Iftar Among the Ruins of War

Syrian family having an Iftar dinner, which breaks the fast of Ramadan, in the ruins of their town of Ariha.

The entire population headed north last year following a Russian-backed government offensive to retake the region. Much of the town was razed to the ground.

Following a ceasefire, some of the poorest refugees have returned to find cheap accommodation amid the ruins.

Abu Ziad and his family came back last month and found a place to stay on the ruins where his home used to be. That is where he wanted to share at least one last Iftar dinner.

“Now, my family and I are here on top of the destruction. We are re-living a very difficult and painful memory. I pray that God doesn’t let anyone else experience this. Every year, we used to spend Ramadan here, and we wanted to spend one day of this Ramadan here.”

While the home’s kitchen is long gone, Abu Ziad’s mother brought meals from outside: “The most important thing is that we re-live our memories and eat in our home.”

Source: Al Jazeera

Guatemala’s First Satellite

So, this is pretty damn cool (to me at least).

A couple weeks ago, Guatemala launched its first satellite, Quetzal-1, from the International Space Station (ISS). The satellite was designed by a Guatemalan university with the purpose of monitoring the country’s inland water systems to determine pollution levels.

Apparently, this record-breaking project is part of the “KiboCUBE” program, which was launched in 2017 by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to help poorer countries develop the capabilities of space exploration. Kibo is the Japanese module of the ISS that can launch “CubeSats”, tiny but powerful satellites whose cost-effectiveness make the go-to choice for poorer nations or private institutions.

The little-known UNOOSA, which was established after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, works to promote international collaboration for the peaceful exploration of space. Part of its mission is to give poorer nations access to the benefits of space science and technology. Not only is this a vital goal in the 21st century, but it allows countries to develop their educational and scientific capabilities, which brings benefits to society as a whole.

In the process, UNOOSA’s projects also develop international ties and gender equality. Sexism is a major issue in Guatemala, but women played an integral role in engineering the country’s first satellite—a powerful message indeed! Quetzal-1 was also built and deployed with the help of the UK Space Agency, the University of Colorado, the University of Chile, TEC Costa Rica, and the University of Würzburg in Germany, among others. The ISS is a joint effort between five major space agencies: Those of the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, and Europe (which in turn has 11 European participants).

“We hope that the experience and knowledge obtained through the development and technical demonstration of Quetzal-1 will lead to the further development of remote sensing technology in Guatemala in the future,” said JAXA Director General of Human Spaceflight, Hiroshi Sasaki.

UNOOSA recently teamed up with an American private space agency, the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), to help developing countries launch even bigger payloads by next year. The more we pool the world’s resources and know-how, the quicker our advancements in space as a species. Along the way, it’s super cool to see folks from unlikely or beleaguered places realize their potential.

Bearing witness to their hard work and talent.

Happy 23rd Birthday Dolly!

Well, sort of. Technically, she was born July 5, 1996, but it was on this day in 1997 that scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced the birth of Dolly, a female sheep who was the first mammal to have successfully been cloned from an adult cell. She was the only lamb that survived to adulthood from 277 attempts.

The funding for Dolly’s cloning was provided by PPL Therapeutics —a Scottish biotech firm near the University of Edinburgh, where the institute is based—and the British Ministry of Agriculture.

Dolly was born the summer before and had three mothers: one provided the egg, another the DNA, and a third carried the cloned embryo to term. She was created using the technique of “somatic cell nuclear transfer”, where the cell nucleus from an adult cell is transferred into a developing egg cell (called an unfertilized oocyte) that has had its cell nucleus removed. An electric shock stimulates the hybrid cell to divide, and when it develops into a blastocyst (which will eventually form the embryo) it is implanted in a surrogate mother.

Dolly lived only about half as long as her breed, leading some to speculate that her cloning had something to do with it. However, an analysis of her DNA found no anomalies, and her death by lung disease is particularly common for sheep kept indoors (Dolly had to sleep inside for security reasons). None of Dolly’s six children—the result of conventional mating with another sheep—bore any unusual defects of properties. As of 2016, scientists reported no defects in thirteen cloned sheep, including four from the same cell line as Dolly.

Dolly’s legacy has far outlived her, and will likely continue to into the 21st century. She quickly paved the way for the successful cloning of other large mammals, including pigs, deer, horses, and bulls. Making cloned mammals was initially highly inefficient, but by 2014, Chinese scientists reported a 70–80% success rate cloning pigs, while in 2016, a Korean company, Sooam Biotech, was producing 500 clones embryos a day.

