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Asian Flush: What You Don’t Know can Kill You

January 25th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Source: MSNBC, PLoS Medicine

Plenty of folks get a bit red in the face this time of the year. The cheeks of those who live in northern climes may take on a certain glow when they walk the dog or take out the garbage on a brisk, windy night. The same appearance bedevils folks in warmer climes should they forget to apply sunblock before settling beside the pool.

An altogether different group includes fully one third of all people of East Asian descent, who have been born with a genetic deficiency that causes their cheeks, and often their necks, arms and trunk to turn sunburn-red after consuming even small amounts of alcohol (see picture).

The condition is known colloquially as “Asian Flush” or “Asian Glow.” It is often associated with nausea, headache and tachycardia, and is caused by an inherited deficiency of aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2), one of 2 key enzymes involved in the metabolism of alcohol.

Unfortunately, Asian Flush isn’t as benign as once thought. Scientists have determined in recent years that ALDH2 deficiency is a risk factor for esophageal cancer, which happens to be one of the deadliest cancers humans can get.

Philip Brooks and colleagues at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism published a seminal article on this association in 2009. In it, the scientists explained that the first of those 2 key enzymes transforms alcohol into acetaldehyde, a vasodilator in the short term and a carcinogen in the long term. The second enzyme, ALDH2, converts that toxin into acetate, a harmless chemical.

People who lack ALDH2 experience a build-up of acetaldehyde in the body after they consume alcohol. The short-term effect of the build-up is the Asian Flush.

But that’s not what prompted Brooks to write that article. “People with this ALDH2 deficiency have a really high risk of getting esophageal cancer when they drink alcohol,” he explained to the LA Times. “Anyone who drinks is at risk, but the more you drink, the more your risk goes up. And when you’re ALDH2-deficient, your risk goes up much more dramatically.” (more…)


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Nintendo Warns on 3-D Games for Children

January 20th, 2011 | 2 Comments | Source: Wall Street Journal

Last week, Nintendo became the latest consumer electronics maker to warn that kids shouldn’t use their three-dimensional image-based gaming devices, because they may have a negative impact on development of the human visual system.

The warning came just a month before the company’s much anticipated release of the 3DS, which is just such a device that features a 3.5 inch screen which can create 3-D images without the need for special glasses. The 3DS is Nintendo’s most anticipated new product since it released the iconic Wii gaming device in 2006.

Sony’s PlayStation3, a similar product that requires glasses to create the 3-D effect, already carries a similar warning, as do 3-D TV sets made by Sony, Samsung and Panasonic.

Nintendo’s warning applies to kids that are 6 years old or younger. The Japanese company advised parents to block access to the game machine’s 3-D mode for these kids, while adding that it was OK for them to use the 3DS in 2-D mode.

The Nintendo 3DS is one of the first devices of any sort to project a 3-D image without the need for specialized glasses, which can be quite expensive in their own right. Many analysts believe this breakthrough will accelerate the adoption of home-based 3-D entertainment, a process that has been disappointingly slow to date. (more…)


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Lithium: It’s Not Just for Mania Any More!

September 29th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: NY Times, Washington Post

This June, the US Department of Defense proclaimed that those woefully parched mountains in Afghanistan contained a $900 billion trove of mineral deposits including copper, gold, iron and lithium. Of the four minerals, lithium was the one that sent Pentagon officials into a swoon. Some even claimed that as a result of the discovery, the impoverished nation could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

The mood-stabilizing properties of lithium have been known for a century. Physicians have used lithium for nearly that long to treat and prevent episodes of mania in people with bipolar disorder, for example. The popular soft drink 7-Up included lithium citrate as a “mood-booster” for 20 years after it was first commercialized in 1929.

Of course the mood stabilizing properties of lithium isn’t what has those Pentagon types excited. They’re pumped because lithium has become the can’t-do-without ingredient in the batteries that power smartphones, computers and other electronic devices. Lithium is also expected to become the prime source of battery power for hybrid-electric vehicles.

