Huge black hole blasts out ‘double burp’

Astronomers have caught a massive black hole letting out a “double burp” after bingeing on hot gas.

When cosmic gas comes near one of these sinkholes, it gets sucked in – but some of the energy is released back into space in the form of a burp.

Now, the Hubble and Chandra space telescopes have detected a new belch emerging from a black hole located about 800 million light-years away.

But they saw a remnant of another belch that occurred 100,000 years earlier.

“Black holes are voracious eaters, but it turns out they don’t have very good table manners,” Julie Comerford, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, told the 231st American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington DC.

“There are a lot of examples of black holes with single burps emanating out, but we discovered a galaxy with a supermassive black hole that has not one but two burps.”

The burp itself consists of a stream of high-energy particles that is kicked back from the black hole.

Supermassive black holes are the largest type and are found at the centres of nearly all big galaxies. X-ray emission from the galaxy in question – called SDSS J1354+1327 – was picked up by the Chandra telescope, allowing researchers to pinpoint the location of its central black hole.

Hubble was able to show them that a cloud of blue-green gas extending away from the black hole represented the aftermath of an earlier burp. They found that electrons had been stripped from atoms in the cone of gas and surmise that this was caused by a burst of radiation from the vicinity of the black hole.

In the meantime, it had expanded 30,000 light-years away from the black hole itself.

But the astronomers found a little loop in the images; the sign of a new belch emerging from the cosmic sinkhole.

“This new burp is actually moving like a shockwave that is coming out very fast,” said Dr Comerford.

“I thought of an analogy for this and I was debating whether to use it or whether it’s a little too gross… imagine someone eating dinner at their kitchen table and they’re eating and burping, eating and burping.

“You walk in the room and you notice there’s an old burp still hanging in the air from the appetiser course. Meanwhile, they’re eating the main course and they let out a new burp that’s rocking the kitchen table.”

She said the black hole was going through a cycle of feasting, burping and napping, before starting over.

The observations are important because they support previous theories – not demonstrated until now – that black holes should go through these cycles. The black holes were expected to become very bright in the process of feasting and burping and then go dark during the nap phase.

“Theory predicted that black holes should flicker on and off very quickly and this galaxy’s evidence of black holes does flicker on timescales of 100,000 years – which is long in human timescales, but in cosmological timescales is very fast,” said Julie Comerford.

The researchers think the black hole erupted twice because it consumed two separate meals. The reason for this might lie with the fact that the galaxy it’s in had collided with another galaxy nearby. This would provide plenty of cosmic gas on which a black hole could feast.

“There’s a stream of stars and gas connecting these two galaxies. That collision led gas to stream towards the supermassive black hole and feed it two separate meals that led to these two separate burps,” said the University of Colorado researcher.

The results are published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Follow Paul on Twitter.

Taiwanese police give cyber-security quiz winners infected devices

Police have apologised after giving infected memory sticks as prizes in a government-run cyber-security quiz.

Taiwan’s national police agency said 54 of the flash drives it gave out at an event highlighting a government’s cybercrime crackdown contained malware.

The virus, which can steal personal data and has been linked to fraud, was added inadvertently, it said.

The Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) apologised for the error and blamed the mishap on a third-party contractor.

It said 20 of the drives had been recovered.

Around 250 flash drives were given out at the expo, which was hosted by Taiwan’s Presidential Office from 11-15 December and aimed to highlight the government’s determination to crack down on cybercrime.

Cyber-fraud ring

All the drives were manufactured in China but the CIB ruled out state-sponsored espionage, saying instead that the bug had originated from a Taiwan-based supplier.

It said a single employee at the firm had transferred data onto 54 of the drives to “test their storage capacity”, infecting them in the process.

The malware, identified as the XtbSeDuA.exe program, was designed to collect personal data and transmit it to a Polish IP address which then bounces it to unidentified servers.

The CIB said it had been used by a cyber-fraud ring uncovered by Europol in 2015.

Only older, 32-bit computers are vulnerable to the bug and common anti-virus software can detect and quarantine it, it said.

