Thursday, September 17, 2009
ndia's Grand Old Party, the Congress, has asked two of its ministers to abandon a life in luxury. This happened after news washed up that foreign minister SM Krishna and his deputy Shashi Tharoor were living in two upscale hotels in Delhi because their official bungalows were not yet ready for them to move in. Both ministers say they are paying for the pricey hotel rooms from their own pockets.
But apparently embarrassed by the report, the party high command has ordered the two men to leave the hotels and move into more modest dwellings because their lifestyle "flew in the face of party's emphasis on austerity in public life." One of the two luxury loving ministers, Shashi Tharoor, is bristling with anger. "I would be ashamed if I was spending the people's money. But I'm not - I'm spending my own savings," he Twittered. Mr Tharoor, a former aide to ex-UN chief Kofi Annan, said he "needed a gym and some privacy" and the hotel gave him both.
But the newspaper that broke the story explained that it had a case against the two ministers staying temporarily in a luxury hotel even if they were paying. It wrote: "That two high-profile UPA ministers, one of cabinet rank, have been staying at five-star hotels for more than three months is not, this newspaper will maintain, a case for moral or legal rebuke. Anybody with the requisite means is within his rights to stay at a five-star hotel or build a palace unto himself. But External Affairs Minister SM Krishna at the ITC Maurya and his Minister of State Shashi Tharoor at the Taj sit against the stark backdrop of Congress exhortations on "austerity" and "sacrifice". Congress MPs are being asked to part with a fifth of their salary for drought relief (itself a meagre amount, but that's another matter) as their colleagues in the Ministry of External Affairs are running up, presumably, bills that beggar those salaries manifold. Perhaps it's pertinent to ask who should be more embarrassed - the two ministers or the party itself?"
The problem with this argument is that we are taking Congress - or any party in India - exhortations to maintain austerity seriously. Indian politicians love to preach what they don't practice. The Congress - and most national parties - have a long history of pleading its members to practice austerity, but citizens have never seen any evidence of that in real life.
So the more things change, the more they remain the same. What about the long, expensive cavalcades carrying ministers and the red and blue beacon bearing cars carrying their minions with party flags painted illegally on their number plates muscling in and out of traffic? What about the glittering political receptions? What about the wasteful adverts with pictures of ministers and lawmakers announcing the opening of a railway station or a city flyover? What about the politicians with a bevy of hangers-on travelling business class? Why then the austere righteousness over two ministers who are paying for their own accommodation in posh hotels?Shanties in front of a palace in India
The bit about Congress MPs being asked to part with a fifth of their salary is a bit of a joke anyway. "There are two ways of making politics one's vocation," sociologist Max Weber once said. "Either one lives for politics or one lives off it". In India, politicians live off politics for the most part. Apparently, the Congress party is distressed with the "extravagant lifestyle of its ministers". Do Indians even take such sanctimonious piffle seriously in a patronage-driven democracy ravaged by brazen political corruption?
Nobility cloaked in hypocrisy is the bane of Indian society. Blame should not be placed at the politicians' door alone. In a depressingly hierarchical society where the past casts a long shadow over the present, ostentation is encouraged, accepted and practised with a vengeance by the rich and the middle class alike.
People vie with each other to host flashy and vulgar weddings and functions as beggars fight for their pickings outside, reminiscent of Ryszard Kapuscinski's description of a reception that the Ethopian emperor Haile Selassie threw for visiting leaders that he attended. A sumptuous feast was on inside the venue. Outside, Kapuscinski writes, "in the thick of the night, a crowd of barefoot beggars stood huddled together. The dishwashers working in the building threw leftovers at them. I watched the crowd devour the scraps, bones and fish heads with laborious concentration." In rich and middle class India, scenes like these are tiresomely routine. Those who practice ostentation often condemn it the most. Doublespeak and hypocrisy is a national affliction; and talk is cheap. And people get the politicians they deserve.
A UN investigation has recommended a process that could land Israel in the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The probe, headed by former South African Judge Richard Goldstone, concludes that Israel "committed actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity" during its Gaza offensive in December last year.
It asks the UN Security Council to call on Israel to conduct "appropriate investigations," to monitor them, and to refer the matter to the ICC if they're deemed not to meet international standards.
The report found that the firing of rockets by Palestinian armed groups also amounted to war crimes, and called for a similar process of accountability for the Gaza authorities.
But the 34-page summary devoted much less space to the Palestinian violations, and particularly slammed what it called Israel's disproportionate use of force.
UN chief 'reluctant'
Despite the strong conclusions, there is scepticism here about how far these recommendations will go - indeed whether the matter will even get on to the UN Security Council's agenda.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon seeks 'full accountability'
The first step is for the UN's Human Rights Council which commissioned Mr Goldstone's fact-finding mission to request UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to bring the matter to the attention of the UN Security Council.
When asked whether he would do so, Mr Moon avoided answering the question directly, instead expressing support for Mr Goldstone's report.
"I have directed our staff to fully review the contents of this, upholding the principles of accountability," he told the BBC.
"I regard that in addressing all these issues, wherever and whenever there are violations of international human rights law, international humanitarian law, these issues should be addressed with a full accountability."
Mr Ban had earlier commissioned his own investigation into Israeli damage of UN institutions in Gaza.
Richard Goldstone comments on 'crimes' committed by Israeli and Palestinian forces
He reported a summary of its conclusions to the UN Security Council, but it was never made public in its entirety and was not taken up by the council for further action.
One long-time UN observer suggested the UN chief may be reluctant to deal with what could turn into a diplomatic firestorm.
"I think he feels that he burned himself with his own Gaza report, and this one is much more comprehensive and even more politically sensitive, so I think he will not be eager to do it," the observer said.
If the issue does get onto the council agenda, it seems unlikely to result in the concrete action requested.
Certainly Israel will do all it can to make sure of that.
The military operation was a result of disrespect for the fundamental principle of 'distinction' in international humanitarian law
Key extracts from UN statement
"We have to look into it, speak with the secretary general and then have a plan of action. We are not going to let it go," the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, told the BBC.
She noted that Israel had been taken by surprise by the timing and location of the announcement.
Israel has strongly rejected the report as "political, unbalanced and dishonest".
It refused to co-operate in the fact-finding mission, saying the mandate prejudged the outcome.
And it defended its own investigations carried out by the military and government ministries.
These were dismissed by Mr Goldstone as "pusillanimous" because, he said, they relied almost exclusively on testimony from Israeli soldiers and included virtually no evidence from Palestinian victims.
"I don't think we will change [because of the report]," said Ms Shalev.
"I know our Supreme Court and the ethics of the Israeli Defence Forces, and every complaint is being looked into. Hundreds are being looked into. Palestinians can bring petitions to the Supreme Court.
"I hope that our friends will support us. We don't have many, but reliable ones like the United States and the Europeans. And they will know we are looking into incidents and don't need help from the outside," Ms Shalev said.
The expectation here is that Washington, Israel's most reliable friend, would veto any UN Security Council resolution on the matter, as it has done in the past with UN resolutions to which Israel objects.
Perhaps the most that can be expected is a hearing. "There's always a briefing when you want to let off steam," said the UN observer.
But others say the significance of Mr Goldstone's report was precisely his call for accountability, and a timetable to achieve it.
Indeed, the judge stressed: "I think we should all rejoice in living in a world today where there is accountability for war crimes. There wasn't until very recently - it's a very new situation, and it's very important that there should be… no impunity for international crimes that are committed".
Press commentators across much of the Middle East say little good will come of talks held this week between Western officials and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Two Egyptian papers say Mr Netanyahu was trying to "swindle" the West with his current stance on Israeli settlements, while a Jordanian commentator accused him of "manoeuvring" and trying to delay meaningful peace negotiations.
Meanwhile, Israeli commentators have focused on the potential details of a US-Israeli agreement to halt settlement building, and what they see as a softening in Netanyahu's approach to the issue since he came to power.
HAFITH AL-BARGHUTHI IN PALESTINIAN AL-HAYAT AL-JADIDAH
The outcome of the London meeting between Netanyahu and Mitchell is not important because the Israeli government wants to continue the construction of the settlements under the guise of completing current projects.
Netanyahu insists on eluding international resolutions and swindling the USA and Western countries which are requesting a freeze on all forms settlement activities. He promised not to build new settlements if the peace process was resumed, yet he insists on expanding existing ones.
