Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Survey challenges Western perception of Islam

Feb 27, 2008

WASHINGTON - A HUGE survey of Muslims conducted over six years and three continents that was presented here on Tuesday threatens to turn preconceived Western notions equating Islam with radicalism and violence on their heads.

'What we discovered is that Muslims don't hate Western freedoms and democracy,' said Dr John Esposito, co-author of the book 'Who Speaks for Islam', which arose from the study and will be published next month.

The Gallup polling agency launched the study shortly after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, after which US President George W. Bush asked in a speech: 'Why do they hate us?' 'They hate ... a democratically elected government,' President Bush offered as a reason.

'They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.'

Contrary to that speech, the poll, which was conducted over a sample representing 90 per cent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, showed that most Muslims, including a small minority of radicals, in fact admire the West for its democracy, freedoms and technological prowess.

'Muslims want self-determination'
What they do not want is to have Western ways forced on them.

'Muslims want self-determination, but not an American-imposed and -defined democracy. They don't want secularism or theocracy. What the majority wants is democracy with religious values,' said Dr Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

About 93 per cent of the world's Muslims are moderates and only seven percent are politically radical, according to the poll, which rattles many of the stereotypes held by Westerners of radical Muslims.

It shows radicals to be neither more religious than their mainstream, moderate counterparts, nor products of poverty or refugee camps.

'The politicised radicals are better educated, have better jobs, and are more hopeful with regard to the future than mainstream Muslims,' Dr Esposito said.

'Ironically they believe in democracy even more than many of the mainstream moderates do, but they're more cynical about whether they'll ever get it.'

Interviews conducted in 40 countries
The ground-breaking study interviewed Muslims in rural and urban areas in 40 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

'A billion Muslims should be the ones that we look to, to understand what they believe, rather than a vocal minority,' Dalia Mogahed, co-author of the book and director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies.

The poll is part of the Gallup World Poll, which aims to survey 95 per cent of the world's population. -- AFP

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Urinary tract infections may come from pets

NEW YORK - PICKING up an E. coli bug from your pet might lead to a urinary tract infection, according to Minneapolis-based researchers.

'Sharing of E. coli strains among humans and pets within a household, including strains that can cause urinary tract infections, is extremely common,' Dr James R. Johnson told Reuters Health.

Harbouring the same strain of the bug implies that it is passed from one person or animal to another.

Dr Johnson and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota investigated the extent to which E. coli strains were shared between humans and pets in 63 households. They identified 152 people, 48 dogs, 26 cats, and 2 other animals that had stool samples that tested positive for E. coli. Five of the humans had an acute urinary tract infection.

In the Journal of Infectious Diseases, the researchers report that the same strain of E. coli was shared by several of the inhabitants within a household in 68 per cent of the domiciles. That included three of the five households in which one person had a urinary tract infection.

Given the high rate of E. coli strain sharing, Johnson concluded: 'If future research shows that this process increases the risk of urinary tract infection for household members, this could lead to new options for preventing such infections.' -- REUTERS

[People should stop having sex with their pets!]

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Snap! Scientists make a self-healing rubber band

Feb 21, 2008

CHICAGO - ANYONE who has heard the snap of a rubber band breaking knows it's time to reach for a replacement.

But a group of French scientists have made a self-healing rubber band material that can reclaim its stretchy usefulness by simply pressing the broken edges back together for a few minutes.

The material, described on Wednesday in the journal Nature, can be broken and repaired over and over again.

It is made from simple ingredients - fatty acids like those found in vegetable oils, and urea, a waste compound in urine that can be made synthetically.

The material would be an asset to industry and might even help shed light on the physics of elasticity, wrote Philippe Cordier and colleagues at the Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution in Paris.

Standard rubber bands, which can stretch up to several hundred percent then then snap back into shape, are made from long chains of cross-linked polymers.

The new material is linked by short chains of a type of molecule called ditopic, which can associate with two other molecules, and multitopic molecules, which can associate with more than two molecules.

This network of molecules is strengthened by hydrogen bonds that allow the material to stretch up to several hundred per cent, then snap back into shape.

If severed, the material mends itself when the ends are pressed together at room temperature, allowing these bonds to re-form.

