Category Archives: morality

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

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

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…..you 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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Rabbi takes other services.

I suppose we all enjoy stories which involve a holy person’s fall from grace. Lucifer Star of The Morning springs to mind. This story – again brought to my attention by the noble Richard Dean – ran in today’s Times. I was going to make some politically incorrect remark about having a nose for a toot, but as I am going to invite my Manchester Jewish friend Kevin to read this story, perhaps not.

An eminent rabbi was so exhausted after three days of constant cocaine-fuelled partying with escorts that his pimp grew worried and cancelled that day’s supply of girls, a jury was told.
Rabbi Baruch Chalomish, 55, who has a £6 million fortune, was a scholarly academic, an accomplished businessman, a charity giver and a dutiful family man until his first wife died of cancer and his world fell apart.
He turned to alcohol in his depression, then took refuge in cocaine, spending up to £1,000 a week. He lived in squalor, seeking comfort from prostitutes, Manchester Crown Court was told.
The prosecution said that Chalomish was the financier in a commercial cocaine supply business while Nasir Abbas, 54, a convicted drug dealer, provided the drugs and the customers.
The pair rented a luxury flat in Manchester and for ten days over the new year enjoyed a non-stop party. Mr Abbas admitted to police that he procured a supply of girls from an agency called Pure Class. They were also offered cocaine.
The court was told that on the ninth day, and after the rabbi had stayed up for three straight days, Mr Abbas was so concerned about his health that he scrapped that day’s supply of prostitutes. In a text message to a woman called Clio he wrote: “Hi Clio, I have tried to wake Shel up but I don’t want to wake him. He was very tired because he had no sleep for three days, needed to rest, because he is going to his office to work on Monday at 8. Please cancel the party today.”
Michael Goldwater, for the prosecution, said that at 9am on January 5 police raided the flat finding evidence of a substantial drugs operation including cocaine, cutting agents and scales. Officers found an equal amount of the drug at Chalomish’s home in Prestwich, in the heart of Manchester’s Orthodox Jewish community, as well as cutting agents and more than £15,000 in cash.
Chalomish denies supplying the drug but admits having it. Mr Abbas, who said that he was too scared to attend the trial after the rabbi “sent around some heavies” to threaten him, faces charges of having cocaine with intent to supply.
Jonathan Goldberg, QC, for the defence, said that the rabbi’s fall from grace was a tragedy. He said that his client never supplied the drug but hoarded large supplies of pure cocaine to evade “unscrupulous dealers” known to use rat poison and other dangerous mixing agents. The trial continues.

Dixon of Dock Green picks up a shooter.

One of the good things about British society has been our unarmed police policy. However, by some strange back door manouevre, it’s suddenly vanished and armed police are here on the streets of London in Brixton and Haringey. Right here, right now. Maybe some part of us doesn’t want to admit what the nice Rasta in Brockwell Park said to me the other morning about where my wife and I used to live in Brixton: “It’s like a war zone, so it is man.”  What bothers me, is that like the villains, the police are toting automatic weapons. Machine guns in streets of crowded people. Has it really come to this? This coverage is from the Independent.

Armed police officers are to patrol the streets of London for the first time in an attempt to tackle a rise in gang-related gun crime.

Traditionally officers from the Metropolitan Police’s specialist firearms unit – codenamed CO19 – have been deployed on the streets only when a response to incidents of gun crime is necessary or to protect VIPs.

The new initiative, announced yesterday, will see CO19 officers patrolling the capital’s most dangerous streets and housing estates alongside neighbourhood officers. It has been described as a “proactive” response to the 17 per cent increase in gun crime over the past six months.

But it was immediately denounced by members of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), the body which governs the actions of Scotland Yard, which was apparently not consulted on the controversial decision. One MPA member described the move as “totally unacceptable” while another called for an emergency meeting.

Joanne McCartney said: “We want fewer guns on the streets not more, and people to feel safe in their community – not scared of those who are supposed to protect them.

“There has been no debate, no consultation and apparently no consideration to the strong opposition that exists to arming the police. This is more than just an operational decision and should be brought before the police authority as a matter of urgency.”

Jenny Jones, another MPA member, added: “This is a totally unacceptable departure from normal policing tactics. I can’t believe that the sight of a policeman with a machine gun will make people feel safer.

“Are we heading down a slippery slope towards armed rather than community policing? I hope the Met will rethink this terrible decision immediately and think of a genuinely proactive way to prevent gun crime.”

Pilot patrols have already begun in Brixton as well as Haringey and Tottenham, where three Turkish men were shot dead earlier this month in an apparent war between rival heroin gangs.

It is the first time the Metropolitan Police has deployed armed officers for routine patrols outside of protected sites such as Parliament and Royal homes. However a similar project did run in Nottinghamshire in 2000 in an attempt to address the issue of drive-by shootings that afflicted the city.

Yet the fact that Britain’s police officers, unlike their American counterparts, remain predominately unarmed is a source of continuing pride to traditionalists who believe that officers should police through consent rather than force.

But Inspector Derek Carroll, who leads the armed unit, said officers have received positive feedback from residents.

He said: “Historically, CO19 was only called out when someone rang up to report a gun crime. But a lot of streets in London have young people in postcode gangs, aged 14 and upwards, and a lot of communities feel that they are controlling areas of estates. We are looking at gangs that have access to firearms and will be robust in dealing with them.”

Now just where did I bury the body? I know, I’ll put it on the sat nav.

I read this story on the BBC News service this afternoon. It’s a bit grim – but hmmmmm.

A man accused of strangling a woman recorded the rough area of where he buried her body in the memory of his car’s sat nav system, a jury was told.

Lukasz Reszpondek, 30, had been seeing Ermatati “Tati” Rodgers, 41, Mold Crown Court heard.

Mr Reszpondek, who denies murder, said she died of natural causes and he had buried her near Wrexham in a panic.

But the prosecution told the jury that “quite simply” innocent people did not bury bodies. The case continues.

Mr Reszpondek, a Polish national and married man, has admitted preventing Ms Rodgers’s “lawful and decent burial”.

At the opening of the trial, the jury was told he had buried her but tried to dig her body up again as police closed in on him.

But he could not recover the body and went to the police.

Ms Rodgers was missing for 14 months before her body was eventually found by police in March 2009.

Prosecuting barrister Michael Chambers QC said Mr Reszpondek killed Ms Rodgers, who was originally from Indonesia, on the day he returned early from Poland by car without his family on 4 January, 2008.

He said he had lost his temper and strangled her “against a background of the emotional and conflicting demands of the eternal triangle of a wife and another woman”.

The defendant watched the police looking for the body from the top of a nearby slag heap, hiding in bushes, wearing camouflage clothing and using binoculars

He then set about disposing of the body and might well have got away with it if he had not made certain fundamental errors, the prosecutor claimed.

Quite simply, innocent people do not bury bodies, Mr Chambers told the jury.

Mr Reszpondek and Ms Rodgers met in the summer of 2004 when they both worked together at a dairy at Marchwiel near Wrexham.

They formed a close relationship which continued after the defendant’s wife came over from Poland to join him in Wrexham.

At Christmas 2007 the defendant – a father of two – returned to Poland. His family travelled by plane but he went separately by car.

He returned to Wrexham on 4 January, 2008 and took Ms Rodgers to his house in Rhostyllen after a 900-mile car journey. It was there that he killed her, said the prosecutor.

In police interview, Mr Reszpondek claimed he had gone upstairs to take a shower and had come back down to discover her collapsed and dead.

He claimed that he had buried the body because he had panicked, the court heard.

The following day he bought a spade, a large suitcase and other items which he used to help him bury the body, with his credit card which police were able to trace.

He then recorded the approximate area of the burial site in the memory of his car satellite navigation system and named it “Tt”, the court was told.

Police surveillance found he kept returning to that area and when they began digging in the surrounding fields looking for her body, “the defendant made the error of taking the bait”, said Mr Chambers.

“The defendant watched the police looking for the body from the top of a nearby slag heap, hiding in bushes, wearing camouflage clothing and using binoculars,” he said.

“What he did not know was that the police were watching him, watching them.”

By Sunday afternoon, 22 March, the police digging was getting close to the actual field which contained the body, Mr Chambers told the jury.

“The defendant must have thought that on the Monday morning they were likely to move into the actual field and find the body,” he said.

“So on that Sunday night, he tried to move it.

“However it was more difficult that he anticipated so after about three hours he had to stop.

“It was only at that stage that he went to Wrexham police station.

“He gave the account that she had suddenly collapsed and died, he had panicked, and buried her.”

Home Office pathologist Dr Brian Rodgers conducted a post-mortem examination and he said that there was no sign of any natural causes which would have explained her sudden death.

But he did find bruising and a fractured thyroid cartilage consistent with strangulation.

Mr Chambers told the jury that police had found deleted “glamour photographs” of Mrs Rodgers on his digital camera which included her in under-wear and semi naked poses.

That, he said, indicated the nature of their relationship.

He said that it could be inferred that the defendant lost his temper and strangled her in the “context of the emotional and conflicting demands of the eternal triangular relationship of wife and another woman.”

The trial, which is expected to last three weeks, continues.

America’s green aspirations reach a sticky end.

Only In America would we find such a superbly written story about bog paper – by David Farenthold in The Washington Post. The US wants the softest toilet roll – but this means cutting down the oldest trees. The article is rich in unintended double meanings. It’s a Hummer product.  Greenpeace should have pushed for more. Talking about logging. The Bottom Line. Oh dear.
I don’t usually include a video but this one is priceless. Especially the faces of the consumer testers checking the Unnecessary Plumbing Issues.

It is a fight over toilet paper: the kind that is blanket-fluffy and getting fluffier so fast that manufacturers are running out of synonyms for “soft” (Quilted Northern Ultra Plush is the first big brand to go three-ply and three-adjective).

It’s a menace, environmental groups say — and a dark-comedy example of American excess.

The reason, they say, is that plush U.S. toilet paper is usually made by chopping down and grinding up trees that were decades or even a century old. They want Americans, like Europeans, to wipe with tissue made from recycled paper goods.

It has been slow going. Big toilet-paper makers say that they’ve taken steps to become more Earth-friendly but that their customers still want the soft stuff, so they’re still selling it.

This summer, two of the best-known combatants in this fight signed a surprising truce, with a big tissue maker promising to do better. But the larger battle goes on — the ultimate test of how green Americans will be when nobody’s watching.

“At what price softness?” said Tim Spring, chief executive of Marcal Manufacturing, a New Jersey paper maker that is trying to persuade customers to try 100 percent recycled paper. “Should I contribute to clear-cutting and deforestation because the big [marketing] machine has told me that softness is important?”

He added: “You’re not giving up the world here.”

Toilet paper is far from being the biggest threat to the world’s forests: together with facial tissue, it accounts for 5 percent of the U.S. forest-products industry, according to industry figures. Paper and cardboard packaging makes up 26 percent of the industry, although more than half is made from recycled products. Newspapers account for 3 percent.

But environmentalists say 5 percent is still too much.

Felling these trees removes a valuable scrubber of carbon dioxide, they say. If the trees come from “farms” in places such as Brazil, Indonesia or the southeastern United States, natural forests are being displaced. If they come from Canada’s forested north — a major source of imported wood pulp — ecosystems valuable to bears, caribou and migratory birds are being damaged.

And, activists say, there’s just the foolish idea of the thing: old trees cut down for the briefest and most undignified of ends.It’s like the Hummer product for the paper industry,” said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We don’t need old-growth forests . . . to wipe our behinds.”

