Friday, January 31, 2014

War Mail

From the BBC:
"World War One: How did 12 million letters a week reach soldiers?"

During World War One up to 12 million letters a week were delivered to soldiers, many on the front line. The wartime post was a remarkable operation, writes ex-postman and former Home Secretary Alan Johnson. When a soldier on the Western Front wrote to a London newspaper in 1915 saying he was lonely and would appreciate receiving some mail the response was immediate.   The newspaper published his name and regiment and within weeks he'd received 3,000 letters, 98 large parcels and three mailbags full of smaller packages. Had that soldier had the time to respond to every letter he could have done. Wherever he was fighting, his reply would have been delivered back to Britain within a day or two of posting. How the General Post Office (GPO) maintained such an efficient postal service to soldiers and sailors during World War One is a story of remarkable ingenuity and amazing courage. The imperative was clear from the start. Ever since the establishment of the Penny Post in 1840, the ability to communicate by letter reliably and cheaply had become a public expectation.  For fighting soldiers it was essential to morale and the British Army knew that. It considered delivering letters to the front as important as delivering rations and ammunition.  The Boer War of 1899 had established an expectation among soldiers that they would be able to stay in touch with those at home but the logistics of doing so in WW1 provided a challenge on an unprecedented scale. The GPO was already a huge operation before war broke out in 1914. It employed over 250,000 people and had a revenue of £32m, making it the biggest economic enterprise in Britain and the largest single employer of labour in the world, according to the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA). But at its peak during the war it was dealing with an extra 12 million letters and a million parcels being sent to soldiers each week. I became a postman in what was still the GPO almost exactly 50 years after the end of WW1. The way that mail was collected, sorted, despatched, received and delivered had changed very little. There was no mechanisation beyond a stamping machine to date-stamp letters. All sorting was done by hand. Mail was transported in sacks, the dust from which lodged in the throat and eyes and formed "tide marks" around the shirt collar.
The youngest of the men who'd survived WW1 were just reaching retirement age when I started work in 1965 aged 15. By the time I became a postman at Barnes in London three years later the men who'd fought in World War Two were in their 40s. Those who'd served in the same regiment gravitated towards the same canteen table. One in every three recruits into the GPO between the wars was an ex-servicemen moving from one uniformed occupation to another. The terminology was militaristic and is to this day. Postmen didn't go to work, they went "on duty". We didn't take holidays, we took "annual leave". We weren't in a job, we were in a "service". What characterised the GPO was a pride in our ability to move millions of letters from anywhere to anywhere, safely and quickly. This pride must have burned even fiercer in the men of the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) or REPS as it was universally known. This was a part-time reserve unit in peacetime made up of GPO men who'd had a smattering of military training.   This unit of postal workers was immediately subsumed into the Army when WW1 broke out, but the Army was only in nominal command. This operation was controlled by the GPO. Even questions in Parliament about forces mail were answered by the Postmaster General rather than the War Minister.  At the outbreak of war the unit almost immediately created a sorting office in London's Regent's Park - a gigantic wooden hut covering several acres. Called the Home Depot, it employed 2,500 staff, mainly women, to sort post. Outward mail was sorted by military unit. Each morning bosses would be informed by Whitehall of the latest movements of ships and battalions so each item of mail could be dispatched to the right place.  On its outward journey to the Western Front, a fleet of three-tonne army lorries would take the mail to Folkestone or Southampton where ships would shuttle it across to Army Postal Service (APS) depots in Le Havre, Boulogne and Calais. Trains ran back and forth across Picardy under cover of darkness dropping some mail off along the route and unloading the rest at railheads where special REPS lorries took them to the "refilling points" for divisional supplies.  Regimental post orderlies would sort the mail at the roadside and carts would be wheeled to the front line to deliver it to individual soldiers. The objective was to hand out letters from home with the evening meal. It's said that no matter how tired and hungry the soldiers were, they always read the letter before eating the food. Letters back were collected from the men from field post offices. These were equipped as comprehensively as a village sub-office, according to Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of the Royal Mail by Duncan Campbell Smith. Men could even buy War Savings Certificates there exactly as the population did back home. The mail was date-stamped with the field postmark and sent to the base post office for its journey home. At the beginning of the war every letter home was opened and read by a junior officer. It was then opened and read again at the Home Depot to ensure that it contained no classified information about troop movements or casualties.  Eventually men could opt for an "Honour Envelope" which meant the letter would only be read in London, saving the embarrassment of having their deeply personal endearments read by a censor who they knew. At its peak this incredible operation delivered over 12 million letters a week and one million parcels.  Wherever armed forces were engaged, REPS would follow, delivering to ships of the Royal Navy anywhere in the world and to soldiers away from the fixed positions of the Western Front. In Gallipoli more unopened letters from those killed in action were being passed back from the front than letters going forward. The GPO always ensured that returned letters didn't arrive before the official telegram telling the family that their son was dead. There were 30,000 unopened letters every day. Those postal workers who went to war were probably glad to be handling letters and parcels rather than rifles and bayonets, but their truly magnificent work was as important to the war effort as the weapons. Indeed mail exchanged between soldiers and loved ones was a weapon. Those who wielded it made a huge contribution to the outcome of the war.

^ It is always important in any war for soldiers and their families to feel they are connected. It is a truly remarkable feat that the British (and I'm sure other countries) were able to move so much mail around the world so quickly before airplanes were readily used. It is one thing for the British to be able to get mail from the UK to the front in France and another for them to also do so in the Middle East and other parts of the world. I have used military mail many times (when I lived in Germany twice and when my brother and dad were in Iraq and then Afghanistan.) Even today, with Skype and e-mail I know how important regular "snail" mail is. Of course packages are greatly appreciated but sometimes just a regular letter can mean a lot more. The intense commitment that the British Government and Military made to get mail to/from the frontlines shows how important the soldiers and their sacrifices were viewed. ^

Blind "Sight"

From the DW:
"In the equation: how to improve access for blind science students"

