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Crossing the digital frontier

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“The revolution in information technology is only just starting.” Even in undeveloped parts of South Africa, ever more people like this Zulu in his traditional garb not only want to use mobile phones – they want to go online. But the Internet connections remain highly instable.

Plugging rural South Africa into the Internet – By Dietrich von Richthofen

When Sibukele Gumbo travels to her lab, she has to cross a border – but there is no barrier blocking the road. The frontier doesn’t run between countries, and it follows no clearly defined line. But near Idutywa, the road gets bumpier and heads deeper into the undulating grasslands of the Wild Coast, a part of the former Trans­kei homeland stretching along the edge of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. “Welcome to information-locked country,” Gumbo says, as we leave the asphalted main route and turn onto a rutted dirt and gravel road. Welcome to a country shut off from the modern flow of information. The computer specialist’s aim is to eliminate this invisible border, the boundary separating the Wild Coast from the information society.

The next rise reveals a vista of hills covered in silver-green grass, dotted with rondavel stone houses in light-blue, mint-green, and striking violet. Between them, cows and goats trot on narrow dirt tracks. Idyllic though the countryside is, its social and economic reality is riven.

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Germany draws conclusions

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A new national energy consensus for the post-Fukushima world – By Kevin Lynch

It is no exaggeration to say that, outside of Japan, the effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster have been felt most strongly 9,000 kilometers away in Germany. On the government’s official website, bundesregierung.de, the most prominent link at the moment is “Japan and the consequences.”

Click on it, and a drop-down menu opens with the following options: Travel; Food and Imports; Radiation Protection; The Economy. There is information on every conceivable way in which Fukushima could impact Germany. Also prominently displayed are the numbers of two “citizen telephones,” hotlines to the environment ministry and to the foreign ministry, which concerned Germans, at home or abroad, can ring for advice.

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Serious. Passionate. Rigorous.

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Behind the German passion for argument lies not so much hysteria as a traditional culture of democratic debate – By Mehmet Toprak

The nuclear disaster in Japan unleashed an intense debate in Germany about the future of energy provision – much to the astonishment of observers elsewhere, whose reaction might be summed up as: What is it with the Germans, anyway – are they neurotic or just smarter than us? Neither. They just hate risk and they love to examine all the options.

It is strange how disparate the reactions to Fukushima have been. The French barely raised an eyebrow and remain committed to nuclear energy. The US announced plans to review safety standards, but does not intend to close any of its nuclear power plants. Emerging countries like Brazil, Turkey or India happily continue to build new reactors.

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Nuclear Iron Curtain

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The EU’s East continues to see atomic energy as a valuable option – By Luboš Palata

Europe is facing a new division – the Nuclear Curtain. The issue of nuclear energy fundamentally separates Germany and Austria on the one side from the new members of the European Union in East-Central Europe on the other.

Germany’s Fukushima-boosted exodus from nuclear energy represents a much more serious problem for Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks and Slovenians than the Austrian “antinuclear hysteria,” with which they have long learned to live. One would think it should be the other way around.

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Nuclear forward defense

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France still considers reactor power vital to the national interest – By Rudolf Balmer, Paris

In the wake of events at Fukushima, several European countries have called a moratorium on nuclear energy. France is not one of them. On the contrary. Environmental parties somewhat hesitantly put out a call for a referendum on partially abandoning nuclear power and even that went almost unheeded.

France gets almost 80 percent of its electricity from its 58 nuclear reactors. The country’s state-owned nuclear energy industry leads the world in building nuclear plants and re-processing nuclear fuel rods.

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Tuna nigiri – stocks of the fish are severely depleted in European and Mediterranean waters.

Too few fish, too many fishermen – Europe plans to change its fishing quotas – By Ulrike Fokken

Everyone likes fish. The Spaniards consume 43 kilograms per person each year; the Japanese 30 kilos; Germans eat an average 17 kilos of fish annually. But the Baltic and North Seas off Germany do not produce enough to satisfy that appetite. And Spaniards currently consume around four times more than the fish stocks in the waters off their Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.

Two-thirds of the fish consumed in Europe are imported from Africa, Asia and America. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 85 percent of the world’s known fish stocks are either “fully exploited or overexploited.”

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Thinking the unthinkable

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The US might lose its credit rating if the quarreling in Washington doesn’t stop – By Nikolaus Piper

It was playing with the unthinkable. Standard & Poor’s reduced the creditworthiness rating for the US from “stable” to “negative.” True, the US gets to keep its coveted AAA rating. But if no convincing budget plan is implemented by 2013, that could quickly change. The superpower would suddenly no longer be a safe haven for capital, the government would have to pay markedly higher interest rates, the dollar would come under still more pressure, and the world might even be plunged into a new financial crisis.

Given the current political climate in Washington, anything is possible. Still, one can, with some confidence, assume the unthinkable will not come to pass and that the US will be able to keep its triple-A rating even after 2013. All the relevant parties in Washington know they might otherwise have to pay a very steep price.

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Apple, slightly blemished

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Harsh working conditions drove 13 iPhone workers to commit suicide in China. But the world’s urbane elite have no intention of giving up their status symbols – By Hannes Koch

We are so closely intertwined – and yet so very far apart. We, the purchasers of Apple products like the iPhone and iPad. And they, the workers who assemble the devices in the factories in the megacities of Shenzhen and Chengdu.

I didn’t think about it. I was in a good mood strolling down Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. Now I had an iPhone with a two-year contract – but asked myself with a certain amount of shame how that could happen. The media reports about the suicides of Chinese iPhone workers in the first half of 2010 didn’t prevented my purchase. Thirteen employees of Foxconn International, which manufactures the phone on behalf of Apple, took their own lives – the majority jumped to their deaths from the upper stories of the factory building. Another four survived their attempted suicides.

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A vicious Iberian cycle?

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Even though the Portuguese are working hard, productivity is so poor that even low wages cannot boost exports.

Europe is still discussing Portuguese debt relief. But Spain could be the next victim of the eurozone crisis – By Ulrike Herrmann

A third eurozone country is insolvent: after Greece and Ireland, now Portugal requires assistance from the EU Rescue Fund. The Portuguese will need about €80 billion to avert national bankruptcy.

What is striking about Portugal’s crisis is how long it remained under the radar. It developed stealthily and there was no spectacular trigger. As opposed to Ireland, there was no real-estate bubble that left insolvent banks in its wake. And unlike Greece, the Portuguese state did not uncontrollably spend its way into debt.

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The alternatives

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Decommissioning nuclear power plants is easy but where will the electricity come from? – By Wolfgang Mulke

The German nuclear power phase-out has been agreed, although the exact timeframe is still up for discussion. Electricity supplies will continue to be provided by the fossil fuels coal and gas. But it is likely that these sources will also be dispensable toward the middle of this century. Then renewable energy will have its turn. A centralized electricity production system will be replaced by a varied mix of small and large power plants and a blend of energy sources.

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