Friday, 29 October 2010

This is not Cricket

The Pakistani cricket team's summer tour of England ended in controversy. Three pakistani players are accused of spot-fixing. Spot-fixing differs from match-fixing in one significant way; spot-fixing relates to "fixing" specific incidents within the game. To my knowledge the investigation is still not finished, and as such the three players are still to be considered innocent. However, evidence is according to several sources convincing. 

The relationship between the chairman of the Pakistan cricket board and his counterparts in other parts of the old British empire is strained at best. He has been throwing out accusations right and left and received a lot of bad-will for his way of running the Pakistan cricket board. For some reason pakistani players more often than others are connected to this kind of activities, and a clean-up is needed.

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Who is John Galt?

I would like to recommend an excellent book, "Atlas Shrugged" written by Ayn Rand in 1957. At that time the political landscape was very different, with communism in a position of larger power. Ayn Rand escaped the Soviet Union and fleed to the USA, this historical background makes the setting of the novel more understandable..

The book is a dark depiction of a world in crisis, where the USA is slipping into a communism-like state. Companies are being taken over by the government or run by a sort of government controlled corporate puppet regime. The book is about the contrast between need and ability, and the right of ownership of property and your own intellect. It is about those willing to live in or unable to revolt against such a system, and about those that are trying to revolt. It is about the contrast between those that produce and those that loot. It is a philosophical thriller, with many discussions on politics, market economics and the role of the state.

If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose- because it contains all the others- the fact that they were the people who created the phrase to make money. No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity- to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created.
(Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957)

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Thursday, 28 October 2010

Just another tea party

The Tea party is a new political movement in the USA; the name is, of course, a reference to the Boston Tea Party, where colonists protested the British taxation of the American (British) colonies by disquising themselves as Indians (native Americans) and throwing tea into the water in the Boston harbour. The parole then was: "No taxation without representation". This was to protest the lack of governmental influence given to the colonies, despite the taxation.

The Tea party is today a conservative movement looking to decrease taxes, promote capitalism and decrease the size of the public sector and government to increase individual freedom. Also added to this are traditional conservative Christian values as banning abortion and gay marriage. Thus is can be perceived as a break-out group from the Republican party.

With the upcoming midterm election , they can be expected to have some influence. If nothing else they could be seen as a sign of splitting in the Republican ranks, which could help the Democrats. On the other hand president Obama's approval rating have decrease significantly and a sitting president often has worse results in the midterm election compared to the last election. So far president Obama has not been the great success that was expected, Obamacare cannot be seen as a success so far and the economic situation is not looking good for the USA.Projections are that the Republican will gain influence in the midterm election.

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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Deadly drugs

A sort of bizarre debate is currently going on in the USA, whether or not it is legal to import thiopental from Europe. Sodium thiopental is a part of the lethal injection used for executions in parts of the USA. Currently there is a shortage of domestic sodium thiopental and buying it from Europe may be in violation to FDA (Federal Drug Administrations) rules regarding drugs. The issue is if these rules are applicable since it is not used as a drug. In the UK, the source of the import, the debate is about whether or not it is legal to sell a substance used for killing people when it is known that it will in fact be used for executions. 

Sodium thiopental induces unconsciousness, then the prisoner is paralysed by pancuronium bromide and finally the heart is stopped using potassium chloride. This may seem to be a rather medieval way of punishment, and not surprisingly the death sentence has been abolished in most democratic countries. However, it still exists in many states ruled by communism, religious fundamentalism or despotism. Not a fun group to be associated with for the USA...

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The real McCoy

 Lately customs in some European countries, such as France and the Netherlands, have stopped import of generic drugs manufactured in India. This has been done after complaints about counterfeiting from large pharmaceutical companies, with competing drugs. Generic drugs are "copies" of drugs that can be manufactured legally after the patent has run out. Thus these drugs are not illegal and stopping them should be in violation with World Trade Organization policies. What makes the holders of the expired patents worried, is that the generic manufacturer can provide the drugs without the very expensive drug development process, thus selling the same drug at a lower price. A typical drug development process is often estimated to cost around $2 billion and take around 10 years.

