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« on: Oct 20, 2019, 04:50 AM »

We will be posting in this thread a variety of interesting stories about our environment, cultures around the world, and the current news of the day.
« Last Edit: Nov 02, 2019, 05:22 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #1 on: Nov 12, 2019, 04:24 AM »

The five: exercises to help avoid an early death

Easy-to-access activities that help to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and the risk of heart disease

Gregory Robinson
12 Nov 2019 05.30 GMT


Last week, research published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that running can reduce the risk of early death regardless of how long or at what speed you run. The research focused on 14 previous studies based on six different groups of participants, totalling more than 230,000 people over a period of between 5.5 and 35 years. The authors reported that any amount of running, even just once a week, is better than no running at all.


Swimmers were found to have a 28% lower risk of early death and a 41% lower risk of death as a result of stroke or heart disease, according to a 2017 study by Swim England. Over 80,000 people took part. The report also said swimming is a cost-effective, safe and viable exercise for people of all ages, it helps older people stay mentally and physically fit and can help children develop physical, cognitive and social skills through swimming lessons.


Scientists attempting to find the health benefits of different sports found that regular tennis and badminton sessions reduce the risk of death at any given age by 47%. The study, published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, gathered responses from over 80,000 adults aged 30 and over, through surveys taken between 1994 and 2008.


In addition to improving strength, breathing and flexibility, yoga has been found to reduce risk factors for heart disease, such as high body mass index, cholesterol and blood pressure. A study by the American College of Cardiology found that people combining yoga practice and aerobic exercise, such as running or swimming, saw double the reduction in high BMI, cholesterol levels and blood pressure in comparison with people who were taking part in just one or the other exercise.
Brisk walking

Numerous studies have suggested that sitting for too long can be a risk factor for early death. A study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that low-level activities, such as going for a walk for just 10 to 59 minutes per week, can lower the risk of death from any cause by 18%.

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« Reply #2 on: Nov 12, 2019, 04:27 AM »

Iceland students see chilling reality of melting glacier

on November 12, 2019
By Agence France-Presse

Icelandic seventh-grader Lilja Einarsdottir is on an unusual field trip with her class: they’re measuring the Solheimajokull glacier to see how much it has shrunk in the past year, witnessing climate change first-hand.

“It is very beautiful but at the same time it is very sad to see how much it has melted,” says Lilja, bundled up against the autumn chill in a blue pompom hat.

Each October since 2010, now-retired schoolteacher Jon Stefansson has brought students aged around 13 from a school in Hvolsvollur — a village about 60 kilometers (40 miles) away — to the glacier to record its evolution.

The results are chilling: nestled between two moss-covered mountain slopes, Solheimajokull has shrunk by an average of 40 meters (130 feet) per year in the past decade, according to the students’ measurements.

On this blustery October day, the youngsters — armed with a GPS, a measuring tape and two yellow flags — calculate the distances on foot from various spots, struggling against strong winds.

Once done, some of the students hop in a dinghy and cross a lake of brown meltwater to reach an imposing wall of ice, the so-called terminus, or front of the glacier.

Here, they determine the gap between the terminus and a handpainted sign at the end of a footpath, where previous students have recorded their measurements over the years.

The numbers on the sign, pitched in black sand and steadied at the base by a pile of stones, indicate how many meters of ice have disappeared over the past years: “24”, “50”, “110”.

“When (the first students) started here, you couldn’t see any water. So it (the glacier) was very big at first,” says Lilja.

– 400 glaciers under threat –

Glaciers cover about 11 percent of Iceland’s surface, including Vatnajokull, the largest ice cap in Europe.

But they have lost about 250 cubic kilometers of ice in the past 25 years, or the equivalent of seven percent of their total volume.

“Now we have lakes that are forming in front of many of them,” says glaciologist Hrafnhildur Hannesdottir of the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

Iceland in August unveiled a plaque commemorating the country’s Okjokull glacier, the first to be stripped of its glacier status in 2014.

The plaque was meant as a wake-up call on the effects of global warming as scientists fear the island’s 400-plus glaciers could be gone by 2200.

Solheimajokull, where the students go, is a popular tourist spot as it is one of the closest to Reykjavik, only 150 kilometrers away. Icelandic Mountain Guides, one of three operators that runs year-round visits, had 27,000 clients in 2018.

Solheimajokull, about 10 kilometres long and two kilometers wide, is an outlet glacier of Myrdalsjokull, the country’s fourth-biggest ice cap.

Under the ice here lies Katla, one of Iceland’s most powerful volcanoes, which last erupted in 1901 and is long overdue to do so again, scientists say.

The glacier receded by 11 metres in 2019, a significant amount but far from the record 110 meters registered last year.

“It depends more or less on the weather (and) how the glacier is breaking,” explains teacher Stefansson.

“Sometimes you get a big cliff falling into the water and then you get a very, very big measurement.”

– Global warming ‘proof’ –

Since the school started its measurements, the glacier has shrunk by 380 meters in almost a decade.

“When we see this, it’s like proof (of global warming). If we thought that we were maybe wrong, this is proof we weren’t,” says 12-year-old Birna Bjornsdottir.

The measurements are neither scientifically exact nor official but they do indicate the changes underway and their acceleration in recent years.

Official measurements from the Iceland Geological Society show Solheimajokull shrank by around 200 metres in 2018, putting it among the country’s top three glacier shrinkages.

It has been receding every summer since 1996.

The melting can be observed with the naked eye, with drops of water dripping from the ice, sometimes running into little streams.

“I see a large change in the glacier’s volume: it’s a lot lower than it used to be,” says Daniel Saulite, a Scottish guide who has worked on the glacier for five years.

“In the front, there is also a lot more crevassing, and also the access becomes increasingly difficult.”

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« Reply #3 on: Nov 12, 2019, 04:29 AM »

What are the links between climate change and bushfires? – explainer

Temperature, fuel load, dryness, wind speed and humidity all affect fire risk and are compounded by global heating

12 Nov 2019 23.32 GMT

The link between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increased bushfire risk is complex but, according to major science agencies, clear. Climate change does not create bushfires but it can and does make them worse. A number of factors contribute to bushfire risk, including temperature, fuel load, dryness, wind speed and humidity.

What is the evidence on rising temperatures?

The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO say Australia has warmed by 1C since 1910 and temperatures will increase in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is extremely likely increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases since the mid-20th century is the main reason it is getting hotter. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards research centre says the variability of normal events sits on top of that. Warmer weather increases the number of days each year on which there is high or extreme bushfire risk.

What other effects do carbon emissions have?

Dry fuel load – the amount of forest and scrub available to burn – has been linked to rising emissions. Under the right conditions, carbon dioxide acts as a kind of fertiliser that increases plant growth.
So is climate change making everything dryer?

Dryness is more complicated. Complex computer models have not found a consistent climate change signal linked to rising CO2 in the decline in rain that has produced the current eastern Australian drought. But higher temperatures accelerate evaporation. They also extend the growing season for vegetation in many regions, leading to greater transpiration (the process by which water is drawn from the soil and evaporated from plant leaves and flowers). The result is that soils, vegetation and the air may be drier than they would have been with the same amount of rainfall in the past.
What do weather patterns show?

The year coming into the 2019-20 summer has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. Above-average temperatures now occur most years and 2019 had the fifth-driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970. Australia recorded its hottest month in January 2019, its third-hottest July and its hottest October day in some areas, among other temperature records.

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« Reply #4 on: Nov 12, 2019, 04:32 AM »

Trees and water: don’t underestimate the connection

Trees have extraordinary powers, especially when it comes to water. But such powers must be wielded with care.

Douglas Sheil

Trees have extraordinary powers. They provide shade, cool the local climate, draw carbon dioxide from the air, and can repair and replicate themselves while running on little more than sunlight and rainwater (Pokorný 2018). They also contribute numerous goods and services like fruit, wood and soil improvement with a wide choice of species and varieties suitable for different needs and conditions. But such powers should be wielded with care.

On the 5th of July 2019 Science published an article by Jean-François Bastin and colleagues titled “The global tree restoration potential”. In it, they explain how, without displacing agriculture or settlements, there is enough space to expand the world’s tree cover by one-third or around one billion hectares. Such increased forest would eventually reduce atmospheric carbon by about a quarter. A lot could be said about this proposition, much of it supportive. But in a brief comment piece just published in Science, colleagues and I highlight some reservations along with some even bigger opportunities. We focus on water.

The idea that the protection and restoration of tree cover could improve the climate while providing other benefits is well established. Indeed, there have been numerous international programs based on this including REDD “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation”, the Bonn Challenge, which seeks to reforest and restore degraded land, as well as various related programs.

So what is new here?

Well, what Bastin et al. have done is estimate the scale of this opportunity and the contribution that restoring tree cover could make. For example, they list such estimates country by country as a “scientific evaluation” with relation to restoration targets specified under the Bonn Challenge. Under these targets, and those specified by the New York Declaration on Forests, an impressive list of countries (59) have undertaken to end deforestation and to restore 350 million hectares of land by 2030. They note that several of these countries have committed to restoring an area that “exceeds the total area that is available for restoration”. They note how these results “reinforce the need for better country-level forest accounting”.

Yet there is a paradox lurking within these claims. The authors state that their estimates are not “future projections of potential forest extent”. So what are they?

In brief, their assessment represents an estimate of potential tree cover assuming current environmental conditions and no influence or modifications arising from the trees themselves. But large-scale changes in tree cover would modify these conditions.

Trees and forests influence the availability of water and water influences the degree to which a landscape can support trees. While current tree cover reflects current conditions, any assessment of the prospects for large-scale changes in tree cover must account for how these changes will influence those conditions. Potential tree cover should reflect the conditions that would exist with that tree cover.

This may seem esoteric, which may explain why it was not raised in the extensive media coverage, but these details matter. They matter a lot.

Access to adequate fresh water is a key development challenge and is central to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Around half a billion people suffer insufficient fresh water year-round while many more face seasonal scarcity. Such shortages cause hardship and are widely believed to play an increasing role in the complex of issues that increase the likelihood of conflict and migration. With relatively fixed fresh water resources and a growing population, the global fresh water resources per person are declining.

As we highlight in our comment, trees influence the availability of water both locally and regionally. Neglecting these influences undermines the value of the estimates and renders them near meaningless. This affects both the technical aspects of the estimates—the variables used to predict tree cover would change, and more importantly, the wider implications for people and life on the planet.

Tree cover influences water availability through a range of processes and mechanisms. Only some of these are well understood. But we know enough to know there will be impacts.

Impacts can be negative. Where trees use a lot of water this can accentuate local water scarcity. There are many examples where dense plantations have caused a decline in local stream flows and depleted groundwater when compared to open lands. This is crucial, but far from being the whole story.

Impacts can also be positive. This has been shown by studies in Burkina Faso where landscapes with some tree cover captured several times more water than otherwise comparable tree-free landscapes. In this case, the costs of increased water use are more than compensated by the increased soil infiltration and moisture storage. Trees and forest also provide water vapour and condensation nuclei (the particles that promote cloud formation) that can contribute to rainfall elsewhere. Thus, it is clear that tree cover supports rainfall downwind—and many people depend on such rainfall.

The power of such recycling suggests that if tree cover in drylands can be expanded in the right manner, it can generate increased rainfall, thus opening the opportunity to increase regional moisture and land able to support trees and forests. In addition, an exciting new theory, the Biotic Pump, suggests that forest cover plays a fundamental role in generating the winds that carry moisture into continents. This theory conforms with observations in the Amazon region concerning how rainfall relates to changes in air pressure, and how forest derived moisture controls the monsoon. In effect, we could develop a system that waters itself and thereby regreens the world’s deserts. We could, for example, imagine returning a much wetter climate to the Sahel of Africa or to Western Australia.

