Monthly Archives: December 2012

Scientists Develop World’s First Peel-Off Solar Cells

Thanks ; Joann Pan for advanced information.

Stanford University researchers created the first flexible, reusable decal-like solar panels that can attach to almost any surface.

The Thin-Film Solar Cells (TFSCs) can be affixed to paper, plastic and glass without being direct fabrication. The adhesive comes off with some room-temperature water.

The solar cells are generally made with rigid silicon and glass structures to maintain their form, according to a paper by lead investigator Chi Hwan Lee, a mechanical engineering doctoral candidate, and the study’s contributors in the Dec. 20 issue of Scientific Reports.

While manufacturers have produced TFSCs on paper, textiles and rubber in the past, the strips were easily deformed in handling. By fabricating “peel-and-stick” solar cells, the Stanford scientists have broadened the thin-film photovoltaic cells’ uses. The study’s authors suggest using the solar cells with portable power supplies, electronic smart clothing and aerospace systems.

“Since the peel-and-stick process does not require any fabrication on the final target substrate, it circumvents all the fabrication challenges associated with these nonconventional substrates discussed above,” Lee and his fellow researchers wrote.

The ultra-durable solar panels can also be used on a curved surface such as an undulating building roof, helmet or portable device. This process heavily reduces the cost and complications of production. The researchers also believe the peel-and-stick technology can be applied to other thin-film electronics including circuits, transistors and LCDs.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr, Jeda Villa Bali; Graphic courtesy of Scientific Reports


Is the #Thai government fighting illegal immigration or abusing migrants’ rights?

Thanks; @AJEnglish

Thailand plans to deport thousands of migrant workers from neighbouring countries now that a National Verification (NV) deadline has passed.

“What we are trying to do here is give these workers an opportunity to register under government protection three consecutive times this past year. We know how critical these workers are to our economy and at some point in time we are trying to get together and try to figure how to deal with it.”

– Sean Boonpracong, an adviser to the prime minister’s office

The Thai government said that migrant workers who failed to apply for NV by last Friday’s deadline are required to report to immigration offices in border provinces to be deported.

However, there have also been reports suggesting that Thailand will extend its deadline for Myanmarese workers by three months following a meeting between the leaders of the two countries.

The National Verification system that the government introduced was meant to allow illegal migrants to acquire legal status.

The programme requires migrants to get temporary passports at home in order to renew or apply for Thai work permits. If granted legal status, they are given the same labour rights as Thai citizens, including a 35 percent minimum wage increase for those working in some regions starting in January.

“Workers face a life of daily fear of local officials and police. Many of them are in debt bondage arrangements with their employers and cannot change employers and they live in cramp, crowded dormitories …. The other aspect of it is that the Thai policy on migrants has a national security concern at its core that encourages and forces migrants to stay with one employer except in the most grievous of circumstances.”

– Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch

But the system is already said to be rife with corruption, as unscrupulous brokers and government staff extort money from illegal workers in return for the processing of paperwork.

Between two million and two-and-a-half million migrant workers from neighbouring countries, including Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, live in the kingdom, according to a 2011 government census.

About 80 percent of them are from Myanmar. Most work in labour-intensive industries such as seafood processing and garments, and their unregistered status leaves them vulnerable to abuse.

So, is the Thai government abusing their rights or simply enacting laws?

Inside Story, with presenter Hazem Sika, discusses the plight of migrant workers with guests: Sean Boonpracong, an international adviser to trade representatives in the prime minister’s office; Rajiv Biswas, a senior director and Asia-Pacific chief economist with IHS Global Insight, an economic and financial analysis company; and Phil Robertson, a deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

FDA Oks Genetically Altered Fish

Dec 22, 2012

THANKS;Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Genetically engineered salmon are inching ever closer to your dinner plate. But that’s not as scary as it sounds. Friday, the FDA approved the fish, whose only modification is that they grow twice as quickly as normal salmon. The approval, which ruled that the fish do not pose an environmental threat and are just as safe to eat as the normal kind, was a key hurdle for the company responsible for the animal and has predictably added more fuel to the fire that is the genetic-engineering controversy. Until the approval is finalized (or not) in two months, however, the controversy will just have to wait.

Read it at The Washington Post
December 22, 2012 8:50 AM EST

A Gunman, Recalled as Intelligent and Shy, Who Left Few Footprints in Life


A Gunman, Recalled as Intelligent and Shy, Who Left Few Footprints in Life

He carried a black briefcase to his 10th-grade honors English class, and sat near the door so he could readily slip in and out. When called upon, he was intelligent, but nervous and fidgety, spitting his words out, as if having to speak up were painful.

Pale, tall and scrawny, Adam Lanza walked through high school in Newtown, Conn., with his hands glued to his sides, the pens in the pocket of his short-sleeve, button-down shirts among the few things that his classmates recalled about him.

He did all he could to avoid attention, it seemed.

Until Friday.

The authorities said Mr. Lanza, 20, wearing combat gear, carried out one of the deadliest school shootings in the nation’s history. He killed 20 children and six adults at the elementary school, they said. He then apparently turned his gun on himself. Earlier, the police said, he also killed his mother.

In his brief adulthood, Mr. Lanza had left few footprints, electronic or otherwise. He apparently had no Facebook page, unlike his older brother, Ryan, a Hoboken, N.J., resident who for several hours on Friday was misidentified in news reports as the perpetrator of the massacre.

Adam Lanza did not even appear in his high school yearbook, that of the class of 2010. His spot on the page said, “Camera shy.” Others who graduated that year said they did not believe he had finished school.

