Spider News Digest 12/1/2017


  • Bottle that Croatian war criminal drank from in court before dying contained ‘chemical substance,’ tests show (CBC News): 

A deadly chemical was in the container that a Croatian war criminal took a swig from shortly before dying, a Dutch prosecutor said Thursday, as an independent investigation into the dramatic death of Slobodan Praljak continued.

“There was a preliminary test of the substance in the container, and all I can say for now is that there was a chemical substance in that container that can cause death,” prosecutor Marilyn Fikenscher said in a telephone interview. She declined to elaborate on the exact nature of the substance.

Praljak, 72, stunned the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on Wednesday when he gulped liquid from a small bottle seconds after a UN appeals judge had confirmed a 20-year sentence.

The former wartime commander of Bosnian Croat forces said in court that he had taken poison. He was rushed to a hospital in The Hague, where he died, tribunal spokesperson Nenad Golcevski said.

Fikenscher said an autopsy, including toxicological tests, will be carried out soon on Praljak’s body.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said Thursday that Praljak wanted to send a message to the UN court that the verdict against him was unjust. Plenkovic said the former general was “obviously shaken by the possibility he would be convicted” of war crimes for his actions during Bosnia’s 1992–95 war.

Praljak, centre, enters the tribunal on Wednesday. His lawyer called for a doctor, saying her client had claimed to drink poison while his verdict was being read. He later died. (Robin van Lonkhuijsen/Associated Press)

Fikenscher said the Dutch investigation will look into how Praljak managed to take the small bottle of poison into the tribunal’s tightly guarded courtroom.

Praljak and five other former Bosnian Croatian officials were convicted as part of a criminal plan to carve out a Bosnian Croat mini-state inside Bosnia in the early 1990s. All had their guilty verdicts sustained by the UN’s war crimes court Wednesday. Praljak’s conviction was in 2013.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic offered condolences to Praljak’s family. Praljak’s actions reflected the “deep moral injustice” done to the six Bosnian Croats, the prime minister said.

Croatian state TV reported that President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic cut short an official visit to Iceland and the government held an emergency session.
Mourning among Bosnian Croatians

Hundreds of Bosnian Croats have been lighting candles in public squares in cities around the country in honour of Praljak.

Praljak’s photos were plastered in Croat-dominated cities around Bosnia on Thursday where police presence was increased to prevent incidents.

Bosnian Croats gathered to light candles and pray for Praljak, in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar, 140 km south of Sarajevo, on Wednesday. (Amel Emric/Associated Press)

“Praljak was a legend for us. … He will live forever in our hearts,” said Ivica Gavric, who was a member of the Bosnian Croat forces during the war.

Meanwhile, the European Union has called on the Balkan leaders to respect the rulings of the UN war crimes court and work to achieve reconciliation and good relations.

“Delivering justice and fighting impunity are fundamental principles,” the EU delegation in Bosnia said in a statement Thursday.

  • This Is What Could Pop the Bitcoin Bubble (Bloomberg): 

Bitcoin and bubble have become virtually synonymous in the minds of many skeptics during this year’s breathtaking rally. While the digital currency has defied doomsday prophesies, there’s a number of ways this party could end badly for the swelling ranks of bulls.

But be warned: many of the potential causes of death have surfaced during the past few years, and have proven unable to bludgeon bitcoin into oblivion thus far.
Knifed by a Fork

The multiple offshoots of bitcoin could cause the world’s largest digital currency by market value to cede its crown.

Divides among developers as to how to proceed with upgrades to bitcoin’s network have led to “forks,” in which different versions of the currency are spun off from the original. Excessive fragmentation could prove a bug for bitcoin, just as it did for the U.S. financial system during the free banking era. When it comes to cryptocurrencies, hedge fund manager Mike Novogratz warned, “not everything can win” — though that’s not enough to stop him from launching a $500 million fund to invest in the asset class.