Studying science can be difficult at the best of times, but if you're blind, it can be even harder. Software to magnify text helps. But a German university has a better solution. Magnifying text in a university lecture hall for students who are visually impaired or blind is one thing. There's software and hardware for that. But the software often struggles with some of the things that scientists need: equations and graphs. Max Kordell is a science student at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, or KIT, in southwestern Germany. He sits near the front of a packed organic chemistry lecture. Bent over his notebook, his white hair stands out from the students around him. The nineteen-year-old chemistry student has albinism. Like many other albinos, he has problems with his eyesight. The professor scribbles a long formula on the blackboard at the front of the lecture theatre. Despite only having about seven percent vision, Kordell can still follow the lecture thanks to a camera, which projects what is on the blackboard onto his laptop. "I need to have everything magnified," says Kordell. "Thanks to the camera, I can magnify the words so I can read them." Following lectures isn't the most difficult part of studying science with a visual impairment though. Kordell gets out his laptop to demonstrate another issue. He logs in and moves his very large and bright yellow mouse icon to click on a pdf document sent to him by a professor. He hovers over a formula with his magnifying software but the formula has been written in a particularly spiky font that doesn't magnify well. Instead of making the equation bigger, the software displays a whole bunch of pixels that are impossible to read. Blind students face similar problems. Instead of a magnifying program, blind people use screen reading software that reads out aloud the text on the computer. But even simple text can pose a problem if a pdf is protected, for example, because then the screen reader simply can't read it. And as for formulas, charts or graphs - how is a screen reader supposed to describe those?
Luckily, the blind and partly sighted students studying at KIT - there are about 30 at the moment - are supported by the university's Study Centre for Visually Impaired Students (Studienzentrum für Sehgeschädigte), known as the SZS. The SZS adapts the study material to make it accessible for students with visual impairment or blindness, and tailors it to each student's particular degree of disability. There are several others like it in Germany, but the SZS is the only one specialized in the natural sciences. According to Torsten Schwarz, the research scientist responsible for literature adaptation at the centre, "math is the main problem." Words are one dimensional - they run in a line across a page. However, maths is often two-dimensional. Take a fraction, for example, ¼ - it has a top part and a bottom part. This leads to complications if you have fractions being read out by a screen reader. Schwarz coordinates a team of students who work at the centre, converting equations from the study materials into a more linear mathematical notation known as LaTex - which is more accessible to blind students. But there's still the nutty problem of how to make graphs, charts and diagrams accessible. Graphs are very complex, combining text, numerical and visual information. First, the graph has to be stripped of any non-essential information. Then there needs to be a description of what information is being presented. "This still isn't enough though," says Schwarz, which is why the graph is then converted and printed as a tactile document that the students can also feel with their fingers. While tactile printers are not uncommon, the university has a special printer (one of three in Europe) that can produce documents combining both printed and embossed information. This is especially important to allow visually impaired students to work together with sighted students, or ask their professors questions about a particular diagram. Blind and partially sighted students encounter other problems that can make studying science more difficult compared to social sciences or humanities - such as how to complete obligatory lab work if they can't see a chemical reaction or if it's too dangerous to work with the whirling machines in the lab. But surmounting these extra hurdles can be worth it in the long term. Schwarz believes visually impaired students, who chose science degrees, have a much better chance of employment than those studying bookish subjects such a literature, philosophy or law. This is, however, hard to verify as Germany does not collect official data on this. Just a few kilometres away from KIT, Vladyslav Kutsenko types away at his computer. The sound of a screen reader can be heard faintly from his headphones and Kutsenko occasionally places his fingers delicately on his refreshable Braille display - it's a device which converts the text on the computer into Braille. Kutsenko's eyes were damaged in an accident when he was 15 years old and he has been blind ever since. He studied computer science at KIT where, he says, the Centre for the Visually Impaired "was a great help" because it would otherwise have been a problem accessing maths literature. When he finished his studies, Kutsenko found a job within seven weeks - despite his visual disability. Now, the software developer works for SIVIS, a mid-sized IT company based in Karlsruhe. Allowing for some disadvantages, with things such as developing graphical interfaces, Kutsenko believes more blind people should consider taking up science, especially computer science. "Programming is a very fortunate area for people who are blind," Kutsenko says. Back at the KIT campus, the blind and partially sighted students are studying everything from computer science to physics, metallurgy, mechanical engineering and environmental science - all professions in high in demand in Germany.

^ It always amazes me how technology is aiding the disabled and is giving them the opportunities they never would have had just a few decades ago. These machines, aides, etc usually cost a lot of money and that can stop those that most need it from getting and using them. People's attitudes towards the disabled are also changing with these aides as people can see (no pun intended) just how intelligent many disabled people are if they are given a chance. ^

Munich Conference

From the Stars and Stripes:
"European defense, trans-Atlantic relations key at Munich Security Conference"

The Munich Security Conference kicked off Friday with Germany’s president calling out his country for not doing enough to confront global threats, saying 70-year-old guilt over World War II should not be used as a “shield for laziness.” “Are we doing what we can to stabilize our neighborhood? In the east and in Africa? Are we willing to bear our fair share of the risk?” asked German Federal President Joachim Gauck. “Germany must be ready to do more to guarantee the security others have provided it with for decades.” “Restraint can thus be taken too far,” he said. And so began the 50th Munich Security Conference, where heads of state and numerous defense ministers are taking part in three days of talks on a range of security challenges. Expected to dominate the agenda are the civil war in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program and the political upheaval in Ukraine. Cybersecurity, privacy and surveillance also are issues to be examined. Still, the trans-Atlantic relationship and the role of Europe in the face of instability and the growth of regionalized terror groups in Africa and the Middle East remain prime areas of focus. Relations between the U.S. and its European allies have been strained recently following revelations of U.S. spying, most notably allegations the U.S. hacked the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Part of Friday afternoon’s opening sessions was spent on “rebooting trust” between the U.S. and allies over the leaks from National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Gauck said it is right for allies to call attention to disagreements with the U.S. over spying, but also called out allies for an underinvestment in their own intelligence-gathering capabilities that has created an overreliance on the U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he recognized trust concerns over the NSA, though he chided Europeans for not zeroing in on what he considered the main threats associated with cybersecurity, such as spying and cyberattacks from China and Iran. Gauck said Germany should not as a rule oppose interventions, but added it would never support any purely military solution, and any deployment of troops would have to coincide with diplomacy. Germany contributes more than 3,000 troops to the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. However, for the U.S. and other allies, Germany’s reluctance to engage in NATO operations, such as the 2011 air campaign in Libya, has been a sore spot. U.S. officials, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, also have scolded Europe for underinvesting in defense. On Saturday, Europe’s role in security operations and the trans-Atlantic relationship will be examined in panel discussions that will include Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
^ I agree that Germany (and other countries around the world) need to stop talking about doing things and start doing them. I understand that Germany is nervous about being compared to its Nazi and East German past (East Germany sent troops with the Warsaw Pact to Czechoslovakia in 1968.) The difference between Nazi Germany/East Germany and modern-day Germany is that in today's Germany there is the European Union and US oversight. As long as Germany doesn't open any sort of camps (labor, concentration or death) then I don't see an issue with the country taking more of an international stance. There are many other countries (ie UK, Canada, etc) that need to do a lot more around the world. The US is always called the "world' police" because we tend to go to places that need to be helped while the majority of other countries merely debate and talk and do nothing else. ^

Canadian Snooping

From the BBC:
"Snowden leaks: Canada 'spied on airport travellers'"

Canada's electronic spy agency collected data from travellers passing through a major airport, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reports. The CSEC collected information captured from unsuspecting passengers' wireless devices by the airport's free wi-fi system over two-weeks, the report says. The revelations come from documents leaked by Edward Snowden, CBC says. The CSEC is prohibited by law from targeting Canadians or anyone in Canada without an appropriate warrant. Its primary mission is to collect foreign intelligence by intercepting overseas phone and internet traffic. The CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada), in a statement to CBC, reiterated that it is "mandated to collect foreign signals to protect Canada and Canadians. "And in order to fulfil that key foreign intelligence role for the country, CSEC is legally authorised to collect and analyse metadata." Metadata is the information about a communication - such as the date and location of a call or email - rather than the details of what was actually said or written. The leaked document indicates the 2012 passenger tracking operation was a trial run of a powerful new software programme being developed jointly with the US's National Security Agency (NSA), CBC reports.
It is now fully operational, CBC News quotes sources as saying. Experts told the broadcaster that information captured from travellers' devices would have enabled the agency to track them for a week or more as they showed up in other wi-fi "hot spots" around Canada, such as other airports, hotels or restaurants. Such was the volume of data that CSEC could even track the travellers' movements back to the days before they arrived at the airport, the experts say. The document does not specify which airport was targeted or explain how CSEC was able to access the data.  Two airports - Vancouver and Toronto - and Boingo, an independent supplier of wi-fi services at other Canadian airports, have denied any involvement in supplying wi-fi information. Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, is currently living in Russia having fled the US in May 2013 after leaking thousands of documents that revealed extensive internet and phone surveillance by the US and other intelligence services.

^ No one should be surprised by any government "snooping" on its own citizens or on foreigners. Regardless, if it is legal to do so or not there are countless ways to get the information. Governments, like people, seem to take the stance of "better to ask for forgiveness later than for permission now." ^

Thursday, January 30, 2014

What If's

From the BBC:
"#BBCtrending: Should Russia have surrendered Leningrad?"