Matt Baier, now a junior at the University of Connecticut, and other high school classmates recalled how deeply uncomfortable Mr. Lanza was in social situations.

Several said in separate interviews that it was their understanding that he had a developmental disorder. They said they had been told that the disorder was Asperger’s syndrome, which is considered a high functioning form of autism.

“It’s not like people picked on him for it,” Mr. Baier said. “From what I saw, people just let him be, and that was that.”

Law enforcement officials said Friday that they were closely examining whether Mr. Lanza had such a disorder.

One former classmate who said he was familiar with the disorder described Mr. Lanza as having a “very flat affect,” adding, “If you looked at him, you couldn’t see any emotions going through his head.”

Others said Mr. Lanza’s evident discomfort prompted giggles from those who did not understand him.

“You could tell that he felt so uncomfortable about being put on the spot,” said Olivia DeVivo, also now at the University of Connecticut. “I think that maybe he wasn’t given the right kind of attention or help. I think he went so unnoticed that people didn’t even stop to realize that maybe there’s actually something else going on here — that maybe he needs to be talking or getting some kind of mental help. In high school, no one really takes the time to look and think, ‘Why is he acting this way?’ ”

Ms. DeVivo remembered Mr. Lanza from sixth grade and earlier, talking about aliens and “blowing things up,” but she chalked this up to the typical talk of prepubescent boys.

Still, after hearing of the news on Friday, Ms. DeVivo reconnected with friends from Newtown, and the consensus was stark. “They weren’t surprised,” she said. “They said he always seemed like he was someone who was capable of that because he just didn’t really connect with our high school, and didn’t really connect with our town.”

She added: “I never saw him with anyone. I can’t even think of one person that was associated with him.”

Mr. Baier, who sat next to Mr. Lanza in the back of their sophomore-year honors math class, said Mr. Lanza barely said a word all year, but earned high marks. He said he knew this only from peeking at Mr. Lanza’s scores when their teacher handed back their tests.

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Out of view of his classmates, Mr. Lanza’s adolescence seemed to have been turbulent. In 2006, his older brother graduated high school and went to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, leaving him alone with their parents — whose marriage was apparently coming apart.

In 2008, they divorced after 17 years, court records show. His father, Peter Lanza, a tax executive for General Electric, moved to Stamford, and in January 2011 married a woman who is a librarian at the University of Connecticut.

His mother, Nancy, kept their home in Newtown, a prosperous, hilly enclave of spacious, newer homes about five miles from the elementary school. Adam Lanza was thought to have been living in the house, too.

Friends remembered Ms. Lanza as being very involved in her sons’ lives.

“Their mother was very protective, very hands-on,” said Gina McDade, whose son was a playmate of Ryan Lanza’s and spent much time at his home, which she described as a two-story Colonial with a pool.

“It was a beautiful home,” Ms. McDade said. “She was a good housekeeper, better than me. You could tell her kids really came first.”

Beth Israel, 43, said she and her family lived down the street from the Lanzas, and her daughter went to school with Adam Lanza. She said she had not spoken to any members of the family in three years.

“He was a socially awkward kid,” Ms. Israel said. “He always had issues. He was kind of a loner. I don’t know who his friends were.”

She said she would speak with his mother on occasion, but said the family was not social.

On Friday, police officers and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation swarmed through the Lanzas’ neighborhood, blocking off streets and asking residents to leave their homes.

Throughout the afternoon, Ms. Lanza’s surviving son, Ryan, was named by some news outlets as the killer.

Ryan Lanza’s identification had been found on the body of his underage brother, leading to the mistaken reports.

Brett Wilshe, a neighbor of Ryan Lanza’s in Hoboken, said he communicated with him by instant message at 1:15 p.m.“He said he thought his mom was dead, and he was heading back up to Connecticut,” Mr. Wilshe said. “He said, ‘It was my brother.’ ”

Controversial Surgery for Addiction Burns Away Brain’s Pleasure Center

Credit ; Maia Szalavitz
Dec. 13, 201210

Controversial Surgery for Addiction Burns Away Brain’s Pleasure Center

Getty Images
How far should doctors go in attempting to cure addiction? In China, some physicians are taking the most extreme measures. By destroying parts of the brain’s “pleasure centers” in heroin addicts and alcoholics, these neurosurgeons hope to stop drug cravings. But damaging the brain region involved in addictive desires risks permanently ending the entire spectrum of natural longings and emotions, including the ability to feel joy.

In 2004, the Ministry of Health in China banned this procedure due to lack of data on long term outcomes and growing outrage in Western media over ethical issues about whether the patients were fully aware of the risks.

However, some doctors were allowed to continue to perform it for research purposes—and recently, a Western medical journal even published a new study of the results. In 2007, The Wall Street Journal detailed the practice of a physician who claimed he performed 1000 such procedures to treat mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and epilepsy, after the ban in 2004; the surgery for addiction has also since been done on at least that many people.

(MORE: Redefining Mental Illness)

The November publication has generated a passionate debate in the scientific community over whether such research should be published or kept outside the pages of reputable scientific journals, where it may find undeserved legitimacy and only encourage further questionable science to flourish.

The latest study is the third published since 2003 in Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery, which isn’t the only journal chronicling results from the procedure, which is known as ablation of the nucleus accumbens. In October, the journal World Neurosurgery also published results from the same researchers, who are based at Tangdu Hospital in Xi’an.

