‘Food Crisis’ As Low Oil Prices Cost Indian Workers Their Jobs In Saudi Arabia


Laid-off Indian workers queuing for food packets in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Low oil prices have forced the Saudi government to slash spending since last year, putting heavy pressure on the finances of local construction firms which rely on state contracts.

As a result, some companies have been struggling to pay foreign workers and have laid off tens of thousands, leaving many with no money for food let alone for tickets home.

India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj on Saturday said over 10,000 Indians in Saudia Arabia and Kuwait were facing a “food crisis” because of economic hardships, while appealing to an estimated 3 millions Indians living in Saudi Arabia for help.

“Large number of Indians have lost their jobs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The employers have not paid wages, closed down their factories,” she tweeted on Saturday.

One of the country’s two junior foreign ministers, V.K. Singh, will travel to Saudi Arabia next week.

Swaraj said on Saturday that India’s other junior foreign minister, M.J. Akbar, would take up the issue with the authorities in the two Middle Eastern countries, saying the government was monitoring the situation on an hourly basis.

“While situation in Kuwait is manageable, matters are much worse in Saudi Arabia,” she said in a tweet.

Separately, the Consulate General of India in Jeddah said on its official Twitter feed on Saturday that it had distributed 15,475 kg (34,116 lbs)  of food over the past three days to the Indian community.

It posted pictures of Indian people queuing up to collect the food packets.

The hardships faced by Indian migrants come amid rising protests about working conditions in Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of foreign workers at construction firm Saudi Oger staged a public protest in Jeddah at the weekend to demand seven months of unpaid wages, Saudi Arabia’s Arab News reported. They were dispersed by police after disrupting traffic.

Saudi Oger did not respond to a telephone call and an email seeking comment.

The Saudi government says it investigates any complaints of companies not paying wages and if necessary, obliges them to do so with fines and other penalties.


‘Bottom Wipers’ Reveal Secrets of China’s Silk Road

bottom wipes

Photograph: Hui-Yuan Yeh/ Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

It wasn’t just merchandise that was hauled along ancient China’s ‘Silk Road’: Recently discovered ‘bottom wipers’ – bamboo sticks with grimy fabric and more ‘earthy’ remains on them – revealed that both disease and animal species were inadvertently transported by traveling traders.

The sticks, found in a 2,000-year-old latrine, provided the first solid evidence that various species of parasites made the trip along the road, spreading disease from east to west, according to a recent article in The Guardian.

Originally published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (paywall), the report by Hui-Yuan Yeh, a researcher at Cambridge University, and several colleagues, notes that one of the parasites, found in feces stuck to the cloth on some sticks, was associated with the Chinese liver fluke. Because it needs marshy conditions to complete its life cycle, that 1 cm (.39 in) long parasite could not have come from the desert area around the ancient Xuanquanzhi relay station, the site of the excavated latrine.

In fact, the Guardian article said, “The Chinese liver fluke originated thousands of miles away from the arid Tamrin Basin, an area including the Taklamakan Desert – one of the harshest on earth, dubbed “the desert of death” by the Chinese. Two thousand years ago the parasite’s unfortunate host would have been a very unhappy traveler, producing symptoms including fever, griping pain, diarrhea and jaundice.

The Chinese liver fluke, which also has been associated with some kinds of cancer, presently is being studied as having potentially being useful in healing chronic wounds such as diabetic ulcers.

The Guardian noted that relay stations at oasis towns, where travelers could rest and buy food, were crucial for any traders on the Silk Road hoping to survive the desert crossing. The bone dry conditions at these sites have preserved a wealth of organic remains for archaeologists, the article said.

The large Xuanquanzhi station was excavated just over 20 years ago. It has been dated to the Han dynasty, and was in use between 111BC to 109 AD. The most celebrated finds from the site are fragments of letters and other documents – including some written on silk.

But the ‘bottom wipe’ sticks will undoubtedly prove to be among its most interesting revelations.

E-Cigs – ‘Vapes’ – Pose Their Own Risks


The past few years have seen a great – somewhat frightening – increase in the number of teens and young adults attracted to the supposedly innocuous practice of smoking electronic cigarettes – ‘vapes’, as they are commonly referred to, because they don’t generate actual smoke, but water vapors laced with nicotine and who knows what else.

Because they deliver lower of doses of known-to-be-harmful nicotine, vapes have, since they were introduced in 2004, appealed to people who wanted to quit smoking regular cigarettes and viewed them as a tempering-off approach, potentially leading to total cessation of smoking.