As recently as 2018, a primate species was successfully cloned using the same method for producing Dolly: Two identical clones of a macaque monkey, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, were created by researchers in China. Just last year, Chinese scientists reported the creation of five identical cloned gene-edited monkeys, using the same cloning technique as for Dolly and Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua.

There have also been attempts to clone extinct species back into existence. The most famous attempt was in 2009, when Spanish scientists announced the cloning of the Pyrenean ibex, a form of wild mountain goat, which was officially declared extinct in 2000. Although the newborn ibex died shortly after birth due to physical defects, it is the first time an extinct animal has been cloned, and may open doors for saving endangered and newly extinct species by resurrecting them from frozen tissue.

The Corrupt Bargain of 1825

Today is the anniversary of a largely forgotten episode that reminds us how the U.S. has always struggled with messy politics and ambiguous or flawed electoral rules.

It was on this day in 1825 that the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams to be president, after no candidate received a majority of electoral votes in the previous year’s presidential election.

There had been four candidates on the ballot: Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford. Pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment, only the top three candidates in the electoral vote were admitted as candidates, eliminating Henry Clay.

Many were surprised that Adams was elected over Jackson, who still had the most electoral votes. The representatives of all the states that had gone for Clay in the Electoral College supported Adams.

Clay was the Speaker of the House and arguably the most powerful person in Congress. It was widely believed he used his influenced to convince Congress to elect Adams, who then made Clay his Secretary of State (then and now considered the most prestigious and influential office after the presidency itself). Jackson’s supporters denounced this as a “corrupt bargain” and launched a four-year campaign of revenge, claiming that the people had been cheated of their choice.

In a now familiar refrain, these “Jacksonians” attacked the Adams administration at every turn as illegitimate and tainted by elitism and corruption.

More to the point, as the son of the second president, John Adams, the election of John Quincy to only the sixth presidential office began a discussion about political dynasties that recently came up with the Bush and Clinton candidacies.

Towards a Universal Time

On this day in 1879, at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto, Scottish-Canadian engineer and inventor Sandford Fleming proposed the idea of standard time zones based on a single universal world time. He suggested that standard time zones could be used locally, but would follow a single world time, which he called “Cosmic Time”. The proposal divided the world into twenty-four time zones, each one covering 15 degrees of longitude. All clocks within each zone would be set to the same time as the others but differed by one hour from those in the neighboring zones.

An amazing innovation we take for granted. Wikimedia Commons.

We take time zones for granted today, but for most of human history, time was kept locally, based on how people in each town or city measured the position of the sun. Most humans did not travel beyond their community, and the few who did would takes days or weeks, so it never really made a difference whether one city was hours off from another one.

But the development of rail travel in the late 19th century posed a huge challenge. For the first time in history, people were crossing through multiple towns in the span of hours, leading to the absurd practice of having to continually reset clocks throughout the day.

An 1853 “Universal Dial Plate” showing the relative times of “all nations” before the adoption of universal time. Wikimedia Commons.

As the first country to industrialize, Great Britain was the first to deal with this problem on a large scale; in response, it established Greenwich Mean Time, which was the mean solar time on the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England. (Ironically, this had been developed to resolve the same issue with respect to ocean navigation. Each country had its own prime meridian in its navigational charts to serve as something of a starting point; it usually passed through the country in question, until the navally dominant British developed the Prime Meridian that most others would soon follow.) Clocks in Britain were set to this time irrespective of local solar noon.

Anyway, Fleming’s proposal gave way to a flurry of international discussion about how to address this issue. The British government even forwarded his work to eighteen foreign countries and several scientific bodies to determine a solution. The United States called an “International Meridian Conference” in 1884 that gathered delegates from around the world to set up a universally recognized basis for time. It was announced the Greenwich Mean Time would be used, for the simple reason that by then, two-thirds of all nautical charts and maps already used it as their prime meridian

By 1972, all major countries adopted time zones based on the Greenwich meridian (since 1935, called “Universal Time”). The saga of universal time is yet another example of our species’ move towards a more global and interconnected community.

The Tiny African Country Taking on a Genocidal Government

Meet Abubacarr Tambadou, the Justice Minister of The Gambia—a tiny African country barely twice the size of Delaware and with fewer people than Miami-Dade County—who is taking on one of the worst genocides in the 21st century.