No one knows how much lithium exists in the Earth’s crust, and with demand for lithium batteries exploding, people worry the demand for lithium might outstrip supply. There is no shortage of the mineral today, but this worry has caused lithium prices to double since 2003.

Not all lithium deposits are equally easy to mine, by the way. Chile and Argentina currently supply half the world’s lithium, because deposits there can be mined inexpensively by drilling below the surface of dried-up lake beds and exposing lithium-laced saltwater beneath. From there, it’s a simple matter to evaporate the water and what’s left is lithium.

There are vast lithium deposits in Nevada as well, but they are mixed into clay. Extracting lithium from clay involves complex chemical reactions and heating the mix to 1,000 degrees. Lithium miners in Australia have to drill through granite, a still more expensive process.

No one knows yet how to extract the lithium from those forlorn mountains in Afghanistan. But so long as demand for the stuff remains high, the most important withdrawal plan for Afghanistan may have more to do with getting lithium out of the ground than getting troops out of the country.


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US Gasoline Still Making it to Iran

April 13th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

Congress is pressuring private companies to cease doing business with Iran, but the  effort has encountered the same problems US sanctions have ran into for 30 years  — reluctance in the European Union to play ball and a bevy of shady, Middle Eastern front companies that can maneuver around any prohibitions.

that'sano-noBoth chambers of Congress have passed bills that would sanction companies supplying gasoline to Iran, as well as the insurance and shipping companies that support such trade, in an effort to deter the Islamic republic from developing the bomb.

The US would like to stop sending Iran 130,000 barrels a day of gasoline that the oil-rich nation imports because it can’t refine the stuff.

Several companies including Caterpillar, Huntsman and Siemens have announced they will stop doing business with Iran.

But Catherine Margaret Ashton, the EU’s representative for foreign affairs and security policy, has written to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton opposing the congressional sanctions.

Those bills “envisage the extraterritorial application of US legislation and would be contrary to the EU-US understanding of 1998, under which it was agreed that such sanctions would not be applied to the EU in the light of the EU’s commitment to work with the US to counter the threat that Iran poses to international security,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, oil industry sources told the Washington Post that that Iranian front companies are securing gasoline from the United Arab Emirates, and that companies based in Iraq were doing the same thing.

In Iran, gasoline is heavily subsidized, costing drivers just 38 cents per gallon, although the government has cut quotas recently, and seems to be stockpiling gasoline. Best guesses put the nation’s gasoline supply on hand at about 1 month’s worth.


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Skinny Japanese Girls

March 30th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

Japanese women are getting skinnier, a lot skinnier. The phenomenon began 25 years ago, and it encompasses all body types. Thus, compared with the mid-80s Japan now has both more women who are thin (BMI of less than 18.5), and fewer women who are overweight (BMI > 25).  

notaprettypicture2The trend is most pronounced among women in their 20s. In the 80s, there were twice as many thin Japanese women in this age range as there were overweight women. Now, Japanese women are 4 times more likely to be thin. In this age group, average daily calorie consumption was found in recent government studies to be just two-thirds of recommended levels.

Japanese public health officials generally agree that young adult Japanese women have, as a group, become dangerously skinny. The average birth weight of their babies is falling for example, and their risk of death in instances serious illness is increasing.

The problem, it seems, is social pressure in the form of women looking critically at other women. “Japanese women are outstandingly tense and critical of each other,” said Hisako Watanabe, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Keio University and an expert in eating disorders.

“There is a pervasive habit among women to monitor each other with a serious sharp eye to see what kind of slimness they have. They want other people to be fatter than themselves. It is complicated, competitive and so subtle.”

(Meanwhile, Japanese men are gaining weight at a prodigious pace. In the mid-80s, 20% of men in their 50s were overweight; now, it’s 32%. The problem became so bad that the government imposed national waistline standards in 2007, and required employer-funded physical examinations including waistline measurements, along with focused education programs.)