The reason for this fight lies in toilet-paper engineering. Each sheet is a web of wood fibers, and fibers from old trees are longer, which produces a smoother and more supple web. Fibers made from recycled paper — in this case magazines, newspapers or computer printouts — are shorter. The web often is rougher.
So, when toilet paper is made for the “away from home” market, the no-choice bathrooms in restaurants, offices and schools, manufacturers use recycled fiber about 75 percent of the time.
But for the “at home” market, the paper customers buy for themselves, 5 percent at most is fully recycled. The rest is mostly or totally “virgin” fiber, taken from newly cut trees, according to the market analysis firm RISI Inc.
Big tissue makers say they’ve tried to make their products as green as possible, including by buying more wood pulp from forest operations certified as sustainable.
But despite environmentalists’ concerns, they say customers are unwavering in their desire for the softest paper possible.
“That’s a segment [of consumers] that is quite demanding of products that are soft,” said James Malone, a spokesman for Georgia-Pacific. Sales figures seem to make that clear: Quilted Northern Ultra Plush, the three-ply stuff, sold 24 million packages in the past year, bringing in more than $144 million, according to the market research firm Information Resources Inc.
Last month, Greenpeace announced an agreement that it said would change this industry from the inside.
The environmental group had spent 4 1/2 years attacking Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Kleenex and Cottonelle toilet paper, for getting wood from old-growth forests in Canada. But the group said it is calling off the “Kleercut” campaign: Kimberly-Clark had agreed to make its practices greener.
By 2011, the company said, 40 percent of the fiber in all its tissue products will come from recycled paper or sustainable forests.
“We could have campaigned forever,” said Lindsey Allen, a senior forest campaigner with Greenpeace. But this was enough, she said, because Kimberly-Clark’s changes could alter the entire wood-pulp supply chain: “They have a policy that . . . will shift the entire way that tissue companies work.”
Still, some environmental activists said that Greenpeace should have pushed for more.”The problem is not yet getting better,” said Chris Henschel, of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, talking about logging in Canada’s boreal forests. He said real change will come only when consumers change their habits: “It’s unbelievable that this global treasure of Canadian boreal forests is being turned into toilet paper. . . . I think every reasonable person would have trouble understanding how that would be okay.”

That part could be difficult, because — in the U.S. market, at least — soft is to toilet paper what fat is to bacon, the essence of the appeal.
Earlier this year, Consumer Reports tested toilet paper brands and found that recycled-tissue brands such as Seventh Generation and Marcal’s Small Steps weren’t unpleasant. But they gave their highest rating to the three-ply Quilted Northern.
“We do believe that you’re going to feel a difference,” said Bob Markovich, an editor at Consumer Reports.
Marcal, the maker of recycled toilet paper here in New Jersey, is trying to change that with a two-pronged sales pitch. The first is that soft is overrated.
“Strength of toilet paper is more important, for obvious reasons,” said Spring, the chief executive, guiding a golf cart among the machinery that whizzes up vast stacks of old paper, whips it into a slurry, and dries it into rolls of toilet paper big enough for King Kong. He said his final product is as strong as any of the big-name brands. “If the paper breaks during your use of toilet paper, obviously, that’s very, very important.”
The second half of the pitch is that Marcal’s toilet paper is almost as soft as the other guy’s anyway.
“Handle it like you’re going to take care of business,” company manager Michael Bonin said, putting this reporter through a blind test of virgin vs. recycled toilet paper. Two rolls were hidden in a cardboard box: the test was to reach in without looking and wad them up, considering the “three aspects of softness,” which are surface smoothness, bulky feel and “drapability,” or lack of rigidity.
The reporter wadded. The officials waited. The one on the right felt slightly softer.
That was not the answer they wanted: The recycled paper was on the left.

Don’t get ill in August. A new doctor might see you.

The second medical story of the week. If you fall ill in August your chances of recovery are significantly less. Because that’s when the newly qualified doctors are on the wards. So BBC news and The Guardian would have us know.

There is never a good time to have a heart attack, but the wise person afflicted with clogging arteries might want to be especially careful in future to avoid stress and watch the diet as August rolls around.

The NHS, it is revealed today, has its very own black Wednesday, when death rates go up by an average of 6%; and there is a somewhat disturbing underlying cause – the arrival on the wards of a new intake of junior doctors.

On the first Wednesday in August every year, a freshly qualified set of junior doctors arrives on the wards. Pristine and eager and brilliant they no doubt are, but while they are finding their way around something unexplained and slightly perplexing appears to happen.

Researchers from the Dr Foster unit and the department of acute medicine at Imperial College London say there has been a suspicion for years that more people die on the day the new doctors arrive, but for the first time they have established that it happens – although they say the rise in deaths is very small.

They do not blame the doctors’ inexperience or confusion in the hospital and say it is also possible that only the severest cases are admitted in that week, because of the changeover.

Their study has international implications, the researchers say. “A similar effect has been recorded in the US (known as the ‘July phenomenon’),” they write in their paper, published today in the open-access journal PloS (Public Library of Science) One. But previous studies have looked only at a few hospitals.

The Imperial study is far bigger, scrutinising data from nearly 300,000 patients in 175 hospital trusts between 2000 and 2008. It compared death rates on the first Wednesday in August with the last Wednesday in July. The difference was most marked in medical cases, such as heart attacks and strokes, where there was an 8% increase in deaths; there was no difference in surgical cases.

“We wanted to find out whether mortality rates changed on the first Wednesday in August, when junior doctors take up their new posts,” said senior author Paul Aylin. “What we have found looks like an interesting pattern and we would now like to look at this in more detail to find out what might be causing the increase.

“Our study does not mean that people should avoid going into hospital that week. This is a relatively small difference in mortality rates, and the numbers of excess deaths are very low. It’s too early to say what might be causing it.”

Shree Datta, chair of the British Medical Association’s junior doctor committee, said the study had to be judged alongside others looking at mortality rates before and after junior doctors start their new jobs, but added: “Clearly even a small increase in death rates is of great concern and we need further research to see whether this is a real effect or an anomaly.”

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.’’

A tale of two brothers.

This story is about a pubic school educated terrorist, found in today´s Telegraph

The picturesque village of Frenchay on the edge of Bristol with its expansive green and imposing Grade II listed church, backing onto open countryside should have been the perfect setting for Andrew Ibrahim to grow up. His father, an eminent consultant pathologist at the nearby hospital and lecturer at the university, had bought an imposing Victorian stone house at the end of a private lane and could afford to send his two sons to the 300-year-old Colston’s private school, housed in a former palace of the Bishop of Bristol in nearby Stapelton.

For one son it was a recipe that led to success in athletics, school prefecture, Oxford University, bar school and a career with a US law firm in the City of London.

For the other it led to a series of obsessions with drugs, computer games, Islam and terrorism, and eventually to the dock of Winchester Crown Court.

“The two brothers could not be more different,” a senior police officer involved with the case said. “It’s a perfect example of nature versus nurture.”

Their father Nassif, 61, a Coptic Christian originally from Egypt, is a collector of antique pottery, stamps, coins and, his son says, Nazi memorabilia.

His wife, Victoria, known as Vicky, originally from West Yorkshire, is a church-going Christian who took the children on coach holidays and works as an administrator at Bristol University Medical School.

Andrew was always in the shadow of his older brother Peter, six years his senior, and reacted by constantly seeking attention.

Overweight but far from stupid himself, he played the class fool so successfully that he was expelled from a series of private schools, becoming every middle class parent’s nightmare.

He smoked cannabis at the age of 12, became hooked on “role playing” computer games, and used his father’s computer to look up material on Osama bin Laden and explosives alongside his Latin homework.

“I didn’t like football,” he said. “It’s difficult to know how to put it, it made me feel cooler. I didn’t have friends or a social life and it made me feel better about myself. I felt not such a sad loser.”

His parents moved him from Colston’s junior school to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital School, an even older public school in the centre of Bristol which boasts the Queen as its patron, where they hoped he would escape from the shadow of his brother.

Instead he hung around with older pupils and started taking cannabis to be “different from the other kids of that sort of age,” he said.

He bragged about using drugs to his fellow pupils, leading to his suspension on January 24 2002, the day before his 13th birthday.

Returning to Colston’s, Ibrahim’s weight and lack of sporting ability helped other pupils label him a “loser” and his increasingly unruly behaviour led the school to ask him to leave in December 2002, shortly before his 14th birthday.

His next stop was Downside, a Catholic boarding school near Bath founded in 1606 that counts the journalist Auberon Waugh and hotelier Sir Rocco Forte among its old boys.

Bullied and laughed at, he again turned to cannabis and experimented with ecstasy, sneaking out at night and inviting local boys back to his dormitory, leading to his suspension.

Ibrahim joined Bristol Cathedral School in September 2004 – then the bottom of the heap of Bristol private schools and now a government academy – but the school helped him pass eight GCSEs in June 2005, including English language at grade A, five at grade B and one each at grades C and D.

But he had once again alienated fellow pupils and by the end of the year he was experimenting with drugs again, this time magic mushrooms, ecstasy and cocaine.

Ibrahim had also become addicted to on-line computer games involving “role playing” such as Diablo II, Mass Effect and Metal Gear Solid.

During the school holidays he would play from 7am until midnight but after leaving school, the addiction led to him dropping out of City of Bristol College where he was supposed to be studying for A-levels.

His father became increasingly exasperated with his behaviour and asked Vicky to move out with their son when Ibrahim came home drunk from a party with his eyebrow pierced.

Mother and son moved into a flat nearby but Ibrahim walked out when his mother found ecstasy and ketamine tablets in the flat.

Despite his increasing addiction, his parents stood by him, splitting the rent with him on a flat in Kingswood, a suburb in North East Bristol, with his mother doing a weekly food shop for him.

At the flat, Ibrahim had videos of women’s feet he had taken on his mobile phone at college without their knowledge, which he admitted were part of a “sexual interest” and he had searched for pictures of Kiera Knightley’s feet on the internet.

He had become hooked on heroin and crack cocaine, using the drugs several times a day and stealing to fund his habit.

He was reprimanded by police for possessing heroin in May 2006 at the age of 17 and warned for shoplifting on two occasions in September and October 2006.

By the end of 2006, Ibrahim had lost what little he had built up around him – his girlfriend of 18 months, teetotal and clear-headed, eventually walked away when he started injecting heroin in front of her.

“In the end she didn’t want it any more. I was quite upset, I was heartbroken,” he said.

He was still holding down a job at Lloyds Bank but turned to a new addiction  steroids, attending the Empire Gym in the run down area of St Paul’s in Bristol where he took up body building and started injecting Deca-Durabolin and Sustanon 250.

Alongside his various addictions, Ibrahim had five tattoos done during 2005 and 2006, including “Hardcore” across his stomach and “HTID” on his right bicep to represent “Hardcore Till I Die” after a style of rave music.

He also had a variety of hairstyles and colours along with a series of facial and intimate piercings.

On his Myspace internet account in April 2006, Ibrahim was pictured with spiky red hair and described himself as “Andy” and his religion as “Muslim.”

By early 2007, Ibrahim was forced to move into the St George’s House hostel in central Bristol because he was not paying the rent.

He sold the Big Issue magazine for the homeless on the street, using the money to fund his £60-a-day drug habit.

When his father came across him outside the Broadmead Shopping Centre he started meeting him once a week to buy him food and take him for a meal.

Already struggling with their son’s various obsessions, his turn to Islam came as yet another blow to Ibrahim’s parents – his mother’s reaction was simply: “Don’t start that now.”

Ibrahim said he traveled to Birmingham in the summer of 2006 with a friend of his father’s and converted at the Green Lanes mosque around the time of the anniversary of the July 7 bombings.

