Regime Change for Humanitarian Aid – By Michael Barnett and Peter Walker July/August 2015 Issue

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The global humanitarian system, already under considerable strain, will soon be tested as never before. In 2013, the gap between the funds available for humanitarian aid and estimated global needs reached $4.5 billion, leaving at least one-third of the demand unmet. The gap seems certain to widen, as key donors cut their contributions and humanitarian disasters grow more frequent and severe. Complex humanitarian emergencies, such as the war in Syria, have shown just how poorly the world is prepared to respond to human suffering on a large scale, despite considerable practice. The international community’s response to last year’s outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, for example, was slow off the mark and then stumbled, leaving everyone worried about future public health emergencies. Meanwhile, climate change has increased the destructive force of natural disasters, which fuel violence and put tremendous pressure on governments and aid agencies alike. And rapid urbanization, coupled with massive migration to coasts, has amplified the toll of such crises.

Small wonder, then, that the humanitarian community consistently falls short of expectations—both those of outside observers and its own. To some extent, that is due to factors beyond its control. Humanitarians confront problems that offer no easy solutions. They must contend with powerful funders who would rather make feel-good pledges than actually pay up, with donors who expect relief work to serve their own interests above those of local populations, and with disasters that leave first responders as exposed to the dangers they are responding to as the victims themselves. Complex crises of the kind roiling Syria often require aid workers to plead with warlords, rebels, and guerilla groups for the privilege of helping the vulnerable, only to be denied entry or forced at gunpoint to pay a heavy surcharge.

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Want to enjoy the deep, mystical sleep of our ancestors? Turn your lights off at dusk.

A bird rests in a tree at dusk near the Beaverdam Creek Reservoir in Loudoun County, Va.  (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

What if you could meditate like a Tibetan lama with no instruction whatsoever — and without having to subscribe to any religious beliefs?

People hear a question like that and, unless they are particularly gullible, they assume they’re about to be scammed. But in this case there is nothing to buy — no tapes, no app, no religious agenda that gets sprung on you at the last moment when you’re feeling vulnerable and spiritually open. No hidden fees.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a catch. You have to be willing to revert to a Paleolithic pattern of sleep — and that means turning off your electric lights at dusk and leaving them off until dawn. Do that, and in about three week’s time, beginning around six hours after sunset each evening, you will find yourself experiencing a period of serene wakefulness that was once a nightly meditation retreat for all Homo sapiens on Earth. It’s a guarantee. It’s encoded in your genes.

[You’re missing out on your experiences. A meditation expert explains how to live in the moment.]

During the mid-1990s, sleep researcher Thomas Wehr conducted a National Institutes of Health experiment that he later called an exercise in “archaeology, or human paleobiology.” Wehr wanted to find out if modern humans still carried within them the rhythms for a prehistoric mode of sleep. Did prehistoric humans sleep more? Did they sleep differently — or perhaps better?

Wehr’s logic was simple: Aided by the stimulating effects of all kinds of artificial lighting (everything from laptop screens to the bright lights of big cities), modern humans had compressed their sleep nights, like their work days, into convenient eight-hour blocks. And yet, given that light-assisted wakefulness was a relatively new invention, wasn’t it possible that human beings still carried in their DNA the remnants of a more primordial pattern of sleep?

The results were staggering. For one month, beginning at dusk and ending at dawn, Wehr’s subjects were removed from every possible form of artificial light. During the first three weeks, they slept as usual, only for about an hour longer. (After all, he reasoned, like most Americans, they were probably sleep deprived.) But at week four a dramatic change occurred. The participants slept the same number of hours as before, but now their sleep was divided in two. They began each night with about four hours of deep sleep, woke for two hours of quiet rest, then slept for another four.

During the gap between their “first” and “second” sleep, Wehr’s subjects were neither awake nor fully asleep. Rather, they experienced a condition they had never known before — a state of consciousness all its own. Later Wehr would compare it to what advanced practitioners experience in meditation — what you might call “mindfulness” today. But there weren’t any mindfulness practitioners in his study. They were simply ordinary people who, removed for one month from artificial lighting, found their nights broken in two.