Now this problem has been resolved, at least for now, and Indian generic drugs can be imported again. However, Indian officials are still worried about coming developments in this matter. India is currently a leading location for manufacturing of generic drugs, much due to relatively low wages and high competence.

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Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Story of Stuff

Here follows a short movie about the need to change the way we use resources, from a linear system to a circular system. The main point is, as previously mentioned, that using finite resource in a linear system is not sustainable. 

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What is with the french and their willingness to go on strike?
News reports about french workers on strike are quite frequently heard, often for reasons that may seem rather small to foreigners. This time the strikes are against a new pension reform, which most controversial part is an increase of the retirement age from 60 to 62 years old. To many outside french retirement at 60 seems to be a luxury, and at this time something they cannot afford. An aging population need a larger working force for support, obviously reform is needed. 

The usual example of french strikes are french farmers dumping various farming products on the street and blocking streets with farm machines. This tend to center around insufficient government support or against European Union ideas about decreasing import tariffs on agricultural products. These protectionistic policies are often criticised and would need reform to create a better market.For some reason these french farmers are allowed to have a too large influence on the European community; the french government bows and their large influence in the European Union often enough to block suggestions "threatening" the french farmers.

This strike is however spread to more sectors and seem to be more widespread. The current strike has been estimated to cost, the already strained french economy, 200 to 400 million euros ($280 to $560 million) every day. The costs include fuel shortages, lost foreign investment, and damage to the country's reputation.

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Monday, 25 October 2010

A wonderful, magical animal?

Christien Meindertsma, a dutch artist, has during three years tracked all product derived from a single pig, in an exhibition called PIG 05049. The result was following parts of the pig from it original source to 185 products, except for the more obvious one like pork meat, it includes ammunition, medicine, photo paper, heart valves, brakes, chewing gum, porcelain, cosmetics, cigarettes, conditioner and even bio diesel. The many applications of different parts of a pig body is not very surprising, but still an interesting piece of work that highlights the many connections in our production system.

Lisa: “I’m going to become a vegetarian”
Homer: “Does that mean you’re not going to eat any pork?”
Lisa: “Yes”
Homer: “Bacon?”
Lisa: “Yes Dad”
Homer: "Ham?”
Lisa: “Dad all those meats come from the same animal”
Homer: “Right Lisa, some wonderful, magical animal!”"

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Making babies

 Scientists have now discovered how a sperm cell binds an egg cell on a molecular level. This is of course fundamental in the creation of new individuals. The sperm binds to a receptor  called ZP3 in the extra-cellular region of the egg called zona pellucida (ZP). It is this receptor that has been mapped on a molecular level. This is one part, the other part that is likely to follow is molecular and structural research on the corresponding receptor on the sperm cell. This is research is important for understanding the mechanism of human reproduction, thus it is likely to have application in contraception or in helping childless couples reproduce.This research has been conducted by Luca Jovine's team at Karolinska Institutet (Stockholm, Sweden) in cooperation with Tsukasa Matsuda at Nagoya University (Japan).

3D Structure of the receptor

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Friday, 22 October 2010

Big animals

A couple of animal records have been set lately. First, a reamarkable specimen of the common goldfish, or koi carp, has been found. A 30-pound koi carp was found in France.

The sefcond entry is a Maine Coon cat, with the impressing length of 48,5 inches (over 4 feet) or over 123 centimetres.

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Faraday's Cage

Faraday cage, after the English scientist Michael Faraday,  is a metallic enclosure that prevents the entry or escape of an electromagnetic field. It lets electric charges travel on the outside of it, while the electric field effects are cancels out in the centre of it, leaving the inside like the eye of the storm. It is widely used to for protecting electronics from lightning storms. An ideal Faraday cage consists of an unbroken, perfectly conducting shell, in reality this is impossible to achieve, however a fine-mesh copper screening is a good solution. Ideally the cage should also be connected to an earth ground.