The server involved in the latest infections had been shut down, it said.

In May, IBM admitted it had inadvertently shipped malware-infected flash drives to some customers.

The computer maker said drives containing its Storwize storage system had been infected with a trojan and urged customers to destroy them.

At the time, it declined to comment on how the malware ended up on the flash drives or how many customers had been affected.

The trojan, part of the Reconyc family, bombards users with pop-ups and slows down computer systems.

It is known to target users in Russia and India.

Carles Puigdemont: The man who wants to break up Spain

Catalonia’s sacked President Carles Puigdemont has spearheaded the region’s peaceful drive for independence from Spain.

In defiance of the law and Spain’s constitution, he has pushed forward in the hope of international recognition.

But his zeal for secession has put him on a collision course with Madrid. It outlawed the independence referendum held in Catalonia on 1 October.

After imposing direct rule, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called a snap Catalan election. But the result on 21 December was bad news for Madrid. The separatists won a slim majority, even though a pro-unity party came top.

  • Madrid’s enforcer for Catalonia

    “It is time for the political recipe, which Rajoy failed at,” Mr Puigdemont said, calling again for negotiations with the Spanish leader. “He has only demonstrated a greater mobilisation of Catalans, greater votes.”

    His popularity cuts across class, coming as he does from comparatively modest origins, outside the Catalan elite which for years dominated the local centre-right alliance, Convergence and Union (now known as the Catalan European Democratic Party).

    “Mr Puigdemont has been absolutely key to bringing Catalonia to where we are now,” says Montse Daban, international chairperson of the Catalan National Assembly, a grassroots pro-independence movement.

    “He’s been an absolute and positive surprise for Catalan citizens, who were already supporting the independence process and saw with dismay that it was facing several burdens.”

    But in the eyes of Spain’s government, the Catalan leader has ruthlessly created a crisis, burning all the bridges in order to make a unilateral declaration of independence.

    “Democracy is not about voting – there are referenda in dictatorships too,” a Madrid government source told the BBC. “Only when you vote with guarantees according to the law is it a democracy.”

    • Reality Check: Would Catalonia be a viable country?

      The images of violence at the polling stations were “150% part of Puigdemont’s plan”, the source said.

      “It’s unfortunate because it was a trap. There’s no doubt it looks bad for the Spanish government.”

      New platform

      Mr Puigdemont talks the language of independence in a way his more cautious predecessor, Artur Mas, did not during the dry-run referendum of 2014, which was also banned by Madrid.

      Speaking to the BBC after the 1 October referendum, Mr Puigdemont said: “I think we’ve won the right to be heard, but what I find harder to understand is this indifference – or absolute lack of interest – in understanding what is happening here. They’ve never wanted to listen to us.

      “How can we explain to the world that Europe is a paradise of democracy if we hit old women and people who’ve done nothing wrong? This is not acceptable. We haven’t seen such a disproportionate and brutal use of force since the death of the dictator Franco.”

      He calls for mediation – something the Spanish government says is unacceptable.

      A Madrid source dismissed the idea, telling the BBC it would be “mediation between the Spanish government and part of the Spanish state”.

      From Brussels, Mr Puigdemont has watched as his Catalan allies back home have been placed in Spanish custody to face trial.

      He has been mocked by some for not going to Madrid along with them and placing himself in the hands of Spanish justice.

      One cartoon apparently being circulated on the Whatsapp messaging app shows him, with his distinctive mop of hair and glasses, hiding out in a box of Belgian chocolates.

      Skip Twitter post by @p_hansens

      Unsigned cartoon circulating on whatsApp : Where is #Puigdemont ? #Brussels #Catalonia pic.twitter.com/bzHE1eP0Bv

      — Pascal Hansens (@p_hansens) November 3, 2017

      Report

      End of Twitter post by @p_hansens

      But he has only followed the path taken by earlier Catalan leaders like Josep Tarradellas and Lluís Companys, seeking refuge abroad from a hostile Spanish state.

      Mr Puigdemont told Belgian TV he was not hiding from “real justice” but from the “clearly politicised” Spanish legal system.

