What causes aging and how can it be altered? According to University of Toronto researchers, the loss of our tissues’ ability to develop and repair itself can be manipulated, leading to claims that the removal of TIMPs — tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases — could direct us toward a Fountain of Youth.
Simplified, metalloproteins are responsible for destroying and rebuilding the body’s tissue, and TIMPs control metalloproteins.
Researchers at U of T bred mice without TIMPs. They experimented with mice that had various combinations of the four TIMPs expressed.
What they found was that removing TIMP1 and TIMP3 from mice resulted in breast tissue that remained youthful in aged mice.
What was happening, the scientists discovered, was that stem cells, which usually decline with age, remained functional and abundant during the full life of the mice, so tissues maintained their ability to develop and repair.
This also resulted in less risk of breast cancer in the mice. Because the mammary glands did not degenerate as they normally would, the healthy cells were less susceptible to cancer.
Also relevant, the researchers found no increased risk of cancer, despite the larger amount of stem cells present.
The team will next attempt to push their research toward the realm of new therapeutic treatments for cancer patients through tissue remodelling.
In a finding that scientists are calling “beyond surprising,” the decades-long series of outbreaks of leukemia among clams on the eastern North American coast has been attributed the spreading of cancer from one clam to another. The finding has prompted scientists to reassess the assumption that contagious cancers are rare occurrences in nature.
“I think the story is a great example of remarkable biology lying hidden right under our noses — we just have to go looking,” Dr. Stephen Goff of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Columbia University told The Speaker. “It reminds us that there are many surprising aspects of nature yet to be discovered. And today we have very powerful new tools that allow us to make these discoveries.”
The team based their conclusion — that a single incidence of cancer was the root of the decades of leukemia outbreaks that have occurred off of the American and Canadian eastern coasts — on findings that the genotypes of the tumor cells come from a single line of tumor cells, not from the host animals own cells. This “rogue clonal cell line,” as the researchers put it, grew, divided, and broke free from the ground zero Steamer clam to infect others.
“That was the biggest surprise, for sure,” Dr. Goff told us. “An earlier, less exciting, surprise was the finding of the huge increase in the copy number of the Steamer retroelement in the tumors,” he added. “It’s the biggest increase in copy number of a mobile element in nature that I know of.”
The team is continuing their research, pushing to understand more about how the cancer became contagious. It is not yet known where the disease began not how the disease transmits between clams.
“We are actively seeking answers to the following questions: What are the mutation(s) that allow the tumor line to do this? Did the Steamer element cause these mutations? When did the original tumor arise? How long has it been spreading? Is this line restricted to the species of origin (the soft-shelled clam) or can it spread to other species? Do other species have similar tumor lines of their own?”
The transmissible cancer studied by the team is not the only known wild case, but the existence of transmissible cancer in nature has previously been considered a rare occurrence.
“We would normally expect this to be rare,” Goff told us. “We know of only two other examples in all of nature: the facial tumors of the Tasmanian Devil, and a canine venereal tumor — both are discussed in the paper, and you can read their histories. We think examples like this are rare — in vertebrates — because the adaptive immune system would recognize an invading tumor cell as foreign and reject it. The Devils do not reject these tumors for a special reason: the animals are almost all genetically identical, having gone through a small bottleneck — they almost went extinct. The dog tumor is special in lacking the surface markers that would mediate the rejection.
“But we suspect these transmissible cancers could well be more common (than we would ever have imagined) in invertebrates. They have only a primitive innate immune system, and the tumor cells must be able to evade this system and invade the new host.
“For this to happen, the tumor has to have evolved to be able to exit from one diseased animal, find its way into a healthy animal — in this case, in the sea — and colonize the new animal. It’s an extreme version of metastasis, where a tumor sheds cells that seed new locations within an individual. Here the tumor is moving into an entirely new animal — not just within an animal.
“The recent research expands our conception of transmissible cancers — they exist not only on land but in a marine environment as well — and this has prompted the researchers to suspect that contagious cancers are more common in nature than we had thought.”
Mexico is in a deep human rights crisis as a result of its continuing mistreatment of Central American immigrants. The government has started a campaign with the objective of reducing the number of immigrants who attempt to cross the southern border of Mexico.
Thousands of officials from the National Institute of Migration (INM), the federal police forces and even military personnel have been deployed along the southern border, managing to significantly reduce the flow of immigrants who attempt to cross the border in order to reach the United States of America.
The constant presence of checkpoints along the roads and railways has left immigrants without many options apart from displacement. “Now we have to walk for miles and miles to avoid checkpoints,” Alejandro Maldonado, a 49-year-old migrant from Honduras said. He has made the trip four times.
Public transportation is always stopped by the INM and the identity of each passenger is checked. Trains are also halted and immigrants on board are persecuted and apprehended by the authorities.
Despite knowing the risks and dangers involved in riding the Beast (the name of the train which the immigrants use to cross into Mexico), there are still many individuals who are willing to make the attempt. The Beast remains the best way to reach the center and north of Mexico. Though it is the fastest way, it is certainly not the safest.
Several NGOs and religious organizations that offer help and assistance to immigrants have become an oasis on the road for those wishing to obtain the American dream. These shelters provide housing, food, medical care, and legal assistance, and provide what is by far the best treatment that immigrants receive on their journeys.
“La 72,” for example, is a shelter which was set up in honour of the 72 immigrants brutally killed by an organized crime group in San Fernando, Tamaulipas in August 2010. The shelter is located in Tenosique, Tabasco, 80 kilometers away from the Southern border.
