Monday, June 30, 2008

263: going green in the Caribbean

This is an intriguing little article, found in the New Zealand Herald newspaper today. Apparently, Richard Branson, best known as the founder of the Virgin brand, is planning to develop the world's greenest resort on tiny Mosquito Island, one of the British Virgin Islands. The resort will be powered by wind and solar energy, food will be sourced from an organic orchard, and beach buggies will run on biofuels. This could easily be dismissed as a rich man's pet project, were it not for the fact that Branson sounds serious about using it to demonstrate much broader potential. His vision, as captured in the article, is for the entire Caribbean region to be powered by renewables, and he's establishing a new consulting group to advise local governments wishing to move in this direction. All very interesting and definitely worth watching (ideally from a hammock on Mosquito Island...). (Photo from NZ Herald.)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

262: the power of determination

I found today's linked story from the Houston Chronicle really humbling. It is a personal tale, about a young graduate named Carolyn Barnes from North Carolina. Carolyn's childhood was tough. Her mentally ill drug-using father left her mother to look after Carolyn and her two sisters alone, and they lived in motels for much of her childhood. Carolyn found solace in her studies and worked hard, her determination fuelled when other kids teased her. She gained a full scholarship to college and graduated early as the top student in her faculty. Now, informed by her childhood experiences, she is working towards a career in social policy. Apparently, she's hoping to undertake research to help design programs that empower the poor. Her own story is so inspirational... I'm sure many people would find this empowering in itself. I certainly do.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

261: women breaking through in UK theatre

This is a rather fascinating story, from UK newspaper The Observer. It seems a watershed was crossed recently, as the first original play by a woman is now scheduled for performance on the UK National Theatre's main stage - the Olivier. It seems incredible that it's taken this long... Fittingly, the play, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz - a former table dancer and actress - is about the suffragette movement in the UK. The article linked here is definitely worth a read, as it's an interesting insight into a playwright's life and mind, apart from anything else. But it's also a great reminder that - to borrow from Hillary Clinton - it really is possible for women to put cracks in the oldest of glass ceilings. (Even better, I gather you can go and see the play, entitled 'Her Naked Skin', for only £10 if you are quick, through a discount scheme operated for some tickets at the Olivier.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

260: new chapter in EU-Russian relations

There was some promising news from today's EU-Russia summit, as reported in the article linked above from German news site Deutsche Welle. New Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, hosted EU leaders in the Serbian city of Khanty-Mansiysk, for a three hour meeting that marked the beginning of new partnership negotiations. According to the article, whilst it is clear that there are many areas of disagreement between Russia and the EU, which must resolved through negotiation, the tone of this meeting was warm and constructive - certainly in comparison to the tension that characterized dialogue during the final months of Putin's presidency. It's too early to say how the relationship will evolve, of course, but certainly this is a promising start to a new phase of diplomacy. A cause for cautious optimism at least. (Pretty photo of Khanty-Mansiysk from Deutsche Welle.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

259: genetic testing for breast cancer getting closer

More good news about efforts to tackle breast cancer today, following on from the recent RTBH post about the success of early screening in the UK (post 244). As today's linked article from the BBC reports, a simple genetic test - such as a mouth swab - could soon be available that would help identify an increased risk of breast cancer later in life. In the UK, for example, this would enable women with a genetic profile suggesting increased risk to have scans earlier, perhaps at age 30, rather than the current NHS norm of 50. And, with early scanning now demonstrating its worth, you would expect breast cancer mortality rates to drop as a result. It makes you wonder what hope genomics might offer elsewhere... (Photo from BBC online.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

258: South African 'super plant' could benefit climate

Thanks very much - once again - to RTBH reader Stacey, for sending in today's linked story from South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper. The article reports recent research findings from South Africa's Eastern Cape region, which suggest that an indigenous plant called spekboom (also known as elephant's food) can sequester vast quantities of carbon as it grows. Spekboom is a succulent that can grow to around 2.5m in height, even in very dry conditions. Under such conditions, it has been shown to sequester about 4.2 tons of carbon per hectare per annum. Much of the spekboom found in the Cape has become degraded, but if restored in significant quantities, it would not only absorb carbon and benefit the environment, it could also generate much needed employment and - the South African researchers hope - earn revenue if traded through carbon credit schemes. There may be other spin-off benefits, including plant extracts - and of course food for elephants and other wildlife. Definitely worth exploring...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

257: the gradual greening of a major brand?