He decided to study to be a Muslim scholar in the Yemen but instead settled on a seven year course in Birmingham, which his mother agreed to pay for.

By December he had grown a beard and was wearing white robes, sandals and an Islamic headscarf.

But he soon dropped his interest and returned to drugs until, returning to City of Bristol College to study for AS and A-levels in chemistry, biology, history, English language, and science of public understanding, he started praying again with fellow students at a room at the college.

Ibrahim said, he “wasn’t so much interested in Islam as the politics” particularly Palestine and Iraq and he used a college computer to download videos of US troops being killed in Iraq, along with speeches by the jailed cleric Abu Hamza.

But his most serious obsession became that of the suicide bomber, looking at the videos made by the July 7 bombers and Asif Hanif, Britain’s first suicide bomber who died in Israel.

“I did spend a lot of time looking at [internet sites]. It was an obsessive interest, I accept that,” he said.

He was eventually given a council flat in Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol where he began building bombs.

Ibrahim had been playing the computer game Assassin’s Creed and claimed he was just “role playing” the part of a terrorist.

As he struggled to come off drugs, he said he decided to make a suicide vest to “occupy my time,” using a video he found on the internet for instructions.

“I wanted it to look good because I was going to film it like I did with the explosives and put it on YouTube,” he added.

Gormley not gormless.

 

Love him or loathe him, Adrian Searle writes a really mean article. In the Guardian today the way in which he elevates Antony Gormley’s efforts with the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is an art in its own right. (Not to denigrate Mr Gormley of course, I think he is ace.)

In encouraging the public to act, react and interact around Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, Gormley’s One and Other is timely – and invokes a rich tradition of living art

At a little before 9am, today a protester scaled the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against actors smoking. He was followed by the first official occupant, who stood with a giant lollipop emblazoned with the logo of the NSPCC. Strangely, all this was somehow less compelling than the man in shorts and red T-shirt who came next. He had no apparent agenda at all, except being there. Most of the time, he stood near the lip of the plinth with his hands in his pockets, like a character in search of an author. His presence was what counted. Just as some sculptures have more presence than others (a tiny bronze Giacometti can somehow fill a whole room), so it is with the living.

Not everyone here will be a living sculpture. Some who are lifted on to the plinth will be living advertisements for themselves, craving attention, fame or notoriety. I expect numerous hapless performances, a bit of nudity, protests and declarations at all hours of the day and night. There’s always the chance someone might immolate themselves, or defecate, urinate, masturbate or vomit. Are they allowed shoelaces or belts up there? Are they frisked for weapons or secret intentions? Is there a contingency for those who might wish to give birth, or any potential suicides? Taking a running jump, it would be easy to hurl oneself over the safety net to the paving slabs below. Anyone attempting to recreate the artist Yves Klein’s famous 1960 Leap into the Void, a photograph of him suspended in mid-air above the street, should be warned – his image was doctored. And what about snipers on nearby rooftops, kids with catapults, miscreants with rotten eggs, bricks, guns? A stoning is entirely possible.

Living sculpture has a long and intriguing history. On 1 January 1901 the bullfighter Don Tancredo López covered himself in whitewash and stood on a box in the middle of the bullring in Madrid; the bull circled him but did not attack. López was a statue of himself risking death. When Gilbert and George covered their hands and faces in gold paint, stood on a table and performed Flanagan and Allen’s song Underneath the Arches in a London gallery in 1969, they risked only the derision of the art crowd.

In 1974 Chris Burden spent 22 days on a platform in a New York gallery; and in 2002, the Montenegran artist Marina Abramovicć spent 12 days and nights on a platform, eating nothing and only drinking water. She slept and performed all her ablutions in full view of the public. An hour on a plinth isn’t long, but Trafalgar Square is a different, far more public context, with live action from the plinth streamed on the web 24 hours a day.

So far the most memorable work since the fourth plinth was turned over to contemporary art has been Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, a life-sized cast of a young man in a loincloth, which appeared in 1999. The white resin cast looked like marble. Standing on the edge of the plinth, facing the square, it had more presence than the people who have so far been hoisted there; asking why this might be is a question both about sculpture, and about ourselves.

Yet Gormley’s idea is a rich one. It combines a very old idea about images, and sculptures on plinths in public spaces, with the digital age and the spectacle of reality TV. We know that paying attention to an experiment often changes its outcome. Those who stand and watch have all sorts of expectations and fantasies. The square below is a space for the curious and the ghoulish, for voyeurs and louts; it, as well as the plinth, is a space of transit and for waiting, and for all sorts of performances and gestures. We are all actors here, under the watchful cameras of Sky Arts.

Gormley offers the possibility both for action and inaction. This is where the project’s magic lies – and also its danger. It is probably his best work, even if it risks bringing out the worst in people. The artist has set up the conditions, and what follows is unknown.

Half of 1.27 million people who die in road traffic crashes every year are pedestrians or cyclists.

Half of 1.27 million people who die in road traffic crashes every year are pedestrians, cyclists or motor cyclists. So I found out by reading a recent report by the World Health Organisation while I was researching background information on a job for a client.


The first global assessment of road safety finds that almost half of the estimated 1.27 million people who die in road traffic crashes every year are pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists. While progress has been made towards protecting people in cars, the needs of these vulnerable groups of road users are not being met.
The Global status report on road safety published today provides the first worldwide analysis of how well countries are implementing a number of effective road safety measures. These include limiting speed, reducing drink-driving, and increasing the use of seatbelts, child restraints and motorcycle helmets. Funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the report presents information from 178 countries, accounting for over 98% of the world’s population. It uses a standardized method that allows comparisons between countries to be made.

“We found that in many countries, the laws necessary to protect people are either not in place or are not comprehensive. And even when there is adequate legislation, most countries report that their enforcement is low,” said WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. “We are not giving sufficient attention to the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists many of whom end up in clinics and hospitals. We must do better if we are to halt or reverse the rise in road traffic injuries, disability and deaths.”

“Traffic crashes are a leading cause of death, particularly among young people 5 to 44 years of age,” said Mr Michael R. Bloomberg. “For the first time, we have solid data to hold us accountable and to target our efforts. Road safety must be part of all transport planning efforts, particularly at this moment of focus on infrastructure improvements and road building by many countries around the globe.”

Road traffic death rates increasing
While road traffic death rates in many high-income countries have stabilized or declined in recent decades, research suggests road deaths are increasing in most regions of the world and that if trends continue unabated, they will rise to an estimated 2.4 million a year by 2030. In addition, road crashes cause between 20 million and 50 million non-fatal injuries every year and are an important cause of disability. In many countries support services for road traffic victims are inadequate. These avoidable injuries also overload already stretched health-care systems in many countries.

The report documents numbers of registered motorized vehicles in each country and action being taken to invest in public transport and encourage non-motorized travel such as walking and cycling. Vehicle manufacturing standards and requirements for road safety audits were also reported, as well as the existence of formal pre-hospital care systems, including emergency telephone numbers.

Accurate statistics are crucial for understanding the state of road safety and measuring the impact of efforts to improve it. The report found that underreporting of deaths occurs in many countries, and that few countries have completely reliable data on road traffic injuries. The highest death rates are seen in the Eastern Mediterranean and African regions. The lowest rates are among high-income countries, such as the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Other highlights of the report include:

  • Less than a third of countries meet basic criteria for reducing speed in urban areas.
  • Less than half of countries use the recommended blood alcohol concentration limit of 0.05 grams per decilitre as a measure to reduce drink-driving.
  • While helmet laws exist in more than 90% of countries, only 40% have a law that covers both riders and passengers while also requiring that helmets meet a specified standard.
  • Only 57% of countries have laws that require all car occupants to wear seat-belts. This figure is only 38% in low-income countries.
  • Half of all countries do not have laws requiring the use of child restraints (e.g., child seats and booster seats). This figure masks considerable variation, with relevant laws in 90% of high-income countries but only 20% of low-income countries.
  • Only 15% of countries have comprehensive laws which address all five of these risk factors.
  • Where laws on these risk factors are in place they are often inadequately enforced, particularly in low-income countries. For example, only 9% of countries rate their enforcement of speed limits as over 7 on a scale of 0 to 10, while the corresponding figure for enforcement of seat-belt laws is 19%.
  • “More than 90% of the world’s road deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries, while these countries only have 48% of the world’s vehicles,” said Dr Etienne Krug, Director of WHO’s Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability. “Our roads are particularly unsafe for pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists who, without the protective shell of a car around them, are more vulnerable. These road users need to be given increased attention. Measures such as building sidewalks, raised crossings and separate lanes for two wheelers; reducing drink-driving and excessive speed; increasing the use of helmets and improving trauma care are some of the interventions that could save hundreds of thousands of lives every year.”

    The report also shows that road traffic injuries remain very relevant in high-income countries. “Even the top performers globally are often stagnating and still have considerable room for improvement in achieving a truly safe road transport system,” Dr Krug said.

    That’s what I call a Movie Premiere.

    Hooray! A first ever inclusion for the Sydney Morning Herald – who give us the news today that Saudi Arabia is showing its first public movie in the cinemas for many a year. Thanks to Richard Dean for drawing my attention to this story.

    Riyadh goes to the movies – for the first time
    June 8, 2009 – 6:27AM

    A few hundred Saudis braved a small band of religious hardliners to take part in an historic event on Saturday night: the first public showing of a commercial film in decades in the Saudi capital.

    With bags of popcorn and soft drinks in their laps, the men-only crowd of more than 300 in Riyadh’s huge King Fahd Cultural Centre cheered, whistled and clapped when the first scenes of the Saudi-made Menahi hit the screen and the film’s score erupted in surround sound.

    “This is the beginning of change,” said university student Ahmed al-Mokayed, attending with his brother and cousin.

    Businessman Abdul Mohsen al-Mani, who brought his two sons to the film, was ecstatic, after being denied public cinema for some three decades.

    “This is the first step in a peaceful revolution,” he said.

    “I don’t want my two sons to grow up in the dark … I told them that in the future they will talk about today like a joke,” he added.

    It was long in coming — and no one is certain that it will launch a thriving public cinema industry, with strident opposition from clerics who regard film, music and other entertainment as violating Islamic teachings.

    Police at the venue had to fend off a small band of conservative Muslims who warned that films were bringing disasters on the country, citing a recent series of minor earthquakes in western Saudi Arabia.

    “Allah is punishing us for the cinema,” one said. “It is against Islam.”

    “Menahi”, a comedy about a Saudi country bumpkin getting lost in the big city, was shown in December to huge crowds in the relatively free-wheeling Red Sea city of Jeddah.

    Christopher Fraser to stand down as Tory MP for Norfolk after claiming 140 cherry trees on the taxpayer

    To be honest I’ve found this week’s news a bit dull – it’s wrong not to include one of the MP standing down stories, especially one who claims for 75 red cedars on the taxpayer. Can’t see the wood for the trees I guess. Thanks to the Telegraph for running this one. When are they going to get to the real story behind corruptibility amongst MPs? I’m looking out for it I can tell you. Might even start writing it myself if the newspapers keep on getting diverted by the relatively small fry expenses stuff.

    The South West Norfolk MP, said he would not contest the next election because of his wife’s continuing ill-health and said his decision was not to do with the controversy over the way he designated his “second home” allowing him to claim money for his £350,000 property in East Anglia.

    Mr Fraser also lives on a farm worth £1.2 million in Dorset, where he was an MP between 1997 and 2001, before being voted out and re-elected to the Norfolk seat four years later.

    He designates the farmhouse in Dorset as his “main home”, while letting out a smaller farmhouse on the same estate and the surrounding land. He also rents out another property in London.