      While European arrest warrants against him and his four colleagues were later withdrawn by a Spanish judge, he still faces possible charges of rebellion and sedition if he returns.

      Just by being in Brussels, the man from Girona is keeping the cause he holds so dear, Catalan independence, squarely on the doorstep of the European Union.

6 shocks from the Mamma Mia 2 trailer

Here We Go Again.

The first trailer for the highly-anticipated sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia dropped on Thursday.

Earlier versions of it may have leaked online in the last few days but we don’t talk about those so hush now.

When it was released, the first Mamma Mia movie briefly held the title as the highest-grossing film release in UK film history.

(Of course, that was before the release of Skyfall, Spectre and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Basically, Mamma Mia is now in ninth place.)

We’ve been through all two minutes and 24 seconds of the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again trailer – several times, to be honest – and would like to raise the following issues.

1. Where in the name of Chiquitita is Meryl Streep

So there we were, clicking on the trailer on a perfectly pleasant Thursday morning, expecting unfiltered, light, fluffy, Abba-drenched escapism.

But no: the Mamma Mia 2 producers have decided to obliterate any false sense of security we’d all been foolishly lulled into in the promo’s opening seconds.

As flashback images of Meryl Streep run across the screen, Julie Walters tells Amanda Seyfried: “Your mother was the bravest person we ever met.”

Hold the phone. Did Mamma Mia just kill off Meryl Streep? SHE WASN’T EVEN THAT OLD.

Perhaps the actress has been too busy over the last couple of years winning awards to make room in her schedule for a mimed rendition of Voulez-Vous.

But still, if Donna Sheridan is dead in Mamma Mia 2, we are already done with 2018.

2. Haven’t we seen Jeremy Irvine do something like this before?

In 2013’s The Railway Man, Jeremy Irvine played a young Colin Firth.

He looked like a young Colin Firth, he sounded like a young Colin Firth, he WAS a young Colin Firth – as Louis Walsh might have said.

So now that he’s climbed aboard Mamma Mia 2, and Colin Firth is also in Mamma Mia 2, surely he’ll be reprising his role as a younger version of the Oscar-winning actor?

Not quite. He’s playing a young Pierce Brosnan instead, which – if we didn’t already know from having just looked it up on IMDB – we certainly know now from his hairstyle in the trailer.

3. Oh my god. It’s Cher.

With blonde hair and sunglasses.

And apparently she’s playing Meryl Streep’s mum, as Amanda refers to her as “Grandma”.

In real life Cher is only three years older than Meryl Streep so that pregnancy must have been quite the medical breakthrough.

“Grandma, you weren’t invited,” smiles Amanda in the trailer – the kind of smile that also says “oh my god look it’s Cher I can’t belieeeeeve it.”

“That’s the best kind of party little girl,” Cher replies. Well put.

4. And look there’s Will from W1A.

He’s back in all his swooshy-haired glory, and this time he isn’t just carrying Hugh Bonneville’s fold-up bicycle.

Yeah, no yeah, no cool, yeah no worries.

5. The songs. THE SONGS.

For so long, we’ve all been kept awake, night after night, wondering which Abba classics will make it into the movie sequel.

We are now three songs closer to having the answer – as the trailer features I Have A Dream, Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia.

Earlier this year, Benny Andersson from Actual Abba told BBC Radio 2 that the film would also feature Angel Eyes, I Wonder and When I Kissed The Teacher.

But given how many of the big songs were mopped up by the first film, they don’t have many other tunes left to play with.

The major omissions from the first included Fernando and Knowing Me, Knowing You. Beyond that, there may have to be some more repeats.

Which is fine by us, as long as one of them is Waterloo – because that one was cruelly relegated to the credits in the first film.

6. There’s a new girlband in town.

Amanda Seyfried now appears to be performing with her mum’s pals, played by Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, in the new film.

It works both as a touching tribute to Streep, and also as a vision of what the Sugababes might have looked like after another few decades of line-up changes.

Anyway, whatever other surprises are in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, we are so ready for this film.

For now, we say Thank You For The Trailer, which you can watch below.

