North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween around the world

Halloween is, some say, one of the world's oldest holidays. It is most popular (and likely commercialized) in the US and Canada where it is the celebration where the most candy is sold - (fighting off Easter for the honors).

From one website (, we get a rundown of various national approaches to the event. "Among Spanish-speaking nations, Halloween is known as "El Dia de los Muertos." It is a joyous and happy holiday...a time to remember friends and family who have died. Officially commemorated on November 2 (All Souls' Day), the three-day celebration actually begins on the evening of October 31."

Mexicans honor their loved ones with guitar serenades

Elaborate shrines during this quasi-religious and spirited time

The theme of spirit ancestors nearing the earth from their own habitation seems to be one of two underlying themes, the other is an opportunity to honor those departed - the All Souls' Day mentioned above.

In China, Halloween is known as Teng Chieh. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of family members who have departed while bonfires and lanterns are lit in order to light the paths of the spirits as they travel the earth on Halloween night. Worshippers in Buddhist temples fashion "boats of the law" from paper, some of which are very large, which are then burned in the evening hours.

Chinese lanterns for the spirits

The Halloween celebration in Hong Kong is known as "Yue Lan" (Festival of the Hungry Ghosts) and is a time when it is believed that spirits roam the world for twenty-four hours.

The traditional Yue Lan celebration ...

.. and the modern fascination with costumes and pumpkins

Japan celebrates the "Obon Festival" which is dedicated to the spirits of ancestors. Special foods are prepared and bright red lanterns are hung everywhere. Candles are lit and placed into lanterns which are then set afloat on rivers and seas.

For the last two years in Japan, one suspects, the memories still linger strongly regarding those who lost their lives in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and this tradition has been especially meaningful

In Korea, there is a festival similar to Halloween known as "Chusok" though it takes place in August. Families thank their ancestors for the fruits of their labor, and pay respect by visiting their tombs and making offerings of rice and fruits.

Ireland is pointed to as the birthplace of Westernized halloween. From the above referenced website, "in rural areas, bonfires are lit as they were in the days of the Celts and children dress up in costumes to spend the evening "trick-or-treating" in their neighborhoods. After the visiting, most people attend parties with neighbors and friends. At these parties, many games are played, including "snap-apple," in which an apple on a string is tied to a doorframe or tree, and players attempt to take a bite out of the suspended apple. In addition to bobbing for apples, parents often arrange treasure hunts with sweets or pastries as the "treasure." The Irish also play a card game where cards are laid face-down on a table with sweets or coins beneath them. When a child selects a card, he or she receives whatever prize might be found there. A traditional food is eaten on Halloween called 'barnbrack.'"

The Celtic cemeteries in Ireland remain the quintessential haunts for ghosts and spirits

Apparently at one time English children made "punkies" out of large beetroots, upon which they carved a design of their choice. They would carry their "punkies" through the streets while singing a "Punkie Night Song" as they knocked on doors and asked for money. In some rural areas, turnip lanterns were placed on gateposts to protect homes from the spirits who roamed on Halloween night. Another old custom was to toss objects such as stones, vegetables and nuts into a bonfire to frighten away the spirits. For the most part however, the English ceased celebrating Halloween with the spread of Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation, though the commercialized version of candy and costumes has re-emerged.

English version of orange pumpkins

Finally, France apparently isn't into Halloween (it is considered an "American" holiday which thus precludes it from having any importance). However, as in England, some celebrations are growing. Chocolateries prepare delicate creations for the event. Children dress up - ghosts and vampires are quite common - and interestingly, teens swarm McDonald's, apparently the mecca of all things Halloween (i.e. American). Disneyland Paris also has a Halloween celebration for visitors.

France, not impressed with the American version of halloween, apparently still puts up with a Disney version

What has been taken seriously and has strong roots in French tradition is All Saint's Day, which dates back at least to the seventh century. As elsewhere, the French honor the dead, visiting cemeteries, where tombs are lavishly decorated with flowers and personal items.