The authors, led by Guodong Gao, claim that the surgery is “a feasible method for alleviating psychological dependence on opiate drugs.” At the same time, they report that more than half of the 60 patients had lasting side effects, including memory problems and loss of motivation. Within five years, 53% had relapsed and were addicted again to opiates, leaving 47% drug free.

(MORE: Addicted: Why We Get Hooked)

Conventional treatment only results in significant recovery in about 30-40% of cases, so the procedure apparently improves on that, but experts do not believe that such a small increase in benefit is worth the tremendous risk the surgery poses. Even the most successful brain surgeries carry risk of infection, disability and death since opening the skull and cutting brain tissue for any reason is both dangerous and unpredictable. And the Chinese researchers report that 21% of the patients they studied experienced memory deficits after the surgery and 18% had “weakened motivation,” including at least one report of lack of sexual desire. The authors claim, however, that “all of these patients reported that their [adverse results] were tolerable.” In addition, 53% of patients had a change in personality, but the authors describe the majority of these changes as “mildness oriented,” presumably meaning that they became more compliant. Around 7%, however, became more impulsive.

The surgery is actually performed while patients are awake in order to minimize the chances of destroying regions necessary for sensation, consciousness or movement. Surgeons use heat to kill cells in small sections of both sides of the brain’s nucleus accumbens. That region is saturated with neurons containing dopamine and endogenous opioids, which are involved in pleasure and desire related both to drugs and to ordinary experiences like eating, love and sex.

(MORE: A Drug to End Drug Addiction)

In the U.S. and the U.K., reports the Wall Street Journal, around two dozen stereotactic ablations are performed each year, but only in the most intractable cases of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder and after extensive review by institutional review boards and intensive discussions with the patient, who must acknowledge the risks. Often, a different brain region is targeted, not the nucleus accumbens. Given the unpredictable and potentially harmful consequences of the procedure, experts are united in their condemnation of using the technique to treat addictions. “To lesion this region that is thought to be involved in all types of motivation and pleasure risks crippling a human being,” says Dr. Charles O’Brien, head of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania.

David Linden, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins and author of a recent book about the brain’s pleasure systems calls the surgery “horribly misguided.” He says “This treatment will almost certainly render the subjects unable to feel pleasure from a wide range of experiences, not just drugs of abuse.”

But some neurosurgeons see it differently. Dr. John Adler, professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Stanford University, collaborated with the Chinese researchers on the publication and is listed as a co-author. While he does not advocate the surgery and did not perform it, he believes it can provide valuable information about how the nucleus accumbens works, and how best to attempt to manipulate it. “I do think it’s worth learning from,” he says. ” As far as I’m concerned, ablation of the nucleus accumbens makes no sense for anyone. There’s a very high complication rate. [But] reporting it doesn’t mean endorsing it. While we should have legitimate ethical concerns about anything like this, it is a bigger travesty to put our heads in the sand and not be willing to publish it,” he says.

(MORE: Anesthesia Study Opens Window Into Consciousness)

Dr. Casey Halpern, a neurosurgery resident at the University of Pennsylvania makes a similar case. He notes that German surgeons have performed experimental surgery involving placing electrodes in the same region to treat the extreme lack of pleasure and motivation associated with otherwise intractable depression. “That had a 60% success rate, much better than [drugs like Prozac],” he says. Along with colleagues from the University of Magdeburg in Germany, Halpern has just published a paper in the Proceedings of the New York Academy of Sciences calling for careful experimental use of DBS in the nucleus accumbens to treat addictions, which have failed repeatedly to respond to other approaches. The paper cites the Chinese surgery data and notes that addiction itself carries a high mortality risk.

DBS, however, is quite different from ablation. Although it involves the risk of any brain surgery, the stimulation itself can be turned off if there are negative side effects, while surgical destruction of brain tissue is irreversible. That permanence—along with several other major concerns — has ethicists and addiction researchers calling for a stop to the ablation surgeries, and for journals to refuse to publish related studies.

Harriet Washington, author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, argues that by publishing the results of unethical studies, scientists are condoning the questionable conditions under which the trials are conducted. “When medical journals publish research that violates the profession’sethical guidelines, this serves not only to sanction such abuses, but to encourage them,” she says. “In doing so, this practice encourages a relaxing of moral standards that threatens all patients and subjects, but especially the medically vulnerable.”

(MORE: Real-Time Video: First Look at a Brain Losing Consciousness Under Anesthesia)

Shi-Min Fang, a Chinese biochemist who became a freelance journalist and recently won the journal Nature‘s Maddox prize for his exposes of widespread fraud in Chinese research, has revealed some of the subpar scientific practices behind research conducted in China, facing death threats and, as the New York Times reported, a beating with a hammer. He agrees that publishing such research only perpetuates the unethical practices. Asked by TIME to comment on the addiction surgery studies, Fang writes that publishing the research, particularly in western journals, “would encourage further unethical research, particularly in China where rewards for publication in international journals are high.”

While he doesn’t have the expertise to comment specifically on the ablation data, he says “the results of clinical research in China are very often fabricated. I suspect that the approvals by Ethics Committee mentioned in these papers were made up to meet publication requirement. I also doubt if the patients were really informed in detail about the nature of the study.” Fang also notes that two of the co-authors of the paper are advertising on the internet in Chinese, offering the surgery at a cost of 35,000 renminbi, about $5,600. That’s more than the average annual income in China, which is about $5,000.

