Friday, October 31, 2014

Surprise stimulus move by Bank of Japan; Amazon rainforest deforestation at tipping point; Middle age as the best time of life

1 Surprise stimulus move by Bank of Japan (BBC) Japan's central bank has surprised markets by announcing an expansion of its monetary stimulus policy. The Bank of Japan said it would increase its asset buying programme to 80 trillion yen ($726bn) a year, up from the previous rate of 60-70 trillion yen. Japan's economy is currently experiencing weak growth and inflation.

The bank's decision to increase its stimulus measure comes in the same week that the US Federal Reserve ended its policy of quantitative easing. The BOJ's move was made amid weak domestic demand following an April sales tax hike, and concerns that lower oil prices would affect consumer prices. At a news conference following the central bank's meeting, BOJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda said it was a "critical moment for Japan to emerge from deflation".

Japan has struggled with deflation, or falling prices, for more than 15 years - a situation which has led to stagnant economic growth. Private consumption makes up some 60% of Japan's economic activity and deflation trends in the country have seen consumers hold onto their money in the hope of even lower prices later on. A sales tax hike made in April may have had an adverse impact on the economy, too, hurting the nation's purchasing power. The BOJ's inflation target is 2%.

2 Amazon rainforest deforestation at tipping point (Jonathan Watts in The Guardian) The Amazon rainforest has degraded to the point where it is losing its ability to benignly regulate weather systems, according to a stark new warning from one of Brazil’s leading scientists.

In a new report, Antonio Nobre, researcher in the government’s space institute, Earth System Science Centre, says the logging and burning of the world’s greatest forest might be connected to worsening droughts – such as the one currently plaguing São Paulo – and is likely to lead eventually to more extreme weather events.

A draft warns that the “vegetation-climate equilibrium is teetering on the brink of the abyss.” If it tips, the Amazon will start to become a much drier savanna, which calamitous consequences. The Amazon works as a giant pump, channeling moisture inland via aerial rivers and rainclouds that form over the forest more dramatically than over the sea, the author says. It also provides a buffer against extreme weather events, such as tornados and hurricanes.

In the past 20 years the Amazon has lost 763,000 sq km, an area the size of two Germanys. In addition another 1.2m sq km has been estimated as degraded by cutting below the canopy and fire. As a result, the deterioration of the rainforest has resulted in a decrease in forest transpiration and a lengthening of dry seasons.

Whether the government listens, however, is another matter. Forest clearance has accelerated under Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, after efforts to protect the Amazon were weakened. Last month, satellite data indicated a 190% surge in deforestation in August and September. The influence of the “ruralista” agribusiness lobby in Congress has also grown in recent years, making it harder for the authorities to push through new legislation to demarcate reserves.

3 Middle age as the best time of life (Sushmita Bose in Khaleej Times) If there is anything that confounds me more than the sneering way middle-agers are treated, it is the very definition of middle age. What is middle age?

It should, ideally, be that cusp that lies somewhere in the middle of your well-spent life. So, if you had been born in the Bronze and Iron Ages, you could have had a midlife crisis while you were about 12 or 13. General life expectancy was 26. Today, the global median for life expectancy is about 67, so middle age should set in around 32-33, right? But why doesn’t it? Just the other day, I heard someone say something about “young people” in the age bracket of 20 to 44. Huh?

And there’s some more confusion. Life expectancies vary from country to country. In the UAE, it is pegged at around 77. In the UK, 81. In India, it’s 66. Despite the world’s ageist ambivalence middle age is a comforting thought. It’s a buffer. That ground which you can stretch as you will, given the bundle of contradictions it espouses, to soak up your (remaining) youthful energy and prep you up for the stepping into the sphere of silver linings.

I leave you with a quote by Theodore Roosevelt to ponder over: “The only time you really live fully is from 30 to 60. The young are slaves to dreams; the old, servants of regrets. Only the middle-aged have all their five senses in the keeping of their wits.”

Thursday, October 30, 2014

UN sees foreign jihadists swarming Iraq, Syria; Russia, Ukraine agree on gas deal; The good and bad of falling oil price; India red tape gets longer

1 UN sees foreign jihadis swarming Iraq, Syria (Spencer Ackerman in The Guardian) The United Nations has warned that foreign jihadists are swarming into the twin conflicts in Iraq and Syria on “an unprecedented scale” and from countries that had not previously contributed combatants to global terrorism.

A report by the UN security council finds that 15,000 people have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State (Isis) and similar extremist groups. They come from more than 80 countries, “including a tail of countries that have not previously faced challenges relating to al-Qaida”. The UN said it was uncertain whether al-Qaida would benefit from the surge. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida who booted Isis out of his organisation, “appears to be maneuvering for relevance”, the report says.

“Numbers since 2010 are now many times the size of the cumulative numbers of foreign terrorist fighters between 1990 and 2010 – and are growing,” says the report, produced by a security council committee that monitors al-Qaida. In recent months, Isis supporters have appeared in places as unlikely as the Maldives, and its videos proudly display jihadists with Chilean-Norwegian and other diverse backgrounds.

The UN report, an update on the spread of transnational terrorism and efforts to staunch it, validates the Obama administration’s claim that “core al-Qaida remains weak”. But it suggests that the decline of al-Qaida has yielded an explosion of jihadist enthusiasm for its even mightier successor organizations, chiefly Isis. Those organisations are less interested in assaults outside their frontiers. But the report indicates that more nations than ever will face the challenge of experienced fighters returning home from the Syria-Iraq conflict.