Good news from Atlanta - the home of Coca Cola - today, as the company announced it would add 142 hybrid electric trucks to its transport fleet later this summer. As today's linked article from the Atlanta Business Chronicle reports, this move will give Coca Cola the largest hybrid truck fleet in the US to date. The company estimates the move to hybrids will save it money in the long run, as they use 32% less fuel and produce 37% lower emissions than traditional vehicles, so it makes good business sense as well as benefitting the environment. Surely this marks the beginning of a trend across all industrial supply chains, as companies respond to higher fuel prices and growing concern about climate change and other environmental challenges? Particularly if this trend extends beyond transportation, there could be some very interesting - and hopeful - times ahead...

Monday, June 23, 2008

256: hiker rescued thanks to her bra

This is an amazing tale of ingenuity and resourcefulness. Today's linked article from CNN reports that a US hiker stranded in the Bavarian Alps has been rescued after signaling successfully using her sports bra. Apparently, Jessica Bruinsma suffered a fall whilst hiking on June 16th - in which she sustained a number of injuries, including a dislocated shoulder - and landed on a rocky ledge where mountain rescue teams were unable to see her. After a couple of days, she noticed a transportation cable nearby, so she fixed her bra to it in the hope that it might move. Eventually, it did. Once rescuers were alerted to her position near the cable they quickly found her and pulled her to safety. Alongside her quick thinking, her fitness levels also helped her survive - she has been training for a marathon and still hopes to compete if she can recover in time.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

255: where there is (or was) no dentist..

Most people dread a trip to the dentist. But what if you've never had the option to go? As today's linked story from the BBC reports, this is the reality for many in northern Ghana - and, indeed, in many of the world's poorer communities. The article focuses on the Ghanaian region of Nandom, where nobody in the community can remember there ever being a dentist, but where three visiting UK dentists recently trained two local nurses to undertake basic dental procedures. Apparently, over the course of five days' training more than 80 local patients were treated. Now, armed with their new skills and donated equipment, it is hoped the local nurses will be able to relieve the pain of many more. I have a feeling they could get very busy... (Photo from BBC online.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

254: green designs rewarded

Every year since 2001, a number of Ashden Awards have been given to sustainable energy projects that demonstrate cutting edge design and offer benefits to people in developing countries in particular. This year, as reported in today's linked article from Voice of America, the top award went to TIDE - a small company from India. TIDE won the award for their energy efficient stove, which was designed for small businesses. It uses 30% less wood than regular stoves and has already proved popular with textile and brick-making firms. TIDE estimates that, through the use of these stoves, around 120,000 tons of firewood have been saved so far. As the VOA article reports, other stoves also won awards, including an ethanol stove that is being used by women in refugee camps, so they don't have to take risks going out to collect firewood. These kinds of technologies make a massive difference to people's lives - and to the environment. Worthy winners indeed. (Picture of TIDE stove from Ashden Awards/VOA.)

Friday, June 20, 2008

253: prospects for peace across Middle East?

I'll be posting quickly tonight as I'm having real trouble with my internet connection. (The one outside in the cold was better...!) But I liked the tone of this hopeful piece I found on the BBC news website today. It's an optimistic take on the various peace deals and negotiations currently in train across the Middle East, from those between Syria and Israel, to the recent ceasefire declared in Gaza. As the article points out, it's always easier to be pessimistic about the prospects for peace in the region, but there do seem to be more positive signs right now - could these possibly be aligning for peace? It's worth thinking about...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

252: collaboration to save Asiatic cheetah

A great story from Iran today, as reported in Middle East Online. Apparently, the Iranians are collaborating with US conservationists and the Zoological Society of London in an attempt to save the rare Asiatic cheetah from extinction. It is thought that just 60 to 100 of the cheetahs survive in the wild and they are only found in Iran. As a result, a UN-backed campaign was launched to protect them, which brought the Iranians, Americans and Brits together. This - as the article points out - in spite of the fact that political tensions are high between Iran and the US in particular, including on the issue of nuclear proliferation. But such disagreements have been pushed to one side to enable this project to continue – and with some success, as the cheetah population seems to have stabilized. It’s good to see what’s possible when pragmatism is put before politics. (Beautiful photo from Middle East Online.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

251: new budget transparency in Pakistan

Interesting news from Pakistan's Dawn newspaper today... The article linked from the post title above indicates that - for the first time in the nation's history - Pakistan's defense budget has been put before Parliament. In previous years, a single overall budget figure was all that was made available - but now MPs have a more detailed breakdown of defense expenditure plans, not just for the current year but for the following one too. This has allowed for some parliamentary debate, albeit only for a couple of hours this time. But, as evidenced by the Dawn article, it has also allowed for greater public scrutiny. The move by Pakistan's government has been widely applauded, not least as it brings the promise of yet greater transparency in this and other areas of public life in the longer term. It also offers a valuable example to all those countries in which key areas of pubic expenditure, including defense, remain a closed book.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

