Special thanks go to Magnifico for starting this venerable series.
Lead Off Story
China Posts Blowout Trade Data, Exports Jump 10.6%
China released a batch of blowout trade numbers on Wednesday, which many analysts attribute to distortions created by the Lunar New Year holidays. The country's exports jumped 10.6 percent in January from the year-ago period, compared to a Reuters forecast for a 2 percent rise and higher than the 4.3 percent rise recorded in December. Imports, meanwhile, rose 10 percent in the month, versus expectations for a 3 percent rise and compared to the 8.3 percent gain in the month before. This leaves the country with a trade surplus of $31.9 billion for the month, the Customs Administration said, compared to the $23.7 billion forecast by Reuters.
"As there is the New Year distortion, it's always very hard to read the first three months of China's trade," said Bert Hofman, chief economist of East Asia and Pacific at the World Bank. China's economic data tend to be skewed during this week-long holiday, which began at the end of January this year, with many businesses winding down operations.
The overall trade picture however remains encouraging, Hofman added, referring to the 26 percent annualized growth in exports recorded in the final quarter of 2013. "26 percent growth is very high so that's not a number we are going to expect – it might taper a little bit – but we do see continued positive export growth throughout the year, not just for China but over the world," he told CNBC
Chinese Villagers Attack Factory After Reports Of Polluting
Villagers in south-western China, infuriated by a factory that was polluting the environment, smashed its offices and equipment and later clashed with police.
Residents of Baha, a village in Yunnan province, said they had grown increasingly angry over a local metalwork factory that had been coughing up black smoke and discharging polluted wastewater into the rural area. After the factory's boss refused to meet with villagers last week, they smashed cars, equipment, offices and dormitories.
"We have been living with the factory for 14 years, and we live in dust almost every day and can't sell our rice and other farm products," villager Huang Liangzheng said. "We need to live." Police were ordering villagers who took part in the clashes to surrender, Xinhua said. Huang said he was on his way to the police station. "Yes, I am one of those people they are looking for and I have nothing to fear," Huang said.
Environmental protests are on the rise in China, with the public becoming increasingly critical of the fouling of the country's air, soil and waterways during decades of breakneck development. The unrest poses a serious political challenge to the Communist party – anger over the party's response, or lack thereof, to environmental crises has fuelled wider dissatisfaction with corruption and a lack of official accountability.
Belgium Set To Extend Euthanasia Laws To Children
After months of public debate Belgium's parliament is preparing to extend its euthanasia law to terminally-ill children.
Surveys show Belgians broadly support the move to widen the 2002 law to apply to children faced with "unbearable physical suffering".
But after the Catholic Church staged "a day of fasting and prayer" in protest, some 160 paediatricians petitioned MPs to postpone the vote on the grounds it was both ill-prepared and unnecessary.
"Pain can be eased nowadays, there's been huge progress in palliative care," said Nadine Francotte, a cancer specialist in the city of Liege, who signed the petition.
Ms Francotte says euthanasia drugs cause an unnatural death, whereas palliative drugs "enable a child to live to the last moment".
Maryland Lawmakers Eye Cutting Off Water, Power To NSA Headquarters
A group of lawmakers in Maryland has introduced a bill that would deny state support to the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Ft. Meade, Md., which might see electricity and water supplies cut to the intelligence nerve center.
Eight Republicans from the 141-member Maryland House of Delegates introduced the legislation that would deny the NSA “material support, participation or assistance in any form” from the state or companies with state contracts. In practice, this might mean that NSA facilities would be deprived of water and electricity, prevent state universities from partnering with the NSA in research projects, and ban NSA-derived evidence in state courts.
Any officials working for the state that ignored these sanctions would be fired, while local government departments that refused to comply would lose state funds and companies doing business with the NSA would be barred from state contracts.
The bill was filed as emergency legislation and requires the support of three-fifths of delegates to become law. It has been referred to the chamber’s judiciary committee for further work and consideration.