You have probably heard of the classic tip to sit in your car for protection during lightning storms, since cars are Faraday cages. However, they are not very good Faraday cages since they are not unbroken (windows, etcetera) and since they are isolated by the tires and thus not connected to an earth ground. Having a car made with fiberglass or an convertible would further decrease the effect. In newer cars the many electronic connection going into the interior of the car, could also be a problem. If you use a car as a Faraday cage, make sure you are not touching the outer walls or anything that is conducting electricity that is connected to them. 

Some claim the radiation from cell phones will be trapped inside the car, by the same principles, thus increasing its harmfulness. This view is however widely disputed, and seem to be mostly spread by people basing their business helping against it and less serious actors.

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Thursday, 21 October 2010

The raised fist

During the Olympic games 1968 in Mexico City Tommie Smith  won the 200 meter race and broke the world record with a time of 19.83 seconds. The image above is classic and powerful; it is from the medal ceremony and also features John Carlos (USA) to the right and Peter Norman (Australia) to the left. The raised fist with a black glove and Olympic Project for Human Rights badges are symbols of a fight against racism both in sports and most importantly in society in general. The three athletes were booed by the crowd and more or less explicitly expelled from their national team. The so-called Black power salute is a symbol for the US black power movement, an organisation against racial segregation and in some ways pro-socialism. The movement is diverse and some branches advocate black supremacy and separatism. Thus it is not uncontroversial, even though the origin is important.

Interesting is the various meaning of the raised fist symbol, it is and has been used by groups for black power, white power, socialism and various nationalist groups, to mention a few.  It is a symbol of willingness to fight, not necessarily violently, and unity. It is a basic symbol, thus it is not unexpected it has had numerous meanings depending on the context.

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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

CSR and the Global Market

The market has become increasingly globalised, in the sense that product and services are bought and sold in a global context. As value chains span over border, often several borders, regulating it becomes more difficult and a single state is not enough to ensure responsible business practise. This shows a need for other actors to help promote CSR, in the form of companies or international organisations,. Thus CSR work is perhaps even more important in the globalised world of today.

However, some countries with developing economies are critical to international CSR standards, for example India. In this case CSR is considered a concept developed and defined by developed countries and not fit for developing countries. In the global market place developing countries generally have their main advantage based on the low costs of labour, and by implementing a CSR standard this advantage is believed to diminish due to the cost of CSR. Therefore a standard giving companies importing from developing countries incentives to choose suppliers that are compliant with the standard, could give developing countries a disadvantage, at least at first. If this would force business out of the developing countries, investments would decrease and the standard of life would likely decrease; what would be beneficial for workers on the surface, could lead to adverse effects.

The (economic) reasons for CSR work are often stated by a few assumptions:
• Customers favour product and services by responsible companies
• Investors favour investments in responsible companies
• Potential employees would rather work in a responsible company
• Engaging the stakeholders of the business leads to larger opportunities for innovation
• Reduction of risks in regard to environment, labour and society

However, according to Knox and Maklan these assumptions seem to be hard to measure and the results so far seem to be ambiguous at best. To get a clear idea on the relationship between CSR and beneficial results further research is needed, in doing so new ways to measure and explore this issues need to be developed.

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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

CSR and the firm

An important issue in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is what a company should do and what is the purpose of it. Some, like the widely recognised economist Milton Friedman, would argue that CSR is not what a company should do; a company should instead focus on maximising returns for the shareholders, and abide the law and general ethical principles in doing so. Thus instead leaving the work of forming standards to ensure a responsible behaviour to the government, and if this is done well there would be no room or need for CSR in the companies, rather what is best for the shareholders would be best for the society. This is well in line with classical economics going back to Adam Smith and the invisible hand regulating the market.
However, this view is disputed. The assumption made here is that an efficient market, including an efficient state apparatus, will make sure that business is conducted in a responsible way. Obviously, this is not the case in reality, thus there is an important role for CSR work to play in filling the void between the real market and the ideal market. In this context it seems CSR work has an important role to fill and it should be something important for companies in catering to the interests of the stakeholders in regards to the interaction with the market, society and externalities. Actual it could be assumed that CSR has developed from a liberal market view, where not enough regulations are present to ensure commitment to responsible business principles. In this context it is not surprising to see an increase in CSR activities of companies, some argues that companies have taken over some of the responsibilities of regulating the market, which was earlier an activity exclusively conducted by the state. Not only are many companies conducting CSR activities in their own organisation, but also in their extended value chain containing several tiers of suppliers.