[Dalai Lama’s translator: How being kind to yourself is good for the world]

While trying to account for the peace and serenity that his subjects reported feeling during their hours of “quiet rest,” Wehr discovered that prolactin (the hormone that rises in nursing mothers when their milk lets down) reached elevated levels in their bodies shortly after dusk, remaining at twice its normal waking level throughout the full length of the night. Prolactin creates a feeling of security, quietness and peace. And it is intimately, and biologically, tied to the dark.

Even during their hours of quiet rest, the prolactin levels in Wehr’s subjects remained steady. Normally, if you wake in the night, those levels will go down — even if you don’t turn on the lights. But if you turn the lights off at dusk and keep them off, giving your body the full spectrum of the night to work from, that richer, deeper darkness will fashion an experience so different from your normal daylight consciousness it is almost a mystical state.

“This is a state not terribly familiar to modern sleepers,” Wehr lamented when the study was done and he had begun to wrap his mind around the enormity of a discovery that turned modern consciousness on its head. “Perhaps what those who meditate today are seeking is a state that our ancestors would have considered their birthright, a nightly occurrence.”

Discovering Wehr’s study in the late ’90s was a major revelation for me. Not only had I been waking up to the dark at 2 a.m. for most of my life, I had also been a Zen Buddhist monk and a meditation teacher. But I’d long since become impatient with Buddhism and had given up teaching it in the end. I always felt there was something more basic than religion at the bottom of it all. Something simpler. More universal. More rooted in the Earth and its primal rhythms — like the rising and setting of the sun.

Wehr’s study sent ripples through half-a-dozen different disciplines. Sleep specialists began to wonder if the modern insomnia epidemic was anything of the kind. Historians doubled down on forgotten journals and parish records to verify that prior to the industrial revolution “divided sleep” was not the exception but the rule. And I turned to ancient legends and scriptures to find that much, if not most, of what the world called myth and spiritual wisdom had been conceived of in the middle of the night.

David hung a harp above his bed so that when the night wind blew across its strings it would wake him to sing the Psalms. Jesus rose to pray on a hillside in the hours before dawn. Muhammad slept for half of the night, rose to pray for a third of the night, and then slept for the remaining sixth. Even the Buddha meditated at night. According to the sutras, he became an “Awakened One” between the hours of the ox and the tiger — in other words, between 2 and 4 a.m.

None of which tells me I ought to pray or meditate or “be religious,” but rather that once, long ago, before our billion-watt culture got the best of us, there was an hour in the middle of the night where peace was there for the having — not as the result of assiduous practice over many years of spiritual practice but as a nightly blessing that nobody had to work for. It’s still there. It always has been. Finding it again is as simple — or as difficult — as turning out the lights.

Clark Strand is the author of “Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age,” published in April by Spiegel & Grau. To learn more, visit

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He dropped his wallet and an amputee picked it up. They followed him and saw him buy things at the mall. – Posted by: Viral 4 RealDate: May 2015

They say that the opportunity makes the thief. This means that even if you do not have the sole intention of stealing, if the ‘item’ presents itself to you, and you know that there will be no consequences—you tend to take it. Yes it is true for most people, but there are still those who remain honest and prefer to return the things which are not theirs.

In this social experiment, a man drops his wallet or purpose to see which people would return his wallet. He then decided to do something else, and left his wallet on the pavement. An amputee passed by and picked up the wallet. The man was looking around and saw that nobody claimed ownership. He then made a call before going to the mall.

The owner followed the man to see what he would do with the wallet. To his surprise, the man bought a bag and a pair of shoes!  They followed him still, and the man was walking for 2 hours. The owner felt something familiar about where they were going, and when he found out why, I felt bad for the amputee!

Rise of the machines – The Economist May 9th 2015

Artificial intelligence scares people—excessively so

ELON MUSK busies himself building other people’s futures. A serial entrepreneur who made his first fortune in the early days of the world wide web, he has since helped found a solar-power company to generate green electricity, an electric-car firm to liberate motorists from the internal-combustion engine, and a rocketry business—SpaceX—to pursue his desire to see a human colony on Mars within his lifetime. It makes him the sort of technologist you would expect might look on tomorrow with unbridled optimism.