So how can we avoid the negatives and promote the positives of increased tree cover? We don’t yet know the optimal way. Likely we may not even agree what “optimal” implies. My personal view is that, if we emphasise the protection, expansion and restoration of natural vegetation that can regenerate and maintain itself (rather than industrial plantations), the positives are generally more likely. The rationale is that nature has evolved effective systems for distributing and maintaining water. These are the systems that kept the world green and productive long before people got involved. (Such restoration is what Bastin and colleagues are suggesting, though much of the media attention discussed “tree planting” more generally as if this is equivalent—it isn’t).

But there are plenty of good reasons to promote tree cover even in productive landscapes and to identify how we might green large areas of our planet. The potential to bring more water into currently arid regions seems a real opportunity. We can also look for ways to ensure that plantations, where justified, are developed without wider environmental costs. Natural systems can provide both template and inspiration.

But it remains true that negative impacts can still result, especially as what may be optimal at a continental scale may not be ideal at more restricted scales, and patches of regenerating forest may deplete local water even if it boosts rain downwind. When tree cover does boost groundwater in arid regions there can be additional challenges if this raises salt within the soil profile.

Looking beyond water there is no shortage of additional concerns. For example, we need to ensure people benefit, we need to protect key grasslands and we need to ask why the tree cover was depleted in the first place.

There are many good reasons to protect and restore tree cover and other natural vegetation—wherever and to the degree that that is possible. There are also plenty of good reasons to promote agroforestry and to encourage even scattered tree cover where that is possible within productive landscapes.

Our point is that there will be wider impacts than those on atmospheric carbon alone. Many impacts are likely to be positive, increasing greenness, stabilising rainfall, and reducing biodiversity losses. But widespread tree planting can also cause harm, displacing people and biodiversity and contributing to water scarcity.

The power of trees is often underestimated—it is a transformative power with capacity to achieve great good and great harm. Please use it wisely.

This article was originally published by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)’s Forest News website and was re-published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

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« Reply #5 on: Nov 12, 2019, 04:35 AM »

11/12/2019 10:19 PM

Favela Ballet: Dance School Offers Girls a Future in Notorious Rio Slum

By Fabian Federl and Evgeny Makarov (Photos) in Rio de Janeiro

In one of Rio de Janeiro's most dangerous areas, one woman is using ballet to guide young girls away from a future of poverty and crime. But to keep her dance academy alive, she must constantly bend to the laws of the favela -- and contend with drug dealers and hostile politicians alike.

Maysa Barbosa Aben-Athar gets home from school and walks into her bedroom. She passes the bunk bed she shares with her two sisters and sits down in front of the mirror.

She rubs combing cream into her hair, brushes it smooth and knots it into a tight bun. From underneath her bed, she pulls out a golden tutu decorated with feathers. It cost 2,000 Brazilian real (433 euros, $483) -- more than Maysa's mother earns in a month as a cleaner.

"We're late," Maysa says as she leaves the small apartment. She heads toward the Rua Leopoldo Bulhoes, known to locals as the "Gaza Strip." It's the main street in the Manguinhos favela in Rio de Janeiro, which 11-year-old Maysa has called home all her life.

Garbage piles up along the sides of the Rua Leopoldo Bulhoes. Homeless people sleep in wooden shacks. Others, seemingly on drugs, look confused; they scream or lie in strange positions on the asphalt. "We once had to jump into the mud over there," Maysa says. It was to avoid being struck by a stray bullet during a shooting. Violence is normal here. The Manguinhos favela is known for its high rate of violent crimes.

Along the way, Maysa meets up with other girls, all between the ages of 10 and 13, who are also wearing tutus. Together, they walk past boys, bullet holes and garbage -- and make their way through the favela's narrow streets to Daiana Ferreira de Oliveira, the woman for whom they brave this trek twice a week.

The Only Alternative

Manguinhos is actually a conglomeration of several favelas, which grew and spilled over into one another until they became indistinguishable. The streets here all look the same, which is fitting, since residents' prospects hardly differ from block to block. It starts at Maysa's age: Boys get into drug dealing, and girls get pregnant from the same guys.

The violence, the hopelessness and the misery in the slums of Rio de Janeiro are all a direct result of the lack of guidance, role models or future prospects -- except drug trafficking -- for young people. That's why the 31-year-old Daiana began offering young girls an alternative: a ballet school in the favela.

Tardiness is not tolerated and there's a strict dress code. It's all designed to teach the children discipline. "We don't give the children time to breathe," Daiana says. "I mean that in a good way."

In the beginning, she only taught six ballerinas. Today, there are 250 -- and 400 on the waiting list. The school has been reported on in the New York Times and an American philanthropist is helping co-finance it. One of her instructors studied at the Bolshoi Theater School in Joinville, Brazil, and the prima ballerina of Brazil's most renowned ballet is a patron. But all of the attention still doesn't change the reality on the ground.

Where Drug Dealers Rule

Daiana must constantly bow to the rules of the favela, which are imposed by the drug trade. She must often ask members of the drug gangs for permission, shift class times or change routes. Her school aims to pull children out of the drug business -- and yet she must constantly work to accommodate it.

This afternoon is no different. Daiana must first ask permission from a local drug boss to walk the streets with the girls in their golden tutus. One never knows what might upset the boss.

The girls are well-known here, as is Daiana. She's often stopped on the street and asked whether she has room for another girl, someone's daughter, niece or grandchild. Daiana has known most of the favela's residents since she was a child herself. She was born here in Manguinhos and comes, as she puts it, from "a typical favela family." Her father had three wives, Daiana grew up with two sisters and had 15 half-sisters, all of whom were distributed throughout the favela. It's one of the reasons, she says, she knows every corner of Manguinhos.

Daiana was only seven when she first visited the Teatro Municipal, Brazil's most renowned ballet, located in the center of Rio. Later, an acquaintance gave her private ballet lessons in her spare time, while Daiana studied sports education and completed a dance training course on the side -- all thanks to scholarships awarded to poor Brazilians by the then-left-wing government of Lula da Silva.

Staying Out of Trouble

Daiana also worked as a jazz and ballet instructor for rich families in Rio's South Zone. She began giving free lessons to children from her own neighborhood in 2012.

Daiana's mother, a tutor, sent her students to her daughter's ballet class. Her mother's main concern was keeping the kids from hanging out in the favelas. Daiana's school grew, as did her waiting lists. Performances followed, first local ones, then in theaters across the city.

A professional soccer player from FC Botafogo named Jairzinho heard about Daiana's project in 2014 and paid her a salary for two years so that she could concentrate on the children of Manguinhos.

With his help, Daiana also found a room that was big enough to accommodate her classes, which had grown to 180 students. It was in a library at the Tropical Institute, a state-sponsored building. She also received donations from a wide variety of sources. Her small ballet school, it seemed, was there to stay.

But in 2017, Rio's new mayor, Marcelo Crivella, an ally of current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, entered office on a pledge to tighten the budget -- and he began his fiscal house-cleaning by cutting cultural projects in the favela. Both the library and the ballet school were closed.

The World's First Occupied Ballet School

A few days later, the children returned with Daiana, a locksmith and a promise from the drug gangs they would leave them alone. They broke the lock and became what was probably the only squatting ballet school in the world. This lasted for more than a year. The government accepted the occupation, probably out of indifference more than anything.

As the Manguinhos ballet school grew in popularity, politicians began to approach Daiana. Shortly before the gubernatorial election in 2018, a request came in from the same mayor who had shuttered the library the year before. He wanted to attend a performance with a candidate for governor. A ballet performance in a favela would provide a grandiose backdrop for his political campaign.

Daiana agreed, though she planned to use that backdrop for her own purposes. She spray painted the girls' tutus red and smeared the walls with soot. As the politicians and their guests sat in the audience, the girls danced briefly and then fell to the floor. One by one, they played dead. "The Manguinhos ballet is not an advertising project for the right," Daiana says. "We wanted to show him what the consequences of his politics are for us." A few days after the performance, the mayor cleared the library and again locked the doors.

What followed were, in Daiana's words, the worst days of her life. The school and its 250 students were suddenly without a studio. She found the girls space to practice in samba schools, churches and trade union buildings, but these were only temporary solutions. It was during this time that the New York Times visited Daiana. Shortly after the article was published, foreign men began showing up at her rehearsals. They said they wanted to get to know her and the school.

The men turned out to be scouts for an American philanthropist who wishes to remain anonymous. He is a member of The Secular Society, a group of benefactors whose interests include the advancement of women. He wrote to Daiana and asked her to find a building for the school. He said he would buy it and give it to her. He also promised to pay salaries for the teachers, administrators, a psychologist and a cleaner through 2021.

A Life on Life Support

After that, the ballet school moved into a 4-story, former drug rehabilitation center on the edge of the favela. The doors were donated by the local church, the mats came from the bankruptcy estate of a jiu-jitsu school. The laminate was provided for free by a DIY store and the toilet paper is brought by the mothers of the students themselves. "We live on favors," Daiana says. "A life on life support."

Up on the third floor, Maysa and the other girls float over the linoleum. The teacher scurries between the rows, straightening the children's backs or correcting the position of their working legs. Chins up, necks extended.

Maysa, who is normally shy, has been on the school's select troupe for four years. They're the elite dancers of the Manguinho ballet. And when she dances, she's the center of attention. The ballet has provided her with opportunities that are otherwise not normally a part of life here. Recently, she traveled by night bus to the colonial city of Ouro Preto a to perform at a winter festival and then flew to Sao Paulo.

But like anywhere else in the world, the chances of ever earning a living from dancing are slim. One springboard to success, however, is the Teatro Municipal, Brazil's best ballet school. Two ballerinas from Manguinhos passed the entrance examination last year. Maysa wants to try her luck in four years.

Even if she is accepted, life won't be easy. "Of the 250 girls, perhaps a dozen will earn their money with ballet. Of these, at most a handful will do so as dancers," says Claudia Mota, the prima ballerina at the Teatro Municipal and one of Brazil's most famous dancers.

Just What the Girls Need

Not every girl at the Manguinhos school will one day be a famous dancer, but every last one of them is a success story. "Many of the girls who come from the dance school go on to do other things later in life," Mota says. "But what remains is the discipline, the strength, the self-confidence and the presence of mind." These are qualities that, Daiana says, are missing in the favela, especially among young girls.

"Favela culture is poisoned," Daiana says. Violence, neglect and child labor are the norm. She is constantly dealing with emergencies. Two girls haven't showed up in weeks. Daiana received a video in which the two of them, just 13 and 14 years old, could be seen doing cocaine with some boys who work as drug dealers.

The next day, Daiana was on her phone half the time because the police had smashed in the door to one of the girl's homes. They were after the girl's brother, who is now on the run. The house is a mess.

"We can't save Rio or Manguinhos," she says. "All we can do is distance ourselves." That's why Daiana takes the children to the Teatro Municipal four times a month. Lessons happen several times a week. There are performances every weekend, plus flea markets and celebrations where the girls are encouraged to help out.

One girl's mother once told Daiana, "My daughter is hardly ever home anymore." To which Daiana says she replied, "That's the point!" When the girls turn 14 or 15, that's when they're at the highest risk. Maysa is nearly there.

