Sunday, August 11, 2013

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending August 10, 2013


News & Commentary



Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Japan Launches Talking Robot Into Space: An article in BBC News says that Japan has put a talking robot, named Kirobo into space, where it will be part of the team of the International Space Station.
Japan has launched the world's first talking robot into space to serve as companion to astronaut Kochi Wakata who will begin his mission in November. The android took off from the island of Tanegashima in an unmanned rocket also carrying supplies for crew onboard the International Space Station (ISS).Measuring 34cm (13 inches), Kirobo is due to arrive at the ISS on 9 August.
It is part of a study to see how machines can lend emotional support to people isolated over long periods. The launch of the H-2B rocket was broadcast online by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa).The unmanned rocket is also carrying drinking water, food, clothing and work supplies to the six permanent crew members based at the ISS.
Kirobo's name derives from the Japanese words for "hope" and "robot". The small android weighs about 1kg (2.2 pounds) and has a wide range of physical motion. Its design was inspired by the legendary animation character Astro Boy. Kirobo has been programmed to communicate in Japanese and keep records of its conversations with Mr Wakata who will take over as commander of the ISS later this year. In addition, it is expected to relay messages from the control room to the astronaut.
If successful, this might prove the future of space flight, where robots instead of humans will be sent further into deep space.

Turkey Jails Hundreds After Show Trials: An article in Reuters says that Turkish courts have jailed hundreds of individuals, including a top military commander, in what the government has said was plans to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Reuters writes:
Retired military chief of staff General Ilker Basbug was sentenced to life for his role in the "Ergenekon" conspiracy to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Announcing verdicts on the nearly 300 defendants in the case, the judges also sentenced three serving parliamentarians from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) to between 12 and 35 years in prison.

Earlier, security forces fired tear gas in fields around the courthouse in the Silivri jail complex, west of Istanbul, as defendants' supporters gathered to protest against the five-year trial, a landmark case in the decade-long battle between Erdogan and the secularist establishment.Prosecutors say an alleged network of secular arch-nationalists, code-named Ergenekon, pursued extra-judicial killings and bombings in order to trigger a military coup, an example of the anti-democratic forces which Erdogan says his Islamist-rooted AK Party has fought to stamp out.

Critics, including the main opposition party, have said the charges are trumped up, aimed at stifling opposition and taming the secularist establishment which has long dominated Turkey. They say the judiciary has been subject to political influence in hearing the case.

"This is Erdogan's trial, it is his theatre," Umut Oran, a parliamentarian with the opposition CHP party, told Reuters. "In the 21st century for a country that wants to become a full member of the European Union, this obvious political trial has no legal basis," he said at the courthouse.
This is political theater, a show trial with all of its political meanings; this is an attempt to silence dissent in a nation that has become more tyrannical under the current leadership. 

Welcome To America: Hand Over Your Valuables: This story might seem as if it were taken from a dystopian science-fiction novel, but it’s from an article, by Sarah Stillman, in The New Yorker (“Taken”)The police in many parts of the United States are using asset forfeiture, ostensibly to fight crime, but probably as a way to control its citizens through fear.

Stillman writes:
The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing. It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, cops drive a Cadillac Escalade stencilled with the words “this used to be a drug dealer’s car, now it’s ours!” In Monroe, North Carolina, police recently proposed using forty-four thousand dollars in confiscated drug money to buy a surveillance drone, which might be deployed to catch fleeing suspects, conduct rescue missions, and, perhaps, seize more drug money. Hundreds of state and federal laws authorize forfeiture for cockfighting, drag racing, basement gambling, endangered-fish poaching, securities fraud, and countless other misdeeds.
In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.
One result is the rise of improbable case names such as United States v. One Pearl Necklace and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins. (Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson’s forfeiture was slugged State of Texas v. $6,037.) “The protections our Constitution usually affords are out the window,” Louis Rulli, a clinical law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading forfeiture expert, observes. A piece of property does not share the rights of a person. There’s no right to an attorney and, in most states, no presumption of innocence. Owners who wish to contest often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods. Washington, D.C., charges up to twenty-five hundred dollars simply for the right to challenge a police seizure in court, which can take months or even years to resolve.
Consider this line from the article and how it again its police actions contravenes the fundamental understanding and interpretation of U.S. Constitution: In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Is this not theft by legal means?

This brings to memory the actions of Nazi Germany against the Jews when they confiscated their property? This is another sign, of many such signs in recent years, that the U.S. is moving toward a police state, and to deny such reality is to acquiesce to what is currently taking place in a nation that was once a home to civil liberties. Such articles show otherwise; the U.S. is not a place that I would now want to visit, let alone call home.