Not all future technology meets with his approval, though. In a speech in October at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr Musk described artificial intelligence (AI) as “summoning the demon”, and the creation of a rival to human intelligence as probably the biggest threat facing the world. He is not alone. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at the University of Oxford who helped develop the notion of “existential risks”—those that threaten humanity in general—counts advanced artificial intelligence as one such, alongside giant asteroid strikes and all-out nuclear war. Lord Rees, who used to run the Royal Society, Britain’s foremost scientific body, has since founded the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, in Cambridge, which takes the risks posed by AI just as seriously.

Such worries are a mirror image of the optimism suffusing the field itself, which has enjoyed rapid progress over the past couple of years. Firms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Baidu have got into an AI arms race, poaching researchers, setting up laboratories and buying start-ups. The insiders are not, by and large, fretting about being surpassed by their creations. Their business is not so much making new sorts of minds as it is removing some of the need for the old sort, by taking tasks that used to be things which only people could do and making them amenable to machines.

The torrent of data thrown off by the world’s internet-connected computers, tablets and smartphones, and the huge amounts of computing power now available for processing that torrent, means that their algorithms are more and more capable of understanding languages, recognising images and the like. Business is taking notice. So are those who worry about technology taking away people’s jobs. Lots of work depends on recognising patterns and translating symbols. If computers replace some of the people now doing this, either by providing an automated alternative or by making a few such workers far more productive, there will be more white collars in the dole queue.

Signs of the AI boom are everywhere. Last year, Google was rumoured to have paid $400m for DeepMind, a London-based AI startup. It snatched the firm from under the nose of Facebook, which boasts its own dedicated AI research laboratory, headed by Yann LeCun, a star researcher hired from New York University. Google once employed Andrew Ng, an AI guru from Stanford University—until Baidu poached him last year to head up a new, Silicon Valley-based lab of its own. Firms such as Narrative Science, in Chicago, which hopes to automate the writing of reports (and which is already used by Forbes, a business magazine, to cover basic financial stories), and Kensho, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which aims to automate some of the work done by “quants” in the financial industry, have been showered in cash by investors. On April 13th IBM announced plans to use a version of its Watson computer—which crushed two puny human champions at an obscurantist American quiz show called Jeopardy! in 2011—to analyse health records, looking for medical insights.

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Don’t Go to Nepal to Help. Stay Home and Send Money Instead! – By Jessica Alexander APRIL 27 2015 5:52 PM

If you hop on the next flight to Kathmandu, you will cause more problems than you solve.

People carry their belongings amid the rubble of collapsed houses in Bhaktapur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, on April 27, 2015. Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images

People carry their belongings amid the rubble of collapsed houses in Bhaktapur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, on April 27, 2015.
Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images

A massive natural disaster has once again befallen a developing country. This time it is Nepal. The world is watching horrific images of people suffering, flattened historical monuments, and the fresh terror that comes with every aftershock. As the death toll continues to rise, the grim reality of what Nepal faces looms large. We are reminded of the 2010 Haiti earthquake that also devastated an overcrowded urban center with shoddy construction and poor building codes and left millions of people vulnerable. The humanitarian community and neighboring countries are flocking to Nepal to help with the search for survivors and provide relief—emergency shelter, food, water, health, and sanitation—to those most in need.

Humanitarian aid has been described as the world’s most unregulated industry. I should know. I’ve been working in this field for almost 15 years, for both U.N. agencies and NGOs during some of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises. While there were many trained, experienced experts on the ground, the work was complicated, messy, took time, and always required strong coordination among multiple moving parts. And in many of these natural disaster settings throngs of well-intentioned but unskilled volunteers compounded the crisis. In both post-earthquake Haiti in 2010 and post-tsunami Southeast Asia in 2004, some of my fellow humanitarian workers referred to these groups as the “second disaster.”

I’ve already seen questions popping up online from people wondering whether they should hop on the next flight to Kathmandu and help. Among possible disaster sites, Nepal is an appealing place: It’s a gorgeous conflict-free setting, there are few visa restrictions, and a developed tourist economy. The well-meaning onlooker may think, “Why not? I’ll get there and lend a hand.”

Actually, it’s a terrible idea. Don’t go to Nepal. You will cause more problems than you will solve.

