The latest taser stuns you for 5 minutes, from 20 metres.

This article in the New Scientist caught my eye today – and then I thought – what if this weapon DID catch your eye? It would still be shocking you while you were reeling from a serious and very painful injury.

THE manufacturer of the Taser stun gun is sparking new controversy with the commercial launch of a long-range version that can be fired from a 12-bore shotgun.

Government-funded tests on initial versions of the new Extended Range Electronic Projectile (XREP) have revealed possible health risks to people on the receiving end, New Scientist has learned. The manufacturer, Taser International of Scottsdale, Arizona, says the issue has been addressed in redesigned devices, but these have yet to be independently tested.

Unlike the current Taser X26, which fires darts attached to short wires, the XREP is wire-free. Its projectile, the size of a shotgun cartridge, is designed to pierce the target’s skin and contains battery-powered circuits that deliver a debilitating shock. It has a range of 20 metres or more, compared with 5 metres for previous Tasers.

A team led by Cynthia Bir, a trauma injury specialist at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, found that some of the 275 XREP cartridges that Taser supplied for testing last year were capable of delivering an electric shock for more than 5 minutes, rather than the 20 seconds of shocking current they are supposed to generate. Previous Taser stun guns shock for only 5 seconds per discharge, though that can be repeated.

Bir’s team reported their findings at a conference on non-lethal weapons in Ettlingen, Germany, in May. Steve Wright of Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK, who has studied electric shock weapons, says Bir’s report that the device can carry on shocking for 5 minutes is worrying. The effects of prolonged shocking are not known, he says, but the finding raises concerns about the potential damage to a victim’s mental health.

Bir also found problems with the weapon‘s accuracy. In test firings, it proved difficult to aim, as the aerodynamics of the projectile caused it to fall below the aiming point at a range of 20 metres. “Any lack of accuracy means a greater risk of hitting an unintended part of the body and therefore greater risk of injury,” says security researcher Neil Davison, author of a recent book on non-lethal weapons.

Steve Tuttle, a vice-president of Taser International, says the XREP munitions supplied for Bir’s tests were early pre-production versions. He says a redesign of the projectile has greatly improved its aerodynamic accuracy, and the fault in the munition’s “firmware” – its built-in software – that led to it being capable of providing an extended shock has also been corrected.

The two production versions of the XREP device include features said to improve aiming accuracy. One version, for use with rifled shotguns, has a plastic cap that engages with the rifling and gives the projectile a stabilising spin. The version for smooth-bore shotguns sprouts stabilising fins when it leaves the barrel.

Tuttle says, however, that Taser did ship some pre-production batches to US police departments.

Bir and her team have not had a chance to test the newly modified production rounds that Taser says are more accurate and reliable. Some of them have, however, already been purchased, delivered and used by unnamed “agencies” in the US, Tuttle says. Tests funded by Taser showed the rounds to be safe in terms of their impact effects on cadavers, he says. “There was no internal damage in the vicinity of the XREP impact.” There is no requirement under US law for them to undergo independent pre-sales testing.

Bir’s tests are being funded by the UK Home Office, the US National Institute of Justice and the Canadian Police Research Centre. All want to know whether the weapon can do what Taser International claims: allow police officers to incapacitate people at greater distance.

For this, the ability to take precise aim is seen as crucial. “In public disorder situations accuracy at range will be particularly important, perhaps to target individuals within a tightly packed group,” a review of “less-lethal” technologies by the Home Office states. Such weapons will help contain crowds or prevent them re-forming, the review says.

Shooting cadavers is one thing. But what happens when the weapons are fired at pregnant women, people with health problems or the very young, Wright asks.

You get more than kicks on route 36.

Thanks again to Richard Dean for this story from the Guardian – it’s a bar in Bolivia where they serve you a drink and….yes a toot of your choice. Hmmmmmm. I have seen something similar in Thailand but of course it wasn’t a toot on offer. Coming soon to a British city of your choice? To be honest, despite my determinedly liberal outlook part of me hopes not.

Tonight we have two types of cocaine; normal for 100 Bolivianos a gram, and strong cocaine for 150 [Bolivianos] a gram.” The waiter has just finished taking our drink order of two rum-and-Cokes here in La Paz, Bolivia, and as everybody in this bar knows, he is now offering the main course. The bottled water is on the house.

The waiter arrives at the table, lowers the tray and places an empty black CD case in the middle of the table. Next to the CD case are two straws and two little black packets. He is so casual he might as well be delivering a sandwich and fries. And he has seen it all. “We had some Australians; they stayed here for four days. They would take turns sleeping and the only time they left was to go to the ATM,” says Roberto, who has worked at Route 36 (in its various locations) for the last six months. Behind the bar, he goes back to casually slicing straws into neat 8cm lengths.

