Lust for Power

This fabulous article written by George Gilder and published in Wired magazine, deals in some depth with recent advances in processing power following Moore’s Law – you know that one about exponential advances in technology. Anyway, George writes brilliantly and yet another good piece from Wired I found when researching Disruptive Technology….

The desktop is dead. Welcome to the Internet cloud, where massive facilities across the globe will store all the data you’ll ever use. George Gilder on the dawning of the petabyte age.


THE DRIVE UP INTERSTATE 84, through the verdant amphitheatrical sweep of the Columbia River Gorge to the quaint Oregon town of The Dalles, seems a trek into an alluring American past. You pass ancient basalt bluffs riven by luminous waterfalls, glimpsed through a filigree of Douglas firs. You see signs leading to museums of native Americana full of feathery and leathery tribal relics. There are farms and fisheries, vineyards arrayed on hillsides, eagles and ospreys riding the winds. On the horizon, just a half hour’s drive away, stands the radiant, snowcapped peak of Mount Hood, site of 11 glaciers, source of half a dozen rivers, and home of four-season skiing. “I could live here,” I say to myself with a backward glance down the highway toward urban Portland, a sylvan dream of the billboarded corridor that connects Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

Then, as the road comes to an end, the gray ruin of an abandoned aluminum plant rises from a barren hillside. Its gothic gantries and cavernous smelters stand empty and forlorn, a poignant warning of the evanescence of industrial power.

But industry has returned to The Dalles, albeit industry with a decidedly postindustrial flavor. For it’s here that Google has chosen to build its new 30‑acre campus, the base for a server farm of unprecedented proportion.

Although the evergreen mazes, mountain majesties, and always-on skiing surely play a role, two amenities in particular make this the perfect site for a next-gen data center. One is a fiber-optic hub linked to Harbour Pointe, Washington, the coastal landing base of PC-1, a fiber-optic artery built to handle 640 Gbps that connects Asia to the US. A glassy extension cord snakes through all the town’s major buildings, tapping into the greater Internet though NoaNet, a node of the experimental Internet2. The other attraction is The Dalles Dam and its 1.8‑gigawatt power station. The half-mile-long dam is a crucial source of cheap electrical power – once essential to aluminum smelting, now a strategic resource in the next phase in the digital revolution. Indeed, Google and other Silicon Valley titans are looking to the Columbia River to supply ceaseless cycles of electricity at about a fifth of what they would cost in the San Francisco Bay Area. Why? To feed the ravenous appetite of a new breed of computer.

Moore’s law has a corollary that bears the name of Gordon Bell, the legendary engineer behind Digital Equipment’s VAX line of advanced computers and now a principal researcher at Microsoft. According to Bell’s law, every decade a new class of computer emerges from a hundredfold drop in the price of processing power. As we approach a billionth of a cent per byte of storage, and pennies per gigabit per second of bandwidth, what kind of machine labors to be born?

How will we feed it?

How will it be tamed? Continue reading Lust for Power

45 million fake £1 coins in circulation – and how to spot a fake pound coin.

This great feature came from The Bolton News. They show you how to spot a fake £ coin after the BBC announced yesterday there were as many as an eye-popping 45 million of them in circulation


WITH about 45 million fake pound coins in circulation and a suspected counterfeiter on the loose in Bolton, we have put together a handy guide on how to spot a forgery.

It comes as chancellor George Osborne announces that a new £1 coin, designed to help reduce counterfeiting, will be introduced in 2017.

Spotting a fake £coin

Mr Osborne revealed plans to introduce the new coin — billed by the Royal Mint as “the most secure coin in the world”— in his budget statement to the House of Commons.

In the meantime, check the pound coins in your own wallet and look for these tell-tale signs of a fake:

  • The date and design on the reverse do not match (the reverse design is changed each year).
  • The lettering or inscription on the edge of the coin does not correspond to the right year.
  • The milled edge is poorly defined and the lettering is uneven in depth, spacing or is poorly formed.
  • The obverse and reverse designs are not as sharp or well defined.
  • Where the coin should have been in circulation for some time, the colouring appears more shiny and golden and the coin shows no sign of age.
  • The colour of the coin does not match genuine coins.
  • The orientation of the obverse and reverse designs is not in line.

Large scale privacy invasion by NSA

This story comes from Eduard Kovacs. I believe it originally comes from the Intercept, if it’s true it is truly scary.

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher have published another report based on information stolen by Edward Snowden from the US National Security Agency. The latest report highlights the technologies that enable the intelligence agency to perform “industrial-scale exploitation” of computer networks.

It turns out that the NSA has automated processes in place that enable them to plant malware on millions of computers worldwide. Documents obtained by Snowden show that the British intelligence agency GCHQ has played an important role in developing these systems.

The NSA’s tactics are similar to the ones used by cybercriminals. In some cases, it has set up a fake Facebook server and has used the social media website to distribute a piece of malware capable of stealing data from infected computers.

The agency has also relied on spam campaigns to distribute software capable of recording audio and taking pictures via the computer’s webcam.

In 2004, there were around 100-150 malware implants. However, as the Tailored Access Operations (TAO) unit recruited hackers and developed new tools, the number of implants reached tens of thousands.

Since it’s impossible to manage the malware implants manually, the NSA has developed a solution called TURBINE. This system is capable of managing active implants, enabling the agency to conduct “industrial-scale exploitation.”

TURBINE is said to be part of a broad NSA surveillance initiative dubbed “Owning the Net.” And in case you’re wondering how much money goes into the project, the NSA has requested a $67.6 million (€48,6 million) budget for it last year.
There is a wide range of implants utilized by the NSA. For instance, UNITEDRAKE is used to gain complete control of a device.

UNITEDRAKE has a number of plug-ins, each designed for a specific purpose. CAPTIVATEDAUDIENCE is for recording conversations via the computer’s microphone, GUMFISH is for Continue reading Large scale privacy invasion by NSA

Apparent Theft at Mt. Gox Shakes Bitcoin World

Looks like hackers may have put paid to the bitcoin. Six percent of them have been stolen. More than just a bit as this article from the New York Times suggests

Will People Get Their Bitcoins Back?

Garrick Hileman, an economic historian at the London School of Economics, discusses on CNBC the potential impact on Bitcoin by the disappearance of the Mt. Gox exchange.

The most prominent Bitcoin exchange appeared to be on the verge of collapse late Monday, raising questions about the future of a volatile marketplace.

On Monday night, a number of leading Bitcoin companies jointly announced that Mt. Gox, the largest exchange for most of Bitcoin’s existence, was planning to file for bankruptcy after months of technological problems and what appeared to have been a major theft. A document circulating widely in the Bitcoin world said the company had lost 744,000 Bitcoins in a theft that had gone unnoticed for years. That would be about 6 percent of the 12.4 million Bitcoins in circulation.

While Mt. Gox did not respond to numerous requests for comments, and the companies issuing the statement scrambled to determine the exact situation at Mt. Gox, which is based in Japan, the news helped push the price of a single Bitcoin below $500 for the first time since November, when it began a spike that took it above againContinue reading Apparent Theft at Mt. Gox Shakes Bitcoin World

Oakland: the city that told Google to get lost | Technology | The Guardian

Great story from today’s Guardian newspaper. I also heard it on BBC radio 4’s Today programme this morning. Apparently there’s been a local backlash to hundreds of Google employees using local bus stops in Oakland…then being picked up by the private Google bus. Actually I think this story is really about poorer people detecting privilege and then feeling hard done by. That’s human nature for you.

If pushing your enemy into the sea signifies success, then Google’s decision to start ferrying workers to its campus by boat suggests the revolt against big technology companies is going well. Standing on the docks of Oakland, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, last week, you could watch the Googlers board the ferry, one by one, and swoosh through the chill, grey waters of the bay towards the company’s Mountain View headquarters, 30 or so miles to the south.

The Google boat coming in. Oakland

Not exactly Dunkirk, but from afar you might have detected a whiff of evacuation, if not retreat. The ferry from Oakland – a week-long pilot programme – joined a similar catamaran service for Google workers in San Francisco launched last month. The search engine giant is not doing it for the bracing sea air. It is a response to blockades and assaults against buses that shuttle employees to work.

Many fear fresh attacks. A young software designer waiting for a Google bus on the corner of seventh and Adeline street in west Oakland flinches when I approach him. A few weeks earlier, activists here slashed tyres and hurled rocks through windows. Since then a police car has kept watch, but the Googler remains wary. “A reporter? Can I see some ID?” He scrutinises my press card and sighs. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Anarchists are driving this.”

An eclectic range of motivations are behind the wider backlash against technology companies in their Bay Area home turf as well as globally. Fair-tax campaigners complain that they abuse their clout in order to dodge payments and rewrite rules in their favour. Privacy advocates say they pillage customers’ data and facilitate, willingly or not, government mass surveillance. Others accuse them of worsening inequality by enriching plutocratic backers.

Bay Area activists started targeting the fleets of air-conditioned, Wi-Fi-equipped buses last year as symbols of tech-driven gentrification, a process which is fuelling rent increases and evictions. The protests made headlines around the world, seeding hope in some circles, and anxiety or even panic Continue reading Oakland: the city that told Google to get lost | Technology | The Guardian

Chinese Implicated in Agricultural Espionage Efforts

This interesting  piece is from The New York Times . We tend to think of China as an industrial thief of other peoples’ intellectual property but apparently  it now crosses over into pastures new…..


Corn seedlings in a research greenhouse at Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont, in Johnston, Iowa. Daniel Acker for The New York Times

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The case of the missing corn seeds first broke in May 2011 when a manager at a DuPont research farm in east-central Iowa noticed a man on his knees, digging up the field. When confronted, the man, Mo Hailong, who was with his colleague Wang Lei, appeared flushed. Mr. Mo told the manager that he worked for the University of Iowa and was traveling to a conference nearby. When the manager paused to answered his cellphone, the two men sped off in a car, racing through a ditch to get away, federal authorities said.

What ensued was about a year of F.B.I. surveillance of Mr. Mo and his associates, all but one of whom worked for the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group or its subsidiary Kings Nower Seed. The result was the arrest of Mr. Mo last December and the indictment of five other Chinese citizens on charges of stealing trade secrets in what the authorities and agriculture experts have called an unusual and brazen scheme to undercut expensive, time-consuming research.

China has long been implicated in economic espionage efforts involving aviation technology, paint formulas and financial data. Chinese knockoffs of fashion accessories have long held a place in the mainstream. B Continue reading Chinese Implicated in Agricultural Espionage Efforts

Fury as experts say Ecstasy is harmless | Mail Online

I have been having this long (and interesting) debate with my teenage daughter about whether or not drugs should be legalised. She is adamant that MDMA is harmless. The Daily Mail think otherwise…..

one pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small
molly, e, mdma: one pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small

Controversial claims that Ecstasy may not be dangerous and that its adverse effects could be imaginary caused outrage yesterday.
A research team criticised ‘biased’ studies which said the drug causes long-term brain damage and mental problems.
But other experts and parents of Ecstasy victims were horrified by the claims, made in The Psychologist magazine, pointing out that dozens of people die after taking the drug every year.
Paul Riddell, whose 23-year-old son Graham died last year after taking the drug, said their conclusions are ‘ridiculous’.
‘Ecstasy boils the blood and organs,’ said Mr Riddell, 48, of Normanton, West Yorkshire.
‘If it is doing that to the organs, what is it doing to the brain? My son lost his life after taking it on a night out – how can it possibly not be dangerous?’
In July, the Daily Mail told how deaths from the Class A drug have doubled to 56 in the past year, with some young people dying after a single tablet.
The shocking figures, compiled by the independent drug monitoring unit at St George’s Hospital in London, came as Ecstasy claimed its youngest victim, ten-year-old Jade Slack, from Lancaster. She accidentally swallowed five pills she found at a friend’s house.
But researchers Dr Jon Cole and Harry Sumnall, of Liverpool University, and Professor Charles Grob, a director in psychiatry at the Harbor-UCLA medical centre in California, claim the adverse effects of Ecstasy could be imaginary and brought about by the widely held belief that the drug causes long-term harm.
They say this belief has come about through flawed research.
They say that many psychological problems begin in adolescence anyway, Continue reading Fury as experts say Ecstasy is harmless | Mail Online

Corruption at the Cemetery

This article by Christian Davenport of the Washington Post is as dry as used cooking parchment and could have been taken from the pages of a contemporary American novel. Nice one Christian. His story of military incompetence and corruption in the burial of the dead and the subsequent scandals over favoured reservations has to be seen as an allegory of modern American life… can’t get away from these issues even when you die for your country.

Officials at Arlington National Cemetery — still unable to fully account for who is buried where at the nation’s premier military resting place — are struggling to determine who has reserved plots and whether some of those grave sites are already in use.
Years of sloppy recordkeeping have left officials with no reliable data on how many reservations have been made for plots in the 624-acre cemetery. The problem — along with the discovery that an unofficial reservation system for VIPs continued for decades in violation of Army regulations — is yet another challenge for the cemetery’s new leaders.
Last year, Army investigators found that graves were mismarked and unmarked, that burial urns had been unearthed and dumped in a dirt pile, and Continue reading Corruption at the Cemetery

Japan’s second nuclear holocaust?

Japan earthquake: residents flee as quake fears spread – Telegraph.

This story in today’s Telegraph is one of many about Japan’s impending nuclear disaster, but I think the simple and poignant image of the railway station is one which will stay with me for a while.

The railway station at Nasushiobara, the last one still operating near Japan’s  nuclear crisis area, was jammed with frightened people. In this ghost town of closed shops and offices, pedestrian-free pavements, and empty petrol pumps, the station was the only place still alive, and the only escape route that most had left.

The Tokyo highway a mile to the west was busy, too – but you needed a lot of petrol to get to Tokyo. At the only garage which still had it, there was a five-hour queue. With radiation now leaking from the stricken plant just down the road, there might not be five hours to spare.

From the town and the whole surrounding region, on foot, by bicycle and using the last fuel in their tanks, the people came to the railway station, a river turning into a flood as word spread of just how serious the danger now was.

“I couldn’t sleep and I was watching TV,” said Noriyuki Fukada, an English teacher. “Then it was announced that there would be a government statement at 6.30. I thought, if the government announces something at 6.30am, it cannot be good.”

It wasn’t. Radioactive fuel rods in one of the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors, the official spokesman admitted, were now “fully exposed”, at risk of meltdown, and radiation had escaped into the atmosphere. Ninety per cent of the plant’s own staff were evacuated, leaving only a skeleton team fighting off catastrophe. Most serious of all, an explosion the previous day – the plant’s third – might have damaged a reactor containment vessel.

The containment vessels are the last barriers between the reactors’ cores and the outside world, the very things the government has spent the last several days promising will protect us. A few hours later, the chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, appeared on television.

“Now we are talking about levels [of leakage] that can impact human health. I would like all of you to embrace this information calmly,” he said. But the beads of sweat were clearly visible on his own brow.

By that point, however, I, and a good part of the population of the district around Koriyama, the major town closest to the stricken plant, were getting out. Mr Edano was telling us to stay indoors and keep our windows closed. But old habits of deference to authority were breaking down after days of conflicting and partial information, evacuations and evasions. Many were taking matters into their own hands.