250: hard won truce brings fresh hope

Good news from the Middle East today, as Hamas and the Israeli authorities agreed a ceasefire, with effect from Thursday at 6am local time. As today's linked article from Al Jazeera reports, the ceasefire agreement comes with associated conditions on both sides and is the outcome of a lengthy process of mediation by Egypt. The ceasefire aims to end Israeli raids into Palestinian territory as well as Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. Sure, such ceasefires have been agreed in the past. But this one has been hard fought. It remains to be seen whether Egypt will stay engaged to ensure conditions are met, but, if they are, then who knows? This ceasefire may yet prove a stepping stone towards more lasting peace. (Photo from Al Jazeera,)

Monday, June 16, 2008

249: bugs produce fuel of the future

Thanks to RTBH reader Paul for alerting me to the story linked above, from the UK’s Times newspaper. In fact, it is a nice follow-on from yesterday’s article, since it’s about using agricultural science to create something new, as opposed to restoring something ancient. Apparently, scientists at the Silicon Valley start-up LS9 have discovered that genetically modified small bugs (tiny non-pathogenic E coli bacteria - or 'industrial yeast') excrete a substance very similar to crude oil. Not only that, but when fed on agricultural waste, the bugs produce oil that is essentially carbon negative - in other words, the bugs will absorb more carbon than they emit. Oil 2.0 - as it's known - is the latest in a string of alternative fuels to be developed across the world, which could ultimately power cars and other vehicles. The true feasibility and benefits of all these products need to be proven, of course, but the extent of innovation in this area is massively encouraging.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

248: date palm dates back 2000 years

Thanks to RTBH reader Stacey for sending in today’s story, from South African news site IOL. According to the article linked above, Israeli scientists have managed to grow a sapling from a 2000-year-old Judean date palm seed found at the ancient fortress Masada (a winter palace built by King Herod near the Dead Sea in the 1st Century BC). The scientists were able to carbon date fragments of the seed after it had germinated, and this confirmed the seed’s age – and that it shares about half its genetic make-up with modern date seeds. Previous attempts to grow from the seeds had failed. Apparently, the ‘Methuselah’ tree, as it’s now known, was reputed to yield cures for all kinds of ailments in ancient times, so if the new sapling proves to be female there could be much demand for its fruit - and its seed… Hopefully, it won’t be so long until the next tree is grown.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

247: UK gets tough on corporation tax avoiders

The post number above (247) has a slightly ironic side to it today - as I am having great difficulty blogging 24/7 at the moment! After yesterday's 'blogging from a plane' episode, today I find myself sitting by a closed outdoor swimming pool, in Cornwall, England - this being the only place in the vicinity where I can find a strong enough Wi-Fi signal to connect to the internet! The pool looks quite tempting actually... in any case, it's nice enough to sit by while all around me the sounds of nature play. So... to today's article, from the UK's Guardian newspaper. It confirms that the UK government will move later this year to close corporate tax avoidance loopholes that currently cost the government - and therefore public services - many millions of pounds a year. The article uses the example of supermarket giant Tesco, which has operated several tax avoidance schemes investigated by the Guardian in the past. Tesco, in response, has said that this is the way corporations do business and they need to follow suit. But isn't that the point? In a world of such plenty, but where so many continue to live in poverty and without access to basic services, such widespread corporate tax avoidance just can't be justified - it's economically, socially and ethically unsustainable. So the UK may be first to take action, but other governments within and beyond the EU will need to examine whether they are doing enough to ensure big business pays its way.

Right, better go inside now. It's getting a bit cold and dark out here...!

Friday, June 13, 2008

246: Zimbabwe's last chance saloon

I have no idea if this will work! I am on a plane but haven't taken off yet. I am trying to blog from my phone having copied the URL of today's linked article from the BBC down and then typed it in! So... It documents actions by African leaders, past and present, to persuade Mugabe to end the violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe, and allow a free and fair election to prevail. I am crossing my fingers that if there is one group of people Mugabe will listen to it's the men who have signed the letter sent to him today...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

245: equal parenting

This is an interesting article, from German news site Deutsche Welle. It covers the impact of a German government policy, introduced 18 months ago, which allows new fathers to apply to take parental leave on two-thirds pay, so they can look after their child. And it seems to be taking off. Currently, nearly 20% of new fathers are applying for the leave - though most take a couple of months rather than the year they are entitled to. Whilst these fathers get to bond with their little ones, their wives or partners get to continue their career; and then the parents can swap. It's a gradual revolution, perhaps, but certainly it seems there is a shift towards parenting becoming more of an equally shared enterprise. That has to be good news for parents and their kids. (Photo from Deutsche Welle.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