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Monday, 18 October 2010

High-frequency trading

The last couple of year computerised stock market trading, so called high-frequency trading. This refers to computer programs acting on the stock market based on defined parameters and searching for pricing discrepancies between market places. These programs are designed to help investors, in this case exclusively large scale investors, to act on small changes or differences in stock prices. This trading is extremely short term, oand volumes are often large. The extreme short time frames of the trades have made internet connections very important, in this case it is a matter of milliseconds or even smaller fraction of a second. It has come to the point where companies running such computers are trying to run them as physically close as possible to the stock exchange to decrease transfer times by minimising the distance that the signal need to travel.

It has been estimated that these kind of trading makes up 2/3 of all trading in the USA. Thus it is increasing the volumes of the stock market, which is often seen as a good thing, especially for smaller traders. However, it also brings negative effects, for example when these machines act on signals they tend to increase the volatility, meaning they increase both ups and downs. If a stock falls enough to trigger a sell signal for the computer program large volumes will be sold and thus increasing the fall, and the other way around.

High-frequency trading is being discussd by policy makers and sort of regulation in the not too distant future would not be unexpected.

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Saturday, 16 October 2010


That many European soccer teams, both national teams and clubs, have trouble with hooliganism is nothing new. Lately this has perhaps been apparent in Eastern Europe, and now less than a week ago a national team game between Italy and Serbia in Genoa had to be stopped due to Serbian hooligans. This is tragic, and even though the hooligans were unusually violent it was still nothing exceptional.

Now in the aftermath of the event some sources tell a story of organised criminal gangs paying the Serbian hooligans to cause chaos. It was likely that the two gangs, despite being in a financial dispute with each other, financed the riots because both have interests to create chaos in the state of Serbia, the source, who asked not to be named, told Politika. I wonder how they will try to benefit from this chaos and if the gangs felt the action met their objective. An investigation is currently being started, and more information is likely to come.

In many parts of Europe, and possibly elsewhere as well, firms belonging to different soccer teams are fighting each other on a regular basis. Most of the time this does not affect the "regular" supporters and often these fights are not even in the proximity of the arena. This is a troubling development, but to some extent I believe there have always been gangs of men fighting other gangs. The soccer and supporting a club is not really the root of the problem, but rather an excuse to form these kind of groups. Of course the club is linked to the trouble, but noe solely responsible.

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Friday, 15 October 2010

Conflicts of interest

Central Asia is an area of high political interest and internal conflicts. These states five used to be parts of the Soviet union and as such they carry bagage from their totalitarian past. Although they are officially republics, democracy is questionable and corruption is wide spread in many areas. Two important factors for the regions are the complex political situation following the fall of the Soviet Union and the borders issues created by Soviet administration. During the Soviet era administrative borders were created, which were later made into national borders after the independence. In many cases these borders do not match the ethnical groups in the area, thus they have created conflict between different groups.

These nations are due to their geographical position of interest two three great powerhouses: China, Russia and the USA. Both Russia and the USA have military bases in the Central Asian republics, and China is involved in border conflicts with Kyrgyzstan. NATO has a cooperation with Kazakhstan, but the fast growing economy has now strengthened its political ties to Russia. Adding to the instability is the proximity to Afghanistan, a failed state in a war-like state and talks of fundamental islamist trying to increase their power. Central Asia is a powder keg, moving towards a tricky future. 

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Thursday, 14 October 2010

Early life

Scientist have found the oldest evidence of life so far, it consists of tubular shapes in ancient South African rock. The fossils are estimated to be 3.34 billion years old. The evidence is not yet final, as it is not 100% certain that these tubular cavities are made by a microbe, but the scientist are confident they will prove so that is the case. 

Continuing on early life, scientist believe they have found out which was the first land plant . It is estimated  that several plant species had colonised dry land around 472 million years ago. The scientist have found fossilised cryptospores from the plants in what is today Argentina. The plants in question are early relatives of todays' liverworths. They are simple plant without roots and stems.