That sometimes works; often, though, it doesn’t.

But worse than wanna-be ex-smokers taking up vapes is the fact that significant numbers of teens have done so, too. Some just think it’s a cool thing to do. Others see it as a way of sharing an experience with friends, as reported recently by Huffingtonpost.com. (The article, quoted below,was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.)

“Hinsdale Central senior Cameron Anderson didn’t know what she was getting herself into when she picked up the seemingly harmless device. She said she was at a party at the end of last school year when she decided to try an electronic cigarette out of boredom.

“I really liked vaping at the time because of the intimacy we all had while sharing this one vape,” Anderson said.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use of e-cigarettes by middle and high school students nearly tripled from 2013 to 2014, creating a “vape culture” among today’s young people. Sherry Emery, a senior research scientist currently examining youth and adult smoking behaviors at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she thinks that teens are attracted to vaping because it’s a novelty.

“They’re teenagers. They’re going to do stuff,” Emery said. “They think it’s fun and exciting.”

Tricks of the trade

In Emery’s opinion, vaping comes with an “artisanal creativity” that includes everything from flavor combinations and fashionable devices to vape tricks and competitions.

Anderson recalled that at the party, she was initially attracted to the games that involved vaping.

“They looked like they were having a good time doing vape tricks together,” Anderson said.

Popular tricks include blowing smoke into an “O” shape and exhaling smoke through the nose. Social media sites such as Instagram and YouTube can serve as platforms for online vape-trick competitions and publicizing electronic cigarette use.

Amanda Mendez, a senior at Christ The King Jesuit College Prep, also has noticed the obsession with vape tricks.

“It’s crazy­—you will see so many Snapchat stories full of kids in the locker room or even the bathroom showing off tricks,” Mendez said.

Tricks and novelty aside, Dean Kostopoulos, who graduated from Naperville North last spring and has several friends who vape, said the attraction isn’t complicated: Teens think vaping is fun.

“Everyone feels like (vaping) is a more healthy way to smoke, but it’s more for the thrill of it,” Kostopoulos said. “Everybody thinks it’s cool.”

Easy access

Not only do many teens find them cool, but e-cigarettes are also very accessible. In Illinois, a person must be 18 years of age to purchase cigarettes, both traditional and electronic. However, e-cigs easily can be obtained by teens younger than 18 from online vendors.

And e-cigs aren’t just easier for minors to purchase; they’re also easier to conceal. Mendez said that due to the discreet appearance of e-cigs, students rarely get caught at school. Many vaping devices are designed to look like pens: compact, shiny and inconspicuous. In fact, some devices such as Cloud 2.0 and microG are marketed as unnoticeable.

“The pens tend to be made out of the same material as ordinary writing pens,” Mendez said.

According to Naperville North dean Jim Konrad, the consequences for possession of electronic cigarettes are the same as for possession of combustible cigarettes: suspension. But Konrad said he hasn’t run into many issues with student use of tobacco products.

“To be honest, we don’t have a lot of smoking violations here,” Konrad said.

Of the few violations Konrad has witnessed, one student was actually using an electronic cigarette with parental permission as a less harmful alternative to other substances.

“If the kid is going to be using something extreme or a vapor pen, obviously we’re going to choose the vapor pen as the healthier alternative,” Konrad said.

Risky business

Some use e-cigs because they think vaping is a safer alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes, and research from institutions like the Roswell Park Cancer Institute suggests that may be true. But according to Jidong Huang, another senior research scientist at UIC, the comparison shouldn’t be between electronic and combustible cigarettes or other substances, but between teens who vape and teens who don’t.

“The question is, ‘Is vaping better than not using any products?’ “ Huang said. “And the answer is no.”

Some consequences of adolescent vaping are obvious. The morning after vaping with friends at a party, Anderson said she woke up with chest pain and a sore throat. For the next month, her laugh came out as a wheeze.

“I promised myself I would never do it again in hopes that my laugh would return back to normal so I didn’t sound like a broken tuba,” Anderson said.

But some of the effects of adolescent vaping aren’t as noticeable. According to Emery, electronic cigarettes renormalize smoking, an act that has become less and less socially acceptable over the past 20 years. In actuality, electronic cigarettes have the potential to act as a gateway to combustible cigarettes.

