Monday, September 7, 2009

Venezuela's Chavez drops in on Venice film festival

VENICE, Italy (AFP) – Hugo Chavez stole the show at the Venice film festival Monday as he paid a surprise visit for the screening of veteran US director Oliver Stone's documentary on the Venezuelan president.

The leftist leader was expected to walk down the red carpet at around 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) to attend the official screening of "South of the Border", a look at Chavez's role in the bottom-up change sweeping South America.

Reports began to circulate last week that Chavez would make an appearance, which appeared increasingly likely when a large delegation of Venezuelan officials and a few military men were spotted on the Lido, the festival's outlying island venue, on Sunday.

Chavez, stopping off from a world tour that has taken him to Asia, Africa and Europe, does not give details of his private visits for security reasons.

Through a series of interviews interlaced with footage from US media and official statements, Stone's documentary is out to show that Chavez is not "public enemy number one" as so often depicted on US media outlets such as Fox News.

The Oscar-winning director tells the story of Venezuela's "peaceful revolution" since Chavez came to power in 1998, and how Venezuela's transformation has had knock-on effects in the rest of the continent.

The film, which is being shown out of competition at the 66th Mostra, was enthusiastically applauded at the press showing on Sunday.

Making the documentary was a "liberating experience," Stone told a news conference on Monday.

In an attempt to counter "the media's attacks on Chavez, the movie shows very clearly the level of stupidity in the kind of broad statements" that are made about the Venezuelan leader, he said.

"We saw the sweeping change in the region, which is a very important historical phenomenon that is not talked about," said Stone, 62.

"There are many problems still, but it's a wonderful change that's happened since 2000," he added. "Social improvement has been extreme in Venezuela... the poverty rate has been cut in half, this is admitted by the World Bank."

"In South America you have social movements from below," said Tariq Ali, who wrote the screenplay.

When leaders such as Bolivia's Evo Morales, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Paraguay's Fernando Lugo and Chavez "win elections and they actually start helping people, that surprises Europeans and North Americans because they're not used to that," Ali said.

Stone, 62, interviews each of these leaders, all of whom came from the bottom rungs of society, in "South of the Border."

For his admirers, Chavez, who grew up in a peasant family, is an emblematic figure of bottom-up change, says Stone, who directed the 2003 film "Comandante" about Cuba's Fidel Castro and the Central America war movie "Salvador" in 1986.

Interviewed by Stone, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner says in the film: "It is the first time in history that the leaders of so many countries look like the people they govern."

The film presents "a movement in South America to a continent (North America) that is unaware of it," Ali said.

"Why has there been so much hostility to Chavez? Because he challenged the Washington consensus, saying that the neo-liberal economy was not in the interests of the poor in South America."

by Gina Doggett

Mass murder at 30,000 feet: Islamic extremists guilty of airline bomb plot

Three men were found guilty today of conspiracy to murder thousands of passengers and crew in an unprecedented airline bomb plot that could have proved as deadly as the 9/11 attacks.

After a retrial at Woolwich Crown Court, jurors found the ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed, and two other men, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain, guilty of plotting to blow up airliners en route from Heathrow to the United States.

Another defendant, Umar Islam, was found guilty of a more general charge of conspiracy to murder because jurors could not decide whether he knew of the specific targets in the plot three years ago.

Four other men, Arafat Khan, Ibrahim Savant and Waheed Zaman, were found not guilty of conspiracy to blow up aircraft but could face a retrial on the more general conspiracy to murder charge because jurors could not reach a verdict.

The eighth defendant, Muslim convert Donald Stewart-Whyte, was found not guilty on all charges but had pleaded guilty to a firearms offence.

Ali, 28, was the leader of an East London terror cell inspired by al-Qaeda, the court heard. He had planned to detonate home-made liquid bombs in suicide attacks on transatlantic aircraft bound for major north American cities.

It was the most complex and daring British-based terrorist conspiracy in modern times and could have caused thousands of deaths in the air and on the ground.

Counter-terrorist police, the security services and prosecutors spent more than £35 million foiling the plot and bringing Ali to justice.

The arrest of the gang in August 2006 sparked tight restrictions on carrying liquids on to aircraft that led to travel chaos and which remain largely in place three years later, although detectives complained that their operation had been compromised by the fact that news of the plot had leaked out from Washington first.

The guilty verdict will come as an enormous relief for Government ministers who endured heavy criticism for introducing the draconian luggage restrictions.

It will also be seen as a vindication of the decision to retry Ali after he was found guilty of conspiracy to cause explosions last September. The previous jury at the South London court failed to reach verdicts on the specific airline plot.

British-born Ali, of Walthamstow, was inspired by the July 7 bombers and Osama bin Laden and considered taking his baby son on his suicide mission.

He planned to smuggle home-made bombs disguised as soft drinks on to passenger jets run by United Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada.

The hydrogen peroxide devices would have been assembled and detonated in mid-air by a team of suicide bombers.

Ali singled out seven flights to San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, Washington, New York and Chicago that departed within two-and-a-half hours of each other.