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End of Youtube post by Universal Pictures

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Catalonia crisis in 300 words

Catalonia’s drive for independence has plunged Spain into its biggest political crisis for 40 years.

On 21 December pro-independence parties won a narrow majority in a Catalan election that Spain had called in the hope of ending the crisis. So independence remains a possibility.

What is Catalonia?

Catalonia is a semi-autonomous region in north-east Spain with a distinct history dating back almost 1,000 years.

The wealthy region has about 7.5 million people, with their own language, parliament, flag and anthem. Catalonia also has its own police force and controls some of its public services.

Why the controversy?

Catalan nationalists have long complained that their region sends too much money to poorer parts of Spain, as taxes are controlled by Madrid.

They also say Spain’s changes to their autonomous status in 2010 undermined Catalan identity.

In a referendum on 1 October, declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court, about 90% of Catalan voters backed independence. But turnout was only 43%.

There were clashes when Spanish national police tried to prevent people voting.

The ruling separatists in the Catalan parliament then declared independence on 27 October.

Angered by that, Madrid imposed direct rule by invoking Article 155 of the constitution – a first for Spain.

The Spanish government sacked the Catalan leaders, dissolved parliament and called a snap regional election on 21 December.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium but is wanted in Spain accused of rebellion, as are four who fled with him. Two of his ex-ministers are in prison in Spain.

Why does the crisis matter?

Thousands of businesses have scaled down their operations in Catalonia.

The crisis is being watched nervously by other European states with strong nationalist movements.

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Catalonia in numbers

Farthest monster black hole found

Astronomers have discovered the most distant “supermassive” black hole known to science.

The matter-munching sinkhole is a whopping 13 billion light-years away, so far that we see it as it was a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang.

But at about 800 million times the mass of our Sun, it managed to grow to a surprisingly large size in just a short time after the origin of the Universe.

The find is described in the journal Nature.

The newly discovered black hole is busily devouring material at the centre of a galaxy – marking it out as a so-called quasar.

Matter, such as gas, falling onto the black hole will form an ultra-hot mass of material orbiting around it known as an accretion disk.

“Quasars are among the brightest and most distant known celestial objects and are crucial to understanding the early Universe,” said co-author Bram Venemans of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

This quasar is interesting because it comes from a time when the Universe was just 5% of its current age.

At this time, the cosmos was beginning to emerge from a period known as the dark ages – just before the first stars appeared.

“Gathering all this mass in under 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth,” said co-author Eduardo Bañados, from the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The quasar’s distance is described by a property called its redshift – a measurement of how much the wavelength of its light is stretched by the expansion of the Universe before reaching Earth.

The newly discovered black hole has a redshift of 7.54. The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the farther back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object.

Prior to this discovery, the record-holder for the furthest known quasar existed when the Universe was about 800 million years old.

“Despite extensive searches, it took more than half a decade to catch a glimpse of something this far back in the history of the Universe,” said Dr Bañados.

The discovery of a massive black hole so early on may provide key clues on conditions that abounded when the Universe was young.

“This finding shows that a process obviously existed in the early Universe to make this monster,” Dr Bañados explained.

“What that process is? Well, that will keep theorists very busy.”

The unexpected discovery is based on data amassed from observatories around the world. This includes data from the Gemini North observatory on Hawaii’s Maunakea volcano and a Nasa space telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (Wise).

Brexit: Electoral Commission reopens probe into Vote Leave

The Electoral Commission has reopened an investigation into Vote Leave’s EU referendum spending.

The campaign paid £625,000 to clear bills allegedly run up by university student Darren Grimes with a digital agency days ahead of last June’s vote.

A separate group, Veterans for Britain, received £100,000 from Vote Leave.

The campaign denies attempting to get round spending limits – the Electoral Commission initially accepted this but now says it has new information.

A group of campaigning lawyers, The Good Law Project, has started legal action against the commission over its original decision to drop the investigation, claiming the watchdog was not doing its job properly.