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China’s Hacked Computers

March 10th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

China, not the US, holds the dubious distinction of having the highest number of private computers that have been commandeered by hackers with malicious intent, according to a report by McAfee, an Internet security firm.

urwishisourcommandMaCafee monitors Internet-based threats targeting computers in 120 countries. It found that in the fourth quarter of last year, about 1,095,000 computers in China and 1,057,000 in the US had been infected.

Those numbers don’t count the roughly 10 million computers in each country that had previously been infected.

Infected, or “zombie” computers are typically linked together as botnets and then used to send spam e-mail or launch Denial of Service attacks on Web sites.

McAfee suggested that Chinese computers are particularly vulnerable to hackers since software piracy is common there, and computer users frequently do not download patches for their machines.

In a recent speech about Internet freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that the Internet is a “global networked commons” for which “norms of behavior” ought to be developed by nations.

“An attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all,” she said. “Countries or individuals that engage in cyberattacks should face consequences and international condemnation.”

The US will have trouble heeding Clinton’s call for accountability and norms because it has so many infected computers. “The government could crack down on botnets, but doing so would raise the cost of software or Internet access and would be controversial,” Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith  wrote in the Washington Post.

“So it has not acted, and the number of dangerous botnet attacks from America grows.”


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China: Regenerative Medicine Power

February 19th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: BurrillReport, Regenerative Medicine

China’s enormous investment in the field of regenerative medicine has catapulted the nation to the world’s fifth most productive contributor to the scientific literature, despite continued international condemnation of it research methods, according to a study in Regenerative Medicine.

CuringMSThe report was authored by Dominique McMahon and colleagues at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health.

It describes China’s aggressive efforts to recruit top international scientists, as well as the broadly impugned practice of administering unproven stem cell treatments to thousands of domestic and foreign patients.

Chinese researchers contributed more than 1,100 articles on the subject to peer-reviewed journals in 2008. That’s up from 37 in 2000 and more than any country in the world except the US, Germany, Japan, and the UK.

McMahon and colleagues indicate that China has recently instituted new rules governing stem cell treatments, but they need to be enforced more strictly if the nation is to repair its seedy reputation in the field.

Right now in China, more than 200 hospitals use stem cell therapy to treat patients with autism, cataracts, diabetes, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke traumatic brain and spinal cord injury and many other conditions.
Yet until May 2009, China did not require such therapies to have been subjected to clinical trials designed to assess the safety and effectiveness of such therapies. 

China made the change after international experts and many Chinese researchers complained about gross violations of standard scientific research principles.

“China is an important player in regenerative medicine,” McMahon told BurrillReport. “Despite the media’s focus on stem cell tourism, the international community needs to recognize that Chinese researchers are making important contributions to the science of this field, and China should be included in international discourses on standards and regulations.”


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CIA Now a Paramilitary Organization

January 26th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: NY Times

Last month, 7 CIA operatives stationed at a forward operating base in the mountains of Afghanistan were blown up by a suicide bomber. Among other things, the tragedy highlighted the CIA’s transformation into a paramilitary organization that operates on the front-lines of America’s war on terror.

dontmesswithhimThe dead operatives had been begun a campaign against a radical nut job known as Sirajuddin Haqqani and his woefully enslaved followers. This crew has claimed responsibility for killing dozens of US soldiers.

In the past year, the CIA has amassed dozens of forward operating bases like this in eastern and southern Afghanistan. In so doing, it has exposed its operatives to enormous risk.

In the 1983 Beirut car bombing, remember, it took a car bomb loaded with 2,000 pounds of explosives to kill eight CIA officers who were based at the heavily fortified American Embassy. All it took this time was one guy dressed in loose-fitting Afghan army fatigues.

