25, February 2017

1.India building a supercomputer juggernaut
Source : The Hindu

India will likely unveil its most powerful supercomputer in June

  • Top 10: If its processors operate at the full capacity of 10 petaflops, it could earn a place among the world’s top 10 fastest supercomputers
  • 10 petaflops: (1 followed by 15 zeroes of floating point operations per second) a clock speed a million times faster than the fastest consumer laptops
  • EKA: Though India has built or hosted supercomputers since the 1990s, it held a ‘top 10’ spot only once, in 2007, with the EKA built by the Computational Research Laboratories, which is part of the Tata group
  • This position was lost, though several ultra-fast machines exist in Indian academic institutions; they feature in the 100s or 200s in global rankings
  • The as-yet-unnamed machine will be jointly hosted at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune and the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting at Noida in Uttar Pradesh
  • For the first time, colleges and other research institutions can log in and harness its power to address problems, ranging from weather modelling to understanding how proteins fold
  • The processing speed of supercomputers is only one of the factors that determine its worth, with power usage and arrangement of processors, being other key metrics that determine the worth of a system

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2.Arctic vault receives new seed deposits
Source : The Hindu

  • Some 50,000 new samples from seed collections around the world, including India, have been deposited in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at an Arctic island
  • The newly deposited samples are from seed collections in Benin, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Morocco, Netherlands, the US, Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belarus and Britain
  • It brought the total deposits in the snow-covered vault with a capacity of 4.5 million to 940,000

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

  • It is a gene bank built underground on the isolated island in a permafrost zone some 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole
  • It was opened in 2008 as a master backup to the world’s other seed banks, in case their deposits are lost
  • It is the world’s largest repository built to safeguard against wars or natural disasters wiping out global food crops
  • The vault has opened nearly 10 years after a “doomsday”

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3.Plan to allow larger firms to shut shop sans govt. Nod
Source : The Hindu

The Labour Ministry has proposed that factories with up to 500 workers be allowed to lay off workers or shut shop without seeking government permission. To give firms flexibility in hiring and firing employees.

Industrial Disputes Act, 1947:

  • At present, factories with up to 100 workers are allowed to go in for retrenchment, lay-off or closure without seeking government permission
  • There has been demand from the industry to increase the threshold limit for factories to seek permission for retrenchment from 100 workers to 500 workers

Sixth Economic Census:

Around 99% of a total of 4.53 crore non-agricultural establishments employed less than 100 workers in 2013-14 and were allowed to retrench workers or close shut shop without government permission

Earlier attempts:

  • Till 1975, the requirement for prior permission was only for establishments with 1,000 workers that was decreased to 300 workers in 1976 during the Emergency and later brought down to 100 workers in 1982
  • NDA government in 2002 had also proposed allowing factories with up to 1,000 workers to lay off workers without government permission
  • In 2005, the Centre had released a discussion paper titled ‘Making Labour Market Flexible’ for stakeholder discussions proposing an increase in the threshold limit for seeking permission for retrenchment or closure under the Act to 300 from 100 workers
  • However, subsequent governments couldn’t take the proposal forward due to central trade union opposition

Investors hampered:

  • It is incontestable that the law on prior permission has a chilling effect on new investors, particularly in a situation in which there are many other unfavourable factors inhibiting investment
  • New investors are daunted by the requirement of permission as they fear that they would be burdened by the need to continue employing the work force even after it has become unprofitable for them to run the business

Labour Code on Industrial Relations

The Labour Ministry is set to discuss the proposed Labour Code on Industrial Relations

The code:

  • In May 2015, the Labour Ministry had proposed integrating three labour laws — the Trade Unions Act, the Industrial Disputes Act and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act — into a single code for industrial relations
  • It had then also proposed allowing factories with up to 300 workers to retrench workers or close down without seeking official sanction
  • However, the Centre had put the proposals on the back-burner after series of protests from the central trade unions on the proposed labour law reforms

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4.Ancient giant penguin lived alongside dinosaurs
Source : The Hindu

A study of a giant ancient penguin fossil found in New Zealand. Penguins are much older than previously thought and their evolution probably dates back to dinosaur times

The new find is one of the oldest penguin fossils in the world, dating back to 61 million years ago

Details:

