America and Australia have their fair share of similarities -- both are former British colonies with English as a primary language, both occupy giant chunks of land, and both are characterized by their independent frontier spirits -- but is this reason enough to join them? Sadly, no.
The deadline for a White House petition to "Join American and Australia to form Ameristralia" is fast approaching. The petition, which has until Friday to garner 100,000 signatures, so far clocks in at an unimpressive 6,500.
The campaign to combine the two great nations was inspired by Redditors who in April realized that the United States dominates the social media site during its daytime while Australians actively use Reddit when America sleeps. Combined, they could achieve Reddit -- if not world -- domination. As Urban Dictionary puts it: "the union of the greatest country in the world and the deadliest island, Ameristralia rules all of the day and all of the night."
But while the petition is clearly a joke, an argument can be made for fusing the two countries. Fans of the union -- who call themselves 'Matriots' (Mate + Patriots) -- note: Ameristralia would bypass Russia in size at 17.32 million square km to Russia's 17.08. And yes, it would also finally bring the United States into the metric system. Furthermore, not only do the two countries' respective leaders get along famously, but having a whole territory in the South Pacific, not just a Marine base, could really be a boon to the U.S. pivot to Asia. As the initiative's Facebook page notes, both countries have "amazing armies" to be used "to uphold freedom and awesome." Who could argue with that mission statement?
Still not convinced? Redditors point out that Ameristralians would also dominate Olympic swimming, diving, and at long last give the United States a fighting chance at rugby.
So there you have it: a case for Ameristralia. If the petition somehow reaches 100,000 signatures by Friday, it will join other ridiculous requests -- like Texas seceding from the Union or the United States building a Death Star -- to require White House review.
You may not have heard of koro -- a mental syndrome in which a person has an overwhelming belief that his or her genitals are disappearing -- or zar-- a condition that generates dissociative episodes characterized by intense laughter and singing -- but that doesn't mean these are any less universal than, say, anorexia. At least that was the theme of a fascinating article by journalist Ethan Watters about "the Americanization of mental illness," published in the New York Times Magazine in 2010.
One of the primary points Watters makes is that the Western mental-health practitioners behind the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-4) problematically placed "culture-bound" disorders -- like those mentioned above --in their own section at the back of psychiatry's most definitive diagnostic guide, implying that these syndromes are somehow affected by culture in a way that predominantly Western illnesses are not:
Western mental-health practitioners often prefer to believe that the 844 pages of the DSM-IV prior to the inclusion of culture-bound syndromes describe real disorders of the mind, illnesses with symptomatology and outcomes relatively unaffected by shifting cultural beliefs. And, it logically follows, if these disorders are unaffected by culture, then they are surely universal to humans everywhere. In this view, the DSM is a field guide to the world's psyche, and applying it around the world represents simply the brave march of scientific knowledge.
But Watters disagrees with that approach. "In the end," he concludes, "what cross-cultural psychiatrists and anthropologists have to tell us is that all mental illnesses, including depression, P.T.S.D. and even schizophrenia, can be every bit as influenced by cultural beliefs and expectations.... [M]ental illness is an illness of the mind and cannot be understood without understanding the ideas, habits and predispositions - the idiosyncratic cultural trappings - of the mind that is its host."
The American Psychiatric Association (APA), it seems, is heeding that advice. The organization is unveiling DSM-5, the long-anticipated (14 years, to be exact) new edition of its manual, over the weekend during its annual meeting in San Francisco. And based on preliminary information, the task force that wrote it appears to have been more sensitive to the nuances of patient care across countries.
"Rather than a simple list of culture-bound syndromes," reads one statement on the APA's methodology, "DSM-5 updates criteria to reflect cross-cultural variations in presentations, gives more detailed and structured information about cultural concepts of distress, and includes a clinical interview tool to facilitate comprehensive, person-centered assessments."
What exactly will this look like? Instead of relegating cultural expressions of mental disorders to the back of the book, the manual will incorporate these throughout the text. The example the APA provides is for social anxiety disorder. In the new manual, "fear of 'offending others'" will be included in order to reflect "the Japanese concept in which avoiding harm to others is emphasized rather than harm to oneself."
Another example: A preliminary version of the DSM-5, which the APA released for feedback last year, updated the criteria for dissociative identity disorders so that professionals won't need to diagnose practices like shamanism as a mental illness. In the new manual, practitioners are told that if the so-called "disturbance" is actually "a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice," then it does not technically constitute dissociative identity disorder.