Is it ok to question how events unfolded during World War Two? That's a hot topic of discussion on social media in Russia right now. This week is the 70th anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad during WW2, and on Sunday the independent Russian TV station Dozhd conducted what turned out to be a very controversial poll. They asked whether Leningrad - now St Petersburg - should have been handed over to the Nazis in order to save lives. Hundreds of thousands of Russians died in Leningrad during the blockade - which lasted more than two years - but was a key turning point in the war. Asking this simple question led to a social media storm against Dozhd TV. Thousands were outraged - arguing that even posing this question was an insult to the dead. The Soviet Union's victory in World War Two remains a source of great national pride and by Monday, a hashtag which translates as "brown rain" (#коричневыйдождь) was trending - the "brown" referring to the colour of Nazi uniforms, and the "rain" to the name of the station (which translates as Rain TV).  Dozhd apologised and deleted the post, but the criticism was fierce. On Twitter, they were called "idiots" with no grasp of history, and less than human. Many politicians condemned the poll, including MP Irina Yarovaya from the ruling United Russia party, who called it an attempt to "rehabilitate Nazism". The city parliament in St Petersburg on Wednesday called for a ban on the station. Staff at the Vesti news website were sacked for posting this image of Joseph Goebbels on Facebook - it has now been removed But others defended Dozhd. "There's nothing more frightening than a ban on analysing the past," was one of the supportive tweets. Others questioned whether the furore online was orchestrated to give the authorities an excuse to crackdown on the station - Dozhd is seen as a liberal alternative to pro-Kremlin media.  But soon, angry users were targeting state media too. This happened after someone scanning the state-run Vesti news website's Facebook page found an image of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It was part of a picture gallery of "great people" and their comments on Lenin. It's unclear who posted the picture or why, but Vesti promptly sacked its entire social media marketing team.

^ The Leningrad Blockade was a horrible episode in both World War 2 and Soviet/Russian history. With that said, I do not see any problem with merely posing "what if" questions to people. It doesn't diminish what the soldiers and civilians went through in Leningrad/Saint Petersburg. It seems that there is more to this story than meets the eye. It looks like there is a political motive behind going after the station and newspaper. Putting Goebbels alongside "great people" is just as bad as putting Lenin or Stalin and yet the latter two are easily seen as great Russians (despite the fact that Stalin was actually Georgian.) Russia doesn't really like to look too deep into their own past and answer the majority of questions and this seems to go along those lines of not wanting to hear anything bad. ^

Bomber Death

From Yahoo:
"U.S. to seek death penalty for accused Boston Marathon bomber"

Accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be put to death if he is found guilty of planting bombs that killed three people and wounded 264 at the Boston Marathon last year, the U.S. government's chief prosecutor said on Thursday. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that he was authorizing trial prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev, who is charged with committing one of the largest attacks on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001. "The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision," Holder said. Holder had faced a Friday deadline for deciding whether to seek the death penalty as part of Tsarnaev's upcoming trial in Boston. Government prosecutors said in a filing with the U.S. District Court in Boston that reasons for Holder's decision included that the killings were premeditated, cruel, and that Tsarnaev had shown a lack of remorse. "One way or another, based on the evidence, Tsarnaev will die in prison," Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said. A trial date has not yet been set for Tsarnaev, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Holder's decision immediately drew fire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which pointed out the case would be prosecuted in a state that had scrapped the death penalty decades ago. A Boston Globe survey found last year that 57 percent of Boston residents favored life in prison for Tsarnaev, if he is convicted, with 33 percent in favor of execution. Only three people have been executed as the result of a federal capital case since 1988, when the United States reinstated the federal death penalty, including Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001. Prosecutors say that Tsarnaev, 20, and his 26-year-old brother Tamerlan planted a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs at the race's crowded finish line on April 15, 2013, killing three people - including an 8-year-old boy. The blast also wounded 264 others, many of whom lost limbs. Three nights later, the ethnic Chechen brothers killed a university police officer and later engaged in a shootout with police that left Tamerlan dead, prosecutors say. Dzhokhar was later found hiding in a boat in which he scrawled several phrases, including "we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all", according to prosecutors. Austin Sarat, Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said the nature of the case probably left the Justice Department little choice but to seek a capital prosecution. If the harm is unusual, if the harm is dramatic, gruesome, and devastating, it is often very hard for any other factor to outweigh it," he said. "I'm not surprised by this decision." Tsarnaev's attorneys have argued against a possible death sentence, in part because they claim he was following the lead of his older brother. They have also accused the government of throwing up unfair obstacles to hinder preparation of their client's defense, including seeking to rush the start of trial and not sharing important evidence. Tsarnaev's defense attorney Miriam Conrad declined to comment on Holder's decision on Thursday.
Holder has said that he is not a proponent of the death penalty because he believes its value as a deterrent is questionable, but since becoming attorney general in 2009, he has authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty in 36 cases, according to the Justice Department. Legal experts said that if Tsarnaev is convicted, the jury would ultimately decide whether to apply the death penalty or a lesser sentence like life in prison. The blasts killed 8-year-old Martin Richard as well as Krystle Campbell, 29, and Chinese national Lu Lingzi, 23. Tsarnaev is also accused in the shooting death of Sean Collier, 27, the university police officer.
^ He should get the death penalty for his terrorist act. I'm just glad that the US (Federally and some states.) ^

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Amnesty Law?

From the BBC:
"Ukraine parliament passes protest amnesty law"

The Ukrainian parliament has passed a law providing amnesty to protesters detained during recent unrest. Opposition parties abstained from voting, in anger at a condition in the bill which means it will only apply if protesters abandon government buildings they have occupied in recent days.  Protesters on the streets of the capital also rejected the move. The protests began in November after President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign an EU trade deal. The next month he signed a $15bn-worth (£9.2bn; 10.9bn euros) bailout deal with Russia. On Wednesday, the EU's top foreign policy chief said she was "shocked" by the deadly violence in the capital and across the country in recent weeks. Catherine Ashton - who was in Kiev for talks with Mr Yanukovych and opposition groups - said Ukraine needed "a political process that is engaged in quickly and properly by everyone". "The responsibility is inevitably going to fall on government to do that as quickly as possible," she said.  Late on Wednesday, the amnesty bill was passed by 232 votes to 11, with the backing of Mr Yanukovych's majority Party of the Regions.  But 173 MPs did not vote, and there were shouts of protest from opposition members. "Parliament has just passed a law on hostages," said Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far-right group Svoboda (Freedom) and a key figure in the protests.
"The authorities have themselves recognised that they are taking hostages as terrorists do, so they can trade the hostages," he said. One protester in the main camp in Kiev's Independence Square told the Associated Press: "Is this a compromise, or are these political prisoners?" "We will seize new buildings, if the authorities don't really change the situation in the country," said Artem Sharai.
Pro-EU protesters have taken over a number of properties in Kiev and other cities which they are using as operation centres and dormitories, and to seek refuge from the freezing conditions outside.
The BBC's Duncan Crawford in Kiev says the political crisis has not gone away with the amnesty, and the protesters will remain on the streets.  Boxer-turned-protest leader Vitaly Klitschko told the crowds gathered in Independence Square that the fight would go on. He knows that they will not go home unless President Yanukovych stands down and calls elections, and signs the long-awaited trade deal with the EU, says our correspondent. On Tuesday, in a concession to the protesters, parliament revoked controversial laws cracking down on demonstrations. The laws, introduced two weeks ago, had further inflamed their anger. President Yanukovych also accepted the resignation of the Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his cabinet, but neither measure ended the stand-off. Moscow, meanwhile, has indicated that it may hold back some of a promised bailout package until a new government is formed. The loans, worth $15bn (£9.2bn; 10.9bn euros), were widely seen as a reward for Kiev's rejection of the EU deal.