2 Russia, Ukraine agree on gas deal (BBC) Russia has agreed to resume gas supplies to Ukraine over the winter in a deal brokered by the European Union. The deal will also ensure gas supplies to EU countries via Ukraine are secure. "There is now no reason for people in Europe to stay cold this winter,'' said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

The deal follows months of talks between EU officials and the Russian and Ukrainian energy ministers. The terms include the EU acting as guarantor for Ukraine's gas purchases from Russia and helping to meet outstanding debts. The total package is worth $4.6bn, with money coming from the International Monetary Fund as well as the EU. The total includes funds from existing accords with the EU and IMF.

Gas supplies were halted over late payments when Russia scrapped subsidies given to Ukraine for importing gas, meaning the price paid by Ukraine rose sharply. However, the backdrop to the row is Russia's conflict with Ukraine and Western sanctions on Moscow. Ukraine has relied on Russia for around 50% of its gas. Despite storage facilities Ukraine has a winter shortfall of around 3 billion to 4 billion cubic metres of gas, analysts say.

3 The good and bad of falling oil price (Talmiz Ahmad in Khaleej Times) In October, oil prices plunged to below $ 85/barrel in the first fortnight, yielding a cumulative fall of nearly 30 percent since June. The global economic slowdown is the principal culprit: with China’s growth projected at around seven percent next year, increase in oil demand is negligible.

The fall in prices has triggered two competing “grand strategy” scenarios. One scenario emerges from the negative impact of the price falls on the economies of US adversaries Russia and Iran. The advocates of this scenario believe that the pressures generated by low prices would make them more accommodative in their engagements with western interlocutors.

The other scenario sees a deliberate Saudi attempt to retard the further development of the US shale oil industry, which is crucially dependent on high oil prices of $ 80-90/barrel to sustain production. This explanation is also not convincing.

The simplest explanation is perhaps the most plausible: like most analysts, Saudi Arabia was surprised by the dramatic fall in prices. It realised that the fall was not a short term seasonal blip but emerged from changing market fundamentals. The Kingdom has opted to give priority to retaining its foreign markets, including through discounts for its Asian customers who buy two-thirds of its exports. There is no ‘’grand strategy”, merely the Kingdom coping with difficult market conditions.

The fall in oil prices constitutes a windfall for consuming countries. For consumers, the price fall will generate revenues of $1.8 billion per day or $660 billion per year. According to the IMF, this will increase global GDP by 0.5 percent; if business confidence is also boosted, the rise may be 1.2 percent. This will set the stage for increased business investment and consumer spending, and overall greater economic activity. The fall in oil prices may just pull the global economy out of its doldrums.

4 India red tape gets longer (Shefali Anand in The Wall Street Journal) Red tape in India is long and getting longer. The country has slipped again in the annual ease of doing business rankings compiled by The World Bank, which also said that last year, running a business in India was even tougher than they had originally thought.

In the 2014 report, published in October last year, India stood at 134th position. But, in its report published Wednesday for 2015, that ranking was revised down to 140th place. In other words, doing business in India last year was harder than the World Bank originally estimated.

The take home message is: India fares poorly as a place to do business. Its neighbors and other smaller nations are far ahead. Pakistan is ranked 128th, Bhutan is 125th, Indonesia is at 114. The tiny island nation of Sri Lanka stands at 99th position in the rankings and Ghana in Africa is 70th.

Consider why India ranks 184th in the category of “dealing with construction permits”. It takes an average of 186 days – or six months – in India’s major cities to get all the approvals needed to build a warehouse with basic utilities like a water and sewerage connection. In comparison, it takes only 26 days to get such a permit in Singapore, the easiest country in the world to do business. To enforce a contract in India, it takes about 1,420 days. Of this, 1,095 days, or three years, are spent in “trial and judgment” and nearly a year is spent in enforcing the judgment, says the report.

One area where India seems to have shown improvement is in protecting investors. Under its revised methodology, the report looks at how well a country protects minority investors and finds that India stood at 7th among 189 countries in the 2015 report, versus 21st in 2014.

Samsung profit lowest in three years; Despite oil price fall, Shell profit up 31%; US theatres to ban Google Glass

1 Samsung profit lowest in three years (BBC) Samsung Electronics has seen its quarterly operating profit fall to its lowest level in more than three years because of slowing smartphone sales. The South Korean company said profit fell 60% to 4.1tn won ($3.8bn) in the three months to September. Shares of the world's biggest smartphone-maker have lost nearly 20% of their value this year.

Samsung's mobile division, its biggest business, has been struggling to maintain its dominance against rivals such as Apple, which recently released the new iPhone 6. Its flagship Galaxy smartphone line has been losing market share to Chinese smartphone-makers Xiaomi and Lenovo, which sell cheaper models that also have large screens and multiple features.

Samsung said market competition is "expected to further intensify". It said the year-end surge in competitor smartphone launches "may require a potential increase in marketing expenses associated with year-end promotions".

2 Despite oil price fall, Shell profit up 31% (Sean Farrell in The Guardian) Royal Dutch Shell’s profit rose strongly in the third quarter as more profitable production and lower exploration costs helped compensate for the sharp fall in the price of oil. Shell’s core profit, excluding one-time items, for the three months to the end of September increased 31% to $5.8bn from a year earlier.