This is why the school is so strict, Daiana says. It is also why classical ballet -- this rigid, tightly regulated, historical dance -- is perfect for these girls.

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« Reply #6 on: Nov 12, 2019, 04:47 AM »

Bolivia's Evo Morales flies to Mexico, but vows to return with 'strength and energy'

Former president says it hurts to leave ‘for political reasons’ as foreign minister confirms he has left for Mexico

Dan Collyns in La Paz, Julian Borger in Washington
Tue 12 Nov 2019 04.10 GMT

Bolivia’s former president Evo Morales has boarded a plane bound for Mexico where he has been granted asylum, the Mexican foreign minister has announced.

Earlier on Monday evening Morales tweeted a farewell after his resignation in the wake of a disputed election, saying that he would be take up the offer of asylum in Mexico but would soon “return with greater strength and energy”.

The Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted a picture of the former leader draped in the flag of Mexico, and said: “The Mexican Air Force plane has already taken off with Evo Morales on board. According to current international conventions, it is under the protection of Mexico. Your life and integrity are safe.”

    Marcelo Ebrard C. (@m_ebrard)

    Ya despegó el avión de la Fuerza Aérea Mexicana con Evo Morales a bordo. De acuerdo a las convenciones internacionales vigentes está bajo la protección del de México. Su vida e integridad están a salvo. pic.twitter.com/qLUEfvciux
    November 12, 2019

Morales left behind a country close to chaos as his supporters and adversaries clashed on the streets, and reports of looting, vandalism and arson in the wake of an October election which the Organisation of American States reported to be rigged in his favour.

The police urged La Paz residents to stay indoors and declared they were joining forces with the army to help quell the violence, as Morales’ departure stoked fears of a power vacuum.

Morales said in his tweet: “Sisters and brothers, I leave for Mexico, grateful for the generosity of the government of that kindred people who gave us asylum to defend our lives. It hurts to leave the country for political reasons, but I will remain vigilant. Soon I will return with greater strength and energy.”

Morales’ decision to step down followed several quick-fire developments on Sunday, beginning with the release of a report by the Organisation of American States (OAS) which said it had found “clear manipulations” of the voting system in the October presidential election and could not verify the first-round victory for Morales. The president responded by saying he would call fresh elections but stepped down after the head of the army publicly called for him to leave his post.

On Monday, Morales used social media to accuse the opposition leaders Carlos Mesa and Luis Fernando Camacho of instigating a coup against him. “They lie and try to blame us for the chaos and violence that they provoked,” he said.

A senior US official said that Washington did not consider Morales resignation and departure to constitute a coup. “All these events clearly show is the Bolivian people have simply had enough of a government ignoring the will of its voters,” the official said.

The news brought mixed reactions around the world. Donald Trump welcomed it as “a significant moment for democracy in the western hemisphere”. The US president said in a written statement: “After nearly 14 years and his recent attempt to override the Bolivian constitution and the will of the people, Morales’ departure preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard.

“The United States applauds the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia’s constitution.”

Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, is an iconic figure for the international left and was the last survivor of Latin America’s “pink tide” of two decades ago. But the country has been roiled by mass protests since the disputed election.

In Mexico Ebrard issued a statement on Monday defining what had happened as a “military coup” and calling for an urgent meeting of the OAS.

“What happened yesterday [in Bolivia] is a step backwards for the whole continent,” he said. “Military coups never bring anything positive and that is why we are worried.”

Mesa, Morales’ closest rival in October’s disputed election, said the president was brought down by a popular uprising, not the military. He said the military had made a decision not to deploy in the streets because “they didn’t want to take lives”.

In Bolivia the immediate concern was the void left as resignations by Morales and his vice-president, Álvaro García Linares, were followed by the next in line, the senate president, Adriana Salvatierra. Her deputy, Jeanine Añez, is expected to assume the interim presidency later on Tuesday.

“Please excuse me if my voice breaks,” a tearful Añez said after arriving in Congress under heavy guard. “It’s so hard to see Bolivians clashing, no matter which side they’re on. They are being mistreated, and I’m asking you to cease the violence.”

Carlos Cordero, a political scientist at La Paz’s San Andrés university, said: “We are living in chaos with no one assuming the reins of power,” adding that no clear timeline had emerged for scheduling a fresh vote.

A senior US state department official said a copy of Morales’ resignation letter was circulating: “We’re trying to determine if that is a valid document or something else that somebody fabricated, but we have seen a draft that has been signed.”

Another senior US official said: “Our understanding is that what happens in fact is that people serving in public security forces and the police declined to repress the protests and later that members of the armed forces declined to repress these protests.

“And at that point Evo Morales resigned when leaders of the security forces pointed out the obvious: that he had lost the faith of the public, and that the security situation had become exceptionally grave.”

Commenting on the wave of resignations, the official said. “There is still a constitutional structure and there is still a clear line in their constitution for creating a legitimate succession of authority, and we hope that all members of all political parties participate fully in creating a quorum that will allow that process to move forward.”

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« Reply #7 on: Nov 12, 2019, 04:50 AM »

'It’s revenge': Ukraine's ex-central banker blames oligarch for attacks

Accusations levelled by Valeria Gontareva against Ihor Kolomoiskiy provide test for Ukraine’s new president

Shaun Walker and Andrew Roth in Kyiv
Tue 12 Nov 2019 05.00 GMT

It is possible that when a car drove into Valeria Gontareva at a pedestrian crossing in Knightsbridge, central London, in late August it was merely an accident.

But soon after, while Gontareva was recovering in hospital, her son’s car was set on fire back home in Kyiv. A few days after that, her family home in the Ukrainian capital was also burned down. For Gontareva there is no doubt that the attacks are part of a disturbing pattern.

“It’s revenge,” she said, appearing for an interview in a wheelchair in the lobby of the luxury central London apartment block where she now lives.

Gontareva made a number of powerful enemies during her reform-minded stint as the head of Ukraine’s central bank. However, she blames the attacks on one person: Ihor Kolomoiskiy, a controversial oligarch from whose control Gontareva wrested the country’s largest bank, PrivatBank. He denies responsibility and his supporters have said she is using the London incident as part of a PR campaign.

Gontareva said she had been threatened, in a jokey fashion, by Kolomoiskiy throughout her tenure at the central bank, a job to which she was appointed in 2014 by the previous president, Petro Poroshenko.

“It’s always like a joke with him. He never sent me a message: ‘I will kill you now.’ But he was threatening me for five years,” she said.

She claimed the threats started a month after her nomination, when she was called to the office of the presidential administration by the chief of Poroshenko’s administration, who introduced her to Kolomoiskiy.

“The first thing he said to me was: ‘Valeria Alexeyevna, you are without any bodyguards. Do you know it only costs $10,000 to have someone killed in this country?’ I told him I had bodyguards, which was a lie. And he said: ‘Ah, with guards it will cost $100k.’”

The attacks on Gontareva have come as a campaign against her reforms is under way, and as Kolomoiskiy has returned to the country, seeking compensation over PrivatBank.

The case has become a major scandal in Ukraine. The national choir and a comedy troupe close to the president were rebuked last month for a skit mocking Gontareva and the arson attack on her home, prompting Ukraine’s culture minister to apologise on Facebook. And the conflict has also played a key role in stalled talks between Ukraine and the IMF for billions in future loans.

It is a test for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a political neophyte elected earlier this year after promising a new kind of politics. He is seen as close to Kolomoiskiy, after making his name as an actor in a show broadcast on the oligarch’s television channel.

Zelenskiy made headlines recently after Donald Trump dragged him into the 2020 election race by demanding an investigation into Joe Biden. But in the end, it may be how he navigates his relations with Kolomoiskiy, rather than with Trump, that comes to define his legacy.

During her time at the bank, Gontareva said she frequently received anonymous threats. At one point, a coffin was left outside the central bank with a Gontareva cut-out inside. A painting of a pig swathed in a Russian flag appeared on the wall of her home. In 2017, Gontareva decided she had had enough, and resigned. Her family had insisted she leave the bank in the face of repeated threats, she said.

Gontareva is widely credited with cleaning up the banking sector, including by nationalising PrivatBank, which has accused Kolomoiskiy and his associates of the misappropriation and laundering of proceeds of corporate loans issued by the bank while he owned it. He has dismissed the allegations as nonsense.

“It was a unique situation – 33% of the private individual deposits and 50% of transactions, and the business was in the hands of an aggressive oligarch,” said Gontareva. “It was just a Ponzi scheme.”

Since Zelenskiy’s election, Kolomoiskiy has returned to Ukraine, amid rumours he is seeking a financial settlement for the PrivatBank case, and international investors have been spooked by Zelenskiy appointing a number of Kolomoiskiy-linked figures to key posts, including making the oligarch’s former lawyer, Andriy Bohdan, his chief of staff.

Kolomoiskiy initially agreed to an interview with the Guardian but later stopped answering messages. However, those seen as allied to the oligarch have dismissed Gontareva’s claims of a campaign against her.

“They decided to use this accident to maintain a PR campaign that somebody is trying to threaten her,” said Alexander Dubinsky, who was elected to parliament as a member of Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party earlier this year.

Dubinsky previously worked as a journalist on the 1+1 channel partly owned by Kolomoiskiy, and has become one of the loudest critics of Gontareva and the National Bank, saying it preyed on banks and sold off their assets in corrupt auctions.

“You need to understand that millions of people were affected by her decisions to bankrupt banks, millions of people lost their money,” he said in an interview at a cafe in Kyiv’s fashionable Podil district.

Dubinsky said he did not believe there was any actual threat to Gontareva, despite the apparent car accident in London and the firebombing of her house, suggesting the attacks may have been faked.

Earlier this year, he urged his more than 130,000 Facebook followers to begin a letter-writing campaign to the London School of Economics, where Gontareva has been given a fellowship, accusing her of stealing state funds. He has also sought to open a parliamentary commission to investigate the National Bank, but has been blocked by members of his own party.

He denied his campaign against Gontareva was carried out on Kolomoiskiy’s orders, saying he did not have a business relationship with the oligarch and had not spoken with him since before Zelenskiy’s election.

Some diplomatic observers say the story is a typically murky Ukrainian tale with no obvious good guys, but others involved in the country say Gontareva’s role in cleaning up the banking sector should not be underestimated.

“People don’t realise what Ukraine avoided in 2014. Together with the IMF and foreign advisers, they cleaned up the banking sector, and her work was very important,” said Leszek Balcerowicz, who was responsible for reforming Poland’s economy in the 1990s and was brought into Ukraine in an advisory capacity by Poroshenko in 2016.

He said the nationalisation of PrivatBank had been due to an enormous hole in its budgets, and was fully justified. “In any normal country you would get arrested for what happened to PrivatBank before,” he said.

Gontareva said she had no plans to return to Ukraine in the near future, but hoped Zelenskiy had the character to stand up to Kolomoiskiy.

“I know that he was a puppet, but let’s hope that when you’re 40 years old, clever and handsome, you don’t want to be a puppet. For me it doesn’t matter who he was. It matters who he will be,” she said.

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« Reply #8 on: Nov 12, 2019, 04:52 AM »

SPD duo aim to lead Germany out of 'neoliberal wilderness'

Pair standing for party leadership say support for Angela Merkel’s CDU should be conditional on more spending

Philip Oltermann in Berlin
Tue 12 Nov 2019 05.00 GMT

Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) should seek a path out of the “neoliberal wilderness” and pull the plug on their support for Angela Merkel’s government unless it loosens its purse strings and seeks more investment in public services and infrastructure, the underdog duo vying for the leadership of the party have said.