Changes such as these are definitely a start. But all the medical anthropologists out there need not worry. With ambiguous words like "broadly accepted" and "normal" peppered in the DSM-5, there's certainly still room for criticism.
PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images
Google's autocomplete algorithm doesn't just enable users to save precious seconds of typing by predictavely filling in the rest of the search. It's also, apparently, the subject of contentious legal cases the world over. The latest example: On Wednesday, a German federal court ruled that libelous autocompletes are a violation of privacy.
As the BBC reports, the case was brought by a businessman (fittingly, he remains unnamed) who was frustrated by the fact that Google.de autocompleted searches of him with "scientology" and "fraud." This week's ruling -- which overturned two previous decisions in favor of Google -- called on the search giant to make changes to its autocomplete function when made aware of an "unlawful violation."
And this is far from an isolated case. The BBC goes on to report:
The ruling could also have a bearing on another case involving auto-complete. Bettina Wulff, wife of former German president Christian Wulff, sued Google because auto-complete suggested words linking her to escort services. Mrs Wulff denies ever working as a prostitute and has fought several legal cases over the accusation. The case against Google is due to be heard soon in a Hamburg court.
The technology blog Techdirt, which snarkily claims to have a "suing-algorithms-for-fun-and-profit! dept" brought us another story last year of an Australian surgeon named Guy Hingston who sued Google for defaming him by implying that he's not doing so well financially. The search:
But as TechDirt pointed out, Hingston may be shooting himself in the foot. His case, in attracting media attention, has made it all the more likely that "bankrupt" will appear next to his name in a search.
In 2012, ZDNet wrote about a Hong Kong tycoon who sued Google for similar reasons. As ZDNet noted, "Whether Yeung's name is input into Google Search in English or Chinese, a drop-down option for the search term plus 'triad' [the name for China's organized crime organizations] appears -- a connotation which is unlikely to make the tycoon happy."
And individuals aren't the only parties bringing autocomplete-related lawsuits. In 2012, an anti-discrimination group in France, SOS Racisme, sued Google for discriminatory autocompletes -- in this particular instance, linking "Jew" or "Jewish" with searches for people who aren't Jewish like Rupert Murdoch. Go figure.
With so many loose associations on Google, does it really make sense to hold the company accountable for each one? After all, you could argue that everything from women to countless countries to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have been defamed by autocomplete. Google, for its part, claims little responsibility. Their defense: the algorithm works by filling in blanks based on the frequency of our searches. In other words, we're all kind of slandering each other.
Screenshot [h/t Telegraph Online]
Cement, cigarettes, and sugar are just a few of the goods transported through the many underground tunnels connecting Egypt and the blockaded Gaza Strip, which have often been described as a "vital lifeline." Now, thanks to an entrepreneurial Gaza-based delivery service, we can add a new -- if not entirely vital -- product to the list: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
That's right, although there is no KFC in Gaza (the first one in the West Bank city of Ramallah opened just last year), Gazans can now get their beloved Colonel Sanders fix from Egypt. As China's Xinhua news agency reports:
The fried chicken make their way from one of the many underground smuggling tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border.
Mohammed Al-Madani, an accountant at Al-Yamama company, said they started their new business by chance. "We ordered and arranged to bring some meals for us and they arrive after four hours," he said.
Then they posted a picture for the fast food on their company's website, and soon got more orders from the people in Gaza, he introduced....
"It's delicious even as it's not hot," said Aboud Fares, a 22- year-old student, as he bit a mouthful of a chicken breast. His sister, who traveled several times to Egypt, was enjoying the KFC apple pie.
While Al-Madani aknowledges that Al-Yamama doesn't face many obstacles in getting the fast food combos from Egypt to Gaza, he says occasional delays are inevitable. "Sometimes Hamas checks the meal boxes and sometimes the taxi that picks up the orders from Sinai is late," he told Xinhua.
The company gets the word out by posting on its Facebook page each time it is making a run. And just in case you're interested, the next delivery of "Kentucky," as Al-Yamama affectionately calls it, is tomorrow. So hurry up and place your order (the deadline is Thursday at 6 pm, Gaza time).
Image via Al-Yamama Facebook Page
On Saturday, the five-day registration period for Iran's June 14 presidential election came to a dramatic close when several last-minute candidates entered the running. And buried deep in news articles reporting the participation of popular former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as well as Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's top aide and the father of Ahmadinejad's daughter-in-law -- was a surprising name: Davood Ahmadinejad, the president's older brother.