MUHAMMAD ABU-AL-HADID IN EGYPT'S AL-JUMHURIYAH
Netanyahu is still the biggest swindler when it comes to peace talks. Like he did before, he is wasting time in manoeuvres and side issues… the game we have come to know by heart will be repeated.
Netanyahu's positions against peace are well known. These positions require a strong stance from his European hosts… the international community is fed up with its hostile policies and continuous refusal of peace initiatives.
Netanyahu's statements in London yesterday confirm that Israel is continuing with its hostile policies.
MUHAMMAD KA'USH IN JORDAN'S AL-ARAB AL-YAWM:
Netanyahu is manoeuvring, eluding and wants to draw attention to side issues to buy more time and create new facts on the ground on Palestinian land. This will extinguish any hope that a state or even autonomy could be created.
MAYA BENGAL IN ISRAEL'S MA'ARIV
If the Americans accept the Israeli proposal, this will be an achievement for Netanyahu… On the other hand, Netanyahu will become the first prime minister who officially agreed to freeze construction of other buildings in the settlements.
DOUGLAS BLOOMFIELD IN ISRAEL'S JERUSALEM POST
Despite his initially defiant tone on settlements, Netanyahu is now boasting that he hasn't issued a single new building permit since taking office, and tenders for new construction are suspended until 2010
The lawyer for a US citizen on trial in the United Arab Emirates says his client was tortured into a confession.
Naji Hamdan, who is of Lebanese origin, is charged with supporting terrorism and belonging to Iraqi militant group Ansar al-Sunna.
He has denied the allegations and says he was beaten by UAE security forces into signing a confession.
The charges carry a penalty of 10 to 15 years in jail followed by deportation. A verdict is due on 12 October 2009.
UAE public prosecutors say that while living in the United States Mr Hamdan donated US $2,000 to an unnamed Islamic charity. This is alleged to have financed the firing of two rockets on Israel.
His attorney, Abdel-Qadir al-Haithami, said all the evidence against his client relied on "testimony which was given under duress".
Allegations that Hamdan copied and reposted an item from an Islamist website did not constitute in crime in the UAE, the lawyer added.
Mr Hamdan lived in the United States for 20 years where he ran an car parts business, but moved to the UAE in 2006.
Mr Haithami also argued that the UAE courts were not competent to hear the case since the alleged crimes were committed in the US.
The American Civil Liberties Union said US authorities referred the case to the Gulf state because there was insufficient evidence for a trial in US courts.
Mr Hamdan was detained in August 2008.
The son of the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi has called for greater democracy in global governance, writing in his doctoral dissertation.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said the current system of global governance was "highly undemocratic".
He hit out at undemocratic states whose governments were "authoritarian, abusive and unrepresentative".
His father Muammar Gaddafi came to power in a coup in 1969 and has ruled Libya for 40 years.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, 37, continues to play a prominent role within the Libyan political landscape.
He reportedly helped negotiate the release by the Scottish government of the dying Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds.
I shall be primarily concerned with what I argue is the central failing of the current system of global governance in the new global environment: that it is highly undemocratic
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi
He spent four years researching his 428-page thesis while studying at the London School of Economics, according to the Times of London newspaper.
The dissertation is called "The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions: From Soft Power to Collective Decision Making?"
Mr Gaddafi wrote: "I shall be primarily concerned with what I argue is the central failing of the current system of global governance in the new global environment: that it is highly undemocratic."
He continued that his dissertation would "analyse the problem of how to create more just and democratic global governing institutions", focusing on the importance of the role of "civil society".
'Strong moral reasons'
Mr Gaddafi wrote that elected representatives should be introduced into non-governmental organisations, and that would result in more democratic global governance.
He argued that there were "strong moral reasons to look at reform of the World Trade Organization" because he said power was too concentrated in the hands of a few northern states.
Colonel Gaddafi came to power in a bloodless coup in 1969
Although being seen as helping to repair relations with the US during the Presidency of George W Bush, he was critical of Mr Bush.
He described the US as the "new Leviathan" and wrote that the "behaviour of the Bush Administration does not invalidate the liberal view that we can build meaningful international rule by law and institutions based on expectations and reciprocal obligations".
Mr Gaddafi hired consultants Monitor Group to carry out a survey of non-governmental organisation (NGOs), which provided data for his thesis.
He ended: "I believe the evidence presented in this thesis suggests that the collective decision-making approach has real potential and deserves further examination."
Saif al-Islam is the second oldest of the Libyan leader's seven sons, but has denied reports he is likely to succeed his father.
He has said that would be inconsistent with Libya's progressive system.
He has played a role in opening up Libya's oil and gas fields to international business.
The roots of Yemen's current civil conflict, in which the government is trying to put down a Shia rebellion, lie in the Cold War regional politics of the 1960s.
Then, Egyptian-backed army officers brought an end to Yemen's 1,000-year Shia Imamate and established the modern Yemeni republic.
Republican troops seized control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in 1962, while the imam fled to the northern mountains, where he mounted a spirited counter-offensive from the same territory where the fighting is happening today.
Then, as now, a well-equipped army in Sanaa deployed air power and superior military hardware against the rebels in the Saada region but for five years republican forces failed to defeat the mountain guerrillas.
Perceptions of external interference in Yemen serve to distract attention from multiple internal factors driving this brutal stop-start war
Thursday's reported aerial bombardments of civilians, reports that the Saada rebels are holding Yemeni soldiers as prisoners of war and preparations by aid agencies to deliver humanitarian relief across the border from Saudi Arabia echo familiar patterns of conflict from the 1960s.
Then, as now, regional dynamics inflamed local tensions inside Yemen, with Saudi Arabia and Jordan backing Yemen's imam against thousands of Egyptian troops barracked in Sanaa.
The 21st Century geopolitical context has undeniably changed, but regional tensions continue to stoke the conflict in Yemen.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa (file image)
President Saleh declared the war "over" in 2008
Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia is nervous about a Shia uprising on its southern borders.
Shia Iran stands accused of supporting the Saada rebels, despite the fact that Yemen's Zaydi Shias - who take their name from the fifth imam, Zayd Ibn Ali - are doctrinally distinct from Iran's Twelver Shias.
At times, the insurgents in Saada have also been accused of accepting support from Libya, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, as well as Yemen's local Jewish minority.
Such inconsistent allegations are certainly exploited for shifting and expedient political reasons.
Perceptions of external interference in Yemen serve to distract attention from multiple internal factors driving this brutal stop-start war, which began in 2004 when the rebels condemned Yemen's government for allying with the West on counter-terrorism and called for freedom to worship according to their own traditions.
Yemen's government has since brokered several failed ceasefire agreements with the rebels, and in July 2008 President Ali Abdullah Saleh abruptly declared the Saada war "over" during celebrations for his 30th anniversary in power.
However, the underlying grievances have not been resolved and resentments keep escalating during each cycle of conflict, drawing local tribes into the fight.
Displaced Yemeni woman in a camp in Hajja region (15 September 2009)
The UN says Yemen's "humanitarian emergency" has been overlooked
Yemen is a Sunni majority country, but President Saleh has Zaydi Shia heritage. Crucially, he is not a sayyid - a descendant of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad through his grandsons, Hussein and Hassan.
Yemen's ruling imams historically derived their legitimacy partly from their sayyid status and the charismatic Houthi family who now lead the Saada rebellion are also sayyid - although, the Houthis deny allegations that they intend to reinstate the imam's rule.
While there is a sectarian element to this war, it lies in the delicate local religious balance between Zaydi Shia and Sunni Salafi teaching institutes in the Saada region.
The rebels accuse President Saleh of playing divide-and-rule politics by promoting Sunni Salafi institutes while restricting the activities of a Zaydi Shia revivalist movement, known as the Believing Youth.
However, many contributing factors to the Saada war are much more profane.
A recent report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that the "conflict has become self-perpetuating, giving rise to a war economy".
Looting, drug smuggling, gunrunning, people trafficking, tribal feuds and an unresolved hostage crisis, involving a kidnapped Briton, have also contributed to the lawless reputation of the Saada region.
The United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) claims Yemen's "humanitarian emergency" has been "largely neglected" by the international community and a $23m (£14m) flash appeal to help 150,000 internally displaced people fleeing the fighting in Saada has not yet received any funds.
At a national level, Yemen is oil dependent but oil production is declining and the weak central government has less and less money at its disposal.
