Monthly Archives: February 2014

Triads suspected in brutal attack on Hong Kong journalist

Today’s brutal attack on Kevin Lau Chun-to, a prominent journalist in Hong Kong, raises the specter of Chinese criminal gangs — triads — being called in to suppress campaigners for democratic reforms. An excerpt of international affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe’s  new column:

Manthorpe B&WThere is renewed suspicion in Hong Kong that Beijing is using hit men from triad criminal gangs to attack outspoken advocates of freedom in its truculent territory, and to intimidate other campaigners for democratic reforms.

The latest example of the Communist Party’s apparent use of triad thugs against troublesome opponents came this morning when Kevin Lau Chun-to, the recently sacked editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, was brutally attacked after he left a restaurant in the city’s Sai Wan Ho district.

In a classic triad-style assault, Lau, 49, was slashed six times with a butcher’s meat cleaver on his back and legs. He is in critical condition in hospital, and even if he survives it is uncertain he will ever be able to walk properly again.

Lau was reassigned last month after Ming Pao took part in an investigation by an international journalists’ organization, which documented the off-shore assets of leading members of China’s Communist Party regime and their families, including President Xi Jinping, his predecessor Hu Jintao, and former premiers Wen Jiabao and Li Peng.

Log in to read the column, “Patriotic” triad thugs attack Beijing’s critics in Hong Kong*

*Jonathan Manthorpe’s columns are available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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Dark North Korea

The dramatic photograph below, taken January 30 from the International Space Station, illustrates the stark difference between North and South Korea. NASA’s Earth Observatory site explains the dark zone on the image:

Flying over East Asia, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) took this night image of the Korean Peninsula. Unlike daylight images, city lights at night illustrate dramatically the relative economic importance of cities, as gauged by relative size. In this north-looking view, it is immediately obvious that greater Seoul is a major city and that the port of Gunsan is minor by comparison. There are 25.6 million people in the Seoul metropolitan area — more than half of South Korea’s citizens — while Gunsan’s population is 280,000.

North Korea is almost completely dark compared to neighboring South Korea and China. The darkened land appears as if it were a patch of water joining the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. Its capital city, Pyongyang, appears like a small island, despite a population of 3.26 million (as of 2008). The light emission from Pyongyang is equivalent to the smaller towns in South Korea.

Coastlines are often very apparent in night imagery, as shown by South Korea’s eastern shoreline. But the coast of North Korea is difficult to detect. These differences are illustrated in per capita power consumption in the two countries, with South Korea at 10,162 kilowatt hours and North Korea at 739 kilowatt hours.

The United Nations released a scathing report on North Korea February 17. The Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea documents “a grim array of human rights abuses, driven by “policies established at the highest level of State.”

F&O’s international affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe concludes that because the report emphasizes China’s complicity “in the unparalleled atrocities by the North Korean regime of its people,” China may be expected to use its Security Council veto to block action on the report’s recommendations. (Read Manthorpe’s column here; F&O subscription required.)

NASA N Korea

The Koreas at Night, January 30,2014 from the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA.

 

Posted in All, Current Affairs, Gyroscope Tagged , , , |

Monday

Launch a new week with a roundup of F&O‘s fresh work, and a visual snack for your break:

Take two minutes out for physics as art, via Vimeo: a time-lapse of snowflakes by Ivanov Vyacheslav is mesmerizing.

Posted in All, Gyroscope

F&O Weekend

This F&O weekend ranges widely: bringing wolves back from the dead to the role of 3D printers in killing industries;  greenwashing to Europe’s role in Ukraine’s mayhem; a eulogy for a Canadian swan to a macabre American hospital mystery.

No Going Back. Column, By Jim McNiven (Subscription)

When we read about the Great Recession of 2007-11, there seems to be an assumption on the part of commentators that as soon as the economy ‘turned around,’ we could get back to normal. That’s not how it is turning out — and that should not be surprising. There is no going back.

