Obama’s brain project: US President Barack Obama has launched a $100m project to map the “enormous mystery” of the human brain. He hopes the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) project will help us understand how the brain works and learn more about diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
5 April 2013
The president’s advisors call the BRAIN project ambitious, even audacious. It aims to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show, in the words of a White House statement, how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought. Announcing the programme, Barack Obama said humans could identify distant galaxies and study subatomic particles, but still had a limited understanding of the brain.
“There’s this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked. The BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember.”
That knowledge, he said, would be transformative: families no longer helpless at the onset of Parkinson’s, and war veterans able to reverse the effects of traumatic brain injury. The administration reckons it costs around $500bn a year to treat the various conditions this project hopes to address. It believes that technological advances, in data processing and revolutionary new techniques like optogenetics mean that, for the first time, this hugely ambitious research is actually possible.
Monitoring microblogs: If you write something politically sensitive on China’s microblogs, or Weibo, how quickly might it be deleted? Researchers in the United States have been looking into the issue and found some surprising results.
11 March 2013
With more than half a billion Chinese online, and many of them avid microbloggers, the speed of censorship uncovered on Sina Weibo is astonishing. The researchers mined data on microblog comments removed by administrators, and found that nearly a third of the deleted posts were taken down in the first 30 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, criticism of the government, local scandals and complaints about China’s one-child policy were blocked most quickly. But the team worked out that if none of the process was automated, Sina Weibo would need to employ more than 4,000 speed-reading censors a day, just to keep up.
The researchers uncovered a range of devices aimed at bringing bloggers into line. They included: hiding posts from other users, flagging repeat offenders for closer scrutiny, and tracking backwards to delete sensitive topics everywhere they arose.
With China’s media so strictly controlled, the study has raised questions about why microblogs allow people to post before censorship at all. One of the researchers, Professor Dan Wallach, told the BBC that Sina Weibo had to satisfy government censorship requirements without seeming heavy-handed to its bloggers. He said it had to walk a fine line.
Chavez’s body to be preserved and displayed: The body of President Hugo Chavez is to go on permanent display in a military museum in Venezuela, like many socialist leaders before him.
8 March 2013
No matter how baffling it may seem to outsiders, the allure of a dead socialist leader can’t be underestimated. In Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi, the corpses of Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh are displayed under subdued lighting for equally subdued lines of people to file past, paying silent respects.
In North Korea, Kim Il-sung’s public resting place was recently renovated to accommodate the embalmed remains of his son Kim Jong-il.
In Beijing, visitors to Mao Zedong are encouraged to buy flowers for him, though they must leave them outside.
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s revolutionary leader, wanted to be cremated but was preserved nonetheless. Outside his mausoleum Vietnamese queue in their hundreds for entry: schoolchildren, grizzled old men; women dressed in traditional ao dai.
The pull of the embalming fluid becomes still more puzzling when a country has politically moved on. Lenin has so far survived several attempts to evict him from Red Square, though the Soviet Union is long gone.
In China, Mao lingers at the heart of a capital which also plays host nowadays to Starbucks and McDonald’s. But so far, China’s politicians can still quote the sayings of Mao while pursuing policies widely at variance with his legacy.
It’s a balancing act that critics of the embalming of Venezuela’s president will now be anxiously watching.
Wikileaks soldier reveals why he shared secrets: The US soldier accused of giving large numbers of secret documents to Wikileaks has admitted he is guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him. But he denied a more serious charge of aiding the enemy.
1 March 2013
We now have a first-hand account of what compelled Bradley Manning to carry out the biggest leak of government secrets in American history.
He told the military court he’d been appalled by the “bloodlust” of a helicopter mission in Iraq – video of which he passed on to Wikileaks. He said that while serving in Iraq, he’d become depressed at what he called America’s “obsession” with capturing and killing human targets. And that the American people should know the “true costs of war”.
As for the leaked State Department cables, Private Manning said they “documented backdoor deals and criminality” unbecoming of a superpower, and insisted his conscience was clear.
The military judge accepted the defendant’s plea of guilty to 10 of the 22 counts. But Bradley Manning denies the most serious charge of aiding America’s enemies – a charge which potentially carries a life sentence. Prosecutors have indicated that they plan to push ahead with a full court martial in the summer.
Hotel living: A Hong Kong hotel has sold individual rooms to be used as homes. It’s one of the ways residents are trying to cope with soaring housing prices, which are among the highest in the world.
25 February 2013
The hotel suites are cheaper than apartments in Hong Kong. Hundreds of people lined up for hours to buy a unit at the Apex Horizon Hotel this week. It’s not clear whether investors can legally live in the suites but buyers are still eager.
Voice of Hong Kong man:
The developer had lawyers look at it thoroughly so I’m not worried.
Voice of Hong Kong woman:
At these prices the hotel suites are cheaper to buy than public housing.
The hotel was able to sell all 360 of its suites in two days – a sign there is a demand for affordable housing. Hong Kong’s low interest rate has attracted hordes of mainland Chinese investors.
It pushed home prices to record highs last year. Flats cost an average of US$14,000 per square metre in central locations. Many residents feel they can no longer afford to buy apartments.
Hong Kong people cope by renting makeshift homes on rooftops, while others move into so-called cage homes – hutches made from wire-mesh, stacked on top of each other in a tiny room. The government’s efforts to cool down property prices have not worked. So Hong Kong residents have to be creative in finding space to live.
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