The center is run by Fray Tomás González, who has helped to provide safety and rest to thousands of Central-American immigrants for over 20 years. “Every immigrant arriving to ‘La 72’ is allowed to stay for three days to a week or even longer, depending on the condition and status of the immigrants. They are fed three times a day and are encouraged to participate in different activities organized by the volunteers working there. In return, they only have to behave, contribute to the cleaning tasks and the stronger ones are able to help with the maintenance of the shelter,” Tomás explained.
According to official numbers from the House of Immigrants in Tecum Uman, Guatemala, the flow of immigrants has been reduced to less than 50 persons per week, of which most were young and adult males, compared with 700 immigrants per week in 2011, when children and woman represented over 50 percent of the immigrant population.
Even though the numbers have dropped dramatically, there are still women and children trying to cross into the country with the hope of a better life, the illusion of joining their families or just running away from the poverty and violence that certain communities in Central America are subjected to.
There are very few support services for immigrants in Mexico apart from support homes run by NGO’s and religious organizations.
Another organisation that does exist, however, is in Veracruz state, where a group of women run “Las Patronas.” They gather every day together to prepare food, wrap it up and throw it to the immigrants travelling on the rooftop of the beast.
* * *
The road remains a hostile place full of dangers, where the possibility of being attacked by organized crime, officers from the INM, the Federal Police, or the army is very high. Kidnapping, rape or even murder are examples of the horrendous things that the immigrants face daily.
A 38-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who refused to give his name was brutally beaten after being robed while he was walking to Arriaga, Chiapas.
For many, the American Dream has faded away, which has meant some immigrants have begun to choose Mexico as a second option. They try to find a job and start a whole new life, as described by one of the immigrants I met in the district of Pakal-na in Palenque.
Apparently, the effort of the Mexican State to reduce the flow of immigrants to the country has been successful.
However, it has been the target of strong criticism due to the violent measures used to enforce it and the rising toll it has on human lives — families, women and children included.
The tactics and policies of the Mexican government have been compared to those performed by the Border Patrol further north in the United States which is not by any means an example of success either politically, economically or socially.
“Made By Raffi” is a children’s book, by Craig Pomranz, inspired by a true-life incident, about a boy who is bullied by his classmates for being different and who becomes a hero for his skills, which are traditionally feminine. The nontraditional theme puts the book into a somewhat narrow classification.
What may come as a surprise is that the book was just published in Mandarin and in Korea. Moreover, a publisher in Turkey has expressed interest. In contrast, Southern U.S. newspapers have been reluctant to promote the book in southern Texas and Louisiana, saying that they felt it would not be accepted by the public.
What makes this book acceptable and potentially acceptable in former Communist and developing dictatorship regimes, and at the same time, not considered an option in a Democracy such as the U.S.? Some publishers have wondered if Raffi’s nontraditional gender role and the rainbow on the front cover of the book symbolize something more about his difference, hinting at him possibly being gay. That question is not answered.
The book initially focuses on the “normalcy” of Raffi’s life, showing his relationship with his mother, father and dog. It goes on to describe that he feels apart from other children, uncomfortable with loud interactions and horseplay, and content to sit quietly alone during recess.
However, Raffi questions his difference, asking why that might be. He then finds meaning in his separateness when a teacher teaches him how to knit as the other kids are playing on the playground. Raffi’s parents are very supportive of his interest, giving him the tools he needs to succeed.
Initially Raffi is teased by classmates for nontraditional gender expression. But in a turn of events, Raffi becomes a hero for his class when his fine motor skills of knitting – and sewing – are needed for design of a prop for the class play.
“Made by Raffi” has been published worldwide in seven languages and distributed in ten countries – in England, Australia, the U.S., Norway, Denmark, Italy, Taiwan, Korea, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The book has received accolades for promotion of appreciation across differences, beginning with the very young. According to Pomranz, his publicists “are always looking to find publishers around the world – those who will help to promote the book and its nontraditional theme.
“A publisher in Turkey loves ‘Made by Raffi,’ but said ‘The concept of childhood gender nonconformity is not a popular subject in Turkey.’” Nevertheless, he said he was passing it on to another publisher he thought might be doing more controversial books. In Taiwan, the focus became encouraging children to develop their interests. They added some activity pages towards this aim.
“Made by Raffi” is a heartwarming tale of accepting differences. Despite its nontraditional theme, the book is gaining support in unlikely places for publication throughout the world. Perhaps the acceptance of Raffi’s interests – by his teacher, his parents, and eventually, his classmates and teacher – help to normalize nontraditional gender roles for children, and this is contributes to its universal appeal.
Usually, sound reflects off of the objects it encounters, bouncing some sound waves back in the direction from which they came — this phenomenon is familiar in the application of sonar. No technology has yet been developed that can provide sonar invisibility to any object, but a team of Singaporean researchers recently proposed a novel material surface that could do just this by directing sound waves around an object to be sent off in one direction on the other side.
The technology shares some features with topological insulators, which direct the flow of electrons along a surface, and builds on recent advances in our understanding of a class of electronic waves called “topological edge states.”
“‘Topological edge states’ are a kind of state originally found in electronic topological insulators and quantum Hall systems,” Dr. Baile Zhang of Nayang Technological University, who led the research, told The Speaker. “They are technologically promising because they are immune to backscattering from defects and disorders, similar to superconductors. But later it was found that topological edge states can also be constructed with classical waves, like electromagnetic waves and mechanical vibrations.
The proposed surface prevents sound waves from propagating through the middle of a two-dimensional triangular lattice of spinning metal cylinders. The periodic pattern of the lattice creates a sonic band gap, like other topological insulators, but it creates something else, too.