The bill is the latest measure in a campaign spearheaded by the Tenth Amendment Center, which along with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee launched by the OffNow coalition last year is attempting to cut off water to the NSA’s brand new Utah data center
Hundreds of Thousands Lose Power As Ice Paralyzes South
At least 300,000 customers across the Deep South were without power on Wednesday as a potent winter storm pelted Atlanta with ice and threatened the Carolinas as it marched toward the Northeast.
More than 143,000 people were without service in Georgia and about 100,000 in South Carolina. Power failures were also reported in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and North Carolina.
“Everything is going as well as can be managed, but we are going to manage this hour by hour,” Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina said at a news conference at her state’s emergency operations center.
Waves of rain began falling in the early hours Wednesday and trees, cars and streets were coated in a layer of ice the likes of which this part of the country rarely sees. Transportation throughout much of the region was at a standstill as winter storm or ice storm warnings stretched from Texas to Vermont, with the storm moving into the Northeast by Thursday. Traffic jams on freeways were reported in North Carolina as well as southern Virginia.
“Catastrophic... crippling... paralyzing... choose your adjective,” an Atlanta area forecaster wrote in a Wednesday morning report for the National Weather Service. “This is a very, very big deal, especially from metro Atlanta east along the I-20 corridor.”
Science and Technology
'Epic' New Burgess Shale Site In Canada's Kootenay National Park
Yoho National Park’s 505-million-year-old Burgess Shale – home to some of the planet’s earliest animals, including a very primitive human relative – is one of the world’s most important fossil sites. Now, more than a century after its discovery, a compelling sequel has been unearthed: 42 kilometers away in Kootenay National Park, a new Burgess Shale fossil bed has been located that appears to equal the importance of the original discovery, and may one day even surpass it.
"This new discovery is an epic sequel to a research story that began at the turn of the previous century. There is no doubt in my mind that this new material will significantly increase our understanding of early animal evolution," said Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the ROM, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto and the study's lead author. "The rate at which we are finding animals -- many of which are new -- is astonishing, and there is a high possibility that we'll eventually find more species here than at the original Yoho National Park site, and potentially more than from anywhere else in the world."
In a short 15-day field season, the researchers collected thousands of specimens representing more than 50 species, several of which were new to science. Incredibly, many of the species previously known from Yoho are better preserved in Kootenay, retaining very fine, never-before-seen anatomical details that are important for understanding the shape of the animal 'family tree.'
"We were already aware of the presence of some Burgess Shale fossils in Kootenay National Park," said Dr. Robert Gaines, a geologist from Pomona College, who along with Caron and colleagues had spent August 2008 at a much smaller fossil deposit in the park located near Stanley Glacier. "We had a hunch that if we followed the formation along the mountain topography into new areas with the right rock types, maybe, just maybe, we would get lucky -- though we never in our wildest dreams thought we'd track down a motherload like this."
Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough Raises Hopes For Ultimate Green Energy Source
US researchers have achieved a world first in an ambitious experiment that aims to recreate the conditions at the heart of the sun and pave the way for nuclear fusion reactors.
The scientists generated more energy from fusion reactions than they put into the nuclear fuel, in a small but crucial step along the road to harnessing fusion power. The ultimate goal – to produce more energy than the whole experiment consumes – remains a long way off, but the feat has nonetheless raised hopes that after decades of setbacks, firm progress is finally being made.
In their experiments, researchers at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California use a bank of 192 powerful lasers to crush a minuscule amount of fuel so hard and fast that it becomes hotter than the sun. The process is not straightforward. The lasers are fired into a gold capsule that holds a 2mm-wide spherical pellet. The fuel is coated on the inside of this plastic pellet in a layer as thin as a human hair. When the laser light enters the gold capsule, it makes the walls of the gold container emit x-rays, which heat the pellet and make it implode with extraordinary ferocity. The fuel, a mixture of hydrogen isotopes called tritium and deuterium, partially fuses under the intense conditions.