    Mr Fraser used the money claimed on his Norfolk home to buy 140 cherry laurels and 75 red cedars. The MP made the claim for trees worth £933 and fencing worth £875 in February, 2007.

    It was initially challenged by the Commons fees office. An official who approved the claim said: “This is a property without any natural boundaries. Mr Fraser felt that in order to provide security and privacy, fences and hedges were required.”

    In a statement today the MP said: “I have never sought re-selection for South West Norfolk because I have for some time been seriously considering whether to go forward after the next General Election. My wife’s ongoing health problems and the major operation that she had last year have made it difficult to juggle my family life with my duties as an MP.

    “It has been a privilege to serve South West Norfolk, and I have enjoyed the work enormously. I hope that I have in some small way been able to make a difference for the people who have come to me for help.

    “With great sadness, I have decided not to seek re-selection for the next election.

    “I pledge absolute support to David Cameron and the Conservative Party, and will work between now and the general election for the Conservative government that the country urgently needs.”

    Between being elected in May, 2005, and October, 2006, he rented another farmhouse in the constituency for £1,200 a month, the cost of which he claimed back on expenses.

    He also claimed £240 for a lawnmower and £70 for the emptying of his “sceptic (sic) tank”. He said: “I purchased the cheapest lawnmower that I could find, and cut the grass myself to save costs.”

    Mr Fraser then bought his current “second home”, and made an emergency claim. Officials noted that he “needs money urgently”.

    Poisoned by one of our pies? Your fault for bad cooking

    In this “can’t cook” society – can it be right that food manufacturers are relying on the fact that consumers have to get foods to the right temperatures to kill the bugs inherent in their products? This article in the New York Times shows that 27,000 people in the States were affected by salmonella in just one incidence this year. Nine died. Me, I make my own pies.

    The frozen pot pies that sickened an estimated 15,000 people with salmonella in 2007 left federal inspectors mystified. At first they suspected the turkey. Then they considered the peas, carrots and potatoes.

    The pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens, but could not find the culprit. It also tried cooking the vegetables at high temperatures, a strategy the industry calls a “kill step,” to wipe out any lingering microbes. But the vegetables turned to mush in the process.

    So ConAgra — which sold more than 100 million pot pies last year under its popular Banquet label — decided to make the consumer responsible for the kill step. The “food safety” instructions and four-step diagram on the 69-cent pies offer this guidance: “Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.”

    Increasingly, the corporations that supply Americans with processed foods are unable to guarantee the safety of their ingredients. In this case, ConAgra could not pinpoint which of the more than 25 ingredients in its pies was carrying salmonella. Other companies do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening the items for microbes and other potential dangers, interviews and documents show.

    Yet the supply chain for ingredients in processed foods — from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables — is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede.

    In addition to ConAgra, other food giants like Nestlé and the Blackstone Group, a New York firm that acquired the Swanson and Hungry-Man brands two years ago, concede that they cannot ensure the safety of items — from frozen vegetables to pizzas — and that they are shifting the burden to the consumer. General Mills, which recalled about five million frozen pizzas in 2007 after an E. coli outbreak, now advises consumers to avoid microwaves and cook only with conventional ovens. ConAgra has also added food safety instructions to its other frozen meals, including the Healthy Choice brand.

    Peanuts were considered unlikely culprits for pathogens until earlier this year when a processing plant in Georgia was blamed for salmonella poisoning that is estimated to have killed nine people and sickened 27,000. Now, white pepper is being blamed for dozens of salmonella illnesses on the West Coast, where a widening recall includes other spices and six tons of frozen egg rolls.

    The problem is particularly acute with frozen foods, in which unwitting consumers who buy these products for their convenience mistakenly think that their cooking is a matter of taste and not safety.

    Federal regulators have pushed companies to beef up their cooking instructions with the detailed “food safety” guides. But the response has been varied, as a review of packaging showed. Some manufacturers fail to list explicit instructions; others include abbreviated guidelines on the side of their boxes in tiny print. A Hungry-Man pot pie asks consumers to ensure that the pie reaches a temperature that is 11 degrees short of the government-established threshold for killing pathogens. Questioned about the discrepancy, Blackstone acknowledged it was using an older industry standard that it would rectify when it printed new cartons.

    Government food safety officials also point to efforts by the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit group founded by the Clinton administration. But the partnership consists of a two-person staff and an annual budget of $300,000. Its director, Shelley Feist, said she has wanted to start a campaign to advise consumers about frozen foods, but lacks the money.

    Estimating the risk to consumers is difficult. The industry says that it is acting with an abundance of caution, and that big outbreaks of food-borne illness are rare. At the same time, a vast majority of the estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness every year go unreported or are not traced to the source.

    Home Cooking

    Some food safety experts say they do not think the solution should rest with the consumer. Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said companies like ConAgra were asking too much. “I do not believe that it is fair to put this responsibility on the back of the consumer, when there is substantial confusion about what it means to prepare that product,” Dr. Osterholm said.

    And the ingredient chain for frozen and other processed foods is poised to get more convoluted, industry insiders say. While the global market for ingredients is projected to reach $34 billion next year, the pressure to keep food prices down in a recession is forcing food companies to look for ways to cut costs.

    Did plain clothes police incite crowds to violence at the G20?

    I have to say I didn’t expect to find a story like this in The Observer. The International Times maybe, or some other scurrilous lefty rag from the 1970’s might have run a piece about how the police planted plain clothes men in the crowd of protestors at the G20 summit, inciting other crowd members to throw stones and bottles…….I don’t believe that, said my 16 year old – here it is in the Observer I said……..apparently witnessed by an MP…..

    An MP who was involved in last month’s G20 protests in London is to call for an investigation into whether the police used agents provocateurs to incite the crowds.

    Liberal Democrat Tom Brake says he saw what he believed to be two plain-clothes police officers go through a police cordon after presenting their ID cards.

    Brake, who along with hundreds of others was corralled behind police lines near Bank tube station in the City of London on the day of the protests, says he was informed by people in the crowd that the men had been seen to throw bottles at the police and had encouraged others to do the same shortly before they passed through the cordon.

    Brake, a member of the influential home affairs select committee, will raise the allegations when he gives evidence before parliament’s joint committee on human rights on Tuesday.

    “When I was in the middle of the crowd, two people came over to me and said, ‘There are people over there who we believe are policemen and who have been encouraging the crowd to throw things at the police,'” Brake said. But when the crowd became suspicious of the men and accused them of being police officers, the pair approached the police line and passed through after showing some form of identification.

    Brake has produced a draft report of his experiences for the human rights committee, having received written statements from people in the crowd. These include Tony Amos, a photographer who was standing with protesters in the Royal Exchange between 5pm and 6pm. “He [one of the alleged officers] was egging protesters on. It was very noticeable,” Amos said. “Then suddenly a protester seemed to identify him as a policeman and turned on him. He ­legged it towards the police line, flashed some ID and they just let him through, no questions asked.”

    Amos added: “He was pretty much inciting the crowd. He could not be called an observer. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories but this really struck me. Hopefully, a review of video evidence will clear this up.”

    The Independent Police Complaints Commission has received 256 complaints relating to the G20 protests. Of these, 121 have been made about the use of force by police officers, while 75 relate to police tactics. The IPCC said it had no record of complaints involving the use of police agents provocateurs. A Metropolitan Police spokesman said: “We would never deploy officers in this way or condone such behaviour.”

    The use of plain-clothes officers in crowd situations is considered a vital tactic for gathering evidence. It has been used effectively to combat football hooliganism in the UK and was employed during the May Day protests in 2001.

    Brake said he intends to raise the allegations with the Met’s commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, when he next appears before the home affairs select committee. “There is a logic having plain-clothes officers in the crowd, but no logic if the officers are actively encouraging violence, which would be a source of great concern,” Brake said.

    The MP said that given only a few people were allowed out of the corralled crowd for the five hours he was held inside it, there should be no problem in investigating the allegation by examining video footage.

    Antisocial media. Would you like some snot with that fast food?

    Two employees of Domino’s video themselves horribly messing up food they are about to deliver to people and post it on YouTube. The result isn’t very funny – and it’s not even interesting viewing. However, it does totally wreck Domino’s carefully nurtured brand image, according to this story published in the New York Times. The thing about “social media” like YouTube is that it gives everyone a voice and the chance to publish their views to millions of people. I think anyone who works on the internet knows the downside of this. How many times have we had to consider how to deal with people who think it’s funny to be totally obscene to other undeserving people for no good purpose. Call me conservative. I don’t think I am. I’m certainly no fan of fast food. I’m certainly no defender of “big name brands” at all costs. I’m not sure where this leaves me with my view of social media – other than that perhaps we should rename it antisocial media. Or perhaps – media that reflects society like it really is, and it’s too much to bear.

    When two Domino’s Pizza employees filmed a prank in the restaurant’s kitchen, they decided to post it online. In a few days, thanks to the power of social media, they ended up with felony charges, more than a million disgusted viewers, and a major company facing a public relations crisis.

    In videos posted on YouTube and elsewhere this week, a Domino’s employee in Conover, N.C., prepared sandwiches for delivery while putting cheese up his nose, nasal mucus on the sandwiches, and violating other health-code standards while a fellow employee provided narration.

    The two were charged with delivering prohibited foods.

    By Wednesday afternoon, the video had been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. References to it were in five of the 12 results on the first page of Google search for “Dominos,” and discussions about Domino’s had spread throughout Twitter.

    As Domino’s is realizing, social media has the reach and speed to turn tiny incidents into marketing crises. In November, Motrin posted an ad suggesting that carrying babies in slings was a painful new fad. Unhappy mothers posted Twitter complaints about it, and bloggers followed; within days, Motrin had removed the ad and apologized.

    On Monday, Amazon.com apologized for a “ham-fisted” error after Twitter members complained that the sales rankings for gay and lesbian books seemed to have disappeared — and, since Amazon took more than a day to respond, the social-media world criticized it for being uncommunicative.

    According to Domino’s, the employees told executives that they had never actually delivered the tainted food. Still, Domino’s fired the two employees on Tuesday, and they were in the custody of the Conover police department on Wednesday evening, facing felony charges.

    But the crisis was not over for Domino’s.

    “We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” said a Domino’s spokesman, Tim McIntyre, who added that the company was preparing a civil lawsuit. “Even people who’ve been with us as loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years, people are second-guessing their relationship with Domino’s, and that’s not fair.”

    In just a few days, Domino’s reputation was damaged. The perception of its quality among consumers went from positive to negative since Monday, according to the research firm YouGov, which holds online surveys of about 1,000 consumers every day regarding hundreds of brands.

    “It’s graphic enough in the video, and it’s created enough of a stir, that it gives people a little bit of pause,” said Ted Marzilli, global managing director for YouGov’s BrandIndex.

    The Domino’s experience “is a nightmare,” said Paul Gallagher, managing director and a head of the United States crisis practice at the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. “It’s the toughest situation for a company to face in terms of a digital crisis.”

    Mr. McIntyre was alerted to the videos on Monday evening by a blogger who had seen them. In the most popular video, a woman who identifies herself as Kristy films a co-worker, Michael, preparing the unsanitary sandwiches.

    “In about five minutes it’ll be sent out on delivery where somebody will be eating these, yes, eating them, and little did they know that cheese was in his nose and that there was some lethal gas that ended up on their salami,” Kristy said. “Now that’s how we roll at Domino’s.”

    On Monday, commenters at the site Consumerist.com used clues in the video to find the franchise location in Conover, and told Mr. McIntyre about the videos. On Tuesday, the Domino’s franchise owner fired the employees, identified by Domino’s as Kristy Hammonds, 31 and Michael Setzer, 32. The franchisee brought in the local health department, which advised him to discard all open containers of food, which cost hundreds of dollars, Mr. McIntyre said.