Profits fell 5% from the second quarter of this year, mainly because of lower oil prices and reduced production. Shell’s chief executive, Ben van Beurden, said: “The recent decline in oil prices is part of the volatility in our industry. It underlines the importance of our drive to get a tighter grip on performance management, keep a tight hold on costs and spending, and improve the balance between growth and returns.”

Oil companies have had billions of pounds wiped off their stock market valuations as oil prices dropped by a quarter over the past four months. The price of crude has slumped to a four-year low of about $85 a barrel as plentiful supplies have outstripped slowing slowing global demand, particularly in China.

Goldman Sachs slashed its forecast for Brent crude prices to an average of $85 a barrel for the first quarter of next year, down from its earlier estimate of $100 a barrel. In response, the oil companies are selling surplus assets and cutting costs and investment spending to support profits. Shell, Europe’s biggest oil company by market value, plans to shed $15bn of assets this year and sold $3.6bn in the third quarter, taking the running total to $11.6bn.

3 US theatres to ban Google Glass (Seung Y Lee in San Francisco Chronicle) Movie theaters across America will soon ask movie-goers to silence their cell phones and turn off their Google Glasses. The National Association of Theater Owners and the Motion Picture Association of America jointly banned Google Glass and other wearable tech devices in movie theaters Wednesday. The decision, however, is more of a policy recommendation to combat film piracy in theaters rather than an enforceable mandate.

Despite the voluntary nature of the ban, NATO — yes, the trade group calls itself NATO — expects most of its 32,000 theaters will adopt the policy. Some movie theaters, including Alamo Drafthouse, which is opening a Mission district location next year, had previously banned wearable tech devices. Google Glass advocates call the concern over piracy unreasonable.

“A smartphone is far easier to record a video or a movie with and will be much higher quality,” Robert Scoble, a tech blogger and author, said. “The battery in a Google Glass only lasts 45 minutes right now, not long enough to do a feature-length film. The fear of these is unwarranted.”

For some movie theater owners, the issue extends beyond piracy. It is about preserving the cinematic experience devoid of distractions. “Once the lights go down, the only way to watch a movie is with full, rapt attention,” Tim League, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, wrote in an e-mail. “Multitasking was invented by Satan.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

For ninth straight year, Singapore 'best place to do business'; Terminal decline for UK superstores; China property loans fall 23% in Q3

1 For ninth straight year, Singapore ‘best place to do business’ (BBC) Singapore has been ranked the best country to do business for a ninth consecutive year, according to an annual survey by the World Bank. New Zealand came second and Hong Kong third in the lender's "Doing Business" report which rates 189 nations by the ease in which firms can operate there.

The UK moved up one position to eighth while the US stayed at number seven. Eritrea was at the bottom of the table, along with Libya, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. The World Bank ranking uses metrics such as the time taken to launch and close a business, gain construction permits and pay taxes in a country's largest business city.

The survey, which was first published in 2004, was expanded this year to include the second-largest business city in countries that have more than 100 million people. There were 11 countries that were affected by this change, including China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. China advanced three places to 90th while Japan fell two spots to 29th.

2 Terminal decline for UK superstores (Joanna Blythman in The Guardian) The supermarket sector is in meltdown. An overstatement? Hardly. In the cool-headed assessment of the Grocer magazine, the most authoritative voice on UK food retail, “consumers are abandoning supermarkets in their droves”. Tesco, once the darling of the stock market, the government’s pet performing British company, is in the most acute distress. From January to June this year, its profits crashed by 92%.
Morrisons is also in a bad way – its pre-tax profit for the six months to August was halved. 

Sainsbury’s share price has dropped. Even the supposedly trend-bucking Waitrose cannot be complacent: its profits for the first half of this year slumped by 9.4%. Overall, sales at the “big four” supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – have been stagnant, or in decline, since last May, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. Rating agency Moody’s predicts that their profit margins and sales will shrink further.

Two German discount chains, Aldi and Lidl, acted as the immediate nemesis of the fat, smug, greedy status quo of British food retail. They dealt a deadly blow to our familiar chains by exposing just how expensive they really are. Before the discounters appeared, most British consumers swallowed the attractive proposition that UK supermarkets offer unbeatable value for money.

Supersize supermarket formats, “extra”-type stores are now written off by analysts as white elephants, an over-enthusiastic last century blunder. Traditional markets, small shops, farmers markets, box schemes, bread clubs, food co-ops and online enterprises are all holding their own or doing better than before. The alternatives to supermarkets not only look more attractive, but increasingly shrewd and practical.

Britain’s longstanding exclusive relationship with the supermarkets is in terminal decline as more people conclude that they have had quite enough of devoting a morning to driving to a soul-crushing store, buying the same things and paying ever more for them each week. This is no mere passing argument, but an irretrievable relationship breakdown, one built on slow-burning resentment, from which there is no way back.

3 China property loans fall 23% in Q3 (Straits Times) Banks' lending to China's property sector fell 23.3 per cent in the third quarter from the previous three months, Reuters calculations from central bank data have showed, another sign of cooling momentum in the housing market.

Chinese banks lent 570 billion yuan to home buyers and property developers between July and September this year, easing from the second quarter's 743 billion yuan and down 5 per cent from a year ago. Reduced demand for property loans reflects sluggish sales as developers struggled with high inventories and banks became more cautious about lending to developers and investors.