Koriyama’s own station has been closed for days, but the word was that there were still a few trains, for the moment, at Nasushiobara, 25 miles away. In another humbling example of Japanese kindness and hospitality, the family I stayed with on Monday night decided to use some of their precious petrol to drive me there – and would accept no payment. We joined a line of cars heading south.

Arriving at the station, it was a vast relief to see the long white snout of a bullet train. Japan’s reputation in nuclear matters might have taken a knock, but at least they can lay on a fast getaway vehicle.

Inside the booking hall, there was Japanese-style panic – whose symptoms are not the same as those of Western-style panic. Even without the shouting and fighting, people were clearly under great strain. Many had flared nostrils and terrified eyes.

The electronic departure board showed only two more trains that day, far too few for the swelling crowd. This caused a nasty moment, a low murmur of anger when the mood threatened to turn markedly ugly, but the board turned out to be wrong, as white-gloved railway officials hastily explained through little loudhailers. The TV screens showing the latest 24-hour rolling news were tactfully switched off.

A quarrel broke out in the ticket queue when one man tried to pay by credit card, holding everybody up. But there still was a ticket queue, and a queue to board, even though it was about half a mile long. Most people were too stressed to talk, or had no English. “Very happy,” said one man. “Very happy to get out.”

Two slightly grubby European backpackers – the only other Westerners there – looked every bit as pleased, but were swept away in the crowd before I could talk to them. Other people’s backpacks, and suitcases, were of a size suggesting they expected to be away for a while. There were big family groups, too, with children and old people.

Fascinatingly, while thousands were waiting to leave, a small trickle of people actually arrived on the inbound express from Tokyo. Had they not heard the news?

The train left without an inch of spare standing space in any doorway or aisle. As we charged away from the reactor at 110mph, the atmosphere became noticeably lighter, and I felt my own spirits lifting. The difference between fear and relief was only about 75 minutes – though, with the wind blowing towards Tokyo, and higher radiation levels already present in the city, the feeling of deliverance may well be an illusory one.

Mr Fukada, the English teacher, said: “People are fed up with being told what to do and treated like fools. The problem with radiation is that you cannot know anything – you depend on the government for the information to save your life. Now we are acting for ourselves, but the worry is that we left it too late.”

Perhaps we did. But the train, at least, arrived precisely on time.

Nokia CEO speaks out with uncanny lucidity

This was published yesterday from an internal memo to Nokia employees from Chief exec Stephen Elop about abrupt changes in the fast moving world of the smart phone. Brilliant stuff. Found on a blog called iClarified.

There is a pertinent story about a man who was working on an oil platform in the North Sea. He woke up one night from a loud explosion, which suddenly set his entire oil platform on fire. In mere moments, he was surrounded by flames. Through the smoke and heat, he barely made his way out of the chaos to the platform’s edge. When he looked down over the edge, all he could see were the dark, cold, foreboding Atlantic waters.

As the fire approached him, the man had mere seconds to react. He could stand on the platform, and inevitably be consumed by the burning flames. Or, he could plunge 30 meters in to the freezing waters. The man was standing upon a “burning platform,” and he needed to make a choice.

He decided to jump. It was unexpected. In ordinary circumstances, the man would never consider plunging into icy waters. But these were not ordinary times – his platform was on fire. The man survived the fall and the waters. After he was rescued, he noted that a “burning platform” caused a radical change in his behaviour.

We too, are standing on a “burning platform,” and we must decide how we are going to change our behaviour.

Over the past few months, I’ve shared with you what I’ve heard from our shareholders, operators, developers, suppliers and from you. Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned and what I have come to believe.

I have learned that we are standing on a burning platform.

And, we have more than one explosion – we have multiple points of scorching heat that are fuelling a blazing fire around us.

For example, there is intense heat coming from our competitors, more rapidly than we ever expected. Apple disrupted the market by redefining the smartphone and attracting developers to a closed, but very powerful ecosystem.

In 2008, Apple’s market share in the $300+ price range was 25 percent; by 2010 it escalated to 61 percent. They are enjoying a tremendous growth trajectory with a 78 percent earnings growth year over year in Q4 2010. Apple demonstrated that if designed well, consumers would buy a high-priced phone with a great experience and developers would build applications. They changed the game, and today, Apple owns the high-end range.

And then, there is Android. In about two years, Android created a platform that attracts application developers, service providers and hardware manufacturers. Android came in at the high-end, they are now winning the mid-range, and quickly they are going downstream to phones under €100. Google has become a gravitational force, drawing much of the industry’s innovation to its core.

Let’s not forget about the low-end price range. In 2008, MediaTek supplied complete reference designs for phone chipsets, which enabled manufacturers in the Shenzhen region of China to produce phones at an unbelievable pace. By some accounts, this ecosystem now produces more than one third of the phones sold globally – taking share from us in emerging markets.

While competitors poured flames on our market share, what happened at Nokia? We fell behind, we missed big trends, and we lost time. At that time, we thought we were making the right decisions; but, with the benefit of hindsight, we now find ourselves years behind.

The first iPhone shipped in 2007, and we still don’t have a product that is close to their experience. Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable.

We have some brilliant sources of innovation inside Nokia, but we are not bringing it to market fast enough. We thought MeeGo would be a platform for winning high-end smartphones. However, at this rate, by the end of 2011, we might have only one MeeGo product in the market.

At the midrange, we have Symbian. It has proven to be non-competitive in leading markets like North America. Additionally, Symbian is proving to be an increasingly difficult environment in which to develop to meet the continuously expanding consumer requirements, leading to slowness in product development and also creating a disadvantage when we seek to take advantage of new hardware platforms. As a result, if we continue like before, we will get further and further behind, while our competitors advance further and further ahead.

At the lower-end price range, Chinese OEMs are cranking out a device much faster than, as one Nokia employee said only partially in jest, “the time that it takes us to polish a PowerPoint presentation.” They are fast, they are cheap, and they are challenging us.

And the truly perplexing aspect is that we’re not even fighting with the right weapons. We are still too often trying to approach each price range on a device-to-device basis.

The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, ecommerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications and many other things. Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem. This means we’re going to have to decide how we either build, catalyse or join an ecosystem.

This is one of the decisions we need to make. In the meantime, we’ve lost market share, we’ve lost mind share and we’ve lost time.

On Tuesday, Standard & Poor’s informed that they will put our A long term and A-1 short term ratings on negative credit watch. This is a similar rating action to the one that Moody’s took last week. Basically it means that during the next few weeks they will make an analysis of Nokia, and decide on a possible credit rating downgrade. Why are these credit agencies contemplating these changes? Because they are concerned about our competitiveness.

Consumer preference for Nokia declined worldwide. In the UK, our brand preference has slipped to 20 percent, which is 8 percent lower than last year. That means only 1 out of 5 people in the UK prefer Nokia to other brands. It’s also down in the other markets, which are traditionally our strongholds: Russia, Germany, Indonesia, UAE, and on and on and on.

How did we get to this point? Why did we fall behind when the world around us evolved?

This is what I have been trying to understand. I believe at least some of it has been due to our attitude inside Nokia. We poured gasoline on our own burning platform. I believe we have lacked accountability and leadership to align and direct the company through these disruptive times. We had a series of misses. We haven’t been delivering innovation fast enough. We’re not collaborating internally.

Nokia, our platform is burning.

We are working on a path forward — a path to rebuild our market leadership. When we share the new strategy on February 11, it will be a huge effort to transform our company. But, I believe that together, we can face the challenges ahead of us. Together, we can choose to define our future.

The burning platform, upon which the man found himself, caused the man to shift his behaviour, and take a bold and brave step into an uncertain future. He was able to tell his story. Now, we have a great opportunity to do the same.


Jordan’s king fires Cabinet amid protests

This article caught my interest from the Washington Post today. Where will unrest in the Middle East actually stop?

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his government Tuesday in the wake of street protests and asked an ex-prime minister to form a new Cabinet, ordering him to launch immediate political reforms.

The dismissal follows several large protests across Jordan- inspired by similar demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt – calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai, who is blamed for a rise in fuel and food prices and slowed political reforms.

A Royal Palace statement said Abdullah accepted Rifai’s resignation tendered earlier Tuesday.

The king named Marouf al-Bakhit as his prime minister-designate, instructing him to “undertake quick and tangible steps for real political reforms, which reflect our vision for comprehensive modernization and development in Jordan,” the palace statement said.

Al-Bakhit previously served as Jordan’s premier from 2005-2007.

The king also stressed that economic reform was a “necessity to provide a better life for our people, but we won’t be able to attain that without real political reforms, which must increase popular participation in the decision-making.”

He asked al-Bakhit for a “comprehensive assessment … to correct the mistakes of the past.” He did not elaborate. The statement said Abdullah also demanded an “immediate revision” of laws governing politics and public freedoms.

When he ascended to the throne in 1999, King Abdullah vowed to press ahead with political reforms initiated by his late father, King Hussein. Those reforms paved the way for the first parliamentary election in 1989 after a 22-year gap, the revival of a multiparty system and the suspension of martial law in effect since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

But little has been done since. Although laws were enacted to ensure greater press freedom, journalists are still prosecuted for expressing their opinion or for comments considered slanderous of the king and the royal family.

Some gains been made in women’s rights, but many say they have not gone far enough. Abdullah has pressed for stiffer penalties for perpetrators of “honor killings,” but courts often hand down lenient sentences.

Still, Jordan’s human rights record is generally considered a notch above that of Tunisia and Egypt. Although some critics of the king are prosecuted, they frequently are pardoned and some are even rewarded with government posts.

It was not immediately clear when al-Bakhit will name his Cabinet.

Al-Bakhit is a moderate politician, who served as Jordan’s ambassador to Israel earlier this decade.

He holds similar views to Abdullah in keeping close ties with Israel under a peace treaty signed in 1994 and strong relations with the United States, Jordan’s largest aid donor and longtime ally.

In 2005, Abdullah named al-Bakhit as his prime minister days after a triple bombing on Amman hotels claimed by the al-Qaida in Iraq leader, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

During his 2005-2007 tenure, al-Bakhit – an ex-army major general and top intelligence adviser – was credited with maintaining security and stability following the attack, which killed 60 people and labeled as the worst in Jordan’s modern history.

Irish couple owe €800m to banks after property spending spree

Interesting little article which came out yesterday in the Guardian – especially as many first time buyers are struggling to get a small mortgage.

A lawyer and his doctor wife who blazed a trail through Ireland’s property boom on the back of colossal credit – buying up several London trophy buildings on the way – now owe more than €800m (£670m) to banks around the world, it has emerged.

The eye-popping scale of Brian and Mary Pat O’Donnell’s debts has been laid bare in a court case brought by Bank of Ireland in relation to some €70m (£58m) in debts it is trying to recover.

The couple, from Killiney, county Dublin, are fighting the case and say the bank is trying to make them sell one of their prime London assets – Sanctuary Buildings, used by the Department for Education and Skills – without legal entitlement.

The office block is just metres from the Houses of Parliament and was the first of many audacious moves made by the solicitor and his wife into the property market at a time when Ireland’s banks were making huge loans that have since brought the country to its knees and forced Dublin to accept a bailout from the EU and IMF.

The Bank of Ireland loaned the O’Donnells €26.7m towards the £170m purchase price in 2006. The couple then went on to expand their empire to Stockholm, where they bought the city’s biggest office block, Fatburen for €285m.

In April 2008, when the worldwide credit crunch was beginning to bite and had already claimed the likes of Bear Stearns in New York, the couple were still able to access funds.

With the strength of the euro in their favour, the O’Donnells managed to outbid a group from Dubai to pay a record $172.5m (£87m) for an office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, just a few blocks from the White House.

This was what the O’Donnell’s Vico Capital described as “trophy class” with “sweeping views of the White House, the Monuments and the Potomac River”. Its tenants included a law firm and a merchant bank and it was described in the local property press as a smart buy.

Vico Capital set a record, paying $867 (£436) for every square foot of the their Washington investment. The previous record in the American capital was $827.

Arguably, even more audacious was the acquisition of two buildings in London’s Canary Wharf – the purchase of 17 Columbus Courtyard in 2005 for £125m and 15 Westferry Circus for £140m. The first building is home to Credit Suisse and the second to Morgan Stanley.

For years, it probably seemed nothing could go wrong. The O’Donnells live in a clifftop home in one of Ireland’s most salubrious suburban roads and count the U2 frontman Bono among their neighbours.

The O’Donnells’ rise in the property sector mirrors that of dozens of other investors who got sucked in during the Celtic Tiger years when credit was cheap and capital yields, or profit on buildings, meant millions could be made, often in just a number of weeks.

But unlike many other middle-class professionals of their ilk who dabbled in the property market with a few buy-to-lets, this couple became major players and amassed an international property portfolio of more than €1.1bn (£921m) with a rent roll of some €150m (£125m).

They are, however, a low profile couple, and are aghast that their private financial affairs are now being made public. It is understood that as recently as last weekend, they tried to get a court approved mediation process underway.

“Most people in Dublin wouldn’t know what they looked like. They are an extremely private family and would have hoped to have continued to conduct their business in private,” said a source close to the couple.

Their case is the latest in a series of court actions being instigated against property developers now bearing the brunt of Ireland’s financial collapse.

According to informed sources there are two other private investors in the O’Donnells’ Sanctuary Buildings in Westminster and there are concerns that the court case will lead to “value destruction”. However the O’Donnells are determined to tough it out and have been given three weeks to put together a case for a fuller court hearing.

O’Donnell, 58, is one of Dublin’s leading commercial lawyers and ironically is on a list of 64 potential legal advisers approved by Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency – the new state bank which has been charged with clearing the mountain of bad debt amassed by property developers during the good times. Nama said O’Donnell had not been used in any case.

His practice, Brian O’Donnell solicitors, has the usual run of commercial expertise including mergers and acquisitions, corporate restructuring, insolvency and tax structuring. His practice, however, is not high profile in the media.

He first diversified into a serious property business back in 1999 and, with access to funds from a string of banks including Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank and Anglo-Irish, made his audacious moves in London, Scandinavia and the US.

Ten years later he and his wife, now 56, who are relatively low-key on the Dublin social circuit, were listed on the Sunday Times Rich List – 178th richest in Ireland, alongside another, more high profile property investor Derek Quinlan.

Quinlan, a former tax inspector who also caught the property bug, ended up with the crown jewels of London’s hotel and retail trade including the Savoy Hotel, Claridges and a retail block between Harvey Nichols and Knightsbridge in London.

Enter the robot self

I love the New Scientist predictions for the coming year. The idea of the Superman robot we could send on missions to do a job for us whilst we were otherwise engaged has been around for as long as —well Superman comics. 2011 preview: Enter the robot self – tech – 29 December 2010 – New Scientist.

This could be the year when we quit dragging ourselves to work and send remote-controlled robot avatars instead

Why drag yourself to work through rush-hour traffic when you can stay at home and send a remote-controlled robot instead?

Firms in the US and Japan are already selling robot avatars that allow office workers to be in two places at once. So 2011 could be the year when many of us find ourselves sitting across the desk from an electronic colleague.

Californian company Willow Garage is developing a so-called telepresence robot called Texai, while Anybots, also in California, recently launched the QB office bot.