    Ms. Hammonds apologized to the company in an e-mail message Tuesday morning. “It was fake and I wish that everyone knew that!!!!” she wrote. “I AM SOO SORRY!”

    By Wednesday evening, the video had been removed from YouTube because of a copyright claim from Ms. Hammonds. Neither Ms. Hammonds nor Mr. Setzer were available for comment on Wednesday evening, said Conover’s chief of police, Gary W. Lafone.

    As the company learned about the video on Tuesday, Mr. McIntyre said, executives decided not to respond aggressively, hoping the controversy would quiet down. “What we missed was the perpetual mushroom effect of viral sensations,” he said.

    In social media, “if you think it’s not going to spread, that’s when it gets bigger,” said Scott Hoffman, the chief marketing officer of the social-media marketing firm Lotame. “We realized that when many of the comments and questions in Twitter were, ‘What is Domino’s doing about it’ ” Mr. McIntyre said. “Well, we were doing and saying things, but they weren’t being covered in Twitter.”

    By Wednesday afternoon, Domino’s had created a Twitter account, @dpzinfo, to address the comments, and it had presented its chief executive in a video on YouTube by evening.

    “It elevated to a point where just responding isn’t good enough,” Mr. McIntyre said.

    Man sprays his own toxic waste over food in shops

    This story is from this week’s  Birmingham Post. I had driven past the Air Balloon pub near Cheltenham just yesterday where this chap did some of  his dirty work. I had to think why this story had caught my attention. Something about the way cats and dogs behave….something about a personal statement about our society….I don’t know. Nowt as strange as folk as the people in Yorkshire say.

    An unemployed chemist was jailed for nine years today for contaminating food and wine by spraying his own urine and faeces in supermarkets in Gloucestershire.

    Algerian Sahnoun Daifallah also sprayed the slurry over children’s books and in a pub as he carried out his foul campaign by concealing a 1.5 litre weed killer container in a lap top bag modified to allow the nozzle to poke out. And it was revealed that he intended to bring his campaign to Birmingham.

    Daifallah, 42, was last month found guilty of four counts of contaminating goods at Tesco, Morrisons, Waterstones bookstore and a pub in Gloucestershire on May 14 and 16 last year.  The incidents caused £700,000 of damage to products and in lost businesses when the stores had to close.

    When police searched his house they found stockpiles of the mixture and plans to spread the muck in other cities including Bristol and Birmingham.

    Daifallah, who had fantasies about biological weapons to cause public alarm, was also found guilty of having an offensive weapon, namely a catapult with marbles.

    Judge Carol Hagen said security agencies had labelled Daifallah, who has a degree in industrial chemistry, a very high risk to public safety. She sentenced him on Tuesday at Bristol Crown Court to concurrent sentences of three years, five years and two of nine years for the contamination offences and 12 months for possession of a weapon.

    She told him that during the seven day trial, in which he had represented himself, she found him to be “arrogant and inflexible” in his thinking.
    She added that she had wanted to jail him indefinitely but the law would not allow her to.

    “Your actions showed a callous disregard for public safety and you caused considerable alarm and anxiety,” she said. “You caused substantial police and forensic involvement given that the nature of the substances were not known.”

    Proceedings to deport him have begun.

    Daifallah first visited the Air Balloon Pub near Cheltenham at 12.45pm on May 14 where police were called after he made offensive comments to a barmaid.

    When officers arrived Daifallah was no longer there but he had left a trail of stench behind him which was his ‘calling card’.

    He then moved on to Waterstones bookstore in Cirencester where he sprayed the brown substance all over a toilet in the coffee shop.

    Staff noticed the smell but it was not until after he had left that they discovered a 20 metre area of 38 shelves, from the classics to the children’s section, had been doused in the foul substance.

    In total 706 books were contaminated, most of them in the children’s section.

    Two days later at 11am Daifallah visited the Tesco store in Quedgley where a shopper saw him reach into his bag and produce a jet of brown fluid over the frozen chips.

    He then moved on to the wine section where a member of staff saw a fine vapour come out of his bag and on to the wine, leaving the brown substance over the shelves.

    Daifallah then drove four miles to the Morrisons store in Abbeydale where an employee in the wine section noticed him acting strangely and gagged at the overpowering stench.

    Both supermarkets were cordoned off and shoppers were locked in for safety reasons while the source of the contaminant was traced. The stores were closed for two days for cleaning and shoppers reported skin rashes and nausea.

    Police officers called by staff at Tesco identified Daifallah on CCTV and arrived at his home in Bibury Road, Gloucester, while he was still spraying in Morrisons.

    On searching the flat they found several bottles of the noxious mixture and several plastic sachets containing excrement marked with the names of cities on them.

    They also found messages scrawled over the walls referring to biological weapons, smuggling uranium into Britain and micro-organisms being spread.

    One of the messages said: “The ants get out to every direction to get food, then they bring it back to Tesco and Asda. If you poison those then you kill the ants.”

    A map of Gloucester with ‘Contaminated 83% Ammonia’ written on it was also found in his bedroom.

    His house was sealed off for two weeks while forensic scientists worked out what was in the packages.

    Daifallah was questioned by police about another four incidents in February last year when brown liquid was sprayed at four pubs in Stroud.

    The battle for the legality of gay marriage in the US takes a fresh turn in Iowa

    Time magazine reported in a very even-handed manner on a key legal battle in the state of Iowa this weekend with regard to the battles of the Republican-led far right pressure groups against the ongoing march of gay marriage.

    When the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday that gays can marry in the Hawkeye State, gay marriage became not just a coastal thing. Deep in the rural heartland, a straightforward opinion — written by a justice appointed by a conservative Republican governor — methodically eviscerates one argument after another that for decades has been used to keep marriage the sole preserve of straight couples. “This class of people asks a simple and direct question: How can a state premised on the constitutional principle of equal protection justify exclusion of a class of Iowans from civil marriage?” Justice Mark S. Cady asked.

    The answer? It can’t.

    “I would say the mood is one of mourning right now,” Bryan English, spokesman for the conservative Iowa Family Policy Center, told the Associated Press, even as he promised to lobby legislators hard to begin an amendment process. But that process, in Iowa, is a lengthy one — and unlike in California, the constitution can’t be amended by a simple vote of the people. Both houses of the legislature must approve it, and most legal experts agree that the process could be put before voters no sooner than 2012. (See TIME’s video: “Iowa: Gay Marriage in the Heartland”)

    The decision came at a pregnant moment in what has become one of the defining legal battles of our time. It offers hope to supporters of gay marriage just when they were feeling lowest. Last year’s ruling by the California Supreme Court issued a broad new justification for gay marriage — the Republican-dominated court declared forcefully that California may not discriminate against gays in any way, giving the ruling more legal force and sweep than any decision of its kind ever has. Thousands of couples flocked to clerk’s offices to be wed. Months later, in November, however, that jubilation turned sour, when Californians voted to change the constitution to forbid gay marriage. Soon after, some gay activists from across the country were asking for a time out, arguing that the marriage activists had pushed too fast and too hard — and that the backlash in more conservative states would undo any progress enjoyed in places like San Francisco or Boston. “Marriage was never our issue,” one activist from south Florida told TIME last November. “It was thrust upon us by the other side, and they’ve done a very good job of beating us up over it.”

    But after Friday those calculations look timid. Now three states require full marriage for gays, and Vermont is on the brink of becoming the first state where gay marriage would be made legal by lawmakers, rather than the courts — a significant milestone. The Vermont House passed a law allowing gay marriage on Friday, and the Senate is expected to follow suit on Monday. Gov. Jim Douglas has promised to veto it, but an override fight will quickly follow, probably by next week.

    There might even be good news in the Iowa decision for gays in California, where activists are fearfully awaiting the justices’ ruling on Prop 8, which is likely to be issued in coming weeks. The Iowa decision cited the California case eight times and borrowed its reasoning again and again. That kind of homage from a sister court — and one that, like California’s, has a long history of breakthrough civil rights decisions — may strengthen the resolve of the majority in the Golden State and turn aside the narrow vote of the people.

    But for now, the power of the Iowa decision can be measured on its own terms. It did not speak with the historic sweep of the California court, perhaps because the justices there know Iowa’s court is less often seen as a harbinger of legal trends than California’s. And in one important aspect the decision stopped short of following California’s lead. In California, Chief Justice Ronald George declared that from now on, any laws that discriminate against gays in California are presumptively unconstitutional and will be subject to “strict-scrutiny” analysis by the courts — a burden that is reserved in every other state for cases involving discrimination against religion or immutable characteristics such as race. By extending it to homosexuals, the California court made clear in a way that no other state court has that gays are deserving of fundamental protections.

    The Iowa decision’s precedent is less forceful. (Read the full decision) Iowa decided, instead, that the statute banning gay marriage fails a subordinate level of constitutional analysis, what courts call “intermediate scrutiny,” an approach usually used with cases involving discrimination on the basis of gender, for instance. Because the statute could not even meet that standard, Cady ruled that there was no need to decide whether a higher level of scrutiny should be required in the future.

    But in other ways, the Iowa decision was every bit a match for the California ruling. It took up each argument against gay marriage and dispatched them with a minimum of bombast. An exception was the vivid language employed by the court to cement its position that gays have indeed been discriminated against as a class — a traditional test for whether a group deserves the protection of heightened constitutional scrutiny. “The County does not, and could not in good faith, dispute the historical reality that gay and lesbian people as a group have long been the victim of purposeful and invidious discrimination because of their sexual orientation. The long and painful history of discrimination against gay and lesbian persons is epitomized by the criminalization of homosexual conduct in many parts of this country until very recently. School-yard bullies have psychologically ground children with apparently gay or lesbian sexual orientation in the cruel mortar and pestle of school-yard prejudice.”

    But the true power of the decision lies not in its equal protection analysis, though it is rooted there. Instead, what sets this decision apart is the frank way in which it raises the issue of religious objections to gay marriage. As the Supreme Court did in Lawrence v. Texas, its seminal 2003 ruling striking down sodomy laws, the Iowa court says that mere moral opprobrium or deeply held values are not enough to warrant legal sanctions or the denial of legal rights. The court then subtly raises the issue of religious opposition to gay marriage, even though the legal briefs by the other side did not.

    “Whether expressly or impliedly, much of society rejects same-sex marriage due to sincere, deeply ingrained — even fundamental — religious belief,” the court said, before adding that religious views are nonetheless mixed on the subject. “As a result, civil marriage must be judged under our constitutional standards of equal protection and not under religious doctrines or the religious views of individuals. This approach does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly believe in marriage as a dual-gender union, but considers, as we must, only the constitutional rights of all people, as expressed by the promise of equal protection for all. We are not permitted to do less and would damage our constitution immeasurably by trying to do more.”

    Religious opponents to gay marriage were not convinced. “We, the Roman Catholic Bishops of Iowa, strongly disagree with the decision of the Iowa Supreme Court which strikes down Iowa’s law defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman,” the bishops said in a statement issued Friday. “This decision rejects the wisdom of thousands of years of human history. It implements a novel understanding of marriage, which will grievously harm families and children.

    English, the spokesman for the conservative family group, said he’s already begun lobbying for an amendment campaign to outlaw gay marriage again. “The first thing we did after internalizing the decision was to walk across the street and begin the process of lobbying our legislators to let the people of Iowa vote,” he said.

    But until that comes to pass, observers on both sides considering the opinion will likely find the strongest language in the decision to be its final four words: “AFFIRMED. All justices concur.”