Wild Bees Catch Infections. Science dispatch, By Deborah Jones (Subscription)

Disappearing Honey Bees

© Greg Locke 2013

Agricultural crops from almonds to zucchini are necessarily pollinated by bees, both managed and wild — but colonies of all bees have been collapsing, for reasons that are likely complex and but dimly understood. That’s why it matters, and not least to human food security, that researchers have now found that two infections common in domestic bees can spread to wild bees. Global trade may be worsening infection rates, suggests the study published in the February 20 edition of the science journal Nature.

Roads paved with good intentions Column, By Chris Wood (Subscription)

Ronald Reagan, in a lucid moment, famously characterized his approach to nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union as: “Trust — and verify.” Much the same, it turns out, might be said for the green boasts of business. If we’re honest about it, most of what threatens our natural security is the result of our own appetites. Boreal forests are turned into tar pits to push our comfort pods from driveway to the mall. Mountains are crushed to expose the copper and rarer metals that ignite the digital fire in our smartphones. Rivers are emptied to grow our out-of-season salad. But what if we could have our smart-phones and February salads and cars without any of that destruction?

Europe carries blame for the Ukrainian violence. Column, By Jonathan Manthorpe (Subscription)

European leaders should not congratulate themselves too heartily for mediating the compromise agreement that, with luck, will end the demonstrations and appalling violence on the streets of Ukraine’s capital Kiev and other major cities. It is, after all, sins of commission and omission by Brussels that have played a large part in stirring up the political chaos in Ukraine as its people try to decide if their future should be with the European Union (EU) or their old political overlord in the Soviet Union, Russia.

China’s role in North Korean atrocities complex. Column, by Jonathan Manthorpe. (Subscription)

By emphasizing China’s complicity in the unparalleled atrocities by the North Korean regime of its people, United Nations investigators have doubtless ensured Beijing will use its Security Council veto to block further action. Beijing has reacted angrily to the commission’s findings and recommendations, which are highly critical of China’s treatment of North Korean refugees who have fled across the border.

Winter Swan Essay in words and photos, By E. Kaye Fulton (Public access)

Swan

© E. Kaye Fulton

This has been a hard, hard winter for wildlife  – the worst, locals say, in 70 years. For a month or more, the mute swans of Wellington, Ontario, have been buffeted by howling winds and driving snow. Unable to forage the frozen shorelines and bottom of Lake Ontario for food, they fend off starvation by curling themselves into snowy white mounds, immobile and defenceless on the impenetrable surface. Two nights ago, in search of easy prey, coyotes crept across the ice to claim two sleeping swans huddled at the end of the line formed by their 26-member flock.

Wolves as Ecosystems Engineers. Column, By Deborah Jones (Subscription)

gray wolfRed Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs have a lot to answer for: thanks partly to fairy tales, wolves have a ghastly and global reputation as big and bad, terrorists of young girls and small pigs, good for nothing but their pelts. But science offers redemption — and one fair wolf tale can be found in Yellowstone National Park in the western United States. Alas, it’s a tale without an end. Free Range column by Deborah Jones

Hidden in a Heart. Justice dispatch, By Marshall Allen, ProPublica (Public access)

Linda Carswell thought her quest to recover her husband’s heart had come to an end. Finally, after almost a decade, she would be able bury it with his other remains. She could have peace of mind. Instead, the saga has taken a macabre twist that she calls, “beyond belief.”

Findings: social media matters By staff (free blog)

The big picture matters. A heart-wrenching photo on Twitter spread wildly this week. It appeared to show a little boy separatedfrom his family as they fled Syria’s violence: “UN staff found 4 year-old Marwan crossing desert alone after being separated from family…”   But the photo showed only a tiny portion of a crowd, which included the boy’s family. And therein lies the sting.