Given the available evidence, in fact, it’s hard to find a scientific justification for even studying the technique in people at all. Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University and author of the leading college textbook on psychoactive drugs, says animal studies suggest the approach may ultimately fail as an effective treatment for addiction; a 1984 experiment, for example, showed that destroying the nucleus accumbens in rats does not permanently stop them from taking opioids like heroin and later research found that it similarly doesn’t work for curbing cocaine cravings. Those results alone should discourage further work in humans. “These data are clear,” he says, “If you are going to take this drastic step, you damn well better know all of the animal literature.” [Disclosure: Hart and I have worked on a book project together].

(MORE: Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs of 2012)

Moreover, in China, where addiction is so demonized that execution has been seen as an appropriate punishment, it’s highly unlikely that addicted people could give genuinely informed consent for any brain surgery, let alone one that risks losing the ability to feel pleasure. And even if all of the relevant research suggested that ablating the nucleus accumbens prevented animals from seeking drugs, it would be hard to tell from rats or even primates whether the change was due to an overall reduction in motivation and pleasure or to a beneficial reduction in desiring just the drug itself.

There is no question that addiction can be difficult to treat, and in the most severe cases, where patients have suffered decades of relapses and failed all available treatments multiple times, it may make sense to consider treatments that carry significant risks, just as such dangers are accepted in fighting suicidal depression or cancer. But in the ablation surgery studies, some of the participants were reportedly as young as 19 years old and had only been addicted for three years. Addiction research strongly suggests that such patients are likely to recover even without treatment, making the risk-benefit ratio clearly unacceptable.

The controversy highlights the tension between the push for innovation and the reality of risk. Rules on informed consent didn’t arise from fears about theoretical abuses: they were a response to the real scientific horrors of the Holocaust. And ethical considerations become especially important when treating a condition like addiction, which is still seen by many not as an illness but as a moral problem to be solved by punishment. Scientific innovation is the goal, but at what price?

BANGKOK “The city of Dream”

Bangkok is one of the most exciting cities in the world. It is a fascinating melting pot of the ancient and the modern. This is a city full of contrasts; golden Buddhist temples next to Skyscrapers and in front of them the streets teeming with traditional vendors. This is a cosmopolitan city and people from every corner of the planet come to visit or even live here. Bangkok gets in your blood and even those who claim it is too busy and chaotic can’t wait to get back to it. It is also a relatively safe place for tourists and you can walk almost anywhere at day or night.

The people of Thailand refer to this city as Krung Thep Mahanakon/กรุงเทพมหานคร (or Krung Thep for short). In fact the full name of Bangkok is much longer than this and most Thai people can’t even remember it. The name ‘Krung Thep’ means ‘City of Angels’ when translated. The name ‘Bangkok’ actually refers to an area of the city that is now called Thonburi.

Bangkok is a huge city but it is a fun place to explore; at the turn of every corner you will find something new to discover. Traffic can be a nightmare and sometimes it is best to just brave the heat and walk. Despite the fact that this is such a busy place the people still have time to smile and you will usually find a friendly welcome wherever you go.

Bangkok Arrivals and Departures
Bangkok is a travel hub and so there are plenty of ways to arrive in the city. Take note of the following Bangkok travel information to make your arrival less hectic. You may also want to note before you leave that Bangkok local time is 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.

There are two main airports in Bangkok and if you are traveling within the country it is important to make sure you know which one you need to go to. It was hoped that all domestic and international flights would be served from the new airport but this has not yet happened.

Don Muang
Up until 2006 Don Muang was the busiest airport in Asia; it handled most of the international flights for the country. This all changed with the arrival of the new international airport though and now Don Muang is a ghost of its former glory. It was planned for all domestic and international flights to be moved to Suvarnabhumi Airport as soon as it opened, but this turned out not to be practical. There are still some domestic flights leaving from here but eventually the move to Suvarnabhumi will be complete. Anyone who intends to travel inside Thailand by air should ensure that they know which airport they are leaving from or arriving at to avoid confusion.

Suvarnabhumi Airport
Suvarnabhumi (สุวรรณภูมิ) is now the national airport for Thailand. It is also a hard name to pronounce for visitors; this is not helped by the fact that it is not pronounced the way it is written but instead “Sa-wanna-phum”. Since 2006 this has been Thailand’s national airport and most foreign visitors to the country will arrive here. There were a few hiccups when the airport first opened but things have since settled down. The addition of the Bangkok airport train link, in 2010, means that it is now easier to get from the airport directly to almost anywhere in the center of the city. As well as the airport train there are also plenty of taxis and buses to take people into central Bangkok.

The main train station in Bangkok is Hua Lamphong; this is right on the edge of Chinatown. Hua Lamphong is a central hub for the different rail networks and you can travel to many parts of Thailand from here. The main lines are the northern line going towards Chiang Mai, the north-eastern line going toward Nong Khai, and the Southern route that goes towards Hat Yai; there are also other sub-routes. The station is now connected to Hua Lamphong MRT (underground station) and this makes things a lot easier for those getting here from elsewhere in Bangkok. The station itself gets really busy but there are plenty of refreshment stalls and small shops to pass the time.

If you plan on traveling overnight and want to stay in the sleeping compartment then it is important that you book in advance. You can either come to the station a day or two before your trip or book through an agency. In Thailand there are four classes of train; ordinary train, rapid train, express train, and special express train. There are also three classes of carriage.

The bus service in Thailand is extensive and reasonably priced. Every town has its own bus station and buses tend to be regular. The government buses can be basically divided into two types; rot air (air-conditioned buses) and rot thammada (ordinary buses). If you are traveling long distance then it is advisable to travel by rot air; unless it is the cool season. As well as the government buses there are also many private bus companies that you will see advertised everywhere in the tourist areas.