These remote outposts are just one feature of the newly militarized CIA. The clandestine agency also uses unmanned drone attack aircraft to pin down and kill nut jobs in Pakistan, and has many operatives in Yemen, home of Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the notorious testicle bomber.

According to the New York Times, the CIA has long-since maintained a paramilitary branch known as the Special Activities Division. But the branch was small and rarely used.

Things changed after 9/11 however, when President George W. Bush expanded the agency’s purview to include the capture and/or killing of al Qaeda operatives. The new responsibilities were assigned to Special Activities, which deftly moves and out of countries where the US military can’t operate legally.

The CIA’s expanded mission has included at various times activities such as running a war in Pakistan, organizing secret jails where terrorist suspects could be interrogated, and running an assassination program that once outsourced sensitive operations to Blackwater, a privately-held security company.

President Obama shut down the prisons and called off the dogs, literally, when it came to interrogating terrorism suspects, but green lighted the CIA’s drone program.



Google-China Update

January 20th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

It’s been a week since Google announced its Gmail systems had been breached by cyber criminals based in China, but the scope of the attack is just now being appreciated.

Anti-VirusIt looks as though the attack was part of a large corporate and political phishing ploy that leveraged security flaws in e-mail attachments to break into the networks of at least 34 companies including  Yahoo, Symantec, Rackspace, Adobe and Northrop Grumman.

According to Google, the hackers accessed the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights advocates around the world, as well as other human rights groups that shape the national debate on human rights in China.
Google has threatened to retaliate by pulling out of China altogether.

The attacks were more sophisticated than their predecessors, according to security experts, in that they simultaneously exploited flaws in many software programs.

“Usually it’s a group using one type of malicious code per target,” Eli Jellenc told the Washington Post. Jellenc, the head of international cyber-intelligence for VeriSign’s iDefense Labs, added that “in this case, they’re using multiple types against multiple targets. That’s a marked leap in coordination.”

The standoff between Google and China creates a headache for federal officials, since it cuts to the heart of many current issues in U.S.-China relations: from human rights and censorship to intellectual property protection and access to military technology.

Since it entered the Chinese market in 2005, Google has clashed with the Chinese government about which search topics should be censored. The company’s service has been blocked when it defied government wishes.

News about Google’s public rebuke was censored in China, other than an op-ed piece in People’s Daily which called the search giant a “spoiled child” and predicted it would eventually back-off its threats.


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Assassinations ‘R Us

January 11th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

Employees of Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide occasionally operated alongside CIA and Special Forces operatives during missions to kill or capture members of al-Qaeda and other undesirables in Iraq and Afghanistan, former government officials have told the Washington Post.

non-gov'temployeeSuch behavior would exceed the protective role assigned to Blackwater in a contract with the CIA, the sources said.

The missions were approved and planned by CIA officials. But when it came time came to carry out those raids, local CIA operatives delegated responsibilities to available personnel regardless of whether they were contractors or federal employees.

A former CIA official with experience in Middle East covert operations confirmed that such decisions would be “practical…there was no bench strength with either the CIA or Special Forces, so sometimes they would turn to contractors, who often had the same skills,” he told the Post.

Former CIA officer Robert Baer said that such arrangements would short-circuit normal chains of command that CIA and military personnel must abide by. “Once you cede your authorities, people are no longer restrained by regulations and federal law,” Baer said. 

Earlier this year, CIA Director Leon Panetta terminated several contracts with Blackwater, but the agency still relies on the firm to provide security for agency employees and assets.

Former Washington-based CIA counterterrorism officials said CIA headquarters was not aware of such actions. They confirmed that Blackwater employees engaged in firefights while protecting CIA officers undertaking lethal raids, but characterized these actions as defensive, not offensive.

Currently, 5 Blackwater guards are standing trial in federal court on manslaughter and other charges stemming from the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in September, 2007. In a separate civil case, 70 Iraqi civilians are alleging that Blackwater engaged in “lawless behavior” and covered up killings.


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