  • The bones differed substantially from previous penguin finds of a similar age and showed that the variety of Palaeocene penguins, living between 66 million and 56 million years ago, is greater than previously thought
  • Penguins had reached enormous proportions early on in their evolutionary history and were already more diverse 60 million years ago than we had previously assumed
  • This diversity indicates that penguins probably evolved during the age of the dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago

Waimanu: Until now it had been assumed that Waimanu was the only penguin alive during this time

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5.Kim Jong-nam killed by VX nerve agent, a chemical weapon, say Malaysian police
Source : The Hindu

Kim Jong Nam was poisoned last week at the airport in Kuala Lumpur. He is the North Korean ruler’s outcast half brother.

Chemical: The banned chemical weapon VX nerve agent was used in the murder

Relations:

  • The case has marked a serious turnaround in relations between Malaysia and North Korea
  • While Malaysia isn’t one of Pyongyang’s key diplomatic partners, it is one of the few places in the world where North Koreans can travel without a visa
  • As a result, for years, it’s been a quiet destination for Northerners looking for jobs, schools and business deals

About the VX nerve agent:

  • VX nerve agent is an oily liquid that’s amber in color, but it’s both odorless and tasteless
  • Nerve agents, like VX, are the most toxic and deadly chemical warfare agents — they’re chemically similar to pesticides, although far stronger
  • VX is the most potent of all nerve agents, including Sarin, which was developed in Germany in 1938 as a pesticide
  • As a highly lethal chemical substance that can potentially kill large numbers of people, VX is considered a weapon of mass destruction
  • VX nerve gas was first developed in the UK in the 1950s as a deadly chemical warfare agent, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Experts say the formula has been replicated in the past by the US, Russia, Syria and Iraq

How does it work?

  • VX, if in vapor form, is the quickest and deadliest form of the killer gas. As a liquid, it could potentially be released into a water supply or used to poison someone’s food
  • Like all nerve agents, VX stops a vital enzyme from working — which eventually leads to the body tiring, and no longer being able to breathe

Affects environment:

  • VX is not only the deadliest nerve agent, but also the most persistent in the environment
  • It evaporates slowly, especially in cold conditions, making it both a long- and short-term threat

Symptoms:

  • Depending on how much a person was exposed to, symptoms will start occurring either immediately or up to 18 hours later
  • Large doses of the nerve gas can cause convulsions, loss of consciousness, paralysis and death, because of respiratory failure
  • Smaller, non-fatal doses can cause a wide range of symptoms that include increased heart rate, blurred vision, nausea, diarrhea, drooling, pain and weakness
  • Even just small doses of the gas can cause confusion and drowsiness
  • There are antidotes for VX exposure available and they are most effective when administered immediately

Banned!!

  • As a chemical weapon, VX is banned under a number of international agreements including the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention
  • The 1925 Geneva Protocol came about after the use of poisonous gas in World War I, which was later extended by the 1993 Convention to include a ban on their development, production, stockpiling, retention and transfer of chemical weapons
  • The Chemical Weapons Convention classifies VX as a Schedule 1 chemical, which means it poses a “high risk” to the convention and is rarely used for peaceful purposes
  • Signatories are only permitted to keep Schedule 1 chemicals in small quantities for research, medical, pharmaceutical of defensive use, according to the Arms Control Association
  • Both the US and Russia have in the past admitted to keeping stockpiles of VX, and under the Convention are obligated to destroy them

Who has it?

  • VX nerve gas was first used during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s
  • It’s part of the same family of toxic substances as Sarin, which was used in the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway
  • In the attack, members of the Aum Supreme Truth cult released Sarin nerve gas that killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,500 commuters
  • VX is said to be relatively easy to produce in a reasonably sophisticated laboratory
  • Any country with a sophisticated chemical weapons effort can produce VX
  • The formula has been around since the 1950s so it’s nothing new, it just has to be made the political will and determination that we are going to build this weapon.