“It makes the act of smoking less unappealing,” Emery said. “A lot of people report that while they enjoy vaping, they find themselves needing a certain level of nicotine. Vaping isn’t always going to satisfy their needs.”

Aside from nicotine, Emery explained that the products don’t have clear standards and may contain heavy metals.

“There’s a lot of variability in the safety of the components,” Emery said

Beyond that concern, vaping devices are compatible with marijuana, cocaine, THC liquids and other drugs, making substance abuse easier and less publicly recognizable for teens and young adults. The devices’ lack of transparency creates a danger for users who may not be completely aware of what’s inside the electronic cigarette.

Despite these concerns, Emery said fewer people are worried about vaping because it seems like the least problematic of many dangerous options.

“You could kind of throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘Well if (teens) are going to do something, it might as well be this,’ because it is less harmful (than other drugs), probably,” she said. “It’s all appealing to the things teens want to do. Be creative and experiment and be a bit edgy.”

In May of this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized a rule extending its authority to all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, cigars, hookah tobacco and pipe tobacco, among others. This historic rule helps implement the bipartisan Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 and allows the FDA to improve public health and protect future generations from the dangers of tobacco use through a variety of steps, including restricting the sale of these tobacco products to minors nationwide.

“We have more to do to help protect Americans from the dangers of tobacco and nicotine, especially our youth. As cigarette smoking among those under 18 has fallen, the use of other nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, has taken a drastic leap. All of this is creating a new generation of Americans who are at risk of addiction,” said HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell. “Today’s announcement is an important step in the fight for a tobacco-free generation – it will help us catch up with changes in the marketplace, put into place rules that protect our kids and give adults information they need to make informed decisions.”

A recent survey supported by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows current e-cigarette use among high school students has skyrocketed from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015 (an over 900 percent increase) and hookah use has risen significantly. In 2015, 3 million middle and high school students were current e-cigarette users, and data showed high school boys smoked cigars at about the same rate as cigarettes. Additionally, a joint study by the FDA and the National Institutes of Health shows that in 2013-2014, nearly 80 percent of current youth tobacco users reported using a flavored tobacco product in the past 30 days – with the availability of appealing flavors consistently cited as a reason for use.

Before this new rule, there was no federal law prohibiting retailers from selling e-cigarettes, hookah tobacco or cigars to people under age 18. Today’s rule changes that with provisions aimed at restricting youth access, which go into effect in 90 days, including:

  • Not allowing products to be sold to persons under the age of 18 years (both in person and online);
  • Requiring age verification by photo ID;
  • Not allowing the selling of covered tobacco products in vending machines (unless in an adult-only facility); and
  • Not allowing the distribution of free samples.

The actions being taken by the FDA will help prevent misleading claims by tobacco product manufacturers, evaluate the ingredients of tobacco products and how they are made, as well as communicate their potential risks.

The rule also requires manufacturers of all newly-regulated products, to show that the products meet the applicable public health standard set forth in the law and receive marketing authorization from the FDA, unless the product was on the market as of Feb. 15, 2007. The tobacco product review process gives the agency the ability to evaluate important factors such as ingredients, product design and health risks, as well as their appeal to youth and non-users.

Under staggered timelines, the FDA expects that manufacturers will continue selling their products for up to two years while they submit – and an additional year while the FDA reviews – a new tobacco product application. The FDA will issue an order granting marketing authorization where appropriate; otherwise, the product will face FDA enforcement.


Trump Is Urged to Ban Metal Bullets, Mandate Rubber Ones


“Rubber bullets found to maim and sometimes kill,” according to an article in Mindfully.org.

A recently retiree from a “global advisory services firm” has encouraged Donald Trump, should be he elected president, to take a bold step to “make America safe again”.

“With a presidential order,” Dr. George Koo said in an op-ed article in Asia Times, you can mandate a total ban on the use of real bullets. Only rubber bullets would be allowed.”

This would not run counter to Americans’ 2nd Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” because, he noted, “the Amendment did not specify that the arms have to come with metal bullets. Soft rubber bullets would greatly reduce fatalities.”

While detractors might argued that only the criminals would then have access to real bullets, Koo declared, “But that wouldn’t be so if you ban all domestic production and the import of real bullets into the US.

“Criminals intent on mayhem would have to smuggle in the metal bullets. Since you are planning to stop immigrants and other undesirables from entering America, they would be stopped at the border.”

The ban would also mandate, he said, “that folks could shoot each other only with rubber bullets made in the USA. No made in China rubber bullets allowed.”