Founded in 1863, the world’s oldest social democratic party has been a central pillar of Germany’s postwar political order, but as a junior partner to Merkel’s CDU its fortunes have declined dramatically in recent years, dropping to historic lows in the European elections this year.

Following the resignation of Andrea Nahles as SPD chair in June, two relatively little-known politicians, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, standing as a joint ticket, have emerged as surprise leadership contenders from the leftwing of the party.

They are up against Germany’s vice-chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and Klara Geywitz, from east Germany, in a run-off vote whose result will be announced on 30 November.

In an interview with three European newspapers – the Guardian, El País and La Republicca – the pair said that if they won they would seek a reorientation of the SPD along traditional leftwing principles that would probably put the party on a collision course with Merkel’s conservatives.

“We took a turn into a neoliberal wilderness”, said Walter-Borjans, 67, whom German media have likened to the US Democrat Bernie Sanders. “There were advisers who also impressed on us Social Democrats that everything works best once it is privatised, if you lower taxes for high earners and increase VAT for those who earn less.”

He said that to win back voters’ trust, the SPD needed to “face up to the mistakes made in the past”, which also included its tacit support for austerity measures in Europe. “The SPD has allowed itself to be dragged into this framing where Germany is always the paymaster. But you have to look at the other side of the picture too, which is that the economic weakness of partner states in the European Union has weakened the euro and strengthened exports. And whose exports are they? Germany’s.”

Some polls predict SPD members will elevate Walter-Borjans and Esken from relative obscurity into one of the most influential positions in European politics, possibly because the so-called “grand coalition” with Merkel’s CDU remains highly unpopular, especially with younger Social Democrats.

Walter-Borjans in particular is seen as a rising star because his backstory speaks of strong principles and an appetite for risk-taking. In his former role as finance minister in North-Rhine Westphalia, he paid €19m for CDs containing whistleblowers’ data on thousands of Swiss bank clients who were not paying their fair share of tax – prompting thousands of people to turn themselves in to the authorities and pay back €7.2bn in taxes.

Critics point out that when he left his old job in 2017 the debt pile was 60% higher than when he started.

The two politicians would not be drawn on whether joining the governing alliance was one of the mistakes they would seek to reverse. Instead, they signalled that the SPD under their leadership would make the government’s survival dependent on a number of policy shifts, especially in relation to the current prioritisation of balanced budgets over economic stimulus.

“If the economy does indeed enter a downturn then we will need to make massive investments. Because our infrastructure is not in a good state, and nor is our digital infrastructure nor our schools. We have to question the black zero,” Walter-Borjans said, referring to the commitment to balancing the federal budget. “If that doesn’t work with our coalition partner then that’s not a good sign.”

Saskia Esken, from Baden-Württemberg, who specialises in digital policy, said the government had “left [the French president Emmanuel] Macron’s outreached hand hanging midair” and failed to come up with ways to reform Europe. “We have to develop Europe further, we have to go beyond the economic union. In some parts we have already gone beyond it, but we have to look at a social union, and a union of tax and financial policy.”

Walter-Borjans said Europe needed to work harder to crack down on tax evasion schemes, especially in the post-Brexit era. “Irrespective of whether Great Britain is inside or outside [the EU], there are already too many gaps, whether they are in Luxembourg, Madeira or Malta,” he said. “I believe that we need a reform of the EU in this respect, starting with a strengthening of the European parliament over the question of unanimous decision-making. Currently there is always the option of someone using their veto, which has left us stuck.”

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« Reply #9 on: Nov 12, 2019, 05:04 AM »

New testimony adds 2 stunning — and previously unknown — details about the Ukraine extortion

Raw Story

New testimony released Monday from the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the Ukraine scandal included at least two new stunning details about the quid pro quo scheme at the heart of the matter.

Overall, the transcripts for depositions of Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson, who were advisers to U.S. envoy Kurt Volker, built on the story of that we already know: that President Donald Trump pushed a shadow foreign policy to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political opponents, a scheme that involved using his office and military aid as leverage over the country in opposition to the official policy.

But testimony from Laura Cooper, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, included two new details about the scheme that we hadn’t previously been aware of.

Here’s the key portion of her testimony:

    Cooper: But towards the end of August when [Volker] met with me for what, you know, I thought was going to be you know just a routine touch base on Ukraine, but also I thought it was going to be a strategizing session on how do we get this security assistance released knowing that we both—we both wanted the funding released. So in that meeting he did mention something to me that, you know, was the first about somehow an effort that he was engaged in to see if there was a statement that the government of Ukraine would make that would somehow disavow any interference in U.S. elections and would commit to the prosecution of any individuals involved in election interference. And that was about as specific as it got.

    Q: Okay. Did he indicate to you that if that channel he was working was successful it might lift this issue?

    Cooper: Yes.
This section doesn’t seem to be garnering as much attention as it’s due. It suggests that the plot Trump was engaged in is even darker than is usually suggested by the president’s critics.

Trump’s demand that Ukraine investigate the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden has been described as asking President Volodymyr Zelensky to “dig up dirt,” “manufacture propaganda,” or “interfere” in the 2020 election — descriptions which may all be accurate. But what’s often overlooked is the fact that the demand for an investigation of specific people, people who happen to be American citizens and his political opponents, is a gross violation of civil liberties. Investigations are supposed to be started because law enforcement agents develop a factual predicate to suspect a crime may have committed, not because a politician demands it.

And as the bolded section above suggests, it seems the Trump team wasn’t just asking for an investigation — which would be bad enough — but asking for Ukraine to commit to prosecutions. This is completely inappropriate and corrupt because a person’s involvement in a crime does not necessarily mean they are culpable or worthy of prosecution. Asking a foreign country to commit to prosecuting “any individuals involved in election interference” before any such investigation has been conducted is a step beyond the damning scandal that has already been uncovered. Especially because, given the leverage Trump held over Ukraine, the country could have easily concluded that he wanted prosecutions no matter what the facts showed.

Second, this passage also indicated that Volker knew about the link between the military aid and the announcement of investigations — two key components at the heart of the quid pro quo. It’s not clear whether he passed along this ultimatum to the Ukrainians, as Ambassador Gordon Sondland has admitted to doing. But Cooper’s testimony indicated he made the connection before he even knew about the contents of the phone call between Trump and Zelensky in which the demands were made explicit.

This finding extends the circle of people who were directly aware of the aid-for-investigations bribery effort, and bolsters the already strong case that the Ukrainians themselves could have easily deduced the connection even before Sondland gave the ultimatum. The New York Times reported that Ukraine was on the verge of making the announcement Trump wanted in mid-September, but officials backed out when the military aid to the country was surprisingly released.

Cooper’s claim also seems to undercut some of Volker’s own testimony. In a statement, he told Congress of the aid and the statement of the investigations: “I did not perceive these issues to be linked in any way.”

And while being questioned by Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), Volker resisted the suggestion that Ukraine would have felt pressure to announce the investigations because of the hold on the aid. At one point, Schiff asked: “You would agree that when Ukraine learned that the U.S. was withholding military assistance that it desperately needed, that the president’s request to investigate his opponent carried that much more weight and urgency?”

Volker responded: “I can’t say that. I don’t — I think that the sequence of events goes the other direction.” However, according to Cooper’s testimony, that seems to be exactly the inference that he drew from the situation.

Volker also suggests that the Ukrainians only found out late in August, to his knowledge, that the aid had been withheld, though he admits he’s not sure on the date. He indicates that they might have found out on Aug. 28, when Politico revealed the fact publicly in an article. But Croft told Congress that Ukrainians spoke to her about the delayed aid “much earlier” than the time it became public.

It’s not clear Volker every directly lied to Congress, but his answers seem to have been cagey and in tension with other testimony. It certainly appears he tried his best to minimize the president’s conduct and its impact, especially as they related to him, even while he admitted damning facts about Trump.


Trump’s anti-corruption defense blown away by State Department official in newly released testimony

Raw Story

President Donald Trump’s contention that his efforts to get dirt on the family of former Vice President Joe Biden were part of an anti-corruption focus was undermined by testimony that was released by Congress on Monday.

The testimony was released by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA), the chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), the acting chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform.

“Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson, both advisors to Ambassador Kurt Volker on Ukraine policy, testified before the Committees about concerns they had with efforts to press Ukraine into announcing specific investigations which would help President Trump politically,” the three chairpeople said in a joint statement. “Ms. Croft also testified that Ukrainian officials approached her quietly about the hold on security assistance in the July or August timeframe, before the hold had been made public.”

Here is the key passage that undermines Trump’s anti-corruption defense.

“And I think you testified earlier that you drew a distinction between anti-corruption efforts and specific investigations?” Anderson was asked. “Is that right?”

“Correct,” Anderson replied.

“And you felt like anti-corruption efforts, writ large, were part of official U.S. policy, correct?” Anderson was asked.

“It was our policy to push—we have specific deliverables on anti-corruption that we had developed. Individual investigations were not part of that policy that I was aware of,” Anderson replied.

Anderson is a career Foreign Service officer who served as the Special Advisor for Ukraine Negotiations.


House Democrat smacks down Trump’s claim of ‘doctored’ transcripts: ‘Those transcripts are reviewed by those witnesses’

Raw Story

On Monday’s edition of CNN’s “OutFront,” during a discussion of acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s legal situation, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) trashed President Donald Trump’s claim that the transcripts from the impeachment hearings were somehow falsified.

“I will say that the craziness continues,” said Connolly. “For the president today to assert, based on nothing, the transcripts were doctored and don’t really reflect the deposition of the witnesses we heard from — and by the way, those transcripts are reviewed by those witnesses and their attorneys before they’re released for accuracy — but secondly, of course, to have the chief of staff of the president actually suing his own White House to get a decision about whether or not he’s required to respond to congressional demand for testimony or the White House directive really brings us into all-new territory in terms of craziness. And it’s really disturbing to watch.”


Mulvaney held up missiles to Ukraine out of fear Russia would be angry: State Department official

Raw Story

Among the many revelations in the transcript of Ukraine Special Adviser Catherine Croft’s testimony to the House is the fact that acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who also oversees the Office of Management and Budget, put a hold on a shipment of Javelin missiles to Ukraine not just as part of an apparent scheme to force Ukrainian officials to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, but also out of concern that Russia would be angry.

“In a briefing with Mr. Mulvaney, the question centered around the Russian reaction,” said Croft in the transcript. When pressed, she added the fear was specifically “that Russia would react negatively to the provision of javelins to Ukraine.”

Russia and Ukraine have been at war for years, with the former annexing and invading the Crimean Peninsula. Ukraine, an ally of the United States, has received military support for defense in this conflict.


Volker’s deputy told Congress Ukrainians found out Trump froze their military aid ‘very early on’ — before the public knew: report

Raw Story

According to transcripts released on Monday by House investigators, Catherine Croft, a special adviser for Ukraine and deputy to Kurt Volker, testified that Ukrainian officials became aware of President Donald Trump’s decision to freeze military aide appropriated by Congress “very early on” — and long before the public became aware of the delay.

Croft, according to the transcript, told the House that Ukrainian officials “approached me quietly and in confidence to ask me about an [Office of Management and Budget] hold on Ukraine security assistance,” and that she was taken aback by how quickly they became aware of it.