The QB, which looks like a small Segway vehicle with a robot head on top, can travel at 6 kilometres per hour, using a laser scanner to avoid books and other office clutter.

It can be controlled via a web browser from anywhere in the world and has camera eyes to allow you to navigate your robot’s surroundings and see who you are talking to. A small LCD screen on the head means your colleagues can see you too.

You could argue that if you were planning to talk to people in other offices you could just use a videoconferencing system rather than a $15,000 robot. But logging into a robot bodyMovie Camera allows people to move around in a relatively normal way, says Trevor Blackwell of Anybots.

“If you have a bunch of people who are all used to talking to each other wherever they want to, it is a bit of an imposition to say, ‘OK, from now on all conversations have to be in the videoconferencing room’.”

Talking to a robot colleague might feel strange at first, but people seem to get used to it quite quickly. “Someone recently came to the office asking for me, and a colleague told them they had just seen me,” says Blackwell. “But actually it was the robot they had seen. I was still at home.”

The Men Who Stole the World

This is a fabulous article by Lev Grossman in The Men Who Stole the World -TimeFrames- Printout – TIME.”>Time magazine. He charts four killer moments in technological development over recent years- including one I haven’t yet tried but certainly am about to….

A decade ago, four young men changed the way the world works. They did this not with laws or guns or money but with software: they had radical, disruptive ideas, which they turned into code, which they released on the Internet for free. These four men, not one of whom finished college, laid the foundations for much of the digital-media environment we currently inhabit. Then, for all intents and purposes, they vanished.

In 1999 a Northeastern University freshman named Shawn Fanning wrote Napster, thereby pioneering peer-to-peer file sharing and a new paradigm for consuming media without the intermediary of a big studio or retailer. TIME put him on its cover, as did FORTUNE. He was 19 years old. (See the 50 Best Inventions of 2010.)

That same year, a Norwegian teenager named Jon Lech Johansen, working with two other programmers whose identities are still unknown, wrote a program that could decrypt commercial DVDs, and he became internationally infamous as “DVD Jon.” He was 15.

In 1997, Justin Frankel, an 18-year-old hacker in Sedona, Ariz., wrote a free MP3 player called WinAmp, which became a fixture on Windows machines and helped mainstream the digital-music revolution. During its first 18 months in release, 15 million people downloaded it. Three years later, Frankel wrote Gnutella, a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol so decentralized that, unlike Napster, it could not be shut down. Millions of people still use it.

In 2001, Bram Cohen, then 26, wrote a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol called BitTorrent that featured an elegant new architecture optimized for handling large files. BitTorrent has become the standard for distributing big chunks of data over the Internet.

In the first half of the 2000s, TIME interviewed each of these programmers. At the time, it looked as if they were poised to dismantle the entire media-entertainment complex and bring about a digital apocalypse that would make it impossible to charge money for movies, music or TV ever again. Artists would no longer get paid for their work, and the huge entertainment conglomerates, Time Warner among them, would be bombed flat. The pirates were coming for corporate America.

“After all,” we wrote in 2003, “you can’t have an information economy in which all information is free.” And if the apocalypse was coming, Fanning, Johansen, Frankel and Cohen were the four horsemen.

Apocalypse Not
So that didn’t happen. Change has come to the entertainment industry, but it’s been a lot more complicated and gradual than we expected. And the story of what did happen, and what the pirate kings have done since then, is highly instructive if you want to understand what’s going on in the digital world right now. Fanning, Johansen, Frankel and Cohen are all running small, legal Silicon Valley software firms. They’ve gotten out of the pirate business — if they were ever really in it at all.

See the All-TIME 100 gadgets.

Fanning, the only one of the four who didn’t respond to requests for an interview, quit the media-apocalypse business early. In 2001, Napster shut down under the weight of lawsuits that claimed it was aiding and abetting copyright infringement. And in 2002, Fanning founded a new service, Snocap — his attempt to take file sharing legit. With the cooperation of the record companies, Snocap was going to give consumers the power to compensate the artists whose work they downloaded.

But by then, free file-sharing programs were growing virally, and consumers were high on the rush of swapping music hard drive to hard drive for nothing. They traded more than 3 billion files in August 2001 alone. Attaching dollars to those transactions proved to be impossible. It’s hard to compete with free. Fanning had created a monster even he couldn’t beat. (See a video about the new music biz.)

So he stopped trying. Fanning’s next project was a social network for gamers called Rupture, which he sold to Electronic Arts in 2008 for something on the order of $15 million — his first serious payday. His current start-up, Path, which launched in November, is an iPhone-based photo-sharing service.

And Napster? It still exists. The brand was sold at a bankruptcy auction and then sold again, but it has never been restored to anything approaching relevance. It’s currently operated by Best Buy as an also-also-ran competitor to iTunes under the slogan “More than just a music store.”

The Pirate Who Wasn’t
As the author of Gnutella, Justin Frankel was Fanning’s rightful successor. Unlike Fanning, he got his payday early in the game. In 1999, after WinAmp hit it big, AOL bought both it and Frankel’s company, Nullsoft, for something in the neighborhood of $100 million. That made Frankel a very rich 20-year-old. It also made him an AOL employee.

It wasn’t a great match. With Nullsoft, Frankel’s modus operandi had been to write the best software he could, then give it away for nothing. At AOL the business of selling software threatened to overwhelm the software itself. “The products that I worked on, it was very much like, We want to make this money out of this. We’re doing this deal with these other companies, and so the product is going to do this as a result,” he remembers. “No one cared about how users actually experienced it.”

Meanwhile, Frankel was writing Gnutella in his spare time. It was a brilliant hack: unlike Napster, it was genuinely distributed, with no central server and therefore no off button for the lawyers to push. He posted it online in March 2000 with a note: “See? AOL can bring you good things!” But reinventing Napster did not endear Frankel to AOL, a huge Internet company that was trying to merge with a major media company, Time Warner, that was in the middle of suing Napster. He left AOL in 2004.

Then he did something funny: instead of glorying in the success of his creations, he walked away. He doesn’t use Gnutella, and he never made a dime off it, even though 10 years later, LimeWire — the most popular Gnutella client — still claims 50 million users. “When I wrote it, it was primarily as a sort of, This is proof of what is possible. Let’s not all go profit from it,” he says. “So it made sense to not even have anything to do with it. It was more of a concept.”

See pictures of the movies’ most evil computer villans.

Frankel, who recently moved from San Francisco to New York City, now works full time at his company, Cockos (don’t ask), which is focused on an audio-production suite called Reaper. He constantly improves it, and he stays in close touch with his customers, who number in the tens of thousands rather than the millions. “There’s no goal of growing a certain amount or having an exit strategy,” he says. “It’s just about enjoying the process and doing the right thing.” He would certainly never describe himself as the world’s most dangerous geek, as Rolling Stone did in 2004. “I don’t see piracy as really being that dangerous,” he says. “Ultimately, people who have business models that depend on strong controls for everything — those are flawed models. And I say that as a software developer, where there’s a certain level of piracy.” Gnutella is ancient history to him. “Digital piracy: Has it destroyed the music industry? No. Has the music industry had to adapt? Sure, and many would say for the better. You have people focusing more on quality, smaller bands, things like that.”

“As far as the big business of hits and pop music, did that suffer?” he continues. He shrugs and laughs. “I hope so.” (See the all TIME 100 albums.)

Four-Eyed Monsters
Of the four horsemen, Bram Cohen is the only one who still works on the same project he started 10 years ago. He is the co-founder and chief scientist of BitTorrent, a respectable San Francisco firm that pursues commercial applications for Cohen’s stunningly effective content-distribution technology.

It’s a curious company: a legitimate business built on a technology that is still used to violate copyright on a grand scale. Even though BitTorrent has an installed base of something like 80 million users, it functions a lot like a start-up. A relatively small slice of what goes on on BitTorrent is legal — one recent study put it at 11%. A relatively small slice of that small slice generates income for BitTorrent. (See the all TIME 100 albums.)

Just as Fanning did with Snocap, Cohen tried to move his creation out of the realm of mass piracy and into the legit world of trading bits for money. In 2007, in what was at the time a shocking development, BitTorrent partnered with 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros. and MGM, among others, to form the Torrent Entertainment Network, offering movies, TV shows and video games for purchase and rental.

Like Fanning, Cohen learned that getting out of the piracy business is harder than it looks. “Everything about it was a disaster,” he says. The Torrent Entertainment Network shut down at the end of 2008. In retrospect, you can see why it didn’t work. BitTorrent isn’t user-friendly enough for a mass audience, and on a deeper level it’s just too efficient. It moves huge amounts of data quickly and virally. When you want to attach dollars to data, you have to slow the bit stream down, track it and control it using inelegant technologies like digital-rights management (DRM), which restricts what users can do with what they buy.

“I learned a lot of lessons from that failure,” Cohen says ruefully. His strategy now is to work with people who want what he has to offer: rapid, viral digital distribution. “Instead of going to major content holders and paying them up front for the privilege of trying to leverage our channel, we’re just taking the very large channel we have and going to people who are interested in doing things in a much more open manner.”

See pictures of a brief history of the computer.

So far, the interested parties include the makers of an indie film called Four Eyed Monsters and the creators of an independent TV show called Pioneer One, which to date consists of one episode, though there are a couple more on the way. It’s frustrating: Cohen is sitting on a fire hose, the kind of runaway technological success story that coders dream of, and the big players don’t want to play.

Why does he bother? As a coding legend, Cohen could easily find employment at a big corporation. But that’s not his style. “I need a certain amount of freedom,” he says. He’s now working on something wholly new: a peer-to-peer system designed for streaming real-time data instead of discrete files. It’s a project that could have enormous potential as a way to distribute live media, like news or sports, over the Net. He still maintains BitTorrent, but it doesn’t take up that much of his time. “I kind of got it right when I first made it,” he says. (Watch the TIME 100 Social Media Roundtable.)

The Easy Way Out
So what ever happened to the pirate apocalypse of yesteryear? In the U.S., piracy hasn’t turned out to be quite as bad for content producers as everybody thought. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office released last April labored mightily to establish a strong link between piracy and lost sales, but the results were inconclusive.

What’s striking about the pirate kings is that they’ve been much less successful in the straight world than they were as pirates. An anarchic worldview coupled with brilliant code doesn’t travel as well as you’d think in the bean-counting world of legitimate commerce. Good code empowers users by giving them choices and options, but empowered users aren’t necessarily good for business. What you need to hit it really big in legitimate commerce is an authoritarian sensibility that limits users to doing what you want them to.

Which brings us to another important reason the media apocalypse never happened: Steve Jobs. On April 28, 2003, the very day TIME published a grand excursus on the explosive growth of file sharing, Apple unveiled the iTunes Music Store. At the time, it was difficult to see why iTunes would succeed where Snocap, among many others, had failed. Because, again, how do you compete with free?

But iTunes did succeed. Apple’s relentless emphasis on simple, attractive user interfaces, backed by Jobs’ steely negotiating power in dealing with music studios, produced a streamlined, curated service with which you could download and transfer music with a minimum of fuss. And we did — even though it cost us money and our purchases were bogged down with DRM that constrained what we could do with them.

It turns out that there is something that can compete with free: easy. Napster, Gnutella and BitTorrent never attained the user-friendliness that Apple products have, and nobody vets the content on file-sharing networks, so while the number of files on offer is enormous, the files are rotten with ads, porn, spyware and other garbage. When Jobs offered us the easy way out, we took it. Freedom is overrated, apparently — at least where digital media are concerned. (See the top 10 Apple moments.)

It’s a lesson that the youngest of the pirate kings has studied very carefully. Like Fanning, Frankel and Cohen, Jon Lech Johansen was never really a pirate at all. He didn’t help crack the encryption on DVDs because he wanted to crush Hollywood. He did it because he wanted to watch movies on his computer. His computer ran the Linux operating system, and in 1999 there was no DVD-playing program for Linux. So he and his partners decided to make one, and to do that, they had to figure out how to decrypt DVDs.

When the Motion Picture Association of America found out, it complained about Johansen to the Norwegian government, which duly arrested him. He stood trial in Oslo not once but twice on hacking charges. He was acquitted both times. It turns out it’s not against the law to decrypt a DVD that you bought and paid for.

But Johansen was genuinely interested in preserving what he sees as the right of consumers to do whatever they want with the digital media they buy, the same way we do with, for example, a physical book — use it repeatedly or lend it out as we choose. In 2005, Johansen moved to California, where he reverse engineered FairPlay, the DRM software Apple was using to protect its media files. By then he’d noticed how attractive the Apple user experience was, and he thought it should be possible to bring that to the wider, more chaotic world of non-Apple products. “We saw there were a lot of devices out there, and none of them worked as well as they should,” says Johansen, who at the ripe age of 26 is as good a pitchman as he is a coder. “So we set out to build a system that will allow these devices to interoperate and provide consumers with a great media experience.”

By “we,” Johansen means his company, doubleTwist, which he co-founded in 2007. The doubleTwist software, which is free, is a kind of Rosetta stone for digital-media files: it can translate, reconcile and organize files from about 500 different devices and bring them together into one elegant interface. In June, doubleTwist introduced an Android app, and some 500,000 people have since downloaded it. Last year, doubleTwist scored a piratical coup by taking out an ad that read: “The Cure for iPhone Envy. Your iTunes library on any device. In seconds.” It ran on the side of the building that houses San Francisco’s flagship Apple store.

Johansen rejects any attempt to associate him with piracy. “As far as I’m concerned, it has nothing to do with me,” he says. “I support fair use, which means that when you actually legally acquire content, you should have the right to use that content on any of your devices, using any application.” For Johansen as for all of the pirate kings, it was always about writing good code, and what good code does is give power to the people who use it. That’s the real reason the pirate apocalypse never happened. The pirates never wanted music and movies and all the rest of it to be free — at least, not in the financial sense. They wanted it to be free as in freedom.

Panorama: Did Fifa officials and Jack Warner protest too much over bribes? |

I had to say I was surprised that the BBC panorama team had chosen this exact moment to publish their findings about corruption within the FIFA organisation. We are a mere 48 hours away from the 2018 World Cup decision. They could have revealed the story last month, or in one month’s time. Enough to make you think that the whole business has been engineered to thwart England’s chances of hosting the World Cup in 2018 — and if not then what other motive from intelligent people like the BBC panorama editorial team?

Whistleblowing may be all the rage at the moment, but this Panorama exposé was dividing opinion long before it aired on Monday night.

Did the programme actually present new evidence, or was it just a facetious re-hash of existing information timed to damage England’s chances of hosting the 2018 World Cup?

In the opening moments, Jeremy Vine admitted that allegations of bribery within the organisation were nothing new, but he promised that the fearless Andrew Jennings had damning new evidence against Fifa.

And he had indeed obtained a document that apparently listed almost two hundred secret payments made in the 1990s by a sports marketing company called International Sports and Leisure (ISL) to Fifa.

One of the Fifa officials named was Paraguayan Nicolas Leoz – but as Jennings conceded, he has already been exposed as having accepted two previous bribes, so this was not exactly brand new information.

Fellow Fifa bosses Issa Hayatou and Ricardo Teixeira also came under fire, but it was Vice-President Jack Warner who was presented as the real villain, accused of involvement in the re-sale of World Cup tickets on the black market.