‘Utter joke’

Jo Maugham QC, of the Good Law Project, said: “We are 18 months after the referendum vote. It is extraordinary that only now is the Electoral Commission taking a serious look at whether the rules were complied with. And only in response to legal action.”

He added: “The Electoral Commission has urged us to agree to drop our High Court case. We will consider this question carefully in the coming days.”

A former senior Vote Leave source accused the watchdog of giving in to pressure from the Good Law project – something the watchdog has denied.

“The Electoral Commission is an utter joke,” the source told BBC News.

“They investigated the last time there was a spurious complaint and found Vote Leave followed the rules and donations were within the law.

“Now they’ve given in to peer pressure from a bunch of die-hard Remainers who would rather believe in some vast conspiracy rather than respect the democratic vote of the British people.

“This is in contrast to the Electoral Commission’s repeated failures to call out dodgy Remain behaviour, which exploited the full weight of the government during the campaign. It reeks of double standards.”

Obscure group

The row centres around Darren Grimes, at the time a fashion student at the University of Brighton, who set up a group called BeLeave, to give young pro-Brexit campaigners a voice during last year’s referendum.

As a registered campaigner, he was allowed to spend up to £700,000. He initially spent very little but in the 10 days leading up to the 23 June vote he ran up a £675,315 bill with AggregateIQ Data, a Canadian marketing firm that specialises in political campaigns.

Money to clear the bill was not given to Mr Grimes but sent directly to Aggregate IQ by Vote Leave, which separately spent £2.7m with the same firm, more than a third of its £6.8m budget.

Mr Grimes also received £50,000 from an individual Vote Leave donor in the final 10 days, making the previously obscure campaigner’s group one of the best-funded at the referendum.

Vote Leave Campaign director Dominic Cummings was quoted on AggregateIQ’s website as saying “we couldn’t have done it without them”.

In total, AIQ was given £3.5m by groups campaigning for Brexit, including Vote Leave, the Democratic Unionist Party and Veterans for Britain.

Vote Leave would have gone over its campaign spending limit if it had spent the money it donated on behalf of Mr Grimes itself.

The campaign group said it made the donation to Mr Grimes because it was coming up to its £7m spending limit and wanted a way of using £9.2m it had raised from individuals and companies on campaigning activities.

The Electoral Commission said in March this was an “acceptable method of donating under the rules” and after a “detailed look” at the case it did not find reasonable grounds to suspect an offence had been committed.

‘Public interest’

The new probe will look at whether the spending returns delivered by Mr Grimes, Veterans for Britain and Vote Leave were correct – and whether or not Vote Leave exceeded its spending limit.

Bob Posner, the Electoral Commission’s director of political finance and regulation, said: “There is significant public interest in being satisfied that the facts are known about Vote Leave’s spending on the campaign, particularly as it was a lead campaigner with a greater spending limit than any other campaigners on the Leave side.

“Legitimate questions over the funding provided to campaigners risks causing harm to voters’ confidence in the referendum and it is therefore right that we investigate.”

In April, the Electoral Commission launched a separate investigation into spending during the referendum by Leave.EU, the campaign backed by then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks.

It is also investigating spending by the anti-Brexit campaign Britain Stronger in Europe.

Event Horizon Telescope ready to image black hole

Scientists believe they are on the verge of obtaining the first ever picture of a black hole.

They have built an Earth-sized “virtual telescope” by linking a large array of radio receivers – from the South Pole, to Hawaii, to the Americas and Europe.

There is optimism that observations to be conducted during 5-14 April could finally deliver the long-sought prize.

In the sights of the so-called “Event Horizon Telescope” will be the monster black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

Although never seen directly, this object, catalogued as Sagittarius A*, has been determined to exist from the way it influences the orbits of nearby stars.

These race around a point in space at many thousands of km per second, suggesting the hole likely has a mass of about four million times that of the Sun.

But as colossal as that sounds, the “edge” of the black hole – the horizon inside which an immense gravity field traps all light – may be no more than 20 million km or so across.

And at a distance of 26,000 light-years from Earth, this makes Sagittarius A* a tiny pinprick on the sky.

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) team is nonetheless bullish.