^ It seems that the protesters are serious unlike those in other protests(ie the Occupy Movement, etc) in their goals and are rejecting any concessions that don't meet their stated goals. They refused to be part of the government and now this. I am still watching how everything unfolds and how all sides (the Ukrainian Government, the protesters, Russia, the EU and the US) act during this. ^

Snow Blame

From USA Today:
"Atlanta's ability to handle winter storms questioned"

The winter storm paralyzing one of the nation's largest cities — three years after another winter storm shut down the city in much the same way — raises the question: Is Atlanta simply destined to quit functioning every time it gets a few inches of snow? Tuesday's snowfall — and the hundreds of thousands of motorists who flooded the metropolitan area's roadways as the storm moved in — created travel nightmares for commuters, truckers, students and their families.  Some commuters were stuck in their vehicles Wednesday morning, up to 18 hours after they first hit the roads. Others had abandoned their cars in or beside the road. Hundreds of students spent the night at school. Some surrounding cities, including Hiram, Woodstock, Sandy Springs and Acworth, opened emergency shelters for stranded motorists. The Home Depot stores and fire stations provided shelter to stranded motorists. After so much havoc was caused by a storm that brought only 2-3 inches of snow to most of the Atlanta metro area, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed face withering scrutiny over their handling of the weather emergency. On the Today show, Al Roker said the traffic nightmare in Atlanta was caused by "poor planning on the mayor and governor's part." Dalton, Ga., Mayor David Pennington, who's running against Deal for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said, "Government's primary role is to protect the people; Nathan Deal has failed miserably once again." "I'm willing to accept whatever blame comes my way," Deal said. "And if I'm responsible for it, I'll accept that." Reed defended his handling of the situation, arguing, "We got 1 million people out of the city of Atlanta in about 12 hours." He said the city's response was better than after "Snowmageddon 2011," the winter storm that paralyzed the Atlanta metro that year. He said the city has spent $2.5 million since then on equipment. "Unlike the last event, when we had four pieces of equipment in Atlanta, this time, we had 70 pieces of equipment, and we knew how to use it." The city's repeated, winter-storm transportation crises have impact beyond commuters and schoolchildren. Atlanta is a regional gateway city, meaning people driving from points north, south, east and west of the city pass through on on Interstates 75, 85 and 20; other interstate highways in the region include 285, 575 and 675. Because Atlanta is such a vital air transportation hub, the storm walloped operations at the world's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. There was a ground stop at the airport during part of the day Tuesday, and Delta Air Lines canceled hundreds of flights. About 1,500 passengers who could not get flights out spent the night at the airport, said Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie. Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution, says the region's paralyzed road transportation network hammers the shipment of goods through Atlanta. "So much of the freight industry is based on just-in-time arrangements," he said. "I have no doubt it's having a serious impact on goods moving broadly across the Southeast. Atlanta is such an important hub when it comes to goods movement." There was a lot of lesson-learned soul-searching after Snowmageddon 2011. The Georgia Department of Transportation purchased equipment and even sent people to cold-weather cities to see how they handle snowstorms.
The next storm was supposed to be different.
It was not, and there were a number of contributing factors:
• Metro Atlanta was caught flatfooted. When winter storms approach, schools, businesses and government offices shut down in advance — a method that Tim Lomax of the Texas Transportation Institute says usually works in Southern cities. "When you get two snowstorms every three years, it's easier to take that approach," he says. State and local officials expected the brunt of the storm to hit south and east of Atlanta; when it started snowing in communities in west and north Atlanta, schools, businesses and government offices started closing. That led to ...
• Too many people hitting the roads at the same time. Reed and Deal have said repeatedly that everybody left for home at the same time — instead of spreading it out over the normal 4 to 7 p.m. evening rush hour — deluging the roads. Reed noted that having everyone get on the roads at the same time was a mistake. "We do take responsibility for having the business community, the government and the schools leave all at once," he said. He said there should be a staggered schedule of releases: Students leave first, then private business employees and finally government workers.
• The alarm was sounded too late. Deal issued a state of emergency declaration after 5 p.m. Tuesday, well after governors in other Southern states had done so. Such a declaration usually triggers school dismissals and business closings. Deal acknowledged Tuesday that perhaps he should have acted sooner. "That is a lesson we need to look at and see if it would have made a difference in that situation," he said.
• The forecast path of the storm changed. In the days leading up to the storm, forecasters said the brunt of it would hit south of the city. By early Tuesday, Deal said, Atlanta meteorologists predicted a storm path farther north, but the governor said storm plans were made on the earlier forecasts from the National Weather Service. Tuesday morning, when fairly heavy snow started falling north of the city, people started hitting the roads. DOT Commissioner Keith Golden said many of the department's road-clearing crews were stationed in communities east and south of the Atlanta metro area. When the storm hit Atlanta, those crews headed to the city — and got stuck in traffic, too.
This might simply be Atlanta's fate in winter storms: The city was also brought to a standstill in a winter storm in 1993. And again during "Snow Jam 1982," a storm that hit in January of that year.
Usually, the snow melts after a day or two — along with the resolve to prevent a recurrence.
This time around, all of the other factors were exacerbated by people driving too fast for conditions.
And metro Atlanta became a parking lot.

^ I was accused on Facebook of gloating about those impacted during this storm. What I said (and stand completely by) is that things didn't have to be this way since the areas impacted had more than ample time to prepare (I even mentioned it 2 days ago) and that once this is over the officials involved in dealing with this disaster should be held accountable for what they did/didn't do. I would never gloat about people stranded away from their homes or kids stuck in schools overnight. Just last month I had my own issue of being stuck away from home (when a tree fell blocking the only way in/out my road and the town did nothing about it nor would they help us in any way.) Nothing was funny about that. Then, as in now, I firmly believe you can not solely rely on officials of any kind to help when you need it. You need to have your own plan and put them in place. You also need to use common sense. If it looks bad out then don't leave your office, school, home, etc. No one tells me when the only road by me is too icy or bad to go out - even to the mailbox a mile away. It is up to me to decide what is best for me. People (especially the person who blamed me of gloating) say the last major snow storm was in 1993 and that a "whole new generation" of people are here now and don't remember what it was like back then. The truth is that Atlanta and the surrounding areas had a major snow storm (called Snowmageddon) just 3 years ago in 2011 and so there is no excuse for not knowing what to do. I used to live in Virginia where they would shut everything down days before the first flake even fell just to be safe - perhaps the rest of the south should take that advice. ^

Unclaimed Assets

From USA Today:
"In Israel, many Holocaust assets unclaimed"