Jennings ran around the world, haranguing the accused and getting nothing but vitriol in return. Warner even called Jennings ‘garbage’ and expressed his desire to spit on the journalist in a stunning display of over-defensiveness.

However, since Jennings mentioned that he had already uncovered Warner’s underhand activity following the 2006 World Cup, once again the allegations hardly constitute new information.

Compelling evidence it may have been, but the revelations simply weren’t revelatory enough to warrant Jennings’ smugness at having televised them.

So, will Fifa prove its annoyance at this English journalist and deny his countrymen victory in three days’ time?

The truth is, the significance of this Panorama programme may not yet be apparent.

via Panorama: Did Fifa officials and Jack Warner protest too much over bribes? |

Sales of ebooks outstrip hardbacks on US Amazon for the first time

Today the Guardian published an article from the head of Penguin books, John Makinson – a man with an interesting career path, more varied than most in the publishing world – showing that the growth of ebooks seems to be following the same path as, say, digital music or digital movies. Me, I still got my vinyl, still got my books. As I said my colleague Andrew earlier today with books I like the navigation….

John Makinson says that if people want to read using new technology, that’s what publishers must give them

Penguin this week celebrates its 75th year and is marking the anniversary by repackaging a series of seminal books from the 1960s to the 1980s. Although the company might afford itself a brief look backwards, it feels as though there is little room for nostalgia in book publishing now, as the industry turns its face firmly – and apprehensively – to the future.

Amazon last week announced sales of ebooks on its US site had outnumbered hardbacks for the first time, stunning casual observers, even if it had not been entirely unexpected in the trade.

The launch of the iPad has added a sense of urgency. Where music went first, books are set to follow, although Penguin and other publishers would hope without the same devastating effects. Amazon this week launched a cheaper, more lightweight version of its Kindle ebook reader and a digital store on its UK site, while others, including Google, are muscling in. Digital book sales are still less than 1% of Penguin, but the direction of the market is clear. In the US, digital books already account for 6% of consumer sales.

Penguin chief executive John Makinson says he is a convert. The day after we meet he is on his way to India, as part of David Cameron’s delegation, and had loaded titles on to his iPad, including a manuscript by John le Carré and some Portuguese classics (in English) ahead of Penguin launching a range in Brazil. He is also reading Lord Mandelson’s diary. It simply makes sense, he says, instead of carting an armful of books in your carry-on luggage.


“It does redefine what we do as publishers and I feel, compared with most of my counterparts, more optimistic about what this means for us,” he says. “Of course there are issues around copyright protection and there are worries around pricing and around piracy, royalty rates and so on, but there is also this huge opportunity to do more as publishers.”
Publishing, he says, must embrace innovation: “I am keen on the idea that every book that we put on to an iPad has an author interview, a video interview, at the beginning. I have no idea whether this is a good idea or not. There has to be a culture of experimentation, which doesn’t come naturally to book publishers. We publish a lot of historians, for example. They love the idea of using documentary footage to illustrate whatever it is they’re writing about.”

The very definition of a book is up for grabs he says, although the company has just published a version of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for the iPad in the US that might provide clues – and horrify traditionalists. It includes scenes from a TV adaptation embedded in the text, as well as extras including the show’s music soundtrack and Follett’s video diary during the making of the series.

For now, Makinson says, digital books are expanding the market; hardback sales in the US are up this year, despite the march of ebooks. Piracy is not yet a significant issue and lessons have been learned from the music business.

“You have to give the consumer what the consumer wants – you can’t tell the consumer to go away. So we didn’t participate in this experiment where a number of publishers deferred publication of the ebook until a certain number of months after the hardcover publication. I thought that was a very bad idea. If the consumer wants to buy a book in an electronic format now, you should let the consumer have it.”

He has added confidence, because with tablets such as the iPad, consumers are used to paying a subscription to the wireless operator and for “apps”, creating a more benign environment than the wild west of the PC, where users are used to getting everything for free.

Penguin’s profits more than doubled to £44m in the first half of the year. The company gained market share, but one reason for the dramatic improvement was the outsourcing of some design and production to India last year; the company now has around 100 designers in Delhi making books for Dorling Kindersley, belying the idea that Britain can at least live off its creative industries. Makinson defends the decision and says DK is now back in profit, which means it can reinvest in Britain: “We can’t pretend we can do everything here. In order to be internationally competitive, some work needs to be done in other places.”

About 8% of the publisher’s sales are from its classics, including Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and revenues are still growing, despite much of the copyright being in the public domain. It is launching the range in Mandarin, Korean and Portuguese. But it is not all highbrow. What would Penguin’s founder, Sir Allen Lane, whose aim was to publish quality paperbacks for the masses, have made of Penguin putting out books “by” Peter Andre or Ant & Dec?

“Allen Lane’s view was that we should publish good writing of all kinds for all audiences at affordable prices,” Makinson says. “I’m not saying he would necessarily have approved every single publishing decision we take, but would he have approved of Penguin being a very democratic publishing company, publishing for lots of different tastes? I think he would definitely have approved.”

Makinson has long been mentioned as a successor to Dame Marjorie Scardino, who runs Pearson, Penguin’s parent company. Her departure has been a perennial question, though she has defied the investment community’s chattering classes by staying in her post for well over a decade. She has also confounded expectations by keeping Penguin and the Financial Times in a group dominated by educational publishing. Makinson says it now makes more sense than ever for Penguin to remain part of the group, as the digital era draws each division closer.

He says there will still be the need for publishers in the digital world: “I used to have this discussion with [Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author] Douglas Adams. He created this thing called the digital village, an online publishing platform. Douglas’s argument was, ‘all of my friends will come along and publish on digital village and you the publishers will be disintermediated, you will be irrelevant’. Well, it hasn’t happened. I am not aware of any successful direct to consumer publishing model that exists.

“The reason it doesn’t work is that the publishers do actually perform quite a useful service: they edit the book, then they publicise it.” In the physical world, they make sure it is stocked in bookshops, he adds.


Makinson, 55, perhaps feels more adaptable than some of his counterparts because he arrived at Penguin as an outsider. A clubbable character, he has taken an unusual career path, from a journalist on the Financial Times, to working for the Saatchis, setting up his own investment consultancy, running the Financial Times and then becoming Pearson finance director, despite having no training as an accountant.
But his passion for books is evident. Five years ago, he and his brother bought a bookshop in the small Norfolk town of Holt. For an out-of-the-way independent, the Holt Bookshop attracts a starry line-up of authors for events, including Stephen Fry, due to talk about his new autobiography, which, perhaps not surprisingly, is published by Penguin.

“We are all terribly sentimental about books,” Makinson insists. “It is terribly important to me that we sell lots of wonderful books in my little independent in Norfolk, and when I talk about digital I do sometimes worry that it looks as though I am neglecting all this,” he points to the books on the shelves behind him, “which I am not.”

Guatemala elects a new president and his name is Charlie.

This disturbing article from the Washington Post, which consistently knocks British papers into a cocked hat for the quality of its reportage, shows that Mexican drug gangs have become a force powerful enough to subvert the progress of democracy in Central America.

SAN SALVADOR — Drug cartel violence in Mexico is quickly spilling south into Central America and is threatening to destabilize fragile countries already rife with crime and corruption, according to the United Nations, U.S. officials and regional law enforcement agents.

The Northern Triangle of Central America — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — has long been a major smuggling corridor for contraband heading to the United States. But as Mexican President Felipe Calderón fights a U.S.-backed war against his nation’s drug lords, trafficking networks are burrowing deeper into a region with the highest murder rates in the world.

The Mexican cartels “are spreading their horizons to states where they feel, quite frankly, more comfortable. These governments in Central America face a very real challenge in confronting these organizations,” said David Gaddis, chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

U.S. attention has mostly focused on Mexico. But the homicide rate there — 14 for every 100,000 residents — is dwarfed by the murder statistics in the Northern Triangle, where per-capita killings are four times higher and rising.

In El Salvador, the region’s most violent country, homicides jumped 37 percent last year, to 71 murders per 100,000 residents, as warring gangs vied for territory and trafficking routes. Police and military officials in El Salvador said cartels are increasingly paying local smugglers in product, rather than cash, driving up cocaine use and the drug dealing and turf battles that come with it.

“The more pressure there is in Mexico, the more the drug cartels will come to Central America looking for a safe haven,” Gen. David Munguía Payés, El Salvador’s defense minister, said in an interview here.

The amount of cocaine moving through the region has risen sharply, although the overall volume entering the United States is falling. Cocaine seizures in Central America nearly quadrupled between 2004 and 2007, according to the most recent U.N. data.

The United States has allocated $258 million in anti-narcotics assistance for Central America since 2007 as part of the three-year, $1.6 billion Merida Initiative. But a report this month by the Government Accountability Office found that only 9 percent of the money promised under the initiative has been spent and that U.S. officials had no reliable way to determine whether it was making a difference in the drug war.

‘A paradise for criminals’

In remote, lawless regions of Guatemala, the Mexican organized crime syndicate known as the Zetas is setting up training camps and recruiting elite ex-soldiers to serve as assassins, arming them with weapons diverted from the country’s military arsenals.

Last month, four human heads were left near the Guatemalan Congress and elsewhere in the capital. The national police spokesman, Donald González, said the grisly display was the work of the Zetas and other Mexican traffickers.

“Guatemala has become a paradise for criminals, who have little to fear from prosecutors owing to high levels of impunity,” the International Crisis Group, a conflict research organization, said in a June report. “High-profile assassinations and the government’s inability to reduce murders have produced paralyzing fear, a sense of helplessness and frustration.”

Over the past two years, Guatemala’s top anti-narcotics official, two national police chiefs and the former president have been arrested on charges related to drug trafficking or corruption. Two former interior ministers are fugitives. In May, the Guatemalan president appointed, then removed after international protests, an attorney general who U.N. prosecutors say has ties to mobsters.

In Honduras, where a military coup last year toppled the president, Mexican cartels have established command-and-control centers to orchestrate cocaine shipments by sea and air along the still-wild Caribbean coast, often with the help of local authorities, according to DEA and U.N. officials. Ten anti-narcotics officers were caught smuggling 142 kilos of cocaine last July. In December, Honduras’s drug czar, Gen. Julián Arístides González, was killed after trying to shut down clandestine landing strips Continue reading Guatemala elects a new president and his name is Charlie.

Psychic octopus threatened with a grilling

As everyone knows a psychic Octopus named Paul has correctly forecast all the world cup results so far. National feelings run deep however, and Paul has been threatened with death because of the accuracy of his predictions according to the Washington Post. William Hill admit to losing £100,000 as a result of his predictions. But remember folks, a closer look at Paul will tell you that betting is for suckers.

paul the psychic octopus
paul the psychic octopus

BERLIN (Reuters Life!) – Paul the oracle octopus was given a replica of the World Cup on Monday as a reward for his perfect eight-for-eight record in picking matches as bettors worldwide collected their winnings based on his selections.
The two-year-old octopus with possible psychic powers turned into a worldwide celebrity for accurately predicting the winner of Germany’s five World Cup wins as well as their two defeats. Paul also tipped Spain to beat Netherlands in Sunday’s final.
“We’ve had a lot of offers for Paul but he will definitely be staying with us and returning to his old job — making children smile,” Sea Life spokeswoman Tanja Munzig in Oberhausen told Reuters after presenting Paul with the World Cup replica.
“There’s no rational reason why he always got it right.”
Bettors around the world made small fortunes based on Paul’s uncanny picks, said Graham Sharpe, media relations director at William Hill in London, one of Britain’s largest bookmakers.
“I’ve seen a lot of things in my lifetime but this is the first time I’ve ever seen people making their picks based on what an octopus tells them,” Sharpe told Reuters.

“We had people coming in saying they didn’t know how to place a bet but heard about this German octopus and wanted to bet with him. It’s ludicrous. But he kept getting it right,” said Sharpe. “It’s one of the finest tipping feats ever.”
Sharpe said that anyone who had placed a 10-pound accumulator bet on Paul’s picks from the start of the World Cup would have won 3,000 pounds ($4,500) by the end of the tournament.
Paul’s home at Sea Life aquarium in Oberhausen has been inundated with visitors and media from across Europe. Many networks broadcast his picks live. Hundreds were on hand to watch the World Cup replica lowered into his tank on Monday.
“Paul now wants to say good-bye to the whole world,” Daniel Fey, a supervisor at Sea Life, told Reuters. “He really enjoyed all the media attention but now he’s returning to his old job.”
Yet interest in the 50-cm long octopus remained intense, especially after his last two picks on Friday were once again accurate. Germany won Saturday’s match for third place and Spain won Sunday’s final — as Paul had called it on Friday.
Last week Germans were shocked and distraught when he picked Spain to beat Germany in the semi-final after tipping German wins over Argentina, England, Ghana and Australia.
And after Spain beat Germany, many wanted to publicly grill him. Sea Life installed extra security to protect their octopus.
“We have to remember he’s quite old now — 2-1/2 years is quite old for an octopus,” Fey said.
Probability experts were quoted in media reports saying the likelihood of getting eight consecutive picks right is 1/256. Sharpe said the odds of getting eight straight right was over 1/300. Humbled professors were quoted saying Paul got lucky.
The octopus, considered by some to be the most intelligent of all invertebrates, had a choice of picking food from two different transparent containers lowered into his tank — each with a national flag on it.
The container Paul opened first was regarded as his pick.
Sharpe at William Hill said he had at first been skeptical about the oracle octopus. But he became a believer.
“I suspect that Paul’s predictions could have made about a half a million pounds,” Sharpe said, adding he estimated William Hill paid out 100,000 pounds on his picks at its 2,300 outlets.
“We had people coming in asking who Paul had picked before they placed their bets,” Sharpe said. “I’m sure there were a lot more people too who were too embarrassed to tell you they made their bet based on what the octopus said.”
He said it was the first time in 30 years of work that he had seen “such widely orchestrated use of a non-human tipster.”
Sharpe said he, unfortunately, did not follow Paul’s advice. “It’d have been too embarrassing,” he said. But Sharpe said he was going on holiday soon. “I’m going to the seaside and intend to eat as much octopus as I can cram down as revenge,” he said.

Horse racing betting is going to the dogs.

I spoke to my brother on the phone this afternoon and he was at Newmarket races having a traditional flutter. This fascinating article from the Economist shows how the world of betting has been radically changed by the internet. That having been said, there is nothing like the sight of those beautiful creatures in the summer sunlight to stir the soul, especially with the jockey’s bright colours….hope you didn’t lose too much bro’…….

ON APRIL 9th nearly 45,000 people crammed into Oaklawn, a 106-year-old track nestling in the foothills of the Ouachita mountains in central Arkansas, to watch Zenyatta, a spirited six-year-old mare, win her 16th consecutive race. The next day’s event—the Arkansas derby, which in recent years has become a preview ground for the more famous derby held three weeks later in Kentucky—drew over 60,000 fans. In those two days punters at the track bet nearly $6.5m. Attendance was 38% up on the previous year. Neither the charming old track nor the town itself, with a population of just under 40,000, was built for such crowds. Enterprising locals turned their lawns and shopfronts into parking lots at $20-25 a go.

