Japan’s cryptocurrency girl band stays loyal to virtual money after cyber heist

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Members of a Japanese girl pop group, the Virtual Currency Girls, said on Monday they had refused an offer to be paid in yen and would stay loyal to cryptocurrencies despite a US$530 million cyber heist jeopardising their chances of getting paid.

A cryptocurrency account that pays part of the band’s salary was among those frozen as a result of the suspension of trading at Tokyo-based Coincheck exchange on Friday following the theft of NEM, one of the world’s most popular digital currencies.

“Our manager offered to pay us in yen, but we declined,” said Hinano Shirahama, who is the band’s bitcoin character.

Dressed in maid costumes and wearing wrestling masks adorned with fuzzy pom-pom ears and cryptocurrency symbols the eight Virtual Currency Girls are a pop music manifestation of the digital currency frenzy that has swept Japan and other parts of the world.

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Shirahama and other group members said they would stay together regardless of the setback. Formed by an entertainment promoter the band debuted this month and have yet to garner a significant following.

Virtual Currency Girls, which performs songs such as The Moon, Cryptocurrencies and Me are paid in cryptocurrency for tickets and merchandise at their concerts.

Regulators fear both the rampant speculation in cryptocurrencies and risk that the markets could be used for funding criminal and terrorist groups.

Japan’s Financial Services Agency (FSA) only began requiring exchanges to register from April 2017. Half of the 32 operators are still awaiting approval.

The bitcoin party is over. The blockchain party has only just began

In 2014, Japan’s Mt Gox, which once handled 80 per cent of the world’s bitcoin trades, filed for bankruptcy after losing around half a billion dollars worth of bitcoin.

Last month, South Korean exchange Youbit shut down and filed for bankruptcy after being hacked twice.

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Japan’s FSA on Friday criticised Coincheck for failing to take adequate security precautions to foil hacking attacks and said it would begin inspections at other exchanges.

“Coincheck has some responsibility, but the real culprit is the hacker,” said Koharu Kamikawa wearing her fur-eared mask with the NEM cryptocurrency logo on her forehead.

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Nasa urges stargazers to wake up early for rare ‘super blue blood moon’ on January 31

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A rare celestial event will grace the skies during the coming week when a blue moon and lunar eclipse combine with the moon being at its closest point to Earth, resulting in what is being called a “super blue blood moon”.

The trifecta will take place on 31 January and will be best visible from the western hemisphere. The last time the three elements combined at the same time was in 1866.

A “super blue blood moon” is the result of a blue moon – the second full moon in a calendar month – occurring at the same time as a super moon, when the moon is at perigee and about 14 per cent brighter than usual, and a so-called blood moon – the moment during a lunar eclipse when the moon, in the Earth’s shadow, takes on a reddish tint.

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Stargazers living in the US will be able to see the eclipse before sunrise on Wednesday, according to Nasa. For those in the Middle East, Asia, eastern Russia, Australia and New Zealand, the event will be visible during moonrise on the morning of January 31.

“For the [continental] US, the viewing will be best in the west,” said Gordon Johnston, programme executive and lunar blogger at Nasa. “Set your alarm early and go out and take a look.”

“Weather permitting, the west coast, Alaska and Hawaii will have a spectacular view of totality from start to finish,” said Johnston. “Unfortunately, eclipse viewing will be more challenging in the eastern time zone. The eclipse begins at 5.51am eastern time, as the moon is about to set in the western sky, and the sky is getting lighter in the east.”

The eclipse itself is expected to last about an hour and a quarter. For anyone unable to watch the event in person, it will be streamed live online.

Nasa said the eclipse will offer scientists a chance to see what happens when the surface of the moon cools quickly.

“The whole character of the moon changes when we observe with a thermal camera during an eclipse,” said Paul Hayne of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. “In the dark, many familiar craters and other features can’t be seen, and the normally nondescript areas around some craters start to ‘glow’ because the rocks there are still warm.”