Canadian kids learning the halloween ropes

A fun celebration, tinged with some positive meaning for paying respect to departed loved ones.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey feeling Syria's civil war

The Syrian civil war is intermittently spilling over into its neighbors: Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Of these three, Lebanon has been the most closely tied to the Assad regime in Syria, and it is no surprise that this small country is the most vulnerable to serious unraveling.

Syria and its four neighbors - Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq

The civil war itself in Syria has been well covered by journalists, and in this blog. The death toll is now estimated from 28 to 45,000, with the highest being reported by the Syrian Free Army (SFA). By October 2012, the FSA estimates another 28,000 people are "missing," as in taken by government security forces into custody. It goes without saying that the numbers of wounded and injured are considerably higher - hospitals and medical personnel are overwhelmed by the carnage.

As always, children are the most vulnerable in a war setting, and humanitarian efforts are always inadequate

The UN estimates another 1.2 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country, and hundreds of thousands have fled across the border, principally to Turkey, next to Jordan, with smaller percentages into Iraq and Lebanon. The infrastructure of the country is further degraded daily as Syrian government forces are now routinely using air power in bombing and strafing opposition concentrations.

Syrian jet launches missile

The country's infrastructure crumbles daily

The most immediate impact on Syria's neighbors are from civilians fleeing the conflict. Refugee camps are being erected in Turkey primarily, Jordan second, while Iraq's desert border is less hospitable both in terms of access by most of the Syrian population, and lack of infrastructure in Iraq for this relief work.

Refugee camp being set up in Turkey.


Lebanon is a special case. It is in a fragile state politically, and a car bomb last week killed a senior intelligence official who was against Syria's Bashar al-Assad. The killing emphasized the presence and reach of Hezbollah in Lebanon, who strongly supports Assad, as does Iran. Because of the strategic dynamics of Iran and Hezbollah supporting Assad, the "arc" of belligerency in the region, Lebanon is especially challenged to remain independent and able to defend its borders.

Lebanon's capital, Beirut, is close to Syria's capital Damascus, and both are close to the borders with Israel

Masked gunmen from the al-Muqdad clan gather at the al-Muqdad family association’s headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut. As always, clan and tribal loyalties grow important in a region of tension, as middle or neutral ground erodes as an option for most civilians.

Lebanon has vast refugee camps from 1948 that have grown into permanent towns. Residents of this camp are Palestinians who fled the war of Arab nations against Israel when that country fought for its sovereignty. From the camps derives much of the manpower and ideology of Hezbollah.

Much of southern Lebanon is a security zone butting up against Israel - here a protest crowd confronts a line of Israeli soldiers.

The Syrian civil war continues to threaten the whole region. It will become one of many festering issues for the next US President as that country's election nears.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

India continues to harness the sun's power

In the middle of all the violent, miserable trouble spots of the world, it is a relief to occasionally note the positives. When a positive comes out of India, a country often thought to become one of the next major economic world powers, it might even be newsworthy.

India, the world's most populous nation, is structured into 28 states, one of which is Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu (literally "Land of the Tamils"), located in India's southeast tip and across the water from Sri Lanka, has a population of 72 million (more than double the population of Canada, and in-between Germany with 81 million and France with 65 million. Its capital is Chennai, the largest city. The state has announced a new policy that has the intention to become India's solar power hub.

Tamil Nadu with its major cities - with a few that are a real mouthful for Westerners. Statistics ranked the state among the top 5 in India in Human Development Index in 2006. It is also the most urbanized state in India, and has the highest number of business enterprises and stands second in total employment in India.

Tamil Nadu's Solar Energy Policy 2012, unveiled by its Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, aims at making the southern state a regional solar energy hub. According to an article in the New York Daily News, under the vision, the state will have solar energy parks, will encourage households to adopt solar energy, make it compulsory for all new government buildings to have rooftop solar panels and ask big industries to use solar power. The scheme aims at generating 3,000 MW of solar power by 2015. Tamil Nadu has around 300 clear sunny days in a year and southern parts of the state are considered the ideal locations for development of solar power projects.

Panels on small building rooftops, but also destined for individual homes, and large parklike arrays.

Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, announcing the state initiative.

