The World Today for October 22, 2018

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Garbage, Potholes and Exploding Buses

Italian leaders are squeezed from above, below and within.

Their constituents are angry over their inaction. The European Union is chastising them over their recently announced budget. And some partners in the Mediterranean country’s governing coalition are arguing over whether they agreed to some of the policies the cabinet has enacted.

One might say that Italy is a wee bit unstable these days.

“Tired of overflowing bins, potholes and exploding buses, Rome’s long-suffering residents are planning a protest in an effort to save their city from further decay,” wrote the Guardian, describing widespread public disaffection with officials who have failed to come up with plans to improve the Eternal City’s infrastructure.

Don’t expect the central government to help much, though.

On the same day the Guardian published its story, the European Commission’s budget chief, Pierre Moscovici, chided Italian Economy Minister Giovanni Tria with a letter criticizing the level of deficit spending in Italy’s new budget as an “unprecedented” departure from EU rules, Bloomberg reported.

Moscovici basically asked Italian lawmakers to go back to the drawing board – an unprecedented request in the annals of the bloc.

The finger-wagging prompted Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, a Euroskeptic who leads the Five Star Movement, a member of Italy’s coalition government, to counterattack.

“Come here among the people instead of pontificating from Brussels with letters,” he said. “Come here and have the courage to say to Italians that they don’t have the same rights as other European peoples.”

The back-and-forth inspired the Council on Foreign Relations to ask, “Does Italy Threaten a New European Debt Crisis?” The question reflects how Italy is forcing the EU to face its contradictions.

As Agence France-Presse explained, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is seeking to cut taxes and increase spending to boost economic activity amid sluggish growth. But the EU is calling for austerity, an economic strategy that has arguably devastated Greece over the past decade.

The question is whether investors will continue to buy Italy’s debt so that it can finance government operations. CNBC suggested that bond buyers were getting leery.

The current government might not need to address the issue, however, Reuters said. The Five Star Movement has accused a coalition partner, the far-right League, of ramming through a “manipulated” tax amnesty that Five Star opposes. That raises questions about whether the coalition is in danger of falling apart.

Italy, of course, will survive. Whether Italy’s mayhem will hurt Europe as Britain leaves and East European leaders continue to criticize Brussels is another pressing question that might be answered all-too-soon.



No Exit, Please

Many around the world are nervous following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a Cold War weapons treaty widely considered important to the global nuclear disarmament effort. But how dangerous is the move?

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with President Reagan in 1987, said it was none too wise, according to the BBC. Still, Trump has insisted that Moscow has been flouting the treaty’s provisions, so withdrawing from it simply balances the scales. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also urged Washington to reconsider.

Signed near the end of the Cold War, the INF banned ground-launched missiles with a range of 310-3,400 miles. In accusing Moscow of violating the ban, Trump said the US would not let Russia “go out and do weapons [while] we’re not allowed to.”

Last year, Russia denied deploying a banned cruise missile after similar accusations from the US, amid concerns over new interest in less powerful, short-range nuclear weapons that could be used on the battlefield rather than as a strategic deterrent.


A King’s Prerogative

Jordan’s King Abdullah II said he intends to reclaim two tracts of land leased to Israel under a 1994 peace treaty when the deal expires later this week, raising questions about the future of territories that have been under Israeli control since 1948.

“We have informed Israel of an end to the application of the peace treaty annexes regarding al-Baqura and al-Ghumar,” the king said on Sunday, referring to 1,000-odd acres of water-rich farmland, Al Jazeera reported.

The terms of the 25-year lease agreement include a 12-month notice period to prevent an automatic extension. The deadline for renewing the leases is this Thursday, after which they would expire next year. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will try to negotiate an extension.

Likely to be popular in Jordan, the move isn’t projected to cause an immediate diplomatic crisis, the New York Times said. But it did expose underlying tensions between the two countries as King Abdullah seeks to quiet unrest over a lagging economy in Jordan.


Hammer and Nails

Conventional wisdom says when the only tool you have to work with is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

For Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who is projected to win the second-round run-off vote Oct. 28, that means deploying the army for routine street patrols, Reuters reported.

“If Congress grants permission, I would put armed forces in the streets,” Bolsonaro said in an interview with Band TV, discussing how he would deal with the country’s crime problems.

In contrast, his Workers’ Party opponent, Fernando Haddad, on Sunday pledged to increase benefits paid under Brazil’s top social assistance program, known as Bolsa Família, by 20 percent.

On Saturday, thousands of people rallied in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and 24 other cities to protest Bolsonaro’s campaign under the banner “Not him!” – angered by Bolsonaro’s praise of the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship and offensive remarks about gays, women and black people.

But opinion polls give him an 18-point lead with less than a week left before the final vote.


Great Expectations

Dogs can understand commands. But can they really understand everything their owners say?

Researchers have discovered that the brain of man’s best friend behaves differently than human brains when it comes to understanding words, Inverse reported.

For months, owners trained their pooches in fetching two toys – either “monkey” or “piggy” – which would be later used in an experiment to analyze the pets’ brain activity.

Using MRI scans, scientists reported no activity when the dogs saw the toys and heard their respective names. But the researchers noticed a spike in activity when the pets saw different items and heard gibberish names for them like “bobbu” and “bobmick.” Human brains work the opposite way, showing more activity when people hear words they know.

“The most exciting finding is probably that the greater neural activation to pseudowords [gibberish] over the trained words in dogs is different than what is common in human language studies,” said study co-author Ashley Prichard.

Prichard argued that the animals might be trying to figure out the words to better respond to their owners, adding that verbal communication might not always be the most effective way to communicate with pets.

“Everyone who has a dog may think they are an expert,” she said, “but there really needs to be more research on how dogs think and perceive the world, not just how we humans think that they do.”

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