244: breast cancer screening a resounding success

Some tremendously good news today, about the survival prospects of women suffering from breast cancer. As today's linked article from the BBC reports, a recent audit in the UK showed that a majority of women who had their cancer detected early through screening had the same average lifespan as women without breast cancer. Indeed, even women whose cancer was detected later through screening - i.e. when it was more developed or aggressive - had excellent survival rates, with 86% of women still alive 15 years later. Breast cancer screening is such a simple thing (if a little painful!). And this new evidence really underlines what a huge difference it can make. It's important to stress that it's no panacea - what is? - as many cancers are not detected through screening. But it's definitely good news, not least since it may encourage more women to go for screening in the first place. (Photo from BBC online.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

243: lost boys of Sudan doing well

I found this fascinating and uplifting article on today, and in doing so I learned much more about the 'lost boys of Sudan'. As the article outlines, in the 1980s, whilst southern Sudan was in the grip of civil war, thousands of young boys fled across the border to Ethiopia, hoping to escape death or forced conscription into armed militias. For a while they lived in camps there, but when the Ethiopian authorities sent them back to Sudan they fled again... Many died in the process, but those who survived - around 10,000 boys - finally made it to UN camps in Kenya. Some 3,800 boys were then resettled in the US. Today's linked article reports on the progress made by some of these boys since arriving in the US in 2000-2001, and their achievements are pretty impressive. Many study alongside paid work, gradually improving their English and gaining US qualifications. Some have now returned to a more peaceful southern Sudan, but most wish to stay in the US and make the most of the opportunities this offers them. As the article suggests, the lost boys' story says a lot about the resilience of young men and their ability to achieve, against the odds, when given the right support. As such it offers hope not just for these boys and for Sudan, but for boys across the world and those who care for them.


I found a lot of information about the lost boys of Sudan on the internet, if you want to read more. In fact, an award-winning film has been made about them - called Lost Boys of Sudan - and it has been screened on PBS, I gather. The film's website also contains educational resources and advocacy materials related to Darfur.

Monday, June 9, 2008

242: first steps out of conflict for Somalia

Somalia has been in a state of almost constant civil war during the last 17 years, creating more than one million refugees and leaving many dead. However, today saw the tiniest sliver of hope emerge from the conflict zone. As today's linked article from the BBC reports, UN-brokered talks between the Somali government and one of the key rebel groups, the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, have concluded in a signed peace deal. The talks were the first between the two groups who - according to the article - were in the same hotel for eight days avoiding each other before they actually met. The result is an agreement to end armed conflict within 30 days. Ethiopian troops are expected to leave Somalia within 90 days. The agreement is, of course, very fragile. Whether it can be implemented remains to be seen. But, after so long without dialogue, getting anything down on paper is a significant step forward. (Photo from BBC online.)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

241: hope found in Zimbabwean courts?

There has been very little hope to be found in Zimbabwe of late. This week alone has seen multiple arrests of opposition MPs and party officials, bans on NGO aid activities, government attempts to block opposition rallies, and attacks on US and UK diplomats investigating political violence. However, as today's linked article from Reuters reports, Zimbabwean courts are now intervening. Today Zimbabwe's High Court ruled that an opposition MP, who had been arrested for the second time in a week, now be released. On Saturday, courts ruled that opposition rallies could continue, despite attempts by government officials and police under their control to ban them. It's still very hard to see how any presidential run-off vote can be conducted freely and fairly, but it's certainly encouraging to see the judiciary working to maintain its independence and to uphold the rule of law.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

240: remember to eat your blueberries

Some good news for blueberry lovers today. And if you're not a fan of the fruit yet, remember to try it. Apparently, according to new research summarised in today's linked article from the UK's Daily Mail newspaper, eating blueberries can help improve your memory. Indeed, it may even reverse memory loss due to old age. It's all to do with the flavonoids that blueberries and some other fruits contain, which increase communication between nerve cells and stimulate the regeneration of brain cells. These research findings could inform the treatment of those with degenerative diseases such as Alzheimers. In any case, it certainly wouldn't hurt to add some blueberries to your diet (though perhaps not in a pancake or muffin?). (Photo from Getty / Daily Mail.)