Authorities on both sides of the Atlantic would have been left powerless to stop the destruction once the first bomb exploded.

Police said the plot was drawn up in Pakistan with detailed instructions passed to Ali during frequent trips to its lawless border with Afghanistan.

They believe a mystery al-Qaeda bombmaker was responsible for the ingenious liquid bomb design, concealed within 500ml Oasis or Lucozade bottles.

Surveillance teams watched Ali on his return to Britain as he assembled his terror cell, gathered materials and identified targets.

Undercover officers looked on as the unemployed former shop worker used cash to purchase a £138,000 second-floor flat in Forest Road, Walthamstow.

They planted a secret bug that revealed it was converted into a bomb factory where Ali met others to construct the bombs.

The flat was also used as a location for Ali and others to record suicide videos threatening further attacks against the West.

In his video Ali warned the British public to expect "floods of martyr operations" that would leave body parts scattered in the streets.

Ali was watched as he used public phone boxes, mobile phones and anonymous e-mail accounts to keep in touch with mystery terrorist controllers in Pakistan.

On his arrest, he was found to be carrying an elaborate and damning blueprint for the plot scrawled in a battered pocket diary. Airport security arrangements and details of flights, including the seven highlighted services, were discovered on a computer memory stick in another pocket.

All the defendants except Mr Stewart-Whyte, a Muslim convert, admitted conspiracy to cause a public nuisance and will be sentenced next Monday.

The jury took a total of 54 hours and 11 minutes to reach their verdicts in the retrial.

Ali, wearing a dark blue sweater, showed no emotion as the verdicts were read out, while Hussain nodded his head as the verdicts were read and shrugged his shoulders as he left the secure dock at the back of the court.

Mr Stewart-Whyte looked to the ground as he was cleared before smiling.

Judge Mr Justice Henriques thanked the jury for their service over the last six months of the trial and encouraged them to attend the sentencing hearing on Monday.

Charges in full

Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain

Guilty of conspiracy to cause explosions on aircraft, conspiracy to murder, conpsiracy to cause explosions and conspiracy to cause public nuisance.

Umar Islam

Guilty of conspiracy to murder; conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. Jury failed to reach a verdict on conspiracy to cause explosions on aircraft.

Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Khan, Waheed Zaman

Guilty of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. Not Guilty of conspiracy to cause explosions on aircraft. Jury failed to reach verdicts on conspiracy to murder.

Donald Stewart Whyte

Not guilty of conspiracy to cause explosions on aircraft and conspiracy to murder. Admitted firearms and cannabis possession charge.


Airlines rachet up prevention to target swine flu

Airlines are stowing pillows and blankets, and rolling out the disinfectant wipes to discourage transmission of the swine flu virus, all the while stressing planes are as "safe" as trains or schools.

"The role of aircraft in spreading infection from one part of the world to the other is well established. The airplane is a vehicle for transmission," said William Schaffner, head of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University medical school.

"I'm not sure that the companies can do very much. I think it's a very difficult situation," he said as the swine flu, which first hit Mexico hard, continued to harm a travel industry already hit by global economic woes.

More than 10 percent of flights between the United States and neighboring Mexico have been cancelled since September 2008, according to the Official Airline Guide.

Given the possibility they will welcome passengers who are feverish, coughing and contagious, airlines have no desire to play doctor -- but they are ready to stop a flight if necessary.

"Airlines do have an obligation to report incidents of suspected communicable diseases and airlines have the discretionary authority and follow well established procedures to deny boarding if they come across a medically unstable passenger with a serious communicable disease," said Victoria Day, spokeswoman for the Air Transportation Association.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sets the policy.

"Airlines are not medical experts, so we look to the CDC to provide guidance," Day said.

Some months ago the CDC recommended that "non-essential trips" to Mexico not be taken at that time, though they were not banned.

"We are not in the business of diagnosing customers for illness," Southwest spokesman Paul Flaningan said.

"Our crews are trained to respond to sick or infirm customers at the gate and in flight. We have access to medical personnel 24/7 to help us with customers who become ill and need immediate medical attention. If someone exhibits signs of illness before a flight, we will work with medical personnel to identify the appropriate course of action," he stressed.

Some carriers such as Southwest and Virgin America have dropped the use of blankets and pillows, at least on daytime flights.

"We've introduced antibacterial hand wipes, antibacterial gel on planes and at airports for crew and guest use," said Virgin America spokeswoman Patrica Condon, whose company also is offering masks for those who want them.

It is a precaution of moderate usefulness, experts say.

"The seats, and pillows and the blankets are really not very important in transmitting influenza," said Schaffner. And "the usefulness of masks is not well determined."

"It is really impossible to prevent the transmission a virus of the respiratory tract, because you cannot identify who is infected," he stressed.

Schaffer noted that in Asia, authorities have tried to take the temperature of people getting on planes to try to pick out people who are sick and might have a fever; it was attempted with SARS and H1N1.

"That's an interesting system, but it's very imperfect. The machines are not perfect," Schaffner said.

Airlines meanwhile stress that in-cabin air quality is nothing to sneeze at.

