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undeterred's Journal
undeterred's Journal
January 12, 2015

Newfound Exoplanets Are Most Earth-Like Yet

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft finds two worlds that have sizes and orbits similar to ours
January 6, 2015 |By Lee Billings

After five years of searching, researchers using data from NASA's exoplanet-hunting Kepler spacecraft have discovered what look to be two of the most Earth-like worlds yet. Dubbed Kepler 438 b and Kepler 442 b, both planets appear to be rocky and orbit in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold habitable zones of their stars where liquid water can exist in abundance. Astronomers announced the planets along with six other newfound small, temperate worlds today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle. Their findings will be published in The Astrophysical Journal. The discoveries double the number of known potentially habitable exoplanets. They also push Kepler's tally of vetted, confirmed worlds to just over 1,000, marking a milestone in the mission's epochal search for alien Earths.

This artist's conception depicts an Earth-like planet orbiting an evolved star that has formed a stunning "planetary nebula." Earlier in its life, this planet may have been like one of the eight newly discovered worlds orbiting in the habitable zones of their stars.

Both planets are many hundreds of light-years away and orbit stars smaller and dimmer than our sun. Like most of Kepler's finds, they were discovered via transits—the shadows they cast toward our solar system as they cross the blazing faces of their stars. Transits allow astronomers to measure a planet's size, orbit and exposure to starlight. Kepler 438 b is only about 12 percent larger than Earth, and basks in 40 percent more starlight; Kepler 442 b is 30 percent larger and receives about 30 percent less light. Both spheres may be somewhat warmer than Kepler's two previous premier rocky worlds, Kepler 186 f and Kepler 62 f, each of which gets significantly less starlight—similar to that received by Mars. “We can't say for sure whether these planets are truly habitable—only that they are promising candidates for habitability," says study co-author David Kipping, an astronomer at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass.

When Kepler launched into orbit in 2009 to survey a patch of sky containing some 150,000 stars, one of its primary goals was to find mirror Earths, worlds about the same size as our own in approximately 365-day orbits around sunlike stars. The task was expected to take just over three years because many things can cause stars to dim besides transiting planets, and astronomers would need to glimpse the periodic recurrence of any mirror Earth's transit not once or twice but three times to be convinced that any particular dimming was due to a planet.

The sunlike stars had other plans, however, proving to be more variable in brightness than mission planners had anticipated, muddying Kepler's search for the faint shadows. Kepler's scientists consequently focused on smaller, dimmer, quieter stars and asked for more time to gather additional data. The mission was extended in 2012 but was struck by stabilizer equipment failures in spring of 2013 that sent Kepler's once-steady gaze drifting askew, bringing its survey to a premature close. Last year the spacecraft was resurrected as the "K2" mission after researchers devised a new method to aim the telescope. K2 is a more limited transit survey and has scant hope of finding a mirror Earth. The last, best option for the mission to succeed in discovering Earth twins was to sift through Kepler's archival data from 2013 and earlier, which is filled with thousands of unconfirmed candidate planets. "I think these latest planets are about as good as we're going to get from the Kepler data," Kipping says. "I would like to be surprised—and I'm hopeful—but I'm not sure we'll find planets closer to Earth twins than the objects we present in our paper."

Read more: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/newfound-exoplanets-are-most-earth-like-yet/

January 25, 2014

Can genetically modified crops end hunger in Africa?

The African Union declared 2014 the Year of Food Security. The plan is to eradicate hunger on the continent by 2025. But controversy is brewing over whether genetically modified crops can help countries reach that goal. The UN estimates that 223 million people in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from malnutrition. Long periods of drought have resulted in poor corn and millet harvests. For years, African politicians have called for the introduction of genetically modified (GM) plants as a means to halt the decline in yields. At an African Agriculture Conference in 2012, 24 African countries agreed to allow the use of genetically modified crops. But so far, commercial use of genetically engineered seeds is permitted only in South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso. Calestous Juma can't understand the other nations' reluctance. Governments should be more open to GM crops, the professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University said. "There may be some areas where you need GM seeds and there may be areas where GM seeds are not necessary," Juma said. "That choice should be left to the farmer."


