The World Today for July 27, 2022

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NEED TO KNOW

Huffing and Puffing

THAILAND

Thailand recently decriminalized marijuana, becoming the first country in Asia to embrace a new attitude toward the plant that the locals refer to as ganja.

The Southeast Asian country will likely not become a pot-focused tourist haven anytime soon, however, the Washington Post cautioned. While marijuana is legal for medicinal and industrial uses, it has not been greenlit for recreational consumption. Smoking in public still carries a maximum sentence of a $700 fine and up to three months in jail.

Still, it seems as if the cat is out of the bag. In addition to folks selling weed-based curries on the street and the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine’s recent publication of a cookbook detailing Thai recipes that feature ganja, as the Bangkok Post explained, smoking weed for fun is becoming more widespread.

Young people whose job opportunities dried up during the coronavirus pandemic have embraced the new industry, reported Al Jazeera. The keyword #saikiew, or “green way of life” in Thai, has become popular on social media platforms.

Decriminalization reverses Thailand’s traditionally harsh anti-drug policies. In the past, the BBC wrote, Thai leaders zealously waged a war against drugs without thinking much about justice or human rights in the process. Drug trafficking could result in a death sentence, for example, a tradition that other countries in the region, including Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, still uphold.

These shifts are occurring as Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha faced his fourth no-confidence motion in parliament as opposition parties continue to jockey for position ahead of an election next year. A retired army chief who assumed power eight years ago in a coup, according to Reuters, Prayuth has survived no-confidence votes before even as he now presides over a 17-party coalition. His critics say that he has failed to solve any problems, improve the country’s economy or crack down on corruption.

Last year, the Thai economy expanded by 1.5 percent, the worst growth in Southeast Asia, Nikkei Asia reported. Those numbers illustrate how Prayuth has yet to make good on his pledge to boost growth so that Thailand might emerge from the so-called “middle-income trap” where rising costs and poor competitiveness prevent partially developed countries from transitioning into full-on affluent ones.

Prayuth survived the no-confidence vote Saturday. But he might not be so lucky when seeking to win a third term next year. The political climate in Thailand is favoring those who are advocating for change, the Kyodo News wrote.

In other words, smoke will only take them so far.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Gold Rush

ZIMBABWE

Zimbabwe launched gold coins to be sold to the public this week, a move economists say is aimed at curbing soaring inflation that has eroded the value of the African country’s unstable currency, Al Jazeera reported Tuesday.

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe said the newly-minted Mosi-oa-Tunya – the local name for Victoria Falls – will have “liquid asset status” and can easily be converted to cash and can be used locally and internationally.

The central bank added that the coins can be used to make purchases in shops and as collateral for loans.

So far, it has distributed 2,000 coins to commercial banks. The first batch of the 22-carat coins was minted outside Zimbabwe but officials said they plan to produce them locally.

Their price will be decided by the rate of an ounce of gold on the international market plus five percent for coin production expenses. One Mosi-oa-Tunya was priced at $1,824 at the time of its introduction Monday.

Currently, trust in Zimbabwe’s currency is low after many saw their savings wiped out following the 2008 hyperinflation period. In June, inflation rose to nearly 192 percent from 132 percent a month earlier.

Zimbabwe is experiencing an economic crisis marked by a sharp decline in industrial production, a quickly depreciating local currency and 90 percent unemployment. The African nation has considerable gold reserves and exporting the precious metal is one of Zimbabwe’s main foreign currency earners.

Even so, gold smuggling remains a serious problem in the country, costing the state about 33 tons of gold annually.

Analyst Victor Bhoroma told Al Jazeera that the gold coins are a good idea “in terms of storing value,” but cautioned that the strategy could be “a fundraising scheme to get US dollars from the market by the central bank.”

New Frontiers

RUSSIA

Russia will withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024, a move that comes amid tensions between Moscow and Western nations over the war in Ukraine, Sky News reported.

Yuri Borisov, head of the state-controlled space corporation Roscosmos, confirmed Russia’s departure Tuesday, adding that Moscow is now focusing on building its own orbital outpost.