Ether, the second-largest digital currency, has posted massive gains since the bitcoin forks began. But even that advance pales in comparison to the surges in bitcoin and bitcoin cash over the same span.
Strangled by Regulators

Given bitcoin’s checkered history as the means to purchase illicit materials, a vehicle for capital flight, and a victim of theft, it’s no surprise that regulators around the world have cast a watchful eye over the asset class. As such, the specter of a complete crackdown on cryptocurrencies remains an ever-present tail risk. The SEC has been keeping an eye on crypto and has given guidance saying some tokens may be securities, making them subject to their oversight.

UBS Group AG Chief Investment Officer Mark Haefele said the wealth manager wouldn’t dedicate funds to bitcoin because “all it would take would be one terrorist incident in the U.S. funded by bitcoin for the U.S. regulator to much more seriously step in and take action.”

Federal Reserve Chair nominee Jerome Powell said bitcoin isn’t big enough to matter right now, but alluded to the possibility that it could impede the central bank’s transmission mechanism “in the long, long run.”

That raises the prospect of bitcoin becoming a casualty of its own success should cryptocurrencies gain sufficient mainstream adoption and pose a threat to the government’s ability to collect taxes or the efficacy of monetary policy. Even so, the recent history on restrictions is not encouraging for bitcoin bears: the digital currency was able to shake off what was tantamount to an attempted ban by Chinese authorities in September.
Hacked to Pieces

Ever since the 2011 breach of the Mt. Gox exchange, bitcoin owners have had to face the possibility that this intangible asset may fall into the hands of hackers. The Tokyo-based exchange filed for bankruptcy February 2014, alleging there was a high possibility that what was then nearly half a billion in bitcoin had been stolen.

The 2011 breach and 2014 collapse of Mt. Gox were accompanied by steep declines in bitcoin, as was the $65 million theft of the digital currency from Hong Kong exchange Bitfinex in 2016.

But a $31 million hack of alternative currency tether earlier this month was only a speed bump for bitcoin. After falling more than 5 percent, the cryptocurrency recovered to post a fresh record high the same session.
A Short Demise

CME Group Inc., Cboe Global Markets Inc., and Nasdaq Inc. are planning to offer bitcoin derivatives — a move which seems poised to introduce more two-way traffic to the asset class.

At present, most options investors have for shorting cryptocurrencies are fairly expensive and risky. With futures from reputable, established exchanges in play, more investors may be incented to enter into positions that put downwards pressure on prices.

The introduction of bitcoin futures could also ultimately prove detrimental to its valuation should clearing organizations come under stress amid the digital currency’s wild swings.

Thomas Peterffy, chairman of Interactive Brokers Group Inc., argued in an open letter that allowing bitcoin futures on platforms that clear other derivatives would raise the risk of price gyrations that could “destabilize the clearing organization itself.”

Any institutional credibility recently gained by bitcoin could evaporate should such the cryptocurrency’s fluctuations serve to disrupt and undermine the operations of financial markets.
Pass Away on Profit-Taking

The failure of major cryptocurrency exchanges such as Coinbase to handle traffic on the day bitcoin breached $11,000 throws into sharp focus the scalability problems that cryptocurrencies face as speculative vehicles.

“A bitcoin correction is now likely and human psychology suggests it will finish the day lower,” wrote Bloomberg macro strategist Mark Cudmore. “If this was a normal market, it would almost definitely retrace in the short-term because large barrier magnets had been taken out.”

Profit-taking opportunities when the cryptocurrency passes significant milestones could foster steep declines and waves of selling pressure due to poor liquidity.
Death by ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s been a puzzle to explain why bitcoin’s gone parabolic. Why would we expect the way down to be any different?

The practical applications for cryptocurrencies to facilitate legal commerce appear hampered by relatively expensive transaction fees and the high energy costs associated with mining at this juncture. On this note, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said that bitcoin “ought to be outlawed” because “it doesn’t serve any socially useful function.”

Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has said that “you have to really stretch your imagination to infer what the intrinsic value of bitcoin is,” calling the cryptocurrency a “bubble.”

Perhaps it could end like the dot-com bubble — with investors who have no clue how to value high-flying assets fleeing for the exit en masse.