For racing fans everywhere such a turnout is reason to celebrate; it shows that the sport of kings has not lost its attractions. And indeed attendance remains strong at marquee events, such as the Arkansas and Kentucky derbies or Britain’s Grand National. But although sports betting does well online, horseracing has a particular problem. The business model that has kept it going up to now is being superseded by new and increasingly popular betting methods offered by the internet.

For all the national differences, racing in most parts of the world has two things in common. First, it has provided one of the few legal forms of wagering and bookmaking available to most of the public for much of the past two centuries. Second, the sport depends on money from betting. Practically every national racing association the world over takes its cut from bets placed on races. In Britain 10% of bookmakers’ profits go to the Horserace Betting Levy Board, a statutory body that distributes the funds to British racing interests (mainly purses but also courses, breeders and veterinary science). The levy was put in place when punters had to bet through parimutuel pools (in which odds depend on the number of punters backing a bet) or licensed bookmakers. But now they have other options, so in 2008-09 the total levy collected reached its lowest level in six years, at about £92m.

As other forms of gambling became legal, betting on racing fell. Between 2003 and 2008 the amount wagered on racing dropped by 10% in America and close to a third in Britain. But betting at the track is falling even faster. Punters in America have turned to advance-deposit wagering companies (ADWs) such as Youbet, TVG and Twinspires, which combine the functions of bookmakers and television networks, showing races from around the world. They allow punters to bet using a computer, mobile phone or television remote-control. Dedicated race fans in America can bet on European races in the morning, American ones throughout the day and Australian and Asian ones at night, all without having to leave home. And just as casinos offer free accommodation and meals to big players, ADWs offer redeemable reward points as an added incentive.

Punters in Britain and Australia have an even more attractive option: betting exchanges. The largest is Betfair, which bought TVG in January 2009. Betfair’s revenue last year was £303m, up 27% from the previous year. Around 90% of bets placed through exchanges and more than half of bets made online in Britain are through Betfair. Exchanges allow people to bet with each other, rather than going through a licensed bookie or a parimutuel pool. Betfair makes money by charging a small commission, based on a user’s net profit in a given market.

Unlike traditional operators, the exchanges also permit betting throughout races. Yet although Betfair’s model attracts savvy punters who understand how markets work, its numbers-heavy interface may intimidate casual sport punters. Noting that the odds Continue reading Horse racing betting is going to the dogs.

England face a Germany team stuffed with ringers.

As regular readers know I have long been a kind of inverted fan of The Daily Mail, the newspaper which came out in official support of the British Union of Fascists back in 1934 with their headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” Well, today the Mail is running a great story about the German national football team – and how the Germans in it are not true Germans but a whole bunch of foreigners. German nationalism is obviously an important issue for the Mail – or perhaps it’s more of a dirty cheating Germans story in anticipation of….no I won’t say it. I have to say we were treated to the sight for the first time ever in the World Cup of the two Boateng brothers playing on opposite sides in Germany versus Ghana this week. And Boateng is a traditional Ghanaian name rather than a German one…..My goodness I am beginning to sound like a Daily Mail reader. One read clearly has a lasting effect.

Whatever, this is a great story by true pro journalist Adam Tozer in today’s Mail.

To long-suffering England fans, Germany’s footballers are an all-too familiar foe.

But the side that the Three Lions will face in Sunday’s World Cup clash is anything but representative of the old Germany.

In fact, many of them wouldn’t have even been able to play for the three-times World Cup winners, until a recent change in the country’s strict citizenship laws.

German Squad – Old foe, new faces: The German World Cup squad who face England on Sunday. Numbered are those players who, before 1999, could not have become German citizens

A total of 11 of the current 23-strong German squad would have been branded foreigners under rules dating back to before the Nazis and would have therefore been ineligible to play only a decade ago.

Names such as Jurgen, Klaus, Franz and Lothar have been replaced with those of Mezut, Mario and Cacau.

Under strict citizenship laws dating back to 1913 and the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, only children born in Germany to parents who were both Germans themselves could be considered German. At the time Germany was in a frenzy of nationalism as it armed in preparation for the First World War.

They were not repealed until 1999 as Germany – mindful of having the most dramatically declining birthrate in the world – finally made it easier to become a citizen of the Fatherland.

The new-look German side is collectively known as ‘Generation M’ for ‘multi-cultural’.

Observers say it the change has led to an influx of exciting new players for the German team.

By contrast, the England side has been regularly benefiting from players of immigrant backgrounds since the 1970s, and eight of the current squad are black or mixed-race.

Parallels will also be drawn with the French World Cup-winning side of 1998 which featured many members of France’s large ethnic minority communities and was credited with advancing race relations in France.

A majority of that team had foreign-born parents, including star player Zinedine Zidane, whose parents moved to France from Algeria.

England? They’re stupid and burnt out says (guess who) Franz Beckenbauer

It’s not really a game that needs any extra rivalry.

But that hasn’t stopped Germany’s greatest ever footballer from stoking up the tensions ahead of his country’s World Cup clash with England on Sunday.

Franz Beckenbauer yesterday intensified his criticism of the England team, calling them ‘stupid’ and ‘burnt out’.


After dusting off their ‘lucky’ all-red strip for the first time in 40 years for the win against Slovenia on Wednesday, England-will wear it for Sunday’s match against Germany.

England have never lost in five games wearing red shirts, shorts and socks – winning four games – yet last wore the combination in 1970.

The team have usually worn red shirts, white shorts and red socks as an alternative kit when facing opposition in similar colours, such as Germany.

‘The Kaiser’, who won the World Cup with Germany as a player and a manager and now works for football’s governing body, Fifa, had already slated England for playing ‘kick and rush’ football Continue reading England face a Germany team stuffed with ringers.

Lesbian parents produce above-average children

Children of lesbian parents do better than their peers according to New Scientist magazine in this interesting article written by Jim Giles.

The children of lesbian parents outscore their peers on academic and social tests, according to results from the longest-running study of same-sex families.

The researchers behind the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study say the results should change attitudes to adoption of children by gay and lesbian couples, which is prohibited in some parts of the US.

The finding is based on 78 children who were all born to lesbian couples who used donor insemination to become pregnant and were interviewed and tested at age 17.

The new tests have left no doubt as to the success of these couples as parents, says Nanette Gartrell at the University of California, San Francisco, who has worked on the study since it began in 1986.

Compared with a group of control adolescents born to heterosexual parents with similar educational and financial backgrounds, the children of lesbian couples scored better on academic and social tests and lower on measures of rule-breaking and aggression.

A previous study of same-sex parenting, based on long-term health data, also found no difference in the health of children in either group.

“This confirms what most developmental scientists have suspected,” says Stephen Russell, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Kids growing up with same-sex parents fare just as well as other kids.”

The results should be considered by those who oppose the right of gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, adds Gartrell. A handful of states, including Florida, prohibit same-sex or unmarried couples from adopting, although many of the state laws are being challenged in the courts.

“It’s a great tragedy in this country,” says Gartrell. “There are so many children who are available for adoption but cannot be adopted by same-sex couples.”

Over 100,000 children are awaiting adoption in the US, says the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy organisation based in New York. The institute estimates that just 4 per cent of all adopted children – around 65,000 – live with gay or lesbian parents, despite research suggesting that same-sex couples may be more willing than heterosexual couples to adopt.

Journal reference: Pediatrics, DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-3153

Liberal Tory. Hang on, is that right?

At times like this it is always interesting and amusing to see how the outside world views Britain. This is from the Wall Street Journal. Dry as a bone. But harder than our wishy washy liberal press. Is it OK to say that any more? Or will I be arrested by the liberal Tory Home Secretary…or perhaps not….

LONDON—Conservative Party leader David Cameron on Tuesday completed a tortuous journey to become Britain’s prime minister, and essentially clinched a fragile power-sharing deal with the country’s No. 3 political party in the wake of Thursday’s inconclusive election.

Five frenetic days after a general election that resulted in a so-called hung Parliament—in which no party holds a majority—Mr. Cameron’s Tories agreed on a power-sharing deal with the Liberal Democrat Party headed by Nick Clegg, subject to official approval by the two parties.

The 43-year-old Mr. Cameron became Britain’s youngest prime minister since 1812 after the incumbent, Labour Party leader Gordon Brown, abandoned his own party’s hopes of making a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats.

Shortly after 6 p.m., the men executed Britain’s carefully choreographed change-of-power ritual, in which Mr. Brown visited the queen to resign and Mr. Cameron followed shortly thereafter to assume power.

The move returns the Tories to the premiership for the first time since 1997—but they return to Downing Street under far-from-ideal circumstances. The country faces problems that include a massive budget deficit and an economy that has been slow to recover from the recession.

Mr. Cameron will have to tackle those woes without the big parliamentary majority he was long expected to have, but squandered in the final months of a historic, topsy-turvy campaign. Instead, he faces the prospect of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

Sweeping into a newly vacated Downing Street amid cheers, Mr. Cameron acknowledged that a coalition government will present challenges.

“Our country has a hung Parliament…and we have some deep and progressing problems, a huge deficit, deep social problems and a political system in need of reform,” he said.

That coalition will force the Conservatives to concede key policy ground on issues such as taxes and electoral reform—despite the fact that the Tories won five times more parliamentary seats in Thursday’s election. Mr. Clegg will be deputy prime minister, and discussions were under way late Tuesday that would also award cabinet posts in the government to the Liberal Democrats, with the Conservative’s George Osborne and William Hague taking Treasury chief and foreign secretary respectively.

For any coalition deal to be completed, the leadership of both parties must still ask members of their respective groups to back the deal. And that may not be a certainty given a huge gulf that divides them on everything from managing the economy to immigration and relations with Europe.

If the two sides don’t manage to agree on the coalition, the Tories can still go it alone in a minority administration. But they would be dependent on support from other parties to pass legislation.

Either way, the Conservatives are faced with keeping a government together as they try to push through aggressive spending cuts to Britain’s much-loved public services, with £6 billion to come this year alone.

The new government must do this without upending a fragile economic recovery and must deal with other issues, such as public anger if progress isn’t seen in the unpopular war in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday night, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were close to finalizing terms on a coalition after an attempt by the newly deposed Labour Party to seal a deal with the Liberal Democrats failed. The party’s last toss of the dice, after 13 years in power, crashed amid opposition from Labour Party lawmakers and the realization that any coalition, which would need the help of other parties, would be too fragile to survive.

The High and Lows of Labour’s 13-Year Reign

May 1997: Labour’s Tony Blair becomes U.K. prime minister in landslide victory, ending 18 years of Conservative rule.

May 1997: Labour’s Tony Blair becomes U.K. prime minister in landslide victory, ending 18 years of Conservative rule.

April 1998: Blair helps broker historic peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

June 2001: With economy growing, Blair re-elected by wide margins.

September 2001: Terrorists attack the U.S.; Blair subsequently backs U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

March 2003: Blair backs U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which quickly becomes a political liability for Labour.

September 2004: Protesters storm Parliament in opposition to Labour’s proposed ban on fox hunting.

May 2005: Blair re-elected again, but Labour’s majority in Parliament shrinks.

July 2005: Terrorist bombings of London’s transit system kill dozens.

June 2007: Facing low approval ratings and internal party pressure, Blair resigns, handing power to Gordon Brown.

September 2007: Mortgage lender Northern Rock requires rescue by Bank of England, in harbinger of financial crisis.

October 2008: Brown unveils bailout of several big U.K. banks, serving as a model for U.S. and other government rescues.

April 2010: Brown asks the queen to dissolve Parliament Continue reading Liberal Tory. Hang on, is that right?

Survivalists ready to hole up now for £32,00 per head.

I loved this story well put together by Tom Lamont in the Observer this weekend. My keep-fit-mad 17 year old son is a prime candidate for this US survivalist stuff. Hand him an AK47 and wait until you see the whites of their eyes.

Abandon any notion of surviving the apocalypse by doing anything as boringly obvious as running for the highest hill, or eating cockroaches. The American firm Vivos is now offering you the chance to meet global catastrophe (caused by terrorism, tsunami, earthquake, volcano, pole shift, Iran, “social anarchy”, solar flare – a staggering list of potential world-murderers are considered) in style.

Vivos is building 20 underground “assurance of life” resorts across the US, capable of sustaining up to 4,000 people for a year when the earth no longer can. The cost? A little over £32,000 a head, plus a demeaning-sounding screening test that determines whether you are able to offer meaningful contribution to the continuation of the human race. Company literature posits, gently, that “Vivos may prove to be the next Genesis”, and they are understandably reluctant to flub the responsibility.

Should you have the credentials and the cash, the rewards of a berth in a Vivos shelter seem high. Each staffed complex has a decontamination shower and a jogging machine; a refrigerated vault for human DNA and a conference room with wheely chairs. There are TVs and radios, flat-screen computers, a hospital ward, even a dentist’s surgery ready to serve those who forgot to pack a toothbrush in the hurry. “Virtually any meal” can be cooked from a stockpile of ingredients that includes “baked potato soup” but, strangely, no fish, tinned or otherwise. Framed pictures of mountain ranges should help ease the loss of a world left behind.

Vivos says it has already received 1,000 applications. Continue reading Survivalists ready to hole up now for £32,00 per head.

People are now dying to get on cheap flights.

Only in Liverpool. Two women try to smuggle a corpse onto their easyjet flight, The Ottawa Citizen reports. Obviously these low cost flights are now producing some stiff competition.

LONDON — Two women allegedly put their dead relative in a wheelchair, dressed him in sunglasses and claimed he was simply asleep as they tried to check in at Liverpool airport for a flight to Germany.

The women convinced a taxi driver that 91-year-old Curt Willi Jarant was well enough for the 45-minute drive to the airport.

However, when they arrived, staff at John Lennon Airport in Liverpool noticed something was wrong.

Andrew Millea, a worker who greeted the group with a wheelchair, said one of the women asked for help lifting her father from the car.

“I did my best to help by lifting the man from his seat,” he said. “To my horror his face fell sideways against mine, it was ice-cold. I knew straight away that the man was dead, but they reassured me that he ‘always sleeps like that.’

“I could see the driver of the taxi was shocked too, he was white as a sheet and looked very shaken, so I placed the body into the wheelchair and pushed the man to the back of the easyJet queue.”

Millea contacted security who tried to check the man’s pulse, but were ushered away by the women. He claimed the younger woman, who was with two children, “encouraged them to ’tell the man that’s how your grandad sleeps’”.

When officials established that the man was dead, one of the women asked if she could still board the flight.

The German women are thought to have decided to sneak Jarant — thought to have died of natural causes — on the flight rather than pay up to $7,650 in repatriation fees for the body.

Police arrested Jarant’s wife, Gitta, 66, and his stepdaughter, Anke Anusic, 44, on suspicion of failing to give notification of death.

Police sources suggested that Mr Jarant died from natural causes on Good Friday – 24 hours before his arrival at the airport. Anusic said: “They would think that for 24 hours we would carry a dead person? This is ridiculous. He was moving, he was breathing. Eight people saw him.”

We are buying fake food at inflated prices.

This nicely written story by Lyndsey Layton appeared in the Washington Post this week. Americans have been disguising food as something more upmarket and selling it at vastly inflated prices. “Sturgeon caviar” was, in fact, Mississippi paddlefish. I bet it happens in the UK.