For the first nine months, total property loans issued hit 2.1 trillion yuan, up 213 billion yuan from a year ago, the central bank said. Outstanding mortgages by the end of September were up 17.5 per cent from a year ago, but down a shade from end June's 18.4 per cent rise, it said.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lloyds may cut 9,000 jobs; UK interest rate to stay at historic low; Reforms the real test for India's Modi

1 Lloyds may cut 9,000 jobs (BBC) Lloyds Banking Group is planning to cut around 9,000 jobs - around a tenth of its entire workforce - over the next three years, the BBC understands. The announcement is seen as part of chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio's strategic review of the business. The three-year plan is also expected to include some branch closures.

The cuts are believed to be in response to the shift of many customers from physical branches to online banking. More job losses would mark the continuing decline in headcount at the bank since its near-collapse and bailout in 2008 and 2009, at the height of the financial crisis. Since then it has axed 30,000 jobs, and announced a further 15,000 job cuts as part of a three-year plan in 2011.

The government still holds a 25% stake in the bank, but has reduced its holding from about 39% through two separate share sales since September last year. Lloyds has already divested itself of more than 630 branches through its flotation of the TSB business earlier this year. It currently operates more than 2,000 branches across the country through its remaining Lloyds Bank, Bank of Scotland, and Halifax brands.

According to the banking trade body the BBA, digital banking transactions are now worth almost £1bn a day, with almost 40 million mobile and internet banking transactions every week. The bank has returned to profitability under the stewardship of chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio. It posted its first annual profit since the financial crisis last year, although it has also been hit by Payment Protection mis-selling costs, and a multi-million pound settlement related to the Libor scandal.

2 UK interest rate to stay at historic low (Angela Monaghan in The Guardian) Bank of England policymakers have signalled that there will be no rise in interest rates soon amid slowing economic recovery and heightened risks from the eurozone. Minutes of the October meeting of the Bank’s rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee showed seven members voted to leave rates unchanged at the historic low of 0.5% they fell to at the height of the financial crisis in March 2009.

The majority of the MPC felt the risks associated with a rate rise were too great amid signs the UK recovery was losing momentum. They also believed there was little justification for an increase with inflation below the 2% target at 1.2% and persistently weak wage growth.

3 Reforms the real test for India’s Modi (Straits Times) Come next month, when the Indian Parliament sits, it will be looking to not just legislate new laws but also axe old, obsolete ones. On the table will be a Bill for repealing nearly 300 statutes that the Law Ministry is expected to submit. This is on top of another Bill for repealing 36 archaic laws that was tabled during the parliamentary session that ended last month.

This exercise is aimed not only at improving governance but, just as crucially, also at making it easier to do business in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pledged in the run-up to May's general election to fix the country's flagging economy. One way he is looking at is cutting red tape, including outdated laws, that has placed India at 134th out of 189 nations in the World Bank's "ease of doing business" ranking.

The easy ones on the chopping block include a Treasure Trove Act enacted in 1838 when India was under British rule that requires anyone who discovers treasure worth as little as 10 rupees to turn it in to the government as it belongs to "Her Majesty".

The real test of Mr Modi's resolve, however, is whether he will deal with labour laws that make it hard to fire workers, which will bring his government up against strong labour unions. Rigid labour laws have meant that more than 90 per cent of Indian workers are hired informally as firms dodge the laws. They have also led to zombie companies: loss-making state-run firms that have stopped operations but continue to pay staff. One is the British India Corporation, a textile firm that stopped operating nine years ago but whose 1,800 workers continue to clock in each workday to be paid and promoted.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

China as the wild card in world economy; Apple sells 40m iPhones in three months; US coalition-building -- on Ebola

1 China as the wild card in world economy (Neil Gough in The New York Times) Markets around the world have been jolted by fears that slowing growth and deflationary pressures in Europe, Japan and other major economies could derail the United States. But the health of China, for decades an engine of growth, has emerged as one of the most significant wild cards in the global economy.

It is hard to be certain just exactly how the Chinese economy is faring, given mixed signals in the data. Chinese inflation is at its weakest levels in nearly five years. Commodity prices are plunging. New home sales are declining. Foreign investment is contracting.

The overall economy, though, continues to chug along at a steady, albeit more modest, pace. China’s gross domestic product increased by 7.3 percent in the third quarter, compared with 7.5 percent in the previous quarter.

“The question or problem we are all facing at the moment is, ‘What is right picture for the economy as a whole?’ ” said Louis Kuijs, the chief China economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland in Hong Kong. “It’s complicated by negative forces that show up very strongly in industry but not in the service sector.”

Making sense of China’s economic health is challenging because the slowdown is partly by design. The Communist leadership has pledged to reduce China’s dependence on credit-fueled growth and investment, to instead emphasize domestic consumption. It is a risky proposal, and leaders have signaled a willingness to live with slower growth, provided employment holds up and systemic risks are contained.

“We didn’t have any new recruits this year,” Huang Xinqun, 48, a manager at a large ocean-shipping company, said last week. “Usually when the manufacturing business is not doing so well, it would be directly reflected on us,” he said. “We’re like a signal post on how the economy is doing,” Mr. Huang said. “If companies don’t have that many orders and products to transport, then we don’t have as much work.