The edges of the proposed material support propagation in only one direction around the perimeter of the object. Thus, the edge states can guide sound waves with high precision.
“The circulating fluids can break time reversal symmetry, meaning that a wave moving forward will perceive differently from another wave moving backward,” Zhang told us.”So, we can utilize it to realize waveguiding only in one direction without reflection, no matter how large the defects are.”
That is what is key for creating stealth technology of this sort, said Zhang — the regularity of the material and guiding the flow of sound waves. “An irregular protrusion is one of the biggest headaches for stealth engineers,” he said, but coating any object with an acoustic topological insulator would guide sound waves around it in a single direction and hide that object from sonar.
“I think the most important thing is a picture of acoustic waves that can circumvent any defect or disorder, immune to backscattering from them,” said Zhang of the research.
The report, “Topological Acoustics,” was completed by Zhaoju Yang, Fei Gao, Xihang Shi, Xiao Lin, Zhen Gao, Yidong Chong, and Baile Zhang, and was published online on APS Physics.
On Wednesday, March 18th, the Federal Reserve released an official statement and held a press conference regarding monetary policy and current economic conditions. In this statement, the Fed projected a decline in its inflation expectation, and revised projected GDP growth downward. These are both signs of a slowing economy, not the accelerating economy required to actually raise interest rates. Janet Yellen reiterated, as she has since October, that the decision to raise rates is entirely data dependent, and not at all based on a specific calendar date. When labor market conditions improve and inflation reaches the targeted 2%, the Fed at that time would consider raising rates. The FOMC’s projections estimate that labor market conditions will improve further to 4.9% unemployment and inflation will edge upward to two percent in the years 2016 and 2017. The inherent difficulty with accepting the future estimate on inflation is the fact that the projection of inflation is an outlier to the trend being established by the incoming data. Consumer Price Index (CPI) Inflation, including food and energy, has been declining since November. The Fed also cut its estimate of PCE inflation from December, for the year 2015. The PCE measure has been falling since October when it was at 1.48%, and current sits at 1.31%. This is a decline of 11% since the Fed finished its bond buying program. The last time PCE was 2% was in March of 2012. If the Fed expects inflation in 2015 to be low, borderline dangerously low by the ideas of some FOMC Board members, then how can the Fed raise rates this year? Especially if raising rates has the effect of lowering inflation even more, then the United States might enter outright deflation. The Federal Reserve has been trying to prevent deflation ever since the financial crisis.
When the Fed put out its statement, it no longer included the word “patient” in regards to when it will raise interest rates. In previous press conferences, Chair Yellen has said that when the Committee elects to remove “patient”, the Fed may begin to raise rates “in a couple of meetings.” During her most recent conference she said that there is no calendar date and markets should not expect a rate hike in necessarily two meetings. Effective the word “patient” was removed, but its meaning in terms of the Fed’s Policy was not. In the Question and Answer portion of the Conference Sam Fleming from the Financial Times asked a question regarding the risks of leaving “zero lower bound” and how tightening too early can have greater risks than remaining in a low interest rate environment. Chari Yellen responded by saying, “When an economy is operating at the so called zero lower bound, it creates a situation where there are asymmetric risks.” She continues, “If there are adverse shocks to demand that tend to push inflation and economic performance in an adverse direction, it’s not possible to lower rates. Of course that’s a reason why for a number of years we engaged in active asset purchase programs.” Yellen pointed out that while at close to zero percent interest rates the Fed’s policy options to further stimulate the economy are limited.
With the dramatic drop in the price of oil, along with thousands of rig layoffs have pulled the energy industry into a large contraction. Combine this with largely negative economic data, paired with the fact that the US is historically due for a recession, and there could be a large problem for the Fed. The Bloomberg ECO Surprise Index, which measures general economic data trends, is at its lowest level since the depths of the recession in 2009. The US economy could very well be starting to roll over into a recession, in which the Federal Reserve’s policy options are limited. According to Janet Yellen’s remarks about past policy decisions in this type of scenario, one would think that if this negative trend continues the possibility of another asset purchasing program could enter into the discussion, postponing today’s talks about raising interest rates even further.
The Ebola virus, which has taken the lives of over 4,000 people in Liberia over the past year, could be wiped out completely by the beginning of summer. It is not a foregone conclusion, but it is a realistic possibility, according to the researchers responsible for a new forecast based on new highly inclusive models.
“I think the elimination of human-to-human transmission of Ebola in Liberia by summer is probable and can be expected,” Dr. John Drake, the associate professor at the UGA Odum School of Ecology who led the project, told The Speaker. “However, as with all infectious diseases near elimination, the last mile will be one of the toughest and it would be foolish to count on elimination before it has been finally achieved.”
The work was undertaken by a joint team of ecologists from the University of Georgia and Pennsylvania State University.
“Our new method of model fitting — called the ‘method of plausible parameter sets’ — aims to quickly provide a back-of-the-envelope working model that primarily rules out inconsistent scenarios rather than quantifying the relative likelihood of alternative consistent scenarios,” Drake told us.
Their model not only estimates Ebola’s reproductive number (the number of new cases that could result from currently infected people), but also infection and treatment setting, variations in individual infectiousness, hospital capacity and burial practice changes.
“The factors in our study are inter-related. Hospital capacity and a willingness of infected persons to be admitted are mutually reinforcing as hospitals can do nothing to isolate patients if infected persons are unwilling to be recognized and a willingness to be treated is useless without facilities that can safely treat. The safe, dignified burial of the deceased was also crucial to reducing the average number of secondary infections from a case. I believe all three were necessary for containment.”