The expensive “sheep’s milk” cheese in a Manhattan market was really made from cow’s milk. And a jar of “Sturgeon caviar” was, in fact, Mississippi paddlefish.
Some honey makers dilute their honey with sugar beets or corn syrup, their competitors say, but still market it as 100 percent pure at a premium price.
And last year, a Fairfax man was convicted of selling 10 million pounds of cheap, frozen catfish fillets from Vietnam as much more expensive grouper, red snapper and flounder. The fish was bought by national chain retailers, wholesalers and food service companies, and ended up on dinner plates across the country.
“Food fraud” has been documented in fruit juice, olive oil, spices, vinegar, wine, spirits and maple syrup, and appears to pose a significant problem in the seafood industry. Victims range from the shopper at the local supermarket to multimillion companies, including E&J Gallo and Heinz USA.
Such deception has been happening since Roman times, but it is getting new attention as more products are imported and a tight economy heightens competition. And the U.S. food industry says federal regulators are not doing enough to combat it.
“It’s growing very rapidly, and there’s more of it than you might think,” said James Morehouse, a senior partner at A.T. Kearney Inc., which is studying the issue for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the food and beverage industry.
John Spink, an expert on food and packaging fraud at Michigan State University, estimates that 5 to 7 percent of the U.S. food supply is affected but acknowledges the number could be greater. “We know what we seized at the border, but we have no idea what we didn’t seize,” he said.
The job of ensuring that food is accurately labeled largely rests with the Food and Drug Administration. But it has been overwhelmed in trying to prevent food contamination, and fraud has remained on a back burner.
The recent development of high-tech tools — including DNA testing — has made it easier to detect fraud that might have gone unnoticed a decade ago. DNA can be extracted from cells of fish and meat and from other foods, such as rice and even coffee. Technicians then identify the species by comparing the DNA to a database of samples.
Another tool, isotope ratio analysis, can determine subtle differences between food — whether a fish was farmed or wild, for example, or whether caviar came from Finland or a U.S. stream.
The techniques have become so accessible that two New York City high school students, working with scientists at the Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History last year, discovered after analyzing DNA in 11 of 66 foods — including the sheep’s milk cheese and caviar — bought randomly at markets in Manhattan were mislabeled.
“We put so much emphasis on food and purity of ingredients and where they come from,” said Mark Stoeckle, a physician and DNA expert at Rockefeller University who advised the students. “But then there are things selling that are not what they say on the label. There’s an important issue here in terms of economics and consumer safety.”
It is not clear how many food manufacturers, importers and retailers are testing products, but large companies with valuable brands to protect have been increasingly using the new technology, said Vincent Paez, director of food safety business development at Thermo Fisher Scientific, Continue reading We are buying fake food at inflated prices.

Impossible dream – the small big bang is quietly fading away today.

The Hadron Collider uses a special kind of liquid helium that is incredibly expensive to produce – even worse it is physically very difficult to contain – across 27 kilometers of its run I would say it’s next to impossible. No surprises this morning when they tried to run it again it had to stop within minutes. 2.6 billion quid. The Telegraph covers it more kindly than I would today.

Dubbed the world’s largest scientific experiment, the giant atom smasher holds the promise of revealing details about theoretical particles and microforces, scientists say.
But initial attempts on Tuesday were unsuccessful because problems developed with the beams, said scientists working on the massive machine.

That meant that the protons had to be “dumped” from the collider and new beams had to be injected.
“It’s a very complicated machine and we have ups and downs,” said Michael Barnett of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Right now we have a down.”
Two beams of protons began 10 days ago to speed at high energy in opposite directions around the 27-kilometer (17-mile) tunnel under the Swiss-French border at Geneva.
The beams were pushed to 3.5 trillion electron volts in recent days, the highest energy achieved by any physics accelerator — some three times greater than the previous record.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, is trying to use the powerful superconducting magnets to force the two beams to cross, creating collisions and showers of particles.
They could have been successful immediately, but such huge machines can be so tricky to run that it could take days.
When collisions become routine, the beams will be packed with hundreds of billions of protons, but the particles are so tiny that few will collide at each crossing.
Steve Myers, CERN’s director for accelerators and technology, describes the challenge of lining up the beams as being akin to “firing needles across the Atlantic and getting them to collide half way.”
He said the problems on Tuesday started with a power supply that tripped and had to be reset. The second time, the system designed to protect the machine shut it down.
That was likely to have been a misreading by the system rather than any basic problem, said Barnett.
The collisions will come over the objections of some people who fear they could eventually imperil the Earth by creating micro black holes — subatomic versions of collapsed stars whose gravity is so strong they can suck in planets and other stars.
CERN and many scientists dismiss any threat to Earth or people on it, saying that any such holes would be Continue reading Impossible dream – the small big bang is quietly fading away today.

While the West idles, China has trouble filling its factories with labourers.

This article is from the New York Times – for the first time in many years workers have failed to return from the (Chinese) New Year break – no longer drawn from the agricultural fields by the lure of industrial readies, instead the signing bonus is being introduced for factory workers…whatever next for the Chinese economy – now virtually the only source for cheap Western consumer goods…

GUANGZHOU, China — Just a year after laying off millions of factory workers, China is facing an increasingly acute labor shortage.

As American workers struggle with near double-digit unemployment, unskilled factory workers here in China’s industrial heartland are being offered signing bonuses.

Factory wages have risen as much as 20 percent in recent months.

Telemarketers are turning away potential customers because recruiters have fully booked them to cold-call people and offer them jobs.

Some manufacturers, already weeks behind schedule because they can’t find enough workers, are closing down production lines and considering raising prices. Such increases would most likely drive up the prices American consumers pay for all sorts of Chinese-made goods.

Rising wages could also lead to greater inflation in China. In the past, inflation has sown social unrest.

The immediate cause of the shortage is that millions of migrant workers who traveled home for the long lunar New Year earlier this month are not returning to the coast. Thanks to a half-trillion-dollar government stimulus program, jobs are being created in the interior.

But many economists say the recent global downturn also obscured a longer-term trend: China has drained its once vast reserves of unemployed workers in rural areas and is running out of fresh laborers for its factories.

Since China does not release reliable, timely statistics on employment, wages are considered the best barometer of labor shortages. And temp agencies here in Guangzhou raised their rate for factory workers this week to $1.17 an hour, from 95 cents an hour before the new year holiday.

The rate was 80 cents an hour two years ago, before the global financial crisis Continue reading While the West idles, China has trouble filling its factories with labourers.

Metre long alien worms burst from your body

I found this amazing article in New Scientist magazine. It’s about a parasitic worm that lives in your body for a year, grows to a meter in length then bursts out of your body just like in the film Alien. And you thought you had it bad.

guinea worm infection

IT STARTS with a painful blister – a very painful blister. It feels, people say, like being stabbed with a red-hot needle. When the blister bursts, the head of a worm pops out, thin, white and very much alive.
The rest of the worm, about a metre long, remains inside your body. It can take up to two months to pull it out, inch by agonising inch, during which time it may be impossible to walk. In extreme cases, you may host up to sixty of them, anywhere on your body. The worms can cause paralysis or lethal bacterial infections, and even if you survive mostly unscathed, next year it can happen all over again.
The guinea worm (Dracunculus, or little dragon) is probably the closest living equivalent to the monsters in the Alien movies – except we’re beating this enemy. Guinea worm was once widespread in Africa, the Middle East and many parts of Asia. In 1986, there were nearly 4 million cases a year in 20 countries across south Asia and Africa. Last year, there were just 3142 in four countries in Africa. The worm could be extinct by 2012, making dracunculiasis the second human disease ever to be eradicated – the first being smallpox.
Guinea worms start out as minuscule larvae living inside water fleas of the genus Cyclops. These millimetre-long crustaceans live in stagnant water, and people can swallow them when they drink from ponds, ditches or shallow wells. Stomach acids dissolve the water fleas but can leave the larvae untouched. The free larvae then burrow out of the intestine and cross to the chest or abdominal wall, where the male and female worms mature and mate. The males eventually die, but the growing females tunnel imperceptibly to, and then under, the skin.
Even as the females grow up to a metre long, their hosts remain unaware of their presence. The worms prevent pain by secreting opiates and dodge the immune system by coating themselves with human proteins. It may be just as well people don’t know they are infected as nothing can help at this stage. Continue reading Metre long alien worms burst from your body

The Real Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow has always been one of my favourite film makers ever since Strange Days – a film I would most highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. I was delighted to hear she won an Oscar today, the first woman to win Best Director. My son has just got The Hurt Locker for us to watch – which is why this piece from the New York Times particularly caught my eye today. It kind of speaks for itself– written by Michael Jernigan, a man who knows.

I was eager to see “The Hurt Locker” since it is one of the first movies about my war.
I found it very interesting. I saw a lot of reality there. I have seen and dealt with, to a limited extent, the addiction to adrenaline. I do not know of anyone who loved it more than their wife and child, but I do know that it can be extremely addictive. Jumping out of an airplane affords great odds of survival. Combat or disarming a bomb does not afford such great odds. Your body will react similarly but with more intensity. When this occurs daily or more than once daily your body craves it like a drug addict craves a drug. I found the movie entertaining, but given my experience, I imagine it was scary to me on a different level than most.

War movies in general are great for what they are: entertainment. I grew up in the 1980s and saw almost all of the good war movies of that time. I was in the theater for “Full Metal Jacket” and have a copy of “Platoon” at home. I own “The Boys in Company C,” “Kelly’s Heroes,” “Sands of Iwo Jima” and a few others. Like I said, they are good entertainment. But of course there is a darker side.
These movies glorify a situation that has no real glory in it. Turn to one of your relatives or friends who has been in combat and ask them what they think of war. I am sure that they will tell you that it is scary, gruesome and requires extreme intestinal fortitude. There are no Sgt. Strykers or Gunny Highways in the real Corps. We don’t have a director who can step in when all hell is breaking loose and yell, “Cut!”
I joined the Marine Corps because I was looking for a way to get my life on track. My grandfather did 28 years in the Corps (Korea and Vietnam) and my father did eight years in the Corps (Vietnam), then 13 in the Army. When I was given the opportunity to go to war in Iraq I was as happy as you can imagine. That was what I grew up watching in the movies. I wanted to be my own “Animal Mother” (see: “Full Metal Jacket”).
When I got to Iraq I soon learned that it was not the movies. In my first few weeks we drove over an I.E.D. We caught the guys as they were driving away by riddling their car with bullets from machine guns and few M-16’s. The driver was struck twice and the passenger was not shot but I think he was having a heart attack when we got over to them.

A few days later while on a foot patrol I spotted a blue blinking light in the road and walked up to it. It was a phone taped to a canister. While running for my life the thing exploded. I was not injured but was very shaken up.
We went to Falluja in April of 2004. Our company saw two to three firefights a day. It was the first time I saw one of my friends get shot. In one month we took light casualties (thankfully, no dead Marines). We then went to Zaidon and a handful of Marines received serious wounds. Our radio man lost his foot; one of our rifleman lost his arm. A friend of mine took shrapnel to the throat and there were other serious wounds. Thankfully, no dead Marines. After that it was back to Mahmudiya: on the second day there we drove over an I.E.D. The only casualty was our Marine “Big Country” getting a concussion from the overpressure.
Later in the deployment my Humvee was hit by a large I.E.D. I had my forehead crushed in, lost both eyes, had to have my right hand fully reconstructed and took severe damage to my left knee. One buddy lost a foot; one of the others took shrapnel to the forehead but lived; one took superficial shrapnel wounds to the arm and one of my best friends died.
Would you bring your children out to the battlefield to witness it live and in person?
On a later deployment to Iraq that I did not go on, I lost three more friends to I.E.D.’s. One of them was the Navy Corpsman (Marine medic) who saved my life on the battlefield back in Mahmudiya. I have a tattoo over my left breast (where my heart is) that says “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps motto. It is Latin for “Always Faithful” and refers to always accomplishing the mission. Around the “Semper Fidelis” are four names. “Thompson,” “Belchik,” Cockerham” and “Hodshire.” All great guys that I would let date my sister.
“The Hurt Locker” and all the other movies I mentioned, whether they are good or bad as entertainment, Continue reading The Real Hurt Locker

Voyeur sex games spread on chat site.

I heard on Steve Hewlett’s Radio 4 media show that the Observer has declined in circulation again – this story is from there – and for once I have kept the original headline because it is great, real “surgeon priest in palace sex probe” material. I wonder how many people will read this without thinking about trying some of this strange…new….chatroulette….

An addictive new website that links strangers’ webcams is gaining popularity – and notoriety

A new website that has been described as “surreal”, “addictive” and “frightening” is proving a sensation around the world – and attracting a reputation as a haven for no-holds-barred, explicit material.

Chatroulette, which was launched in November, has rocketed in popularity thanks to its simple premise: internet video chats with ­random strangers.

When users visit the site and switch on their webcams, they are suddenly connected to another, randomly chosen person who is doing precisely the same thing somewhere else in the world.

Once they are logged in together, chatters can do anything they like: talk to each other, type messages, entertain each other – or just say goodbye, hit the “next” button and move on in an attempt to find somebody more interesting.

Chatroulette describes itself as a “brand new service for one-on-one text, webcam and microphone-based chat with people around the world”, but no one is sure who started the site. The owners did not respond to an attempt to contact them by email, and they have gone to great pains to protect their identities. This may be because ­Chatroulette appears to operate largely as an ­unregulated service and, as a result, has rapidly become a haven for exhibitionists and voyeurs.

A large contingent of people seem intent on using the service’s string of random connections as the basis for some sort of sex game.

Users regularly describe unwanted encounters with all sorts of unsavoury characters, and it has become the defining aspect of the site for some. Veteran blogger Jason Kottke, who has spent years documenting some of the web’s most weird and wonderful corners, tried the site and then wrote about witnessing nudity, sexual activity and strange behaviour.

“I observed several people drinking malt liquor, two girls making out, many, many guys who disconnected as soon as they saw I wasn’t female, [and] several girls who disconnected after seeing my face,” he said, adding that he also witnessed “three couples having sex and 11 erect p******s”.

Yet despite the highly offensive nature of much of the site’s content, Kottke – like thousands of others – has been hypnotised by the glimpses the site offers into other people’s lives. “Chatroulette is pretty much the best site going on the internet right now,” he wrote.

Although the site says that it “does not tolerate broadcasting obscene, offending, pornographic material” and offers users the option to report unsuitable content, the restrictions do not seem to prevent users from broadcasting explicit videos of themselves online.

However, like the chatroom explosion in the late 1990s or the early days of YouTube, spending time inside Chatroulette is becoming a peculiarly modern form of entertainment, particularly popular with students in campuses around the world. In just a couple of months the site has expanded significantly as it tears through universities by word of mouth, spreading virally in a similar manner to sites Continue reading Voyeur sex games spread on chat site.

Facebook flash mob goes AWOL

This story just had everything: social networking, police, anti-banks, riots, drink, drugs, parties you name it it’s all there. Quite a few papers ran it at the end of the week — — the version I’ve chosen is from the Telegraph

A Facebook-organised party at a squat in a Park Lane town house was broken up by police after hundreds of youths caused havoc in the streets around the £10 million property.
Riot police dispersed crowds in the streets and cleared the building after partygoers pelted them with bottles and bricks from the roof and balcony.