“There’s great excitement,” said project leader Sheperd Doeleman from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“We’ve been fashioning our virtual telescope for almost two decades now, and in April we’re going to make the observations that we think have the first real chance of bringing a black hole’s event horizon into focus,” he told BBC News.

The EHT’s trick is a technique called very long baseline array interferometry (VLBI).

This combines a network of widely spaced radio antennas to mimic a telescope aperture that can produce the resolution necessary to perceive a pinprick on the sky.

The EHT is aiming initially to get down to 50 microarcseconds. Team-members talk in analogies, describing the sharpness of vision as being the equivalent of seeing something the size of a grapefruit on the surface of the Moon.

They emphasise the still complex years of work ahead, but also trail the prospect of an imminent breakthrough.

The scientists certainly have an expectation of what they ought to see, if successful.

Simulations rooted in Einstein’s equations predict a bright ring of light fringing a dark feature.

The light would be the emission coming from gas and dust accelerated to high speed and torn apart just before disappearing into the hole.

The dark feature would be the shadow the hole casts on this maelstrom.

“Now, it could be that we will see something different,” Doeleman said.

“As I’ve said before, it’s never a good idea to bet against Einstein, but if we did see something that was very different from what we expect we would have to reassess the theory of gravity.

“I don’t expect that is going to happen, but anything could happen and that’s the beauty of it.”

Over the years, more and more radio astronomy facilities have joined the project. A key recent addition is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

Its extraordinary state-of-the-art technology has at a stroke increased the EHT’s sensitivity by a factor of 10. Hence, the optimism ahead of April.

Even so, scientists have had to install special equipment at all the radio facilities involved in the observations.

This includes big hard drives to store colossal volumes of data, and atomic clocks to precisely timestamp it all.

Nothing happens on the spot – the hard drives must first be flown to a large computing facility at MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, just outside Boston, Massachusetts.

“Our hard-drive modules hold the capacity of about 100 standard laptops,” said Haystack’s Vincent Fish.

“We have multiple modules at each telescope and we have numerous telescopes in the array. So, ultimately, we’re talking about 10,000 laptops of data.”

It is in Haystack’s correlator computer that the synthesis will begin.

Some very smart imaging algorithms have had to be developed to make sense of the EHT’s observations, but it will not be a quick result.

It could be the end of the year, perhaps the start of 2018, before the team releases an image in public.

Looking to the future, the scientists are already thinking about how to extend their techniques.

For example, the matter closest to the event horizon and about to disappear into Sagittarius A* should take about 30 minutes to complete an orbit.

Katie Bouman, from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, thinks it might be possible to capture this movement.

“We want to push boundaries and to try to make movies from the data,” she told BBC News.

“Maybe we can actually see some of the gas flowing around the black hole. That’s really the next stage of what we’re trying to accomplish with these imaging algorithms.”

First and foremost, the team needs good weather at the participating observing stations in April.

The strategy is to view the galactic centre at a wavelength of 1.3mm (230GHz). This has the best chance of piercing any obscuring gas and dust in the vicinity of the black hole. But if there is too much water vapour above the array’s receivers, the EHT will struggle even to see through Earth’s atmosphere.

Just getting a resolved view of Sagittarius A* would be a remarkable triumph in itself. But the real objective here is to use the imaging capability to go test aspects of general relativity.

If there are flaws to be found in Einstein’s ideas – and scientists suspect there are more complete explanations of gravity out there waiting to be discovered – then it is in the extreme environment of black holes that limitations should be exposed.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

China ‘social credit’: Beijing sets up huge system

In most countries, the existence of a credit system isn’t controversial. Past financial information is used to predict whether individuals will pay their mortgages or credit card bill in the future.

But China is taking the whole concept a few steps further. The Chinese government is building an omnipotent “social credit” system that is meant to rate each citizen’s trustworthiness.

By 2020, everyone in China will be enrolled in a vast national database that compiles fiscal and government information, including minor traffic violations, and distils it into a single number ranking each citizen.

That system isn’t in place yet. For now, the government is watching how eight Chinese companies issue their own “social credit” scores under state-approved pilot projects.