It does not include some other factors, however. The team limited their model to what they felt was most important, ignoring superfluous data in order to achieve a usefully “intermediate complexity.”
The models used data from earlier Ebola outbreaks, factored for underreporting, in-hospital and burial transmission, and infection control effectiveness. They then added data from July through September about new cases and changes in the factors of transmission. Branching processes — a mathematical formulation that provides for all possible outcomes based on the proportion of their probabilities — was used in the models.
“Branching process theory is an area of mathematics that can be used to model contagion, reproduction, and other population dynamic phenomena that have a probabilistic component to them,” Drake explained. “We found it to be useful in this case because we could derive many of the properties of interest — like the average change in infection — from considerations about the constituent processes — like transmission from nursing care or during funeral preparations and proceedings.”
One of the biggest takeaways from the Liberian outbreak, Drake commented, was the decisions and actions of those who undertook to fight it.
“Containment required collective coordinated action. Governments, non-governmental organizations and the Liberian people are to be commended for acting swiftly and assertively. Our model predicts that if they had not, things might have gotten much worse very quickly.”
The researchers expect that their model will also be useful for future outbreak scenarios, as will their new method for model fitting.
The report, “Ebola Cases and Health System Demand in Liberia,” was completed by John M. Drake, RajReni B. Kaul, Laura W. Alexander, Suzanne M. O’Regan, Andrew M. Kramer, J. Tomlin Pulliam, Matthew J. Ferrari, Andrew W. Park, and was published in the journal PLOS Biology.
According to recent work conducted by a joint team of researchers from James Cook University, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, the University of Heidelberg, and the National Institutes of Health, the body’s cells not only learn from the infections they encounter, becoming better able to deal with various infections throughout life, but can also remember numbers.
“For a very long time we have tried to classify memory immune cells on overall function and morphology and have tried to group them based on such features,” James Cook University’sDr. Andreas Kupz, co-author on the study, told The Speaker. “Although this might make the wealth of information and detail more digestible, it becomes more and more clear, not just from our study, that such ‘average’ is just not good enough anymore. There is a huge heterogeneity even within individual memory immune cell subsets and in the future the focus must be much more directed towards the single cell level.”
T-helper cells, which were the focus of the recent research, help other immune cells by releasing cytokines, messenger substances.
“Our findings demonstrate that every individual T helper cell stably memorizes not only the type but also the amount of a certain cytokine it produces based on the information it receives during an initial infection,” Kupz told us. “Although we did not test the effect of this quantitative cytokine memory on a different infection, it is likely that the amount of cytokine produced will not change because the level of cytokine is predetermined through the amount of a ‘master transcription factor’ within the nucleus of the cell.”
However, T-helper cells don’t learn in the same way we understand people to learn.
“‘Learning’ in this situation is probably best translated with ‘memorizing,’ which in itself is a feature of learning. The learning occurs through maintaining a defined amount of the transcription factor that controls the production of certain cytokines. The cell-specific fine adjustments of this process is still not entirely understood but may involve the control of cytokine receptor expression and/or the activity of downstream signal transduction molecules.”
“Furthermore, we found epigenetic modifications at both the locus of the cytokine and the controlling transcription factor. Hence, we hypothesize that a combination of multiple permissive and repressive epigenetic modifications at several regulatory sites imprints the stable cytokine memory.”
Although dealing with infections does strengthen the body’s ability to deal with later infections — which might be information that could factor into arguments in the current vaccination debate — Kupz was clear that his comments were not to be on the debate, and that vaccination is something he believes is very important and necessary.
“The immunological memory that is generated through exposure to vaccines does in fact often rely on similar ‘learning’ mechanisms. ”
“In my opinion the most important take home message from this study is not so much the applicability of our findings for health and disease but more the gain in overall knowledge about T cell biology,” Kupz speculated on how his work could contribute to the growing body of information about the role of T cells, and how it could potentially lead to strengthening specific immune reactions and to reducing the misdirected immune responses that cause inflammation.
The report, “Individual T helper cells have a quantitative cytokine memory,” was completed by Caroline Helmstetter, Michael Flossdorf, Michael Peine, Andreas Kupz, Jinfang Zhu, Ahmed N. Hegazy, Maria A. Duque-Correa, Qin Zhang, Yevhen Vainshtein, Andreas Radbruch, Stefan H. Kaufmann, William E. Paul, Thomas Höfer, and Max Löhning, and was published in the journal Immunity.
Over 1.5 million people a month — almost 195 million people to date — have renounced their links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since the Tuidang Movement (in mandarin Chinese Tuidang means ‘withdraw from the party’) was founded in January 2005, spurred by the publication of the ‘Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party’, an editorial series run by the Epoch Times, a Chinese language newspaper based in the United States.
The Nine Commentaries seeks to give a historical account and critique of the Communist Party, its ideologies, its practices, its effects on China’s culture and values and what it has meant for the ordinary lives of Chinese citizens. The Nine Commentaries may be for many Chinese the only alternative to China’s authorities’ own account of major historical events, such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. And while the series does not directly call for the end of the CCP, in its ninth of the Nine Commentaries it calls on people to distance themselves from the party.
As soon as the series was run in November 2004, statements of withdrawal from the CCP began to arrive at the offices of the Epoch Times, which led a group of volunteers to officially start the Tuidang movement in January 2005. According to David Tompkins, Director of Public Relations at the Tuidang Centre in New York, many Chinese had been harbouring a desire to renounce their ties to the CCP for a long time, and reading the Nine Commentaries gave them the encouragement and the opportunity to follow it through.
