Economist 5/5/16

  1. Since last autumn, the authorities in Dagestan have ramped up pressure against Salafis. They have reason to worry: as Moscow launched air strikes in support of Syria’s government, the Islamic State (IS) declared a holy war on Russia, took credit for downing a Russian passenger jet over Egypt.Officially, some 900 Dagestanis have left for Syria. Independent experts say the true figure may be as high as 4,000. Even the conservative estimate means that relative to population size.Most fighters who stayed in Dagestan have switched their allegiance from the Caucasus Emirate (CE), a regional insurgent group linked with al-Qaeda, to IS, which last year claimed the Russian North Caucasus as one of its provinces.The Russian government makes no distinction between non-violent Salafis and the radical underground.Police have expanded the use of terror watch lists, or profuchet. The 15,000 people on the lists are tracked closely and can be detained at any time, forced to give blood and DNA samples and submit to interrogation.
  2. Between 2000 and 2014, global production doubled from around 800m tonnes to around 1.6 billion tonnes a year, mainly driven by rising output in China. Until 2014, Chinese demand rose at approximately the same rate as its steel mills could produce, meaning that the impact on the rest of the world was limited. But as its construction boom came to an end, demand sagged, prompting the country’s state-owned steelmakers to sell their growing surpluses on foreign markets. Exports of steel from China increased from 45m tonnes in 2014 to 97m tonnes last year—marking a bigger rise than Germany’s entire output of the past year: 43m tonnes. Many economists argue that government subsidies are responsible for the overcapacity in the industry lasting so long.In Europe, Italy has spent €2 billion to support the Ilva steel mill in Taranto. And even in Britain, where nationalization has long been out of favor, the Conservative government has expressed a willingness to take a 25% stake in the Port Talbot steelworks.
  3. .Alibaba’s first-quarter results today are likely to show an overall revenue gain of 35% from a year ago, to roughly 24 billion yuan ($3.7 billion). That represents a slowing from 2015’s full-year revenue increase of 45%, to 76 billion yuan. The Chinese—still by far the company’s main market—are shopping online as never before: Alibaba’s platforms now handle over 3 trillion yuan a year. But competition from other e-commerce platforms is intensifying. Moreover shopping is shifting quickly to smartphones, where transactions are smaller and less profitable, so economies of scale are diminishing and profits are getting squeezed.That explains why the firm has been hunting for lucrative acquisitions, including a recent big investment in ele.me, China’s biggest food-delivery service.
  4. A paper published this week in Science Translational Medicine, by Peter Kim of the Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC, and his colleagues, brings the idea of real robot surgeons, operating under only the lightest of human supervision, a step closer.To build their robodoc, dubbed the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR), Dr Kim and his team fitted a robotic arm with an articulated suturing tool and a force sensor to detect the tension in the surgical thread during the operation. They equipped the arm with cameras that could create a three-dimensional image, to guide it as it deployed the tool, and also a thermal-imaging device to help distinguish between similar-looking tissues. A computer program written by the team controlled the arm.Under a surgeon’s supervision, STAR sewed the piglet’s gut together again. In the four operations reported in the paper it carried out about 60% of the procedure without human intervention, and the rest with only minor adjustments to its stitches. Since the team submitted their results for publication, however, they say STAR has successfully completed the entire process unaided.It averaged 50 minutes for the operation, whereas a person would take about eight but stitches were more evenly spaced and the sutured gut less leaky.
  5.  Italy is the natural destination for migrants setting off from Libya—and an obvious target for Islamic State (IS) terrorists based there, who have repeatedly threatened Rome.After a surge in March, the number of migrants leaving Libya dropped last month. But even if it stays at its level of 2015, Italy can expect more than 150,000 new arrivals this year.American intelligence estimates that IS forces in Libya have doubled in the past 12-18 months, to around 5,000 fighters.Italy’s colonial record alone would make it a target. It began occupying modern-day Libya after the first world war, ultimately withdrawing in 1947. But after independence it forged strong economic links, and these survived the chaos that followed the overthrow of Libya’s dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, in 2011.ENI, Italy’s state-controlled oil company, gets about 20% of its production from Libya.A recurrent fear in Rome is that, if Italy fails to take the lead in any future Western initiative, its former colony could fall under French or British commercial influence. Yet public opinion is wary of military action: the most recent poll found barely a third of Italians would back it.
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