He said that as well as reducing gun-related injuries and deaths, “this would become a brilliant boost to the domestic economy. Rubber manufacturing centers in the heartland of America that used to make tires can restart again and make bullets.”

He did not suggest how metal bullet makers should employ their machinery and employees when their production volume is suddenly limited to what they could export.

Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, Dr. Koo is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a director of New America Media and the Committee of 100. The latter’s web site says its mission is, among other things, to promote “constructive dialogue and relationships between the peoples and leaders of the United States and Greater China.”

Birds Lead African Tribesmen To Trees Holding Bee Hives – and Honey



 Orlando Yassene harvesting honeycombs from a wild bees’ nest in the Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique.  Credit: Claire Spottiswoode

For an undetermined period of time – probably measured in tens of thousands of years – certain traditional cultures in Africa have regularly communicated with birds who, when they trust the humans, lead them to honey-packed bee hives. The birds’ motivation is to be able to feast on insects and beeswax the bee hunters leave behind for them.

The birds, called ‘honeyguides’, indicator birds, or honey birds, “have an Old World tropical distribution, with the greatest number of species in Africa and two in Asia”, according to Wikipedia.


One species has recently been studied in Mozambique by researchers from Cambridge University. Their findings, published this month (July) in the journal Science, are said to be the most extensive ever reported on this cross-species working relationship. There are, however, two videos on YouTube (one immediately after the other) which show Africans in action communicating via special sounds with honeyguides – with the latter leading tghen the honey hunters right to trees containing hives. As they approach the ‘target’ tree, one video says, the birds vary their calls to indicated the hunters “are getting hotter” – closer to the hive-bearing tree.

This is thought to be the only instance of a species of wild birds communicating with humans, and vice versa.  (A New York Times report on the Science article called this “one of only a few known examples of cooperation between humans and free-living wild animals, a partnership that many well predate the love affair between people and their domesticated dogs by hundreds of thousands of years.”)

Claire N. Spottiswoode, a behavioral ecologist at Cambridge, acting as spokesperson for the honeyguides research team,  told The Times that the birds “advertise their scout readiness to the Yao people of northern Mozambique, a major Bantu ethnic and linguistic group, by flying up close while emitting a loud chattering cry.

“For their part, the Yao seek to recruit and retain honeyguides with a distinctive vocalization, a firmly trilled “brrr” followed by a grunted “hmm.” In a series of careful experiments, the researchers then showed that honeyguides take the meaning of the familiar ahoy seriously.

“The birds were twice as likely to offer sustained help to Yao foragers who walked along while playing recordings of the proper brrr-hmm signal than they were to participants with recordings of normal Yao words or the sounds of other animals,” The Times’ article said.

“The fact that the honeyguides were responding more to the specialized sound implies they recognize the specific information content in the signal,” Dr. Spottiswoode said. “It’s not simply a cue to human presence. It’s a signal that the person will be a good collaborator.”

John N. Thompson, a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said: “I think it’s an absolutely terrific paper. This is one of those ‘just-so’ natural history stories we’ve known for years, and now we’ve got some hard-won data to show it really is so.”

The report describes in detail the trans-species collusion to enjoy the fruits of bee labor. Bees transform gathered nectar and pollen into honey for food and wax for honeycomb housing. As honey is among the most energy-rich foods in nature, it is not surprising that bees guard it with their lives.

African bees are particularly aggressive and will swarm any intruder that so much as jiggles an adjoining branch. Even our closest relatives are loath to disturb a beehive.

The Yao know what to do to subdue bee defenses. They wedge a bundle of dry wood wrapped in palm fronds onto a long pole, set the bundle on fire, hoist it up and rest it against a beehive in a tree. When most of the bees have been smoked out, the Yao chop down the tree, tolerate the stings of any bees that remain and scoop out the liquid gold within.

Much harder for the Yao is finding the hives. That’s where the honeyguides come in. Not only can they easily flit from tree to towering tree; they have unusually large olfactory bulbs, and they are good at smelling wax, which makes up a good part of their diet.

“It’s decidedly odd to eat wax, but if you’ve got the metabolism to break it down, it’s a good source of calories,” Dr. Spottiswoode said.

Barber Gives French Prez Costly Haircuts


A recent New York Times headline bore this lead sentence: “As heads of state go, this one appears to be quite expensive.”