Many Jews may not know they have inheritances in Israel, property left unclaimed after the owners died in the Holocaust. The building's facade is worn and has major cracks. Its wrought-iron shutters are rusted and its terracotta roof is in need of repair. The building near the ancient Mediterranean port of Jaffa was bought by a Jew before Israel was a state, nearly seven decades ago. But that owner never got to live in it, having perished in the Holocaust that took the lives of 6 million Jews. Today it is worth millions of Israeli shekels and it is one of hundreds of buildings, bank accounts, art works and other assets in Israel that have never been returned to the rightful heirs of Holocaust victims. "Many Jews for Zionist reasons invested in pre-state-Israel by buying assets, such as land, opened bank accounts, and bought stocks and bonds in companies that were active at the time," explains Elinor Kroitoru, head of the location and heir search division at the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims' Assets in Israel. The company, also known as Hashava, which is Hebrew for restitution, was established in 2006, to find the rightful heirs to 60,000 assets belonging to Holocaust victims in Israel -- including stocks, bonds, real estate, bank accounts and art work.
As Jews the world over took time Monday to recognize International Holocaust Remembrance Day, many alive today may not realize they have inheritances in their Holy Land. The largest-ever delegation of members of the Israeli Knesset along with hundreds of Jews from around the world held a ceremony in Poland at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp. The assets belonged to people who prior to World War II had hoped to one day to live in a Jewish state, or wanted to make a donation toward a Jewish state being created. Some invested in it by buying land and depositing money in banks in what was then British-controlled Palestine. When the war erupted many Jews could not escape their countries in Europe. The British government, whose military occupied the region that was to become modern Israel in 1945, seized the assets during the war.
When the war ended, "the assets were given to the State of Israel and were held as absentee property," Kroitoru said. The same happened in Europe, where the assets of murdered Jews were left unclaimed or outright stolen by businessmen and banks and museums, forcing the relatives of the owners to fight years for what was rightfully theirs. Jewish groups settled a claim against Austria's government and businesses in 2001 for stolen Jewish property, collecting about $360 million. Another settlement was reached in 1998 between the groups and several Swiss banks for $1.25 billion. But the battle was not so easy in Israel either. Major banks and the government itself were accused of stonewalling efforts to compensate heirs for the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of deposits, land, stocks and art that belonged to Jews killed in the Holocaust. In 2006, Hashava investigators found that as many as 9,000 bank accounts alone had been identified as possibly belonging to Holocaust victims. At the time an investigation by a firm hired to look into the claims said it found about $86 million in real estate and more than 1,000 artworks in the Israeli Museum that had belonged to Holocaust victims. In seven years since Hashava was created, 300 million Israeli shekels' worth of assets or $86 million have been turned over to the heirs of Holocaust victims. Many of the cases involved legal proceedings against banks. "We settled all disputes with the banks out of court, bank Leumi paid us $130 million shekels, which was the Anglo-Palestine Bank at the time. It was the most common bank in the land at the time, and had a branch in London," said Kroitoru.
Today, Hashava says it has about 2,000 active cases on its books, and it's not easy to get to a successful conclusion. Gerd Gadid Kramer is a researcher with Hashava's real estate restitution team. He has worked for four years on trying to find the heirs to a plot of land in Northern Israel worth 800,000 shekels, $229,000. It was bought by a Jewish man in Lodz, Poland, who never made it to Israel. The first heir Gadid Kramer found was a niece in France who survived the Holocaust. "This was one of my first cases and it took four years, we didn't know anything other than his first name and surname at the beginning and the city Lodz," he said. "When I started I looked in all the databases for surnames." Gadid Kramer said at first he did not have any purchase documents, but later a power of attorney document was found and he was able to track insurance documents through Prudential Insurance in the United Kingdom. He applied to the company asking for archive details for the original insurance holder and if anyone had applied for the asset. The insurance company gave Hashava's details to the person who was paid the insurance money. "In a few weeks the person came back to us. It was the niece living in France. She described the whole story saying he had no children and describing her uncle," he said. She submitted an application for restitution, but then when she arrived in Israel she mentioned off-handedly that her uncle had a daughter, he said. "We were in shock," Gadid Kramer said. A daughter would be the direct heir, but the owner's niece said she didn't know if she was alive. After much discussion they learned from the niece that the daughter was born in 1940 and had been given to a convent as an infant to save her from the Nazi gas chambers. "Both her parents died," Gadid Kramer said. Hashava investigated further and found that one of the girl's relatives on her mother's side took her in and brought her to Israel for a few years to live in a kibbutz. Hashava's research team eventually found her in France. "We were able to find the daughter's name after marriage in a German database and found a nephew who held the same name via LinkedIn."
It turned out the niece knew all along she was alive but was on bad terms with her and wanted the inheritance for herself. Worse, she had masqueraded as the man's only heir to take other portions of his estate. "This niece had claimed all of the assets of the family, from the insurance companies, depriving her cousin of her assets," Gadid Kramer said. But it was not the surprise inheritance that moved the daughter. "It was an emotional experience for her to receive documents like a passport belonging to her father." Hashava is still looking for heirs to 55,000 assets in Israel. Those who think they may have a relative who owned property or assets in Israel should look for them on Hashava's website at

^ It is disgusting for any country to keep the property and assets away from the rightful owners. For many it was the Nazis first and then the Communists. In this case, it is even more disturbing as it is being done by Israel (the traditional homeland of the Jews.) It is one thing to not know who the rightful heir is and another to know and block access to it. ^

NC Lifted

From the BBC:
"Northern Cyprus lifts ban on gay sex"

The EU has welcomed the decision of Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus to decriminalise homosexual relations.  It is believed to be the last European territory where gay sex between consenting adults was still illegal - a relic of British colonial rule. The Republic of Cyprus had long since changed the law. Breakaway northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said on Twitter: "The right to love now legal all over Europe!"
British Conservative MEP Marina Yannakoudakis, who has campaigned on the issue, said she had received assurances from Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu that he would sign the decriminalisation bill into law. "I congratulate the Turkish Cypriot LGBT community on finally being able to exercise the most basic human right of all - the right to love," she said on her website. "As other [British] Commonwealth countries such as Nigeria and Uganda impose increasingly draconian measures to persecute LGBT people, I hope that people will learn from Cyprus that the anti-gay legacy of Britain's colonial past should be scrapped and not strengthened," she added. The Turkish Cypriot parliament voted on Monday to scrap Section 171 of the criminal code, which carries a punishment of five years for homosexual acts.  The self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus came into being after Turkish troops occupied the north of the island in 1974, in response to a Greek Cypriot coup backed by the military junta ruling Athens at the time.
The island has been divided ever since.

^ Welcome to the 2nd decade of the 21st Century Northern Cyprus. It is a good sign especially when other countries (ie Russia) are moving backwards in time with regards to discriminating against homosexuals. ^

Monday, January 27, 2014

Holocaust Remembrance Day

From USA Today:
"Auschwitz survivors mark liberation anniversary"

Auschwitz survivors and Israeli officials on Monday marked 69 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camp in a ceremony that included a large group of Israeli lawmakers. The ceremony at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the United Nations in memory of more than 6 million Holocaust victims, and includes 1.5 million mostly Jewish victims who died at Auschwitz. Survivors walked through the gate that bares the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes You Free) sign and laid a wreath at the former camp's Executions Wall, where the inmates, mainly Polish resistance members, were shot to death. About 60 members of the Knesset, or half of the Israeli legislature, joined the survivors for the observances that included visits to the red brick Auschwitz barracks which house a collection of the victims' belongings and hair, and a list of the names of more than 4.2 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. In a special ceremony in the Birkenau section of the camp, they also heard from one of the survivors about the 15,000 people killed in the Death March, when Nazis fleeing the advancing Soviet army in January 1945 forced inmates still able to walk to march west in freezing weather.
Israeli opposition leader Isaak Herzog said the lawmakers came in such a large group "to cry, but also to be aware that such horror can take place again." The lawmakers will also meet their Polish counterparts and others in an unprecedented session held outside Israel.

^ It has been 69 years since the end of the Holocaust. It seems that more has been done in the last 10-20 years to honor the victims and the survivors then in the first 10-20 years after the war ended. Since more and more survivors are dying everyday we need to do more to both record their stories and the names, dates, etc of those that didn't live as well as to make sure they (the survivors) have everything they need since many still struggle. ^

Women "Maidens"

From DW:
"The women of Kyiv's Independence Square"

They hand out food to the demonstrators, clear away snow and ice from the streets and assist the wounded. Hundreds of women are getting involved in the opposition protests in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. The snow along Kyiv's Hrushevskoho Street has turned black - like the faces of the people standing between the barricades here, darkened by smoke. For days, opposition demonstrators have been burning car tires to prevent the police from getting too close. A section of the street around 200 meters (656 feet) long is currently the most dangerous point in Kyiv's ongoing skirmishes between demonstrators and the government. Some have died from the police's bullets, and hundreds have been injured. Radical opponents of the government have also used it as a position for throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers, who have responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets. Hundreds - perhaps thousands - of Ukrainian women are also part of the protests in Kyiv. Neither the icy temperatures below minus 10 degrees Celsius, nor the explosions and shots fired have deterred them. Unlike the men, who are generally wearing helmets and carrying clubs, many of the women can be seen moving through the barricades without protection. Two women carry a large plastic basket with sandwiches between the opposition's barricades. "Bread rolls with bacon," they call out. One of them, Halyna (Ed. Note: All names have been changed.), is a teacher in Kyiv in her early 50s. Her companion, Natalia, is in her late 30s and works as a finance director at a local company. The two women got to know each other at Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's protests. They are both volunteers and wear masks so as to avoid recognition. A court has made it illegal to protest here, and new laws on extremism also raise the threat of imprisonment for oppositional demonstrators. "We came here so that our children can live in a peaceful European state," said Halyna, the mother of two grown sons. Halyna is on vacation right now and comes to Hrushevskoho Street for hours every day. "We don't go over to the areas where shots are being fired. Women aren't allowed in there," she says. When the situation grows precarious, men block women from the entrance to the first rows of the barricades. Natalia says she has come in order to show solidarity with the protesters and to voice her opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych. "We're doing what we can - preparing sandwiches and bringing them to the demonstrators," says Natalia. Both women's husbands know they are here. Natalia says she's not afraid of the shots and explosions around her and makes frequent trips on the weekend and after work. "If we're afraid now, we'll be afraid our entire lives," she says. Immediately afterward, a member of the crowd yells, "Watch out! Snipers!", as everyone looks up to the top of a building. Boos can be heard. But Halyna and Natalia seem untroubled and continue on. A few meters further, Marina is helping to clear ice from the street. She is 35 and the mother of two children, aged nine and two. "I'm here because of my kids," she says. "I would like for them to live in a democratic country and not in a dictatorship." Marina is a housewife but also works in a children's store. "I come with my husband here every day, and we also bring our children." That's been true since the beginning of the protests in late November 2013, she adds. Tens of thousands have demonstrated in Kyiv against the president's decision to forge closer ties with Russia at the expense of a deal with the EU. Marina says she is especially outraged at the victims who have died at the barricades, but she stresses she is not afraid, saying, "To simply sit at home isn't possible for me." Oxana is standing at the edge of the street, hardly 50 meters from the blazing tires. "Please no photographs," she says. "Otherwise, my mother would recognize me, and she cannot find out that I'm here." She is in her late 20s, a graphic designer in Kyiv with a five-year-old daughter. "I came here out of desperation. I cannot imagine living in a country in which such things happen as they are now in Ukraine." Oxana comes every day after work and on weekends to Independence Square and to Hrushevskoho Street. Sometimes she brings along borscht, a traditional Ukrainian soup made with cabbage and beetroot. Once she came at night, which led to a fight with her husband. "He didn't talk to me and said I was crazy," she explains with a smile. But the well-dressed young woman doesn't look crazy - in fact, she simply seems resolved.