Genetically modified plants are no solution in the fight against hunger, argued Million Belay, coordinator of the pan-African platform Alliance for Food Sovereignty (AFSA). "They never were," he added. AFSA promotes biodiversity and ecological land management in Africa and fights against the use of GM seeds. "Every time a crisis comes, the international community thinks that's the solution," Belay said. But the problem is not the seeds, it's the soil, he said, adding that if you enrich the soil in a natural way then productivity will follow. "It's like focusing on the mother, not only on the child: If you feed the mother, the child will be healthy," he said.

The Council of Ministers of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in September 2013 approved controversial new seed trade regulations. According to the rules, only standardized, certified seeds may be sold among the 19 member states. The seeds are patented and must guarantee consistent results over a long period of time - ruling out further use of traditional seeds. Small farmers could no longer jointly collect seeds and sell the unpatented variety. The agreement would also pave the way for major agricultural companies that have GM seeds on offer. The COMESA members are free to decide, however, whether they want to introduce GM seeds. The ruling hasn't yet gone into force, but when it does, many small farmers are bound to be affected. "Ownership would be transferred to companies, and that would actually meant the life of the people would be controlled by few interest groups and big companies - like Monsanto," Belay warned.

Worldwide, three companies are responsible for more than 50 percent of the sale of seeds: Monsanto, Syngenta from Switzerland and DuPont, another US giant. Monsanto is one of the most influential enterprises on the African agricultural market. At the AU summit last year, citizens groups demanded banning genetically modified seeds throughout the bloc. This year - the Year of Food Security- Agriculture and Food Security are the focus at the African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. It remains to be seen what role GM plants will play in the AU goal to conquer hunger in Africa by 2025.


September 5, 2013

Feingold in Democratic Republic of Congo

U.S. sends Russ Feingold to DRC

Published: Sept. 4, 2013 at 9:25 AM

WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 (UPI) -- The U.S State Department announced special envoy to the DRC Russ Feingold arrived in the region to help drive the effort to bring peace to the country. Secretary of State John Kerry appointed former Sen. Feingold, D-Wis., to serve as a special envoy for the region in June. The State Department said Feingold was dispatched to the region to take part in efforts backed by the European Union, African Union and United Nations to bring peace to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"The trip will be special envoy Feingold's first visit to the region in his new capacity, and follows on multiple trips during his tenure as a U.S. senator," the State Department said Tuesday. A statement issued Friday by the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply concerned by the deteriorating security situation in the eastern DRC.

A Tanzanian member of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Democratic Republic of Congo was killed in fighting last week. The U.N mission, known by its French acronym MONUSCO, said several civilians were killed during fighting between Congolese forces and M23 in August.

Ban tasked the Great Lakes and DRC special envoys with working to find a peaceful solution to the situation. M23 took control of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu province, briefly last year. Former leader Bosco Ntaganda surrendered to the International Criminal Court this year to face war crimes charges.


Wishing you safe travels and success in your mission, Senator Feingold
July 14, 2013

Central African Republic Needs Humanitarian Help Urgently

...On March 24, members of the rebel coalition, known as the Séléka, overthrew President François Bozizé. A week later, representatives of various warring factions attempted to put together a government, but former opposition parties boycotted it. A transitional parliament is now in place with the hope of holding national elections within 18 months, but it has very little control over security. Meanwhile, the Séléka has intentionally destroyed at least 34 towns and villages since February.

Even before the current crisis, the Central African Republic was suffering from severely inadequate health care. There were less than three doctors for every 100,000 people, and life expectancy was about 48 years. The mortality rate for children under five years old was 17.2%, and one out of every 27 women with children would die due to pregnancy complications. 40% of the population did not have access to safe drinking water, and only 1/3 of children were vaccinated against diptheria, pertussis, tetanus, and measles.

I understand that international organizations have to pull out when a country’s security situation becomes so severe that workers are under serious threat, or supply chains get blocked. However, the Red Cross and MSF are, still, in the Central African Republic, and if American religious and non-religious NGOs make a major push now, then it is still possible to rebuild the food and medical delivery services throughout the country, and prevent what could become an even worse humanitarian catastrophe.