'The mended samples are able to sustain large deformations and recover their shape and size when stress is released,' Mr Cordier and his colleagues wrote.

The material can 'withstand multiple fractures, needs no catalysts and is otherwise straightforward to produce,' Justin Mynar and Takuzo Aida of the University of Tokyo wrote in an accompanying article.

'A final blessing is that it can be broken down with heat and easily recycled - so it is environmentally friendly, too.' -- REUTERS

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stem cells help rats recover function after stroke

Feb 20, 2008

WASHINGTON - TRANSPLANTING brain cells produced from human embryonic stem cells helped fix stroke damage in the brains of rats, according to scientists who hope to test the same thing in people within about five years.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

US team makes gecko-inspired adhesive bandage

Feb 19, 2008

CHICAGO - SCIENTISTS have long admired the gecko lizard for its gravity-defying feet. Now United States researchers have made a waterproof bandage inspired by the sticky surface of a gecko's paws.

The finding, published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could be used in the operating room in surgeries or to repair wounds.

'What we did was to mimic what the gecko does,' Professor Robert Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a telephone interview.

Prof Langer and colleague Jeff Karp of Harvard Medical School used computer technology to sculpt extremely tiny hills and valleys on the surface of the bandage to grip the underlying tissue, improving its adhesion.

The bandage is made of a biorubber material invented by Prof Langer, Dr Karp and others.

While different teams have created gecko-inspired glues that could be used in dry environments, the bandage would be suitable for use in wet environments, such as in heart, bladder or lung tissue.

It is biodegradable, so it could be left inside the body.

'There is a big need for a tape-based medical adhesive,' Dr Karp said in a statement.

He said such adhesives must stick well when wet without causing undue inflammation or toxic effects. They also must be flexible.

To make it sticky on wet surfaces, Prof Langer and Dr Karp added a thin layer of a sugar-based glue to the tape. In tests on samples of pig intestines, the glue was twice as strong as adhesives with no pattern.

Prof Langer said the bandage could be used to prevent leaks in gastric bypass surgeries or they could be used to augment sutures or staples.

'You could also put drugs in these and use them as drug or cell-delivery mechanisms,' he said. -- REUTERS

[Comment: Or you can try to be Spiderman!]

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fast-food binge harms liver, but boosts good cholesterol

Feb 14, 2008

PARIS - A MONTH-long diet of fast food and no exercise led to dangerously high levels of enzymes linked to liver damage, in an unusual experiment inspired by the docu-movie 'Supersize Me.'

But investigators, reporting their findings on Thursday, were also stunned to find that a relentless regimen of burgers, fries and soda also boosted so-called good cholesterol, seen as a key measure of cardiovascular health.

Researchers in Sweden asked 12 men and six women in their twenties, all slim and in good health, to eat two meals per day at McDonalds, Burger King or other fast-food restaurants over four weeks.

The volunteers were also told to refrain from exercising. The goal was to increase body weight by 10 to 15 per cent to measure the impact of an abrupt surge in calorie intake.

Blood samples were taken before, during and after the experiment to monitor levels of an enzyme called alanine aminotransferase, or ALT, a potential marker for liver damage often seen among heavy drinkers and patients with hepatitis C.

Levels of ALT increased sharply after only one week, and quadrupled on average over the entire period, said lead researcher Frederik Nystrom, a doctor at the University Hospital of Linkoping.

'The results scared me,' he told AFP. 'One of the subjects had to be withdrawn from the study because he had 10 times the normal ALT levels.'

For 11 of the 18 subjects, ALT rose to levels that would normally reflect liver damage, even among individuals who did not drink any alcohol, although no such damage occurred, he said.

Two of the individuals had liver steatosis, or fatty liver, in which fat cells build up dangerously in the liver, he said. Steatosis is associated with the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, which has taken on epidemic proportions, especially in industrialised countries.

Published in the British Medical Association's journal Gut, the study 'proves that high ALT levels can be caused by food alone,' said Mr Nystrom.

That signs of liver damage were linked to carbohydrates was another key finding, he said.

'It was not the fat in the hamburgers, it was rather the sugar in the coke,' he said.

But the most startling result implies that an intensive fast food diet might have some health benefits too, apparently from fat.

