Friday, 17 May 2013 11:59
The leaders of Turkey and the United States are huddling in Washington on Thursday over how to handle the Syrian civil war, the raging conflict that has left an estimated 80,000 people dead and a few million displaced -- despite more than two years of diplomacy to halt the bloodshed.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meeting in Washington, discussed how to strengthen the Syrian opposition, help the many people displaced by the war, and mobilize the international community to put more pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and forge a political transition.
They spoke as the warfare in Syria raged Thursday. The opposition Local Coordination Committees in Syria said at least 63 people were killed, including 45 in Damascus and its suburbs.
"We're going to keep increasing the pressure on the Assad regime, and working with the Syrian opposition," Obama said. "The prime minister has been on the forefront of the international effort to push for a transition to a democratic Syria without Bashar Assad. And Turkey is going to play an important role as we bring representatives of the regime and opposition together in the coming weeks."
Obama said he and Erdogan agree that al-Assad needs to transfer power.
"That is the only way we're going to resolve this crisis. And we're going to keep working for a Syria that is free from Assad's tyranny, that is intact and inclusive of all ethnic and religious groups, and that's a source of stability, not extremism, because it's in the profound interest of all our nations, especially Turkey."
Turkey has been a major player in the effort to push for change in Syria, which sits on its southern border. At one time, Erdogan and al-Assad had close ties, but the war has made them antagonists. Turkey has long harbored many Syrian refugees and hosted opposition entities.
"I've made it clear again today that the United States is going to keep on helping countries in the region, including Turkey, shoulder this burden, doing our part as a major donor of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, including those refugees in Turkey. And we're going to keep working with our Turkish partners to deliver the food, shelter and medicine that's needed to save lives."
Erdogan said ending the war and meeting the people's demands for a new government "are two areas where we are in full agreement with the United States. Supporting the opposition and Assad leaving are important issues. "
"We also agree that we have to prevent Syria from becoming an area for terrorist organizations. We also agreed that chemical weapons should not be used and all minorities and their rights should be secured. These are all priority areas for all of us," he said.
Obama said that solid evidence of chemical weaponry would constitute a red line in the conflict and produce major consequences.
"I've said in the past, we have seen evidence of the use of chemical weapons inside of Syria. It is important for us to make sure that we're able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there," he said.
"But separate and apart from the chemical weapons, we know that tens of thousands of people are being killed with artillery and mortars and that the humanitarian crisis and the slaughter that's taking place by itself is sufficient to prompt strong international action."
He cited a "whole range of options that the United States is already engaged in" and said he preserved "the options of taking additional steps, both diplomatic and military, because those chemical weapons inside of Syria also threaten our security over the long term as well as our allies and friends and neighbors."
This is also an international problem, and it's very much my hope to continue to work with all the various parties involved, including Turkey, to find a solution that brings peace to Syria, stabilizes the region, stabilizes those chemical weapons, but it's not gonna be something that the United States does by itself, and I don't think anybody in the region, including the prime minister, would think that U.S. unilateral actions in and of themselves would bring about a better outcome inside -- inside of Syria."
On Wednesday, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a political transition in Syria.
The resolution, which passed by a 107-12 vote, with 59 abstentions, also condemned the government's increased use of heavy weapons and ongoing "widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms," said a U.N. statement.
It was the fifth resolution on Syria voted by the body since 2011.
"If we are unable to do anything to stop this tragedy, then how can we sustain the moral credibility of this organization?" Assembly President Vuk Jeremic said before the vote, according to the statement.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed the revival of a peace initiative based on last year's Geneva conference.
That conference, brokered by Russia and the United States, outlined how a transitional government could be formed in Syria.
"I think it's fair to say that both of us are confident about the direction that we're moving in and very, very hopeful that within a short period of time, the pieces will have come together fully so that the world, hopefully, will have an opportunity to be given an alternative to the violence and destruction that is taking place in Syria at this moment," Kerry said.
Lavrov cited the Russian-American proposal to convene a conference to start implementing the Geneva communique last June.
"It's self-explanatory, and what we need now is to mobilize support for this initiative on the basis of what was, I believe, in Geneva and what was proposed by Washington and Moscow: to mobilize support, first of all, by all the Syrian groups, the regime and all opposition groups; and second, by those outside actors who have influence on either one or the other Syrian group," Lavrov said.
Obama and Erdogan addressed the Geneva initiative.
"I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians and representatives about a serious political transition that all parties can buy into may yield results," Obama said.
Erdogan said that "we will continue to explore what we can do together, what we can consider as part of a road map looking at Geneva and beyond."