Nepal earthquake: fears grow for uncontacted villages as more than 3,600 confirmed dead – 0:00 / 1:31 Embed Footage from Kathmandu shows the aftermath of Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake with houses toppled and multi-storey apartments reduced to rubble Jason Burke in Kathmandu, Justin McCurry and agencies Monday 27 April 2015 03.50 EDT




Unicef warns that nearly one million children have been severely affected by the worst earthquake to hit the country in more than 80 years and there are now fears of waterborne and infectious diseases

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Footage from Kathmandu shows the aftermath of Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake with houses toppled and multi-storey apartments reduced to rubble

The death toll in the Nepal earthquake rose to more than 3,600 on Monday and could climb higher as fears grow for the fate of people living in remote villages that remain out of the reach of search and rescue teams.

The earthquake – Nepal’s worst in more than 80 years – also injured more than 6,500 people and left thousands sleeping in the open while authorities battled against time to rescue anyone still alive beneath the rubble.

The death toll may rise once rescue and aid teams are able to reach remote mountain villages near the epicentre of the quake, where the damage is thought to be far worse than in the capital.

Reports received so far by the government and aid groups suggest that many communities perched on mountainsides are devastated or struggling to cope. Udav Prashad Timalsina, the top official for the Gorkha district, one of the worst-hit areas, said he was in desperate need of help.

“There are people who are not getting food and shelter. I’ve had reports of villages where 70% of the houses have been destroyed,” he said.

Police on Monday said the death toll was at least 3,617 in Nepal. Another 66 were killed across the border in India and at least another 20 in Tibet, China’s state news agency said.

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Shaken in the mountains

A man is pulled from the rubble in Kathmandu

SEISMOLOGISTS, politicians and ordinary residents of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, have long feared a big earthquake striking the sprawling city. It lies within a bowl-shaped valley, and as the population has poured off the fields over the years (hurried along by a decade of civil war), Kathmandu has swollen. Shoddy concrete buildings, narrow alleys and few building standards—combined with prevalent corruption among inspectors—meant the city was at risk. Over 5m people  cram in and around Kathmandu.

On April 25th a  big (magnitude 7.9) earthquake hit, striking 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west of the city. As far away as Delhi, India’s capital, windows rattled and water sloshed in jugs, and the metro service was suspended. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said his country would send rescue teams and assistance. A Nepalese minister, Minendra Rijal, spoke of enormous damage and called for help from international agencies. By the evening the police had confirmed over 1,000 deaths. The last quake of such size to hit the region, in Sichuan in south-west China in 2008, killed 90,000.

A resident in Kathmandu, speaking moments after the first shock, spoke of watching buildings collapse; older buildings proved the most vulnerable. A symbol of the city, the Dharahara tower, an eight-storey step tower  constructed in 1832, was toppled. In Patan Square, a historic site in the centre of the city, monuments that have long drawn pilgrims and tourists were reduced to rubble. The Kathmandu valley is on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites, with scores of brick and timber palaces and Buddhist temples dating back to the 15th century. A 72-year-old man said the earthquake was the strongest he had ever felt: “It was  what everyone was afraid of.” It is unclear how many people are trapped beneath the rubble.

Earthquakes are common in or near the Himalayas, where the Indian tectonic plate pushes five centimetres north a year, coming up against the Eurasian plate. In Nepal the last quake of similar magnitude was in 1934. Seventy or 80 years appears typical between big earthquakes. The quake’s hypocentre was relatively shallow, about 11km below the surface, exacerbating the ground-shaking, says David Rothery, a professor of geosciences at Britain’s Open University. Without the bedrock in the mountains, the impact of the earthquake in the silt plains of southern Nepal and northern India may have been even worse, he says.

The quake triggered an avalanche on Everest, burying part of a base camp used by climbers and killing at least eight people. Given the remoteness of many settlements in Nepal, it is likely that reports of death and destruction will take days to be heard.

Anticipating big earthquakes, foreign aid donors have provided funds and expertise in helping to prepare Kathmandu, for instance, by strengthening schools and hospitals. But Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia and suffers from prolonged political dysfunction. No sustained efforts have been made to protect people against earthquakes, including earthquake education and preparedness.

There is scope for regional help, and Mr Modi, whose country is closely allied with Nepal, looks inclined to offer  leadership. Nepal recently hosted a summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, at which national leaders pledged that barriers between countries should be reduced and greater help  given across borders. This earthquake is an early test of whether such words will be met with action.