In addition to the war in Saada, the government confronts a southern separatist movement and resurgent terrorist networks.
Increasing numbers of Somali refugees and a rapidly growing domestic population place escalating strain on Yemen's fragile resources.
The fear that Yemen could eventually fragment now preoccupies Yemen's neighbours and its Western allies.
The scenario of state collapse in Yemen would create even greater potential for external interference in this strategic Arabian Peninsula state.
Overseas journalists were told that their queries would be answered within 24 hours as part of a new "zero refusal" policy.
But when the BBC fired off 10 questions to various departments, we were met with the traditional silence from Chinese officialdom.
Several departments failed to answer our questions, some sent us elsewhere and others gave excuses.
Earlier this month Guo Weimin, an official at the government's State Council Information Office, said questions would be answered within a day.
"It doesn't mean all applications will be accepted, but we have to tell the media how we handled it so they can understand," he told the China Daily newspaper.
The BBC decided to see if government departments were heeding Mr Guo's words by checking how they responded to faxed questions.
The results would surely not please the information office official.
We asked the ministry of education why some school pupils still have to pay fees when basic education in China is supposed to be free.
It's not a sign of any sort of fundemental shift in media openness
David Bandurski, China Media Project
Three days after sending a fax, a spokesperson called back to say no one was available to answer questions because the department was busy - classes were about to resume after the summer holidays.
There was also no luck with the local government in Baoji, a city in Shaanxi Province where more than 600 school children recently suffered lead poisoning caused by pollution from a nearby smelting plant.
We wanted to interview a senior official, but we could not even fax our request to the local government because "the building was out of electricity, so the fax machine didn't work". Calls to a Baoji official's mobile phone went unanswered.
The ministry of health was equally shy when asked whether most donated organs in China really do come from executed prisoners, as one media report claimed.
No answer came. Many calls to the ministry went unanswered, although one worker who picked up the telephone said no one could deal with the question because "our boss is away".
China says increased openness towards the foreign media is one of the biggest legacies of the Beijing Olympic Games last year.
But some departments simply sidestep inconvenient queries.
The ministry of defence was silent on the question of how many missiles are pointed at Taiwan, a self-governing island Beijing claims as its own.
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet
China does not like journalists visiting Tibet following unrest last year
So was the ministry of commerce when we asked how much aid China gave to North Korea - its communist ally - last year.
And no one got back to me when I asked the local government in Lhasa if I could visit Tibet to have a look around.
China's central government has banned foreign journalists from going on independent trips to Tibet, the scene of unrest last year.
One Tibetan official previously said that this was to ensure our "safety" and because the weather could be extreme on the high-altitude plateau.
In China it is sometimes even difficult to find out which department is dealing with which issue.
We wanted to know why a legal advice centre in Beijing, called the Open Constitution Initiative, had been closed down and its founder taken into custody.
Beijing's local government media office called back promptly, but passed us on to officials at the city's foreign affairs department, who referred us to several other departments. No one seemed to know the answer.
David Bandurski, a researcher at Hong Kong's China Media Project, said the "no refusal" policy did not mean that China was now more open towards foreign journalists.
"It's not a sign of any sort of fundamental shift in media openness, but it does show that the government's media policy has changed," he said.
Mr Bandurski said the change was that China has now become more sophisticated in how it handles the media.
But in the end the BBC did not get an answer to any of the questions.
A crisis meeting between French Labour Minister, Xavier Darcos, and France Telecom's chief executive, Didier Lombard illustrated that both sides have begun to regard the industrial suicide problem very seriously.
Mr Darcos said the government understood the "particular situation of a company like France Telecom".
"A company which is on the cutting edge of technology, that doesn't stop undergoing technological and economic changes, and that, as a result, is a jewel of the French technological world.
"But precisely because it is submitted to this evolution and change, it's essential that the company is very attentive to its workers, and that it understands that there is no technological progress without social progress."
On Monday, staff at a France Telecom customer service agency in the eastern city of Metz found a 53-year-old senior manager unconscious on the floor.
France Telecom workers
France Telecom workers accuse the company of failing to help staff
She had apparently taken an overdose of barbiturates after learning she was to be posted to another part of the country for the third time in a year, CFDT union official Pierre Dubois said.
On Friday a 32-year-old female worker at France Telecom threw herself out of a fourth floor window of her Paris office building.
Her death came just a couple of days after a 53-year-old man was found dead at home, allegedly leaving behind a letter blaming his job for his desperation.
The same week a technician stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting at Troyes - he told journalists his action was designed to denounce working conditions at France Telecom.
Unions blame the 23 employee suicides partly on restructuring and working conditions at France Telecom.
The company, previously a division of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, was largely privatised in 1998 and management say the changes - moving people from civil servant status to private employees - have come in at a fast pace.
The management admits the restructuring programme could have a possible connection with recent events.
In 2000 there were 28 suicides at the company, 29 in 2002 .
France Telecom insists however that 23 suicides over the past 18 months is still within the normal range for a company of its size - it has 100,000 personnel.
The French suicide rate was 15 per 100,000 in 2004 - the last year that data was released.
But France Telecom is clearly worried.
Last week the company announced several measures in response to the suicides, including suspending around 500 employee transfers that are part of an ongoing re organisation plan.
Employees have been asked to look out for signs of depression among colleagues.
It is a standing joke for many British and Americans that life for French workers is pretty much a picnic - the 35-hour week, the alleged two-hour lunch break and those long, long holidays.
France Telecom logo
France Telecom has set up meetings with staff to discuss the suicides
But according to the World Health Organization, France has one of the highest industrial-related suicide rates in the world - only the US and the Ukraine have more cases of work-related depression.
It is also known that the rate of work-related suicides is on the increase here - one of France's biggest Unions, the CGT, claims that there are 300-400 suicides a year directly attributable to working conditions - that is around one worker a day.
Two years ago, the polling group TNS Sofres, carried out a survey on problems at work.
Three quarters of those surveyed said the word "stress" best summed up their work life and practices.
France Telecom is not the only commercial enterprise to be troubled by employee suicides.
In February 2007, a French prosecutor opened an inquiry into working conditions at Renault after the third suicide in four months at one of the carmaker's state-of-the-art plants at Guyancourt, Yvelines.
One of the deaths involved a 38-year-old father who died at his home, leaving a letter blaming work difficulties for his death.
Unions blamed the deaths on restructuring plans at the plant, claiming the employees were under too much pressure from managers.
The results of the inquiry, which estimated that employees were working under a level of strain which was four times higher than the national average, has led to certain changes at the company - meetings no longer start after 1800, breaks at work are observed, and there are more meetings between employees to improve communication.
A further six suicides at fellow carmaker Peugeot the same year prompted the government to hold a special autumn conference with employers, workers and trade unions to try to tackle the subject of labour conditions.
Peugeot itself responded to the suicides by introducing an emergency hotline and a counselling service for employees suffering from stress.
Xavier Darcos urged France Telecom not to lose sight of the individual in the huge company and suggested it modelled itself on companies like Renault which had made big changes in the wake of its spate of employee suicides.
France Telecom immediately announced it was setting up a hotline with external advisors and counsellors which anyone suffering from work-related problems could dial for free.
The company has also set up meetings with 500 of its most senior staff to discuss the suicides.
On Monday President Sarkozy announced he planned to make happiness and wellbeing key indicators of the country's economic progress.
But with the recession still biting here, and more lay-offs likely, France Telecom may drag that graph into a downwards curve.
The US decision to back away from a proposed missile defence system for Central Europe will be portrayed as a victory for Russian diplomacy by most Russian commentators and the hardline security and defence establishment.
Alexander Konovalov, the head of the Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow, said the proposed system's effectiveness was low, the cost would be enormous and the attitude of the Czech authorities, in particular, was not favourable.
However, Mr Konovalov urged caution, warning that the victory was one "for common sense", rather than Moscow. It would be irrational, he said, to spend billions of dollars "developing an unproven system against a non-existent threat in conditions of economic crisis".
Other commentators in Moscow have welcomed the step as a sign of the end of what they call the "messianic world vision" of the previous US administration of George W Bush.
Officially, Russia never accepted the pretext that the missile defence system would protect Central Europe against a potential missile threat from Iran or North Korea.
Instead, Russia always insisted that the system was aimed at Russia, designed specifically to undermine Russia's own nuclear deterrent by removing the existing strategic parity.