Under his direction, The Gambia is the only country to file a claim in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Myanmar for violating the Genocide Convention through its persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, which has killed tens of thousands and driven out over a million more. Tambadou also convinced the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to back the effort, bringing a fourth of the world behind him.

Born in 1972 as one of the middle children of 18 siblings, he considered himself lucky for his middle-class upbringing. He had no intention of studying law—having excelled in sports all his life—but the first offer he got was a law program at a British university. After graduating in the 1990s, he returned home to be a public prosecutor.

At the time, Gambia was ruled by a vicious dictator who frequently killed and tortured real or perceived political opponents. In 2000, when security forces killed over a dozen student protestors, Tambadou was roused into pursuing human rights work.

To that end, he soon left Gambia to join the United Nations’ Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), where he successfully prosecuted some of the genocide’s most notorious perpetrators, including former army chief Augustin Bizimungu, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

As he told the BBC, what he was doing “was not just prosecuting the Rwandan genocidaires”, but “was a way for us Africans to send a message to our leaders… I saw it as more of an African struggle for justice and accountability than a Rwandan one.”

Sure enough, in 2017, Gambia’s dictator fell after 22 years of power. Opposition leader Adama Barrow took power promising to restore human rights and address corruption, prompting Tambadou to return to help lead this effort.

“Twenty-two years of a brutal dictatorship has taught us how to use our voice. We know too well how it feels like to be unable to tell your story to the world, to be unable to share your pain in the hope that someone out there will hear and help.”

A devout Muslim with a prominent prayer bump on his forehead, Tambadou acknowledged that Islamic solidarity was a factor behind Gambia and the OIC’s actions but emphasized that “this is about our humanity ultimately”.

Indeed, it was after visiting a refugee camp full in Bangladesh of genocide survivors that he was spurred to act. Last spring, Gambia foreign minister pulled out at the last minute from the annual conference of the OIC in Bangladesh, sending Tambadou instead. While there, he joined an OIC delegation visiting overcrowded refugee camps, hearing stories of children burnt alive and women systematically raped; he claimed to even smell the stench of dead bodies from across the border.

“I saw genocide written all over these stories”, he said in an interview, no doubt making the connection between these accounts and what he had learned after ten years prosecuting Rwandan perpetrators for similar crimes.

To that end, his case against Myanmar—which took the world by storm—has for the first time forced its leaders to answer for their alleged crimes. Though the case will no doubt take years to resolve—given the high bar set to prove genocide—the ICJ has since ordered Myanmar to cease its actions against the Rohingya, not buying the argument that it’s simply the result of a broader military conflict.

Yes, I know: It’s a toothless order given the nature of international law. But it’s powerful nonetheless, as many Rohingya themselves agree:

Yet the mere fact that it took place at all counts as a huge moral victory for the Rohingya. For the first time, this group — which has endured decades of systematic discrimination at the hands of its own government — experienced a fair hearing from an impartial tribunal. The power of that realization prompted tearful reactions from Rohingya activists in The Hague.

“It was very emotional to see the military facing charges in a court for the first time,” U.K.-based Rohingya activist Tun Khin told me. “The military have been getting away with human rights violations against us for decades. We have worked so hard for this day.”

And to think it began with a public prosecutor of a small country most have never heard of.

To that end, Mr Tambadou thinks this is the time for The Gambia to reclaim its position on the world stage. “We want to lead by example” in human rights. “The case at ICJ is Gambia showing the world you don’t have to have military power or economic power to denounce oppressions. Legal obligation and moral responsibility exist for all states, big or small.”

Sources: BBC, Reuters, CFR

A Decade of Peril or Progress?

It has been a challenging decade for humanity, with environmental catastrophes, lingering economic malaise, and ascendant political and religious extremism prompting protests across dozens of countries (many of them ongoing as we speak).

Yet it was also a decade of immense and irrefutable progress, a powerful sign of what we can do even amid crisis, chaos, and disunity, after 250,000 years of slowly grasping towards a more moral world.

Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time, and 650,000 went online for the first time.

As recently as 1981—the decade many of us were born—42 percent of humans were in “extreme poverty”, defined as living on less than about $2 a day. Now that portion has plunged to less than 10 percent of the world’s population.

Every day for a decade, newspapers could have carried the headline “Another 170,000 Moved Out of Extreme Poverty Yesterday” or “The Number of People Living on More Than $10 a Day Increased by 245,000 Yesterday.”

Famine used to be routine and linger for years, but the last officially recognized case occured in just one part of one state in one country, South Sudan, and lasted for only a few months in 2017.