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Don't buy stuff you can't afford

In a time where more and more nations are falling into deep debt, here is a friendly reminder from SNL.

Don't buy stuff you can't afford

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Wednesday, 13 October 2010


Today the first of the 33 trapped miners in Chile are finally reaching the surface again. For the first time since August 5 they will breathe surface air, they will however still not see the light just yet. This is due to the damage it would cause their eyes after months in darkness. So it seems the story will get a happy ending after all.

Mining accidents are quite common, especially in China. Last year 2,631 miners were killed in accidents and the worst year 2002 there were 6,995 deaths in Chinese mines. Safety is appaling, corporate social repsonsibility is unheard of and the environment is damaged on a large scale. All this is regarded as secondary as coal, and lots of it, is needed to fuel the growing economy. Lately regulations have been launched to help safety in mines, for example management have been forced to regularly spend time and do inspections underground. Hopefully these regulations can help improve the situation of Chinese miners, but many seem to have little hope this will lead to more than marginal improvements.

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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Trial and Terror

The lives of the prisoners of war in Guantanamo has been out of focus in media lately. Now the first prisoner will finally get a trial in a civil court. Obama promised to close the Guantanamo prison when he was elected, but so far not much has happened. There seem to be little progress in the closing process, apparently there is trouble with the transfer of prisoners to other facilities and more surprisingly with the prisoners that are to be released.

Hopefully this will pave the way for more trials in civil courts, instead of the closed and criticised trials in military courts.

Previous post on the prisoners in Guantanamo

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Why deflation is bad

Economists everywhere fear inflation and lots of effort is put in to keeping it down. Perhaps the most important tool for reducing inflation is increasing the interest rate in hopes of cooling down the economy. Often inflation is a result of a heated economy and a well-performing economy. Inflation is bad since it reduces the value of money, but the alternative is even worse for an economy. 

Now some large economies are facing deflation, Japan is already there, the USA is not far behind and the rest of the industrialised world may follow. Deflation means, opposite of inflation, that prices are falling over the entire market. This may at first sound like a good thing; things get cheaper we can increase our standard of living and so forth. However, if we all assume prices will be lower tomorrow than they are today; it will makes us curb spending. This will obviously decrease demand, which will lower prices even more and in the long run force companies to cut wages and lay off staff. If it goes this far, the downward spiral is in full spin. Furthermore, this will make debts more expensive as the money value increases. The trouble is now that lowering interest rates can only be done until they are 0, and even then the real interest rate is still positive. For Japan this is a real problem since the interest rate is currently extremely low.

Krugman on Deflation

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Friday, 8 October 2010

Fighting terror?

The American usage of drones to kill "terrorists" has escalated lately, up to the point that Pakistani officials are protesting and closing borders for NATO supply trucks. To make matters worse US troops shot down a pakistani military helicopter, assuming that they were militant islamists. This is forcing supply trucks to take another more dangerous route through Baluchistan. In this area  40 NATO oil trucks have been destroyed.

The NATO/American way of waging war is turning a whole area against them. Instead of decreasing the number of militant islamists targetting Western interests, we can safely assume they will keep growing and may also turn more violent. Furthermore, I suspect that American actions will reflect on the rest of the Western society, thus increasing threats not only in USA, but in all of the Western world.

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Free Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2010 for his work for democracy and human rights in China. Hopefully, perhaps a naive hope, this will put some pressure on China to move towards democracy. At least it should bring some attention to the treatment of chinese groups and individuals promoting democracy and human rights. He is now imprisoned for inciting subversion of state power.

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Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Failed states

The failed states index ranks states based on their inability to function as states (according to the indicators in the end of this post).This less than flattering list contains many of the usual suspects, states that you hear about in the news often in reference to corruption, (civil) war and lack of democracy. The bottom 20 contains: 12  African states, 4 in Western Asia and the Middle East, 3 in Eastern Asia and 1 in the Carribean. This gives yet another indication on the troubles on the African continent, and how much work still needs to be done to reduce poverty, increase democracy and reduce corruption.