Being Malnourished A Poor Way To Start Off Life: An article, by Amanda Mascarelli, in Nature News says that when babies start off life malnourished, it can lead to health problems later in adulthood; thus concludes a Finnish study published this week. This research finding questions the long-held assumptions of the predictive adaptive response (PAR) hypothesis, which says that that the human body, in some way, can eventually adapt from not getting sufficient nourishment early in its development.

Mascarelli writes:
People who were undernourished during infancy or in the womb are less resilient during famines later in life, have shorter lifespans and are less likely to reproduce than those who were well fed, a study of Finnish church records from the 1800s has found. The results contradict an often-cited hypothesis about the effects of prenatal under-nutrition.
The predictive adaptive response (PAR) hypothesis posits that people who are deprived of food during prenatal development or infancy compensate physiologically, storing fats and using sugars more efficiently. This, in turn, is thought to make them better able to withstand food scarcity later in life, and it has been suggested that these traits would be passed on to their offspring.
Instead, the Finnish study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, concludes that people who were undernourished during early development are less able to cope with famine as older children and adults.The PAR hypothesis could offer one explanation for the high rate of metabolic diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes among people who experience food scarcity early in life. It proposes that if these individuals encounter plentiful food resources when they are older, they are more apt to store abdominal fat and gain weight, leading to a plethora of metabolic disorders.
This study ought to give governments the necessary data to make informed decisions, for one, that there needs to be more programs dedicated to early childhood development, including food-aid and healthy eating initiatives. Government cutbacks, as we are witnessing in some nations, of such important health and food subsidy programs for the poor can only lead to detrimental affects for society, that later on has to bear the high costs of hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

For example, consider a New York Times article (“Poor Children Show A Decline of Obesity Rate”; August 7, 2013), which reports that obesity rates are dropping among the poor, but it cannot accurately explain why this is so. Allow me to offer some explanations that missed the NYT’s writers and editors. Can it be a result of children being malnourished as a result of government cutbacks? That large food conglomerates do not make healthy foods readily available and affordable? That the food industry has relied for too long on preservatives and chemicals in its food processing as a way to earn a quick buck and high profits? These are more likely and simple explanations.

Without a doubt, most rational people would agree that this is a poor way to attack the obesity problem in the U.S. Rather than starving the poor, as is now the case, early prevention would be preferable. Even the poor have to eat.

The Evolution of Monogamy: An article, by Michael Balter, in ScienceMag looks at three possible theories on why monogamy evolved in animals, including primates, a species to which humans belong.

Balter writes:
Living in pairs, what researchers call social monogamy, has repeatedly evolved among animals, although in widely varying proportions among different groups. Thus, about 90% of bird species are socially monogamous, probably because incubating eggs and feeding hatchlings is a full-time job that requires both parents. But in mammals, females carry the babies inside their bodies and are solely responsible for providing milk to young infants—and only about 5% of species are socially monogamous. That leaves most mammalian males free to run around and impregnate other females. Primates, however, seem to be a special case: About 27% of primate species are socially monogamous; and recent studies by Christopher Opie, an anthropologist at University College London, and his colleagues have concluded that social monogamy arose relatively late in primate evolution, only about 16 million years ago. (The earliest primates date back to about 55 million years.)
But why did social monogamy arise at all among mammals, including primates, given the many reproductive advantages to males having access to as many females as possible? Scientists have proposed three major hypotheses: Monogamy provides more effective parental care for infants, as in birds; it prevents females from mating with rival males, especially in species where females are widely spaced and cannot all be easily monopolized by one male; or it protects against the risk of infanticide, which is very high among some primate species, including chimpanzees and gorillas, and is often explained by the desire of a rival male to quickly return a mother to a fertile state so that he can sire his own offspring. Some researchers think that a combination of all three factors, and perhaps still others, provide the best explanation for monogamy.
Resolving this debate is important, researchers say, especially for understanding the evolution of human mating behavior. Although humans aren’t completely monogamous, “the emergence of pair-bonding in humans was a major evolutionary transition, which dramatically altered the evolutionary trajectory of our species,” says Sergey Gavrilets, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Many researchers think that we could not have evolved our large brains without joint parental care during the extended period of helplessness required for infant brains to grow to their full size. “Understanding the forces that drove that transition can help us better understand the causes of human uniqueness,” Gavrilets adds.
Monogamy and parental investment are both good for society, and greatly explains why this model of human behaviour has lasted for millions of years. That the higher species with larger brains are more monogamous than the lower species makes perfect sense, in that it takes some higher-level thought process to understand the benefits of social pairing, notably when it comes to raising children.

How much primates understand is hard to know, since they don’t communicate with us in highly recognizable speech, and even the hand signs are limited in scope and the transfer of information, including emotion and feeling. We, for now, can only know what we observe, collate and interpret, forming ideas and conclusions from such observations. It is interesting to observe that humans are not the only mammals that pair off and raise children, showing our kinship to other mammals, notably to primates.