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Philippine farmers defy danger zones as erupting volcano Mount Mayon spews lava and ash

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As blistering lava spews from the seething volcano nearby, Philippine farmer Jay Balindang leads his buffalo through the ash-strewn paddy fields of the no-go zone, creeping closer to danger in a desperate bid to support his family.

Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from around the erupting Mayon volcano, as a white-hot cocktail of gas and volcanic debris streaks down its flanks, threatening local communities who rely on the fertile land at its base.

Fearing a significant eruption that could engulf whole swathes of the nearby land in burning rock and lava flows, authorities have cordoned off a 9km danger zone around Mayon.

But that has not stopped defiant farmers like Balindang from tending to crops and livestock that are a crucial part of their livelihoods.

Each day the father of eight leaves his children at a government evacuation centre, sneaking past police as he returns to his small farm at the foot of the volcano to feed his precious “carabao” water buffalo.

“I am not afraid of the volcano. We are used to its activity,” the 37-year-old said at the edge of his rice fields, a few kilometres inside the danger zone.

Farmers make up around 10,000 of the 84,000 people displaced by the eruption of Mayon in Albay province, some 330km southeast of Manila.

The lush region is famous for its chilli peppers, as well as less fiery crops like rice, corn and vegetables.

All are threatened by the volatile volcano, which has gushed molten lava and belched giant clouds of superheated ash since it began erupting two weeks ago.

Watch: Mount Mayon blows its top, thousands evacuated

Local authorities say that beyond the immediate damage to crops caused by the coating of smouldering embers, there are concerns that heavy rainfall could combine with ash and rock to form deadly, fast moving mudflows that could sweep away entire settlements and block vital rivers.

Mudflows threaten locals near erupting Philippine volcano

“This is a new and daunting challenge to our agriculture workers who in the past had to cope with typhoons, landslides and floods,” Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Pinol said.

Farmers are among the most vulnerable to the meteorological miseries that afflict the Philippines, which is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year and is in the earthquake-prone volcanic belt around the Pacific known as the “Ring of Fire”.

The 2,460-metre-high Mayon has been both a blessing and a curse to the farmers living near its slopes for generations.

Volcanic ash can kill vegetation immediately after an eruption, but as it seeps into the ground it can also enrich the soil with minerals that sustain future crops.

“If the ash is thin, it would become a fertiliser but if the ash is thick it would mean farmers who had spent money a lot of money to plant the vegetables lose everything,” said Renato Solidum, head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

Vegetable prices have already started to soar in parts of Albay as the eruption hampers access to key crops.

“We are very famous for these dishes wherein the [taro] leaves are being grown just at the foot of Mount Mayon,” said Elsa Maranan, chief of the agriculture department’s local breeding station.

“If all this will be destroyed then the production of our delicacies and the income of our farmers will be very much affected.”

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In a bid to stop farmers from slipping back to tend their own fields, local authorities have set up communal areas, where farmers can graze livestock on ash-free grass.

“We appeal to them not to be stubborn because they are putting the lives of our responders in danger,” said Brigadier-General Arnulfo Matanguihan, head of a local task force for the eruption.

But many still make a daily hazardous dash back to their own land.

Balindang said the choice was clear – if he ensures that his pigs, carabaos and cows are fed, then his family will also be assured of something to eat.

“It’s very difficult because I don’t know if we will have any rice left to harvest. For now, we have nothing,” he said.

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Indian man killed after being sucked into MRI machine, doctor and ward boy arrested

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An Indian man died after being sucked into an MRI machine while visiting a relative at a hospital in Mumbai, police said on Monday.

Rajesh Maru, 32, was yanked towards the machine by its magnetic force after he entered the room carrying an oxygen cylinder, police said in a statement.

“We have arrested a doctor and another junior staff member under section 304 of the Indian penal code for causing death due to negligence,” said spokesman Deepak Deoraj.

The incident occurred on Saturday night at the Indian financial capital’s Nair Hospital.