The issue emerged into one of the most divisive issues, and seemingly unbridgeable difficulties, between Moscow and Washington.
The willingness of the Polish government to host part of the system also contributed to the serious tensions to have plagued Polish-Russian links in recent years.
This came to the fore in August 2008, during the Russo-Georgian war, when Polish President Lech Kaczynski said Russia's actions were a powerful argument for the missile defence system.
While there has been a thaw in Russo-Polish relations over the past year, renewed sensitivities have emerged in connection with the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II.
Russian approaches to much of the former Soviet Union and the former Eastern European empire are based on the projection of hard power.
There are many people in Poland, the Czech Republic and the other former vassal states who fear Russia's intentions and renewed assertiveness.
Earlier this year, leading political and cultural figures from the region wrote an open letter to US President Barack Obama, asking him not to be influenced by Russian objections to the missile defence shield.
Reading like a plea not to be abandoned, it served as a pertinent reminder that there are deep concerns about the possible impact of Mr Obama's pledge to "press the reset button" with Moscow.
The restarting has so far produced very little for the US in terms of concessions from Russia.
Indeed, a number of hardline Russian publications today write that abandoning the missile defence shield means an end to the notion of "strategic partnership" between Washington and the "small nations" of Central Europe.
Moscow has sought to play on divided public opinion in Central Europe, and has repeatedly suggested that Europe should build a common security and defence policy without American participation.
Nonetheless, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's Ambassador to Nato, and a hard-line negotiator, told the BBC's Russian Service on Thursday that the "breakthrough" decision removed a "major irritant" in US-Russian relations.
Cold War legacy
Intriguingly, the US decision comes at a time of intense, new speculation over apparent differences of political vision and future direction in the Russian leadership.
Vladimir Putin led Russia during a time of chronic tensions with the US, and oversaw the drive to restore Russian global military influence.
Vladimir Putin (file image)
Putin oversaw the drive to restore Russian global military influence
It was perhaps not entirely coincidental that this went hand-in-hand with the cementing of anti-Americanism as an apparently key element in Russian thinking.
Russia's foreign minister denies the existence of "institutionalised" anti-Americanism in Russia, but it is rarely concealed.
Mr Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has recently expanded on his view of Russia's future.
His focal point has been the country's economic and technological backwardness. The future vision is one of a democratic society driven by and for scientific modernisation and the rule of law - not by "great power" status or a global role.
So a number of Russian analysts have cautiously suggested the US decision might bolster the democratic instincts apparently personified by Mr Medvedev. The liberal-leaning gazeta.ru website, respected for its commentaries, called on the Kremlin to respond to the US decision with "mutuality".
After "years of brainwashing" with anti-Americanism, it wrote, Moscow should now demonstrate a more pragmatic outlook when it comes to joint Russian-European-US approaches to Iran and its possible nuclear ambitions.
President Medvedev is in the US next week for the G20 summit and the United Nations General Assembly.
His every word will be scrutinised to determine whether Russia feels it has scored an important diplomatic and strategic victory over the US; or whether the US decision on missile defence opens the way to a genuinely new phase in Russia's thinking about the West.
SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates — In dusty and sweltering Industrial Area 13, just beyond the glow of Dubai's illuminated skyscrapers, Abdullah Kuttakunnil serves patrons of Kannur Restaurant by candlelight.
It's a matter of necessity, not ambiance. For much of the past month, residents of Sharjah, an increasingly teeming city hugging an interstate border with the wealthier city-state of Dubai, have suffered through power failures often lasting most of the day.
"It's very, very difficult to sleep," Kuttakunnil said, his facing beading with sweat as the air conditioner sat silent one steamy evening this week.
He said he'd been without power for more than 12 hours straight — an outage that, like others, has been hurting business and making life unbearable during one of the hottest times of the year.
More than mere inconvenience, the power cuts offer a troubling window into the fallout of breakneck development that has outpaced broader planning efforts in the United Arab Emirates, home to one of the world's largest oil deposits.
"The issue is just a lack of generation capacity" combined with low subsidized prices that encourage over-consumption, said Gulf energy expert Robert Bryniak, chief executive of Golden Sands Management Consulting in Abu Dhabi.
"You're getting excess use of electricity, which is resulting in more power plants being demanded," he said. "It's a vicious circle."
The Emirates, home to the world's fifth largest reserves of conventional crude oil, is using its petrodollars to build one of the most modern countries on earth in a matter of decades. Vast amounts of Arabian oil money have packed its cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah with spectacular skyscrapers and mosques during a fierce multiyear building boom — one that was slowed, but not stopped, by the global economic downturn.
Yet for all its oil wealth, the country has to import natural gas from its neighbors to keep its power plants humming. And, as the glimmer of candlelight in Sharjah's industrial zones illustrates, it's having a tough time providing reliable power for all.
The situation is only expected to become more difficult as a booming population, driven largely by an influx of workers from Asia, Europe and the Middle East, ensures those energy needs will continue to balloon.
Demand for electricity could hit 40,000 megawatts by the end of next decade, suggesting a growth rate of nine percent annually from 2007 levels, according to estimates from the UAE embassy in Washington. The country has enough gas to produce only about half that amount.
"There is a misconception that Abu Dhabi has a lot of gas," said Philip Weems, an expert on energy at law firm King & Spalding in Dubai. "There really hasn't been much of an incentive for producers to go out and explore for more gas, so you end up with situations like this."
The Emirates is looking for alternatives.
Abu Dhabi is plowing some of its oil wealth into green-energy projects. But the government estimates that solar and wind power might provide only 4 to 5 percent of peak demand by 2020 at best.
Emirati leaders are also working to create a civilian nuclear energy program. President Barack Obama approved plans for the U.S. to help the UAE with the project earlier this year, though Congress could still try to block the deal.
Contracts to build the first reactors in the $41 billion project are expected to be awarded this year.
New oil and coal-fired plants have been considered, but they would take years to build.
Poor planning plays a role in the country's power problems.
A state-owned newspaper, The National, recently cited a yet unpublished government report as saying about 1,000 commercial buildings in the north of the country have been waiting for months to be connected to the power grid.
"You've got developers building commercial towers, and sort of, at the last minute, starting to focus on if the power's there or not," Bryniak said. "Of course that's a problem."
The exact cause of Sharjah's outages remains murky.
Repeated calls to the Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority, which is responsible for providing power to the sheikdom, went unanswered. The company is part of a patchwork of four different electric grids that cover the Emirates.
Residents complain they can't get answers from the company because phone lines are constantly jammed with complaints.
Even the country's newspapers, which rarely criticize government institutions, are voicing frustration.
On Wednesday, the Dubai-based Gulf News newspaper blasted the Sharjah power company, known as SEWA, and called for the creation of a nationwide electricity grid.
"It is wrong that a national electricity grid still does not exist in one of the world's richest nations," the paper's editors wrote.
Khaleej Times, another daily, complained that "no one, not even the harried SEWA bosses, seem to have the vaguest idea what is really going on."
The outages make life miserable for Sharjah residents, many of them low-wage laborers from South Asia.
Some sleep in cars with the air conditioning running or stay with family in nearby Dubai to escape the heat. Others are faced with unexpected expenses from buying battery-operated lamps or fuel for generators.
Businesses like Kannur Restaurant are hit especially hard, as refrigerated food spoils and business drops.
Kuttakunnil, who like many of Sharjah's residents moved here from India for work, estimated business is down 60 percent or more at Kannur because of the power cuts.
"We have no more customers. No one is coming," he said, before again dialing an emergency hot line to the power company.
"Only busy. All the time busy," he said with a shrug.
John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) was, on the page and off, formidable. He was tall, an impeccable dresser in dark suits and homburgs, a product of Eton and Cambridge, a director of the Bank of England. His words could be withering. “When I argued with him,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “I felt that I took my life in my hands.”
Keynes also had, paradoxically, the sensitive soul of a poet. He was a member of the Bloomsbury group and a favorite of Virginia Woolf’s. He collected modern art and rare manuscripts. He married a Russian ballerina. He was an early environmentalist, given to utterances that stick in the mind. “We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars,” he warned in 1933, “because they do not pay a dividend.”
These things matter about Keynes because his economic ideas, relevant again amid the rubble of the global financial crisis, had a humane and moral dimension, one that Robert Skidelsky underlines in “Keynes: The Return of the Master.”