Social indicators
1. Demographic pressures: including the pressures deriving from high population density relative to food supply and other life-sustaining resources.  
2. Massive movement of refugees and internally displaced peoples
3. Legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance
4. Chronic and sustained human flight: both the "brain drain" of professionals, intellectuals and political dissidents and voluntary emigration of "the middle class".
Economic indicators
5. Uneven economic development between groups: measured by group-based poverty, unemployment, infant mortality, education levels.
6. Sharp and/or severe economic decline
Political indicators
7. Criminalization and/or delegitimisation of the state: corruption or profiteering by ruling elites and resistance to transparency, accountability and political representation.
8. Progressive deterioration of public services: a disappearance of basic state functions (such as health, education, sanitation, public transportation) that serve the people, including failure to protect citizens from terrorism and violence.
9. Widespread violation of human rights
10. Security apparatus as ‘state within a state’: emergence of elite guards that operate with impunity. Emergence of state-sponsored or state-supported private militias that terrorize political opponents, suspected "enemies," or civilians sympathetic to the opposition.
11. Rise of factionalised elites: a fragmentation of ruling elites and state institutions along group lines.
12. Intervention of other states or external factors: military or Para-military engagement in the internal affairs of the state at risk by outside armies, states, or entities that affect the internal balance.

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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is likely to be announced soon in the middle of October. Who will win is as always unclear, but some nominees are known. One is rather unusual, but yet somewhat fitting, the Internet. It has been nominated as "a weapon of mass-construction". Although, it would be a decent laureate, I feel it is somewhat missing the point; the Internet is just a tool, the progress must be made by people.

Another nominee is Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina and Memorial, a  human rights group she works with. Gannushkina and Memorial mainly works for the right of migrant workers and has been a critic of the Kremlin. 

Liu Xiaobo is a third known nominee, he is branded as a dissident by the Chinese government and is currently in jail. He is an advocate of democracy and demanded reforms in the manifesto Charta -08. He was convicted behind closed doors for challenging the ruling powers. This is controversial for the Chinese government, and threats of damaged relations between Norway and China have been brought forward to the Norwegian commitee.

To me the second two nominees are excellent, championing the fight against corruption, democracy and human rights. In total there are roughly 200 nominees. Soon we will know who wins the prize, it may sound a bit tacky but in a sense we are all winners thanks to these remarkable individuals.

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Today it has been announced that Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov will receive the Nobel Prize in Physics 2010 for their remarkable experiments with graphene. Graphene is compound consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms (bonded as seen in the image above). It can be described as large polyaromatic planar molecule. Graphene has several interesting properties, for example:
  • It is the thinnest and strongest compound. It has a breaking strength 200 times higher than steel.
  • It conducts electricity just as well as copper
  • It does not let gasmolecules pass
Graphene is expected to be an important compound in development of new and improved transistors and other electronics applications. Furthermore, it is expected to be useful in the new field of spintronics.

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Monday, 4 October 2010

Another red list

Our use of the environment is not only putting animals in harms way; it has now been estimated that a fifth of the world's plant species are endangered. The numbers are terrible, 380,000 plant species are threatened. There is a small part of this that is due to natural reasons, but the vast majority is due to the human factor. As one of the biotopes with the largest biodiversity, the rainforest is also the biotope with the most threatened plant species. One reason for this is the large demand for palm oil. The palm oil plantations are a large threat to the rainforest and its inhabitants. Plants are the foundation of the ecosystem, and keeping the biodiversity is thus essential.

Next month the UN conference on biodiversity in Nagoya (Japan) will adress this issue. A international strategy will be needed, before it is too late.

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Friday, 1 October 2010

The new face of bin Ladin

The world never ceases to surprise you...

Usama bin Ladin has been quite for a while now, however now he has apaprently made a statement again. What is surprising is the subject, it is not about infidels, bombs or terror. His latest statement talks about concern for the environment and climate change in general, and about the recent floods in Pakistan. I was not expecting the environment to be his biggest concern, but you never know there may live a little tree hugger inside him.

On another note intelligence services claim to have disrupted Al-Qaida terror plans against several European cities. Whether this is really the case, or if it is mostly a public relations thing is still unclear.

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