2 Apple sells 40m iPhones in three months (Dominic Rushe in The Guardian) Apple sold a record 39.3m iPhones in the last three months, the company has said, helping the tech giant win its highest revenues of the year. Entering the Christmas shopping season, its strongest sales period of the year, Apple predicted its latest iPhones would help boost sales by at least 10% during the crucial holiday quarter.

Overall, the company’s profit rose more than 12% from a year ago, to $8.5bn. Total sales also rose more than 12%, to $42.1bn. The one blemish on Apple’s quarter came from iPad sales, which slipped 13% compared to the same period last year, the third quarter in a row that sales of the tablets have fallen.

“Our fiscal 2014 was one for the record books, including the biggest iPhone launch ever with iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus,” Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive said. Demand for the new iPhones “has been staggering”, said Cook. “At this point we are selling everything we’ve made.” The company ended the year with $155.2bn in cash and marketable securities. Revenues at Apple’s retail rose 15% to $5.1bn. Apple is planning to open 25 new stores in fiscal year 2015. Most will be outside the US.

The results were ahead of forecasts. Wall Street had predicted that Apple would sell 38m iPhones in the three months to the end of September, a 12% rise on the 34m mobiles sold by in the same period last year.

3 US coalition-building – on Ebola (Khaleej Times) After rallying dozens of nations to join the fight against ISIS militants, President Barack Obama is back in the coalition-building business — this time to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Obama is working the phones with world leaders, appealing to them via videoconference and publicly jawboning with one clear message: Stopping the deadly virus at its source is the single best way to prevent the outbreak from spreading. And that requires an infusion of additional money and resources to the hard-hit countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Obama is sending up to 4,000 troops to West Africa to supply medical, logistical and training support to the region’s overwhelmed healthcare systems. The US military also is building more than a dozen treatment centres in Liberia with hundreds of beds. The president hoped the commitment of US forces would spur other countries to follow its example. But while some countries have and continue to contribute to the effort, Obama says too many others have not, and he has been venting his frustrations with those that he says are holding back even though they have the resources to help.

Obama isn’t the only one spreading the word. The European Union has stepped up efforts to raise more than $1 billion to fight Ebola in West Africa. The president, as he works to calm the fears of nervous Americans at home, says he’s been reaching out “directly to heads of state and government, who, I believe, have the capacities to do more” to fight Ebola abroad.

Obama has discussed the issue by videoconference with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy, and they agreed to work together on Ebola to “enlist greater support from more countries” and coordinate their ground efforts, the White House said. Obama also reviewed the matter with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said late last week that a trust fund he launched to fight Ebola has just $100,000. The president also had a one-on-one conversation with French President Francois Hollande.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Britain's young as the new have-nots; Five benefits of being an introvert at work; Demand climbs for ethical hackers

1 Britian’s young the new have-nots (Daniel Boffey in The Guardian) Britain is on the verge of becoming permanently divided between tribes of haves and have-nots as the young increasingly miss out on the opportunities enjoyed by their parents’ generation, the government’s social mobility tsar claim. The under-30s in particular are being priced out of owning their own homes, paid lower wages and left with diminishing job prospects, despite a strong economic recovery being enjoyed by some.

Those without the benefits of wealthy parents are condemned to languish on “the wrong side of the divide that is opening up in British society”, according to Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister. In an illustration of how the less affluent young have been abandoned, Milburn notes that even the Saturday job has become a thing of the past. The proportion of 16- to 17-year-olds in full-time education who also work has fallen from 37% to 18% in a decade.

Milburn spoke out as tens of thousands of people, including public sector workers such as teachers and nurses opposed to a below-inflation 1% pay offer from the government, protested in London, Glasgow and Belfast about pay and austerity. The TUC, which organised the protests under the slogan “Britain Needs a Pay Rise”, said that between 80,000 and 90,000 people took part in the London march.

He said that only a radical change would save a generation of Britons buffeted by an economic downturn and condemned by a fundamental change in the labour market that left them without hope of better lives. Milburn said: “It is depressing. The current generation of young people are educated better and for longer than any previous one. But young people are losing out on jobs, earnings and housing.

“This recession has been particularly hard on young people. The ratio of youth to adult unemployment rates was just over two to one in 1996, compared to just under three to one today. Young people are the losers in the recovery to date.” The median pay of a 22- to 29-year-old, £9.73 an hour, was more than 10% lower today than it was in 2006, according to Milburn. The pay of 18- to 21-year-olds, £6.73, is 8.8% lower. Both are at the same wage level as they were in 1998.

2 Five benefits of being an introvert at work (Belo Cipriani in San Francisco Chronicle) In a competitive job market it may seem as though being an introvert may count as a strike against you. After all, extroverts seem to get everything they want. But even though it may be hard to immediately recognize, being quiet or soft-spoken can be an advantage at the office. Here are five benefits of being an introvert at work.

Colleagues get more done around you. Even extroverts need quiet time to think and be creative. By not engaging in constant chatter, introverts help colleagues stay focused. People confide in you. Whether you are a person who enjoys being a listener or not, being an introvert automatically makes you a person people can trust. You rarely speak without thinking. Although introverts can make mistakes at the office, being shy often keeps them from saying something inappropriate in a meeting, company function or industry event.

Colleagues find you very professional. Because you don’t interrupt coworkers at meetings, yell your personal plans across the office, or talk so loudly on the phone that even people in other departments can hear everything you say, colleagues find you more professional; something that will play in your favor when being considered for a promotion.