Miscellany:

  • ProPublica, the not-for-profit American investigative journalism news organization, was awarded a 2014 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, which recognizes creativity and impact. The $1 million U.S. is very nice – ProPublica said it will add the money to its reserve, “laying the groundwork for an expansion of its investigative newsroom.” Equally important is the recognition from the globally-prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. ProPublica is one of just seven non-profits around the world to win the  one-time grant. The others are the Campaign Legal Center, the National Housing Trust, NatureServe, and the University of Chicago Crime Lab —  all in the United States, and the Citizen Lab in Canada and the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative in Nigeria.
  • Mavis Gallant died this week. Her last name was graced with serendipity: she was a woman with the guts to quit a perfectly good journalism job, move to Paris on a wing and a prayer, and write fiction. And, boy, did she Write. “I have lived in writing, like a spoonful of water in a river,” she penned in Selected Stories, highlighted in an interview with The Guardian. The New Yorker offers a selection of stories  published by that magazine. F&O’s Frontlines blog about Gallant, here, includes a link to the excellent CBC radio documentary portrait of her, and selected readings including her own short stories in the New Yorker.
  • Recommended: Below the city of New York lies heaven … if you’re a geologist. The New York Times reports on the city’s latest wave of excavations, and the bonanza they provide for scientists.
  • Recommended: The Disintegration of Kiev, a photo gallery in Europe’s Der Spiegel
  • Recommended: This Old Man, Life in the nineties, a glorious treatise on aging and love by American baseball writer Roger Angell, in his natural habitat of the New Yorker.

Last but not least:

The woman flying in the Twitter photograph below is Husna Sari, a Turkish journalist. Poynter interviewed her about her encounter with security forces who used firehoses to quell demonstrators and the country’s journalists. Sari told Poynter: “Turkey is now a country of censors but in that demonstration people didn’t protest the internet censorship. It was a demonstration set up to stop the unfair imprisonment of scientists, soldiers and journalists.” In his last F&O column on Turkey (subscription required) analyst Jonathan Manthorpe wrote of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s desperate efforts to stay in power and the contentious roles of the military and Islamists in Turkey.

 

Have a good weekend.

 

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Chris Wood: roads paved with good intentions

Voluntary business sustainability standards are tricky things, as Chris Wood found when he examined report cards on their applications to agriculture and Walmart. Another tricky thing? The vigilance of shoppers. AKA us.

An excerpt of his new Natural Security column:

chris1Ronald Reagan, in a lucid moment, famously characterized his approach to nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union as: “Trust — and verify.” Much the same, it turns out, might be said for the green boasts of business. If we’re honest about it, most of what threatens our natural security is the result of our own appetites. Boreal forests are turned into tar pits to push our comfort pods from driveway to the mall. Mountains are crushed to expose the copper and rarer metals that ignite the digital fire in our smartphones. Rivers are emptied to grow our out-of-season salad. But what if we could have our smart-phones and February salads and cars without any of that destruction?

Posted in All, Current Affairs Tagged , , |

The Power — or Not — of Good Intentions

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY
Published February 22, 2014

Ronald Reagan, in a lucid moment, famously characterized his approach to nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union as: “Trust — and verify.” Much the same, it turns out, might be said for the green boasts of business.

If we’re honest about it, most of what threatens our natural security is the result of our own appetites. Boreal forests are turned into tar pits to push our comfort pods from driveway to the mall. Mountains are crushed to expose the copper and rarer metals that ignite the digital fire in our smartphones. Rivers are emptied to grow our out-of-season salad.

But what if we could have our smart-phones and February salads and cars without any of that destruction? In a nutshell, that’s the aspiration implied by businesses that claim they are operating “sustainably.” It’s a debatable idea in many respects beyond my scope here, but its appeal is evident, and there is at least one way in which it may even be achievable.

Which makes a recent report card on voluntary business sustainability standards covering nearly $32 billion in farm goods ranging from cocoa to cotton, and another report two years ago on retail giant Walmart’s much-covered sustainability goals, salutary reality-checks.

The one area of the human economy that might conceivably be made truly “sustainable” — in the sense of providing for today without depriving tomorrow — is farm production. (A qualification: in principle, the planet can sustainably grow a lot of food, probably enough to feed its present human population; that doesn’t necessarily hold either for our projected future numbers or for everyone to dine like North Americans.)