A side note
Jayalalithaa Jayaram (born 24 February 1948, and commonly referred to as J. Jayalalitha) is a major Southern Indian power in her own right. Again, from wikipedia, she was a popular film star in Indian cinema before her entry into politics, having appeared in many Tamil and Telugu films, as well as several produced in Hindi and Kannada. She is called Amma ('Mother') and Puratchi Thalaivi ('Revolutionary Leader') by her followers. J. Jayalalitha, to many, is controversial, and a google search on her political stances and history make for interesting reading.

But, back to the solar policy itself, "As per the policy, the state would make it compulsory for high tension power consumers like special economic zones, industries, IT parks, telecom towers, colleges and residential schools and buildings with built up area of 20,000 square meter or more to purchase six percent solar power from Jan 2014." In addition, "installation of solar water heating systems would be made mandatory for industries having hot water boiler/steam boiler using fossil fuel."

Teatree notes that solar power is not new or unnatural. Trees are solar energy collectors, and crops are quick solar energy converters...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Pakistan in crisis

The deliberate shooting a few days ago of a 14 year old Pakistani girl by a Taliban group has been well covered by the world's media. Besides the act itself, which shines the spotlight on Islamic extremists' archaic and violent view of women, education, and development, the shooting emphasizes the internal tensions of this nuclear armed country.

Malala Yousafzai

The story is straightforward as it is painful and sobering. Malala Yousafzai, a school student from Mingora, a town in the volatile Swat District of Pakistan, was known for her education and women’s rights activism in the Swat Valley, where the Taliban has at times banned girls from attending school. In early 2009, 11-year old Yousafzai emerged through a blog she wrote for the BBC detailing her life under the Taliban regime, their attempts to take control of the valley, and her views on promoting education for girls. The following summer, a New York Times documentary was filmed about her life as the Pakistani military intervened in the region. Yousafzai began to rise in prominence, giving interviews in print and on television, and taking a position as chairperson of the District Child Assembly Swat. She has since been nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu, and has won Pakistan's first National Youth Peace Prize.

Mingora is one of the largest cities in the Swat valley, once a tourist attraction itself called "the Switzerland" of Pakistan.

On October 9, Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen while returning home on a school bus. In the days following the attack, she remained unconscious and in critical condition, and today was flown to the UK for further treatment. Immediately after the shooting, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility, saying that the incident should serve as a warning to other children who participate in “secular-minded” activities. “She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her idol,” Since then, the Taliban group has reiterated its intent to kill Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin.

Hakimullah Mehsud, one of the main leaders of this Taliban group that has claimed responsibility for shooting Yousafzai. Mehsud was reportedly killed in January 2012 from a US drone strike, but the Taliban deny the claim, and no concrete proof has been obtained by the US or Pakistan intelligence services

Perhaps the most welcome surprise out of this shooting was a visceral response from much of the country. A group of 50 Islamic clerics in Pakistan have issued a fatwā against those who tried to kill her, and there have been mass demonstrations against the extremists that threaten the increasingly fragile Pakistani institutions and government. The demonstrations are a reminder that there is still a sizable portion of the population that aspires for a responsible, tolerant and compassionate society.

Click on picture for full image
Schoolchildren in a Mingora school offer prayers for Yousafzai's recovery. Note that both boys and girls are in this class in contrast to Pakistan's Islamic madrassas

Children of all ages and beliefs are increasingly at risk from the extremists in the country

Young Pakistani girls in particular facing an uncertain and limited future if the nation does not address its strident Islamic factions

The size of the demonstrations, however, gives this observer hope that the country's majority could be sufficiently sobered regarding their future to demand a new approach.

Still, the larger questions, while bubbling closer to the surface after this shooting, remain.

Does Pakistani's military continue to cling to geopolitical positions such as striving for the high elevation land of Kashmir, thus diverting its assets from confronting lawless tribal areas.

Tribes embedded with or sympathetic to Islamic extremist Taliban or Al-qaeda groups control much of the western mountainous spine of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan

Will Pakistan's notorious intelligence services remain suspect as collaborators or sympathizers with the Taliban.