Management respects your opinion. One of the biggest pluses of being an introvert is that because you rarely comment on company culture or procedures, whenever you do speak up, people will listen. This is especially true when it comes to discussing issues with management.

3 Demand up for ethical hackers (Aw Cheng Wei in Straits Times) Calling yourself a penetration tester might invite some laughs at dinner parties, but the job of a cyber security expert is anything but funny. It is serious business.

Just ask American bank JPMorgan Chase. The names and addresses of its clients - more than 76 million households and seven million small businesses - were stolen by hackers this month in one of the worst intrusions ever.

In the fight to stay safe online, penetration testers are the necessary foot soldiers. They are external consultants or in-house workers who try to find loopholes in their employers' computer security systems before others with malicious aims do so.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

UK banks slash mortgage rates; Bishops scrap gay-friendly move; Mars for the masses

1 UK Banks slash mortgage rates (The  Guardian) The battle to tempt mortgage customers with attractive deals is heating up again as major lenders put more rate cuts into action. Barclays is preparing to offer what it said are some of its lowest ever rates, including a three-year fixed rate at 2.29%, a five-year fix at 2.85% and a 10-year fix at 3.49%. All of these deals are aimed at people with 40% deposits and come with a £999 fee.

Barclays is also cutting the rate on its innovative family springboard mortgage, which helps people with only a 5% deposit get on the property ladder by allowing their parents to put some money into a savings account which is then linked to the mortgage. The savings money is later released back to their parents with interest, provided that the mortgage payments are kept up to date.

Meanwhile, a new 0.99% deal from HSBC will be launched on Monday. HSBC has said the product, which is available for borrowers with a 40% deposit, has the lowest rate it has ever offered. The 0.99% deal is in effect a 2.95% discount off HSBC’s 3.94% standard variable rate (SVR), which lasts for two years.

Experts have put the new battle for mortgage holders’ business down to lenders looking to meet end-of-year targets as well as trying to play catch up after the introduction of stricter mortgage lending rules earlier this year, which caused some disruption to the market.

2 Bishops scrap gay-friendly move (San Francisco Chronicle) Catholic bishops have scrapped their landmark welcome to gays, showing deep divisions at the end of a two-week meeting sought by Pope Francis to chart a more merciful approach to ministering to Catholic families.

The bishops approved a final report covering a host of issues related to Catholic family life, acknowledging there were "positive elements" in civil heterosexual unions outside the church and even in cases when men and women were living together outside marriage.

But the bishops failed to reach consensus on a watered-down section on ministering to homosexuals. The new section had stripped away the welcoming tone of acceptance contained in a draft document earlier. Rather than considering gays as individuals who had gifts to offer the church, the revised paragraph referred to homosexuality as one of the problems Catholic families face. It said "people with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and sensitivity," but repeated church teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman.

The revised paragraph failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to pass. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the failure of the paragraphs to pass meant that they have to be discussed further to arrive at a consensus at a meeting of bishops next October.

A coalition of small pro-life groups, Voice of the Family, said the outcome of the meeting had only contributed to "deepening the confusion that has already damaged families since the sexual revolution of the 1960s." The gay section of the draft report had been written by a Francis appointee, Monsignor Bruno Forte, a theologian known for pushing the pastoral envelope on ministering to people in "irregular" unions.

3 Mars for the masses (Allan Jacob in Khaleej Times) Space technology is coming home to earth as mortals like us reach for the stars and settle for the planets. Nasa recently announced 1.2 million names were submitted on their website, while others signed their names on pages which were scanned and made into microscopic scale. These were then etched on two chips the size of a coin to be shipped to Mars aboard the Curiosity Rover spacecraft. The agency said people from 246 countries participated in this mass digital movement to the Red Planet.

Some weeks ago, India’s tight-fisted $74 million state-funded package for an epic journey to the mysterious planet earned plaudits. It was a cheap leap for spatial technology and its applications here on earth.The Mars Orbiter Mission was a budgeted blockbuster for it tempered expenses without lowering expectations, while its benefits for humanity must be measured once the applause has died down.

It was at once inexpensive, inhouse, innovative and got the fundamentals of exploration and human enquiry right — to probe (not conquer) a distant planet for the benefit of all people. Take the case of an auto-rickshaw (Indian commercial three-wheeler city commute vehicle) driver in the Indian city of Bengaluru who declined the fare offered by a scientist who hired him for a ride to the space organisation’s headquarters.

He gushed at how they managed to restart the spacecraft’s engine after 10 months for the final fling into the Martian orbit. The driver asked the scientist, who had by now acquired rockstar status, if he could improve the electronics of the humble rickshaw and help it survive potholes without him having to incur additional expenses on maintenance during the monsoons.

Nasa’s space shuttle missions cost $450 million per trip — and there have been 130 of them. Compare this to MOM which does not go over the head. That, however, will be of little interest to the auto-rickshaw driver who wants a less bumpier ride on the road, or the farmer who tills the field. Modern odysseys for them are about social upliftment through the wonders of technology from above. MOM’s the word for a universal space mascot. Who said Mars isn’t for the masses?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola as the next HIV; No endgame in Hong Kong; Islamic dogma and decline

1 Ebola as the next HIV (The Guardian) Britain and the US have issued stark warnings that the international community will be responsible for a substantial loss of life in west Africa and a greater threat across the world unless the financial and medical response to the Ebola crisis is intensified.