'We found that healthy HDL cholesterol actually increased over the four-week period - this was very counter-intuitive,' Mr Nystrom said.

HDL, sometimes called 'good cholesterol,' seems to clean the walls of blood vessels, removing excess 'bad cholesterol' that can cause coronary artery disease and transporting it to the liver for processing.

Mr Nystrom has yet to publish the cholesterol findings, but said they were consistent with the so-called 'French Paradox.'

For nearly two decades, scientists have wrestled to explain how the French can consume a diet rich in fats - from abundant butter, cream, cheese and meat - yet have generally low levels of heart disease and hypertension.

'The study showed that the increase in saturated fat correlated with the increase in healthy cholesterol,' he said.

The young Swedish guinea pigs ate at least two fast-food meals a day, and terminated the study once they had gained a maximum of 15 per cent in weight.

On average, they tipped the scales 6.5 kilos more, but one ballooned by 12 kilos.

Nystrom got the idea for his study from the 2004 Oscar-nominated documentary 'Supersize Me,' in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock asked doctors to monitor him over a 30-day period in which he ate at McDonalds morning, noon and night.

Doctors were so alarmed by changes in his blood chemistry - including skyrocketing levels of ALT - that they begged him to halt his experiment.

'I wasn't just inspired by the movie, I copied it to the best of my ability,' said Nystrom.

The movie helped spur a change of tack by fast-food corporations to include healthier options on their menus.

On their websites, McDonald's and Burger King highlight salads and low-fat products - alongside the classic burgers and colas - and offer guidance on balanced diets and a healthy lifestyle. -- AFP

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Monday, February 4, 2008

Cat lovers

Mice and cats. Generally, yes, the scent of a cat, even one that's a
crummy mouser, should help keep mice away. Over the millennia, mice and rats
have evolved a strong aversion to the smell of cats and other predators;
laboratory-bred rodents hundreds of generations removed from the wild will freak
out upon catching a mere whiff of cat. Unless, of course, they're somehow
reconfigured not to. In a study published late last year, for instance, Japanese
researchers reported on a strain of mutant mice they'd whipped up that lacked
certain crucial mechanisms for interpreting odors. These mice could smell cats
just fine, but didn't know they were supposed to be afraid: confronted with a
cat, they chose to investigate or even try to play rather than flee.

Another exception that proves the rule is the case of the parasite
Toxoplasma gondii, discussed here a couple years back when the topic
was a possible link between cat poop and schizophrenia. A quick recap: T.
infects a variety of mammals, including rats, but can reproduce only
when the host animal is a cat; one of its evolutionary tricks is to make
infected rats act weird, improving their odds of being caught by cats and
thereby allowing the parasite to spread. A key form of said weird behavior:
T. gondii-infected rats not only fear cat odor less, they're actually
drawn to it. So, since about a third of wild rats carry the parasite, having a
cat in the house will repel the majority of rats but might encourage some in the
minority to stop by.

[Comment: may explain human cat lovers and feeders]

From Straight Dope

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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Suharto the much-maligned leader

Feb 2, 2008

By Paul Keating
MORE than any figure in the post-World War II period, including any American president, former president Suharto, by his judgment, goodwill and good sense, had the greatest positive impact on Australia's strategic environment and, hence, on its history.

In the 40 years since he came to power in 1965, Indonesia has been the ballast in South-east Asian stability, and the foundation stone upon which Asean was built.

Mr Suharto took a country of 120 million people, racked by political turmoil and poverty, from near disintegration to the orderly, ordered and prosperous state that it is today.

In 1965, countries such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe were in the same position as Indonesia then. Today, those countries are economic and social wrecks. By contrast, Indonesia is a model of harmony, cohesion and progress. And the principal reason for that is Mr Suharto.

We can only imagine what Australia's strategic position would be like if Indonesia's 230 million people degenerated into a fractured lawless state reminiscent of Nigeria or Zimbabwe.

For the past 40 years, we have been spending roughly 2 per cent of GDP on defence - about A$20 billion (S$25 billion) a year in today's dollars. That figure would be more like seven to eight times that, about A$150 billion today, if Indonesia had become a fractured, politically stricken state.