Police said preliminary reports suggested the man had died from inhaling liquid oxygen that leaked from the cylinder. It is thought the cylinder was damaged after hitting the machine.

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The ward boy who was supposed to prevent such incidents told my family members to go inside when the machine was turned on

Jitendra Maru

Ramesh Bharmal, the dean of the hospital, said an investigation had been launched to determine the exact cause of death, and CCTV footage of the incident had been handed over to police.

The victim’s uncle said Maru was asked to carry the cylinder by the junior staff member who assured him the machine was switched off.

“The ward boy who was supposed to prevent such incidents told my family members to go inside when the machine was turned on. We are shocked and devastated,” Jitendra Maru said.

The state government of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, announced compensation of 500,000 rupees (US$7,870) for the victim’s family.

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, machines use a powerful magnetic field to produce images of the body’s organs. Metallic objects are pulled towards it and must not be carried into the room.

In 2014 two hospital workers sustained injuries when they were pinned between an MRI machine and a metal oxygen tank for four hours at a hospital in New Delhi.

In 2001, a six-year-old boy undergoing an MRI scan in New York was killed when a metal oxygen tank flew towards the machine and crushed his skull.

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Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte suspends anti-graft official after bank records ‘leak’

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday punished an anti-graft prosecutor suspected of leaking his bank records after an opposition politician had accused Duterte of corruption.

When he was still a presidential candidate Duterte was accused of unlawfully failing to disclose 211 million pesos (US$4.1 million) in secret bank accounts. The 2016 complaint was lodged with the Ombudsman, an anti-corruption prosecutor.

Duterte has denied the allegation. On Monday his spokesman Harry Roque said the president’s chief aide had suspended the deputy ombudsman, Melchor Arthur Carandang, for three months.

The Ombudsman’s office had no comment.

Carandang told a local television station last year that the Ombudsman had since 2016 been quietly investigating Duterte and his family’s bank transactions.

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Clearly this is another Duterte tactic that’s meant to bully democratic institutions into submission

Senator Antonio Trillanes

The probe followed a complaint filed by Senator Antonio Trillanes, a Duterte critic.

Trillanes had alleged Duterte embezzled government funds and engaged in other illegal activities during his lengthy stint as mayor of the southern city of Davao before becoming president.

In the only comment it has made on the case, the central bank’s Anti-Money Laundering Council said following Carandang’s television comments that it had received a request from the Ombudsman “regarding the alleged bank accounts of President Rodrigo Duterte”.

It said the request concerned information provided to the Ombudsman by Trillanes and that it had yet to evaluate it.

All government officials including the president must by law disclose their assets and liabilities each year as a safeguard against corruption.

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Roque said Carandang was being suspended after two individuals filed an administrative case against him for alleged violations of the country’s corruption law.

The complaint alleged Carandang had committed “grave misconduct and grave dishonesty” for the “misuse of confidential information and disclosing false information”, Roque added.

Trillanes said on Monday Duterte was violating the constitution because the special prosecutor is an independent official who cannot be sanctioned by the chief executive.

“Clearly this is another Duterte tactic that’s meant to bully democratic institutions into submission so he could go on with his dictatorial and corrupt ways,” Trillanes said in a statement.

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Malaysian mother wins nine-year legal battle as Federal Court rules both parents must consent to conversions of minors

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Malaysia’s top court said in a landmark decision on Monday that both parents must consent to the religious conversion of a minor, ruling unanimously in favour of a Hindu woman whose ex-husband converted their three children to Islam without telling her.

The ruling ended a nine-year legal tussle for M. Indira Gandhi, whose former husband became a Muslim and converted their three children in 2009. He also snatched their daughter, then 11 months old, from the family home.

She won custody of the three children and challenged their conversions in civil courts of Malaysia’s dual-court system. A lower court annulled them, but the Court of Appeal overturned the ruling, saying civil courts had no jurisdiction over Islamic conversions. The ruling was appealed to the nation’s highest court.