  • Migraine therapy that cut attacks hailed as ‘huge deal’ (BBC): 

A new approach to preventing migraines can cut the number and severity of attacks, two clinical trials show.

About 50% of people on one study halved the number of migraines they had each month, which researchers at King’s College Hospital called a “huge deal”.

The treatment is the first specifically designed for preventing migraine and uses antibodies to alter the activity of chemicals in the brain.

Further trials will need to assess the long-term effects.

Research has shown a chemical in the brain – calcitonin gene-related peptide or CGRP – is involved in both pain and sensitivity to sound and light in migraine.

Four drug companies are racing to develop antibodies that neutralise CGRP. Some work by sticking to CGRP, while others block the part of a brain cell with which it interacts.

Clinical trials on two of the antibodies have now been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

One antibody, erenumab made by Novartis, was trialled on 955 patients with episodic migraine.

At the start of the trial the patients had migraines on an average of eight days a month.

The study found 50% of those given the antibody injections halved their number of migraine days per month. About 27% did have a similar effect without treatment, which reflects the natural ebb and flow of the disease.

Another antibody, fremanezumab made by Teva pharmaceuticals, was trialled on 1,130 patients with chronic migraine.

About 41% of patients halved their number of migraine days compared with 18% without treatment.

Prof Peter Goadsby, who led the erenumab trials at the NIHR research centre at King’s College London, told the BBC: “It’s a huge deal because it offers an advance in understanding the disorder and a designer migraine treatment.

“It reduces the frequency and severity of headaches.

“These patients will have parts of their life back and society will have these people back functioning.”

He said other data, not published in the latest studies, suggested a fifth of patients had no migraines at all after treatment.
Better option?

The antibodies are not the only preventative drugs for migraine. Others include former epilepsy and heart disease pills as well as botox.

But Simon Evans, the chief executive of Migraine Action, said those drugs came with a lot of side-effects and did not work for everyone.

“Some doctors give patients a choice of being angry or fat-and-dosey and the drug they give them depends on their answer,” he said.

The hope is discovering CGRP and precisely targeting it with antibodies should lead to fewer side-effects. Both studies say long-term safety data still needs to be studied.

The problem with antibodies is they tend to be more expensive to make than other therapies.

Prof Goadsby thinks patients who get no benefit from existing treatments or cannot cope with the side-effects are those most likely to benefit.

Dr Andy Dowson, who runs headache services in Kent and London, said: “I am really enthusiastic we have something new that’s coming, but we need to know cost, who will respond and a lot more detail as we go down the line.

“Chronic migraine is in the top seven conditions for lifetime disability and yet nothing much is done about it, maybe this is going to help us to make some progress.”

  • Most American Kids Today Will Be Obese by Age 35 (Fortune):

The U.S.’s obesity problem is set to get much worse, according to new Harvard research that simulates future obesity rates for those Americans who are currently children.

While a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested that almost 40% of American adults are currently obese, the new research predicts that over 57% of today’s children will be obese by the time they reach the age of 35.

Obesity is classified as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. BMI is calculated by dividing the subject’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters.

BMI is the most widely used system for establishing whether someone is underweight, of normal weight, overweight or obese. However, it’s rather simplistic and is controversial as a health indicator, as it doesn’t take into account the differences between fat and muscle (which is heavier than fat), nor does it factor in ethnic background.

The new research took data from five earlier studies about actual American children and adults’ height and weight, and simulated growth trajectories in order to project where today’s kids were likely to end up by the age of 35.

The results showed that 57.3% of today’s kids, up to the age of 19, will be obese by the age of 35. Of those, around half will become (or already be) obese during childhood, and half will become obese later on.

For those children who are already severely obese—that is, with a BMI of 35 or more—the chances that they will cease to be obese by their 35th birthday drop with age. At the age of two, the likelihood of that happening is 21%; by 19, the likelihood drops to 6.1%.

The age of 35 was picked for the study because that’s when obesity-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease often start to kick in.

“On the basis of our simulation models, childhood obesity and overweight will continue to be a major health problem in the United States,” the researchers wrote. “Early development of obesity predicted obesity in adulthood, especially for children who were severely obese.”

