Watching the World

Modern Galley “Slaves”

“Tens of thousands of sailors on commercial ships are being treated like slaves,” notes the International Herald Tribune. A report by the International Commission of Shipping revealed that these sailors are “subjected to poor safety conditions, excessive hours, unpaid wages, starvation diets, rapes and beatings.” On some crews sailors who complain or who seek help from labor unions risk being blacklisted or even thrown overboard. The principal victims of this “modern slavery” are from developing lands. Because of economic problems in their home countries, many have nowhere else to turn for an income. Thus, according to the report’s author, they end up “vulnerable, . . . cheated and robbed.”

Loss of “Nature’s Secrets”

“The UN estimates that up to 90% of the world’s languages could die out over the next century, and with them much valuable knowledge about nature,” states a BBC News dispatch. Native languages often serve as repositories for traditions, songs, and stories that are handed down from generation to generation, imparting valuable lessons on the local environment and its animal life. For example, the Turkana people of northwest Kenya have long observed the behavior of certain birds in order to tell when rain will fall. This helps them to determine when to plant crops. If their language dies out, many generations’ worth of knowledge will be lost. Already, 234 native tongues are known to have become extinct, and 2,500 more are perilously close to disappearing. “Nature’s secrets, locked away in the songs, stories, art and handicrafts of indigenous people, may be lost forever,” says the UN report, which warns of a reciprocal increase in the risk of crop failures.

Paper Still Preferred

More than a quarter of a century ago, it was predicted that the use of paper would decline as computers became office fixtures and information could be stored electronically. Yet, the demand for paper continues to rise. According to the Vancouver Sun newspaper, when it comes to the type of paper used in copiers and fax machines, Canadians used 25 percent more in 1999 than they did in 1992. That amounts to “66 pounds (30 kilograms) of paper a year for every Canadian, including children.” One survey of office workers showed that although computers are initially used to view information, people still want a hard copy. The same holds true for those who have home computers, says the Sun. Children have become “major paper consumers,” wanting to print out everything they create or see on the computer screen.

The Threat of Organized Crime

“Internationally-organized crime is now a bigger threat to security for ordinary people than war.” That, according to the Agence France-Presses news service, was a point made at a recent conference on transnational crime. Speaking at the conference in Tokyo, Pino Arlacchi, Under-Secretary-General at the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, said: “The level and intensity of international crime have gone beyond what governments and the general population are prepared to accept.” He cited trafficking in humans as the fastest growing of all types of international crime, with as many as a million women and children being spirited across borders by criminal groups, generating huge profits. “No single country can cope with transnational, organised crime by itself,” said Bunmei Ibuki, formerly the political head of Japan’s police agencies. “That is why regional or global-scale law enforcement efforts are becoming increasingly essential.”

Our Space Junkyard

Ever since man began venturing into outer space about 40 years ago, he has been converting the region surrounding the earth into a junkyard. According to The News of Mexico  City, nearly 4,000 rockets have been launched, creating “more than 23,000 ‘observable’ space objects, each of them larger than a cricket ball.” Of these, about 6,000 are “junk,” with an estimated combined weight of 1,800 tons. Collisions of space objects have produced some 100,000 smaller pieces of debris. While these pose no threat to the earth, they do pose a serious hazard to space travel because of their speed. A tiny speck of metal traveling at up to 31,000 miles per hour [50,000 km/hr] can crack a space station’s window, knock a hole in a solar panel, or puncture the suit of an astronaut during a space walk. “NASA is working on Project Orion, a ‘cosmic broom’ to sweep the skies free of rubbish,” says The News. “The idea is to blast the junk with lasers, . . . nudging them into the Earth’s upper atmosphere where they should burn up harmlessly.”

Homelessness Increasing

“In the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the UN described access to adequate housing as essential, but, more than half a century later, the right to a secure home is by no means guaranteed,” states BBC News. A recent UN report estimates that 100 million people throughout the world are homeless—including over 30 million children—and warns that the situation is getting worse. In developing countries, the UN blames the problem mainly on rapid urbanization. Additionally, in Southeast Asia and Africa, some 600 million people live in overcrowded, poor-quality housing, lacking adequate sanitation and water. Wealthier countries are not immune. In the United States, up to 700,000 people live on the streets. In some parts of Western Europe, 12 out of every 1,000 persons are homeless.

“A Dying Art”?

“Pickpocketing is a dying art in Osaka,” Japan, because “young people are no longer interested in developing the skills,” reports Asahi Evening News. According to a local police officer, it takes several years of apprenticeship to become adept at this type of theft. Young criminals, it seems, prefer easier ways of stealing. Cases of purse snatching, for instance, are soaring. One third of all suspects arrested for picking pockets last year in the Osaka Prefecture were 60 years of age or older. The oldest, a 78-year-old man, was arrested for the 12th time when caught in the act of taking an eyeglass case from the handbag of an elderly woman. “His eyesight is so poor he picked an eyeglass case thinking it was a purse,” said an investigator.

Role-Model Driving

“Parents need to be aware that they could be serving as role models for their children both before they are licensed and when they are learning to drive,” says Susan Ferguson of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. As reported in New Scientist magazine, she and her colleagues checked the accident records of 140,000 American families, comparing parents and their children aged 18 to 21. Children of parents who had experienced three or more car accidents in five years were 22 percent more likely to crash their car themselves than were the children of parents who had no accidents. The same held true regarding such traffic violations as speeding or going through a red light. In these cases the children were 38 percent more likely to do the same as their parents. “Parents should set an example,” says Jane Eason of Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. “It’s never too early to teach people about road safety.”

“The World’s Largest Living Organism”

“Creeping largely unseen through the evergreen forests of eastern Oregon is the world’s largest living organism, a fungus called Armillaria ostoyae,” says National Wildlife magazine. “The fungus is at least 2,400 years old and covers more than 2,200 acres [900 ha]—or nearly 1,700 football fields—according to scientists with the U.S. Forest Service who discovered it.” The fungus lives below ground, spreading out slowly and often using tree roots to go from tree to tree. But the fungus has a “dark side,” the foresters say. “Armillaria causes a root disease that can eventually kill trees,” the magazine reports.