The transitional government has turned out to be anarchy. Instead of providing security they have destroyed the country's weak institutions and engaged in killing civilians and all kinds of atrocities. Many humanitarian agencies have left in fear for their safety while others plead for help from the rest of the world. But there are many agencies ready and willing to help if the funding and security are available.

The international community has largely turned its back on this poor landlocked nation "The entire population of 4.6 million people is affected by the crisis. Half of those are children," said Valerie Amos, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. "The humanitarian needs are huge and increasing, with 1.6 million people in need of assistance," she added. She has called for the international community to turn its attention to Central African Republic.

The European Union has responded. The United States needs to respond.

Please sign the petition asking President Obama to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Central African Republic: wh.gov/la845
June 30, 2013

Graça Machel: so much more than a first lady

Robert McCrum The Observer, Saturday 29 June 2013 13.29 EDT

As the world's thoughts turn towards Nelson Mandela, it is becoming clear that his wife too will take her place in history as a huge figure in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and injustice.

Shakespeare, in one of Nelson Mandela's favourite lines, now strangely apposite, says that "the valiant never taste of death but once". As the world waits for Mandela to make his final rendezvous with history, one woman – his third wife – who has been at his bedside throughout his illness, and now keeps vigil there, is almost perfectly cast for her role. Graça Machel (pronounced Mah-shell) has, after all, been here before.

In 1986, Machel was tragically widowed when the Russian Tupolev jet carrying her husband, Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique, ploughed into a remote hillside just inside the South African border. The apartheid regime denied involvement, but suspicions of a political assassination linger. As the nation rallied in grief, Graça Machel, a young mother, was dubbed Mozambique's Jackie Kennedy. It's not an implausible comparison. She has the same easy, cosmopolitan self-confidence, natural presence, and command of languages (English, Portuguese and French).

She has many weighty qualifications, too, including a law degree – combined with an impressive slate of global achievements in women's rights and humanitarian issues. "I'm not Samora's wife," she's been known to snap. "I'm me." In public, she's beloved for her ready smiles and self-deprecating humour, mixed with a steely determination. As Mozambique's first lady, she was widely credited with being a moderating influence over her firebrand Marxist husband. And if Samora Machel's story is now part of African liberation folklore, and if Nelson Mandela is a figure for the ages, Graça Machel is close to the equal of her two husbands. Shy of publicity, she once said: "It's not two leaders who fell in love with me, but two real people. I feel privileged that I have shared my life with two such exceptional men."

She was born Graça Simbine on 17 October 1945 on the coast of Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony. Her family were peasants. Her father, who was semi-literate, provided for the family by oscillating between the South African mines and farming, and would become a Methodist minister. When he died, weeks before Graça was born, family legend says that he made his wife promise that their unborn child would have proper schooling. Machel's mother kept her word. "We were a poor family," Machel has said, "but I had the best education."


June 29, 2013

Falling in Love

by Diana Buckhantz

I have fallen in love with two men on this trip to Congo. They are two men from very different backgrounds and with different skills but who share the same unshakeable passion and vision for Congo’s women. They are each extraordinary in their own right, and I am in awe of their humility, strength, and perseverance. Dr. Denis Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who founded Panzi Hospital in 1999 in Bukavu, DRC. Dr. Mukwege has become the world’s leading expert in repairing fistula — damage done to the internal organs of women during gang rape. At Panzi, at least 1200 women a year are treated for rape, many needing multiple surgeries. His patients arrive brutalized, bleeding, often leaking urine and fecal matter.

No one is turned away and many women live at Panzi for years waiting to complete their surgeries. I met a very young woman today who had been there for two years. Women can also keep their children with them, and the hospital provides child care and schooling for the older children. Dr. Mukwege’s dream (which is on the road to completion) is to open Maison Dorcas, a Women’s Empowerment Center where approximately 200 women will live while learning skills and business entrepreneurial techniques. The classes will start even now as the building reaches completion. And while the Center is mainly for these survivors, Dr. Mukwege’s goal is to include women from the community around Panzi so that the women will become integrated into the community and not be stigmatized as a result of living there.