The movement relies on a global network of volunteers operating within most places in which a Chinese community is present. However it is in China that the movement is most active, with some several hundred thousand volunteers, often acting alone, unable to communicate with one another, and at great personal risk. Indeed, research by the Tuidang Centre showed that of the 100 million statements of withdrawals received by 2011, around 99 percent came from China. While Tomkins acknowledges that such percentage may not be quite so high now, he thinks the ratio is still not far off.
‘Tuidang’ literally means ‘to withdraw from the party’, but effectively it means to renounce the CCP ideology and to symbolically take back the oath given to the party either through the Young Pioneers, the Communist Youth League, or the CCP proper. And while official sources put CCP membership in China at around 85 million, party ideology permeates much more of Chinese society, with some 700 million Chinese estimated to have taken the oath through either of these organisations at some point in their lives.
Tuidang is more than just symbolically taking back the oath however, as Tompkins explains. The movement wants to empower people to think for themselves once again, to hold beliefs that are not prescribed and to look at the party more critically, while also seeking to reconnect Chinese people with the traditional value systems of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, belief systems which the party treats as enemy of the state. Such intellectual and ethics freedom, which people in the West take for granted, has been systematically opposed since the CCP came into power, through censorship, persecution, imprisonment, torture or killing of those who don’t toe the party line.
The CCP has to date failed to issue an official party response to the Tuidang Movement, as this would acknowledge the threat that it poses. Yet responded it has. Terms like ‘Tuidang’ and ‘Nine Commentaries’ are highly censored in internet searches, and media outlets reporting on Tuidang risk immediate closure, such as the case of Jinzhou News. On 27 September 2009, with the 60th Anniversary of the CCP only a few days away, the paper published on its front page a photo of red flags and banners. Down in the left corner the photo also showed a bike rack with a message written on it encouraging people to leave the party. As soon as the issue was released, the newspaper was shut down and all copies withdrawn from circulation.
Internet and media censorship aside, other government measures to counteract threats to its power include: an increased domestic security budget – the courts, policing, the prosecutor’s office; party members recruitment, and more than a whiff of Mao propaganda, such as the ‘singing red songs’ campaign, during which people were invited or coerced into singing CCP slogans at public events.
Yet, despite government repression, momentum has been steadily growing within the Tuidang movement, and some 120 thousand statements of withdrawal are currently reaching the Tuidang Centre in New York daily.
The cause has no doubt been helped by high profile cases, such as that of Zhisheng Gao. Gao is a much respected human rights lawyer who spent half of his career practicing pro-bono for the poorest in China, and was one of the first lawyers to take on Falun Gong cases. He has endured repeated imprisonment and torture for its human rights work, and is currently under house arrest and unable to communicate freely with his family.
Accounts of imprisonments and torture at the hands of the Chinese government’s domestic security apparatus are as numerous as they are harrowing. Like that of Zhiming Hu, a 28-year-old electronics engineer and a major officer in the Chinese air force, whose experience almost cost him his life.
At 2 a.m. on the 4th October 2000, members of the National Security Bureau knocked, under a false pretext, on Zhiming Hu’s door at the Shanghai hotel in which he had been staying. They rushed in, arrested him and took him away, alleging that he was a spy. Hu was taken to Tilanqiao Prison in Shanghai. Right from the start he suffered mental and physical torture at the hands of prison guards and inmates alike. For the first three weeks he was interrogated constantly and beaten, his hands and waist handcuffed together as he refused to recite the prison regulations and to wear inmates’ clothes.
A whole year went by before the authorities appointed him a lawyer at the beginning of court proceedings, and on 14th September 2001 Hu was finally sentenced by the Pudong District Court to four years in prison for “teaching others to browse the minghui.org website” – a Falun Gong website.
Hu’s four year sentence was spent between detention centres and prison hospitals. After his sentencing, he was put into a three square meter cell where he remained for two years, enduring many more beatings and torture. Towards the end of its sentence, in August 2004, the authorities became more heavy-handed, instigating beatings and depriving Hu of sleep. He started a hunger strike in protest.
One day, as he laid unconscious, he was taken to the prison hospital where his legs, arms and body were tightly bound to the bed. There he was forced-fed, and for three weeks injected with drugs of unknown therapeutic benefit, which gave him pounding headaches that lasted for hours. He remained in hospital, bound to the bed, for 40 days until his sentence had expired. Unable to move as a result of the binding, his parents came to collect him and had to carry him home. It was the 3rd October 2004.
It was not to be the end of Hu’s ordeal.
One year later, on the evening of the 23rd September 2005, as he was distributing DVD copies of the ‘Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party’ on the streets of Beijing, Hu was apprehended by plain clothes police and taken to Haidian District Detention Centre in Beijing. Just like before, he had no contact with his family and just like before the authorities appointed his lawyer only shortly before the trial some seven months later, when Hu was given 30 minutes to talk with him. At the trial, on 26th April 2006, he was sentenced to another four years in prison.
Hu recounts how this time he was treated even worse, so that on 13th May 2006 he started a hunger strike to protest his unlawful detention and inhumane conditions. After five days he was sent to a hospital where a series of physical examinations began, with many blood samples taken during which he reckons unnecessary pain was deliberately inflicted upon him. The tests continued back at the detention centre where he would be given daily injections, and was closely watched twelve hours a day, before been sent back to the hospital on May 24th, where for the following five months his feet were chained to the bed.