Nonetheless, it is surely a step in the right direction when farmers, traders and vendors of food and natural fibers set out intentionally to harvest the fruits of the earth in a way the earth can actually sustain. Around the world, more than 400 “consumer-facing eco-labels,” mainly on agricultural goods, represent claims to those products’ sustainable production.

The Winnipeg, Canada, based International Institute for Sustainable Development, along with six other organizations including the Swiss state secretariat for economic affairs, recently examined 16 such “voluntary sustainability standards” for their rigour, adoption, and impact.

All the initiatives develop criteria to distinguish “sustainable” production of the crops they cover, and certify producers that meet those standards. All have some way of confirming that farms and other businesses are meeting their commitments under the standard; the most transparent assign this role to third-party assessors. Some, like the Forest Stewardship Council and Fairtrade International, claim participant businesses in over 100 countries. Altogether, the standards in the study appeared on an estimated $31.6 billion worth of goods traded internationally in 2012.

But this apparent success is relative. The production of “standard-compliant” commodities is soaring: up 41 per cent overall in 2012 compared to the nearly flat 2 per cent growth in commodities generally. Production of “sustainable” palm oil nearly doubled year over year — up 91 per cent; of sugar, up 74 per cent, and of cotton, up 55 per cent.

Much of that growth was from a very low base: even after standard-compliant palm oil production close to doubled, for example, most of the world’s palm oil — an estimated 85 per cent — is exploitively grown. Some standards however are making headway. The study estimated that more than a third of the coffee (38 per cent ) and close to a quarter of the raw cocoa (22 per cent ) sold internationally in 2012 met voluntary environmental and ILO-minimum labour standards—up dramatically from just nine and three percent respectively four years earlier.

In a blow to knee-jerk anti-globalists who condemn international trade for driving a perceived ‘race to the bottom’, the IISD study found that sustainable production was, in fact, “concentrated in more advanced, export-oriented economies” – especially Latin America.

The benefits of such standards go beyond measurable environmental improvements. They also increase equity by inviting voices often missing in buyer/seller transactions along the supply chain, to help determine the new rules. The researchers lauded the inclusion of “non-traditional perspectives” and “remarkable” representation from developing countries.

Voluntary standards can spur investment in green practices and remove environmentally-damaging production methods from the competitive arsenal. Conformity disciplines “are strengthening the reliability of market claims through increasingly independent monitoring and enforcement.”

For all that, few if any “standard-compliant” commodities are factually produced in ways that ensure they will still be available in the future. As the IISD researchers dryly observed, “Accuracy and objectivity [in meeting standards] can be challenged by market forces.” In other words, it’s tempting to cheat.

For that reason, last month’s release urged a stronger role for governments, to back up the adequacy of green production standards and the compliance of producers that claim to meet them. Strictly voluntary standards, the Canadian-led study concluded, “cannot be assumed to deliver sustainable development outcomes.”

An examination of Walmart’s heavily promoted stand-alone sustainability campaign, published in March, 2012, bears that common-sense out. The Arkansas-based collosus had $476 billion in sales in 2013 — roughly 15 times the value of all the commodities traded the previous year bearing one or another of the standards in the IISD study. Were it ever to achieve its stated goals of 100 per cent reliance on renewable energy, zero waste, and fully sustainable merchandise production, it would make a large dent in our ecological overdraft and send a powerful signal of hope to the world economy.

Alas. When the 40-year-old Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Washington, DC, put Walmart’s public report on progress toward these goals under the microscope, it found failures quite large enough to lose a blue planet in.

At the rate it’s going, it will take Walmart three more centuries to get all of its power from renewable energy. Despite improvements in efficiency, the retailer’s greenhouse gas emissions are rising. Its constant pressure on suppliers for lower prices means that the goods it sells break or wear out sooner — stuffing landfills and demanding new resources to make replacement products. And Walmart’s signature sprawling supercenters with county-size parking lots continue to pave over wildlife habitat.