    Property speculators could make a killing on Death Row

    According to the Telegraph Californian authorities are considering selling Death Row to property speculators.

    Death Row’ could go up for sale Legislators in California are considering “selling Death Row” which could raise up to $2 billion (£1.4 billion) in much-needed funds thanks to the correctional facility’s prime location and enviable vistas.

    The San Quentin State Prison, which was built in 1852, houses more than 5,300 inmates, including 635 prisoners sentenced to death. Situated in picturesque Marin County, it occupies a 435-acre site in one of Northern California’s most desirable locations, and boasts panoramic views over San Francisco Bay.Estate agents estimate that the land would be worth over $2 billion on the open market, and predict there would be considerable interest from property developers keen to build luxury apartments and offices on the site.
     If plans to sell the prison are approved, lawmakers in California will build a new correctional facility – complete with expanded accommodations for the state’s growing Death Row population – with the proceeds, a project that will cost an estimated $1 billion (£700 million). Profits from the sale would go towards stemming the Golden State’s burgeoning budget gap, which is projected to reach $42 billion (£29 billion) within two years.
    San Quentin, like many of California’s prisons, suffers from chronic overcrowding. In 2003, $220 million was allocated to finance a new, state-of-the-art Death Row facility on its grounds. Spiralling costs mean the figure would now be closer to $400 million, money critics argue could be better spent during times of economic hardship.
    “It makes little sense, at a time of unprecedented state budget deficits, to pour $395.5 million more (if that is indeed the final figure) into a facility that should have been shut down and sold off when Gov Ronald Reagan first proposed it in 1971”, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

    Despite its reputation as a liberal state, California has the nation’s largest number of condemned prisoners. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, however, only 14 inmates have been executed, as the time between sentencing and death is typically between 20 and 25 years. By contrast, 38 people have died of natural causes while awaiting their fate.

    Home Secretary no longer looks at home.

    As if the provision of porno movies for her husband being claimed on government expenses were not enough – this afternoon it turns out the Jaqui Smith claims £23K on her second home allowance – nearly the max amount allowable. Surely some coincidence. I predict she’s out of a job by the end of the week. What a great photo of her in the Guardian, who also provide this story written by Allegra Stratton and Deborah Summers . Having Gordon Brown rallying behind you must make you feel a whole lot better….

    Jaqui Smith claimed £22,948 in 2007-08 – almost the maximum permitted amount – from the allowance to help MPs run a second home, it was revealed today.

    The revelation came as Gordon Brown appealed for Smith to be allowed to get on with her work as home secretary after she apologised for claiming the cost of pornographic films on her parliamentary expenses.

    As she left her London residence this morning, the beleaguered minister declined to respond to reporters’ questions about the films, watched by her husband, Richard Timney, at their family home in Redditch, Worcestershire, while she was away.

    Amid mounting speculation that the incident could cost Smith her government post, the Conservative leader, David Cameron, described the latest revelations as “deeply embarrassing” for the home secretary, but stopped short of calling for her resignation.

    Brown offered his support, insisting that she was doing “a great job” and had “done the right thing” by paying the money back.

    Before the revelation about pornographic movies, Smith was already under investigation for using the additional costs allowance (ACA) to meet costs associated with her family home in her constituency. When she is working in London she stays with her sister.

    Smith’s arrangements are controversial because she treats her sister’s home as her main home for expenses purposes, allowing her to claim for the property in Redditch, on the grounds that she spends most of her time working in London.

    Smith has accepted that the claim for two pornographic films was wrong and she has agreed to pay the money back.

    But she has not accepted that there is anything wrong with her decision to use the ACA to claim money in relation to her home in Redditch. She has strongly insisted that this arrangement is within the rules.

    Today the full extent of her ACA claim for 2007-08 was made public. She claimed £22,948, close to the maximum of £23,083.

    Smith’s total expense claim, including travel, office and staffing costs, was £145,331, according to the chart produced by the parliamentary authorities showing figures for all MPs for 2007-08.

    Earlier the prime minister was asked at a press conference in 10 Downing Street whether he still had confidence in Smith, who is under investigation for claiming second home expenses on her family house in her Redditch constituency while living as a lodger with her sister in London.

    Brown said: “The home secretary is doing a great job and I do not think this issue should be allowed to detract from everything she is doing to ensure we protect the public and keep our neighbourhoods safe.

    “She has done the right thing by taking steps to rectify the mistake that was made as soon as she became aware of it.”

    Brown added: “This is very much a personal matter for Jacqui. She has made her apology; her husband has made clear that he has apologised.

    “The best thing is that Jacqui Smith gets on with her work, which is what she wants to do.”

    Timney, who is employed by the home secretary in her constituency office, submitted a claim for a £67 Virgin Media bill last June for a television in the couple’s family home in Redditch. The bill included two adult films, at a cost of £5 each, as well as two viewings of the heist movie Ocean’s 13 and one of Surf’s Up, a children’s film about a rockhopper penguin.

    Last month Smith was revealed to have claimed taxpayer-funded allowances for her family home while living with her sister in London. She is due to explain that to the parliamentary commissioner for standards, John Lyon.

    The new row brought an immediate climbdown from the Smiths. Within hours of the story being published in a Sunday newspaper, Timney appeared outside the family home to give a brief statement.

    Barely looking up, he said he had submitted the claim for the television package “inadvertently” alongside a legitimate claim for his wife’s internet connection. Timney said: “I am really sorry for any embarrassment I have caused Jacqui. I can fully understand why people might be angry and offended by this. Quite obviously, a claim should never have been made for these films, and as you know that money is being paid back.”

    Smith, who employs her husband on a salary of £40,000 a year to run her office, was said to be “mortified” after she was forced to apologise for the claim. A close friend of Smith’s said Timney would be “sleeping on the sofa for a while. To say she’s angry with her husband is an understatement.”

    Although parliamentary rules on expenses allow MPs to claim the cost of their television package alongside their internet connection, the friend said Smith planned to repay the entire amount. The committee on standards in public life has announced it will look at the system of expense claims by MPs, but it is unlikely to report until after the general election.

    Cameron today called on Brown to speed up the review of the whole system of MPs’ pay and allowances announced last week, saying that there needed to be “complete transparency” in relation to claims by MPs.

    Speaking on GMTV, the Conservative leader said he believed Smith had “questions to answer” about her reported claim of at least £116,000 in second home allowances on her Redditch family home.

    But asked if she should resign, he said: “I do not think this individual thing is the issue.

    “I think she has got some questions to answer about the second home issue. It does seem to me pretty incredible to claim that the home where her family is, that is not her main home.

    “I think this goes to a deeper problem which is the second home allowance for MPs. The prime minister has ordered a review but he has sort of kicked it into the long grass.

    “The review doesn’t start until September, it is not going to report until after the next election. That is hopeless. We have got to get on with it … Have a quick review, right now, sort it out and come up with an answer.”

    However, backbench Conservatives cast doubt on Smith’s ability to continue as home secretary. David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, said: “I do think on this circumstance the sympathy for her will be even less than it otherwise would have been because she is not that good at her job.”

    Apologising for the wrongful claim, Smith said: “I am sorry that, in claiming for my internet connection, I mistakenly claimed for a television package alongside it. As soon as the matter was brought to my attention, I took immediate steps to contact the relevant parliamentary authorities and rectify the situation. All money claimed for the television package will be paid back in full.”

    There are rumours in Whitehall about how details of the Smiths’ television bill emerged. It follows a run of recent expenses scandals involving Labour MPs, suggesting that stories are being leaked from the parliamentary office for expenses claims.

    Blitz mentality sadly lacking according to the States

     This story appeared on the website boing boing this week.I was quite taken aback by the tone of it at first and then found it interesting – because naturally there’s quite a strong liberal American consumerist feel to the site….but surely they don’t feel an affinity with bomb-makers?

    The London police have bested their own impressive record for insane and stupid anti-terrorism posters with a new range of signs advising Londoners to go through each others’ trash-bins looking for “suspicious” chemical bottles, and to report on one another for “studying CCTV cameras.”

    It’s hard to imagine a worse, more socially corrosive campaign. Telling people to rummage in one another’s trash and report on anything they don’t understand is a recipe for flooding the police with bad reports from ignorant people who end up bringing down anti-terror cops on their neighbors who keep tropical fish, paint in oils, are amateur chemists, or who just do something outside of the narrow experience of the least adventurous person on their street. Essentially, this redefines “suspicious” as anything outside of the direct experience of the most frightened, ignorant and foolish people in any neighborhood.

    Even worse, though, is the idea that you should report your neighbors to the police for looking at the creepy surveillance technology around them. This is the first step in making it illegal to debate whether the surveillance state is a good or bad thing. It’s the extension of the ridiculous airport rule that prohibits discussing the security measures (“Exactly how does 101 ml of liquid endanger a plane?”), conflating it with “making jokes about bombs.”

    The British authorities are bent on driving fear into the hearts of Britons: fear of terrorists, immigrants, pedophiles, children, knives… And once people are afraid enough, they’ll write government a blank check to expand its authority without sense or limit.

    What an embarrassment from the country whose level-headed response to the Blitz was “Keep Calm and Carry On” — how has that sensible motto been replaced with “When in trouble or in doubt/Run in circles scream and shout”?

    Hiking in the Alps. I’ve nothing against it.

    Once again the New York Times provides my story about nudists hiking in the Alps. Very common apparently.

    APPENZELL, — The Swiss like their secrecy, particularly in banking. At other times, they are more open. Take hiking.
    In recent years, it has become fashionable for a growing number of Swiss and some foreigners to wander in the Alps clad in little more than hiking shoes and sun screen. Last summer, the number of nude hikers increased to such an extent that the hills often seemed alive with the sound of everything but the swish of trousers.

    In September, the police in this mountainous town detained a young hiker, whose friends will identify him only as Peter, wandering with nothing on but hiking boots and a knapsack. But they had to release him, because in Switzerland there is no law against hiking in the nude. The experience alarmed the city fathers of Appenzell, pop. 5,600, who worried that the town might become a Mecca for the unclad. Like most remote mountain regions, this is a conservative area.

    For centuries the farmers here lived off their famed Appenzeller cheese and a bitter liqueur that most, except fervent admirers, say tastes like cough medicine gone bad. Not until 1990 did Appenzell grant women the right to vote, decades after other regions of Switzerland.

    Suppose families with children were out hiking and encountered a group of nude hikers, officials asked. Moreover, the name of Appenzell was popping up with troublesome frequency in the blogs and chat rooms of nude hiking enthusiasts.

    “We’re not in Canada, where you can hike for hours in vast forests,” said Markus Dörig, 49, spokesman for the local government, a look of exasperation on his face. “Here you meet other hikers every few minutes. It was bothersome.”

    Konrad Hepenstrick says he almost never meets people who are bothered. “You greet them, and they greet you, though in winter, of course, many ask, ‘Aren’t you cold?’” he said, picking at a lunch of coarse, spicy Appenzeller sausage in a restaurant high on the slopes over the town. Unseasonable snow showers clouded the view of the surrounding peaks, thwarting plans for a nude hike with this reporter.

    Mr. Hepenstrick, 54, is an architect who loves to hike in the altogether. In winter, he said, he has hiked for hours in temperatures well below freezing, though he does concede the need for a hat and gloves. He has hiked in the nude for about 30 years, he said, and has crisscrossed the hills and mountains around Appenzell, as well as in France, Germany, Italy and even the Appalachians.

    His companion, a schoolteacher, also hikes, though she will not do so au naturel, he said. So why does he take off his clothes? “There’s not much to discuss,” he said. “It’s freedom. First, freedom in your head; then, freedom of the body.”