So which relative will Iran's president support? It's pretty clear Mashaei is getting the nod. For months, analysts have asserted that Ahmadinejad is grooming Mashaei, his current chief of staff, to be his successor, and Ahmadinejad confirmed these suspicions shortly after Mashaei announced his intention to run. "Mashaei means Ahmadinejad, and Ahmadinejad means Mashaei," the president declared. So much for brotherly love. Iran's election officials, in fact, have threatened to bring charges against Ahmadinejad (ones that could carry jail time or 74 lashes) for accompanying Mashaei as he registered for the election.
Davood, meanwhile, has announced that he will be running as an independent candidate, according to Iran's state-run Fars News Agency. We know little about his ideology and background, but we do know that in recent months he has been a vocal critic of his brother's administration, joining the president's hard-line opponents in referring to members of Ahmadinejad's team as a "deviant current" in Iranian society.
But the Ahmadinejad brothers haven't always been rivals; once upon a time, not long ago, the two were actually political allies. During Ahmadinejad's first term in office, which began in 2005, Davood served in his administration as the chief of the president's office of inspection. It was only in 2008 that they split ways. In a 2011 interview excerpted by PBS's Tehran Bureau, Davood claimed the separation was an ideological one:
We have separated our ways from those who have deviated from the path of Velaayat-e Faghih [guardianship of the Islamic jurist, represented by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], even if it is our brother [who has done so].
According to a leaked 2010 U.S. embassy cable, however, the falling out was a bit more personal than Davood let on. And it may have centered on an individual in the news again this week: Ahmadinejad's confidant, Mashaei. As the cable explains:
Ahmadinejad's brother Davud, the former head of the president's office of inspection, accused Mashaei of saying 'absurd' things to keep the system busy and to prevent progress towards Khomeini's goals. He mockingly implied that Mashaei's only 'accomplishment' is his friendship with Hooshang Amir Ahmadi.
The mention of Hooshang Amirahmadi, a New Jersey-based professor and current presidential hopeful (see Katie Cella's profile of him for FP), is surprising. But what U.S. diplomats said next is more telling:
(COMMENT: Davud Ahmadinejad, who resigned his position as in August 2008, reportedly did so due to disagreements with his brother regarding Mashaei. END COMMENT.)
With Iran's Guardian Council now set to narrow down hundreds of presidential candidates to just a few names by May 17, analysts are predicting that Mashaei is unlikely to make the cut because of opposition from the supreme leader and his conservative backers. Davood probably won't make it through either. But if he somehow does, and he wins, don't expect Mahmoud to land a job in the new administration.
When it comes to the death penalty, European governments are ardently abolitionist. Yet the European taxpayer may in fact be unwittingly fueling executions for drug-related offenses in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In a recent post on Iran's war on drugs, Marya Hannun mentions the "steep price" of the country's drug war -- namely the execution of hundreds of individuals annually for the possession, use, and trafficking of narcotics.
While Hannun referenced the praise that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has bestowed on Iran's anti-narcotics program despite the high execution rate for drug-related offenses, what is not discussed is the funding provided by European nations for these efforts. Countries such as France and Germany provide funds to the UNODC's integrated program of technical cooperation on drugs and crime in Iran, which ultimately results in gross human rights violations perpetrated by Iranian authorities.
According to the UNODC website, the integrated program was launched in March 2011 thanks to a "generous financial contribution" from the government of Norway. The program "aims to support national efforts on drugs and crime" and consists of three sub-programs: 1) illicit trafficking and border management; 2) drug demand reduction and HIV control; and 3) crime, justice and corruption.
There are counter-narratives to UNODC's high regard for Iran's anti-narcotics efforts, including allegations that law enforcement personnel in Iran are in fact partaking in and facilitating the sale of illicit drugs for profit on the black market. Regardless of government complicity, the fact remains that thousands of individuals are arrested each year with the technical and material support provided by sub-program 1, including body scanners, drug-detection kits, sniffer dogs, vehicles, and night-vision devices.
Of those arrested, hundreds will subsequently be sentenced to death by Iran's judiciary on drug allegations. Iran is a global leader in executions, with only China exceeding it in number of people put to death annually. According to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based group that documents executions in Iran, at least 580 people were executed in the country in 2012. In these documented cases, at least 76 percent of executions were due to drug-related charges.
Since news of the frequency with which Iran puts individuals to death for drug-related offenses has come to light, UNODC and donor countries have come under fire for their support of the program, and human rights groups have encouraged donors to request greater transparency from the Iranian government about how their money is spent in this joint initiative.