In our parents’ lifetimes, diseases like polio, leprosy, river blindness and elephantiasis were rife; now they are on the decline, with the WHO announcing the near-eradication of polio in all but three countries.

Global efforts since the start of the century have turned the tide on HIV/AIDS, which has slowed in both transmission and mortality, the vast majority of infected having access to drugs.

In the mid-20th century, half of humanity was illiterate; now, around 10-15 percent are, down from 18 percent in 2010.

Child mortality has declined from 43 percent two hundred years ago to less than four percent today. (Even in 1950, one out of five infants and children under five were dying.) Just over the last decade, the rate went down by more than one percent, meaning around 1.5 million fewer kids are dying before the age of five.

Obviously, there still remains appalling levels of death, misery, violence, and suffering, far more than their should be given our economic and technological resources. But these achievements show that progress is not linear and that we’re capable of great things as a species. Here’s to keeping this unprecedented momentum going into the next decade and beyond.

Source: OurWorldInData.org

The Asian Giants Leading the Fight Against Climate Change

NASA finds that Earth is greener than two decades ago thanks mostly to China and India—the world’s two most populous countries, which together make up 36% of humanity.

Despite being considered bad actors in environmental policies and climate change reduction, both nations have significantly ramped up efforts to be more eco-friendly; for example, India has engaged in record tree planting, with 800,000 Indians planting 50 million trees in just 24 hours.

The European Union and Canada have also seen significant improvements in this area. The U.S. ranks seventh in the total growth in vegetation percent by decade.

Although not mentioned in the study, Ethiopia, which is the world’s 12th most populous countries, has entered the fray in reforestation, beating India’s already-astounding record by planting 350 million trees in one day.

Bear in mind that a country that largely kept its forests and vegetation intact would appear to perform worse in re-vegetation than a country that had heavily deforested and thus has more room to grow.

These efforts are far from token: Research suggests that planting trees—lots of them—can significantly help mitigate the effects of climate change, to say nothing of their contributions to human well being.

If these two heavily populated and developing countries can find the will and resources to pull this off—despite the heavy demands to bring economic prosperity to their people—there is some hope, and certainly no excuse.

Source: Forbes


To those who are regular readers and newcomers alike: Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, whether it’s regularly or just once. Your interest and viewership is appreciated.

That said, for an indeterminate period of time, I will be hanging up my hat as a blogger. Between law school, trying to start a family, freelance writing, and my recent job at a law firm, I simply have too much going on to give this blog proper attention, especially with views remaining sparse and sporadic. Hopefully as things let up, I can get back to posting more regularly and substantively.

In the meantime, if you are so inclined, feel free to follow or add me on Facebook, where I still manage to get in some thoughts, news, and other topics of interest.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Be well.

The Murder Capitals of the World

The waves of migrants fleeing many Latin American countries is in no small part due to the horrifically high rate of homicide that collectively claims hundreds of thousands of lives annually.


Source: The Wall Street Journal

With just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders. It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia. Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil. Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

By comparison, the U.S.–which has one of the highest murder rates in the developed world–lost 17,250 citizens to homicide in 2016. The same year, the European Union, with 28 countries totaling 513 million people, had 5,351 homicides, while China, with over 1.5 billion inhabitants, had a little over 8,600 murders. Given the amount of shock, fear, and sensationalism such comparative rare murders can elicit, imagine the amount of terror and trauma experienced by people in Central and South America.

In recent years, growing numbers of families from Central America, including women and children, have fled to the U.S. because of horrific violence. Gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 enforce a reign of terror, dictating even where people can go to school or get medical care. El Salvador’s murder rate of 83 per 100,000 people in 2016—the world’s highest—was nearly 17 times that of the U.S.

A new study by Vanderbilt University shows that the strongest factor in predicting whether someone emigrates from Honduras and El Salvador isn’t age, gender or economic situation, but whether they had been victimized by crime multiple times in the past year. A World Bank study found that nearly a quarter of children in one Honduran municipality suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to violence.

To make matters worse, pervasive corruption has enabled much if this violence, if not colluded in it: law enforcement are known to be as abusive and exploitative as gang members, and often work in concert with organized crime; politicians or police officers who are not bought are cowed into fear, pushed out, or killed.

With little to no recourse for the violence they face, plus a lack of economic activity to boot, it is little wonder thousands are fleeing for their dear lives in droves.

Source: Wall Street Journal