There are a number of bus stations in Bangkok and the one you choose will depend on where it is you want to go. If you are traveling to the north or northeast then you should use Mo Chit bus station near Ladprao. If you are traveling east to places like Pattaya and Trat then you should use Ekkamai bus station. The Southern Bus Station can be found in Pin Klao; as well as serving the south this station also has buses going to western towns such as Kanchanaburi.

The private bus companies provide VIP buses to all the major tourist areas in Thailand. If you are staying somewhere like Khao San Road you will see these buses advertised everywhere. There are advantages and disadvantages to traveling privately. On the negative side some tourists complain that they sometimes feel as if they are being treated like cattle; jammed into buses. On the plus side though these buses will usually arrange a pick-up at your hotel and they are good value for money. If you want more comfort though you might want to get a government bus or go by train.

Getting Around Bangkok
The traffic in Bangkok can be a nightmare but public transport has gotten a lot better in recent years. The new Bangkok airport train link has improved things even further.

Bangkok BTS (Skytrain)
The Skytrain runs above some of Bangkok’s busiest streets; it allows passengers to get from place to place quickly and comfortably. This Skytrain is modern and effective and allows you to travel from Mo Chit to On Nut (covering places like the Sukhumvit Road and Siam Square) and National Stadium to Wongwian Yai (covering areas such as Silom, Patpong, and Thonburi).

Bangkok MRT (Underground)
The Bangkok MRT covers many of the areas that are missed by Bangkok BTS network. It joins up with the BTS at two points; Asok and Mo Chit. The MRT passes through important areas such as Lumpini Park, Hua Lamphong, and Ratchada. The MRT is the Bangkok subway, which is a pretty amazing achievement when you consider that much of Bangkok is basically at sea level.

Bangkok buses cover every part of the city and these are the cheapest way to get around. Traveling this way is always an experience but it isn’t the most comfortable way to get from A to B during the day. The buses can spend a lot of time stuck in traffic and they can get very overcrowded and hot; some routes are better than others. It is an experience to travel this way and a good choice if you want to save some money. Unfortunately the destinations are written in Thai and this makes things difficult for most tourists. You can pick up a guide though at the tourist information that will tell you about the different routes and the number on each bus.

Traveling by boat is probably the most fun way to do your Bangkok sightseeing. There is a ferry service that runs along the Chao Phraya River and other boats pass along the Klongs (the canals). The main ferry service joins up with the Skytrain at Saphan Taksin station. The ferry is useful for getting to places like Khao San Road, Thonburi, and parts of the old city.

You will see taxis everywhere in Bangkok. These can be an easy way to get around the city but sometimes you may get stuck in traffic. It is always a good idea to insist that the taxi driver switch on the meter; you don’t want any surprises at the end of your trip. Taxi drivers in Bangkok sometimes get a bad rap, but some would say that this reputation is a bit unfair.

Tuk Tuk
The Tuk Tuk is a common sight in Bangkok and these can be a good option if you are in a hurry to get somewhere or if you just want a unique way to do your Bangkok sightseeing. Most tourists will take a trip on one of these just for the novelty value. The advantage of traveling by Tuk Tuk is that they are small enough to negotiate traffic where cars would struggle. Always agree on the price before you get in the Tuk Tuk and don’t allow the driver to take you somewhere that you didn’t ask to go. In the past there have been instances of these drivers trying to pressurize tourists into visiting gem shops.

Motorbike Taxis
Motorbike taxis are everywhere in Bangkok. This can be a convenient way to get around so long as you are not easily frightened – always insist that they give you a helmet. These motorbike taxis rider will congregate at the top of sois (Thai for street); a group of riders is referred to as a ‘win’ and each group will have its own color tops. It is not recommended that visitors ride a motorbike in the city as the traffic is chaotic and the fatality rate for motorbike crashes is ridiculously high.

Rent a Car
If you want to rent a car for traveling around Bangkok then you might want to think twice about his. Driving in the city can be very stressful and finding parking can be a nightmare. If you are a timid driver then this is definitely not the place to rent a car. Those who have never driven in Bangkok should realize that most motorists don’t follow the rules of the road and there are motorcyclists everywhere.

Old City (Rattankosin)
Rattankosin (รัตนโกสินทร์) was founded in 1782 by King Rama the first. The old city has water on all sides and so it is often described as an island. This became the capital of Thailand when it was decided to move here from nearby Thonburi. This area of Bangkok is home to the most important historical building for tourists and it is a place of utmost importance for the people of Thailand; most visitors will spend at least a day exploring this part of the city. With the large number of palaces and temples, The Old City is a great place to kick off some Bangkok sightseeing.

Where to Go in the Old City
Grand Palace
The Grand Palace was created by King Rama І and for a long time was the main home of the Royal Family. The buildings here are truly spellbinding and it is easy to fantasize about how splendid it must have been when it was a functioning palace. The buildings have been influenced by many styles and cultures, but many are similar in style to that of the former capital Ayutthaya. It is important for visitors to wear respectable clothing or they won’t be allowed admittance to the palace; men need to wear long trousers and shirt (or respectable looking t-shirt) while women need to wear a modest dress and cover their upper arms. There are certain areas of the Grand Palace that are off limits; other areas may become off limits if there is a special occasion.