While the Norwegian government provided the initial cash infusion to the integrated program, it has since ceased funding sub-program 1 and requested that its support only be applied to sub-programs 2 and 3. The Danish government, meanwhile, announced last month that it would no longer provide financial support to the program following revelations that its donations were indirectly sponsoring the death penalty in Iran. At the time of the decision, the Danish government had provided about 5 million Danish kroner (or $875,000) annually in the previous two years to the program and was expected to provide about 7 million Danish kroner ($1.2 million) over the next two years.
While Denmark's decision to cut the funding has been welcomed by human rights groups, there's more work to be done. Questions remain over the transparency of the program -- specifically UNODC's ability to ensure that donor countries who have restricted their support to only sub-programs 2 and 3 will indeed have that money applied to the intended targets.
To this end, the France-based anti-death penalty group Together Against the Death Penalty (Ensemble contre le peine de mort, or ECPM) has started a petition calling on other European Union member states to follow the Danish example. Short of governments cutting off funding altogether, ECPM and its organizational co-signers are requesting that funding from donor countries be conditioned on an immediate moratorium on death sentences for drug-related offenses in Iran and that contribution amounts be made public and solely allocated to prevention programs.
Given that abolition of the death penalty is a pre-condition for entry of any nation into the European Union, it is time the EU call on its member states to apply more scrutiny of its support for such activities abroad as well. The case of Iran is a fine place to start.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
On Saturday, Pakistanis will vote in historic general elections -- the first transition from one elected government to another in the country's tumultous history. For this and several other reasons, Mosharraf Zaidi argues in Foreign Policy that Pakistan is heading into this weekend's polls better off than you might think, despite the spate of violence that has preceded it. But Pakistani writer Rafia Zakaria might beg to differ.
On Friday, she penned a blistering op-ed for Dawn, Pakistan's leading English-language daily, on the state of the country. The column, entitled "The great expectations of historic elections," invokes Miss Havisham. For those of you who weren't paying attention in high school English class, she is the withering old maid in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations -- as Zakaria puts it, "a woman frozen in time."
Abandoned by her fiancé on the eve of her wedding, Miss Havisham never quite recovers and, years later, still wears her tattered wedding dress. As Zakaria sees it, she is a lot like Pakistan:
Like old Miss Havisham who sat at her dressing table, refusing to let time enter, refusing to change out of her wedding dress and refusing to see the horror of her situation; Pakistanis weep for an injured cricketer and a dead white tiger and forget the ordinary tragedies that surround them....
In the song singing, change chanting moment, there is no room to talk about the pile of trash outside the mosque, the outstanding IMF loans, the wedding dress worn for two decades, the groom that never came, the frauds of elections past and the tragedies of dead leaders. In Dickens's novel, Miss Havisham never really changes. Frayed and yellowed, her nuptial garment catches fire and she and it are burned to death, frozen still in their denials and beyond rescue by any hero.
It might seem odd for a Pakistani author to employ Dickens in making sense of the challenges facing her country, but highlighting Pakistan's Dickensian side actually seems to be something of a trend. Here are just a few examples of how the British titan of Victorian-era social realism has been trotted out in the Pakistani op-eds of news cycles past.
Yousuf Nasim, in a scathing 2012 op-ed about Pakistan's judicial system, begins with an epigraph from Bleak House, Dickens's novel ridiculing England's arcane legal system by chronicling a never-ending court case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce:
"The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world." - Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Nasim goes on to write:
I have no hesitancy in asserting that there are numerous cases currently pending in Karachi, which would put to shame Dickens' dystopian portrayal in Bleak House. Yet there persists a myopia which prevents legal practitioners from seeing what is plain before their eyes: that the system is broken. There is, effectively, no access to justice for the vast majority of society. Public confidence in the legal system as a means of resolving disputes is plummeting, and unless drastic measures are taken to arrest this decline, the outcome for our society and our polity will be alarming.
A Tale of Two Cities
In March, Dickens's masterpiece on the French revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, made an appearance in an op-ed blasting wealth inequality and patron-client relations in Pakistan. Titled, "A Tale of Two Cities," the article, written by columnist Aasin Sajjad Akhtar, states:
This lack of concern, as I have suggested, is explained by the fact that those with power and influence actually have nothing to gain from redressing the prevailing state of affairs.
Meanwhile, those who are taught not to ask questions, to dutifully obey their superiors and then accept it all as divine will continue to be an easy prey for the reactionary ideologues that thrive on having a captive public to do their bidding.
If there is to be a happy ending in this tale of two cities, we need first and foremost to empathise with the voiceless masses that keep this country running in spite of, rather than because of, their self-absorbed, slothful and subjugating masters.