    Special Advisor for Ukraine Catherine Croft testified that some Ukrainians found out about the security aid hold up “very early on” before the hold became public. https://t.co/z1aMFZtJzZ

    — Michael Del Moro (@MikeDelMoro) November 11, 2019


‘Traitor’: Trump faces ‘lock him up’ chants as he speaks at Veterans Day event in New York City

Raw Story

Demonstrators in New York City called for the prosecution and imprisonment of President Donald Trump as he spoke at a Veterans Day event.

The president on Monday spoke in his hometown of New York City ahead of the Veterans Day parade. Although the president was behind bulletproof glass, protesters chanted “lock him up” loud enough for him to hear. Chants of “impeach and remove” could also be heard.

Watch the video and read the reports below.

    Protesting Trump at the NYC Veteran’s Day Parade. Trump deports vets, fires them (Vindman), and privatizes their health insurance. pic.twitter.com/fl7ShYnPlF

    — Rise and Resist (@riseandresistny) November 11, 2019

    The anti-Trump protestors chanting “Impeach and remove!” at the NYC Veterans’ Day Parade. pic.twitter.com/Jhy4rbPwRM

    — Sergio (@siano4progress) November 11, 2019

    Protesters chant “Bone spurs USA” as President Trump speaks at NYC Veterans Day Parade ⁦@Newsday⁩ pic.twitter.com/hSqEvKLC7W

    — Michael O’Keeffe (@MOKNYC) November 11, 2019

    Trump speaks at Veterans Day event in NYC. Protestors nearby are chanting “lock him up” and “traitor” pic.twitter.com/MhqeDa4xOw

    — Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) November 11, 2019

    Incredibly loud protests outside the Trump speech along Fifth Avenue, with whistles, chants of “Lock him up!”

    — Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 11, 2019

    can confirm, my office is a block away from where Trump is speaking right now and I can hear “lock him up” from the ninth floor https://t.co/blkfBicsRb

    — Anna Swartz (@Anna_Snackz) November 11, 2019

    Trump supporters and protesters mix it up at the start of the Veterans Day Parade. Some ugly verbal exchanges. ⁦@Newsday⁩ pic.twitter.com/g76fK9jNcZ

    — Michael O’Keeffe (@MOKNYC) November 11, 2019

    POTUS about to speak at Veterans Day event in Madison Square Park. There’s an “Impeach” sign in skyscraper across street pic.twitter.com/Uyo78vH8gQ

    — Jordan Fabian (@Jordanfabian) November 11, 2019

    VoteVets, the progressive veterans group, says it has rented a plane to fly over Denver today trailing a banner that reads, "Vets: Trump is a National Security Threat."

    It will also run digital ads today criticizing Sen. Gardner for supporting Trump. #copolitics #cosen

    — Justin Wingerter (@JustinWingerter) November 11, 2019


The GOP has a dark reason for ensuring that Trump is never impeached: columnist

Raw Story

In a column for the Daily Beast, longtime political observer Michael Tomasky suggests that the Republican Party is backing Donald Trump in his impeachment fight for obvious reasons — not wanting to lose control of the Oval Office — but that is only part of it.

With the Democratic-majority House about to open public impeachment hearings that could be very damaging to the president facing re-election in 2020, the GOP would prefer to nip any impeachment talk of a Republican in the bud because it would expose the way they do business.

According to Tomasky, the latest spin by Republicans is that Trump’s pressuring of Ukraine’s president for dirt on his political opponents in return for foreign aid might be debatable, but that the effort by the president doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Calling the defense, “more insidious, because in sounding reasonable on the surface it masks the cancer that is eating the Republican Party and has been, in fact, since before Donald Trump ran for president,” Tomasky wrote, “the seemingly reasonable, soft-shell defense of Trump is grounded in that authoritarianism.”

Admitting that Republican are running scared of Trump and his rabid followers, Tomasky explained that there is a deeper fear among party leaders that they will be exposed as anything but a party interested in democratic values.

“Everything Trump has done is unimpeachable for this far creepier and less reassuring reason: They do not want to admit that any Republican president is capable of doing anything illegal or impeachable while in office. They simply will not allow that precedent to be established,” he wrote.”

“It’s still the case that too few people understand the truth about the modern GOP. It is an un-American party. It is not interested in democracy. It is interested in power. It doesn’t care how it gets it,” he elaborated. “Twice in the last five elections, its presidential candidates have lost the popular vote. Suppose that had gone the other way around. Do you think the Electoral College would still exist? I can assure you it would not. They would have found a way to gut it. But because the un-democratic results in 2000 and 2016 happened to favor them—hey, the Electoral College is great! Whatever it takes.”

“All this preceded Trump,” he continued. “All the crazy gerrymandering is about power over democracy. Remember when the state legislatures of Wisconsin and North Carolina tried to strip the governor’s office of powers during lame-duck sessions because the incoming governors were Democrats? Power over democracy—or, in that case, limiting the legitimate democratic power of the other side. And of course Merrick Garland. Power over democracy.”

Adding that it is possible there is “a line” Donald Trump could cross that would make Republicans turn on him and acquiesce to booting him from office, Tomasky issued a warning to readers to not hold their collective breaths.

“So when you hear someone on television say that Republicans’ posture is all about their fear of Trump, don’t buy it. It’s partly about that. But it’s also about this. If they were to acquiesce in the removal of a Republican president, they’d be placing democracy ahead of power. And this is one thing that we know they will not do,” he concluded.


The unbearable wrongness of William Barr

on November 11, 2019
By Phil Zuckerman, Salon
- Commentary

Last month, in what Jeffrey Toobin called “the worst speech given by an Attorney General of the United States in modern history,” Attorney General William Barr offered a lecture at Notre Dame Law School in which he denounced secularism as a “social pathology” that destroys the “moral order.” After blaming secularists for a host of contemporary problems — including depression, drug overdosing, and violence — Barr explained that without belief in a “transcendent Supreme Being” and adherence to “God’s eternal law,” the “possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.” Unless we follow “God’s instruction manual,” he sermonized, there will be “real-world consequences for man and society” — consequences that are not pretty, but quite grim. For without religion, there can be no “moral culture” and society will inevitably fall prey to humanity’s “capacity for great evil.”

Such hackneyed assertions are not new. Pious people of power have been scapegoating the non-religious for centuries, characterizing non-believers as threats to the nation, and declaring that without religion, there can be no moral social order. And like those before him who have made such claims — from Newt Gingrich to the prophet Muhammed — William Barr is wrong.

When lots of people in a given society stop being religious of their own accord, such organic secularization does not result in the evaporation of morality in society, nor national decay. For instance, the most secular countries in the world today fare much better on nearly every measure of peace, prosperity, and societal well-being — including infant mortality, life expectancy, educational attainment, economic prosperity, freedom, levels of corruption, and so forth — than the most religious countries. In fact, those countries with the highest murder rates — such as Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil — are extremely religious, while those countries with the lowest murder rates — such as Iceland, Canada, Slovenia, Norway, and the Netherlands — are among the most secular nations in the world. Heck, Singapore and the Czech Republic are among the least religious nations on earth, while Brazil and the Philippines are among the most God-worshipping, yet the latter’s murder rates are over ten times higher than the former’s, and the crime rate of never-been-Christian, strongly secular Japan is 80 times lower than El Salvador’s, a Catholic nation neck-deep in worship of Barr’s “Supreme Transcendent Being.”

Similar correlations hold within our own country: on almost every measure of societal well-being — from poverty rates to STD rates to DUIs — the most secular states tend to fare the best, while the most religious tend to fare the worst. For example, among the states with the highest gun violence and murder rates, many are among the most religious — e.g., Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arkansas — while among those with the lowest gun violence and murder rates, many are among the least religious states, such as New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, New York, Washington, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.

Of course, such correlations don’t prove that secularism causes these more positive outcomes experienced by less religious societies. But they do knock the knees out of Barr’s thesis that secularism is a destructive force. For if secularism resulted in moral deterioration, then highly secular societies would be decaying bastions of crime and misery, while the strongly religious would be shining beacons of liberty and harmony. But we find just the opposite reality: the nations with the best overall quality of life are among the most secular countries in the world. And while numerous factors account for the differing degrees of societal well-being — factors that have nothing to do with religion or secularism — that’s exactly the point. Societies thrive or fail because of their social policies, laws, economic opportunities, civil institutions, and government regulations — not because of their faith in God, or lack thereof.

Historical analysis is also relevant. The so-called “rise of the nones” has occurred over the last five decades, with both God-belief declining and the percentage Americans claiming no religious affiliation skyrocketing, from less than 5% up to 26% today. And yet, over the course of those same decades, America’s poverty rate has precipitously declined, and the national violent crime rate has gone down by 51%! Clearly, secularism isn’t the hindrance to moral social progress Barr would have us believe.

At the individual level, while religiously-active people do volunteer and donate more money to charity than their secular peers — at least in the US, if not elsewhere — secular people are notably moral in other ways; they are, on average, less racist, less ethnocentric, less homophobic, less militaristic, less authoritarian, and less likely to hit their children than their religious peers; they are also more likely to support women’s equality, reproductive rights, sane gun control, death with dignity, animal welfare and efforts to fight climate change. Finally, atheists are significantly under-represented in prison.

But how can secular people be moral if they don’t believe in God? Easy. Contrary to Barr’s perspective, morality did not start with the Bible. Human communities began constructing ethical codes of conduct long before the world’s major religions arrived on the scene. And that’s because morality first developed during our long evolutionary past, when cooperation, honesty, and altruism increased group survival. Concomitantly, our brains long ago developed neurological pathways and peptides that enhanced our ability to be empathetic and compassionate — the two fundamental cornerstones of a moral orientation. We’ve also learned how to treat others through socialization and enculturation. And our innate ability to think, reflect, and reason has consistently led most of us to the basic, universal ethical principle that we ought to treat people the way we ourselves would like to be treated.

Although religion preaches many moral precepts, it by no means holds a monopoly on them. Ethical life abounds well beyond the confines of church, Bible, and belief in gods. Those who actively scapegoat the secular as pathologically immoral are purposefully spreading fear, and division — and in so doing, violate the very moral orientation they claim to champion.

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« Reply #10 on: Nov 12, 2019, 07:58 AM »

‘Stop lying!’ MSNBC’s Steve Schmidt rains hell on GOP for defending Trump’s ‘dime-store Mussolini’ schemes

on November 12, 2019
Raw Story
By Travis Gettys

Former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt called out his old party for “lying” about President Donald Trump’s actions toward Ukraine to distract from an “unprecedented” extortion scheme.

Schmidt appeared Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to make predictions about the upcoming public impeachment hearings, and he said witnesses would tell a tale of sordid corruption.

“The American people will see when this begins to play out publicly is an act of corruption unprecedented in its magnitude and its severity,” Schmidt said. “What we see is the president of the United States extorting a foreign head of state, withholding congressionally approved military assistance to a nation that has a hot war with the Russians on the eastern front, for the purposes of getting dirt on the president’s political opponent.”

“There has never been in the entire post-World War II period of history, from Truman through Obama until Trump, there has never been an act of corruption by an American president quite like this,” he added. “It is extraordinary and severe.”

Host Joe Scarborough interrupted to ask a rhetorical question intended to shame the GOP he has left, as well.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, it’s not like me to do that,” Scarborough said, laughing. “You say this is the first time this has ever happened, and yet Republicans, our former party, members of our former party are going on TV telling Americans that this happens all the time, this is what presidents do. What would you say to those Republicans who are lying to the American public, who are suggesting that every president before the 45th was just as corrupt as Donald J. Trump?”

Schmidt admonished his fellow conservatives.

“I would say to them like I would say to my young teenagers, stop it — stop, stop lying, seriously,” Schmidt said.

