March 23 – March 29 2015
The Week in Review is a weekly column that highlights some interesting, outraging, and heartwarming events and stories of the past week. Its ambition is not to be exhaustive or to recap major political events; it’s more of a personal take on news or stories that made the author react strongly.
Picture of the week
In Damascus, female commandos are on the frontline of the fight against the rebels. An exclusively female unit was created 2 years ago and now includes 800 female soldiers on the eastern front of Damascus, facing rebels. This has been described as an initiative by Bachar al Assad aimed at promoting the role of Syrian women and showing they are capable of success in any area. These women were recruited with the use of announcements posted in various cities, and were sent to the Damascus front after several months of training.
Discovery of the week
You may have noticed that anytime you hear a word, you visualize, in the eye of your mind, an image that represents the meaning this word holds for you. For example, if I say “tree”, odds are you picture a more or less detailed tree in your head. But what would happen if I created random words you have never heard? Seems like it should be impossible to mentally picture a word whose meaning you don’t know, right? Wrong! On March 25, the Journal of Neuroscience published the results of a new study, according to which the brain sees even nonsensical words. A team from the Georgetown University Medical Center made a group of volunteers learn imaginary words and observed the response in their visual word form area, an area in the occipitotemporal cortex responsible for producing mental representations of words.
According to Science News, the experiment showed that “after learning nonsense words, the visual word form area (…) responds to them just as it does to real words”. According to the Georgetown scientists, “word learning appears to selectively increase neuronal specificity for the new words in the VWFA, thereby adding these words to the brain’s visual dictionary”. This finding could have powerful implications for people with reading difficulties.
Outraging news of the week
March is barely over and Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram has already taken over 1,000 civilian lives in 2015, in the midst of generalized indifference.
On March 26, Human Rights Watch published a report finding an increase in the pace of attacks carried out in comparison with last year. In this report, HRW mentions no less than seven suicide bombings involving the use of women and children since the beginning of the year. The report states that “Boko Haram fighters have deliberately attacked villages and committed mass killings and abductions as their attacks have spread from northeast Nigeria into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger since February”, while 1 million people have been forced to leave their homes since the beginning of Boko Haram’s uprising almost six years ago. The male survivors of the massacres perpetrated by the Islamist group are often conscripted, while women are regularly raped or forced into marriage.
March 28 marked the Nigerian general election, pitting incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan against 13 other candidates, with the other main contender being Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, who has promised to “stop corruption and make the ordinary people, the weak and the vulnerable our top priority”. Elections have been extended until March 29 due to logistical issues.
Read the full story on PBS Frontline: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/hunting-boko-haram/report-boko-haram-has-claimed-more-than-1000-lives-in-2015/
Read HRW’s full report here: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/03/26/nigeria-least-1000-civilians-dead-january-0
Surprising news of the week
On March 27, infamous American student and murder suspect Amanda Knox (27) and her Italian ex-boyfriend Raffaelle Sollecito (31) were acquitted of the 2009 murder of British Meredith Kercher. Kercher had been found sexually assaulted and stabbed in November 2007 in the house she lived in with Amanda Knox and their two Italian roommates. Italian prosecutors claimed that Knox and her boyfriend had killed Kercher in the course of an evening of drugs and sexual games gone wrong.
This new ruling issued by the Italian supreme court after 10 hours of deliberation comes as a surprise to all of the involved. The decision puts an end to seven years of legal battle in Italian courts and violently divided opinions worldwide. Convicted in 2009, Knox and her ex-boyfriend were acquitted on appeal two years later and convicted once again in 2014.
The original trial of 2009 was famous for the harsh picture painted by the Italian prosecutors, who described Knox as a “she-devil” and exposed her sex life in great and humiliating detail. For many observers in the United States, Knox was the victim of a flawed Italian legal system, while the prosecutors took an almost evil pleasure in showing her under an unfairly harsh light.
The only protagonist of the case still currently imprisoned is Rudy Guede, an Italian drug dealer convicted after his DNA was found on Kercher’s body; Guede is serving a 16 year sentence after a separate trial.
Ridiculous news of the week
Toy manufacturer Mattel has taken a significant step towards bringing us collectively closer to George Orwell’s vision in 1984. Big Brother will very soon be listening to you through the eyes of … Barbie. Yes, Barbie, your beloved childhood friend. Mattel is on the brink of introducing “Hello Barbie”, a wifi-enabled Barbie doll with an integrated system created by ToyTalk. This system will analyze the words spoken by children and allow Barbie, in the style of Apple’s Siri, to provide any of a number of appropriate responses. In the New York Times, Nicole A. Ozer, from the ACLU of Northern California, asks the questions we are all asking ourselves: “Is this going to be some creepy doll that records what is going on in your home without you knowing? What is being recorded? How long is it being stored? Who is it being shared with?”.
Parents will have access to their children’s recorded conversations and have the possibility to delete them if they so choose. This is sure to promote healthy relations between parents and their children and to bolster creativity in our children. Plus, why should we worry? In a statement, Mattel reminds us paranoids that it is “committed to safety and security” and has accordingly devised “a number of safeguards to ensure that stored data is secure and can’t be accessed by unauthorized users.”
Read the full story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/technology/a-wi-fi-barbie-doll-with-the-soul-of-siri.html
Interesting read of the week
Jessica Benko, a New York Times reporter, has visited Halden Fengsel, a prison in Norway, which she describes as “the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness”. Norway’s correctional facilities stand out due to the emphasis they place on rehabilitation and on giving the incarcerated individual a second chance at finding their place and living in society peacefully and correctly, something many other systems could learn from.
Read “The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison”: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/magazine/the-radical-humaneness-of-norways-halden-prison.html?
Video of the week
On March 23, President Barack Obama attended the annual White House Science Fair, where he interacted with an adorable group of little girls from Tulsa, Oklahoma, the proud inventors of a page-turning device made of Legos. Take a break from this sad, strange world and see the little girls exchange brainstorming tips with President Obama.
 Adding Words to the Brain’s Visual Dictionary: Novel Word Learning Selectively Sharpens Orthographic Representations in the VWFA, Laurie S. Glezer, Judy Kim, Josh Rule, Xiong Jiang, and Maximilian Riesenhuber, The Journal of Neuroscience, 25 March 2015, 35(12): 4965-4972; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4031-14.2015