Friday, June 6, 2008

239: UK's oldest man taking it easy

The UK's oldest man, Henry Allingham, turned 112 today. As today's linked article from the BBC reports, he was treated to a VIP lunch and a personal air show by the British Royal Air Force, of which he is the oldest original member alive today. Indeed, he is one of only three surviving UK veterans of World War I and he is apparently determined to share his memories of the great war as much as he can, to increase others' understanding of its significance. At his birthday party were Henry's great-great-grandchildren and many of his other relatives. He survives his wife, who died 38 years ago, and also his two daughters. So what's the secret of this longevity? Well, Henry seems to think it's got something to do with his taking life slowly and avoiding stress. Sounds good to me! (Photo from BBC online.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

238: cancer treatment that is easier to bear

A big thank you to RTBH reader Stacey for sending in this hopeful story from the news site Wired today. According to the article, scientists from Los Angeles have developed a new way to target cancer cells, using tiny containers that release drugs when activated with a laser. Normally, treatment with chemotherapy is indiscriminate, so healthy cells are also affected and side effects can be severe. The new targeting technology could put an end to that and may be available for use by cancer patients within two years. A very good reason to be hopeful... Thanks again, Stacey! (Photo from

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

237: the maturing of Chinese civil society

Did you know that Yale produces its own news websites? I didn't - at least not until today. But I've now discovered 'Yale environment 360' - a news site dedicated to highlighting environmental issues from across the world, through a combination of news streaming, scientific commentary and reportage style journalism. Today's linked story from that site focuses on the growth of grassroots environmental organizations in China, a country where the concept of 'civil society' is nascent but local environmental problems are severe. According to the article, environmental groups have secured a good degree of freedom relative to other civil society organizations in China. As a result, they have been able to develop a strong body of data about issues such as industrial pollution, water resource management, land degradation and other things that affect Chinese people's lives - and they are beginning to be trusted by the government as they prove their worth. Whilst controls on their activities remain, environmental groups have evolved rapidly in recent years, giving a glimpse of the potential for a more pluralistic and open society as 21st century China evolves.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

236: social stock (ex)change

Do you remember post 164 on this blog, about the UK's new plans for a social stock exchange, and the debate that followed? Well, today I found this article in Newsweek, about the harbinger of such initiatives. Apparently, the world's first social stock exchange was launched in Brazil in 2003. Now it has come of age, with a wide range of social enterprises and community projects benefiting from the investment it has generated. As a result, the world is watching - and in some cases copying. South Africa launched its own social stock exchange in 2006 (interesting that the forerunners are both middle-income countries), the UK and Germany will launch theirs next year, and many other countries are developing similar plans. It's a promising new trend, which has the power to effect change in places that both business and the public sector do not reach right now. Definitely one to watch! (Photo of Brazilian stock exchange founder, Celso Grecco, from Newsweek.)


It's my birthday today, so I went for colour change! Hope you like it... :-)

Monday, June 2, 2008

235: experimental therapy heals US toddler

Today's linked story from USA Today is disturbing, but incredible too, and ultimately full of hope. It's about a young boy called Nate from New Jersey, USA, who has inherited a rare genetic disorder, called epidermolysis bullosa. So has his older brother. Both of them are unable to make a protein called collagen VII, which helps skin tissue bind to muscle. The consequences are pretty unpleasant - blistering, scarring, internal tissue damage and more. However, Nate recently benefited from some experimental therapy, involving a bone marrow transplant from a healthy brother. It's early days, but this risky procedure appears to have had a tremendous impact. Nate is now putting on weight and even making collagen VII - in other words, the transplant appears to have helped his body override the genetic deficit he inherited. There is some hope that Nate's older brother may benefit too, though his bone marrow match was not perfect, making the procedure even riskier. Nate's family and experts seem to agree, however, that this is a new therapy that holds tremendous promise.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

234: end of the line for tyrants?

This opinion piece from the South African news site IOL is interesting (and well written). It notes a promising trend across Africa - of increasing attempts to bring former tyrants to justice for suspected human rights abuses. The article notes a string of trials and even prosecutions, from former Liberian leader Charles Taylor to Jean-Pierre Bemba of the DRC (arrested this week), and the decision by the Ethiopian supreme court to sentence to death the former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam - the latter in abstentia, since Mengistu was given asylum in Zimbabwe many years ago. The author argues that justice is catching up with tyrannical leaders, and asks what this means for Robert Mugabe, given the mounting evidence of state-sponsored violence and killing under his rule. On that, time will tell. One thing is for sure though - as is evident from today's linked article, a growing number of commentators across Africa are calling tyranny by its name, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. And a growing number of citizens are courageously standing up to it. A cause for hope - and considerable respect.