It’s perhaps little wonder that as of the publication of that review, Walmart had “made little progress toward its goal of developing a Sustainability Index to rate consumer products.” Market forces, one suspects, were once again challenging accuracy and objectivity.

The temptation to over-promise and under-deliver is ever present for competitive business. Walmart’s selective lens on its own sustainability underscores the wisdom of the IISD’s call for more sturdy government regulation of such claims.

But we also serve who only shop* (or so a later U.S. president patriotically observed), and another conclusion of the latest study points a distressing finger at consumer behaviour as well.

Markets for identified sustainable products “continue to be defined by persistent oversupply,” the IISD found, to the point that between a third and a half of everything produced in compliance with standards is sold as conventional coffee, cocoa or cotton anyway — forcing down prices and undercutting any incentive to invest in green production.

Walmart may be missing its goals to protect future shoppers. It seems many of today’s shoppers don’t care enough to check a label.

Copyright © 2014 Chris Wood

Contact: cwood@factsandopinions.com

 Notes and further reading:
* With apologies to John Milton (Sonnet 16  —On His Blindness)
State of Sustainability Initiatives Report 2014, IISD, Jan. 2014. (pdf)  www.iisd.org/pdf/2014/ssi_2014.pdf‎
Walmart’s Greenwash, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Mar. 2012. http://www.ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/walmart-greenwash-report.pdf

 

 

 

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European Union’s role in Ukraine mayhem: analysis

Europe is culpable for the violence in Ukraine, writes international affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe in his new column. Excerpt:

European leaders should not congratulate themselves too heartily for mediating the compromise agreement that, with luck, will end the demonstrations and appalling violence on the streets of Ukraine’s capital Kiev and other major cities.

It is, after all, sins of commission and omission by Brussels that have played a large part in stirring up the political chaos in Ukraine as its people try to decide if their future should be with the European Union (EU) or their old political overlord in the Soviet Union, Russia.

The EU’s first sin is that since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has been confronted with this stark, either-or choice.

Many of the 28 member states, and especially the administrative priesthood in Brussels, have no doubt that the virtues of EU membership are obvious. EU politicians and officials often display an irritating and sometimes destructive assumption that joining their club is the only rational action for neighbouring countries.

All too frequently in Brussels displays little understanding, and often naïve ignorance of the conflicting economic and political pressures felt by countries considering EU membership, particularly those that were part of the Soviet Union.

Log in to read the column, Europe carries blame for the Ukrainian violence.*

*Jonathan Manthorpe’s columns are available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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Europe carries blame for the Ukrainian violence

JONATHAN MANTHORPE
February 21, 2014

European leaders should not congratulate themselves too heartily for mediating the compromise agreement that, with luck, will end the demonstrations and appalling violence on the streets of Ukraine’s capital Kiev and other major cities.

It is, after all, sins of commission and omission by Brussels that have played a large part in stirring up the political chaos in Ukraine as its people try to decide if their future should be with the European Union (EU) or their old political overlord in the Soviet Union, Russia.

The EU’s first sin is that since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has been confronted with this stark, either-or choice.

Many of the 28 member states, and especially the administrative priesthood in Brussels, have no doubt that the virtues of EU membership are obvious. EU politicians and officials often display an irritating and sometimes destructive assumption that joining their club is the only rational action for neighbouring countries.

All too frequently in Brussels displays little understanding, and often naïve ignorance of the conflicting economic and political pressures felt by countries considering EU membership, particularly those that were part of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine displays these conflicts more intensely than most. Among its 45 million people there is an historic divide between those in the largely agricultural west and those in the industrialized east. The westerners lean towards Europe, while their eastern compatriots look to Moscow and frequently speak Russian rather than Ukrainian.

This demographic divide is echoed in the economy. A third of Ukraine’s total trade in 2012 was with the EU while 29 per cent was with Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union. A quarter of Ukraine’s exports go to the EU and 30 per cent to the Customs Union.

The current crisis in Ukraine was in large part sparked by Brussels’ insistence that the Kiev government of President Viktor Yanukovich choose either the EU or Russia’s Customs Union. In either case, Yanukovich faced disruption at best and dislocation at worst of half his economy.