Russian officials have been contemplating leaving the ISS since 2021 over concerns regarding the station’s aging equipment and safety risks, according to the Washington Post.

But the exit comes amid an ongoing spat over sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. In April, Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, announced that Russia would halt cooperation on the ISS in response to Western sanctions, saying they were aimed at bringing “our country to its knees.”

Despite heightened tensions, NASA and Roscosmos reached an agreement earlier this month to ensure that the ISS always has at least one American and one Russian on board to keep the station running smoothly.

Both parties also agreed to allow astronauts to continue using Russian rockets and for cosmonauts to use SpaceX starting in the fall to travel to the aging orbital station.

Meanwhile, NASA officials unveiled plans earlier this year to decommission the ISS in 2031. It said the laboratory would continue operating until 2030 but its long-term future is unsustainable.

The Right To Be Single

CHINA

A Chinese court ruled against an unmarried woman who sought to freeze her eggs, a verdict that underscores the challenges women in China face in light of the country’s strict regulation of families, Reuters reported Monday.

The case began in 2019 when plaintiff Teresa Xu sued a Beijing hospital for refusing to freeze her eggs because of her marital status.

She alleged that on her first visit the doctor had told her to have a child right away. On her second visit, he told her she could not proceed because she didn’t have a marriage license, the Associated Press noted.

The hospital had also contended that freezing eggs has various health risks, adding that delayed pregnancy or single motherhood may lead to other social problems.

While Chinese law doesn’t explicitly ban unmarried people from fertility treatments, such procedures are permitted exclusively for medical purposes, such as treating infertility or maintaining people’s fertility before undergoing certain medical procedures. Chinese law allows couples to have three children.

Meanwhile, hospitals and other health institutions implement rules in a way that requires people to show marriage licenses.

The court sided with the hospital, saying it had not violated Xu’s rights. She said she plans to appeal.

The proceedings gained national attention in China, where it is difficult for unmarried women who choose to delay childbirth to access public benefits, such as maternity leave or coverage for prenatal exams.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • European Union agreed to reduce their gas use by 15 percent between August and March in case Russia cuts off supplies, although some nations will be excluded from the agreement to prevent rationing, the BBC reported.
  • Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei visited Ukraine this week, becoming the first Latin American president to make the trip to the country since Russia invaded in February, Euronews wrote. Giammattei met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to express his solidarity with Ukraine’s plight. Many Latin American leaders have avoided taking a stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reflecting in some cases decades-old ties to Russia and in others a wariness of US foreign policy goals.
  • The Ukrainian government is facing criticism over its nationwide recruitment campaign, with critics saying it violates the country’s own rules and that it sometimes drafts the unwilling while spurning the willing, according to the New York Times. A petition calling for a ban on summonses being issued at checkpoints, petrol stations, and other public locations has received more than 25,000 signatures from Ukrainians, the number required to force President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to respond. It requests he set up a transparent procedure for determining who can be called up to serve.

DISCOVERIES

Hard-Headed

Scientists have long wondered how woodpeckers can withstand the catastrophic impact of their beaks on wood.

Previous studies have suggested that the bird’s brain is protected because of a skull that acts as a cushion or a beak that absorbs force.

Now, a new research team is using high-speed video cameras to record woodpeckers in action to see what shields the birds’ brains from impact, NPR reported.

In a new study, lead author Sam Van Wassenbergh and his team went to four different zoos in Europe to closely observe the high-impact pecking.

They wrote that the birds close their eyes at the moment of impact to avoid getting splinters. The woodpeckers are also very adept at maneuvering their beaks even when they became stuck in the wood.

Meanwhile, the team noted that the video evidence showed no sign that the avians’ brains were cushioned.

“The way we see the head behaving is very rigid, like you would use a hammer hitting wood,” explained Van Wassenbergh.

This means that the brain is repeatedly decelerating, which would result in a concussion in a human brain. Even after hundreds of blows in a single day, the woodpecker’s brain remains unharmed.

The researchers suggested that this protection is caused by the very tiny size and weight of the woodpecker’s brain – which is 700 times smaller than a human one.

“An animal that has a smaller size can withstand higher decelerations,” Wassenbergh said. “That’s a biomechanical law.”

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