  • This year’s flu season may be a bad one, some medical experts warn (ABC News): 

The upcoming flu season may be a particularly severe one in the U.S., some medical experts warned today, citing preliminary data from the Southern Hemisphere’s waning flu season.

The flu vaccine used this year in Australia — which has the same composition as the vaccine used in the U.S. — was only 10 percent effective, according to a preliminary estimate, at preventing the strain of the virus that predominately circulated during the country’s flu season, experts wrote in a perspective published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“However imperfect, though, current influenza vaccines remain a valuable public health tool, and it is always better to get vaccinated than not to get vaccinated,” the same international team of medical experts emphasized, however, in the perspective.

The researchers suggested that the especially harsh flu season that the Southern Hemisphere sustained during its winter months this year may be an indication of what’s to come as flu season gets underway in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Reports from Australia have caused mounting concern, with record-high numbers of laboratory-confirmed influenza notifications and outbreaks and higher-than-average numbers of hospitalizations and deaths,” the medical professionals wrote.

One reason for the severe flu season may be that this year’s currently made vaccine may have mismatched to the flu strains that ended up circulating, making the vaccinations ineffective at preventing the outbreak. Researchers said this points to a potential inherent flaw in the way flu vaccines are made.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, co-authored the perspective, along with other researchers from the NIAID and experts at the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne, Australia.

The perspective called for more research to be done in developing a “universal” flu vaccine, which could potentially protect against all seasonal flu variants and strains, and would also eliminate the need for people to get new flu shots each year.

Finally, while most flu vaccines are manufactured using chicken eggs, the experts recommended that scientists explore different manufacturing strategies in order to increase the effectiveness of flu vaccines.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that an annual flu vaccine is the “the first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses.”

In addition, the CDC recommends avoiding close contact with sick people and limiting your own contact with others when you feel sick as well as covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing in order to prevent the spread of germs.

Other preventative actions the CDC recommend to stop the spread of the seasonal flu include washing your hands often with soap and water, and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, and disinfecting surfaces that may have been contaminated with flu germs.

  • Dogs Are Brainier Than Cats, New Study Finds (People): 

A new study has some ammunition for dog people everywhere.

The research, published in the journal Frontiers of Neuroanatomy, says dogs may be brainier than cats. That is, dogs have cerebral cortexes with twice as many neurons — the brain cells responsible for thought, planning and behavior – compared to cats. Scientists have associated neuron density with overall cognitive ability – i.e. intelligence.

For the study, a group of researchers led by Suzana Herculano-Houzel, an associate professor of psychology and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, examined the neuronal density and brain sizes of various carnivorans, a class of mammals that includes many predators – along with some omnivores and and a few herbivores. These animals are of particular interest, according to the paper, because many must outsmart prey to survive, potentially pointing to a higher number of neurons, and thus higher intelligence.

To learn more, the researchers examined the brains of eight mammals: cats, dogs, bears, lions, hyenas, ferrets, mongoose and raccoons. They found that the animals with larger brains also tended to have more neurons, just like non-carnivorans — a similarity that suggest carnivorans aren’t so different from the rest of the animal kingdom, after all.

The results were marked. In addition to dogs’ cortical neurons outnumbering cats’ — to the tune of 530 million to 250 million — they discovered that brown bears had only as many neurons as cats, despite the obvious size difference. Raccoons, on the other hand, had far more neurons than their small brain size would suggest.

A golden retriever that was studied had the most cortical neurons of all, with 627 million.

However, even the researchers admit that their findings shouldn’t resolve the old dogs-versus-cats debate over intelligence.

“While our finding of larger numbers of cortical neurons in dogs than in cats may
 confirm anecdotal perceptions of dog owners and animal trainers as well as unpublished reports that dogs are easier to train and therefore ‘more intelligent,’ cat owners would probably protest, and rightly so,” they write.

“Any argument about their cognitive capabilities at this point will be largely a matter of opinion until direct, systematic comparisons of cognitive capacity are performed across these and other species.”



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