The matter came to a head last November when Brussels wanted four former Soviet states – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – to sign Association Agreements, a preliminary step towards EU membership.

Georgia and Moldova signed, but Armenia announced it is joining the Russian Customs Union instead. Ukraine’s Yanukovich prevaricated, saying he needed more time to assess the merits of the deal.

It was this non-decision by Yanukovich that led to the occupation of Kiev’s Independence Square by thousands of protesters and the violent response by the authorities. Scores of people have died both in Kiev and other cities where protesters have occupied government buildings.

As the protests have gathered momentum, their composition has changed. It is no longer correct to portray the political divide as a simple split between pro-European western Ukrainians and pro-Russians in the east. Events have created a more complex reality.

It is therefore highly questionable how much control over the demonstrations is exercised by the three opposition leaders who today signed the agreement with Yanukovich to increase the authority of parliament, form a government of national unity and bring forward presidential elections to later this year.

Radical groups such as Right Sector want Yanukovich’s immediate removal from power and nothing less. The bloodshed on the streets in the last few days has bred its own hatreds and there are now many others for whom the ousting of the President by any means is the top priority and non-negotiable.

Yet Yanukovich’s caution at signing the Association Agreement with the EU is understandable. All Ukraine’s four leaders since independence in 1991 have leaned towards Europe and joining the EU. That includes Yanukovich, even though he is more pro-Russian and EU-sceptical than the others.

His scepticism flows from two main doubts about the EU. One is that while the EU has set Ukraine ambitious targets and conditions for political and economic reform as prerequisites for deepening ties, Brussels has not clearly set out what happens if Kiev does or doesn’t meet the objectives.

The result is that Brussels has given Kiev the impression it is not particularly interested whether Ukraine joins the EU or not. Brussels’ main interest often seems to be keeping Ukraine in limbo and stopping Kiev becoming too attached to Moscow.

European leaders have far less influence in this three-cornered dance between Moscow, Kiev and Brussels than they like to think. Europe is heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies, especially natural gas, which is piped through Ukraine. Moscow has on several occasions demonstrated its willingness and ability to use its gas exports as a political weapon, either by manipulating the supply or the gas price.

Another reason for Yanukovich’s hesitation about jumping into bed with Brussels is money. Kiev was clear that it expected the same kind of generous development investment from Brussels that the EU offered to other East Bloc countries gaining membership.

Yanukovich once mentioned $220 billion, but EU leaders have been unable to agree among themselves what to offer. In any case, the EU has its own money troubles and lavish offers are not on the table.

Until now, Russia has been willing to bail out the Kiev treasury by buying Ukrainian bonds. But the peace deal mediated by Europe is a setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to re-link as much of the old Soviet Union as possible under the banner of the Eurasian Customs Union.

Putin, however, will probably wait until after the closing ceremony on Sunday for the Sochi Olympic Winter Games, just down the Black Sea coast from Ukraine, before playing his next card.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged |

Findings: Storm Petra, in video

Coastal France and Britain have been thrashed by gales, drenched by rain and flooded this month. French professional photographer Philip Plisson, who specializes in ocean photography, captured storm Petra as it hit the French coast:

Posted in Gyroscope

Research shows infections spread from domestic to wild bees

Modified by CombineZP

Photo Matthias A. Fürst, courtesy of the journal Nature

Agricultural crops from almonds to zucchini are necessarily pollinated by bees, both managed and wild — but colonies of all bees have been collapsing, for reasons that are likely complex and but dimly understood.

That’s why it matters, and not least to human food security, that researchers have now found that two infections common in domestic bees can spread to wild bees.

Global trade may be worsening infection rates, suggests the study published in the February 20 edition of the science journal Nature.

Log in to read F&O’s report, Wild Bees Catch Honeybee Infections, in Dispatches, Science, available with a $1 site day pass or subscription.

Journalism matters. Please support professional, independent and non-partisan reporting, commentary and photo-journalism.

 

Posted in Gyroscope