Dr. Mukwege has dedicated his life not only to saving women’s lives but to becoming their strongest advocate as well. In fact, after he made an impassioned speech at the U.N. which blamed “impunity” for mass rape in Congo and criticizing the international community and the Congolese government for their shameful inaction, an assassination attempt was made on his life last October. He and his family barely escaped and were forced to live in exile for several months. It was a devastating time for everyone and especially the women in Congo, but he is back now albeit at great risk to himself, continuing to operate and advocate.


Amani Matabaro is physically the opposite of Dr. Mukwege. While also handsome, he is a diminutive man who can be easily overlooked in a crowd, but like Dr. Mukwege, his voice is heard loud and clear on gender equity issues and women’s empowerment. While Amani works and consults with various NGOs and individuals to support his wife and six children, his real passion is AFBEK (a French acronym that translates to Action for the Welfare of Women and Children), an organization he started to empower women and children by providing women with entrepreneurial trainings and children with the fees to be able to go to school.

May 15, 2013

The Riddle: new anti-homophobia message from UN human rights office

Published on May 14, 2013

76 countries still criminalize consensual same-sex relationships and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people everywhere continue to suffer violent attacks and discriminatory treatment. In this simple, high-impact video from the UN human rights office, individuals from diverse backgrounds pose questions directly to the viewer designed to expose the nature of human rights violations suffered by LGBT people around the world. The video includes cameo appearances by UN Secretary-General and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

The UN's message: LGBT rights are human rights.

Together we will build a world that is free and equal.

May 14, 2013

U.S.-trained Congolese troops committed rapes and other atrocities, U.N. says

Courtesy of U.S. Air Force - U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Christopher K. Haas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, returns the salute of Lieutenant Colonel Pepe Tongawa in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo

By Craig Whitlock, Published: May 13
A Congolese army battalion that received its formative training from the U.S. military went on to commit mass rapes and other atrocities last year, a U.N. investigation has found. Members of the 391st Commando Battalion, a unit created in 2010 with extensive support from the U.S. government, joined with other Congolese soldiers to rape 97 women and 33 girls as they fled a rebel advance in eastern Congo in November, according to the United Nations.

U.S. Special Operations forces had spent eight months training the 750-member battalion in a bid to professionalize Congo’s ragtag military, which has a long history of rights abuses, including raping and killing civilians. The training program, dubbed Operation Olympic Chase, was led by the State Department and the U.S. Africa Command, which oversees military operations on the continent. Two years later, members of the battalion joined other Congolese soldiers to rape and rob scores of civilians in Minova, a town in eastern Congo, according to an investigative report released last week by the U.N. Joint Human Rights Office. The attacks occurred as Congolese forces were chased out of Goma, a key provincial capital, by a rebel group known as M23.

On Monday, the State Department acknowledged that some U.S.-trained soldiers “may be implicated in these rapes,” according to an e-mailed statement from a spokeswoman, Hilary Renner. “We condemn these crimes unequivocally and call for a full and credible investigation” by the Congolese government, she added. “You have enhanced your moral understanding of how a professional military operates effectively within a democratic society to provide security, to protect the civilian population and to contribute to greater stability,” Samuel Laeuchli, the ranking U.S. diplomat in the Congo at the time, said in a speech at the 391st Battalion’s graduation. Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, said the U.S. government underestimated what it would take to reform the Congolese armed forces.

“The state of the army in itself is a disaster, so you train people and you send them back to a dysfunctional army,” he said. “You are trained, but you still have a very low wage, no logistics, a very poor command system and no sense of belonging and cohesion because the Congolese army is still a patchwork of very different groups. Even if you’re trained, at the end of the day, you’re still an hungry and unpaid soldier.”... The U.N. findings represent another setback in the U.S. military’s efforts to train and equip troops in Third World countries, many of which have poor human rights records.