“What this was was an extortion attempt,” he added. “This was a shakedown by our dime-store Mussolini in the Oval Office.”

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmEsLcba-PI&feature=emb_title


CNN’s John Berman tears apart leaked GOP anti-impeachment talking points piece by piece

on November 12, 2019
Raw Story
By Brad Reed

CNN’s John Berman on Tuesday tore apart Republicans’ new anti-impeachment talking points and expressed astonishment that this was the best they could come up with to defend President Donald Trump.

Referring to talking points first reported by Axios, Berman went over the GOP’s arguments line by line and showed why they are unlikely to convince anyone of the president’s innocence.

“‘The July 25th phone call shows no conditionality or evidence of pressure,'” Berman began, quoting the first talking point. “The president says, ‘Do me a favor’ and brings up just the Bidens and the 2016 election, and also there are witnesses saying that there’s all kinds of conditionality around that call!”

Berman went on to give the same treatment to the other talking points as well.

“‘The Ukrainian government was not aware of the hold on aid during the July 25th call’ — that may be so, but there is new evidence they were aware much earlier than we thought,” Berman said. “‘Security assistance hold was lifted on September 11th’ — that was a couple of days after the White House knew about the whistleblower complaint! I’m surprised these are the four points Republicans are leading with.”

“I think it’s the best they’ve got,” replied New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who noted that testimony from multiple witnesses has left the GOP with very little room to mount robust defenses of the president’s actions.


Three GOP senators could force a rule change leading to Trump’s impeachment — here’s why McConnell might go for it

Raw Story

According to a column written for Politico by a former senior adviser to multiple Republican lawmakers, there is a path to forcing Donald Trump from office that would only require three GOP senators to join forces with the Democrats.

Under the heading, “There’s a Surprisingly Plausible Path to Removing Trump From Office,” Juleanna Glover — who served as an adviser to former President George W. Bush and ex-Vice President Dick Cheney — laid out a simple way to force an impeachment vote that would be conducted in secret, freeing GOP senators to turn on the president without fear of repercussions.

As she writes, “A secret impeachment ballot might sound crazy, but it’s actually quite possible. In fact, it would take only three senators to allow for that possibility.”

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will immediately move to hold a trial to adjudicate the articles of impeachment if and when the Senate receives them from the House of Representatives. Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution does not set many parameters for the trial, except to say that ‘the Chief Justice shall preside,’ and ‘no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present,'” she explained. “That means the Senate has sole authority to draft its own rules for the impeachment trial, without judicial or executive branch oversight.”

With that in mind, Glover writes that McConnell would require the support of 51 of the 53 Republican senators to proceed in any manner he deems appropriate.

However, as GOP adviser explains, three or more defections to the Democrats could be a game-changer.

“According to current Senate procedure, McConnell will still need a simple majority—51 of the 53 Senate Republicans—to support any resolution outlining rules governing the trial. That means that if only three Republican senators were to break from the caucus, they could block any rule they didn’t like. (Vice President Mike Pence can’t break ties in impeachment matters.) Those three senators, in turn, could demand a secret ballot and condition their approval of the rest of the rules on getting one,” she elaborated.”

“Trump and those around him seem confident that he won’t lose the 20 Republican senators needed to block a guilty verdict. But it’s not hard to imagine three senators supporting a secret ballot. Five sitting Republican senators have already announced their retirements; four of those are in their mid-70s or older and will never run for office again. They might well be willing to demand secrecy in order to give cover to their colleagues who would like to convict Trump but are afraid to do so because of politics in their home districts,” she continued, before adding, “There’s already been some public speculation that, should the Senate choose to proceed with a secret ballot, Trump would be found guilty.”

She also noted that one Republican consultant has claimed that, “a sitting Republican senator had told him 30 of his colleagues would vote to convict Trump if the ballot were secret.”

Glover also suggested there may be a silver lining for Trump in a secret ballot that could force him from office.

“If a secret ballot is agreed on and Trump knows the prospect of impeachment is near, he could then focus his energies on his post-presidency. Once he leaves office, Trump faces multiple possible criminal investigations, at the federal, state and local level. He almost certainly knows that a President Pence could pardon him only for federal crimes,” she wrote. “Trump’s impeachment, followed by a quick resignation, might appease Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s and New York Attorney General Letitia James’s thirst for justice, making them more likely to agree to a deal.”

She also added,m that McConnell might also find a secret ballot appealing.

“Even McConnell might privately welcome the prospect of a secret ballot. He has always been intently focused on maintaining his Republican majority in the Senate. Trump’s approval numbers continue to languish, and support for impeachment has been rising,” she explained. “All of which suggests McConnell might warm to the possibility that he and his caucus could avoid a public up-or-down vote in defense of behavior by the president that’s looking increasingly indefensible.

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« Reply #11 on: Nov 12, 2019, 10:56 AM »

Republicans’ betrayal of America sinks to new depths as the impeachment hearings go public

on November 12, 2019
By John Stoehr, The Editorial Board
- Commentary

The House is set this week to begin the first in a series of impeachment hearings. As we listen to testimony and consider the facts, we should bear in mind the big picture.

So far, the focus is rightly on Donald Trump’s extortion—the correct legal term—of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for personal political gain. Our attention is on his warping of American foreign policy, putting the service of our national interests below his own. That alone is an abuse of power that the framers themselves thought was worthy of indictment by a majority of the the US House of Representatives.

But as the Editorial Board has argued, that’s not the big picture. Focusing on Ukraine is a tactical decision on the part of House Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff and others apparently believe they have enough evidence, and are going to procure more, that can impeach (indict) Trump. This crime, however, is almost certainly just one of a galaxy of crimes that may later come to light. Some Republicans are prepared to go to the wall for the president. Only a full context can reveal the depth of their betrayal.

Betrayal? Yes. To paraphrase Pelosi, all roads lead to Moscow.

It would be one thing for the Republicans to argue, as they are, that Trump didn’t do anything wrong in asking Zelensky to investigate corruption in Ukraine. It would be one thing if that investigation just happened to include corrupt practices by an energy firm on whose board of directors sat Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. It would be one thing to suggest, as some Republicans are saying outright, that the president hasn’t done anything worse than any other president. They’ve all done a little quid pro quo.

But it’s another thing entirely for Trump to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid in exchange not for an investigation but for Volodymyr Zelensky’s public declaration that an investigation is underway. It’s absolutely another thing when the president refuses to meet with Zelensky at the White House unless he announces that his government plans to investigate the Bidens. According to all witness testimony from Trump-appointed State Department officials, it was clear to everyone involved that there was a difference in the president’s mind between Ukraine investigating and just saying it was investigating, and that saying it was more important than doing it.

What conclusions can we draw from that difference? For one thing, that actual corruption, whether or not it involved the Bidens, was beside the point. For another, that actually investigating corruption didn’t matter either. What mattered to Trump was Zelensky announcing an investigation in order to give the impression that it’s valid and legitimate though it had no grounding in fact. Public statements that have the appearance of truth but that are empty of truth are classic tools of propaganda. The president didn’t withhold military aid in exchange for an investigation. He tried to straw-boss Zelensky into becoming an accomplice in turning lies into reality.

The question then: why would Trump put a higher value on propaganda than on his own country’s national interests (which were said to be anti-corruption for the sake of liberal western-style democracy). To answer that, we have to ask another question: who does the propaganda serve? To be sure, it serves Trump, but that’s not all. We know that’s not all because the president linked three things in his bid to extort Zelensky, according to testimony by George Kent, a senior State Department official. Those three things were “investigations, Biden and Clinton.” Yes, meaning you-know-who.

With the addition of Hillary Clinton to the mix, we know the president wasn’t just trying to rig the next election against a leading Democratic rival. He was trying to rewrite the history of the 2016 election, meaning write Russia right out of it. The president says he believes, and wishes the rest of us would believe, that it wasn’t the Russians who attacked our sovereignty in 2016. It was the Ukrainians. And it wasn’t his campaign that conspired to defraud the American people. It was the Democrats. If the Democrats are the bad guys, then he’s the good guy, and whatever role Russia played in Clinton’s defeat was only to the extent that it exposed the enemy within.

This disinformation story has its origins in Russia. Efforts to validate this “false narrative”—to make it real—began with Paul Manafort, continued with The Hill’s John Solomon and concluded, to the best of our knowledge, with Rudy Giuliani, who has led Trump’s “shadow diplomacy” to Ukraine. Giuliani’s goal has been finding ways to launder Russian propaganda through mainstream political discourse. That has given him the confidence to cast even a combat veteran as a disloyal saboteur. To put this in the starkest of terms: Trump’s interests are not America’s. They are Vladimir Putin’s.

This is the big picture to bear in mind as the House begins impeachment hearings. This is the context in which the Republicans are operating. To know this is to know the potential depths of their betrayal. Just remember: all roads lead to Moscow.

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« Reply #12 on: Nov 13, 2019, 04:21 AM »

A tiny pharmacy is identifying big problems with common drugs, including Zantac

Carolyn Y. Johnson
WA Post
November 13 2019

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The escalating global recall of Zantac, the heartburn pill that once ranked as the world’s best-selling drug, has its roots not in government oversight or a high-profile lawsuit, but in a tiny online pharmacy here whose founders feared that U.S. drugs might not be as safe as people think.

The pharmacy, Valisure, is a start-up with only 14 full-time employees. But since its scientists alerted American regulators that Zantac and its generic form, ranitidine, contained a chemical thought to cause cancer, more than 40 countries from Australia to Vietnam have either stopped sales, launched investigations or otherwise stepped in to protect consumers from possible health risks.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration this month confirmed unacceptable levels of the chemical, N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), in some ranitidine products — including in some syrups taken by babies. FDA officials have urged people not to panic, because the levels of NDMA are similar to the amount found in grilled and smoked meats. The agency is still investigating and asking companies to recall ranitidine and a similar drug, nizatidine, if they discover unacceptable amounts of NDMA. The agency’s testing suggests Pepcid, Tagamet, Nexium, Prevacid and Prilosec do not contain the chemical.

In the meantime, major pharmacy chains have jumped ahead and yanked both brand-name and generic versions of Zantac off their shelves. Some hospitals have switched to alternatives, and major drug manufacturers have recalled products — including Sanofi, the maker of over-the-counter Zantac in the United States, which announced a recall last month “as a precautionary measure.”

“We know impurities in medicines are of great concern to patients and consumers who rely on safe and effective medicines approved by the FDA, and we are working with manufacturers and global regulators to provide clear and actionable information,” Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. “These investigations take time and do not provide instantaneous answers.”

For Valisure’s scientists, finding NDMA in ranitidine was a particularly dramatic example of the kind of discovery they make routinely. Valisure checks the chemical makeup of drugs before it ships them to consumers, and rejects more than 10 percent of the batches because their tests detect contaminants, medicine that didn’t dissolve properly or pills that contain the wrong dose, among other issues. Since late 2018, Valisure has reported more than 50 problems directly to drug companies. Occasionally — as in the case of Zantac — their scientists find a problem so urgent they play the role of watchdog.

“I had a fairly dim view of drug quality in the United States going into this, but we’ve discovered tons of problems I never even thought of — and they’re all over the place,” said Adam Clark-Joseph, one of Valisure’s founders.

The FDA firmly rejects the idea that the drug supply is unsafe and said that one of Valisure’s conclusions — that ranitidine turns into NDMA in the stomach — is not supported by the agency’s testing. The agency reviews reams of data before approving a drug, inspects factories that make them, runs its own tests on selected drugs and collects reports of safety problems.