One of the most high-profile projects is by Sesame Credit, the financial wing of Alibaba. With 400 million users, Alibaba is the world’s biggest online shopping platform. It’s using its unique database of consumer information to compile individual “social credit” scores.

Users are encouraged to flaunt their good credit scores to friends, and even potential mates. China’s biggest matchmaking service, Baihe, has teamed up with Sesame to promote clients with good credit scores, giving them prominent spots on the company’s website.

“A person’s appearance is very important,” explains Baihe’s vice-president, Zhuan Yirong. “But it’s more important to be able make a living. Your partner’s fortune guarantees a comfortable life.”

More and more of Baihe’s 90 million clients are displaying their credit scores in their dating profiles, doing away with the idea that a credit score is a private matter.

However, Sesame Credit will not divulge exactly how it calculates its credit scores, explaining that it is a “complex algorithm”.

The company refused to give an interview to the BBC, citing concerns that the government would refuse to grant a permanent licence to issue credit scores if it engaged with the foreign media.

Instead, their spokeswoman issued a statement, discounting persistent rumours that the organisation monitors users’ social media activity when assessing their social credit.

Sesame Credit tracks “financial and consumption activities of our users, and materials published on social media platforms do not affect our users’ personal Sesame Credit score,” explained spokeswoman Miranda Shek.

Sesame rates the online financial transactions of those using Alibaba’s payment system, in addition to data it obtains from its partners including the taxi service Didi Kuaidi, rating whether users bothered to settle taxi payments.

Controversially, the company does not hide that it judges the types of products shoppers buy online.

“Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility,” Li Yingyun, Sesame’s technology director told Caixin, a Chinese magazine, in February.

The Chinese authorities are watching the pilot process very carefully. The government system won’t be exactly the same as the private systems, but government officials are certainly taking cues from the algorithms developed under the private projects.

A lengthy planning document from China’s elite State Council explains that social credit will “forge a public opinion environment that trust-keeping is glorious”, warning that the “new system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust”.

Details on the inner workings of the system are vague, though it is clear that each citizen and Chinese organisation will be rated. A long list of people in certain professions will face particular scrutiny, including teachers, accountants, journalists and medical doctors. The special list even includes veterinarians and tour guides.

A national database will merge a wide variety of information on every citizen, assessing whether taxes and traffic tickets have been paid, whether academic degrees have been rightly earned and even, it seems, whether females have been instructed to take birth control.

Critics say the social credit system is “nightmarish” and “Orwellian”. However, some believe that some kind of credit system is badly needed in China.

“Many people don’t own houses, cars or credit cards in China, so that kind of information isn’t available to measure,” explains Wen Quan, a blogger who writes about technology and finance.

“The central bank has the financial data from 800 million people, but only 320 million have a traditional credit history.”

‘Very convenient’

Credit systems build trust between all citizens, Wen Quan says.

“Without a system, a conman can commit a crime in one place and then do the same thing again in another place. But a credit system puts people’s past history on the record. It’ll build a better and fairer society,” she promises.

In a trendy neighbourhood in downtown Beijing, many were enthusiastic when asked about their Sesame Credit ratings, proudly displaying them on their mobile phones.

“It is very convenient,” one young woman smiled. “We booked a hotel last night using Sesame Credit and we didn’t need to leave a cash deposit.”

Sesame has promoted the consumer benefits of a good credit score, from a prominent dating profile on the Baihe matchmaking site to VIP reservations with hotels and car rental companies. A mobile phone game designed by Sesame Credit encourages users to guess whether they have higher or lower credit scores than their friends, encouraging everyone to openly share their ratings.

But few people seemed to understand that a bad score could hurt them in the future, preventing them from receiving a bank loan or signing a lease.

And, even more concerning, many didn’t know they were being rated by Sesame at all. For now, the pilot credit system is voluntary, though it’s difficult to circumvent. Online shopping is a part of life in modern Chinese cities and Alibaba’s financial payment service is ubiquitous.