La Paz, Bolivia, at 3,900m above sea level – an altitude where even two flights of stairs makes your heart race like a hummingbird – is home to the most celebrated bar in all of South America: Route 36, the world’s first cocaine lounge. I sit back to take in the scene – table after table of chatty young backpackers, many of whom are taking a gap year, awaiting a new job or simply escaping the northern hemisphere for the delights of South America, which, for many it seems, include cocaine.

“Since they are an after-hours club and serve cocaine the neighbours tend to complain pretty fast. So they move all the time. Maybe if they are lucky they last three months in the same place, but often it is just two weeks. Route 36 is a movable feast,” says a Bolivian newspaper editor who asked not to be named. “One day it is in one zone and then it pops up in another area. Certainly it is the most famous among the backpacker crowd but there are several other places that are offering cocaine as well. Because Route 36 changes addresses so much there is a lot of confusion about how many cocaine bars are out there.”

This new trend of ‘cocaine tourism’ can be put down to a combination of Bolivia’s notoriously corrupt public officials, the chaotic “anything goes” attitude of La Paz, and the national example of President Evo Morales, himself a coca grower. (Coca is the leaf, and cocaine is the highly manufactured and refined powder.) Morales has diligently fought for the rights of coca growers and tossed the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) out of Bolivia. While he has said he will crack down on cocaine production, he appears to be swimming against the current. In early July, the largest ever cocaine factory was discovered in eastern Bolivia. Capable of producing 100kg a day, the lab was run by Colombians and provided the latest evidence that Bolivia is now home to sophisticated cocaine laboratories. The lab was the fourth large facility to be found in Bolivia this year.

Nowhere in South America is cocaine production growing faster than Bolivia. Reports by the UN show that in Colombia, production dropped 28% last year [2008], while in Bolivia it rose nearly 10%. “There is more interest and and investment in purifying coca paste here and exporting it, rather than sending it to Colombia for purification,” Oscar Nina, Bolivia’s top anti-drug official, said recently.

As the US and Colombian military put pressure on drug traffickers, operations are migrating into nearby countries, especially Bolivia, where the turf for illegal operations is as fertile as the valleys where the locals have grown coca for the last five centuries. Stopping cocaine tourism in La Paz could be as difficult as keeping Americans from drinking during prohibition.

Down in Route 36’s main room, the scene is chilled. A half-hearted disco ball sporadically bathes the room in red and green light. Each table has candles and a stash of bottled water, plus whatever mixers one cares to add to your drink. In the corner, a pile of board games includes chess, backgammon, and Jenga, the game in which a steady hand pulls out bricks from a tower of blocks until the whole pile collapses. If it weren’t for the heads bobbing down like birds scouring the seashore for food, you would never know that huge amounts of cocaine were being casually ingested. There’s a lot of mingling from table to table. Everyone here has stories – the latest adventures from Ecuador, the best bus to Peru – and even the most wired “why-won’t-he-shut-up?” traveller is given a generous welcome before being sent back to his table, where he can repeat those stories another 10 times.

“Everyone knows about this place,” says Jonas, a backpacker who arrived two days earlier. “My mate came to Bolivia last year and he said, ‘Route 36 is the best lounge in all of South America.'” It is certainly the most bizarre and brazen. Though cocaine is illegal in Bolivia, Route 36 is fast becoming an essential stop for thousands of tourists who come here every year and happily sample the country’s cocaine, which is famous for both its availability, price (around €15 a gram) and purity.

The scene here is peaceful; there seems no fear that anyone will be caught. (“The owner has paid off all the right people,” one waiter says with a smile.) A female backpacker from Newcastle slips on to one of the four couches arranged around the table. “We’ve brought some [cocaine] virgins here. This will be their first time, so we are just rubbing it on their lips. But they are lucky – you could never get such pure coke back home. In London you pay 50 quid for a gram that’s been cut so much, all it does it make your lips numb and sends you to the bathroom.”

Travellers’ blogs also give the place a good writeup. “I travelled the world for nine months, and for sure La Paz was the craziest city and Route 36 the best bar of my entire trip,” writes one, while another says, “Like to burn the candle at both ends? Well, here you can bloody well torch the whole candle.”

And torch your brain as well. Cocaine, as everybody knows, is highly addictive, destructive and easy to abuse. The rationale for outlawing cocaine was to protect public health – but instead the now 40-year experiment in prohibition has done little to protect the lives of millions of users worldwide who will snort whatever white substance is placed before them. The billions in annual profits have corrupted governments worldwide, and La Paz, without intending it, seems to have mutated into the front line of this failed drug war.