As the World Health Organisation admitted mishandling the early stages of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, US secretary of state John Kerry said a failure to respond could turn Ebola into “a scourge like HIV or polio”. Kerry criticised the international community for providing only a third of the UN target of $1bn. Kerry called on world leaders to provide cash, helicopters and treatment centres.

David Cameron wrote to the European council president, Herman Van Rompuy, to call on EU leaders to agree at a summit next week to donate an extra €1bn and to despatch 2,000 European clinicians and workers to the region within a month.

US President Barack Obama named an Ebola “tsar” to take charge of combating the virus in the US and health officials revealed they were monitoring 16 people connected to a nurse who has the virus. GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical group, said a vaccine it was working on would be “too late for this epidemic”. The death toll rose to 4,546 out of 9,191 cases in west Africa.

Médecins Sans Frontières warned that international pledges were not having any impact on the spread of the virus. Christopher Stokes, who is leading the charity’s response, welcomed pledges of help, but said they were “not having any significant impact on the epidemic and it won’t now for maybe another month or month and a half”.

2 No endgame in Hong Kong (San Francisco Chronicle) The movement for greater democracy in Hong Kong has spiraled into a volatile and dangerous crisis over three weeks with no clear endgame. Support for protesters is fast waning, as days of violent clashes between activists, their opponents and police overshadow the movement. Vast differences over political reforms divide the students and the government. Key thoroughfares remain closed.

Some protesters are digging in for the long haul at the main occupation zone, while others fight to retake ground lost to police. Against this backdrop, a government offer to negotiate with students appears highly unlikely to resolve the largest uprising since the former British colony returned to Chinese control 17 years ago.

"The endgame is nowhere in sight," said Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Short of using a high degree of force, which might exacerbate dissatisfaction among the public, it looks like neither Beijing nor the Hong Kong government has what it takes to defuse the crisis." With Beijing appearing to want to avoid both bloodshed and a compromise with the student leaders, Lam said, "we have the making of a stalemate."

3 Islamic dogma and decline (Irfan Husain in Dawn) We blame the world for our woes while feeling sorry for ourselves. The long decline of Islamic civilisation is placed at the door of scheming Westerners, and our backwardness is the fault of our colonial experience. But the reality is that much of North Africa and the Middle East was colonised by Ottoman Turkey, a Muslim empire. And our fall into despair and irrelevance began long before the heyday of European colonialism in the 19th century.

The Islamic civilisation had, until a millennium ago, been a beacon to the world in the sciences and the arts. In a period of great bigotry in Europe, Muslims had been tolerant of other faiths and had nurtured ancient Greek learning. The siege and destruction of Baghdad by the Mongol army under Halaku Khan in 1258 only hastened the decline of the caliphate as its power had dissipated long ago.

But the decline had begun earlier when Muslim rulers and clerics turned away from reason and internalised a rigid dogma. Before this hinge moment in Islamic history, the Mu’tazilah movement had influenced thought and policy with its emphasis on reason between the eighth and tenth centuries.

The enlightened view was challenged by the orthodoxy. Led by Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari in the 10th century, this school argued that “Human reason in and by itself is not capable of establishing with absolute certainty any truth with respect to morality, the physical world, or metaphysical ideas”. At around this time, the gates of ijtihad, or independent reasoning, were firmly shut.

Thus, while the printing press came into use in Europe in 1460, the Islamic world waited until 1727 before permitting its introduction. Pervez Hoodbhoy, the physicist and author of Muslims and Science, an incisive study of the decline of science in the Muslim world, has documented some depressing facts: with a population of 1.6 billion, Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in the sciences. Forty-six Muslim countries contribute a mere 1pc of scientific literature.

But while Europe went through its Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment, we are still locked into our Ashari mindset, determined to stick to a literal interpretation of the faith, and unable to restore ijtihad to its rightful place. Until we can learn the lessons of the past thousand years, we are doomed to fall even further behind.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Helping Africa to stop Ebola spread; First Japanese passenger jet in four decades; China's violent land disputes

1 Helping Africa to stop Ebola spread (BBC) The World Health Organization is to "ramp up" efforts to prevent Ebola spreading beyond the three countries most affected by the deadly virus. Fifteen African countries are being prioritised, top WHO official Isabelle Nuttall said. They will receive more help in areas including prevention and protection.

But former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said he is "bitterly disappointed" with the international community's response. Mr Annan said richer countries should have moved faster. "If the crisis had hit some other region it probably would have been handled very differently.

In Geneva, the WHO's Dr Nutall said the transmission of the Ebola virus remained intense in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - the three countries at the centre of the Ebola outbreak. There was a "spike" in the Guinean capital, Conakry, she said, and "intense transmission" in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. In the Liberian capital, Monrovia, she spoke of "significant underreporting" and problems with data-gathering making it hard to reach firm conclusions.

2 First Japanese passenger jet in four decades (Yuri Kageyama in San Francisco Chronicle) The first made in Japan passenger jet in four decades reaches a development milestone later this week. A "rolling out" ceremony in Nagoya, central Japan on Saturday will unveil the long awaited Mitsubishi Regional Jet, or MRJ, a fuel-efficient lightweight carbon-fiber composite passenger plane.
Major Japanese machinery maker Mitsubishi Heavy Industries says the MRJ90 will seat 88 people, 

while the MRJ70 will seat 76, and the planned MRJ100X will have 100 seats. The plane is billed as fuel-efficient, quiet and green, with a comfortable cabin of relatively wide seats and high ceilings. The first flight is planned for the second quarter of next year, with test flights to follow totaling 2,500 hours, and the first deliveries are set for 2017.