Mr. Skidelsky is the author of a magisterial three-volume biography of Keynes (the final volume was published in 2000) and is emeritus professor of political economy at the University of Warwick in England. He knows more about Keynes than anyone alive, but his new book is not a pocket-size distillation of his earlier biography. It’s an attempt to translate and update Keynes’s ideas for a sleek, turbulent era.
This is not an obviously simple task. Keynes’s most influential book, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” (1936) published during the Great Depression, is famously impenetrable. But its central idea held sway for nearly 30 years after World War II: that markets are not self-correcting.
In “Keynes: Return of the Master,” Mr. Skidelsky surveys the vast body of Keynes’s work. But he boils the thinking down to a few essential points. Central among them is that market economies are fundamentally uncertain; large shocks like the recent meltdown are not anomalies but normal if unpredictable events. Government should intervene in a crisis — as the Obama administration has since the fall of Lehman Brothers last year — supplying a judicious but firm hand on the tiller.
Mr. Skidelsky is righteous in his thunder about how Keynes’s ideas have been spurned in recent decades. He scolds the free-market ethos of the Reagan and Thatcher eras as well as the thinking of anti-Keynesian New Classical economists. He does not entirely blame the usual suspects (banks, hedge funds, credit-rating agencies, the Fed) for the current crisis. He indicts laissez-faire philosophy.
“The root cause of the present crisis lies in the intellectual failure of economics,” Mr. Skidelsky writes. “It was the wrong ideas of economists which legitimized the deregulation of finance, and it was the deregulation of finance which led to the credit explosion which collapsed into the credit crunch. It is hard to convey the harm done by the recent dominant school of New Classical economics. Rarely in history can such powerful minds have devoted themselves to such strange ideas.”
When Mr. Skidelsky pulls out a napkin and begins to scribble down figures, this book is slower going. It is probably safe to say that “Keynes: The Return of the Master” is aimed at the general reader, if that general reader owns excellent reading glasses and enthusiastically devours the daily business section from front to back.
A not entirely untypical sentence is: “The most general I.M.F. commodity-price index (fuel + nonfuel) peaked in July 2008 at 218 (2005 = 100) and dropped to its lowest level in December, when it was down at 98, recovering to 102 in January 2009 and falling again to 100 in March.” Oof.
This book is provocative in its discussion of the moral aspect of Keynes’s thinking. He had the curious and refreshing idea that financial institutions have a duty to the public interest as well as to shareholders. He worried about the pursuit of money at the expense of all else. What ethical value, he asked, attends a life of “moneymaking and bridge”?
Mr. Skidelsky observes: “His conclusion was that the pursuit of money — what he called ‘love of money’ — was justified only to the extent that it led to a ‘good life.’ And a good life was not what made people better off: it was what made them good. To make the world ethically better was the only justifiable purpose of economic striving.”
Keynes’s altruism sometimes made him sound like Custer at the last stand. “I find no shame at being found still owning a share when the bottom of the market comes,” he wrote. “Any other policy is antisocial, destructive of confidence and incompatible with the working of the economic system.” Maybe this was how he explained himself to Virginia Woolf when, in 1920, he lost the money the Bloomsbury group had invested with him. (The debt was later cleared.)
Keynes ultimately saw economics not as a natural science but a moral one. He was loath to rely on pure mathematics and risk models. Not everything could be reduced to numbers.
When it comes to deciphering Keynes’s ideas for the current moment, we can only speculate about details and particulars. As Mr. Skidelsky points out, “Keynes had little specific to say about financial regulation, since the banking system was not at the center of the storm of the early 1930s.”
But Keynes has always seemed at his most appealing and prophetic at times of roiling financial discontent. Robert Lucas, the University of Chicago economist, joked last year that “everyone is a Keynesian in a foxhole.” If the American economy stabilizes and begins a genuine rebound, there will be plenty of born-again Keynsians outside of those foxholes too.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar made headlines recently when the Arkansas couple announced that they are expecting their 19th child. The news about the reality-show stars was met with quiet condescension by polite society and impolite mockery in the trendier parts of the Internet. The dirty jokes write themselves.
Yes, the Duggars are an easy target: They have taken the idea of a large family and given it an exponential boost. And their lives are not exactly filled with suburban glamour, fancy college degrees or evenings at home reading aloud from collections of symbolist verse. The family tends toward plain clothes, warehouse-club portions and the New Testament. And yet the discomfort with the Duggars is not merely an expression of class snobbery. It has partly to do with their hyperfertility. There is a creeping anti-natalism in America that has made having large families a radical act.
Even by historical standards, the Duggars' soon-to-be-19 kids are exceptional. In 1800 the American fertility rate—that is, the number of children born to an average woman in her lifetime—was 7.04 for whites and 7.90 for blacks. (The first census was taken in 1790, and the numbers for the races were tabulated separately.) Over the years, the fertility rate trended inexorably downward. Today the average American woman has only 2.09 children, just a hair beneath the replacement rate of 2.1. The rate for Michelle Duggar's demographic group, non-Hispanic whites, is just 1.85. In 1800, the Duggars would have been odd. By today's standards, they seem positively freakish.
There are scores of reasons for society's decreased fertility. Better medical care reduced infant mortality. In 1850 more than one in five children died in infancy; today that number is just a little over one in 166. With more babies surviving, families needed fewer births to achieve their desired family size. Effective birth control reduced the number of unwanted pregnancies. And, beginning in 1974, widespread access to abortion reduced the number of unwanted pregnancies that were brought to term. Forty-eight million abortions have been performed in America since Roe v. Wade; for perspective, the entire baby-boom generation comprises 75 million people.
There is a panoply of other pressures on fertility, ranging from delayed age of first marriage to car-seat laws (few vehicles can accommodate more than three child-safety seats). But a big part of the story is economics.
In agricultural societies, including that of early 19th-century America, children were of vital economic importance. They provided free labor in the family business and then, in adulthood, care for their elderly parents. They don't perform either of these functions today. Toward the end of the 19th century, industrialization pulled children out of the work force, limiting the contributions they could make to the family. Then Social Security, and later Medicare, began to give to the state the responsibilities that children once had for the financial care of aging parents.
Whatever its merits, the welfare state is a disincentive to childbearing. Each generation of workers pays for the retirement benefits of the generation ahead of it. The system is powered by babies, who grow up to become productive little FICA contributors. But even if you never have children, someone else's kid will eventually pay for your Social Security benefits.
Even as economic incentives for childbearing have diminished, costs have grown. The welfare state required an enormous new tax burden, for instance. When Social Security was first instituted, in 1937, only 1% of earnings up to $3,000 were taxed. Today Social Security and Medicare eat up 7.65% of earnings up to $106,800. According to a study by the Tax Foundation, the median American family in 1955 paid 17.3% of its income in taxes. By 1998, the median two-earner family paid 40.9%. All of which makes family formation much harder. As demographer Phillip Longman observes, young white men since the 1970s have seen a 40% decline in income relative to their fathers—for young black men the figure is 60%.
While the government started taking more of a family's money, the expense of raising a child shot to the moon. The Agriculture Department estimates that the costs of raising a child from birth to age 18—that is, clothes, food, health care—averaged $207,800 in 2007. In real dollars, that's a 15% increase since 1960. But the department's numbers leave out three big-ticket items: child care, college tuition and forgone salaries.
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reports that in 2008 the average cost of a full-time nanny was $9,630; the average cost of full-time day care was $14,591. That's as much as a year at college. The average cost of state-university tuition, along with room and board, is now $14,333. Private colleges average a good deal more— $34,132. But what's really striking is the rate of increase. During the past 35 years, the real-dollar cost of college has increased by 1,000%. That's not a misprint.
Finally, there is the opportunity cost of a parent not working. Every family's situation is different, but demographer Phillip Longman gives us an illustrative example: If a parent making $45,000 a year stays home with a child until the child begins school, and then returns to work part time until the child graduates from high school, she is forgoing more than $800,000 in lost wages (counting normal inflation and raises).
When you add it all up, it's not uncommon for a single child to cost a normal, middle-class family something like $1.1 million, from birth through the undergrad years. To get some perspective, the median price of a home in 2008 was $180,100. It is commonly said that buying a house is the biggest purchase most Americans will ever make. Having a baby is like buying six houses. Except that they don't increase in value, you can't sell them and after 16 years they'll probably say they hate you.