Stay here for a cent a night

I saw this report from Reuters in Rome today. Thanks to a mistake in the online booking system thousands of punters booked a room in this rather nice Venician hotel for one cent a night….

Hundreds of holiday makers struck lucky when they chanced upon a very special offer — a mistake in a hotel booking system which offered a romantic four-star weekend in Italy’s lagoon city of Venice for 1 cent.

The offer, a tiny fraction of the Crowne Plaza Quarto D’Altino’s normal rate of up to 150 euros ($214) a night, was quickly withdrawn when staff realized the mistake, Italian state TV reported.

In just a few hours, some 1,400 nights had been booked under the tariff, costing an estimated 90,000 euros for the hotel, part of the Intercontinental Hotels Group, the world’s largest chain, media reported.

Staff at the hotel, some 25 km (16 miles) outside Venice, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Intercontinental Hotels Group was not immediately available.

82 year old saves 400 lives with cups of tea…or a beer.

My friend Richard Dean pointed me towards this story in The Sydney Morning Herald. What a great guy Don Richie is. Hope I can stay like him as I grow older.

HE IS the watchman of The Gap. A former life insurance salesman who in 45 years has officially rescued about 160 people intent on jumping from the cliffs at Watsons Bay, mostly from Gap Park, opposite his home high on Old South Head Road. Unofficially, that figure is closer to 400.

Some, at his urging, quietly gathered their shoes and wallets, neatly laid out on the rocks, and followed him home for breakfast. Others, tragically, struggled as he grabbed at their clothes before they slipped over the edge.

Still others later sent tokens of thanks, a magnum of champagne or an anonymous drawing slipped into his letter box, labelling him ‘‘an angel walking among us’’.

Don Ritchie, 82, spends much of his time reading newspapers, books and scanning the glistening expanse of ocean laid out before him. His days of climbing fences are gone and he admits some relief that most visitors now carry mobile phones and are quick to contact the police if they see a lone figure standing too close to the edge, too deep in contemplation.

For its part, Woollahra Council has been campaigning for $2.5 million to install higher fences, motion-sensitive lights, emergency phones and closed-circuit television cameras, but Mr Ritchie is ambivalent.

‘‘People will always come here. I don’t think it will ever stop,’’ he says, with a shrug.

Some deaths have been recorded in his diary, others are eternally etched in his mind.

One summer evening he spotted a young man perched on a thin ledge, beyond the fence.

‘‘I went over and I tried to talk to him, asking him questions about where he was from. He wouldn’t talk much, just kept looking straight ahead. I was talking to him for about half an hour … thinking I was making headway. I said ‘why don’t you come over for a cup of tea, or a

beer, if you’d like one?’ He said ‘no’ and stepped straight off the side … his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.’’ Later, Mr Ritchie discovered the 19-year-old had grown up next door, playing with his grandchildren.

Years later, Mr Ritchie encouraged a ‘‘nervous and confused’’ woman, sitting on a ledge, shoes by her side, to follow him home. Over tea and toast, she revealed she was unhappy with medication she had been prescribed for depression. Mr Ritchie’s wife suggested she seek a second opinion. ‘‘A couple of months later she came up the path with a bottle of French champagne. We later got a Christmas card from her, and a postcard. It said ‘I’ll never forget your important intervention in my life. I am well’.’’

Despite his bravery and compassion, Mr Ritchie has steered clear of the limelight. He was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006 for his services to suicide prevention but is all too aware that any publicity attracts more depressed and disturbed people.

In the weeks after the Channel 10 newsreader Charmaine Dragun jumped to her death outside his house in November 2007, Mr Ritchie’s wife is adamant six more followed.

‘‘But what do you do? Not talk about it?’’ he asks. ‘‘It’s the truth. It’s what goes on here.’’

It has long been a haunting dichotomy for rescuers, families and media. To speak out in a bid to have the area made safer, risking more people becoming aware of it, or to keep quiet, letting the deaths go on.

But for an anti-suicide campaigner, Dianne Gaddin, whose daughter Tracy jumped from The Gap in 2005, the answer is easy. If the issue is not aired, the problem will never be solved.

She has written four letters in the past month to the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, urging him to act. While her pleas go unanswered, her desperation balloons. She knows Mr Ritchie will not be standing guard forever.

‘‘Sometimes just a smile and a greeting is all it takes to change the mind of the would-be suicider. I don’t believe people want to die, but living is just too hard. To me, Don is a guardian angel.’’