Wat Phra Gaew
The Emerald Buddha is considered the most important statue in Thailand and grave consequences are predicted if it were ever lost. For a long time the statue was kept in another Wat Phra Gaew in northern Thailand but it was eventually brought here. It is commonly believed that the statue originated in India almost two thousand years ago. The statue is made from jade and wears different clothing depending on the season; the king of Thailand is responsible for changing these clothes. Considering how important this statue is to the people of Thailand it is important that visitors are respectful when viewing it; the most important thing is to never point your feet at the statue.

Wat Saket
Wat Saket (วัดสระเกศ) was once the highest point in Bangkok, but those days are long gone. Wat Saket is also called the Temple of the Golden Mount and it was once used as a crematorium; the dead bodies of poor people were once left in the open for the vultures to dispose of. There are over three hundred steps up to the temple but you get rewarded with a lovely photographic view of the local area. This is also one of the oldest temples in the city so well worth a look.

Wat Pho
Wat Pho (วัดโพธิ์) is the largest and oldest temple in Bangkok. You will also hear Wat Pho referred to as the ‘Temple of the Reclining Buddha’ although most Thai people will not be familiar with this English name for the temple. This is considered the most beautiful temple in Thailand and few who visit will fail to be impressed. The Reclining Buddha is 46 meters long and is one of the main attractions; although there is a lot more to see than just this. Wat Pho is also famous for Thai traditional massage and it is recommended that you try this out while you are here.

National Museum
Rattankosin is also home to the National Museum; the biggest and most important museum in Thailand. Here you will find some of the best examples of Thai art and other great artifacts. If you are interested in Thai history then you will know a lot more by the end of your visit to this museum. The building where the museum is housed was once a Royal palace and this alone makes it interesting.

Things to do in Rattankosin
A Night on the Town
There are a few trendy bars in the old city. It is a lot more laid back here than places such as Khao San Road or Sukhumvit. It is a nice place in the evenings if you want to enjoy a few relaxed drinks in lush surroundings. There are also some nice Bangkok restaurants in this area as well.

A Walk Around the Old City
This isn’t really recommended during the heat of the day but in the late afternoons and evenings it can be very pleasant to walk around the old city. You should also find fewer crowds at this time and so you get to appreciate the area more. An evening stroll is also a great way to start a night on the town.

Visit the Local Markets
There are a few markets in the local area where you can pick up some cheap souvenirs. Even if you are not in a buying mood it can be still nice to just check out what the stalls have to offer. If you are interested in lucky Thai amulets then you will find plenty of stalls selling these in the local area.

Traditional Thai Massage
The best Thai massage in the land can be found at Wat Pho. Massage is an important part of Thai medicine and it is believed to help with many different ailments and conditions. If you have always wanted to try Thai massage but never got a chance then the perfect place to get your first one would be Wat Pho.

Learn Meditation
If you are interested in learning meditation then you will find free classes at Wat Mahathat (วัดมหาธาตุ). This is one of the most important meditation temples in Thailand and they provide meditation classes here three times a day (7am, 1pm, and 6pm) at section 5 in the temple. These classes last for about three hours; although only a small part of this time will actually be spent teaching.

Visit a Fortune Teller
If you are interested in finding out what the future has in store then you might want to visit some of the local fortune tellers. You will find these people sitting outside the Royal Palace and some other parts of the old city. Be warned though; you won’t get a refund if their prophecy turns out to be false.

Khao San Road
Khao San Road is actually part of the old city but for practical purposes it is best to treat it as separate. This is one of the most famous tourist areas in Bangkok and there is nowhere else like it in the whole of Thailand. Newcomers like to make it their base during their trip to the city while ex-pats tend to avoid it like the plague. This is backpacker’s heaven and almost everything here is directed at the tourist. This is where you will find many of the cheap hotels in Bangkok and plenty of entertainment. It is definitely NOT the place to look for the many Bangkok luxury hotels. It is also the place to go if you are looking for a convenient way to visit other parts of the country; the area is overrun with travel shops.