Had General Suharto's New Order government not displaced the Sukarno government and the massive PKI communist party, the post-war history of Australia would have been completely different. A communist-dominated Indonesia would have destabilised Australia and all of South-east Asia.

So why have Australians regarded Indonesia so suspiciously, especially over the past quarter-century, when it is evident that Indonesia has been at the fulcrum of our strategic stability?

I think the answer is Timor and the wilful reporting of Indonesian affairs in Australia by the Australian press.

This rancour and the misrepresentation of the true state of Indonesian social and economic life can be attributed to the 'get square' policy of the Australian media for the deaths of the 'Balibo Five' - the five Australian journalists who were encouraged to report from a war zone by their irresponsible proprietors and who were shot and killed by the Indonesian military in Timor.

This event was sheeted back to Mr Suharto by journalists of the broadsheet press. From that moment, in their eyes, he became a cruel and into-

lerant repressor whose life's work in saving Indonesia from destruction was to be viewed only through the prism of Timor.

Rarely did journalists ever mention that Mr Suharto was president for 10 years before he did anything about Timor. He was happy to leave the poverty-stricken and neglected enclave in his archipelago to Portugal, with its 300-year history of hopeless colonisation. Mr Suharto had enough trouble dragging Indonesia out of poverty without needing to tack on another backward province.

But in mid-1975, communist-allied military officers took control in Portugal, and its colonies abroad were taken over by avowedly Marxist regimes. In Timor, a leftist group calling itself the Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of East Timor, or Fretilin, staged a coup, igniting a civil war.

When Fretilin overran the colony by force, Mr Suharto's government became alarmed. This happened at the height of the Cold War. Saigon had fallen in April that year. Fretilin then appealed to China and Vietnam for help. Fearing a 'Cuba on his doorstep', Mr Suharto reluctantly decided on military intervention.

In his 32 years as president, he embarked upon no other 'foreign' exploit. And he would not have bothered with Timor had Fretilin not made the going too rough.

Indeed, resistance leader Jose Ramos-Horta told The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996 that 'the immaturity, irresponsibility and bad judgment of the East Timorese provoked Indonesia into doing what it did'. Rebel leader Xanana Gusmao also told anyone who would listen that it had been a 'bad mistake' for Fretilin to present itself as a Marxist outfit in 1975.

But none of this stopped a phalanx of Australian journalists from reporting Indonesian affairs through the warped and shattered prism of Timor.

The Sydney Morning Herald even editorialised in favour of an Australian invasion of Timor, then Indonesian territory. That is, it urged the Australian government to invade Indonesia.

Even as late as this week, the paper claimed that the achievements of Mr Suharto's New Order government 'were built on sand'. It cited as evidence Indonesia reeling from crisis to crisis after 1998, though it knows Mr Suharto did precisely the right thing in calling in the International Monetary Fund to help, and that the IMF, operating under US Treasury prescriptions, kicked the country and Mr Suharto to pieces.

The economic decline of Indonesia after 30 years of 7 per cent compound growth under Mr Suharto had little to do with him and everything to do with the Asian financial crisis and the short- sighted and ill-informed IMF.

But more than that, Australian journalists knew but failed to effectively communicate that not only did Mr Suharto hold his country together, he also insisted that Indonesia be a secular state - that is, a Muslim country but not an Islamic or fundamentalist one. In other words, not an Iran.

One would imagine that such an issue would be a matter of high and primary importance to communicate to the Australian community. That there was on our doorstep a secular Indonesian state and not a religious one run by syariah law. And wouldn't one, in all reasonableness, give Mr Suharto full marks for keeping that vast archipelago as a civil society unrepressed by fundamentalism?

Consider what happened to us in Bali at the hands of a handful, literally a handful, of Islamic fundamentalists. Imagine the turmoil for Australia if the whole 230 million of Indonesians had a fundamentalist objection to us.

But this jaded bunch of Australian journalists could only report how Mr Suharto was corrupt because his son Tommy might have elbowed his way into some equity with an American te-

lephone company or his daughter had something to do with a road builder. In terms of the weight of Australia's interests, the deeds of Mr Suharto's public life massively outweigh anything in his private affairs.