Friday, 17 May 2013 10:41
Dell, the world's number three PC maker, reported Thursday a 79% profit plunge for the first quarter of the year -- to just $130 million -- owing to a slump in desktop and laptop sales, so-called "end-user computing" products. Quarterly operating income for the division fell 65% year on year.
"In the PC industry, everyone is struggling -- not just Dell -- and especially in the mobile PC market," says Craig Stice, Senior Principal Analyst at U.S.-based Compute Platforms. "When I look at those (Dell) revenues split between mobility and desktop, they're really not too far out of line with where the industry is at. The entire PC market struggled in Q1."
Technology research firm Gartner estimated 79 million PC shipments occurred in the first quarter of 2013 -- a fall of more than 11% year on year. HP saw a 24% drop in PC shipments, Dell fell 11% while Taiwan-based Acer Group fell nearly 30%.
The fall in global PC shipments contrasted with a rise in tablet volumes, according to IDC, an IT market research firm. From January to March this year, Apple shipped nearly 20 million units to be the world's number one tablet maker; Samsung shipped nearly 9 million units for second place. The world's top five tablet computer companies shipped more than 49 million units to record 142% growth year on year.
Dell has been trying to counter losses in its PC division by shifting to enterprise solutions, which includes hardware like computer servers, software for business applications and technical support to service clients.
Dell's quarterly operating income for the enterprise division soared 71% to $79 million but contributed just 8% of the company's total income.
"Enterprise solutions are significant growth opportunities," says Stice. "The margins are certainly better than the PC area -- high single digits to the low teens -- versus the enterprise space which is considerably higher."
In terms of hardware units sold for enterprise solutions, HP has traditionally been number one, with Dell and IBM rounding out the top three, adds Stice.
Still, the future seems anything but bright for the PC industry despite a flurry of attempted innovations, from super-thin and light ultrabooks to convertible PCs that can morph into tablet forms.
"Dell was a bit slow to the Ultrabook game and lost to players like (Taiwan's) Asus and Acer," says Richard Lai, Editor-in-Chief of Engadget Chinese. In addition, Dell's dive into convertible laptops "was rather half-hearted: poor screen, too bulky."
"You can kind of say the PC industry is throwing darts at the board to see what sticks," says Stice. "If they can find that combination of a whole computing performance PC, with mobility and a low price point to compete with some of those $200 media tablets, then I think there's opportunity. There's still an opportunity for a PC refresh cycle. That can happen."
Thursday, 16 May 2013 14:07
Pope Francis has called on world leaders to end the "cult of money" and to do more for the poor, in his first major speech on the financial crisis.
Free market economics had created a tyranny, in which people were valued only by their ability to consume, the pontiff told diplomats in the Vatican.
"Money has to serve, not to rule," he said, urging ethical financial reforms.
Meanwhile, the Vatican's own bank announced it would publish its annual report for the first time.
The Institute for Works of Religion, which has been at the centre of various financial scandals in recent years, is to hire an external accountancy firm to ensure it meets international standards against money laundering.
The bank would launch a website and publish its annual report in an effort to increase transparency, new president Ernst Freyberg said.
The institute is considered one of the world's most secretive banks.
Pope Francis said life had become worse for people in both rich and poor countries, the BBC's David Willey in Rome reports.
In a biblical reference, the pontiff said the "worship of the golden calf" of old had found a new and heartless image in the current cult of money.
He added that reforms were urgently needed as poverty was becoming more and more evident.
People struggled to live, and frequently in an undignified way, under the dictatorship of an economy which lacked any real human goal, Pope Francis said.
He made his remarks during an address to newly accredited ambassadors to the Holy See.
The new pontiff, who took over from Benedict XVI in March, is renowned for his efforts of tackling poverty in his native Argentina.
He has previously said that the Church has a special duty to defend the poor.
"I would like a Church that is poor and is for the poor," he said following his election as head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics two months ago.
The pontiff said he had chosen the name Francis in a direct reference to St Francis of Assisi, the Italian founder of the Franciscan Order who was devoted to the poor.
Wednesday, 15 May 2013 13:39
In some countries, computer programming might be seen as the realm of the nerd.
But not in Estonia, where it is seen as fun, simple and cool.
This northernmost of the three Baltic states, a small corner of the Soviet Union until 1991, is now one of the most internet-dependent countries in the world.
And Estonian schools are teaching children as young as seven how to programme computers.
Estonia's e-revolution began in the 1990s, not long after independence. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then the country's ambassador to the United States, now Estonia's president, takes some of the credit.