The five-member panel in the Federal Court found the children’s conversions unlawful as they were done without Gandhi’s consent.

“This is a landmark decision and a victory for all Malaysians,” said M. Kulasegaran, Gandhi’s lawyer.

He said the ruling clearly showed civil courts are the paramount courts and can hear matters related to Islamic affairs even if there is a contradictory sharia court decision. There are many similar disputes involving the unilateral conversion of children to Islam and that the ruling meant that non-Muslims now can seek redress in the civil courts, he added.

Muslims, who are 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 31 million people, are governed by Islamic courts while non-Muslims go to civil courts to settle family, marriage and other personal disputes. But the law is vague on which court has authority over disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially within a family.

Civil courts have generally avoided taking a position in such cases, allowing sharia courts to lead. This has raised questions about freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution, and strained racial relations in this multi-ethnic country, which has enjoyed largely peaceful race relations for nearly five decades.

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Critics accuse the ethnic Malay Muslim-dominated government of doing too little to resolve problems. The government has become increasingly reliant on support from Islamist and right-wing pressure groups as other constituencies flock to the opposition. Last year, the government withdrew a proposed law that sought to end unilateral conversions of children ahead of general elections due in the next few months.

An emotional Gandhi told local media that she was thankful for the decision and that there is “no more excuse” for police not to find her former husband, who has refused to comply with court rulings to hand her youngest daughter back to her. He has gone missing and police earlier said they could not act on the civil court’s order.

“But my daughter is still missing. I want to see her. I really need to hold her. It has been nine years. When is she going to come back?” she said.

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Australia’s bold plan to become one of world’s top 10 arms exporters

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Australia’s government has announced a strategy to create hi-tech jobs and become one of the top 10 defence-industry-exporting countries within a decade through arms sales to liked-minded nations while also keeping those weapons from rogue regimes.

Australia will create a A$3.8 billion (US$3.1 billion) fund to lend to exporters that banks are reluctant to finance, a central defence export office and expand the roles of defence attaches in Australian embassies around the world.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that with A$200 billion budgeted to increase Australian defence capabilities in the next decade, Australia should rank higher than 20th among arms-exporting countries.

The planned Australian military build-up was the largest in its peacetime history, he said.

“Given the size of our defence budget, we should be a lot higher up the scale than that. So the goal is to get into the top 10,” Turnbull said.

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne said Australia would focus on growing sales to its biggest markets including the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, which already import Australian-made equipment including the Bushmaster armoured vehicle and the Nulka missile decoy. The five nations belong to an intelligence-sharing network known as the Five Eyes.

“We want to support the United States, the UK, New Zealand, Canada, our European friends and allies, Japan, South Korea, et cetera, in what is a building up of the global military capability of countries like ourself who support the rules-based international order,” Pyne said.

“The defence export strategy is not designed to get into markets where we don’t want to be. It’s designed to maximise the markets where we perhaps haven’t been making the most of our opportunities.”

Turnbull said the strategy was about creating hi-tech Australian jobs and not a response to any national threat, such as increasing tensions and the Chinese military build-up in the South China Sea over competing territorial claims.

“Apart from North Korea, there is no country in the region that shows any hostile intent toward Australia,” Turnbull said.

“We don’t see threats from our neighbours in the region, but, nonetheless, every country must always plan ahead and you need to build the capabilities to defend yourself, not just today, but in 10 years or 20 years hence. ”

The push to increase Australian defence manufacturing jobs came after General Motors Co. in October became the last carmaker to quit building Australian cars.

Most of the new Australian defence spending is on submarines and frigates that will be largely built in Australia.

Australian law prohibits military exports that are inconsistent with Australia’s international obligations or national interests.

Prospective exports are assessed in areas including impacts on human rights, regional security and Australian foreign policy.

“We’ve got strict controls and those controls make sure we only supply defence assets in the future to like-minded countries that have a strong human rights record and have protections in place.” Trade Minister Steve Ciobo told Nine Network television.