I got to know Mr Suharto quite well. He was clever and utterly decisive, and had a kind view of Australia. The peace and order of his country, its religious and ethnic tolerance and the peace and the order of South-east Asia came from his goodwill towards neighbouring states and from his wisdom. He was self-effacing and shy to a fault. One had to tease him out of himself to get him going, but once he got going, his intellectualism took over.

Mr Suharto lived in what we would call in Australia a rather old and shabby McMansion in Jakarta. I have been there on a number of occasions. He lived as simply as anyone of his high standing could live.

But Time magazine claimed that Mr Suharto has stashed away US$30 billion odd (S$43 billion), as if those ning nongs would know, presumably so he could race off to live it up in Miami or in the Bahamas. Errant nonsense!

Mr Suharto was an Indonesian who was always going to remain an Indonesian. He lived a simple life and could never have changed that.

I do not doubt that his rapacious family had the better of him and got away with lumps of capital that they had not earned. Mr Suharto was a disciplined leader, but not a disciplined father. But to compare him with the likes of Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos is nothing short of dastardly.

The descriptions of Mr Suharto as a brutal dictator living a corrupt high life at the expense of his people and running an expansionist military regime are untrue. Even his annexation of Timor was not expansionist. It had everything to do with national security and nothing to do with territory.

Like all leaders, Mr Suharto had his failings. His greatest failing was to underestimate the nature of the society he had nurtured. His economic stewardship not only led to food sufficiency, improvements in education and health and declines in infant mortality, they also gave rise to a middle class as incomes rose.

Mr Suharto should have let political representation grow as incomes grew. But he distrusted the political classes. He believed they would not put the national interest first, had no administrative ability and were utterly indecisive, if not corrupt. He told me this on a number of occasions.

He would not let go of the reins. Partly because he did not want to lose them, partly because he really had no one to give them to.

Mr Suharto's problem was that he had too little faith in his own people, the very people he cared for most.

Whatever political transition he may have wished to have had, it all blew up on him with the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. He had no democratic transition in place, and in the economic chaos, political forces wanted him to go.

In January 1998, nearly two years after I had left the prime ministership of Australia, I flew to Jakarta to see him the day he signed the IMF agreement with then IMF managing director Michel Camdessus.

The IMF had tragically overplayed its hand the previous November, and Mr Suharto was giving it a chance to dig itself out of a hole. He had a small window of opportunity.

I thought that as a former head of government who was on friendly terms with him, I at least owed him advice of a kind I knew he would never get inside Indonesia: To take the opportunity of the IMF interregnum to say that he, Suharto, would contest the next election, but that he would not complete the term. That he would stay long enough to see the IMF reforms in place and then hand the presidency over to his vice-president.

Had he taken this advice, the process of political transformation would have been orderly. A new administration would have been in a position to set up the organs of democracy.

I discussed this issue with then Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong and then senior minister Lee Kuan Yew, both of whom had Mr Suharto and Indonesia's best interests at heart.

Both gentlemen believed that I was in a better position to broach this subject with president Suharto than either of them. For two hours, I met him in his house with his state secretary, Mr Moerdiano, and his interpreter Widodo.

Fifteen minutes into the conversation, while I was making the case why he should step down, he stopped Widodo's translation and took my advice in English directly. Mr Moerdiano said to me in an aside at the door: 'I think you have got him.'

Mr Suharto followed me to the door, put his arms around my shoulders and said 'God bless you' as I left. As it turned out, I didn't quite have him, and he hung on thinking he could slip through one more time.

But the crisis and the behaviour of the IMF and the US Treasury had marooned him. Completely determined to act constitutionally, he turned over his singular power, on his own initiative, to his vice-president to avoid any upheaval of the kind Indonesia had experienced during earlier transitions.

When Attorney-General Robert McClelland and I arrived in Indonesia for his funeral last Monday, we drove the 30-odd kilometres from the airport at Solo to the mausoleum where he would be buried alongside his wife. For not 1m of that distance was there no person present.

In some places, they would be six and eight deep, all holding their baskets of petals to throw at his cortege. They all knew they were burying the builder of Indonesian society, and all felt the moment.

How many Australian leaders would have a million or so people grieve for them beside the roadway? Mr Suharto's funeral was a tribute to what his life truly meant.

I felt honoured to have been there - but more than that, to have known him.

The writer is a former prime minister of Australia.

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