There's a story from his time in the US that he is fond of telling. He read a book whose "Luddite, neo-Marxist" thesis, he says, was that computerisation would be the death of work.
The book cited a Kentucky steel mill where several thousands of workers had been made redundant, because after automatisation, the new owners could produce the same amount of steel with only 100 employees.
"This may be bad if you are an American," he says. "But from an Estonian point of view, where you have this existential angst about your small size - we were at that time only 1.4 million people - I said this is exactly what we need.
"We need to really computerise, in every possible way, to massively increase our functional size."
So Estonia became E-stonia - a neat Ilves joke. And with the help of a government-backed technology investment body, called the Tiger Leap Foundation, all Estonian schools were online by the late 1990s.
Through Tiger Leap, they have been teaching programming at secondary level for some time. But their latest project is to introduce the concept to children earlier, when they enter at the age of seven. So far, they have trained 60 teachers to teach the first four year groups.
"By next September, when the new school year begins, I hope every school finds it to be important to integrate programming in their classes," says Tiger Leap's Ave Lauringson, who is in charge of the project.
In a newly-built, yellow-painted school in Lagedi, outside the Estonian capital, Tallinn, this can already be seen taking shape.
A class of 10-year-olds are designing their own computer games, supervised by information and communications technology (ICT) teacher Hannes Raimets, a slight, quietly-spoken 24-year-old, a child of the first e-generation.
"I think teaching them to program has lots of benefits. It helps the children develop their creativity and logical thinking," he says. "Also, it's fun, building your own game. "I think it's their favourite subject at school," says Mr Raimets.
What is also evident is that computer programming, at least at a basic level, just isn't that hard.
President Ilves makes the same point. Born in Stockholm of Estonian parents, he grew up and attended high school in the US. He learned programming at 13, as part of an experimental maths class, and says it helped him to pay his way through college.
"I don't think programming computers is such a deep, dark secret. I think it's strictly logic," he says.
"Here in Estonia, we begin foreign language education either in Grade One or Grade Two. If you're learning the rules of grammar at seven or eight, then how's that different from the rules of programming? In fact, programming is far more logical than any language."
President Ilves argues that education reforms take 15 or 20 years to show an effect. He feels this point is proved by the large number of technology start-ups for which Estonia today is attracting attention.
One of these is Frostnova, whose chief executive, Mikk Melder, is 25. His company has designed a game for primary school children called Ennemuistne, drawing heavily on local folklore and myth.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon using Skype, an Estonian invention
Mr Melder says he visited local museums to make sure the architecture depicted is strictly accurate. Players can dress their characters in traditional costume and make them dance a uniquely Estonian jig.
"This is the ultimate purpose of the game," he says. "To bring something old, preserved and traditional into today's world, into the digital age."
Rather better known is Skype, an Estonian start-up long since gone global.
Skype was bought by Microsoft in 2011 for a cool $8.5bn, but still employs 450 people at its local headquarters on the outskirts of Tallinn, roughly a quarter of its total workforce. Tiit Paananen, from Skype, says they are passionate about education and that it works closely with Estonian universities and secondary schools.
"Your capability not only to use, but also to create IT components will give you a competitive edge," says Mr Paananen. He is happy to hear that they are now starting even younger.
"Skype has kicked off a wave of technological innovations in Estonia and all these knowledge-rich, highly-paid jobs will need those bright heads for the future."
Estonians today vote online and pay tax online. Their health records are online and, using what President Ilves likes to call a "personal access key" - others refer to it as an ID card - they can pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy. The card offers access to a wide range of other services.
All this will be second nature to the youngest generation of E-stonians. They encounter electronic communication as soon as they enter school through the eKool (e-school) system. Exam marks, homework assignments and attendance in class are all available to parents at the click of a mouse.
"For most kids in Estonia, eKool is their first connection to ICT," says eKool's chief executive, Sander Kasak.
"They will be at school for 10 to 12 years, so they'll be learning about technological improvements all the time. So you could say eKool is not only a technological partner, but also an educational partner."
For Mairi Tonsiver, whose 11-year-old son Uku is a student at Lagedi School, eKool is a life-saver. He has just spent three school days at home because of sickness, but by checking online, his mother can find out exactly what he has missed and needs to catch up on.
"It was much more difficult and much more time-consuming when we didn't have eKool," she says.
"And your kids can't now make the excuse that they didn't write down what homework they have to do, because now you can just go to the computer and check it."
Uku says he wants to be a cosmonaut. Designing computer games is probably not a bad way to start.