“We repeatedly remind our customers that using Sesame Credit is voluntary,” explains the matchmaking site’s vice president, Zhuan Yirong.

“But people really care about trust and honesty. Alibaba’s data can provide certain kind of proof. It’s not 100% accurate, but at least it’s one more filter for people to know each other better.”

Perhaps it is good for all citizens to learn quickly about the concept of a “social credit” score, while it is still partly voluntary. Within five years, the government’s mandatory system will rank everyone within China’s borders.

Dementia ‘linked’ to common over-the-counter drugs

A study has linked commonly used medicines, including over-the-counter treatments for conditions such as insomnia and hay-fever, to dementia.

All of the types of medication in question are drugs that have an “anticholinergic” effect.

Experts say people should not panic or stop taking their medicines.

In the US study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, higher doses and prolonged use were linked to higher dementia risk in elderly people.

The researchers only looked at older people and found the increased risk appeared when people took drugs every day for three years or more.

Side-effects

All medicines can have side-effects and anticholinergic-type drugs that block a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine are no exception.

Patient information leaflets accompanying such drugs warn of the possibility of reduced attention span and memory problems as well as a dry mouth.

But researchers say people should also be aware that they may be linked to a higher risk of developing dementia.

Dr Shelly Gray and colleagues from the University of Washington followed the health of 3,434 people aged 65 and older who had no signs of dementia at the start of the study.

They looked at medical and pharmacy records to determine how many of the people had been given a drug with an anticholinergic effect, at what dose and how often and compared this data with subsequent dementia diagnoses over the next decade.


Drugs in the study

The US study does not name specific brands, but does outline the types of treatments investigated, which include:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants for treating depression
  • Antihistamines used to treat hay-fever and allergies
  • Antimuscarinics for treating urinary incontinence

    Most of the drugs were given on prescription, rather than bought at the pharmacy over-the-counter.


    The most commonly used anticholinergic-type drugs were medicines for treating depression, antihistamines for allergies such as hay-fever or to aid sleep/promote drowsiness, and drugs to treat urinary incontinence. Nearly a fifth were drugs that had been bought over the counter.

    Over the course of the study, 797 of the participants developed dementia.

    ‘Not causal’

    The study estimated that people taking at least 10 mg/day of doxepin (antidepressant), four mg/day of diphenhydramine (a sleep aid), or five mg/day of oxybutynin (a urinary incontinence drug) for more than three years would be at greater risk of developing dementia.

    The researchers say doctors and pharmacists might want to take a precautionary approach and offer different treatments instead. And when there is no alternative, they could give the lowest dose for the shortest time possible.

    Dr Gray says some of the study participants have agreed to have an autopsy after their death.

    “We will look at the brain pathology and see if we can find a biological mechanism that might explain our results.”

    Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said the study was interesting but not definitive – there was, he said, no evidence that these drugs cause dementia.

    Dr Doug Brown, from the UK’s Alzheimer’s Society, said: “There have been concerns that regular use by older people of certain medications with anticholinergic effects, such as sleep aids and hay-fever treatments, can increase the risk of dementia in certain circumstances, which this study supports.

    “However, it is still unclear whether this is the case and if so, whether the effects seen are a result of long-term use or several episodes of short-term use. More robust research is needed to understand what the potential dangers are, and if some drugs are more likely to have this effect than others.

    “We would encourage doctors and pharmacists to be aware of this potential link and would advise anyone concerned about this to speak to their GP before stopping any medication.”

    He said the charity was funding more research in this area to better understand any connections between these and other drugs on the development of dementia.

    The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which monitors the safety of medicines in clinical use in the UK, said it would review any new evidence.

    Drug company Johnson & Johnson Ltd said many hay-fever products sold in the UK now contain newer, second generation antihistamines – not the type looked at in the study.

    Matthew Speers, who represents the UK trade association for manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs, said: “Over-the-counter allergy and sleeping aid products are not intended to be used continuously and people are advised to talk to their pharmacist or doctor if they need to use these products long-term.

    “There are a range of allergy products on the market which contain a number of different ingredients, many of which were not considered in this study.”