    With some Swiss legal experts arguing that banning nudity in public would be unconstitutional, the government has been hamstrung in responding to the hikers. It has drafted legislation that, if enacted, would outlaw “abusive behavior that offends against custom and decency,” but it seems likely to be challenged. Daniel Kettiger, a legal expert, published a six-page paper last month titled, predictably enough, “The Bare Facts: On the Criminal Prosecution of Nude Hiking,” pointing out that in 1991 Switzerland struck a law from its books that banned nudity in public.

    “Simply being naked without any sexual connotation is no longer illegal,” Mr. Kettiger said by telephone, adding, “at the time there was a wave of nudism.” Was he himself a hiker? “Yes, but never nude,” he replied. “First there is the danger of sunburn, and then there are ticks all over the place in the Alps, which carry Boreliosa,” or Lyme disease.

    The Appenzeller justice minister, Melchior Looser, is sure he can frame a law that will force the naked to cover up. “I think the measure will work the way we have fashioned it,” said Mr. Looser, 63, noting that offenders would be fined the equivalent of $170.

    He would like to have the law in place by springtime, when hikers again take to the hills. But he concedes that it must be approved by the grand assembly of the people, a gathering of all citizens of voting age once a year on the town’s main square, which is scheduled to convene April 26. Passage is by no means assured.

    Hans Eggimann believes it will be enacted. “I hike around the house naked, but outside I put my pants on,” said Mr. Eggimann, 57, a large man who sells more than 60 types of cheese in his shop in the town center.

    Others are not so sure. “Many Appenzellers I know say it doesn’t bother them,” said Alessandra Maselli, who works in a dry goods store not far from Mr. Eggimann’s cheese emporium. “I’d say it’s about half and half, with a slight majority for the law,” she said.

    Over in the Bücherladen bookstore, Caroline Habazin, 46, said the controversy gave everyone a good laugh at the town Carnival parade last month. One float featured a male and a female hiker in flesh-colored tights, their arm and leg muscles and their rear ends stuffed up steroid-style with filling, though the man’s private parts were mostly covered by fake grape leaves. “I think it’s only a pretty small group,” she said.

    Her colleague, Edith Sklorz, 48, said why anyone would want to hike nude was puzzling to her, though her husband felt differently. “I can understand swimming nude,” she said, “but not hiking.”

    What offended her equally though, was the government’s choice of responding to the hikers with a law. Recently, the neighboring town of Gossau passed a measure banning spitting in public, she said, threatening offenders with a $50 fine; and now a law to ban nude hikers. “For every tiny thing, there’s a law,” she said.

    Ursula Heller has been selling apparel for hikers and trekkers for five years in her shop just off the town’s main square. A threat to her business from nude hikers? She laughed deeply. She and her husband are avid hikers, she said, but she is against nudity.

    “If you want to get undressed,” she said, “you can always wear shorts or a bikini.”

    Use the force, Luke. On sale now.

    The New York Times ran this today as part of their coverage of the huge technology trade show C.E.S. The giant toy firm Mattel have launched a mind control toy – no really. We have one of these gadgets already in our house of course. I think I’ll have a go…

    Each year at the Consumer Electronics Show there is at least one bizarre novelty product that captures folks’ attention. This year, the honor belongs to a game coming from Mattel that challenges players to control a ping-pong ball with their minds.

    Mindflex, as it is called, is drawing large, amused crowds and lots of interested press coverage. Players strap on headsets that are designed to read theta brainwaves, typically associated with alertness and concentration. By focusing or relaxing, a player can control the speed of a fan that elevates a lightweight purple ball, and then must try to turn a knob by hand to guide the ball through various hoops in an obstacle course.

    I took a stab at it, and maybe it was Obi-Wan’s instructions to Luke from “Star Wars” distractedly reverberating in my head, but I did not get the ball anywhere close to the hoop.

    Mindflex will go on sale this fall for $80.

    This surgeon will nip off your love handles and use them to power his vehicle

    I heard about this just before Christmas Eve and thought it was a joke, then found the story on Forbes.com – about the US surgeon (Mr Bittner) who used the fat he sucked from patients to power his vehicle – and his girlfriend’s SUV too. The writer has tagged his story “biofuels.” Only in America.

    Liposuctioning unwanted blubber out of pampered Los Angelenos may not seem like a dream job, but it has its perks. Free fuel is one of them. For a time, Beverly Hills doctor Craig Alan Bittner turned the fat he removed from patients into biodiesel that fueled his Ford SUV and his girlfriend’s Lincoln Navigator. Love handles can power a car? Frighteningly, yes. Fat – whether animal or vegetable – contains triglycerides that can be extracted and turned into diesel. Poultry companies such as Tyson are looking into powering their trucks on chicken schmaltz, and biofuel start-ups such as Nova Biosource are mixing beef tallow and pig lard with more palatable sources such as soybean oil. Mike Shook of Agri Process Innovations, a builder of biodiesel plants, says this year’s batch of U.S. biodiesel was likely more than half animal-derived since the price of soybeans soared.A gallon of grease will get you about a gallon of fuel, and drivers can get about the same amount of mileage from fat fuel as they do from regular diesel, according to Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board. Animal fats need to undergo an additional step to get rid of free fatty acids not present in vegetable oils, but otherwise, there’s no difference, she says.Greenies like the fact that waste, such as coffee grounds and french-fry grease, can be turned into power. “The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel–and I have more fat than I can use,” Bittner wrote on lipodiesel.com. “Not only do they get to lose their love handles or chubby belly but they get to take part in saving the Earth.” Bittner’s lipodiesel Web site is no longer online.Using fat to fuel cars might be environmentally friendly, but it’s definitely illegal in California to use human medical waste to power vehicles, and Bittner is being investigated by the state’s public health department.

    How I “Madoff with” 50 billion – could it have slipped down the back of the sofa?

    We all know this story – how Mr Madoff misplaced 50 billion dollars  and deceived the likes of  Nicola Horlick and other grown up investors the world over. It made me read about Charles Ponzi, the inventor of the eponymous Ponzi scheme. Does anybody out there notice a looky-likey resemblance? The story best encapsulating these links between the two ran in the New York Times yesterday.

     The $50 billion fraud that federal authorities say Bernard L. Madoff perpetuated has already been called the largest Ponzi scheme in history (though Dealbook reports there seem to be other contenders for that distinction).

    On the surface, at least, it would seem that Mr. Ponzi and Mr. Madoff could hardly be more different. Mr. Madoff, 70, was a fixture in the high-flying worlds of finance and philanthropy, with a reputation that extended from Manhattan’s moneyed elite to the exclusive golf clubs of Palm Beach, Fla. Mr. Ponzi, who died in 1949, was a fast-talking immigrant and college dropout, whose scheme — according to Mitchell Zuckoff, Mr. Ponzi’s biographer — rested on the eagerness of ordinary working people to benefit from the wealth they saw being generated around them during the last Gilded Age.

    madoff

    “He had his nose pressed against the glass,” Mr. Zuckoff, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a former reporter for The Boston Globe, said in a phone interview on Monday. “He was not linked with Wall Street and New York, though he had dreams of being like Rockefeller.” Continue reading How I “Madoff with” 50 billion – could it have slipped down the back of the sofa?

    Teen gang rape. Part of everyday life in Hackney.

    Recently in our house we have been watching the HBO series The Wire. When I say watching I should say gripped or even addicted given the subject matter. Ever since I saw creator David Simon talking about his idea on the Culture Show and I decided to give the series a chance, I have admired the way it gets to grips with the dirty side of everyday reality. I have even thought how distant it was from our comfortable lives here in the UK. Then a story like this comes along which I read in Saturday’s Guardian. I felt sad. I felt this is life, like in the Wire, with the place names changed.

    A judge ordered yesterday that seven teenagers who gang raped a 14-year-old girl in a brutal “punishment” attack should be identified in a bid to deter other young men from similar crimes.

    Judge Wendy Joseph QC warned the defendants, some of whom were as young as 13 at the time of the incident, that they faced jail sentences for the attack in Hackney, east London, as the court heard that the victim been driven to attempt to kill herself.

    She was singled out because she had insulted the leader of a local gang, the Kingzhold Boys, the prosecutor, Nicola Merrick, said. She was dragged by her hair between a succession of tower block stairwells and landings in an ordeal that lasted around an hour and a half.

    She was taunted, hit, threatened and orally raped by an ever-growing crowd of teenagers summoned to the scenes by mobile phone. By the time they reached the final scene, 15 boys were present. Some of the attacks were filmed on phones and shown to others later that night.

    Merrick asked for the order which usually bans the identification of juvenile defendants to be lifted. “Those young people who become members of gangs, should know the outcome of this trial, that they will not mete out punishments as a gang with impunity and not ultimately retain their anonymity.” The judge lifted the order after hearing the crown argue that the community and public should know what had happened. “Naming and shaming is something this procedure is not designed for,” Joseph said. “That’s different from deterring others.”

    She left the order in place in relation to two others who were also convicted of rape because they were part of the gang, but did not actually assault the girl.

    The seven who can be named are: O’Neil Denton, 16, the leader of the gang; Weiled Ibraham, 17; Yusuf Raymond, 16, and Jayden Ryan, 16, who were all convicted of rape, kidnap and false imprisonment, and Alexander Vanderpuije, 15; Jack Bartle, 16; and Cleon Brown, 15, all convicted of rape and false imprisonment. Denton, Ibraham and Raymond had all pleaded guilty.

    The two who cannot be named are now aged 14 and 16. They will all be sentenced on Monday.

    Reading from a victim impact statement, Merrick told the court the victim said her life had been turned upside down. She now lived in a police safe house out of the area and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

    The girl said in the statement: “I feel like a prisoner, having to look over my shoulder everywhere I go. I used to find the unexpected fun. Now the unexpected is frightening and not exciting like it used to be.”

    She also blamed herself for not doing more to resist the attacks by screaming and fighting back, but was frozen with fear, the court heard.

    The court heard the victim had told the girlfriend of Denton, who was known by the nickname Hitman, she thought he was a “tramp”. After the girlfriend passed this on to him, he threatened the victim on the phone and in the street, scaring her so much she went to stay with her grandmother out of the area.

    But on the day she returned, April 30 2007, Denton was waiting with Ibrahim, Raymond and Ryan and the rape began. At one point, she spotted someone she had known for years: a friend. But as she turned to Cleon Brown he looked her in the eye and said: “I can’t help you now, I’m with my boys.” Soon afterwards he too raped her.

    After the boys were convicted, Detective Constable Jonathan Burks, who led the investigation, said the boys were trying to impress older men. “You have the elder gang members who run the gang and the younger ones who will try to emulate the elders, and do what they’re told,” he said.

    On the rundown estates, where everyone’s business is public, threats and incidents of intimidation were rife in the run-up to the trial. One witness has been moved out of the area and others have had panic buttons connected to police installed. Several people who saw parts of the attack refused to give evidence, put off by the fear of reprisals. Before the boys were charged, the victim was intimidated verbally and via texts and MSN messages, police said.

    The family says a car someone thought belonged to her stepfather was smashed up and the gang’s name was penned above the lift entrance where she was last attacked.

    In the end it was another boy who had come to see what all the fuss was about who stepped in to end her torment. Even then the other boys tried to hold him back, but he managed to grab her clothes and phone and escort her out, closely followed by the gang.

    Back at the entrance to the block her stepfather, alerted to the situation by girls who knew she had been taken, was waiting angrily. The commotion that ensued swiftly attracted the attention of uniformed police who were searching nearby on an unrelated matter.

    Had they not been on the scene anyway, it is possible the attack would never have been reported, detectives said. The suspects were rounded up within two days thanks to CCTV footage, on which officers were able to identify well-known faces.