^ This is one example of how ordinary people can take a stand for what they believe in. You don't have to take over buildings or get arrested. You can hand out sandwiches and drinks. ^

70 Years: Blockade

From DW:
"Wehrmacht had 'policy of starvation' in Leningrad"

The Siege of Leningrad ended 70 years ago. The historian Jörg Ganzenmüller talks about the siege as part of the Russian campaign and the guilt of the Wehrmacht. The population of Leningrad was trapped for nearly 900 days by the Wehrmacht - 900 days of being hungry and cold. On September 8, 1941, the Wehrmacht closed the blockade around Leningrad, called St Peterburg today. But Hitler didn't want to conquer the second biggest city of the Soviet Union. He wanted to starve its population to death. In the enclosed city the fight for the survival was under way. The citizens ate nearly everything they could get their hands on: they cooked leather, they scratched the glue of the wallpaper and they hunted cats and rats. There were even acts of cannibalism. Around one million people died of hunger or hypothermia. The Red Army wasn't able to free the besieged city until January 27, 1944. The historian Jörg Ganzemüller from the eastern German city of Jena has researched the history of the Siege of Leningrad. In an interview with DW, he speaks about the significance of the tragedy from an historical perspective and the plight of the civilians.

DW: How did the people of Leningrad experience the end of the siege?
Ganzenmüller: The siege was ended in two steps: the Red Army was able to establish a supply route at the beginning of 1943. So the residents had more food. But the definite end of the siege on January 27, 1944, was greeted with gun salutes. The people were certainly too weak to dance in the streets, but the relief in the city was huge. The importance of that day is obvious, it is kept alive in the cultural memory and it is being commemorated in St Petersburg every year.

The memory of the Siege of Leningrad hardly plays a role in Germany. Why is that?
For a long time, those places of the German-Soviet war that had a large number of German victims were remembered in Germany. That's why the myth of Stalingrad as a "German sacrifice" is so pivotal in German memory. The crimes of the Wehrmacht were hardly remembered until the 1980s. The Siege of Leningrad was seen as conventional means of warfare. But it was blanked out that the goal wasn't to conquer Leningrad but to starve it.

In what sense has the handling of this topic changed today?
After German reunification the East and West German view on the Siege of Leningrad was combined. In East Germany, the memory of the siege was much more alive than in West Germany, for example. It was part of the curriculum. The second Wehrmacht exhibition, in which the Siege of Leningrad had a prominent part, was also very important. In that exhibition the Siege of Leningrad was placed in the context of the German annihilation policy. Today the Siege of Leningrad is much more present in the media. In 2001, for example, the then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the Russian President lay a wreath at the central memorial in St. Petersburg.

In your book, you write that the Siege of Leningrad was part of the German annihilation policy. What was its goal?
During the campaign in Russia Leningrad soon became a secondary battlefield. The Germans saw the city from a supply policy point-of-view, as they wanted to supply the Wehrmacht during the campaign in Russia from within the country. The Germans established beforehand that that would only be possible if the civil population would be left to starve. In this context people in the big cities were seen as the part of the population which couldn't be fed. When the Wehrmacht got supply problems in the summer of 1941, it stated that it wasn't possible to feed a city of three million people.

So there weren't ever any plans to conquer the city?
That's difficult to say. But Hitler gave clear instructions to raze Leningrad to the ground. The main question was: what happens to the local people? There weren't any clear instructions on that.
Expelling people was also seen as an option. When the Wehrmacht reached Leningrad, expelling them was seen as not workable but, at the same time, they didn't want to feed the population. The intent to destroy the city turned into a strategy of besiegement, which amounted to the annihilation of the entire population. Why did Hitler want to destroy Leningrad? He generally wanted to destroy Russian cities, especially in North and Central Russia. He often mentioned Leningrad and Moscow in the same breath.

In what way is the Siege of Leningrad an example for the war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht?
The German policy of starvation was implemented in two cases: in Leningrad and with the handling of the Russian prisoners of war. These were the crimes committed under the command of the Wehrmacht. They are examples for crimes committed by the Wehrmacht, not by other organizations like the SS.

^  It is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Leningrad Blockade (one of the longest and deadliest in modern history.) I have been to Saint Petersburg and saw a few memorials. I really wanted to go to the memorial-cemetery, but didn't make it. The Blockade is seen as a major event (as it should be) around Russia. I remember seeing a sign at the train station in Yaroslavl about all the children evacuated from Leningrad and housed in Yaroslavl. It is important to remember how so many innocent men, women and children sacrificed and died no matter how many years have passed. ^

Russia's E-Commerce

From MT:
"Battle Over E-Commerce Ejects Foreign Couriers"

Consumers and industry insiders are blaming domestic e-commerce lobbyists for the customs clampdown that provoked several international shipping companies to halt express deliveries to private individuals in Russia last week. DHL, DPD and FedEx cancelled their express parcel delivery services after learning that all shipments, regardless of their value, would now have to be formally registered with customs. Registry requires an array of additional documentation, including a purchase receipt and the buyer's passport number, Vedomosti reported. The change has led to "a substantial increase in formal customs entries, resulting in a significant delay in the delivery of packages to private individuals in Russia," Ivan Shatskikh, country manager for UPS Russia, said in an e-mailed statement. These heightened requirements are just the first of new customs policies set to tighten regulation and increase taxation of Russia's burgeoning e-commerce market. Customs authorities will soon begin levying a 30 percent duty on all purchases from foreign e-commerce companies valued at more than 150 euros ($200). Previously, customs duties were only applied to shipments worth more than 1000 euros or weighing in at more than 31 kilograms. The new limit was initiated by customs authorities in cooperation with the Association of Online Vendors, which includes such major domestic players as M.Video and KupiVip, RBC reported. The Society for Consumer Rights Protection called for a boycott on all the association's member companies last week and on Friday announced plans to hold a demonstration on Feb. 8 protesting the lowering of the duty-free threshold. "According to the lobbyists, the new measures will enable us to battle unregistered importers. However, it is obvious that the adopted means are nothing more than a struggle with western Internet giants, to whom Russian online shops are losing market share," the society said in a statement. After meeting with President Vladimir Putin earlier this month, Housing Minister Mikhail Mel announced that "an ordering of Internet trade" would be used as a source of funding for infrastructure projects. The Finance Ministry estimates the increase in revenues from the lowering of the duty-free threshold at between 20 billion and 40 billion rubles (between $580 million and $1.2 billion), Mel said. Delivery time is not the main consideration for Russians who shop abroad, most of whom are lured by products that are not available in Russia and better deals than they can find at home, the Higher School of Economics study found.