"The air inside an airplane is completely exchanged with outside air 10 to 15 times per hour. The air in the average office building is exchanged only once or twice per hour," the ATA stresses.

"We want people to understand that if you do travel there is no greater risk of traveling by air than there is going to school or work using public transportation," the association says.

China alarmed by US money printing

The US Federal Reserve's policy of printing money to buy Treasury debt threatens to set off a serious decline of the dollar and compel China to redesign its foreign reserve policy, according to a top member of the Communist hierarchy.

Cheng Siwei, former vice-chairman of the Standing Committee and now head of China's green energy drive, said Beijing was dismayed by the Fed's recourse to "credit easing".

"We hope there will be a change in monetary policy as soon as they have positive growth again," he said at the Ambrosetti Workshop, a policy gathering on Lake Como.

A worker smokes in front of a billboard featuring a US dollar banknote on a street in Taiyuan
Working for the Yankee dollar: Beijing is said to be dismayed by the Fed's recourse to 'credit easing' Photo: Reuters

"If they keep printing money to buy bonds it will lead to inflation, and after a year or two the dollar will fall hard. Most of our foreign reserves are in US bonds and this is very difficult to change, so we will diversify incremental reserves into euros, yen, and other currencies," he said.

China's reserves are more than – $2 trillion, the world's largest.

"Gold is definitely an alternative, but when we buy, the price goes up. We have to do it carefully so as not to stimulate the markets," he added.

The comments suggest that China has become the driving force in the gold market and can be counted on to
buy whenever there is a price dip, putting a floor under any correction.

Mr Cheng said the Fed's loose monetary policy was stoking an unstable asset boom in China. "If we raise interest rates, we will be flooded with hot money. We have to wait for them. If they raise, we raise.

"Credit in China is too loose. We have a bubble in the housing market and in stocks so we have to be very careful, because this could fall down."

Mr Cheng said China had learned from the West that it is a mistake for central banks to target retail price inflation and take their eye off assets.

"This is where Greenspan went wrong from 2000 to 2004," he said. "He thought everything was alright because inflation was low, but assets absorbed the liquidity."

Mr Cheng said China had lost 20m jobs as a result of the crisis and advised the West not to over-estimate the role that his country can play in global recovery.

China's task is to switch from export dependency to internal consumption, but that requires a "change in the ideology of the Chinese people" to discourage excess saving. "This is very difficult".

Mr Cheng said the root cause of global imbalances is spending patterns in US (and UK) and China.

"The US spends tomorrow's money today," he said. "We Chinese spend today's money tomorrow. That's why we have this financial crisis."

Yet the consequences are not symmetric.

"He who goes borrowing, goes sorrowing," said Mr Cheng.

It was a quote from US founding father Benjamin Franklin.

Lost world of fanged frogs and giant rats discovered in Papua New Guinea

Bosavi Woolly Rat
The Bosavi woolly rat had no fear of humans when it was discovered. Photograph: Jonny Keeling/BBC

A lost world populated by fanged frogs, grunting fish and tiny bear-like creatures has been discovered in a remote volcanic crater on the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea.

'A giant woolly rat never before seen by science' Link to this audio

A team of scientists from Britain, the United States and Papua New Guinea found more than 40 previously unidentified species when they climbed into the kilometre-deep crater of Mount Bosavi and explored a pristine jungle habitat teeming with life that has evolved in isolation since the volcano last erupted 200,000 years ago. In a remarkably rich haul from just five weeks of exploration, the biologists discovered 16 frogs which have never before been recorded by science, at least three new fish, a new bat and a giant rat, which may turn out to be the biggest in the world.

The discoveries are being seen as fresh evidence of the richness of the world's rainforests and the explorers hope their finds will add weight to calls for international action to prevent the demise of similar ecosystems. They said Papua New Guinea's rainforest is currently being destroyed at the rate of 3.5% a year.

"It was mind-blowing to be there and it is clearly time we pulled our finger out and decided these habitats are worth us saving," said Dr George McGavin who headed the expedition.

The team of biologists included experts from Oxford University, the London Zoo and the Smithsonian Institution and are believed to be the first scientists to enter the mountainous Bosavi crater. They were joined by members of the BBC Natural History Unit which filmed the expedition for a three-part documentary which starts tomorrow night.

They found the three-kilometre wide crater populated by spectacular birds of paradise and in the absence of big cats and monkeys, which are found in the remote jungles of the Amazon and Sumatra, the main predators are giant monitor lizards while kangaroos have evolved to live in trees. New species include a camouflaged gecko, a fanged frog and a fish called the Henamo grunter, named because it makes grunting noises from its swim bladder.

"These discoveries are really significant," said Steve Backshall, a climber and naturalist who became so friendly with the never-before seen Bosavi silky cuscus, a marsupial that lives up trees and feeds on fruits and leaves, that it sat on his shoulder.

"The world is getting an awful lot smaller and it is getting very hard to find places that are so far off the beaten track."




據《Mental floss》最新一期報導,與馬英九並列為5大全球最具膽識領袖的還有德國總理默克爾、烏干達總統穆塞維尼、巴西總統魯拉與智利總統巴切萊特。