May 6, 2013

Last Hope in Ruins: Bangladesh’s Race to Save Shaheena

Published: May 5, 2013

SAVAR, Bangladesh — The rescuers discovered her by a faint, distant sound. They had spent four days crawling through the wreckage of Rana Plaza, tons of concrete and steel pressing down, saving hundreds of people. Now only the dead remained. Except for a lone woman, a garment worker. She was trapped behind a fallen pillar, in a suffocating crevice maybe two feet high. First, the rescuers could see only her fingertips pressing through a tiny opening. After hours spent chipping a small hole, they could see her face. Her name was Shaheena. She was 32. She begged to see her young son.

The story of Shaheena, involving a heroic if ultimately doomed rescue operation, offered the last bit of hope of finding anyone alive in what is now considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. For hours on April 28, as television reporters broadcast updates, rescuing Shaheena became a national priority. She would be trapped for more than 100 hours.

Her plight attracted so much attention because of the horror of the building collapse, with a death toll that by Sunday had exceeded 600; the drama of the long rescue effort; and the human desire to find a sliver of redemption in the tragedy. But the attention was also an anomaly: there are easily more than 2.5 million women working in the garment industry in Bangladesh whose lives usually attract scant notice, even though they are the workhorses of the national economy.

For women like Shaheena, the garment industry has been a source of empowerment as well as exploitation. Before, few rural women worked outside the fields in Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim nation. Many, like Shaheena, are still not given a surname at birth. Now the industry has given many women a first step out of rural distress, with some becoming outspoken labor leaders or managers in their factories.


May 6, 2013

UN sends force to look for a fight in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Deployment of intervention brigade is not peacekeeping but peace enforcement. If successful it will set a precedent
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 5 May 2013 12.36 EDT

In establishing an intervention brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations has taken a leap into the unknown. UN peacekeeping operations have become embroiled in scraps before, but this is the first time such a force has been sent out to look for a fight. The brigade has the job of "neutralising" ultra-violent armed groups who are perpetuating the misery of the eastern DRC, with a clear mandate for initiating attacks against those militias rather than simply responding to attacks from them. It is not peacekeeping but peace enforcement.

The UN has the right and a duty to confront threats to global peace under chapter 7 of its charter, but in the past the deployment of combat troops has been subcontracted to willing nations, deputised by the UN like a wild west sheriff's posse. The most recent example of this was in April 2011 in Libya, where UN resolution 1973 authorised "all necessary measures" be taken to protect civilians, a mandate controversially interpreted by France, UK and the US to help bring about the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. When global and regional powers have not wanted to become embroiled in civil conflicts, the role has been left to the UN department of peacekeeping, which canvasses member states for troops, puts them in blue helmets and gives them narrowly drawn mandates and rules of engagement aimed at preserving the UN's credibility as a neutral arbiter and preventing the UN from becoming just another warring faction on the ground.

What could possibly go wrong? As events in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia proved, the half-hearted defensive missions were a recipe for humanitarian disasters. The peacekeeping forces Unprofor in Bosnia, Unamir in Rwanda and Unosom II in Somalia were all sent in with no peace to keep and no security council consensus on how they should to their job. The Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansers, the Hutu genocidaires and the Mogadishu warlords could smell the weakness of the UN position and simply overran the blue-helmeted forces, slaughtering hundreds of people who were supposed to be under the UN's protection. Those left defenceless blamed impotent UN soldiers, but the real problem lay with a feckless and divided security council.

The disgust at the genocides of the 1990s paved the way in 2005 for the UN's adoption of a new principle, the "responsibility to protect", which in theory turned the inviolability of state sovereignty on its head and argued that sovereignty was a responsibility rather than a right. When a state failed to protect its civilians, the international community had the right to intervene with coercive measures, including force if necessary. At the same time, UN peacekeeping missions have become more forward-leaning when it comes to defending themselves. In Ivory Coast in April 2011, the UN force Unoci fought back fiercely when attacked by forces loyal to the warlord Laurent Gbagbo, launching gunship assaults on Gbagbo's palace and his residence in tandem with French forces.

more at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/05/un-force-democratic-republic-congo

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