Officers had been summoned to the party, allegedly organised by two teenagers from London, at 11pm after a wave of complaints from terrified neighbours.

Two members of the public were thought to have been injured as the partygoers jumped on cars, threw fire extinguishers and plant pots from windows and drew graffiti before the chaos subsided in the early hours of yesterday morning.

The property was bought for £10m in 2007 by Continue reading Facebook flash mob goes AWOL

Google to become broadband provider. And that means broad.

Saw this in today’s Washington Post. Sign me up.

Google, the world’s biggest online search engine, wants to turbocharge your Internet connection.

The company said Wednesday it is getting into the broadband service business with trials for fiber networks that will deliver Internet access speeds that are 100 times faster than what most Americans are getting today.

The company said in a blog that it will build fiber-to-the-home connections to a small number of locations across the country that will deliver Internet access speeds of 1 gigabit per second. The company didn’t say what areas would be part of its experiment, but said prices would be competitive and that its network would reach at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people. A source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the company doesn’t currently have plans to expand beyond the initial tests but will evaluate as the tests progress.

“Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone,” wrote product managers Minni Ingersoll and James Kelly in the blog titled, “Think big with a gig: our experimental fiber network.”

Some of the fastest connections through cable, DSL and fiber access cap off around 20 to 50 megabits a second. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt told The Washington Post during a visit late last year that ultra-high-speed Internet connections were imperative for a next generation of applications to take off for the Web. Currently, he said, most network services fall short.

At such speeds, a rural health center could receive streaming three-dimensional medial imaging over the Web and discuss health issues with a physician in a Los Angeles, for example. Downloading high-definition, full-length feature films would take about five minutes, Google said.

Talking to people in a coma. I do it all the time.

We have all seen and heard this story about successful attempts at communicating with people in a Vegetative State – this is a very well informed article about the topic from the New Scientist this week written by Celeste Biever.

THE inner voice of people who appear unconscious can now be heard. For the first time, researchers have struck up a conversation with a man diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. All they had to do was monitor how his brain responded to specific questions. This means that it may now be possible to give some individuals in the same state a degree of autonomy.

“They can now have some involvement in their destiny,” says Adrian Owen of the University of Cambridge, who led the team doing the work.

In an earlier experiment, published in 2006, Owen’s team asked a woman previously diagnosed as being in a vegetative state (VS) to picture herself carrying out one of two different activities. The resulting brain activity suggested she understood the commands and was therefore conscious.

Now Owen’s team has taken the idea a step further. A man also diagnosed with VS was able to answer yes and no to specific questions by imagining himself engaging in the same activities.

The results suggest that it is possible to give a degree of choice to some people who have no other way of communicating with the outside world. “We are not just showing they are conscious, we are giving them a voice and a way to communicate,” says neurologist Steven Laureys of the University of Liège in Belgium, Owen’s collaborator.

When someone is in a VS, they can breathe unaided, have intact reflexes but seem completely unaware. But it is becoming clear that some people who appear to be vegetative are in fact minimally conscious. They are in a kind of twilight state in which they may feel some pain, experience emotion and communicate to a limited extent. These two states can be distinguished from each other via bedside behavioural tests – but these tests are not perfect and can miss patients who are aware but unable to move. So researchers Continue reading Talking to people in a coma. I do it all the time.

Furry story. True of course.

Hooray for Scunthorpe. This story in the Economist adds a certain ambiance to the town that put the umber into South Humberside…as well as casting light upon the growing publicity surrounding the workaholic beaver and its eponymous publication. No the beavers are not in Scunthorpe they are in Canada….anyway read the story

CANADIANS have long been proud of the industrious beaver, an animal capable of cutting down 216 trees a year with its teeth and of surviving the long winter in a purpose-built lodge made of mud, twigs and bark. The largest rodent in North America is a national emblem. The first Canadian postage stamp, the 1851 Three-Penny Beaver, carried its image. And one of Canada’s oldest magazines carries its name.

But soon it will not. From April The Beaver will be renamed. A journal of popular history founded in 1920 by the Hudson Bay Company to celebrate its 250th anniversary, it is now owned by others. Its evocation of the fur that had made the trading company’s fortunes no longer struck the right note—especially since the word has become slang for female pubic hair.

The editors had known for some time that a name change was needed. Market research indicated that many women and people under the age of 45 said they would not subscribe solely because of the name. But it was the internet that struck the fatal blow.

The Beaver website was attracting (albeit briefly) readers who had little interest in Samuel de Champlain’s astrolabe or what prairie settlers ate for breakfast. They lasted about eight seconds before moving on. E-mails to potential subscribers were blocked by internet obscenity filters. This is known online as the Scunthorpe problem, after the town in Britain whose residents were initially unable to register with AOL because its name contained an obscenity.

The Beaver Club, a classy dining room in Montreal, and the SS Beaver, a replica of an 1835 steamship operating in British Columbia, remain unperturbed by any ambiguity. As for The Beaver, it hopes to expand its 50,000 circulation as Canada’s History. Dull, yes, but at least it will do what it says on the tin.

Veil blocked.

Hmmm. The French resolves weakens on the burkah issue according to the Guardian. Instead of forcing other people to wear French couture in public the French have relented a little….

France will today take the first step towards barring Muslim women from wearing the full veil when using public services, but will stop short of calling for an outright ban after critics argued that such a move would be socially divisive and hard to enforce.

A cross-party committee of MPs was set up last year to explore the controversial issue in France of burkas and niqabs. The committee will recommend to ­parliament that Muslim women should be allowed to continue covering their faces in the street.

Its final report will, however, recommend that anyone covering their face be barred from entering public sector property, including hospitals and schools, or using public transport.

“The full veil is the visible part of this black tide of fundamentalism,” said Communist MP André Gerin, the committee’s president, in an interview last week. Eric Raoult, a rightwing MP heavily involved in the report, said yesterday that the imposition of a full ban – if it were to occur – would have to wait. “We have tried to do something that is coherent and enforceable,” he said, adding that a ban that was unenforceable would “make everyone look ridiculous”.

Under the proposals, a woman who fails to remove her veil inside when using any realm of the statethose public servicin such cases would not face a fine for breaking the law, but would be refused access to the service. She would not, for instance, be allowed to collect her child benefit payments or take the bus.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has repeatedly said that the full veil “is not welcome” on French soil, is believed to favour this partial legislation, rather than more radical suggestions from recalcitrant members of his rightwing UMP party.

The president has been warned that an outright ban on the full veil could be found to be unconstitutional and almost impossible to put into practice. Sarkozy, who has stressed the need to find a solution in which “no one feels stigmatised”, is also keen to play down speculation that his policies are doing more to aggravate social divisions than to bridge them.

Steps to ban the burka, which have been opposed by the Muslim Council of France and other religious groups, have coincided with the French government’s “big debate” on national identity. Critics of the government, from the left and right, have accused Sarkozy of encouraging dangerous rhetoric which has seen the country’s 5 million Muslims become the object of increasing critiques.

Tomorrow’s cross-party report – whose contents were leaked to the French press last week – looks likely to recommend the ­passing of a non-binding parliamentary resolution setting out the country’s “symbolic” opposition to the full veil.

After that, steps should be taken to vote into law a series of “separate, but multiple bans” which would make clear the garment’s practical incompatibility with French values of sexual equality and freedom, the report will say.

“We have to make life impossible for them in order to curb the phenomenon,” one MP told the French daily Le Figaro. However, opponents have said that banning the full veil either outright or partially would serve merely to reinforce the isolation of women already partially alienated from mainstream society.

The 32-member panel, which has been meeting and questioning experts on the issue for the past six months, was set up by Sarkozy last summer after he declared that the full veil was “a sign of subservience [and] debasement”.

Gerin has not made any secret of his desire to see a ban on what he has denounced as a “walking prison”. His feelings have tapped into growing concern in France over an item of clothing worn by a small minority of Muslim women.

According to police figures, no more than 2,000 women – most of them young and a quarter of them converts – wear a face-covering veil. But in a country which places a high value on laïcité – secularism – and which in 2004 banned headscarves in schools, it is unsurprising that such an overt display of religion has raised eyebrows. The major political parties, leading feminists and even one prominent imam have made clear their dislike for the full veil, which they view as an affront to women’s rights and a sign of an emerging strand of fundamentalist Islam.

Despite wide-ranging opposition to the garment and polls showing that most French citizens favour a ban, opinions have differed on how to go about discouraging women from covering their faces.

The Socialist party, while condemning the full veil, refused to support a ban.

The UMP’s Jean-François Copé, a politician with half an eye on the 2012 presidential elections, grabbed the headlines with a proposal to outlaw the full veil anywhere on French streets and to fine wearers €750 each – a suggestion rejected by the committee.

And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you!

I read this story on the BBC website today. US sharpshooters are using a sophisticated light-enhancing gunsight – par for the course in this day and age of advanced weaponry. However the sights are engraved with Biblical texts. Reminded me of Pulp Fiction when the scary hitman (samuel Jackson) reads you a passage from the Bible before bumping you off. Also made me think of a recent conversation with a friend about Holy War – it’s getting just like it used to be in the days of the Crusades.

Coded references to biblical passages are inscribed on gunsights widely used by the US and British military in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has emerged.

light enhancing acog sight

The markings include “2COR4:6” and “JN8:12”, relating to verses in the books of II Corinthians and John.

Trijicon, the US-based manufacturer, was founded by a devout Christian, and says it runs to “Biblical standards”.

But military officials in the US and UK have expressed concern over the way the markings will be perceived.

The company has added the references to its sights for many years, but the issue surfaced only recently when soldiers complained to an advocacy group.

Versions of Trijicon’s Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (Acog) are used by the US Special Operations Forces, the US Marine Corps and the US Army.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence has just ordered 480 Acog sights for use on its new Sharpshooter rifles – to be used by troops in Afghanistan. Other versions of the Acog sight are “widely in service”, the ministry says.

The inscriptions are subtle and appear in raised lettering at the end of the stock number.

John 8:12 reads: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

The nod to part of the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians, found on the company’s Reflex sight, references the text: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

An MoD spokesman told the BBC the ministry appreciated the biblical references could cause offence and was talking to its supplier, but was “not aware at the time of purchase that these markings had any broader significance”.

The US Defense Department is a major customer of Trijicon’s, signing deals for $66m (£40.3m) of the company’s products in 2009 alone.

The US Marine Corps told the BBC they were “concerned with how this may be perceived” and were meeting with the company to “discuss future sight procurements”.

We believe that America is great when its people are good. This goodness has been based on biblical standards throughout our history and we will strive to follow those morals

The US Army said it was looking into any potential policy violation.

The issue has been thrust into the spotlight by the US Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) – an advocacy group that seeks to preserve the separation of church and state in the military.

On 14 January, the MRFF received an e-mail, purportedly from a Muslim US Army infantryman, complaining about the markings.

“Many soldiers know of them and are very confused as to why they are there and what it is supposed to mean.”

The email adds: “Everyone is worried that if they were captured in combat that the enemy would use the Bible quotes against them in captivity or some other form of propaganda.”

MRFF president Mikey Weinstein says the inscriptions could give the Taliban and other enemy forces a propaganda tool.

“I don’t have to wonder for a nanosecond how the American public would react if citations from the Koran were being inscribed onto these US armed forces gunsights instead of New Testament citations,” he said.

A Trijicon spokesman told the BBC the company “has been working to provide America’s military men and women with high quality, innovative sighting systems for the weapons they use”.

“Our effort is simple and straightforward: to help our servicemen and women win the war on terror and come home safe to their families.

“As part of our faith and our belief in service to our country, Trijicon has put scripture references on our products for more than two decades.

“As long as we have men and women in danger, we will continue to do everything we can to provide them with both state-of-the-art technology and the never-ending support and prayers of a grateful nation,” the spokesman added.

The company states on its website: “We believe that America is great when its people are good. This goodness has been based on biblical standards throughout our history and we will strive to follow those morals.”

New Age pursuits lead to multiple deaths

I found this story in the Observer over the Christmas period, but upon further investigation it had originally appeared in the Guardian at the end of last year.
This is exactly the kind of thing which could lead to the untimely demise of yours truly here – new age, Native American (or First Nation as my politically correct colleagues would say), self improving, a bit hippy dippy, meditative, counter cultural. In short I am wide open to the kind of exploitation which has clearly gone on here in Arizona. Oh dear.

Two weeks ago on a retreat with new age guru James Arthur Ray, three people died in a sweat lodge. What went wrong?

Kirby Brown was a fit, outgoing 38-year-old woman from New York state who made a decent living decorating well-appointed houses in Mexico, and attached considerable importance to her spiritual wellbeing. She practised yoga, became interested in new age philosophies and, earlier this month, took part in a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in the idyllic Arizona resort town of Sedona, under the leadership of a charismatic new age secular preacher called James Arthur Ray.

The programme promised several days of introspection, life-affirming (perhaps even life-altering) lectures, spiritual cleansing exercises and fasting. She paid more than $9,000 for the privilege; a price no doubt inflated by Ray’s frequent television appearances on Oprah and Larry King, and by his participation in the 2006 viral new age video, The Secret.

On her fifth day in the red-rock canyons of northern Arizona, having already reportedly undergone 36 hours of fasting in the desert heat, Brown and her fellow retreat members took part in a “sweat lodge”, an ancient Native American purging ritual, popularised by the new age movement, which exposes participants to sustained, extreme heat under an enclosed canopy. Brown didn’t make it out alive.

Usually, sweat lodges consist of no more than 20 people. Native American practitioners say they always pay extremely close attention to the physical wellbeing of the participants as hot rocks are brought into the central fire pit to raise the temperature. If anyone faints or falls ill, they are taken out. That does not appear to have happened at the Angel Valley Retreat Centre.

According to local police, at 3pm on Thursday 8 October – the final day of the retreat, and following a buffet meal to break their fast – more than 60 people crammed into a space measuring just 415 sq ft. An initial 12 hot rocks were thrown into the fire pit, then doused with water and sandalwood to create steam and a scent of incense. By the time the ceremony was halted two hours later, another 46 hot rocks had reportedly been added to the pyre, turning the enclosure into a human cooking pot. A 911 emergency call reported that two people had no pulse and were not breathing.

Arizona police investigators are sure to focus on why participants who had become distressed did not leave the sweat lodge structure, which had been built specifically for this five-day retreat. Ultimately, three participants died: Brown and 40-year-old James Shore from Wisconsin at the scene, and 49-year-old Liz Neuman of Minnesota 10 days later in hospital, having lapsed into a coma as a result of severe dehydration.

A nurse hired by Ray was present during the session, but may have been overwhelmed by the number of people needing emergency resuscitation. A further 18 people were taken to hospital, all of whom have now recovered.

Ray, the retreat’s mercurial impresario, does not appear to have suffered any physical ill-effects himself. But he did not stick around to tend to the sick and dying, or to explain himself to the local authorities. He refused to give a statement to the county police in Sedona and promptly left Arizona for his home in California, leaving his communications in the hands of a veteran Hollywood publicist, who has said next to nothing.

At first, Ray simply informed his followers he was “meditating”. But he has since led two more scheduled retreats, in Los Angeles (where he is reported to have broken down in tears as he discussed the deaths with followers) and San Diego. Ray also claimed he had hired his own team of investigators to look into the tragedy, but Arizona police say he has yet to talk to them, even though they have put him on notice that they are treating the deaths as homicides.