Amnesty International said it been urging Australia to publicly report on arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and its allies in the war in Yemen.

“While there is reluctance on the government’s part to exercise transparency in its arms exports trade, it is unthinkable that it would even contemplate expanding it,” the London-based rights group coordinator Diana Sayed said in a statement.

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a government-established independent think tank, said the top-10 target was achievable and would create an industry base to support the Australian military.

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Japan trials AI-assisted predictive policing before 2020 Tokyo Olympics

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Police in Japan plan to introduce predictive policing, a method of anticipating the occurrence of crimes and accidents using artificial intelligence.

Kanagawa police near Tokyo hope to put a predictive policing system into practice on a trial basis before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, sources said.

A system to analyse whether the perpetrator of several crimes is the same, predict an offender’s next move and detect the locations and time in and during which crimes or accidents are likely to take place would help police officers investigate crimes and prevent some from happening, they said.

Police officers would be able to patrol the suggested places during the relevant times to ensure safety, while the system would also help speed up probes, according to the sources.

It’s not quite the stuff of science fiction portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report where police apprehend criminals based on foreknowledge provided by psychics.

Japan’s system would employ a “deep learning” method, in which AI learns by itself based on big data. It would encompass criminology knowledge and mathematical schemes in statistics, taking in data about the time, place, weather condition, geographical condition and various other aspects of past crimes or accidents.

It may also use information from social media.

Kanagawa police began studying the feasibility last year and plan to begin joint research with the private sector in the spring of this year before putting a system into practice, the sources said.

They have already used a system to show areas of frequent crime but it has fallen short of helping make extensive predictions.

The National Police Agency set up an advisory panel in December on how the police should make use of AI.

The predictive policing method has been in use in the United States, where critics worry about human rights infringements.

Some police in the United States use the predictive policing software PredPol, which its website says had grown out of a research by the Los Angeles Police Department and the University of California, Los Angeles.

It predicts areas where a crime is likely to occur by inputting data of crimes that have happened. Seventeen organisations including the American Civil Liberties Union jointly issued a statement in August 2016 against the police making computer judgments the reason for questioning or arrest.

The statement criticised the system for allegedly promoting prejudice against certain communities and residents.

Toyoaki Nishida, professor of information science at Kyoto University graduate school, said preventive measures would be able to be taken if a hypothesis that crimes are concentrated on particular times and places is correct.

But use of such a method may have negative aspects such as frequent police patrols of the same areas, he said.

“Residents’ understanding would be necessary to put it in use,” the professor said.

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The bitcoin party is over. The blockchain party has only just begun

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CONFIDENCE IN cryptocurrency markets may have taken a major hit in recent weeks, but the same cannot be said of the value of the technology it relies on – the blockchain.

Bitcoin’s price plunged this week to less than US$11,000, from almost US$20,000 in mid-December, after South Korea announced that all anonymous accounts, foreigners without local banking services and minors would be banned from trading on exchanges from January 30.

But, particularly in Southeast Asia, much confidence remains that the blockchain technology underlying bitcoin can be adapted to drive development in everything from bank remittances to electoral rolls and health care records.

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Essentially, a blockchain is a digital ledger – a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, that are designed to be resistant to modification. Blockchains enable information to be shared in peer-to-peer networks, and because the data in any given block cannot be altered without altering all subsequent blocks, they are secure against fraud.

It’s this quality that has raised hopes it can be adapted for a wide range of uses beyond the financial sector.

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In Singapore, the monetary authority has launched extensive blockchain research efforts, while its members have formed a blockchain-based trading network with Hong Kong, to be rolled out early next year. 

Indonesia’s Central Bank is following Singapore’s lead with its own research programmes, according to Eni Panggabean, head of payment system policy and the oversight department. 

“There is nothing wrong with the [blockchain] technology and it can be utilised in various sectors,” he said, adding that research was still in its early stages. 