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6.Record Olive Ridley nesting baffles wildlife experts
Source : The Hindu

A record-breaking mass nesting by 3.8 lakh endangered olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) took place at the Rushikulya rookery coast in Ganjam district of Odisha in February 2017

No nesting last year:

  • Interestingly, no mass nesting had taken place at the site a year ago
  • It was then suspected that several environmental factors, including chemical factors like salinity of the beach and the sea near the coast, may have prompted these marine reptiles to give the coast a miss in 2016

Mass nesting:

  • According to experts, most mass nesting sites of olive ridley turtles in the world are located near river mouths, where salinity is low
  • However, a lot still needs to be explored with regard to the influence of the salinity factor as not much is known about the relation between mass nesting by these endangered turtles and coastline salinity

What may have prompted the mass nesting now?

  • A sandbar emerged at the mouth of Rushikulya river near Purunabandha this year
  • This prevented fresh water from the river from entering the sea directly
  • So the fresh water started flowing northward & this must’ve decreased the salinity of sea water near the coast towards north of the river mouth
  • Usually, mass nesting takes place between Gokharkuda and new Podampeta, where the effect of fresh river water diverted by the sandbar may be high

Salinity effects:

  • Low salinity also means more small fish and insects, which are food for the turtles near the coast during mating and mass nesting seasons
  • Olive ridley turtles bury their eggs on the beach & these eggs incubate with the help of sand heat for 45 to 50 days
  • High sand salinity may damage eggshells, while low salinity will minimise the corrosive effect
  • It’s possible the olive ridleys took the salinity factor into account while nesting at Rushikulya rookery coast this year, but what remains unanswered is how they sensed it

About the olive ridley turtles:

  • The olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is also known as the Pacific ridley sea turtle
  • It is a medium-sized species of sea turtle found in warm and tropical waters, primarily in the Pacific and Indian Oceans

Distribution:

  • The olive ridley turtle has a circumtropical distribution, living in tropical and warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans from India, Arabia, Japan, and Micronesia south to southern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand
  • In the Atlantic Ocean, it has been observed off the western coast of Africa and the coasts of northern Brazil, Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, and Venezuela

Mass Nesting/ arribada:

  • Olive ridley turtles are best known for their behavior of synchronized nesting in mass numbers, termed arribadas
  • Interestingly, females return to the very same beach from where they first hatched, to lay their eggs
  • In the Indian Ocean, the majority of olive ridleys nest in two or three large groups near Gahirmatha in Odisha
  • The coast of Odisha in India is the largest mass nesting site for the olive ridley, followed by the coasts of Mexico and Costa Rica
  • Nesting occurs elsewhere along the Coromandel Coast and Sri Lanka, but in scattered locations
  • However, olive ridleys are considered a rarity in most areas of the Indian Ocean
  • They are also rare in the western and central Pacific, with known arribadas occurring only within the tropical eastern Pacific, in Central America and Mexico

Economic importance:

  • Historically, the olive ridley has been exploited for food, bait, oil, leather, and fertilizer
  • The meat is not considered a delicacy; the egg, however, is esteemed everywhere
  • Egg collection is illegal in most of the countries where olive ridleys nest, but these laws are rarely enforced
  • Harvesting eggs has the potential to contribute to local economies, so the unique practice of allowing a sustainable (legal) egg harvest has been attempted in several localities

Threats:

  • Known predators of olive ridley eggs include raccoons, coyotes, feral dogs and pigs, opossums, coatimundi, caimans, ghost crabs, and the sunbeam snake
  • Hatchlings are preyed upon as they travel across the beach to the water by vultures, frigate birds, crabs, raccoons, coyotes, iguanas, and snakes
  • In the water, hatchling predators most likely include oceanic fishes, sharks, and crocodiles
  • Adults have relatively few known predators, other than sharks, and killer whales are responsible for occasional attacks
  • On land, nesting females may be attacked by jaguars
  • It is notable that the jaguar is the only cat with a strong enough bite to penetrate a sea turtle’s shell
  • It is thought to be an evolutionary adaption from the Holocene extinction event

Conservation status:

  • The olive ridley is classified as Vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), and is listed in Appendix I of CITES
  • The Convention on Migratory Species and the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles have also provided olive ridleys with protection, leading to increased conservation and management for this marine turtle
  • National listings for this species range from Endangered to Threatened, yet enforcing these sanctions on a global scale has been unsuccessful for the most part
  • Arribada management has also played a critical role in conserving olive ridleys
  • Globally, the olive ridley continues to receive less conservation attention than its close relative, the Kemp’s ridley (L. kempii)

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