‘Shirtless’ FBI Agent Who Hunted Petraeus Also Helped Stop LA Bombing

Credit ; Spencer Ackerman
– additional reporting by Noah Shachtman

The FBI agent responsible for the downfall of two of the military’s most respected generals helped stop a terrorist from bombing Los Angeles International Airport and shot a man who attacked him with a knife at the gates of a military base. And he kicked off an investigation that not only upended Washington, it has many wondering if the FBI exceeded its authority.
Meet Frederick W. Humphries II — finally. Humphries, identified by The New York Times, is the mystery Florida-based FBI agent central to the ongoing scandal that brought down CIA Director David Petraeus and threatens the career of the Afghanistan war commander. At nearly every key moment in the tawdry sex scandal, Humphries has been there, lurking in the shadows, sometimes without his shirt on. No wonder colleagues interviewed by the Times described him as “obsessive.” Even before anyone knew who he was, someone set up a parody Twitter account for him, @shirtlessFBIguy.
In 1999, Humphries used his French language skills to interrogate a Francophone suspect. And that helped the Bureau find and stop Ahmed Ressam from bombing LAX airport in what would come to be known as the Millennium Plot, according to a Seattle Times piece. Described as “wiry [and] high-energy,” the former Army officer unraveled the cover story of a member of the Millennium Plot by calling bull on the operative’s fake Quebecois accent. Eleven years later, Humphries would shoot and kill a “disturbed knife-wielding man” who attacked him at the gates of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Humphries knew Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, an unofficial “ambassador” between Tampa and MacDill, home of U.S. Central Command, run in 2010 and 2011 by Petraeus and Gen. John Allen, now the commander of the Afghanistan war. When Kelley started receiving harassing e-mails this summer, Kelley asked her FBI friend Humphries to look into it. Humphries agreed, but soon found himself taken off the case, according to the Times. That would prove to be a fateful move.
The FBI has broad authorities over cyber-stalking investigations. “When something of this nature comes to our attention,” spokesman Paul Bresson tells Danger Room, “we work in close coordination with prosecutors to evaluate the facts and circumstances with respect to jurisdiction and potential violations of federal law.”
Not everyone is buying that the FBI would normally take up the case of a socialite receiving unwanted, nasty e-mails. “This is highly irregular. Highly, highly irregular. With a case of e-mail harassment, we’d normally say: we’re kind of busy, contact your local police,” a former federal prosecutor tells Danger Room. “You know that old cliche ‘let’s not make a federal case out of it?’ Well, in this case, it rings true.”
In any case, the feds did make a federal case out of it — just without Humphries. But Humphries didn’t let the case go. He sent shirtless pictures of himself to Kelley, something a lawyer for a law-enforcement guild who spoke with Humphries described to the Times as a “joke” that the national media have misunderstood. Still, his friends characterized him as “passionate” and “kind of an obsessive type.” It showed.
Humphries did not take kindly to being removed from a case he kickstarted. Evidently, he knew that the FBI expanded the case from cyber-harassment to one determining whether Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’ mistress who harassed Kelley, received classified information from Petraeus. Humphries was convinced there was a Bureau cover-up to protect Obama, and in late October went to Rep. Dave Reichert, a Washington state Republican with whom Reichert had worked previously. Reichert — who would not respond to Danger Room’s queries — took Humphries to Rep. Eric Cantor, the GOP majority leader, on October 27.
Cantor and his staff met with Humphries shortly after Reichert made the introduction. But they did not know what his motivations were. Nor could they judge Humphries’ credibility. Worse, they had no idea the FBI had Petraeus under investigation in the first place. After conferencing, they decided the prudent thing to do was to take the information from the investigation to FBI Director Robert Mueller’s office. They did so on October 31, around the same time that FBI agents interviewed Petraeus and reportedly told him he was not under suspicion of leaking classified information.
A week later, on November 6 — election day — Mueller informed James Clapper, the director of national intelligence and Petraeus’ boss, of the investigation. The House Judiciary Committee has written to Mueller to determine, among other things, why Mueller waited a week, and why he informed neither the relevant congressional oversight committees or the White House. (Mueller on Wednesday briefed the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees.) But Clapper essentially sealed Petraeus’ fate, urging him to deliver the resignation from the CIA that ultimately came on Friday.
There are questions about whether the FBI has exceeded its bounds in the case Humphries launched. While the FBI has wide latitude to investigate potential leaks of classified intelligence — the focus of the ongoing inquiry into Broadwell that brought Petraeus down — it is far less clear what authority the FBI had to give the Pentagon flirtatious emails between Allen and Kelley that came to agents’ attention in the course of that inquiry.
The Pentagon, whose inspector general is now investigating Allen, says there is no evidence Allen gave Kelley classified material or otherwise compromised national security. Under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, adultery is a crime. But a Defense official on Tuesday told reporters that Allen denies cheating on his wife, and the emails contain some “flirtatious” exchanges between the two. Yet while the so-called “Plain Sight Doctrine” holds that investigators can pursue evidence of a crime that they encounter in an unrelated investigation, flirtation is not evidence of adultery.
While many of the facts of Allen’s case have yet to be determined, some legal experts wonder if the FBI was required to ignore the emails between Allen and Kelley.
“Whether the supposed basis for the investigation was cyber-harassment, disclosure of classified information, or the vulnerability of the CIA chief to blackmailing, it’s difficult to see how a military commander’s flirtatious emails are relevant,” says Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a lawyer who studies information sharing between national-security agencies at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. In such a case, the FBI is usually required to “minimize” — that is, ignore or destroy — information on unrelated parties that it inadvertently collected. In practice, though, Levinson-Waldman cautions, FBI officials have strong incentives to hold on to such material, for fear of jeopardizing potential future investigations.
The FBI, argues the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Kurt Opsahl, appears to have engaged in “a series of stretches,” to get from investigating Broadwell to turning over Allen’s communications with Kelley to the Defense Department. “I don’t see how that email [traffic] is necessary or how there’s any kind of probable cause to believe there’s any link to the crimes the FBI was investigating,” Opsahl says.
In a statement released by his military lawyer late Wednesday, Allen vowed “to fully cooperate with the Inspector General Investigators” while his nomination to be NATO commander is officially on hold. There’s a possibility that Allen will be vindicated. But if he’s not, he has overzealous FBI investigators to thank — including Humphries, who started it all.

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Chinese Stocks Tank As Economy Recovers. What Gives?

Credited ; @GordonGChang

Chinese Stocks Tank As Economy Recovers. What Gives?

This photo taken on October 17, 2012 shows Chinese characters on a pillar warning people to be cautious when playing the stock market at a securities brokerage in Shanghai. (Image credit: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)

On Friday, the Shanghai Composite finished at 1,980.12, up 0.9%. The gain snapped a four-day losing streak and capped off a disappointing November.

On Tuesday, the closely watched index closed below 2,000 for the first time since January 2009. Prior to that day, the market had breached that key psychological barrier only in intra-day trading, two days last month as well as once in September.