MRJ has received 191 orders, from All Nippon Airways, Trans State Holdings, SkyWest, Air Mandalay and Eastern Air Line with 184 additional purchase options. The MRJ is Japan's first nationally funded, domestically manufactured passenger aircraft since the YS-11, a turboprop airplane that was discontinued in 1973.

More than 5,000 deliveries of regional jets are expected over the next 20 years, according to Mitsubishi, whose aircraft division is called Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. Japan's regional rival China has two commercial jet aircraft projects underway, the first of which, the ARJ21, is now ready for delivery, according to manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, also known as Comac. The plane, with room for up to 90 passengers, had been promised for 2007, but technical problems led to years of delay.

3 China’s violent land disputes (The Guardian) Villagers in a bitter standoff with a property developer in rural south-western China burned four construction workers to death in a clash that left eight people dead, authorities have said. The incident in Yunnan province was one of the most violent land conflicts to strike the country’s vast rural hinterland in recent years, casting a spotlight on the plight and anger of residents who see their livelihoods threatened when their lands are seized by developers with the backing of local governments.

Alarmed by such violence, the ruling Communist party is expected to grant more independence to local courts in the hope of extending justice and alleviating tensions between members of the public and local governments.

State media reports said the latest dispute at Fuyou village was over land compensation. Villagers detained eight construction workers on Tuesday when the developer attempted to restart work on the site, the government statement said. The villagers then bound the workers’ hands and feet, beat them up, and poured petrol on them. The government said the villagers threw homemade petrol bombs and set fire to the petrol-drenched detainees. Four workers burned to death and two others died from unspecified injuries, it said.

The violence has not been unconditionally condemned by members of the public, many of whom are instead questioning what led to the conflict. State media, meanwhile, are blaming the local government. “It shows the local government has not made effective efforts to resolve the conflict between the developer and the villagers,” said a Beijing Times editorial, pointing out that the villagers had lost fertile lands that once provided them with handsome profits.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

UK unemployment falls below 2m; The ground shakes for the AAA-club; Vatican and the mystery behind the gay welcome

1 UK unemployment falls below 2m (BBC) The UK unemployment total has fallen below two million for the first time in almost six years, official figures show. The number of jobless people fell by 154,000 to 1.97 million in the three months to the end of August, the Office for National Statistics said. The drop, which is bigger than analysts expected, took the unemployment rate to 6%, its lowest level since late 2008.

But wage growth remained stubbornly below the current 1.2% inflation rate. In total, there are now 30.76 million people in work. Chancellor George Osborne said the fall in unemployment was "evidence that our long-term economic plan is working".

The proportion of people aged between 16 and 64 in work is now 73%, close to its all-time high of 73.2%. Over the year to the end of August, the number of unemployed people fell by 538,000, the largest annual fall since records began. But the number of people choosing not to seek work increased.

"Real pay continues to drop, carrying on the trend that began six years ago. Weak pay is bad news for household budgets, but also for the levels of income tax receipts and the UK's fiscal position," said Martin Beck, senior economic advisor to the EY ITEM Club.

2 The ground shakes for the AAA-club (Angela Monaghan in The Guardian) Finland has become the latest country to be stripped of its coveted AAA credit rating, after Standard & Poor’s downgraded it one notch to AA+. The Finnish prime minister, Alexander Stubb, described it as a “wake-up call”.

Countries including the UK and US were among those to be dealt the humiliating blow of losing the top rating after the financial crisis. Germany and Luxembourg are the only two eurozone members still worthy of AAA status, according to Standard & Poor’s.

While the three main ratings agencies – Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch – are divided on the credit worthiness of numerous countries, they are unanimous that the following are AAA rated: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland.

The world’s largest economy suffered credit rating humiliation in 2011 when Standard & Poor’s stripped it of its AAA rating. The US had been AAA rated by S&P since 1941, but the political stalemate that took the economy to the brink of default brought an end to that. Moody’s and Fitch have kept the faith however, and maintain their AAA ratings.

3 Vatican and the mystery of gay welcome (San Francisco Chronicle) It's one of the great mysteries of the meeting on family life taking place behind closed doors at the Vatican this week: Just where did the authors of a draft report come up with such ground-breaking language that gays had gifts to offer the church and that even homosexual partnerships had merit?

Officially speaking, the draft report was a synthesis of the interventions from more than 200 bishops. But conservative cardinals have said their views were not reflected in the draft, they blasted the report as "unacceptable" and said it was in sore need of an overhaul.

The most contentious passage is contained in three paragraphs of the 58-paragraph report under the heading "Welcoming homosexuals." It starts off by saying gays "have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community." There was no reference to Catholic doctrine that gay sex is "intrinsically disordered," sinful or that homosexual orientation was "objectively disordered."

There is no real way to know which bishop or bishops had proposed such ground-breaking language. The controversy over the document has crystalized the deepening divisions in the church over Francis' revolutionary agenda to make it a more welcoming place.

What remains to be seen is if Francis can ensure that the final report continues to reflect that view after all the amendments are in. None of Francis' appointees are Africans, who are among the most conservative on family issues.