Pakistan’s ISI chief Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam

Will the Pakistan government crack down, or can it, on notorious madrassas - schools run by Islamic extremists that create an ever ready pool of young Islamic warriors.

Can moderate Islamic leaders successfully counter the increasingly strident and powerful extremist factions.

Lots of images of hardline clerics calling for protests and revenge, very difficult to find images of moderate Islamic leaders ...

And how close are Islamic extremists to accessing Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Labor unrest in South Africa's mining sector

This bubbling, simmering story has been sliding along in the news, noted, but usually relegated behind other events. South Africa has the largest economy in Africa, and the 28th-largest in the world. However, about a quarter of the population is unemployed and lives on less than US $1.25 a day.

South Africa, population over 50 million - nearly 80% is indigenous black African

South Africa has a huge economic and political influence on the southern regions of the continent.

Mining is one of South Africa's greatest economic sectors. The country is the world's largest producer of chrome, manganese, platinum, vanadium and vermiculite. It is the second largest producer of ilmenite, palladium, rutile, zirconium, and gold. It is also the world's third largest coal exporter. Over 50% of all gold reserves are found in here. In 2007, gold mining alone employed over 240 000 people and accounted for $US5.5 billion in foreign currency earnings.

Thus, unrest in mining's labor force has huge implications. As of 2007, the South African mining industry employs 493,000 workers. The industry represents approximately 18% of South Africa's US$408 billion GDP. The framework for trouble lies with multinational mining companies, an overwhelmingly black labor force that still lives in the legacy of apartheid-developed mining camps (workers living away from their families, which has left a trail of HIV/AIDS throughout both among workers and at far away homes.

The Lonmin strike of August 2012

The Lonmin mine is just 80 miles or so west of Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa, the country's two major cities in which reside the government institutions and centers of economic power.

The Lonmin strike was a strike in August 2012 at a mine owned by a subsidiary of Anglo Platinum, the world's leading platinum producer. A series of violent confrontations occurred between platinum mine workers on strike and the South African Police Service resulting in the death of 36 miners, two police officers, 4 unidentified protestors and 78 more injured.

Starting as some wildcat strikes, numbers swelled quickly - the miners demanding a pay increase and safer working conditions.

Tensions soared, violent confrontations repeatedly occurred.

Both sides were armed in their own fashion.

Controversy emerged after it was discovered that most of the victims were shot in the back. Many victims were shot far from police lines.

Occurring in the post-apartheid era, it was the deadliest incident of violence between police and the civilian population in South Africa since the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre and prompted the South African President, Jacob Zuma to declare a 6 day long week of mourning. On 18 September a mediator announced a resolution to the conflict, stating the striking miners had accepted a 22% pay rise, a one-off payment of 2,000 rand ($US226) and would return to work 20 September.

The latest wrinkle three days ago, October 6, was the announcement that 12,000 miners at the Lonmin mine were being laid off by the company. Where the issue goes is to be seen.


The political factors in this industrial unrest are serious. The ruling party, the African National Congress, has its roots in representing the majority indigenous black africans of the country, against the international, economic elite - residing mainly among the white population. While much has improved in the past decade in regards to race relations and representative governance, the ANC as the ruling party finds itself walking a tightrope between the aspirations of mine workers and the economic power of mining companies and world economic forces.

Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa

Cynthia Carroll, chief executive of Amplats parent company Anglo American

Mametlwe Sebei - strike/demonstration leader

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Venezuela election Sunday has South American impacts

Venezuela is a country of nearly 30 million people, similar to the population of Canada, or California ... Lying on the north coast of South America, it is a state with extremely high biodiversity, with habitats ranging from the Andes mountains in the west to the Amazon Basin rainforest in the south, extensive llanos plains, the Caribbean coast in the center and the Orinoco River Delta in the east.