^ This is clearly trying to put a monopoly in favor of Russian shipping companies (including the Russian Post Office.) I can understand if these companies provided a timely, efficient service, but from what I have personally experienced they don't seem to care when or if the item gets to its destination. ^

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Russian Fingerprints

From MT:  
"Foreign Ministry Proposes Fingerprinting Russian Visa Applicants"

The Foreign Ministry has proposed scanning the fingerprints of people applying for Russian entry visas from July 1, 2014, in the interests of "national security." Under the pilot project, applicants will have all of their fingerprint patterns scanned at Russian consulates in Britain, Denmark, Myanmar, and Namibia, and at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport, according to the draft presidential decree, posted Wednesday on the unified government legislation portal. The ministry must notify the countries whose citizens would be affected by the pilot project by June 15, 2014. The draft decree did not say how long the pilot project would last or when other countries would be made subject to it. A note accompanying the decree said that the measure will improve the ability of Russia's security services to clamp down on illegal migration and prevent terrorist suspects from entering the country. The authorities have stepped up their attempts to thwart terrorists in the wake of two bombings in the southern city of Volgograd in December that resulted in the deaths of at least 34 people. The accompanying note also described the draft legislation as a "timely response" to the European Union's plans to next year start taking the fingerprints of Russians applying for visas to its member states. The bloc has repeatedly put off plans for a visa-free regime with Russia, citing the country's poor human rights record as a reason to delay the deal, which has been ongoing for more than ten years. Russia's Federation Council last month approved a law making it mandatory for all Russians applying for an international passport to provide fingerprints starting Jan. 1, 2015. The information will be stored in a chip embedded in travelers' passports.

^ As many countries already do this (ie the US, Canada, EU, Japan, etc) it seems fitting that Russia do it too. I don't know if this new Russian system will eventually be like the US's system (where those applying for visas have to be interviewed and fingerprinted at the embassy and then every non-American - and Canadians-  have to be fingerprinted and photographed at the US border) or like Japan's system (where everyone has to be photographed and fingerprinted only at the Japanese border.) ^

Real ID

From USA Today:
"Real ID is slowly changing state drivers' licenses"

Nearly a decade after Congress passed the Real ID Act to thwart terrorists from getting driver's licenses, the law will finally go into effect in April. But 13 states still are not ready. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security repeatedly put off enforcement of the law, as states complained about its costs and civil rights groups objected to it as an invasion of privacy. But in December, while DHS was temporarily headed by counterterrorism expert Rand Beers, the agency unveiled a gradual rollout for enforcing the law. Brian Zimmer, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, which supports Real ID, praised the agency for its "deliberate approach." The slow ramp-up will give the agency time to address practical problems and avoid technical or training snafus before the requirements affect the general public, he said. "Nobody has ever done this before… so enforcing this law is going to be a major challenge," said Zimmer, who helped draft the law's provisions on driver's licenses as a congressional committee staffer. But Chris Calabrese, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new timetable will do little to convince holdout states to comply with the law. "Nothing has changed," he said. "It is impossible to imagine DHS keeping the citizens of any of those states off of airplanes…I don't see that most of these states are going to have a whole lot more incentive than they have ever had to do this, which is to say, none." Alaska, Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma and Washington state do not currently meet the law's standards, according to DHS. Another 15 states do not yet meet the requirements but have asked the federal government for more time to do so. They all have extensions through October and can renew those extensions. Soon after Real ID became law, 17 states passed laws restricting or banning its implementation within their borders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Liberals and conservatives alike recoiled at the law in its early years. They objected to the law's costs, federal pre-emption of state practices and the potential threat to personal privacy. But two of those states—Georgia and Utah—now issue Real ID-compliant licenses. Seven more are among those granted extensions to comply with the law. The controversy over Real ID faded in most state capitols as DHS repeatedly delayed enforcement. Technically, the law does not impose new rules on states. But by requiring Real ID-compliant licenses to board commercial aircraft, the law could put a lot of public pressure on states to issue licenses that meet its standards. In the final report it issued in July 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended that states improve driver's license security, because four of the 19 hijackers in the terrorist attacks used state-issued driver's licenses to board the planes they later crashed. The Real ID Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in May 2005, requires states to verify that an applicant is in the country legally, using federal databases and original documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards. It also imposes security measures for workers who handle driver's license information or who produce the physical documents. The federal government has delayed enforcement of Real ID four times since it was originally supposed to go into effect in May 2008. As those deadlines neared, the law's proponents raised the specter of residents in noncompliant states not being able to board flights with their state-issued identification. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, often cited that as a reason to bar unauthorized immigrants from getting driver's licenses there. The federal government's new open-ended schedule would put off that type of widespread enforcement until the waning days of the Obama administration—at the earliest. The consequences for residents living in holdout states will be minimal, at least at first. They will have to present alternate forms of identification (such as a passport) to get into Washington, D.C. headquarters of DHS, nuclear power plants and restricted federal facilities. But sometime after 2016, they will no longer be able to board commercial aircraft with only their driver's license. The federal government relies on information from states to determine whether they comply with 43 requirements under Real ID. In a statement, the agency said states' progress so far shows that the law's requirements are achievable.

^ I don't see an issue with having a Driver's License or ID card that fulfills the REAL ID Act provisions. I live in a state that currently does (although it takes up to a month to get your actual ID/License and before that you get a black-and-white temporary one that you can't use for anything other than driving and buying things (ie you can't use it for planes.) If it's your first ID it is bad since you can't really use it, but if it is a renewal than you can use the black-and-white temporary one with the expired color one. Those cards should be done in days and not weeks otherwise they are useless to first-timers. ^

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Polar Vortex: Part Deux

From the BBC:
"Polar vortex: How to survive extreme cold"

An Arctic freeze has been sweeping across North America, bringing temperatures as low as -40C (-40F) with wind chill in some cities. What are the risks of extreme cold and how can you avoid them, asks Aidan Lewis. Plummeting temperatures and icy winds present two main dangers. Hypothermia, in which your body shuts down after reaching an abnormally low temperature, and frostbite, an injury to the body caused by freezing. This is most common on extremities such as fingers and toes, but can affect eyelashes. Sitting out a cold snap indoors, with plentiful stocks of food, water and medicine, is one solution. Taps can be kept open at a drip to stop pipes freezing. Pets can be brought inside.  Many schools and offices in the worst affected areas have been closed. But those still needing to make essential trips are advised to wear several layers of loose fitting clothing, with a wicking layer at the base that won't leave moisture on the skin, and a tightly woven outer layer. Mittens are warmer than gloves. Hand or foot warmers can be placed inside a glove or inside a boot, though these may not heat the tips of fingers or toes. Goggles or glasses can help keep the temperature around the eyes stable, says John Stone of Survival Systems in Halifax, Canada, though eyelashes are only likely to freeze together if they're wet. Eyeballs, he says, are likely to be fine in these temperatures.  Earrings and facial jewellery should be removed, he says. "The temperature of the metal is going to become very cold very quickly, much more quickly than the skin temperature."
Caffeine and alcohol cause your body to lose heat more rapidly. It's best to seek shelter if you feel your body temperature dropping. Chicago, where temperatures dropped to -27C (-16F), was extending the opening hours at warming centres across the city.  Vehicles, like homes, should be well-stocked with emergency supplies. Though petrol (gas) only freezes at about -60C (-76F), diesel can clog at -10C (14F) and needs to be "winter-weighted". Tyres can freeze solid, which makes for a bumpy start to a journey but is unlikely to damage them, says Stone. "It's like driving a Fred Flintstone-mobile."