To be sure, the Duggars have experienced some economies of scale with their soon-to-be 19 bundles of joy. The marginal cost of each additional child is reduced but still nontrivial. Even if none of the Duggars require child care or have to pay for college and Mrs. Duggar never forgoes outside income, the total expenditures will probably be north of $1 million.
The Duggars have mortgaged their financial futures for their children. Yet we're the ones who will benefit. In 1940 there were 160 workers paying the tab for each person collecting Social Security. By 2006, there were just 3.3 workers supporting each pensioner. The Social Security Administration estimates that by 2034, there will be only 2.1 workers for each person collecting a government retirement check.
In an era when it is rare for a bourgeois couple to have even three children, the Duggars are helping subsidize our retirement at considerable costs to themselves. Instead of mocking them, we ought to thank them.
Two of the so-called Bermuda Triangle's most mysterious disappearances in the late 1940s may have been solved.
Scores of ships and planes are said to have vanished without trace over the decades in a vast triangular area of ocean with imaginary points in Bermuda, Florida and Puerto Rico.
But journalist Tom Mangold's new examination for the BBC provides plausible explanations for the disappearance of two British commercial planes in the area, with the loss of 51 passengers and crew.
One plane probably suffered from catastrophic technical failure as a result of poor design, while the other is likely to have run out of fuel.
Sixty years ago, commercial flights from London to Bermuda were new and perilous. It would require a refuelling stop on the Azores before the 2,000-mile flight to Bermuda, which at that time was the longest non-stop commercial overseas flight in the world.
The planes would have been operating at the limit of their range. Today planes arriving at the tiny Atlantic island have sufficient reserve fuel to divert to the US East Coast 700 miles away, in case of emergency.
And the planes of the post-war era were far less reliable than today's airliners.
British South American Airways (BSAA), which operated the route, had a grim safety record. In three years it had had 11 serious accidents and lost five planes with 73 passengers and 22 crew members killed.
On 30 January 1948, a BSAA Avro Tudor IV plane disappeared without trace. Twenty-five passengers and a crew of six were on board The Star Tiger. No bodies or wreckage were found.
The official investigation into the disappearance concluded: "It may truly be said that no more baffling problem has ever been presented.
"What happened in this case will never be known and the fate of Star Tiger must remain an unsolved mystery."
At 2,000 feet you'd be leaving very little altitude for manoeuvre - in any serious in-flight emergency the plane could have lost its height in seconds and gone into the sea
Air accident investigator
But there are a number of clues in the official accident report that reveal the Star Tiger had encountered problems before it reached the Azores.
The aircraft's heater was notoriously unreliable and had failed en route, and one of the compasses was found to be faulty.
Probably to keep the plane warmer, the pilot had decided to fly the whole transatlantic route very low, at 2,000 feet, burning fuel at a faster rate.
On approaching Bermuda, Star Tiger was a little off course and had been flying an hour later than planned.
In addition, the official Ministry of Civil Aviation report considered that the headwinds faced by Star Tiger may have been much stronger than those forecast. This would have caused the fuel to burn more quickly.
"Flying at 2,000 feet they would have used up much more fuel," said Eric Newton, one of the Ministry of Civil Aviation's most senior air accident investigators, who reviewed the scenario for the BBC.
"At 2,000 feet you'd be leaving very little altitude for manoeuvre. In any serious in-flight emergency they could have lost their height in seconds and gone into the sea."
Whatever happened to the plane, it was sudden and catastrophic - there was no time to send an emergency signal.
American Navy Avenger planes - similar to the ones that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle
Five US Navy planes disappeared in the triangle area in 1945
The Avro Tudor IV was a converted warplane that was eventually taken out of passenger service because of its poor safety record. Only BSAA continued to fly the aircraft.
Gordon Store was chief pilot and manager of operations at BSAA. In an interview with his local newspaper last November, he said he had no confidence in the Tudor's engines.
"Its systems were hopeless… all the hydraulics, the air-conditioning equipment and the recycling fans were crammed together underneath the floor without any thought. There were fuel-burning heaters that would never work," he said.
Almost a year to the day after the disappearance of the Star Tiger, another Avro Tudor IV belonging to BSAA vanished between Bermuda and Jamaica.
Exactly one hour after departure from Bermuda on 17 January 1949, the pilot of the Star Ariel sent a routine communication of his position. But then the plane vanished without trace at 18,000 feet.
According to experts, this would have required a sudden catastrophe.
Again, no wreckage, debris or bodies were ever found.
Fuel starvation at that height was not plausible, the weather report had been good, and pilot error was ruled out.
The plane's poor design may well have been to blame, according to Don Mackintosh, a former BSAA Tudor IV pilot. The cabin heater mounted underneath the floor where the co-pilot sat is his prime suspect.
My theory is that hydraulic vapour escaped from a leak, which got on to a hot heater and caused an explosion
Captain Peter Duffey
At the time, aircraft heater technology was still in its infancy.
"The heater bled aviation fuel on to a hot tube - and was also fairly close to the hydraulic pipes," he says.
A pressure switch should have allowed the heater to operate when it was in the air but it was unreliable and was often deliberately short-circuited by staff, allowing the pilot manual control.
The switch prevented inflammable fuel from flowing, but if the heater was switched on manually, gas that may have collected could have ignited.
Captain Peter Duffey, a former BSAA pilot who went on to become a captain of British Airways Concorde, also believes that the proximity of the heater and the hydraulic pipes was significant.
"My theory is that hydraulic vapour escaped from a leak, which got on to a hot heater and caused an explosion," he says.
Mr Newton's report came to a similar conclusion: "If the heater had caught fire down below the floorboards then it could have developed to a catastrophic state before the crew knew anything about it.
"There was no automatic fire extinguisher to put it out like there is nowadays. There was no alarm where the heater was stored… so no-one would know, possibly until it was too late."
The official accident investigation discovered that because of a communications error, search and rescue teams were not despatched until seven and a half hours later.
By then what was left of the plane and the bodies would have sunk.
The report on the disappearance of the first plane, the Star Tiger, said something which, because it could be easily misinterpreted, helped the accident achieve notoriety.
In a moment of philosophical conjecture, the investigators mused that maybe "some external cause may (have) overwhelm(ed) both man and machine".
Those comments from sober-suited British civil servants opened the floodgates for conspiracy theorists, hack journalists and mischief makers, adding to the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle.
Climate change is having an impact in the vast and remote region of Yakutia in Siberia which, in winter at least, is still the coldest place on earth. Bridget Kendall reports.
There cannot be many foreigners who make it as far as Yakutia's top tourist attraction, the Ice Kingdom.
The ice kingdom
This July in the underground Ice Kingdom, the temperature rose to a dangerously warm -7C
Russia's 'frozen' region in pictures
The way in is through an unassuming wooden door cut into the hillside, just like the entrance to Bilbo Baggin's hobbit home in The Lord of the Rings.
You pass into a dark hallway strewn with straw and blocks of ice, and enter another world.
White crystals sparkle. A tunnel shimmers blue as far as the eye can see. In padded silver capes, guides usher us through caverns carved with ice sculptures.
One houses the ivory tusks of a mammoth. In another, a young man draped in furs sits on an icy throne. "The Lord of the Cold," our guide tells us.
"How long have you been here?" I ask. "Eternity," he answers with stoic humour.
In fact, no-one could last long in these icy caverns without a break.
Just one and a half metres from the surface, the ground is permanently frozen at -10C.
Yakutia is home to the permafrost. In midwinter, outside temperatures make it the coldest place on earth - an unbelievable -70C.
Luckily September is still fleetingly autumn. The trees seem to fade from green to yellow overnight.
In just four days the temperature drops noticeably. The local paper worries that not all heating plants are yet fully repaired and supplied with fuel. The first frosts, it says, will come in days.
Evidence of extreme temperatures is visible everywhere. Newer buildings perch on concrete permafrost stilts.
The asphalt on the buckled roads erupts into cracks and bumps, while lagged heating pipes snake over head. Untidy spaghetti wires loop from one high-rise to another. You can not bury power lines and pipes in the permafrost.
There are also telling signs of what looks like global warming. This July in the underground Ice Kingdom the temperature rose to a dangerously warm -7C. On the surface winter frosts rarely get harsher than -50C.