In another Pakistani English-language daily, The News, Jamil Nasir, an economist based in Lahore, refers to the novel Hard Times in a column about income inequality in Pakistan:
When a society undergoes a metamorphosis from an agrarian to an industrial economy, there are both losers and gainers. The industrialists and the middle class gains, while in a world of ‘mechanisation and desperation', the labourers work only for subsistence wages due to obvious reasons. They live in pitiable conditions as depicted vividly by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. Once industrialisation becomes the predominant mode of economy, pressure mounts on the government for redistribution due to heightened awareness of rights - and consequently inequality declines.
Any thoughts on why Dickens keeps cropping up in Pakistani political commentary? Leave them in the comments. And even if you can't turn to Dickens for the answers to all of Pakistan's troubles, at least now you know where to turn if you want to brush up on your British lit.
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The death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh has now surpassed 1,000, intensifying international scrutiny on the labor and safety conditions of garment workers in the country. And while some have called for boycotts of major retailers like Primark or Gap, the tragedy -- the worst in the garment industry's history -- has also generated debate about why people have a harder time exerting their power as "ethical" consumers when it comes to clothing than when it comes to, say, fair trade coffee.
On Thursday, an article in the New York Times suggested this dynamic might be changing. "The revolution that has swept the food industry is expanding to retail: origins matter," the report began optimistically. Citing the catastrophic events in Bangladesh as a catalyst, the article went on to provide several examples of new labeling and transparency in the clothing industry. A coalition of retailers that includes giants like Nike and Walmart, for instance, is developing an index to measure the labor, social, and environmental impact of their supply chains. The paper adds:
New research indicates a growing consumer demand for information about how and where goods are produced. A study last year by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard showed that some consumers - even those who were focused on discount prices - were not only willing to pay more, but actually did pay more, for clothes that carried signs about fair-labor practices.
But there's good reason to keep your optimism in check. The study cited by the Times, which only tested whether an "ethical" label made people more inclined to buy goods priced equally, found that "[a]mong customers shopping for lower priced women's and men's items, labels with information about labor standards (or information about other product attributes besides price) had no statistically significant impact on sales." The labels only had a positive effect on sales for one group: female shoppers looking for more expensive items.
And the findings appear bleaker when you compare them to what we know about the way consumers approach fair trade coffee. When it comes to coffee, this and other studies note that not only are people far more likely to opt for fair trade products, but they are also sometimes willing to pay more for fair trade, making the label attractive for companies. As with clothing, shoppers looking for savings are unlikely to pay a high premium for fair trade coffee. But they still opt for fair trade when price differences are minor.
In a blog post earlier this month, Stephan Manning, an assistant professor of management at the University of Massachusetts Boston, addressed the question of why people may care more about the origins of the coffee they're drinking than the clothing they're wearing. After all, he notes, labor and environmental concerns about the coffee industry in the 1970s and 80s led to profound shifts in consumer and retailer practices. By 2015, Starbucks, the world's biggest coffee company, will be 100-percent fair trade. It's hard to imagine the same being true of Walmart in 10 years. Manning continues:
So why is it that certification seems to work in coffee, but not in clothing? Why is it that sustainability standards in coffee look way beyond health and safety issues, whereas the Clean Clothes Campaign and their partner organizations struggle to get major fashion brands to sign very basic agreements, such as the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement which would promote independent inspections of supplier factories, public reporting, training and mandatory repairs and renovations?
Manning puts forward a couple of theories. First, coffee is a good where quality inherently matters to most consumers (because we literally consume it), which may go a long way in explaining why we are willing to shell out more for the stuff. It's a theory echoed by the MIT/Harvard study, which suggests that one of the reasons people are attracted to fair trade is because they associate higher quality with the product. We tend to value clothes for a host of attributes that go beyond quality, including style, cut, and color.
Manning also points out that "unlike the café latte which consumers might enjoy while looking at a poster of happy coffee farmers, the aesthetic value of a piece of clothing is quite unrelated to the purchasing experience." We wear clothes outside of the store, where it's all too easy to forget their origins.
Another study mentioned by the Times -- entitled, "Sweatshop labor is wrong unless the shoes are cute: Cognition can both help and hurt moral motivated reasoning" -- seems to support Manning's hypotheses. The study "found that the complex supply chain in retailing made it easier for consumers to justify poor labor practices," the Times explains. While people may theoretically oppose poor labor practices (and even find themselves outraged and horrified at the images coming out of Bangladesh), they manage to put their morals aside when they come across a pair of cute shoes.
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