    Police said the defendants had seemed shocked at being found guilty. “I can only assume they never thought this would get this far,” said Burks, who led the case. “There’s been no remorse shown by anybody.”

    The victim was determined not to let the attack “destroy her life”, Merrick said.

    But putting the attack behind her would be a “mammoth task”. “She refers to herself as still in a state. I suspect that is an understatement.”

    Guilty of rape, kidnap and false imprisonment

    O’Neil Denton, 16, leader of the gang; Weiled Ibraham, 17; Yusuf Raymond, 16; Jayden Ryan, 16

    Guilty of rape and false imprisonment

    Alexander Vanderpuije, 15; Jack Bartle, 16; Cleon Brown, 15

    Armed terrorists single out British and US passport holders in Indian five star hotels

    At least 100 people were shot by militants, thought to be Islamic mujahadeen in luxury hotels throughout Mumbai yesterday. Gunmen apparently singled out US and British passport holders. The head of India’s anti-terrorist squad was killed in the attacks.

    Ironically the property that became the Taj in Mumbai was founded by an Indian, Jamsetji Tata, as a place that would not discriminate, a place of tolerance.  Of course, the name makes me think of the Taj Mahal in Agra as I write this – its Mughal history owes much more to the Persian Islamic tradition than to any Hindu one. It is, essentially, a tomb. As a personal note from me, let me remind readers of Rabindranath Tagore’s (Poet, Philosopher, Musician, Writer, Educator, Nobel Laureate 1861-1941) description of that tomb as “one tear-drop…upon the cheek of time”
    This report is by Rina Chandran, and I found it published in the Independent.

    Indian commandos freed hostages from Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel today but battled on with gunmen who launched attacks across India’s financial capital, killing more than 100 people. The Islamic militants arrived by boats in Mumbai yesterday, before fanning out and attacking luxury hotels, a landmark cafe, hospitals and a railway station, firing indiscriminately.

    Some 17 hours after the late-evening assault, soldiers and militants were still exchanging intermittent fire and more than 100 people were trapped inside rooms of the Taj Mahal hotel, a 105-year-old city landmark.

    “People who were held up there, they have all been rescued,” Maharashtra state police chief A.N. Roy told the NDTV news channel. “But there are guests in the rooms, we don’t know how many.”

    Roy said some people were still apparently being held hostage at the nearby Trident/Oberoi Hotel. “That is why the operation is being conducted more sensitively to ensure there are no casualties of innocent people.”

    Police said at least six foreigners were killed and another 287 people were wounded in the attacks, which were claimed by the little-known Deccan Mujahideen group.

    “Release all the mujahideens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled,” said a militant inside the Oberoi, speaking to Indian television by telephone.

    The man, who identified himself only as Sahadullah, said he was one of seven attackers inside the hotel, and wanted Islamist militants to be freed from Indian jails.

    Later, an explosion was heard at the hotel, a Reuters witness said.

    At least two guests, trapped in their rooms in the Taj, also phoned TV stations. One said the firedoors were locked, and another said he had seen two dead bodies by the swimming pool.

    “Two of my colleagues are still in there and the last we heard from them was three hours ago and then the phone battery died,” said a German national who escaped the Taj.

    The attacks were bound to spook investors in one of Asia’s largest and fastest-growing economies.

    Mumbai has seen several major bomb attacks in the past, but never anything so obviously targeted at foreigners.

    Authorities closed stock, bond and foreign exchange markets, and the central bank said it would continue auctions to keep cash flowing through interbank lending markets, which seized up after the global financial crisis.

    The militants struck at the heart of Mumbai’s financial and tourist centre on Wednesday, with one of the first targets the Cafe Leopold, a famous hangout popular with foreign tourists.

    They fired automatic weapons indiscriminately and threw grenades before settling in for a long siege at the Taj and the Trident/Oberoi.

    “There could be 100-200 people inside the (Trident/Oberoi) hotel, but we cannot give you the exact figure as many people have locked themselves inside their rooms,” Maharashtra state deputy chief minister R.R. Patil told reporters.

    “There could be 10-12 terrorists inside the hotel,” he said. “There are no negotiations with the terrorists.”

    The attackers appeared to target British and Americans as they sought hostages. Israelis were also among the hostages, a television channel reported, while police said an Israeli rabbi was also being held by gunmen in a Mumbai apartment. Witnesses said the attackers were young South Asian men in their early 20s, most likely Indians, speaking Hindi or Urdu.

    Television footage showed gunmen in a pick-up truck spraying people with rifle fire as the vehicle drove down a Mumbai street.

    Hotel staff evacuated wounded on luggage trolleys, with passers-by covered in blood after they rushed to help. Some clambered down ladders to safety.

    The attacks could be another blow for the Congress party-led government ahead of a general election due by early 2009, with the party already under fire for failing to prevent a string of bomb attacks on Indian cities.

    Strategic expert Uday Bhaskar said the attacks could inflame tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

    “The fact that they were trying to segregate British and American passport holders definitely suggests Islamist fervour,” Bhaskar said.

    Police said they had shot dead four gunmen and arrested nine suspects. They said 12 policemen were killed, including Hemant Karkare, the chief of the police anti-terrorist squad in Mumbai.

    Schools were closed and a curfew was imposed around the Gateway of India, a colonial-era monument. But train services were running as normal taking people to work in the stunned city.

    Rakesh Patel, a British witness who was staying at the Taj Mahal hotel on business, said the attackers were looking for British and U.S. passport holders.

    “They came from the restaurant and took us up the stairs. They had bombs. Young boys, maybe 20 years old, 25 years old. They had two guns,” he told the NDTV channel, smoke stains covering his face.

    Japan’s foreign ministry said at least one Japanese national had been killed and one injured in the attacks, while South Korea said 26 of its nationals had escaped unharmed.

    Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd confirmed one Australian had been killed by the attacks in Mumbai, but it was possible the number of Australians killed could rise. Two other Australians were also injured in the attacks.

    In Washington, the White House and President-elect Barack Obama condemned the attacks, as did France, current president of the European Union, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

    Makes yer think….

    Today is World Philosophy Day. I haven’t been posting many stories on justastory this month because the news has all been dark, dark, dark…..to quote T.S. Eliot as indeed David Bain, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Glasgow, does at the end of this lovely article which appeared on the BBC website today. I think we all need to consider some philosophical questions right now. When my oldest son was eight I put half a glass of water in front of him and asked him if it was half full or half empty. He considered this carefully for some time, looked at me and said “both.” David Bain asked some questions equally worthy of serious consideration…..

    1. SHOULD WE KILL HEALTHY PEOPLE FOR THEIR ORGANS?
    Suppose Bill is a healthy man without family or loved ones. Would it be ok painlessly to kill him if his organs would save five people, one of whom needs a heart, another a kidney, and so on? If not, why not?

    Consider another case: you and six others are kidnapped, and the kidnapper somehow persuades you that if you shoot dead one of the other hostages, he will set the remaining five free, whereas if you do not, he will shoot all six. (Either way, he’ll release you.)

    If in this case you should kill one to save five, why not in the previous, organs case? If in this case too you have qualms, consider yet another: you’re in the cab of a runaway tram and see five people tied to the track ahead. You have the option of sending the tram on to the track forking off to the left, on which only one person is tied. Surely you should send the tram left, killing one to save five.

    But then why not kill Bill?

    2. ARE YOU THE SAME PERSON WHO STARTED READING THIS ARTICLE?
    Consider a photo of someone you think is you eight years ago. What makes that person you? You might say he she was composed of the same cells as you now. But most of your cells are replaced every seven years. You might instead say you’re an organism, a particular human being, and that organisms can survive cell replacement – this oak being the same tree as the sapling I planted last year.

    But are you really an entire human being? If surgeons swapped George Bush’s brain for yours, surely the Bush look-alike, recovering from the operation in the White House, would be you. Hence it is tempting to say that you are a human brain, not a human being.

    But why the brain and not the spleen? Presumably because the brain supports your mental states, eg your hopes, fears, beliefs, values, and memories. But then it looks like it’s actually those mental states that count, not the brain supporting them. So the view is that even if the surgeons didn’t implant your brain in Bush’s skull, but merely scanned it, wiped it, and then imprinted its states on to Bush’s pre-wiped brain, the Bush look-alike recovering in the White House would again be you.

    But the view faces a problem: what if surgeons imprinted your mental states on two pre-wiped brains: George Bush’s and Gordon Brown’s? Would you be in the White House or in Downing Street? There’s nothing on which to base a sensible choice. Yet one person cannot be in two places at once.

    In the end, then, no attempt to make sense of your continued existence over time works. You are not the person who started reading this article.

    3. IS THAT REALLY A COMPUTER SCREEN IN FRONT OF YOU?
    What reason do you have to believe there’s a computer screen in front of you? Presumably that you see it, or seem to. But our senses occasionally mislead us. A straight stick half-submerged in water sometimes look bent; two equally long lines sometimes look different lengths.
    Are things always as they seem? The Muller-Lyer illusion indicates not

    But this, you might reply, doesn’t show that the senses cannot provide good reasons for beliefs about the world. By analogy, even an imperfect barometer can give you good reason to believe it’s about to rain.

    Before relying on the barometer, after all, you might independently check it by going outside to see whether it tends to rain when the barometer indicates that it will. You establish that the barometer is right 99% of the time. After that, surely, its readings can be good reasons to believe it will rain.

    Perhaps so, but the analogy fails. For you cannot independently check your senses. You cannot jump outside of the experiences they provide to check they’re generally reliable. So your senses give you no reason at all to believe that there is a computer screen in front of you.”

    4. DID YOU REALLY CHOOSE TO READ THIS ARTICLE?
    Suppose that Fred existed shortly after the Big Bang. He had unlimited intelligence and memory, and knew all the scientific laws governing the universe and all the properties of every particle that then existed. Thus equipped, billions of years ago, he could have worked out that, eventually, planet Earth would come to exist, that you would too, and that right now you would be reading this article.

    After all, even back then he could have worked out all the facts about the location and state of every particle that now exists.

    And once those facts are fixed, so is the fact that you are now reading this article. No one’s denying you chose to read this. But your choice had causes (certain events in your brain, for example), which in turn had causes, and so on right back to the Big Bang. So your reading this was predictable by Fred long before you existed. Once you came along, it was already far too late for you to do anything about it.

    Now, of course, Fred didn’t really exist, so he didn’t really predict your every move. But the point is: he could have. You might object that modern physics tells us that there is a certain amount of fundamental randomness in the universe, and that this would have upset Fred’s predictions. But is this reassuring? Notice that, in ordinary life, it is precisely when people act unpredictably that we sometimes question whether they have acted freely and responsibly. So freewill begins to look incompatible both with causal determination and with randomness. None of us, then, ever do anything freely and responsibly.”

    IN CONCLUSION
    Let me be clear: the point is absolutely not that you or I must bite these bullets. Some philosophers have a taste for bullets; but few would accept all the conclusions above and many would accept none. But the point, when you reject a conclusion, is to diagnose where the argument for it goes wrong.

    Doing this in philosophy goes hand-in-hand with the constructive side of our subject, with providing sane, rigorous, and illuminating accounts of central aspects of our existence: freewill, morality, justice, beauty, consciousness, knowledge, truth, meaning, and so on.

    Rarely does this allow us to put everything back where we found it. There are some surprises, some bullets that have to be bitten; sometimes it’s a matter simply of deciding which. But even when our commonsense conceptions survive more or less intact, understanding is deepened. As TS Eliot once wrote:

    “…the end of our exploring,

    Will be to arrive where we started,

    And know the place for the first time.”

    David Bain is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Glasgow