"Not that it makes much difference when it is that cold," says the republic's prime minister, trying to brush off warnings of erosion to the permafrost. "Who is to say global warming is really happening?"
Fair enough. If you spend 10 months of the year struggling to survive in deep refrigeration, dire predictions about global warming probably do seem overblown.
But Yakutia is also frozen in another way, trapped in a time warp of a lost Soviet age. It is almost charming.
In the capital, Yakutsk, Lenin still towers over the main square.
Rooftop slogans and murals have replaced eulogies to Soviet communism with "friendship through sport" and "the glory of war veterans".
The cruise ship we boarded on the river Lena is called Demyan Bedny, after a minor and rather bad Soviet poet, whose book and those of several other now forgotten mediocre writers are proudly displayed in the ship's library.
The Siberian Lena river is the 10th longest river in the world
"I am often asked why we are so poor and backward when we are sitting on such wealth," says the prime minister. Yakutia yields over 90% of Russia's diamonds, as well as gold and numerous other precious metals, and increasingly oil and gas.
Yet apart from one or two showy hotels, much of the capital looks like a village. Rickety wooden houses are squeezed in between modern tower blocks.
Side streets are little more than muddy tracks. There is a constant problem of houses being burnt down, according to the local paper, and packs of wild dogs that attack passers-by, even in the town centre. Marshy swamps and scrubland give the place an abandoned feel.
Isolation and lack of transport is half the problem. There is not even a railway in Yakutsk. There are plans to put one in, and build new roads and pipelines from the mines and oil fields.
But this year's economic crisis has not helped. It led to a collapse in the price of diamonds.
Moscow had to step in and help out.
Back on the boat Demyan Bedny, I find a safety notice in my cabin.
"If you fall in, whatever you do, DO NOT SWIM!" it says sternly. Hypothermia from the Lena river's icy current is the main risk. Apparently I must tread water until the crew come to rescue me.
As we leave the river port, we pass rusting hulks and crumbling docks.
But as we float up this wide Siberian river past startlingly beautiful cliffs, in a region almost the size of India, I cannot help thinking of the mineral wealth hidden beneath its frosty crust.
Asia, we hear so often, is the powerhouse of the future. For Russia, surely it is the wealth of still untapped resources here, in Eastern Siberia, that will guarantee future clout... not the nuclear missiles of yesteryear.
It is a mansion fit for a prince - one of the grandest houses in one of the world's most beautiful cities.
But the 17th-Century Hotel Lambert in the heart of Paris is now the focus of a bitter dispute.
French conservationists are taking its new owner, a Qatari prince, to court to try to block his plan to renovate it.
They say it would cause "irreversible damage" to a listed historic monument where Chopin composed some of his music and the writer Voltaire lived with his mistress.
On Tuesday a judge ordered the prince to suspend some of the modernisation work pending a court decision on the conservationists' objections.
Hotel Lambert in Paris
Decades of neglect have left Hotel Lambert in a state of disrepair
But the prince, Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani, brother of the Emir of Qatar, insists that the work will restore the stunning but decaying riverside mansion to its former splendour.
From the outside, the Hotel Lambert on the Ile Saint-Louis is a palatial and stately building.
But go inside, and you soon see that the years have taken their toll. Much of the interior is quite dilapidated.
Its former owners, the Rothschild family, sub-divided the building into apartments.
Parts of the timber structure are rotting. The prince's architect has had wooden supports installed to prop it up.
One of the staircases is sagging. Paintings on the ceiling by Charles Le Brun, whose work also graces the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, are cracked and discoloured.
The prince plans to have them restored by French experts.
And he wants to convert the building back into a single residence, scrapping partitions put up when it was divided some 50 years ago.
But members of the Historic Paris association are mounting a legal challenge to the prince's plan because they say it will change the character of the mansion.
"What we object to very strongly is the plan to build an underground car park, install air conditioning and make the external wall about 50cm higher, as well as changes to the facades to return them, supposedly, to the state they were in in the 17th Century," says Pierre Housieaux, head of the association.
But the prince's lawyer, Thierry Tomasi, says the purpose of air conditioning is to preserve the paintings and stop them cracking again.
And he says the underground car park will make it unnecessary to continue parking cars in the courtyard, spoiling the look of the entrance.
Ceiling in Hotel Lambert's Gallery of Hercules with paintings by Charles le Brun
The exquisite, but fading, interiors include ceilings by Charles le Brun
Mr Tomasi says the prince is surprised by the criticism of his plans. He says they were drawn up by leading French specialists and "approved and accepted by the French Committee for Historical Monuments".
"The prince is a true lover of French art and architecture, particularly of the 17th Century, of which the Hotel Lambert is a famous example," says Mr Tomasi.
"The very purpose of this project is to preserve the building, to preserve all its elements which have historic, cultural and architectural value and to restore this monument to its past glory."
But some 8,000 people have signed a petition against the work circulated by the Historic Paris association.
Hotel Lambert in Paris
Campaigners say the renovation plan goes too far
And the group has enlisted the support of some local celebrities, including a former film star, Michele Morgan, who used to live in an apartment in the building.
"We don't object to the fact that the new owner is a foreigner," says Mr Housieaux, the president of Historic Paris.
"We're grateful that the Hotel Lambert has been acquired by someone who has the means to look after it, but we do oppose his renovation plan because it's too much for this building," he says.
"Renovation isn't about trying to restore the building as it might have been in the 17th Century, it's a question of making do with what's there, keeping the additions made over the centuries and preserving the building."
After buying the mansion two years ago for a princely sum - said to be anything from 60m euros (£50m) - the plan is now to spend another fortune on renovating it.
But until the court case is resolved, this Parisian landmark with its illustrious past faces an uncertain future.
European Union leaders have agreed to seek a global deal for bankers' bonuses to be clawed back if profits fall.
The leaders meeting in Brussels approved the clause as part of a common EU position for next week's G20 summit in Pittsburgh in the US.
They want the threat of sanctions to be used to force banks to link bonuses to long-term performance.
There is concern the current system may encourage short-term risk-taking, which helped trigger the banking crisis.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said there was broad backing for bonus restrictions.
"I believe that people have been appalled by the suggestion in some institutions and their practices that they simply want to return to the policies of the past," Mr Brown said.
The president... supports a robust approach to executive compensation but has been reluctant to sort of set individual compensation levels
Mike Froman, US international economic affairs advisor
Bonus reform country by country
"There is no support in any part of the world for failing to take the action that is necessary and I believe that we will be able to agree on a structure for how bonuses should be examined in the future."
But the US and UK have rejected calls for mandatory caps on bonuses.
"The G20 should commit to agreeing to binding rules for financial institutions on variable remunerations backed up by the threat of sanctions at the national level," said the agreed statement.
The EU leaders will also urge the G20 nations to maintain stimulus spending that has prompted some signs of global recovery.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has led the charge against high levels of banker pay, has threatened to walk out of the conference if no stringent compensation rules are passed.
"The bonus bubble burst tonight," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the EU presidency.
"We have agreed to say that enough is enough and we need to move away from the current culture of compensation based on short-term performance."
But US President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he is against being over-prescriptive on pay.
"The president has been pretty clear that he supports a robust approach to executive compensation but has been reluctant to sort of set individual compensation levels," said Mike Froman, deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs.
Mr Froman said the G20 was most likely to agree a "set of principles" on bonuses.
The UK, Germany, France and Italy are the only official members of the EU in the G20 - which brings together developed and emerging economies.
The EU itself is the 20th member, though Spain and the Netherlands will sit in on the talks.
Japan's new first lady is something of a Renaissance woman: designer, former actress, cookbook author, television personality - and perhaps most controversially a self-professed space traveller who has visited Venus with aliens.
If that were not enough, she also claims to have met Tom Cruise in a former life, when he was Japanese.
Miyuki Hatoyama, married to Japan's new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama since 1975, looks set to break the usually reserved mould of Japanese political wives.
But Mr Hatoyama has not tried to tone down his wife's eccentric ways. He has made no secret of his devotion to her, saying "she is like an energy refuelling base".
Her life was unusual by Japanese standards even before meeting Yukio in a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco in the early 1970s.
Born in 1943 in Shanghai, while the city was under Japanese occupation, she then grew up in the western Japanese city of Kobe.
When the sun is up, I always eat it
As a teenager she joined the Takarazuka Revue, a troupe of female singers and dancers who have achieved cult status in Japan for their glitzy interpretations of romantic musicals.