To try to make him give up his hunger strike prison officers and doctors would beam bright lights into Hu’s eyes, force-feed him daily, and let him lay in his own excrement for long periods of time. Hu recounts how once an over one meter long tube was inserted through his nose into his stomach. As he complained to the medical staff that the procedure disregarded the maximum allowance of 0.5 meter for such procedures, they quickly removed the tube, causing severe pain and internal bleeding that lasted longer than a month.
Unsuccessful in getting Hu to resume eating, doctors started reducing his force-feeding and moved him to a contagious diseases ward, the same ward where he recalls other fellow Falun Gong practitioners, some of whom had later died, had also previously been sent to. Five months later, with a body weight of 40kg, down from 60kg, Hu’s health had seriously deteriorated.
In September 2006 when the authorities belatedly asked him to sign his verdict, Hu refused. By October Hu got worse, and fearing he may die, the prison staff increased monitoring during the day and woke him up every two hour at night, before sending him to the Tuanhe Detainee Transfer Centre, where he was refused on the basis of his poor health.
Back to the detention centre and now supposed to be transferred to the City Prison hospital, the guard responsible for his transfer, tired and reluctant to take him, decided to kick Hu’s legs until they were numb. The next day, an electromyography examination found that Hu’s leg muscles had severe atrophy and that his legs nerves had suffered physical damage, probably due to a combination of his bed-chaining for months, as well as the kicking he suffered.
On 2nd November 2006 Hu Was transferred to the Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province. Body covered in festers, force-feeding was resumed. By now Hu was lingering between life and death and his parents hoped he could be bailed out, but the prison refused. Three more years imprisonment followed, during which Hu was bed-bound, except when using a wheelchair to visit the toilet. More torture by police officers, harassment by inmates, and dubious medical procedures ensued.
Body weak and severely malnourished, legs stiff with muscular atrophy and nerve damage, Hu’s health continued to deteriorate. On 22nd September 2009, afraid of the consequences of his possibly imminent death, the prison hurriedly shifted its duty to its local police station and residential committee, who in turn also hurriedly sent Hu back home to his parents, barely alive.
With the help of Falun Gong exercises Hu gradually recovered and started to regain mobility in his legs, and two months later he was able to stand and to walk again, although the damage to his nerves meant that he could only do so backwards.
On 4th February 2010 after Hu was seen once again walking outside, four members of local 610 Office – a national office formed for persecution of Falun Gong practitioners – and the residential committee broke into Hu’s house. Hu was lucky not to be home at the time, however his parents were warned not to let him go outside again, and to report any of Hu’s activities to them. Hu realised that he would not be safe in China.
Two weeks later, during the Chinese Spring Festival on 17th February 2010, Hu left his house without telling a soul. He caught a train to the Unan province and then a seven hour bus ride to the Vietnam border. There he was lucky to find someone who smuggled him across the border into Vietnam. Two weeks later he reached Cambodia and on 1st March 2010 he made it into Thailand, where he was granted political asylum and remained for two years. Then, on 2nd August 2012 Hu joined his brother in the US.
Having almost completely healed from his disability, Hu now lives in New York where he works as a software engineer. His father and two brothers remain in China. He speaks with them regularly, and although their conversations are tapped, his family back home are no longer subjected to harassment.
Hu counts himself lucky. Lucky that he survived what other fellow Falun Gong practitioners did not, such as Litian Zhang who on 17th November 2008 was beaten to death in JinZhou prison.
Hu’s faith in Falun Gong is what got him incarcerated in the first place, but he says it is also what ultimately kept him alive throughout his ordeal. Outside the prison walls Hu’s brother campaigned US Congress and wrote letters to the UN Human Rights Commission. And, aided by a Falun Gong’s campaign through which the personal telephone numbers of prison officers involved in torturing Falun Gong’s practitioners were published, he kept phoning the prison staff who were mistreating Hu, asking them to stop persecuting him.
Such activities may not have achieved Hu’s early release from prison, but they did put pressures on the authorities, and highlight the tenacity of Hu’s family and human rights campaigners in their fight against violent repression of dissent. Such tenacity can be a powerful weapon as the Chinese government are all too aware.
Momentum has been steadily rising within the Tuidang movement. Thanks to a network of courageous volunteers in China, and the world, a growing number of Chinese people can look more critically at, and challenge the party who rules them.
Tompkins argues that while many Chinese now enjoy greater wealth, being able to afford mobile phones does not make up for all the basic freedoms that they are still deprived of. What they think, what they believe, what they say, who they associate themselves with, whether they can have a child or the decision when to marry, are all still ruled by the state in China. Western governments, businesses and consumers could do a lot more to ensure that such basic freedoms are promoted in China.
A view much echoed by Teng Biao, a Human Rights lawyer and a visiting fellow at Harvard University Law School, Biao had his lawyer’s license revoked in China, was expelled from his university and was kidnapped and disappeared several times. Biao said: “…Sycophants inside and outside China are able to imagine a ‘spring for rule of law’ that doesn’t exist while ignoring human rights disasters suffered by Ilham Tohti, Xu Zhiyong, Cao Shunli, Gao Zhisheng, Uighurs, Tibetans, petitioners, Falun Gong adherents, and house churches… this type of seemingly even-handed wishful thinking has become the excuse for Western governments to adopt short-sighted policies of appeasement in dealing with autocratic regimes and for favouring trade over human rights.”
Indeed, repression costs money and flourishing exports receipts underpin the Chinese government ability to silence its opposition at home, but also give it leverage in international negotiations, not only in the geopolitical arena, but ironically in Human Rights debates.