Ray’s only public utterances have been a series of notes posted on his Facebook page in the wake of Neuman’s death. The first was a short expression of condolence, but the second took on a more defensive tone.

“People are throwing out accusations and disparaging me and our mission,” he wrote. “Yet despite that, and despite considerable criticism, I have chosen to continue with my work. It’s too important not to. One of the lessons I teach is that you have to confront and embrace adversity and learn and grow from it. I promise you I am doing a lot of learning and growing.”

That attitude has, unsurprisingly, sparked criticism that Ray seems more preoccupied with the impact of the disaster on his own wellbeing than anyone else’s.

“That’s great that you want to continue your work James!” wrote a rival motivational speaker, Todd Dean, in response. “Are you going to offer refunds to those who register for your programmes if you are arrested? . . . Apparently [Liz Neuman’s] family found out through family in Arizona and media that she was ill. Do you teach these techniques in your seminars? Perhaps you should offer a new one called ‘101 Ways to Shirk Responsibility’.”

Conference call with survivors

Reports have also emerged of a private conference call Ray held with survivors of the Arizona retreat – one of whom recorded it and gave a transcript to the Associated Press. Again, Ray apparently talked about the importance of carrying on his work, while struggling to explain why he decamped rather than staying in Arizona with the people who had been taken ill.

“I really wanted to be with you all on the final night,” he reportedly said, “and my thoughts were consistently with everyone who was having challenges. I just kept thinking: I have to take care of my people.”

Ray’s organisation has acknowledged the conference call took place, but made no comment on its contents. One of his staff members, called Barb, was quoted from the same call by Associated Press as saying that those who died “left their bodies during the ceremony and had so much fun they chose not to come back, and that was their choice that they made”.

According to witness testimony gathered by Yurgey, some strange games took place during the desert fast, in which Ray took on the role of God and ordered various participants to play dead. The witness told Yurgey that at one point, she saw Brown clutching herself and crying. When someone asked her why she didn’t just get up and leave, she responded that she didn’t want to ruin the game for anyone else.

Some followers have rushed to Ray’s defence. “I’m sure James had his issues, and was out of balance energetically to attract this and bring him back to earth, but we all have these problems,” one supporter called Anthony Wemyss said. “I sense James will learn some great lessons about getting ‘high’ on his life.”

Patchwork philosophy

Ray is one of a crop of new age gurus who like to peddle themselves as visionary geniuses, but have come under heavy criticism for spouting a patchwork philosophy largely borrowed from other sources and using it to enrich themselves hugely. Ray’s philosophy can be boiled down to a few simple precepts, known variously as The Law of Attraction or, simply, The Secret.

Essentially, the premise is we all have the power to determine our fate because the energy we receive from the universe is equal to the energy we put into it. In other words, if we want money or a fulfilling love life, or a new necklace, all we have to do is envision those things and they will come to pass. As Ray has told his followers: “You were born into greatness, and you’ve been conditioned into mediocrity . . . Go out and create the universe you deserve.”

According to the 2006 viral video, this is The Secret that the rich and powerful have been keeping to themselves (cue images of evil business leaders conspiring in a boardroom) so ordinary people can’t enjoy the same spoils. Yet in fact, books suggesting very similar “revelations” have been published as far back as Wallace D Wattles’ 1910 bestseller, The Science of Getting Rich. Critics variously describe this worldview as “pernicious drivel” (because it essentially blames poor or disadvantaged people for their troubles) and “quantum flapdoodle” (because it claims to be rooted in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and other tenets of modern physics).

It is, though, too early to make a full assessment of Ray’s methods and the extent to which they might or might not be dangerous to his retreat participants. The postmortem results are not yet in, and the police are keeping tight-lipped, other than to announce that they are interviewing survivors and family members, and have conducted a search of Ray’s corporate headquarters outside San Diego.

Pushing people out of balance

Ray himself makes no secret of the fact that he likes to test the endurance of his followers. He’s not interested in people living a balanced life – balance is “bogus”, he says; it is only by pushing yourself and throwing things temporarily out of balance that you can achieve anything. Rather, he is after achieving “harmony” – as in the title of one of his bestselling books, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want.

One thing seems certain in the wake of the Arizona tragedy: sweat lodges will never be the same again. According to some Native American practitioners, this was a calamity waiting to happen – indeed, reports of occasional deaths from sweat lodges have peppered local news for years. And the very notion of charging people money for a sweat lodge is anathema – in Native American culture, they are community events, not a stunt performed for some vague goal of personal fulfilment.

“Running a sweat lodge ceremony is not simply constructing a lodge, heating rocks, and pouring water,” says Johnny Flynn, a part-time professor at Indiana University and a sweat lodge practitioner and leader of 40 years’ standing. “The wrong stones can explode in the fire or worse, in the lodge. They can give off toxic fumes or not heat properly . . . News accounts out of Sedona indicate that Ray’s sweat lodge was covered in plastic sheeting. As I have tracked the news stories and anecdotes of sweat lodge deaths and near-disasters, every one of them was covered with plastic sheeting or plastic tarps.”

Ray has insisted he is cooperating with the investigation, but that conflicts with what the local police are saying. “As of now we have not spoken to Mr Ray though we would very much like to,” Yavapai county sheriff’s spokesman Dwight Develyn said. “We hear from the media that he is interested in giving us a statement, but we have not received one yet.”

Spiritual cleansing: The tradition of the sweat lodge

The idea of using heat and steam to “sweat out” impurities has long had a place in many different cultures. Steam baths were popular in Ancient Greece and were later adopted by the Romans; Turkey has the hamam, Russia the banya and Scandinavia the sauna. The sweat lodge is an important part of Native American culture and, unlike steam baths or saunas, which have generally been used for cleansing and relaxation purposes – forms a sacred place for ceremonial and spiritual ritual.

According to Joseph Bruchac, author of The Native American Sweat Lodge, the rituals vary from tribe to tribe, but the idea is the same. The sweat lodge is usually a small dome-shaped structure, about 10ft wide, with a frame usually built from willow or ash saplings. This would have been traditionally covered with animal hides, but canvas tarpaulins or woollen blankets are commonly used today. Those taking part in the rite, typically no more than 12, sit around a central fire pit, and fire-heated stones are brought into the lodge. Water is poured on to them to create steam, and most rituals, led by a lodge leader, include drumming and offering prayers and songs, as well as sitting in silence. There are believed to be health benefits – practitioners believe that extreme heat can kill bacteria and viruses — but the main purpose is spiritual cleansing, reflection and healing.

As soon as the Europeans arrived in North America, Native American religious rituals were quickly targeted; in 1873, the government banned all sweat lodges. Although some lodges survived underground, many of the traditions were lost. In the 1960s, as new age therapies and an exploration of Native American traditions became more popular, sweat lodges began to be used as retreats across the US. This time, though, lodges are often run by non-Native Americans, with some charging thousands of dollars for the experience.

Emine Saner

Living without cash, out in the sticks.

This last month I have been reading Henry Thoreau’s work “Walden” which is all about jacking in the materialist rat race and going off to live next to the land in a small shack out in the woods. When I found this article in the Guardian it was almost identical – but here and now rather than 1845 (Thoreau was way ahead of his time) so here it is for an alternative Christmas story… I am so heartily sick of the mainstream ones!

In six years of studying economics, not once did I hear the word “ecology”. So if it hadn’t have been for the chance purchase of a video called Gandhi in the final term of my degree, I’d probably have ended up earning a fine living in a very respectable job persuading Indian farmers to go GM, or something useful like that. The little chap in the loincloth taught me one huge lesson – to be the change I wanted to see in the world. Trouble was, I had no idea back then what that change was.

After managing a couple of organic food companies made me realise that even “ethical business” would never be quite enough, an afternoon’s philosophising with a mate changed everything. We were looking at the world’s issues – environmental destruction, sweatshops, factory farms, wars over resources – and wondering which of them we should dedicate our lives to. But I realised that I was looking at the world in the same way a western medical practitioner looks at a patient, seeing symptoms and wondering how to firefight them, without any thought for their root cause. So I decided instead to become a social homeopath, a pro-activist, and to investigate the root cause of these symptoms.

One of the critical causes of those symptoms is the fact we no longer have to see the direct repercussions our purchases have on the people, environment and animals they affect. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that we’re completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering embodied in the stuff we buy. The tool that has enabled this separation is money.

If we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today. If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior decor. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t contaminate it.

So to be the change I wanted to see in the world, it unfortunately meant I was going to have to give up cash, which I initially decided to do for a year. I got myself a caravan, parked it up on an organic farm where I was volunteering and kitted it out to be off-grid. Cooking would now be outside – rain or shine – on a rocket stove; mobile and laptop would be run off solar; I’d use wood I either coppiced or scavenged to heat my humble abode, and a compost loo for humanure.

Food was the next essential. There are four legs to the food-for-free table: foraging wild food, growing your own, bartering, and using waste grub, of which there is loads. On my first day, I fed 150 people a three-course meal with waste and foraged food. Most of the year, though, I ate my own crops.

To get around, I had a bike and trailer, and the 34-mile commute to the city doubled up as my gym subscription. For loo roll I’d relieve the local newsagents of its papers (I once wiped my arse with a story about myself); it’s not double-quilted, but I quickly got used to it. For toothpaste I used washed-up cuttlefish bone with wild fennel seeds, an oddity for a vegan.

What have I learned? That friendship, not money, is real security. That most western poverty is of the spiritual kind. That independence is really interdependence. And that if you don’t own a plasma screen TV, people think you’re an extremist.

People often ask me what I miss about my old world of lucre and business. Stress. Traffic jams. Bank statements. Utility bills.

Well, there was the odd pint of organic ale with my mates down the local.

• Mark Boyle is the founder of The Freeconomy Community. In a subsequent blog he responds to the comments below.

Britain deals superbly with a couple of centimetres of snow.

I was drinking with two neighbours last night who were off to Germany today using …yes…Eurostar. Why do I mention it? Germany commonly copes with six foot of snow, let alone a couple of inches. Yet here we are massively disrupted by a not unexpected outbreak of fairly mild wintry weather as seen in today’s Telegraph, Ho hum.

All Eurostar services remained suspended for a third consecutive day, while airports and domestic rail networks across the country suffered delays.
As bus replacement services were put into action, the AA warned that some minor roads had effectively turned into “ice-rinks”.
At least four people died in car crashes related to the bad weather over the weekend, while extra breakdown patrols were out in force in more remote areas.
With temperatures forecast to remain below freezing until Christmas Eve, there seems little respite from the chaos.
The three days of cancellation by Eurostar has left 55,000 people with travel plans in tatters as they try and find alternative transport at one of the busiest times of the year.
The company is encouraging those who don’t have to travel in the next few days to Those whose trains were cancelled have been offered refunds, aas well as the costs of any hotel accommodation – up to three star – transport and meals.
But that provides little comfort for those Britons stranded in France, and those trying to get home to France and Belgium for the holiday.
Several flights arriving from the US – where there is also considerable snow – were delayed arriving into London Heathrow and Gatwick.
Some passengers at Manchester Airport were still waiting to take off on flights which were due to have taken off on Sunday, while cancellations and delays continued at Bristol, Luton, Southampton, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Inverness airports.
A Manchester airport spokeswoman said: “We are trying our best to get the backlog cleared up. It has been a constant battle with snow and freezing temperatures.
“The snow has stopped falling now and the forecast looks clear but the problem now is clearing the runway of ice. The current temperature out there is minus 4 degrees. We have ordered in 50,000 litres of de-icer today to help with that.”
To try and ease the congestion between London and France, British Airways said it was operating larger aircraft on many flights both ways between Heathrow and Paris, including a 340-seater Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
BA was operating an additional flight from Heathrow to New York this evening.
UK carrier Flybe said it was increasing capacity to help stranded Eurostar passengers – laying on larger aircraft from both Birmingham and Southampton to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport for the next four days.
However, budget airline easyJet, which had to cancel a number of flights today, reported that French aviation authorities had imposed flight restrictions on easyJet at Charles de Gaulle Airport and that the airline was experiencing delays and cancellations to Paris.
Ferry operator P&O said it had laid on a fleet of coaches to get the passengers across the Channel and on to Paris or Brussels.
Spokesman Chris Laming said: “At one point we had 500 Eurostar passengers at Dover and at Calais.
“We’ve spoken to Eurostar about this arrangement and they’ve agreed to pick up the tab, and we’ll certainly send them the bill.”
Rail services were delayed in Surrey and Buckinghamshire, while London Midland services between London and Tring in Hertfordshire were cancelled and there were delays to Virgin West Coast trains.
Bus replacement services were put in place by Southern railways and Kent and Sussex suffered from the continuing poor weather.
On the roads, a jack-knifed lorry led to a lane closure on the M6 in Lancashire and another accident resulted in two lanes of the M6 in Cumbria being closed.
The AA said it had extra patrols out on duty and was putting extra snow-busting Land Rovers in place to rescue people in inaccessible areas.
AA president Edmund King said: “Many minor roads are treacherous – they’re like ice rinks – with numerous shunts and cars stuck in ditches.”

So this is Thingymas.

There has been an outbreak of blatant Christianity according to the Telegraph.  Or as they put it, two prominent Anglican bishops have urged Christians to turn back the tide of political correctness by wearing religious symbols during the Christmas  period. Actually I have to agree. Don’t you really hate that pagan midwinter festival thing that left wing councils do?

The Rt Rev Jonathan Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield, told worshippers to wear crosses or fish symbols to demonstrate that Christmas is a religious holiday.

He also criticised “politically-correct” companies and local councils who sought to make the period a secular celebration.

Bishop Gledhill said: “Companies’ sacking those who want to wear a cross or fish lapel badge and councils rebranding Christmas out of fear of offending ethnic minorities are decisions made out of sheer ignorance.

“I think it wouldn’t be a bad thing if in December all Christians wore a fish badge or cross necklace and sent out a loud message that Christians aren’t going to disappear quietly from the Christmas market place.”

His intervention has been welcomed by other bishops and comes only one week after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes should not be displayed in Italy’s schools.

The landmark judgment could force a Europe-wide review of the use of religious symbols in state-run schools. A panel of seven judges in Strasbourg said the display of Christian crosses violated the principle of secular education.

Only last week Dundee City Council renamed its Christmas Lights switch-on the ‘Dundee Winter Light Night’ in apparent fear of offending members of other religions. The traditional telling of the Christmas story has also been dropped from the council’s festive programme.

Many Nativity plays have been banned and Christ’s birth is often celebrated as “Wintermass’’ rather than Christmas.

Rt Rev John Hind, the Bishop of Chichester, called for Anglicans to speak up more loudly for their faith and religious traditions. He said: “Our faith cannot avoid being a public matter as it affects every aspect of our lives including our social and political attitudes.

“In other words, we can’t keep it to ourselves. There is growing hostility in the public towards witnessing our faith in society and this has been shown in a number of recent attempts to marginalise the meaning of Christmas or to suppress the rights of believers. I hope all Christians respond enthusiastically both by wearing external symbols of our faith.”

I choose stories from all over the world every week to entertain, illuminate and inform.