She divorced her restaurateur first husband and married Yukio Hatoyama in the US - a mild scandal for the son of an established political family.
Since then, Mrs Hatoyama has built a career as what she calls a "life composer" - a clothes designer, interior decorator and author of cookbooks including one called Miyuki Hatoyama's Spiritual Food.
She styles her husband's hair and chooses his clothes for public appearances.
She has also become a regular on the chat show circuit, discussing topics ranging from food, to politics to religion.
But as her husband emerged as a clear favourite for the premiership earlier this year, it was her comments on her past lives and travels aboard an alien spaceship that attracted the most attention from the international media.
"While my body was sleeping, I think my spirit flew on a triangular-shaped UFO to Venus," she said in an interview for a book on prominent people entitled Most Bizarre Things I've Encountered, published last year.
"It was an extremely beautiful place and was very green."
On a daytime chat show she revealed that having met Tom Cruise in a past life, she now wanted to make a film with him.
"He was Japanese in his past life, and we were together so when I see him, I will say 'Hi, it's been a long time' and he will immediately understand."
"I will win the Oscar for sure."
Mrs Hatoyama also explained how she "eats the sun" every day, to gain energy.
"When the sun is up, I always eat it... I tear it off and eat if like this," she said on the chat show, joking with the host.
"Yum, yum, yum," she said. "That gives me great power."
South Korea's army has pledged to keep the noise down while several million students take English language listening tests later this month.
The army said live-fire drills would be halted and jets would be banned from taking off or landing for at least 20 minutes each day during the tests.
However, aircraft would be allowed to take off in emergency, the army said.
The exams for middle- and high-school students will be held on 16-18 and 23-25 September.
South Korea - a densely populated country - places a high priority on education.
The authorities are also expected to reschedule rush hour to ease traffic during another crucial set of tests in November.
China's one-child policy means the state takes a close interest in your plans for reproduction.
Recently, officials in Shanghai announced that they wanted couples who met strict criteria to have a second child.
It appeared to some to be a challenge to the one-child policy. But was it?
Gu Mei Qin is a community officer who works in a suburb of Shanghai. She is in her early 50s but looks a lot younger. She has a trendy haircut and is dressed smartly but casually.
It's pouring with rain outside as she trudges up the stairs to an apartment. As she makes her way up she likes people to call her Auntie Gu. "They call me Auntie because I'm like a neighbour to them," she says.
If anyone in the area gets married Gu Mei Qin visits them. "I ask 'Are you pregnant?'," she explains. "I tell them, if you are married, you'll get pregnant one day and then you can come to me for help and information."
Mrs Gu is part social worker, part health visitor.
But she also has another important role. China imposes heavy fines on those who have more children then they are entitled to, so she is also the eyes and ears of the city government, making sure rules are not broken.
That does not mean, though, that she always says no.
CHINA'S ONE-CHILD POLICY
Written into the constitution in 1978
Government says it has prevented about 400 million births
Many rural couples allowed second child if first is a girl
Parents who are themselves only children can have two children
Ethnic minority couples allowed two or more children
Neither Mrs Li nor her husband have brothers and sisters so Auntie Gu has advised them they are allowed to have another baby.
Obviously Mrs Li, a young office worker, is pleased about this. "For us, children are the source of happiness," she says.
"We feel that having children gives us a goal in life, and at work. We live in this flat now, but when we have two children we'll need a bigger flat, so we'll work harder."
Recently the Shanghai government decided to publicise the work Auntie Gu and others do, advising couples it's okay to have a second child under certain circumstances.
Some reports suggested this was a challenge to the one-child policy but the city's Family Planning Committee spokesman, Zhang Meixin, denies that.
He says they have a problem - not enough of the city's residents are having children - and they're trying to address this without breaking the rules set out in the policy.
The fertility rate in Shanghai is quite low, much lower than the national average.
"The government wants to keep the national fertility rate low," he says, "so even if here in Shanghai we want to increase our fertility rate, we can't set a target to increase it. All we can do is hope that people who are allowed to will have more children."
It's a difficult line he and his colleagues have to walk.
The Shanghai officials cannot be seen to be opposing a long-established family planning policy drawn up in Beijing, but Shanghai's registered population is getting older.
Mrs Li and her first child
Two children are better than one for Mrs Li and her first child
Although there are plenty of younger migrant workers flooding into the city looking for work, there are fears that in years to come there won't be enough young Shanghai residents to care for the older generation of city dwellers.
Mrs Gu says there are 12 families on her estate who are allowed to have more than one child. It's her job to make them aware of this, even though it's not always easy.
"Some people don't like us visiting them," she admits. "They refuse to let us in. I tell them: 'Don't avoid us, We are here to serve you.' We visit them again and again. Even if they say they don't need us to visit them, we keep visiting. Gradually their attitude changes."
Here in Shanghai officials are appealing to the sense of collective responsibility they believe has been developed over the last three decades.
For years most of the city's residents have followed the rules and kept their families small. Now the officials hope those who fit the criteria will answer the call to make their families a little bigger.
At a dusty building site on the fringes of Warsaw, globalisation has just taken its latest twist - and it's one which will send tremors through Europe's construction industry.
Two decades after the fall of communist rule, a Polish government with an almost fundamentalist commitment to the free market has awarded contracts for two large motorway sections to a Chinese state-owned company that won the job with a dramatic knock-down bid.
It is the first time the Chinese have won such a contract in Poland and it is believed to be a first within the EU.
But instead of just cutting the price, they slashed it to pieces, offering to build the road for 60% less than the guide price - saving taxpayers millions, but leaving many wondering how they can do it so cheaply without pain.
Work is already under way on the interchange where the Lodz-Warsaw motorway will arrive in the Polish capital.
Stopping the traffic to allow heavy construction lorries to turn, Artur - clad in a hard hat and luminous jacket - says he is "very surprised".
"The Chinese probably work cheaply," he says.
The Chinese Overseas Engineering Group (Covec), has told the Polish authorities it will employ EU workers, but fears persist that it will ship in cheap labour from China to complete the job.
"Of course they can bring Chinese workers with them to help with the construction," says Andrzej Maciejewski of the Polish Roads Agency (GDDKIA) that awarded the contract.
But "first of all, they will hire the workers from our market," he adds.
He also says that Covec will have to obey Polish and EU employment laws, and comply with working hours and minimum wage regulations.
It's a good challenge for Europe to have lower-cost workers
Mayor of Warsaw
But nevertheless the fear that the Chinese company will practise wage dumping is very real.
Andrew Kureth, editor of the Warsaw Business Journal, has watched Chinese firms in action in Poland.
"The Chinese companies are bringing in their own workers from abroad," he says.
He cites a Chinese company building an apartment block next to his home using only Asian workers.
"If that continues to happen I think there is a possibility there will be a social outcry here."
With many Polish builders working in the UK and perceived by some to be undercutting UK pay rates, it is ironic that their jobs at home could now be filled by Chinese workers.
A spokesman for the European Investment Bank, which is lending much of the money, said that for the bid to be legal, proper procurement procedures would have been followed.
There are also indications that the Polish authorities are using Chinese bidders to drive down costs.
When Warsaw felt the bids for its new underground train line were too high, it got the Chinese to bid.
The Chinese did not win that time, but their competitors slashed their prices drastically in response.
It has been called the "Chinese effect", says Michael Dembinski of the British-Polish Chamber of Commerce.
Andrzej Maciejewski of the Polish Roads Agency (GDDKIA)
Polish officials say local workers must be hired first
"We need to look at the scale of this," he says.
"If the Chinese bring over tens of thousands of labourers there will be unease about this."
"If it's a question of a couple of hundred skilled engineers, that's not going to be too much of an issue."
The mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, formerly Vice President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, says the company will probably employ a mixture of Chinese and local workers.
"It's a good challenge for Europe to have lower-cost workers," she says.
Asked to comment on the fact that a government committed to free market principles has awarded a contract to a Chinese state-owned company, she is unapologetic.
"Countries in the West should reform their economies," she says.
A spokesman for the European Internal Market Commissioner said they were not investigating the contract and there was "insufficient information to see if it was within the rules or not".
This might be the first motorway contract for the Chinese in the EU but it is unlikely to be the last.
But with tension mounting in the UK, in particular, over the employment of foreign contract labour, the authorities in Warsaw and Brussels will need to tread very carefully.