Venezuela, on the north coast of South America

Sunday, there is an election scheduled for the Presidency. On the one hand, there is Hugo Chavez, a strongman with leftist perspectives, and a fond desire to be considered a leader among a number of sister countries in South America. On the other, there is a formidable challenger in the form of Henrique Capriles Randonski. The outcome is certainly unclear, the election campaign itself has seen instances of violence already, and the possibility remains for much mischief at the ballot boxes on voting day. Chavez, in power for the past 13 years has a long history of overcoming adversities, including surviving a coup attempt in 2002, as well as persevering through his recent bout with cancer.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's leader since 1999

From one review, "Chávez describes his policies to be anti-imperialist and he is a vocal critic of neoliberalism and capitalism more generally, Chávez has been a prominent adversary of the United States' foreign policy. Allying himself strongly with the Communist governments of Fidel and then Raúl Castro in Cuba and the Socialist governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, his presidency is seen as a part of the socialist "pink tide" sweeping Latin America." Teatree adds that he is a firm and public supporter of Iran's President Ahmadinejad,

Chavez and Iranian President Ahmadinejad - firm ideological allies for over a decade

History and features

Venezuela was colonized by Spain in 1522 despite resistance from indigenous groups. It became the first Spanish American colony to declare independence eventually attaining it in 1830. For the past 182 years, it has had a series of caudillos (military strongmen) as rulers, along with intermittent democratic governments and military dictatorships. Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998, launching what he describes as "the Bolivarian Revolution" which led off with a writing of a new Constitution of Venezuela.

Venezuela consists of 23 states, the Capital District of Caracas, its main and capital city, and Federal Dependencies that have jurisdiction over the country's offshore islands. Interestingly, Venezuela is among the most urbanized countries in Latin America; the vast majority of Venezuelans live in the cities of the north, especially in the capital, Caracas. With the discovery of oil in the early 1900's, Venezuela has since become one of the world's leading exporters, and still has large oil reserves.

Click on image for full picture
Venezuela, the country ...

Caracas, Venezuela's largest and capital city with over 4 million residents, contains 13% of the country's total population.

In sparsely populated southern Venezuela, one can find some of the wildest country on a continent already known for its exotic and pristine landscapes - from the Amazon jungle to the rugged mountainous tip of Argentina.

Venezuela's oil industry, producing over 2 million barrels a day, gives the country financial independence, though the wealth does not seem to trickle too deeply into the population.

The contender

Henrique Capriles Randonski - in a campaign poster - projecting youthful vitality and purpose ... and fashion.

From the BBC, "Henrique Capriles Randonski is 40, single, a lawyer by training, and has so far won every election he has contested. He had been the front-runner ever since Venezuela's united opposition parties announced they would choose a single candidate to stand against President Hugo Chavez in October's presidential poll. As the energetic governor of the state of Miranda, Mr Capriles liked to stay in touch with voters, visiting shantytowns, often on his motorbike, to supervise projects and play basketball with the locals."

From a US blog, Huffington Post, a recent article observes, "Officially, Capriles is a social moderate and advocates Brazilian-style development. That's a shrewd strategy, since Venezuelan politics tends to skew to the left and the Chávez opposition ran into a lot of problems in the past when it was perceived as too fanatically right wing. Capriles says he supports Chávez-style "mission" programs directed at the poor, but would administer the aid more efficiently. The opposition candidate has some street credibility on this score, having previously conducted a zero hunger program while serving as Governor of the important provincial state of Miranda."

Capriles campaigning as the unified candidate by several opposition parties

It is in foreign policy that an upset win by Capriles would have the largest impact. Again from the US blog, which is no friend of conservative perspectives, "it pains me to say it, Capriles could represent an improvement over the present government in certain respects. Over the years, Chávez has chosen to ally himself with some very questionable and politically backward regimes, for example Belarus, known as "Europe's last dictatorship." Capriles by contrast would reconsider ties to Belarus, Iran and Russia.

Such moves would certainly ingratiate Capriles in Washington, and it is not a stretch to imagine that U.S.-Venezuelan relations might recover from their long thaw [does the writer mean "freeze"?? Teatree] under Chávez. If that were to occur, it is also reasonable to assume that the ALBA bloc of left-leaning countries, which is largely reliant and dependent on Chávez's own oil largesse, could really implode and leave a political vacuum in its wake. The most likely beneficiary of such an implosion would likely be Brazil, a country which has begun to contest U.S. dominance in the wider region."

Interesting politics in South America ...