^ This article may be from the first Polar Vortex at the beginning of January, but it does have some useful tips for the current one we are in. We are having low temperatures of -15 F with a windchill of -40 F and highs of +5 with a windchill of -10 F. ^

Sochi Toilet

From the Examiner:
"2014 Sochi Olympics toilet trouble: Fans find 2 toilets in each stall"

The 2014 Sochi Olympics will have some of the best athletes of the world competing for the gold. Perhaps that’s why the conditions for the athletes and the fans are shocking the world. According to the Today show on Tuesday, there is some concerns with the restrooms at the Cross-country Ski and Biathlon center where a double toilet stall is making some people wonder what is up. The picture has had people around the world commenting on why they won’t be using the facilities at this building. The two toilet stall looks like the typical restroom stall with one roll of toilet paper, one trashcan, but the double toilet is a bit perplexing to many fans. The chance to see the Olympics is a dream of a lifetime for some fans. Add some of the biggest athletes in the world are coming to compete and the idea of a small issue like a two toilet stall might not seem to be such a big deal. However, as people point out, it is costing thousands of dollars to go to Sochi and a few modern conveniences would be nice.So far there has been no world on if this was just an oversight by builders or if the fans coming to the games need to be prepared as all the bathrooms actually all look like this. The shocking image might have some fans waiting to use the bathrooms until they get back to their hotels as most people appreciate a little more privacy!

^ This is not a "Sochi" toilet. It's a Russian toilet. They have all over the country. I had one in my school. I guess they think it brings people together since their toilet paper is made out of saw-dust. ^

French Saar

From the BBC:
"German region of Saarland moves towards bilingualism"

Germany's western Saarland region says it wants its next generation to be bilingual in German and French.  It is part of a strategy to deepen economic ties with France, which borders the region.
Proposals by the regional government include bilingual teaching from pre-school age and requiring new state employees to be able to work in French. Government jobs would be open to French citizens too under the proposals which are being put out to consultation.  English, currently the most taught second language, will remain important but French would become the main foreign tongue in usage in Saarland.  By 2043, Saarland should become a multilingual region with the stress on French and German ties, according to the regional government.  The Christian Democrat-led administration wants Saarland - one of the smallest German states with a population of just over one million people - to become "an indispensible and unavoidable bridge to Germany and a gateway to France".  The region's "France strategy" is designed to attract business to Saarland, which relied on its former mining industry for much of its wealth.

^ This is a sign of the times as the Saarland has been back and forth between France and Germany. French troops were in Saarland until the 1950s when the citizens voted to join West Germany. It seems that the two countries can work together within this region and that is a good thing. ^

CO Tests

From the BBC:
"The Minnesota starvation experiment"

During World War Two, conscientious objectors in the US and the UK were asked to volunteer for medical research. In one project in the US, young men were starved for six months to help experts decide how to treat victims of mass starvation in Europe.  In 1944, 26-year-old Marshall Sutton was a young idealist who wanted to change the world for the better. As a conscientious objector and Quaker, he refused to fight in the war but he still craved the chance to help his country. "I wanted to identify with the suffering in the world at that time," he says. "I wanted to do something for society. I wanted to put myself in a little danger." That danger came, unexpectedly, in the shape of a small brochure with a picture of children on the front.  "Will you starve that they be better fed?" it asked. It was a call for volunteers to act as human guinea pigs in a medical experiment at the University of Minnesota.   All over Europe people were starving - in the Netherlands, in Greece, in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union - and the US military wanted to learn how best to re-feed them. But first they had to find healthy people willing to be starved. Perhaps surprisingly, hundreds of conscientious objectors - or COs - applied, all eager to help. Sutton was grateful to be one of 36 young men chosen.   "I felt very useful, fulfilled," he says. "There were hundreds of people like me who didn't have that type of opportunity, and I felt very fortunate that I could be there."  The experiment started in November 1944 and for the first three months they were fed to their optimum weight and monitored. Then their rations were cut dramatically. Food quickly became an obsession.  "I ate what I had in about three minutes and got out of there - I didn't want to stay," says Sutton, remembering mealtimes in the canteen. "There were some in the experiment who lingered over that food for 20 minutes. I couldn't take that. Some fellows were reading cook books all the time." The men ate meals twice a day. One might be cabbage, turnips and half a glass of milk. On another day, it might be rye bread and some beans.  Like many hungry people in Europe, the men never had meat, and calories were set at 1,800 or less. But Sutton remembers one occasion when, carrying his meagre rations in a paper bag, he took his girlfriend out to dinner at the most expensive restaurant in Minneapolis.  "I wanted to take her to a restaurant just to enjoy seeing her eat... but when the waiter came up with the food she just couldn't do it. I was a bit disturbed by it, I'd spent all that money on a big meal and she just couldn't eat it."  The regime was tough - during the six months they were being starved, the men were expected to walk or run 22 miles (36 kilometres) every week, expending over 1,000 calories more than they consumed each day.  Their walks took them past bakeries and other temptations - and it was all too much for some participants. Three pulled out of the experiment. Those that remained lost about 25% of their weight and many experienced anaemia and swollen ankles, as well as apathy and exhaustion. Their ribs stuck out through their skin - their legs were as thin as their arms used to be. And there were psychological effects as well.   "After you've not had food for a while your state of being is just numb," says Sutton. "I didn't have any pain. I was just very weak. One's sexual desires disappeared."  The men grew anxious and depressed.  "When something good happened, we would explode with joy and when we were pessimistic we were very depressed," Sutton recalls.  "I had a very close friend there and often I'd speak sharply to him and I'd find myself going to him almost every night and apologising."    The men coped in different ways. One man managed to study for a law degree. Sutton read philosophy and theology, and drew comfort from Quaker friends and the church.   Others struggled, occasionally eating illicit food before becoming despondent with guilt. One man even cut off a finger while chopping wood and couldn't explain how or why. The experiment is still cited as a source of reference by academics studying nutrition and eating disorders, and it raised many questions about how far psychological problems can be treated if the subject is still starving. But in some ways the project came too late. Even as the experiment continued, one Nazi concentration camp was liberated, then another - and the full horror of starvation became apparent.  BBC correspondent Edward Ward entered the Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945, seven days after it was liberated. "A hollow-eyed emaciated German Jew hobbled across to me," he reported. The man opened the door of a large cupboard. Inside there were about 20 corpses piled high. "'Last night's crop,' said the man, almost casually. 'It'll be the same tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.' The wretched inmates have been freed from their Nazi tormenters, but they've not yet been freed from slow starvation." But while the results may have come too late for many of World War Two's victims, they still could help others.  In 1946, the researchers released a guide book for aid workers - Men and Hunger.
Its advice included:
  • Show no partiality, and refrain from arguments; the starving are ready to argue on little provocation, but they usually regret it immediately
  • Informing the group what is being done, and why, is just as important as getting things done - billboards are the easiest way
  • Starvation increases the need for privacy and quiet - noise of all kinds seems to be very bothersome and especially so during mealtimes
  • Energy is a commodity to be hoarded - living and eating quarters should be arranged conveniently
  • A thoughtful worker will make use of the fact that the starving are emotionally affected by the weather -some special and cheerful activities might be saved for bad days
In the last months, the Minnesota men were fed back to health. Different groups got different foods and calorie allowances. But it was months, even years - long after the men had returned home - before they had all fully recovered.  On the day Marshall Sutton left Minnesota, he took a bus to Chicago.  "Every time the bus stopped I had a couple of [milk-]shakes and the world was a wonderful place," he says.  "I had a wonderful sense of having all the food I wanted, but I didn't have the strength - I was so happy and I was eating, but I wasn't normal."  Sutton, like most of the volunteers, went on to lead a healthy and successful life. He worked in Gaza with starving refugees in 1949 then took part in Quaker projects in the US. Now 95, he lives in a Quaker Community in Baltimore.
Seventy years on, he is still glad he took part in the experiment. His friends were risking their lives in the South Pacific, he says, and it was an honour to make a sacrifice himself.

^ This is something I didn't know about. It seems like the perfect way for volunteers to serve their country without the need to fight. I support these kinds of tests as long as the people are volunteers and not forced into anything. ^