“Americans can be confident in the quality of the products the FDA approves,” spokesman Jeremy Kahn said.

Valisure makes money the same way other pharmacies do — buying drugs from wholesalers and taking a cut of the price when it sells them. To set itself apart, it chemically tests the medicines it dispenses — marketing its services on the premise that people can’t be confident about what’s inside the pill bottles that fill their bathroom cabinets.

Clark-Joseph, an economist with some chemistry training, was drawn to the idea because he kept getting sick. In graduate school, he refilled a prescription only to find that the new, supposedly identical drug didn’t work. When his doctor told him to try another pharmacy because he probably got a bad batch, he was appalled. After similar incidents occurred, he started searching for a lab that would verify the chemical contents of his medication. When he didn’t find an obvious solution, he called his college friend David Light, who had worked in biotech, and suggested that they partner on a business that would verify the chemical contents of drugs.

“He thought I was being kind of paranoid at first,” Clark-Joseph said.

Light researched the issue and became convinced that it was a real problem — and a potential opportunity. But it wasn’t easy to sell investors on the concept, so the two friends provided much of the initial funding for the company from their own bank accounts.

In a modest two-room laboratory in a former gun factory, Valisure’s half-dozen scientists churn pills in a solution formulated to mimic stomach acid and warmed to body temperature, a test to determine whether medicines dissolve properly. They use lasers to probe pills for inactive ingredients. A specialized instrument used in forensic investigations is used to detect carcinogens. Each time the company has expanded its panel of tests, new problems with medications have emerged.

One of the first drugs they tested was lamotrigine, an anticonvulsant medication made by several generic drug companies. (Valisure typically doesn’t disclose the makers of a specific batch that failed its quality standards.) Valisure’s scientists put different batches of the extended-release version of the pill into a fancy blender that emulated the stomach and were dismayed at the results. Multiple batches took longer than 24 hours to dissolve, and one took more than 48 hours — despite the fact that the label said it was supposed to dissolve in 12 to 15 hours. Ultimately, they found a version that met their standard to dispense to patients. Decals depicting the chemical structure of lamotrigine now decorate a wall of the pharmacy.

Late last year, the company published a scientific paper showing that rapid-release Tylenol dissolved more slowly than less expensive tablets of the same dose. This wasn’t a public health problem, but it made the marketing of one of the most familiar drugs seem misleading.

Ernie Knewitz, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, the maker of brand-name Tylenol, said at the time the gelcaps were “rapid release” in comparison with conventional gelcaps, not uncoated tablets. The company did not respond to a request for an update.

After Valisure added a carcinogen test in March, it threw a form of ranitidine, the active ingredient in Zantac, into the queue — because Clark-Joseph’s infant daughter was taking the drug for acid reflux. Kaury Kucera, the chief scientific officer, recalled seeing a spiking peak on a graph that indicated the presence of a large amount of NDMA with disbelief. She ran the test again. Then she ran into Light’s office. He called Clark-Joseph and warned him to hold off on giving his daughter the drug until they could sort out what this meant. Scientists worked feverishly to confirm and understand the result. They sent samples to an independent lab to verify their finding. In June, they alerted the FDA of their initial results.

Much of the concern over the quality and safety of the drug supply has been propelled by a massive movement of drug production to foreign factories in recent years, “driven by the pharmaceutical industry’s desire for cost savings and less stringent environmental regulations,” Woodcock said in testimony submitted to Congress in October.

The FDA rigorously evaluates drugs for effectiveness and safety before approval, including visits by inspectors, who review records to ensure compliance with requirements — including that companies test batches of medicine before distributing them, Kahn said.

A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that almost a third of 3,000 foreign drug establishments licensed by the FDA may never have been inspected, although the FDA said it has now caught up on the backlog.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), has sent letters to the FDA questioning the adequacy of its foreign drug inspection program.

David Gortler, a former FDA official who now works as chief medical officer of Valisure, argues that inspections simply aren’t sufficient in foreign factories. He thinks the agency needs to test each batch of drug that enters the country.

Companies have been cited by the FDA not just for technical mishaps and errors, but occasionally for systematic failures to properly investigate quality problems.

“It’s really becoming a national health crisis,” Gortler said, “and eventually it’s going to become a national security crisis.”

Kahn, the FDA spokesman, said the agency “regularly samples and tests selected drug products.” A survey of 323 products in 2015 found that all drugs met the agency’s standard for potency and purity, he said.

But the FDA’s own data shows that testing is selective. At the end of 2013, there were 12,100 approved drugs. Over the previous decade, the agency had tested fewer than 4,000 of them.

Valisure sees that gap as an opportunity. The company first alerted U.S. regulators in June that Zantac and ranitidine products contained a probable carcinogen. In September, Valisure filed a citizens petition to have the products pulled from the market entirely, and the FDA issued an alert to the public that the agency had learned some products contained NDMA. Follow-up testing had led Valisure’s scientists to suspect that the drug wasn’t contaminated, but that the drug itself is unstable and could form NDMA, particularly in the conditions found in the stomach.

Woodcock testified before Congress that FDA scientists do think the drug might be reacting with itself to form NDMA. But the FDA said the levels of NDMA it has found are lower than Valisure flagged and that it is not formed in the stomach. “We still must test the drugs in the human body to fully understand if ranitidine forms NDMA,” Woodcock said in a statement.

GSK said in a statement its scientists had carefully examined whether the drug could form NDMA in the stomach when Zantac was being approved.

“The reason for the current precautionary recall of ranitidine is due to an emerging finding that some sources of drug substance and therefore drug product may contain very small amounts of nitrosamine,” the statement said.

Sanofi critiqued Valisure’s testing, saying the high levels of the chemical formed “only after exposing ranitidine to extreme artificial conditions.”

Sanofi said on Oct. 18 that it would recall its over-the-counter Zantac in the United States and Canada, noting “inconsistencies” in its preliminary test results of the active ingredient of drugs sold in both countries, which were sourced from different suppliers. Several other major ranitidine manufacturers have also pulled their U.S. products, including Novartis’s Sandoz division, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories and Apotex.

Sandoz and Dr. Reddy’s both cited “confirmed contamination” above FDA’s limits in a statement. Apotex said its recall was on a “precautionary basis.”

Meanwhile, GlaxoSmithKline, the company that first brought Zantac to market in the 1980s, has recalled its products overseas and is investigating the possible source of the NDMA. (GSK no longer sells ranitidine products in the United States.)

Exposure to low levels of NDMA, which occurs naturally in food and the environment, is not acutely dangerous. But if consumers wonder what to make of the growing recalls, they are not alone.

Erin Fox, senior director of the Drug Information and Support Services for the University of Utah Health, purchases medicines for a hospital system with 5,000 drugs on the formulary. Not a day goes by without a recall notice of some kind, she said — adding that as soon as Valisure’s petition became public, her hospital swapped ranitidine products for an alternative.

Fox is a drug safety nerd. She geeks out on reading the warning letters and inspection documents the FDA posts about drug factories. Fox then tries to sleuth out more information, calling up company contacts.

“I’m almost always completely frustrated and thwarted,” Fox said. “We have a pass-fail system in the U.S., where it’s on the market or not on the market, and FDA does not provide us with any kind of quality metrics. In many cases, we don’t even know the company that is making the product.”

That can make it difficult to understand whether, when a problem is detected, it is a single bad batch or an example of a much broader problem. Over the past year and a half, an expanding recall of blood pressure medicines have been traced back to a problem in the manufacturing process in factories in China and India, according to the FDA.

Consumers may not care where their drugs are made, as long as they are safe and effective, and that’s what the FDA monitors through programs that tally adverse effects. But that system is imperfect. Many side effects — or people’s perception that a pill doesn’t work very well — may never be reported.

And for chemicals like NDMA, which may be harmful over the long term, there may be no immediate health impact to report.

William Mitch, an environmental engineering professor at Stanford University, generated support for the idea ranitidine could turn into NDMA in the stomach several years ago, while investigating the presence of NDMA in wastewater. As a side study, he asked 10 volunteers to collect urine samples before and after ingesting a Zantac.

Mitch found high levels of NDMA in their urine after they ingested the pill, in some cases more than 45,000 nanograms. The FDA has set the acceptable daily intake of NDMA at 96 nanograms.

“That was concerning, but we don’t know that field,” Mitch said. “We sort of did it to spur further interest.”

GSK cited studies from the late 1980s and early 1990s that did not find a substantial increase in NDMA levels in people taking Zantac.

“Extensive pharmacovigilance monitoring, regular safety reviews and substantive epidemiological studies have not linked ranitidine to raised cancer risks,” GSK said in a statement.

The disagreement over the source of NDMA adds urgency to the investigation by regulators and companies. For Valisure, identifying problems can be a form of marketing, and the global attention over Zantac has helped boost business. But increasingly, its employees see themselves as patient advocates.

“We always thought of consumer protection . . . as an important part of what we would do, but I never appreciated how big of a problem we’re watching over,” Light said. “We find more problems than we have resources to fully investigate.”

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« Reply #13 on: Nov 13, 2019, 04:27 AM »

2°C: Beyond the limit: The climate chain reaction that threatens the heart of the Pacific

By Simon Denyer and Chris Mooney
WA Post

SHIRETOKO PENINSULA, Japan — Lined up along the side of their boat, the fishermen hauled a huge, heavy net up from swelling waves. At first, a few small jellyfish emerged, then a piece of plastic. Then net, and more net. Finally, all the way at the bottom: a small thrashing mass of silvery salmon.

It was just after dawn at the height of the autumn fishing season, but something was wrong.

“When are the fish coming?” boat captain Teruhiko Miura asked himself.

The salmon catch is collapsing off Japan’s northern coast, plummeting by about 70 percent in the past 15 years. The disappearance of the fish coincides with another striking development: the loss of a unique blanket of sea ice that dips far below the Arctic to reach this shore.

The twin impacts — less ice, fewer salmon — are the products of rapid warming in the Sea of Okhotsk, wedged between Siberia and Japan. The area has warmed in some places by as much as 3 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times, making it one of the fastest-warming spots in the world, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the nonprofit organization Berkeley Earth.

Five-year average of temperature change compared with late 1800s






Insufficient data
Source: Berkeley Earth

That increase far outstrips the global average and exceeds the limit policymakers set in Paris in 2015 when they aimed to keep Earth’s average temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.

The rising temperatures are starting to shut down the single most dynamic sea ice factory on Earth. The intensity of ice generation in the northwestern Sea of Okhotsk exceeds that of any single place in the Arctic Ocean or Antarctica, and the sea ice reaches a lower latitude than anywhere else on the planet. Its decline has a cascade of consequences well beyond Japan as climate dominoes begin to fall.

When sea ice forms here, it expels huge amounts of salt into the frigid water below the surface, creating some of the densest ocean water on Earth. That water then sinks and travels east, carrying oxygen, iron and other key nutrients out into the northern Pacific Ocean, where marine life depends on it.

As the ice retreats, that nutrient-rich current is weakening, endangering the biological health of the vast northern Pacific — one of the most startling, and least discussed, effects of climate change so far observed.

“We call the Sea of Okhotsk the heart of the North Pacific,” said Kay Ohshima, a polar oceanographer at the Institute of Low Temperature Science at Hokkaido University. “But the Sea of Okhotsk is significantly warming, three times faster than the global mean.

“That causes the power of the heart to weaken,” he said.

Cascade of climate change

The cascade starts more than a thousand miles away in a uniquely frigid area of Siberia known as the “Cold Pole,” where the coldest temperature ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere (-67.7 degrees Celsius) was measured in 1933.