On asking about what it will mean for the organisation to hit 200 million withdrawal statements, Tompkins admits that they still have a long way to go, but that it is nevertheless a milestone and an opportunity to get more people aware of and involved in the movement, particularly in the West.
It is a long way to a free and democratic China, and much still is to be done by the Tuidang and other human rights movements, and by ordinary citizens turned activists, like Zhiming Hu, whose actions are nothing short of the heroic. Yet according to Hu and Tompkins, over the ten years since the movement started a mood change has been palpable, with more and more Chinese people denouncing their government’s corruption and violence towards its very own citizens. Both are unanimous in also saying that for it to succeed this battle is not for China alone.
Wouldn’t it be much better if the Russians could be great friends with us in the West? It’s in our mutual interests, especially with the shared challenges we face together, yet we are getting ever more deeply locked in mutual antagonism and there is a risk that the war in Ukraine might escalate out of control. The West acts as if Russia’s actions in the Ukraine are a surprise to us. Yet, they are very predictable if we are honest about human nature. Russia’s obsession with conflict with the West is a massive strategic error on its part. Like the guns of the doomed British Empire in Singapore, Russia is looking the wrong way. Their critical threats come from the South, East and internally from their own mindset.
So what’s going on? There are many layers to this. Let’s look at it through the lens of some of the clauses from “The New Magna — Psychiatrist’s Prescription for Western Civilization.” It’s a vision and strategy to rejuvenate the West.
4.1 Be conscious of our values and promote their healthy expression, adapted to the task and situation.
We in the West have become naive, spoiled by the freedoms and prosperity of our comfortable liberal democracies. We take survival, security, power, freedom, justice and stability for granted to the degree that we neglect them and fail to see them operating in others. We naively assume that everyone else thinks like us, has the same values and perceptions. We have tried to draw Russia into our economic orbit and to exert influence on their society to become liberal and pluralistic like ours. We have chosen to pick a fight with the Russians over gay rights, forgetting how recently it is that the West has converted to that way of thinking. Russia remains a very conservative country with a strong patriotism which we have long since discarded. The centre of gravity of their mindset remains patriotism and power which our political class mostly no longer understands. The Ukraine was an integral part of Russia for 800 years-as old as our Magna Carta. Is it any wonder that when they perceived the West trying to draw Ukraine into the EU and NATO that they would feel threatened and violated.
4.3 Manage the dark side of human nature.
The shadow side of power and pride is shame, addiction and victim mentality, all of which have a powerful place in the Russian consciousness. Losing an Empire is painful. The Persians still mourn theirs. The British are still in denial. Russia lost not only an Empire, but its whole meaning and identity when Soviet communism collapsed. It’s only natural to be nostalgic for the good old days of certainty, patriotism and righteousness. President Putin feels that shame and deep loss in his core and is determined to restore Russia’s self-respect. A sense of resentment and violation is the most powerful motivator of violence. If someone feels violated and insecure, they can be very dangerous. It’s wise to see that coming and act accordingly.
6.3 Identify common values and superordinate goals
What is surprising is the Russian government’s poor analysis of the true threats to their country. The Kremlin PR machine spews out a daily diet of anti-Western propaganda to whip up their people into a nationalist frenzy. Meanwhile the real and true threats to Russia grow unnoticed. Many Russians are drinking themselves into an early grave and, like much of the West, failing to have enough children to secure their future. Whilst their missiles face West, they seem blind to the cauldron of religious fundamentalism to the South. The Chinese Empire has its eye on Siberia. They aren’t taking it with tanks and bombers. They are taking it by stealth with migrants and traders simply walking across the border and laying down roots. Siberia is rich in resources and empty of people. China is brimming over with people and hungry for resources.
6.7 Practise empathy
In global terms, Russia is actually a Western country. It has a very distinct culture and history, but fundamentally they are Europeans. Yet we in the West treat Russia like the dysfunctional cousins at the family wedding. They crave our acceptance, but know that we will never accept them as equals. Russia craves respect, like an awkward teenager. They opened up to us when communism collapsed and we infected them with a brutal and corrupt form of capitalism. We humiliated them by drawing former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO.
16.1 Invest a World War II level of effort in discovering and implementing abundant, cheap, clean, secure and renewable energy technologies
We have wasted a great deal of time and energy arguing over the existence or not of climate change. Meanwhile, we missed the vital importance of having control over our energy supplies. This has not been lost on Russia upon whom Western Europe is dependent for much of its gas supply. It’s hard to be assertive with someone who has his hands round your throat.
26.8 Respect others’ boundaries, identity and security
Imagine how England would feel if Scotland broke away and became dominated by Iran. Imagine how the US would feel if California became a Chinese client state. We simply would not allow it to happen and would do whatever it took to stop it.
26.17 Invest properly in defence – don’t freeload on others
The US has cut its military budget substantially since the crash of 2008. Western Europe has reduced its forces from small to joke-size. Since America became the dominant power, we have lived under their umbrella with the costs and benefits of playing second fiddle. Yet we are now freeloading and the powerful Russian military can see that there is not much behind our fig leaf. We need to dramatically increase our investment in defence.
What does this mean for Ukraine? Whether we like it or not, Russia is a very powerful nation and it considers Ukraine to be within its sphere of influence. For practical purposes, it is. Our principles of democracy and self-determination are excellent but they only exist where we have the power to enforce and defend them. Russia values Ukraine vastly more than does the West and is prepared to sacrifice much more. We have little to gain and much to lose. It is foolish to pick a fight you can’t win. We must make it clear that Ukraine is not going to join either the EU or NATO- unless one day Russia becomes our friend and they join us together. That sounds totally unrealistic right now, but events in the world may bring that about sooner than we imagine.