The scientists have not generated more energy than the experiment uses in total. The lasers unleash nearly two megajoules of energy on their target, the equivalent, roughly, of two standard sticks of dynamite. But only a tiny fraction of this reaches the fuel. Writing in Nature, the scientists say fusion reactions in the fuel released at best 17 kilojoules of energy.
Omar Hurricane, the lead author of the report, said the latest improvement came by controlling the implosion of the spherical pellet more carefully. In previous experiments, the pellet distorted as it was crushed, which seemed to reduce the efficiency of the process. By squashing the fuel more softly, helium nuclei that are produced in the fusion reactions dump their energy into the fuel, heating it up even further, and driving a cycle of ever more fusion.
Society and Culture
Swede Set To 'Disarm' 25-Year-Old Herring Tin
"If there's any fish left in the can, I'm going to eat it," Ruben Madsen of Sweden's Surströmming Academy told The Local. Madsen is set to travel to a cabin in the Norwegian mountains next week to help "disarm" a recently discovered can of fermented herring dating from 1990.
Cabin owner Inge Haugen found the forgotten can after peeking under the eaves to find a swelling can of surströmming that had been expanding over the past two and half decades. He reckoned the bulging tin had raised the cabin's roof by about two centimetres. The find left him concerned that the can might explode at any moment, prompting him to warn his neighbours. Norway's Armed Forces were also notified about the impending "stink bomb".
Surströmming, or fermented herring, is a traditional Swedish delicacy, but its odour is notoriously foul. In the beginning of autumn, it’s not uncommon for Swedes to gather to enjoy the smelly fish at what is called a surströmmingsskiva (fermented herring party). Such parties are less common in Norway, which boasts its own fermented fish dish, known as rakfisk, which most often consists of trout that has been salted and fermented for several months.
Haugen's wife Bjørg told The Local that the can was forgotten during one particular festive evening back in March 1990 when the couple hosted a party at their cabin, located in Trysil, with surströmming imported from Sweden. "We had three cans. We ate two and my husband took the third and put it up under the roof, because we had eaten enough. Then he forgot about it," she said. "There's going to be a gruesome smell."
In The Netherlands, Bankers Turn To God — By Law
Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, once famously said he believed banks were doing “God’s work.” Now, the Netherlands is going one step further: starting later this year, all 90,000 Dutch bankers will have to swear an oath that they’ll do their “utmost to maintain and promote confidence in the financial-services industry. So help me God.”
It’s part of a major attempt by regulators and banks to clean up after the financial crash of 2008, and put behind them scandals that continue to blacken the financial service industry’s reputation. Just last October, the big Dutch cooperative bank Rabobank paid a $1 billion fine to settle charges in the Libor rate-fixing scandal.
Board members of the banks have already been required to swear the oath since last year, but now it’s being expanded to cover everyone who works in the sector. It consists of eight statements, including promises not to abuse knowledge and “to know my responsibility towards society.” There’s also a new banking code, a special declaration of moral and ethical conduct that all board members are required to sign, a “treat your customer fairly” initiative, and a “suitability” test for executive and non-executive directors of supervisory boards.
Bankers who fundamentally object to invoking God’s name can instead pledge: “This I declare and promise.”
So will swearing an oath make a difference? “It’s ridiculous,” says René Tissen, a professor at Nyenrode Business University in Breukelen, who jokes that the pledge should be referred to as “the Bernanke oath.” “People wonder whether bankers will ever adhere to it, in the light of the culture of self-enrichment. There’s a deep distrust, and it keeps coming to the surface.”
Well, that's different...
The Battersea Dog and Cats Home in Fulham, England, admitted in December that a rescued Staffordshire bull terrier, Barney, had a ladies’ underwear-eating habit and that potential adopters should keep him away from laundry baskets. (In his first three days at Battersea, officials say, he “passed” knickers three times.)
Bill Moyers and Company:
Bill McKibben to Obama: Say No to Big Oil