The Cold Pole, too, is warming rapidly, by about 2.7 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times in the village of Oymyakon. That means the bitter north wind that blows down onto the Sea of Okhotsk is also warming.

The warmer wind inhibits the formation of sea ice. Across the Sea of Okhotsk, ice cover during the peak months of February and March has shrunk by nearly 30 percent in the past four decades, a vanishing of about 130,000 square miles of ice, an area larger than Arizona.

Masanori Ito, 67, recalls how, during his childhood, the ice would drift down from the sea’s northern reaches — a thick, white carpet descending on Abashiri, a city on the northeastern shore of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture.

“The drift ice used to arrive with a force, pushed and pushed from behind, from far out at sea,” said Ito, senior executive director at the Okhotsk Sightseeing Federation. It would pile up upon itself, forming “mountains over 10 meters high.”

Today, those mountains are long gone, and the coast of Hokkaido is hemmed in by ice for fewer than 25 days a year on average, said Arctic scientist Shuhei Takahashi, who runs the Okhotsk Sea Ice Museum of Hokkaido in Mombetsu.

A century ago, the coast typically had ice for more than 50 days each winter, Takahashi said. Based on current trends, he said, the drift ice could disappear entirely by the end of this century.

Children play what was called “Drift Ice Riding Play” or “Ryu-hyo Nori Asobi” at the Abashiri Port in the mid-1950s. (Courtesy of Keiichi Kikuchi)

Meanwhile, the ice itself is also changing. Those who know it well say it sounds different, less intense, no longer an indomitable winter colossus.

“Years ago, our nose hair froze and stuck out. And our eyelashes would get moist and go all white,” said Shigeru Yamai, 66, captain of the icebreaker Garinko II. “When we walked on the ice, we heard squeaking sounds. The sound today is different. It hardly gets that severe anymore.”

Salmon culture in peril

For fisherman Nobuo Sugimura, 63, the changing climate is evident in his steadily diminishing catch. At home after a fishing trip on Miura’s vessel the Hokushin Maru, Sugimura brought out his logbooks and diaries, pulling records for his most recent catch in late September and for the same period seven years ago.

In 2012, Sugimura’s records show he and fellow crew members brought in between 21 and 52 metric tons of fish per day. This year, the catch one day was a meager six tons.

“We had a bad time 30 or 40 years ago, and this reminds me of that,” he said. “But that only lasted a year or two, not this long.”

Fishermen on the Hokushin Maru haul salmon from the Sea of Okhotsk near the town of Utoro in Hokkaido, Japan.

In the nation that invented sushi, there is no region better known for its seafood than Hokkaido. And there is no fish more synonymous with Hokkaido, more central to its culture, than the salmon.

The relationship stretches back as long as humans have lived here. The indigenous Ainu people had 133 words for salmon and used its skin to make boots. The fish and its orange roe are critical ingredients in Hokkaido’s famous seafood sashimi rice bowl, savored by foodie tourists across this gourmet nation. The image of a bear clamping a salmon between its powerful jaws is an iconic symbol of Hokkaido, reproduced on T-shirts and in wood carvings on sale in almost every souvenir shop.

Though Hokkaido’s salmon hatcheries are working harder than ever, releasing a billion juvenile fish into the island’s rivers every spring, the number of returning chum salmon has declined sharply, from 68 million fish in 2003 to just 28 million in 2018. Nationwide, Japan’s annual chum salmon catch has also fallen from 258,000 metric tons in 2003, when a sharp decline began, to 80,000 last year, according to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission.

Salmon are highly sensitive to changes in water temperature. As they swim into the Sea of Okhotsk at the start of their long migration across the Pacific, the warmer waters act as a force field, pushing them off their ancient track.

Compelled to travel faster and farther to reach cooler northern waters, the young salmon use up stores of energy when they can least afford it. If they delay their departure date, they won’t survive at all.

The crew of the Hokushin Maru unloads its haul in Utoro.

Masahide Kaeriyama, an emeritus professor in the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University, said Japanese salmon migrate up what he calls a “ladder” of suitable temperatures. For more than a decade, he has been predicting that climate change would cut Hokkaido’s salmon catch in half. Now, he says global warming is happening even faster than he expected.

“As the optimal temperature moves away from Hokkaido, the ladder of migration is being taken away,” he said.

Japan’s loss has been Russia’s gain. Waters near the Siberian coast — once too cold for salmon — are now in the optimum range for the fish. Even as Japan’s catch began to decline in 2003, Russia’s chum salmon quadrupled to a record high of nearly 144,000 metric tons in 2015. The same phenomenon is happening around the world, as warmer waters cause key species to seek cooler habitats closer to the poles. The lobster population off the Northeast coast in the United States is seeing a similar disruption.

If the Hokkaido salmon survive the first leg of their journey, they move into the Bering Sea, and then on to the Gulf of Alaska for their second winter. By the age of 4 or 5, they return to Japan, to the very same river where they hatched.

The smaller number of returning fish is keenly felt on Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula, home to the largest concentration of brown bears in the world. Each fall, as the salmon amass offshore, the bears are waiting, splashing in the streams at the mouth of every river. Here, the iconic image of a bear catching a salmon comes to life..

Salmon nourish the bears, and the bears’ leftovers discarded in the forest nourish birds, insects and plants, creating “one of the richest integrated ecosystems in the world,” according to UNESCO, the educational, scientific and cultural agency of the United Nations.

UNESCO made Shiretoko National Park a World Heritage Site in 2005. But as the drift ice recedes and the salmon catch shrinks, UNESCO worries that the park’s unique ecosystem will be irrevocably damaged.

“Japanese people see salmon as a source of food,” Kaeriyama said. “But salmon is, in fact, the very foundation of the ecosystem where we live.”

The heart of the Pacific

The link between sea ice and prosperity is not lost on the towns and cities of northern Hokkaido and the Shiretoko Peninsula, where the ice drives a vital tourism industry.

In the spring, as the ice melts and sunlight hits the water, the sea blooms with phytoplankton, the anchor of marine life and the base of the ocean’s food web.

That makes the Sea of Okhotsk a spectacularly bountiful stretch of water, home to whales and dolphins, sea lions and seals, scallop and crabs, and hundreds of species of fish. Its shores provide homes to many migratory and sea birds, from the largest owl in the world — the endangered Blakiston’s fish owl — to the heavy Steller’s sea eagle.

In Abashiri alone, about 110,000 people, nearly half of them foreigners, took sightseeing cruises last year across the vast expanse of sea ice. On the eastern side of the peninsula, tourist boats set out from the town of Rausu every winter to gaze at eagles perched on the ice and seals bobbing through it, and in the spring, summer and fall to watch humpback, sperm and killer whales splash through the waves.

Meanwhile, key nutrients, especially iron, flow into the Sea of Okhotsk from Russia’s Amur River. Undersea currents carry those nutrients into the North Pacific, forming an intermediate layer of water roughly 600 to 2,600 feet below the surface. Eventually, the water rises back up, bringing the iron that is vital for phytoplankton with it.

The Okhotsk sea ice decline jeopardizes that giant convection current. Ohshima, his fellow scientists from Hokkaido University and other institutions in Japan have documented a marked warming in the North Pacific’s intermediate layer, much more rapid than the general warming of the ocean — a sign that less cold, dense water is being formed in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Scientists have also documented growing zones in the North Pacific, at depths of about 1,300 and 2,300 feet, where ocean oxygen levels are in fast decline.

In other words, the “heart of the Pacific” is indeed weakening. The scientists don’t know all of the consequences yet, but they’re worried because of the irreplaceable contribution of the Sea of Okhotsk to a much larger region.

‘Until you feel it on your skin’

Back on Hokkaido, the falling salmon catch is triggering cascading economic impacts.

Last year, salmon processors paid high prices for dwindling supplies of Japanese chum salmon, only to find that consumers weren’t prepared to pay more. Japanese salmon was soon displaced by cheaper imports from places such as Norway, Chile, Russia and Alaska.

Tetsuya Shinya, head of the Abashiri Fisheries Cooperative, said he is reluctantly considering something once unthinkable: raising salmon on fish farms.

“It’s still not the right time to do it,” he said. “Even so, I feel we are getting into a pretty tough time.”

Fishermen unload salmon in September at a port in Utoro, Japan, on the Shiretoko Peninsula.

Buyers gather at a salmon auction Sept. 30 at the Abashiri Fisheries Cooperative in Hokkaido.

Tetsuya Shinya, the head of the Abashiri Fisheries Cooperative, in Hokkaido.

Wild salmon tend to be hardier and more resistant to changing temperatures than salmon reared in the more-controlled environment of a hatchery. One solution is a campaign to reduce Hokkaido’s dependence on salmon hatcheries by encouraging more wild salmon to return to the island’s rivers.

Scientists and volunteers are clearing rivers along the Shiretoko Peninsula, where anything from silt to concrete dams can prevent wild salmon from returning to spawn.

Among the volunteers is Yuto Sugimura, 32, the son of the fisherman whose records document the salmon’s startling decline.

Yuto said he never used to think much about climate change beyond what he saw on the news. But as he dove into the sea in September to set salmon nets, he didn’t need any records to tell him the temperature is rising.

The latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday.

“I’ve been going under the water for 15 years, but these days it feels quite lukewarm,” he said.

“Until you feel it on your skin or experience it in reality, you don’t talk about it,” Yuto said of climate change.

“Today, with the changes in the water, I am beginning to feel it on my skin, and I am beginning to think about it.”

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« Reply #14 on: Nov 13, 2019, 04:29 AM »

A unique tree could help soils remain fertile in the Amazon

The inga tree can grow in very poor soil and improve it

Fermin Koop

Subject to growing wildfires and deforestation, the Amazon has been recently challenged in Brazil and Bolivia. But there’s a ray of hope, as researchers are encouraging farmers to plant a tree species that could keep the soil fertile.

The inga tree, known as the ice cream bean three, can grow on the very poor soil left by destructive slash and burn land clearing and also improve the soil, making it fertile enough for other species to return.

The tree fixes nitrogen into the soil, a key nutrient for plants. Then, its beans can be sold by farmers, leaves from the trees can be fed to cattle, and they can be coppiced to create firewood – giving people several reasons to invest in growing them.

The Ouro Verde Institute in Brazil is behind an initiative designed to support farmers wishing to plant inga trees, aiming to prove that farmers can expect to get an income from the species – which is a type of legume.

    Toby Pennington, a professor of tropical plant diversity and biogeography at the University of Exeter, told the BBC: “Even amongst legumes, they have pretty fantastic growth rates. If you had a cup of coffee this morning that came from Latin America, the odds are that it was growing underneath one of these inga trees.”

The ecosystems that thrive below the branches of the trees are also an important factor for boosting ecological diversity and assisting growers with the means of making even greater financial returns. Greater coverage of land where ingas are grown could also provide vital corridors for wildlife in the Amazon.

However, attempts to re-green areas of the Amazon needs to occur at the same time as stopping the destruction of the rainforest. Fires in the Amazon have increased by 84% since the same period last year, according to satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

In June, the institute published data showing an 88% increase in deforestation in the Amazon compared to the same month a year ago. The data release led to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro accusing the director of the National Institute for Space Research of lying, which apparently led to him being fired.

The Amazon rainforest has long been recognized as a repository of ecological services not only for local tribes and communities but also for the rest of the world. It is also the only rainforest that we have left in terms of size and diversit.

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