The New Magna Carta is a bold vision and strategy to rejuvenate Western Civilization. On the 800th anniversary of the original “Great Charter,” Dr Nicholas Beecroft proposes a clear vision of who we are, what we believe, what we value, where we want to get to and the necessary steps to get there. It is intended as a living, evolving document to be continuously improved. Far from the pessimistic cynicism of our time, the New Magna Carta envisions a bright future.
A cognitive bias, the “illusion of causality,” has been explored by a joint team of scientists who found that the bias isn’t limited to false beliefs about whatever was originally learned; later on, the bias can prevent new information from being learned — even when the original information is false and the newer information is true.
“Our ability to associate causes to effects is quite fallible,” Dr. Helena Matute, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Experimental Psychology Laboratory at Universidad de Deusto and lead researcher on the study, told The Speaker. “It often works well, but it very often is subject to illusions.”
The study involved two sets of student volunteers. The two groups witnessed drug treatment of different medical patients. The first group (called “high illusion”) witnessed many patients who had taken a drug — most of the patients recovered. The second group (“low illusion”) witnessed many patients who had not taken the drug — most of the patients recovered.
Both groups saw some patients who took the drug and some that didn’t, but each set saw more of one or the other. Across the board, around 70 percent of patients recovered, regardless of whether they took the drug or not.
The high illusion group more frequently concluded the drug had a helpful effect.
In a second round of experiments, both groups witnessed the same thing: half the patients received the drugs and half didn’t, and those who received the drug recovered 90 percent of the time, while those who didn’t receive the drug had only a 70 percent rate of recovery.
The high illusion group was less likely to recognize the drug’s effectiveness. The high illusion group thought that the recovery was due to the drug they had witnessed in the first phase of the study.
The researchers suspect that the high illusion group’s belief that the first drug was effective prevented the group from learning new information from the second round of experiments.
This study has relevance for false medical practices. It is important that people have exposure to true medical information early — before quackery gets a chance to reach them — Matute thinks.
“Yes, it is very important. But it might be even more important to provide people with excellent training on cognitive biases and cause-effect illusions, so that they will be interested in learning scientific methods, in general, not just related to medicine. And ideally, this should start quite early in life — maybe before 10 — and continue through life. The reason is that you cannot teach people all the details about medicine, present and future, and all the details about all other things they will need to know in their life. That is impossible. But if you teach them to think scientifically they have the tools to protect themselves against quackery and against many other frauds.
They convinced a group of teenagers that a metal wristband improved physical and mental abilities and that the teenagers should by the wristband.
The researchers next ran some the teenagers through a crash course on what had just happened. They told them about the weaknesses of the arguments in favor of the wristbands, explained the principle of baseline comparison, and taught them about causality illusion.
Afterwards, the researchers had the teenagers play a computer simulation in which the teenagers could administer a drug to patients to see if it was effective. The teenagers who had received the crash course ran more drug trials without the drug to see if the drug really was effective.
“Teaching scientific methods and scientific thinking to every one. Showing people that we are not ready to detect cause-effect relations on bare eyes, showing them that we all suffer illusions, that we often believe that A causes B when they are just co-occurring. Thus, teaching people that we need the help of controlled experiments to test whether a treatment is working. If there is no evidence supporting it, we should be aware we should not trust our personal experience, it is too biased.”
However, the illusion of causality can effect not just patients, but doctors, too.
“They are humans and are subject to identical cognitive biases as other people. They might feel that a treatment is working when it is not. But they have the scientific literature and reviews of current research to make sure whether treatment is supported by evidence.
“We need to be aware of these mistakes in order to be able to protect ourselves against them,” Matute concluded. “The only protection that we humans have developed about these cause-effect illusions is the scientific method. So, lets use it. And let’s teach everybody how to use it!”
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Jeanne Beker, a child of holocaust survivors, will lead the Azrieli Foundation Book Launch, with a reading of her parents’ memoir, “Joy Runs Deeper,” at the Museum of Vancouver on Thursday, Feb. 19.
“Joy Runs Deeper,” by Bronia and Joseph Beker, is an important literary view of the way life was in Poland, precisely in Kozowa, a small town in the east, after the 1939 invasion by Nazi Germany. The memoir is a rich tale of luck, kindness, but most importantly, it is filled with the narratives of two people that survived hell.
The Bekers, who were both born in a small shtetl in Eastern Poland, managed to survive the war, through horrible circumstances, yet the most important moral of the story is that they did it together.
In a statement released by the Museum of Vancouver, Jeanne Beker said, “As a child of [Holocaust] survivors, I’m keenly aware that I have been left with a legacy that’s as powerfully daunting as it is inspiring.
“Now I realize it was [my parents’] storytelling [about their experiences during the Holocaust] that made me who I am, colouring my personal philosophies, imparting a sense of resilience and instilling in me a precious instinct for survival,” said Beker.
This will be the first time the book will be launched on the West Coast. The entire experience will be enriched by the Museum of Vancouver, who will put on an exhibition that features rare examples of haute couture and Vancouver-made clothing and accessories that reflect how WWII changed society as a whole.
In a CBC interview last year, Jeanne Beker expressed,”Most Holocaust survivors do not want to tell their stories. They do not want to openly talk about it because it is so painful.”
The reading will be an important experience for those who are interested in learning more about the Shoah, as well as the Second World War.