The market wants to go lower, but central government officials have slowed the trend by talking it up. For instance, Li Keqiang, slated to become the country’s next premier, on Friday moved stocks upward with comments about urbanization powering growth in coming years. His optimistic assessment, delivered during his meeting with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, is just the latest in a string of sunny predictions from Beijing. Yet the tactic is losing its effectiveness as investors, accustomed to trading on rumors of Beijing’s support for the economy, are now more concerned by deteriorating fundamentals.

Investor gloom, at least at first glance, looks paradoxical, especially because GDP growth for the current quarter will probably exceed that of Q3. For the third quarter, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics announced the economy grew 7.4%. Some believe that Q4 will see a return to the glory days of last year. Renmin University’s Institute of Economic Research, for example, predicts GDP will expand 8.4% in the current period.

All Beijing’s GDP numbers for this year have been inflated, but since September there have nonetheless been genuine signs of an uptick. So why have China’s investors remained dour?

First, corporate profits, dismal in Q3, are not expected to get much better. Already, the forecasts for Q1 2013 are bleak. Moreover, today’s strong profits are limited to a few issues. At the moment, Shanghai looks like it is trading at 10 times earnings, but if you take out a small group of strong performers, it’s at 25. Shawn Liu of AZ Investment in Shanghai says Shenzhen is even worse. Make the adjustment, and it is at 27.

Second, punters are worried about the expiration of lock-up agreements covering 190 billion yuan of shares. To help sentiment, the China Securities Regulatory Commission has suspended approvals for new stock offerings.

Third, no one knows where the economy is ultimately going. Many are waiting for signs from the next Central Economic Work Conference, which will probably be held this month. Until then, investors are keeping cash on the sidelines.

There is a general perception that the economy needs either reform or stimulus, and now there is a feeling it will get neither. The so-called “conservatives”—really hardline anti-reformers—captured at least four of the seven seats on the newly appointed Politburo Standing Committee, taking economic restructuring off the table. And the improved signals from the economy make another round of “big bang” stimulus unlikely. As Wei Fengchun of Bosera Asset Management Co. wrote in a research note recently, “The fact that the economy still lacks a clear catalyst for growth is probably what puzzles the market the most.”

Fourth, investors, who have been repeatedly burned in the Shanghai and Shenzhen markets, have found what appear to be better alternatives. There are bond funds and an ever-widening assortment of wealth management products. The latter are incorrectly perceived to carry lower risk.

And there is capital flight, with Chinese investors more willing to buy shares listed abroad, principally Hong Kong and New York. H shares of Chinese companies—stocks listed in Hong Kong—now trade at premiums to the China-listed shares of the same companies. In the past, the shares traded in China carried 20% premiums to Hong Kong-listed ones.

Finally, the downward momentum looks much too strong to be reversed by momentary good news. Analysts are now saying the Shanghai Composite will soon test the 1,800 level. Unless something dramatic happens, the index will chalk up its third-straight down year in 2012. It rounded out 2011 at 2,199.42, 10.0% higher than Friday’s close. In November, the Shanghai Composite fell 4.3%.

In one sense, it may not matter that China’s domestic stock markets are underperforming. They are dominated not by the institutions but by retail investors, who account for about 80% of transactions. Yet the punters are a weathervane, clearly indicating pessimism has gripped the country. “People invest their money in it,” says Yuan Gangming of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to the South China Morning Post. “The market is the real barometer for the economy.”

At the moment, foreigners, increasingly bullish on China, obviously possess a different barometer. One of these two groups, therefore, has gotten it terribly wrong.


Why Is it Impossible to Stop Thinking, to Render the Mind a Complete Blank?

Scientific American Mind
November 2012

Image: JAMIE CARROLL iStockphoto
Why is it impossible to stop thinking, to render the mind a complete blank?
—John Hendrickson, via email

Barry Gordon, professor of neurology and cognitive science at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, replies:

Forgive your mind this minor annoyance because it has worked to save your life—or more accurately, the lives of your ancestors. Most likely you have not needed to worry whether the rustling in the underbrush is a rabbit or a leopard, or had to identify the best escape route on a walk by the lake, or to wonder whether the funny pattern in the grass is a snake or dead branch. Yet these were life-or-death decisions to our ancestors. Optimal moment-to-moment readiness requires a brain that is working constantly, an effort that takes a great deal of energy. (To put this in context, the modern human brain is only 2 percent of our body weight, but it uses 20 percent of our resting energy.) Such an energy-hungry brain, one that is constantly seeking clues, connections and mechanisms, is only possible with a mammalian metabolism tuned to a constant high rate.

Constant thinking is what propelled us from being a favorite food on the savanna—and a species that nearly went extinct—to becoming the most accomplished life-form on this planet. Even in the modern world, our mind always churns to find hazards and opportunities in the data we derive from our surroundings, somewhat like a search engine server. Our brain goes one step further, however, by also thinking proactively, a task that takes even more mental processing.

So even though most of us no longer worry about leopards in the grass, we do encounter new dangers and opportunities: employment, interest rates, “70 percent off” sales and swindlers offering $20 million for just a small investment on our part. Our primate heritage brought us another benefit: the ability to navigate a social system. As social animals, we must keep track of who’s on top and who’s not and who might help us and who might hurt us. To learn and understand this information, our mind is constantly calculating “what if?” scenarios. What do I have to do to advance in the workplace or social or financial hierarchy? What is the danger here? The opportunity?

For these reasons, we benefit from having a brain that works around the clock, even if it means dealing with intrusive thoughts from time to time.
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