Malaysia, meanwhile, is seeking to develop global blockchain standards with industry groups predicting the technology will be in widespread use by 2025. In Australia, the government has invested A$8.6 million (US$6.9 million) into a blockchain project by Perth company Power Ledger, in which energy is exchanged between households during periods of excess or shortage.

And even in the midst of South Korea’s clampdown on bitcoin, the science and technology minister Yoo Young-min has gone on record as saying that blockchain should be considered quite separately from the volatile trading scene.

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Rob Hanson, senior research consultant at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), said blockchain’s potential was “fundamentally as an anti-fraud tool”.

“Blockchain is a term charged with excitement and confusion,” Hanson said. “It is a technology that lets anyone record transactions in a way everyone can see and trust … For governments, the obvious areas to focus blockchain research on are those where it would produce [the greatest] public good.” 

Southeast Asia is ripe for such innovations.

“In Vietnam, health care records are a key area that blockchain could disrupt in public services,” said Nicole Nguyen, head of corporate marketing at Infinity Blockchain Labs in Ho Chi Minh City. “Regulation technology is also an area that government is very excited [about].”

Blockchain technology could also be used to host government registries, improve supply chain visibility and efficiency – especially in archipelago countries like Indonesia and the Philippines – and speed up international remittance payments, according to a CSIRO research paper.

And Steven Suhadi, chief executive of Jakarta-based blockchain start-up Blocktech, said it could boost traceability and transparency across governmental agencies, potentially helping with anti-corruption efforts.

Even so, multiple challenges remain before blockchain can achieve widespread adoption.

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On a government level, Hanson said more research was needed to develop adequate regulation that ensured the technology was efficient and did not “erode trust and confidence in the democratic process – which ironically is what a blockchain would be trying to strengthen”.

“Blockchain uses a lot of computer power in order to create the trust we value. These costs are hidden in systems like bitcoin because of the cryptocurrency reward paid to the people who provide their computers for this purpose,” he said.

WATCH: Is this goodbye, bitcoin?

Hanson said authorities needed to decide whether they were going to use a public network of computers to support their blockchains, or run all the computers themselves. 

He urged governments not to act too hastily to adopt the technology.

“The problem with the amount of excitement around blockchain is that people are treating it like a silver bullet and are more interested in finding a use for blockchain than in finding the best way to solve the problems they face,” he said. “There should be a good reason for using a blockchain, and that reason should not be because other people are using it and you don’t want to miss out.”

For Nguyen, blockchain’s supporters must also overcome the uncertainty generated by the recent cryptocurrency trading frenzy – and the heavy-handed reaction from countries such as South Korea.

“If you deter the adoption of cryptocurrency, that would affect the blockchain industry,” she said. “But on the other hand, it could make more people intrigued by the ecosystem itself and deploy this tech for other applications. That’s where the magic of blockchain would kick in.” 

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Michelle Yeoh, star of Aung San Suu Kyi biopic, calls Rohingya conditions in Bangladesh ‘despicable’

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Hollywood star Michelle Yeoh says she is appalled by the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence in Myanmar into Bangladesh.

Yeoh, a goodwill ambassador for the UN Development Programme, visited sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar on Saturday as part of a Malaysian delegation led by the Southeast Asian nation’s military chief.

The team visited a hospital set up by Malaysia and distributed relief goods in another camp.

“It is very important that we’re here, because what the Rohingya people are going through is despicable and it’s very, very tragic. It should not be allowed,” she said.

“Every single one of them deserves to have the human rights that should be given to them.”

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since August in what the UN has described as ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s military has denied the charges, saying they were conducting “clearance operations” following attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police posts.

Yeoh was most recently seen in sci-fi TV series Star Trek: Discovery.

She also played Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady, a 2011 biopic about the Nobel Peace laureate struggle to bring democracy to her country.

Suu Kyi has faced widespread international criticism for not speaking out in defence of the Rohingya. Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson resigned from an advisory panel on the crisis this past week, calling it a “whitewash and a cheerleading operation” for Suu Kyi.

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