It was referring to the fact that French President Francois Hollande’s personal hairdresser has been paid more than $10,000 / 9,850 € (euros) per month since M. Hollande was elected in 2012. When this was reported recently in the weekly satirical paper Le Canard Enchaîné, the president reportedly was furious – claiming he was unaware his barber’s compensation is roughly the same as a government minister’s salary.

That and much more flies in the face of Socialist M. Hollande’s promise, when campaigning for his present office, that he would be a “normal” and exemplary president. Promises to significantly lower unemployment have been unmet; A government plan to alter labor laws – making it easier for employers to rid themselves of unwanted or unneeded workers, along with other loosening of labor laws – was met with months of protests across the country; and, among other things, M. Hollande’s far-from-normal entanglements with a series of women have repeatedly led the nation’s news reports.

The Times said “the new controversy — the hashtag #CoiffeurGate, “coiffeur” being French for hairdresser, was a trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday — could contribute to the image as a president who is out of touch.”

The paper further noted that M. Hollande is certainly not the first politician to encounter problems with hairdressing. In 1993, two runways at Los Angeles International Airport were shut down for two hours so then-President Bill Clinton’s Beverly Hills hairstylist could come aboard Air Force One to give him a trim. In 2007, John Edwards, a former senator, had to reimburse his presidential campaign $800 to cover the cost of two haircuts. The Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin spent tens of thousands of dollars on hair and makeup in the homestretch of her 2008 campaign.

In France, opposition center-right and far-right parties were, unsurprisingly, critical of Mr. Hollande, and while reactions in his own party were more muted, some struck a harsher tone.

“That’s a lot of money for a hairdresser, and for the French in general,” Thierry Mandon, the junior minister for higher education and research, told the LCP news channel. “For many people in France that really, really, really is a lot of money.”

Still, the revelations have yet to morph into a full-blown political scandal in France, where the financial excesses or abuses of politicians are sometimes met with a shrug. On Twitter, French observers expressed a mixture of amusement and outrage.

“When my 2,600 euros of income tax represent one week of the hairdresser’s salary #CoiffeurGate #shameful,” one user wrote. “#CoiffeurGate — ah, now I finally understand the expression ‘budgetary cuts,’” mused another. Some photoshopped royal wigsmullets or toupées onto the French president’s sparsely adorned head.

The hairdresser, identified by Le Canard Enchaîné only as Olivier B., was first mentioned in a book by two French journalists published in April that aimed to give a behind-the-scenes look at the Élysée Palace, the presidential residence.

The book identified the hairdresser as Olivier Benhamou, and said that his monthly salary was 8,000 euros. When the tabloid magazine Closer wrote an article using that information, Mr. Benhamou sued them; that case is pending.

The work contract Mr. Benhamou signed with the Élysée Palace was recently introduced as evidence in a French court as part of that case, and was obtained by Le Canard Enchaîné, which used it as the basis of its report.

Promo cost for drug with Million-Dollar Potential: $12.00-18.00


That $12-18 figure, while it hardly represents the total a pharmaceutical company might spend to promote a new drug, it does, according to Medicare’s Open Payments data for 2013, represent the amount actually spent during information-sharing lunches where doctors heard from big pharma reps about for specific medications.

The information, which came to light in a study reported last month in JAMA Internal Medicine, was a compilation of data on 279,669 doctors who received 63,524 payments relative to one drug to lower cholesterol, two to address symptoms of hypertension (high blood pressure), and an antidepressant.

Any given doctor might, over the course of a medication’s life, prescribe it thousands, if not tens of thousands of times. Collectively, doctors often do prescribe a medication enough times to make it worth millions of dollars, if not tens of millions, to its maker.

The $12-18 figure represents what pharmaceutical reps typically spent on lunch for doctors at those information-sharing sessions. And for many doctors, that’s their only opportunity to learn about a new medication. Not a bad investment for big pharma, Certainly a modest enough sum, when the potential benefit to the drug’s maker is taken into consideration.

Yes, many patients also benefit from drugs doctors first learn about over lunch with a big pharma rep.

Yet the fact remains that, according to the above-cited study, doctors are significantly more likely to prescribe a lunch-promoted drug than an alternative – even when the alternative might cost the patient (or his/her insurer, or Medicare) considerably less.

Dr. R. Adams Dudley, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, the lead author of the study, decried this “system of education for doctors” in a New York Times article on the study.

“The cost of an alternative system of drug education would be paltry,” he said.