Tuesday, January 4 Nine Circles of Hell!

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The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Tuesday, January 4, 2011, plus a bonus story on Abu Dhabi’s artificial rain, are:

US says, balance budget by taxing rich, cutting military budget

US at war with Europe, Vatican, everybody over GM crops

Europe’s student protests about more than just tuition hikes

New technology creates storms in Abu Dhabi’s rainless summer

Here comes computer vision; “there is a dark side”

Pakistan’s “most courageous voice after Bhutto” murdered

New Year’s photo reveals Philippine official’s assassin

Protester’s death reveals Israel using most dangerous tear gas

Saddam statue-toppling myth finally unraveled

US says, balance budget by taxing rich, cutting military budget
Reuters
(1/3/11)

Most Americans say tax rich to balance budget: poll

Most Americans think the United States should raise taxes for the rich to balance the budget, according to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll released on Monday.

President Barack Obama last month signed into law a two-year extension of Bush-era tax cuts for millions of Americans, including the wealthiest, in a compromise with Republicans.

Republicans, who this week take control of the House of Representatives, want to extend all Bush-era tax cuts “permanently” for the middle class and wealthier Americans. They are also demanding spending cuts to curb the $1.3 trillion deficit.

Sixty-one percent of Americans polled would rather see taxes for the wealthy increased as a first step to tackling the deficit, the poll showed.

The next most popular way — chosen by 20 percent — was to cut defense spending.

US at war with Europe, Vatican, everybody over GM crops
The Guardian
(1/3/11)

WikiLeaks: US targets EU over GM crops

Past This is Hell! guest John Vidal writes …

The US embassy in Paris advised Washington to start a military-style trade war against any European Union country which opposed genetically modified (GM) crops, newly released WikiLeaks cables show.

In response to moves by France to ban a Monsanto GM corn variety in late 2007, the ambassador, Craig Stapleton, a friend and business partner of former US president George Bush, asked Washington to penalise the EU and particularly countries which did not support the use of GM crops.

“Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits.

“The list should be measured rather than vicious and must be sustainable over the long term, since we should not expect an early victory. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices,” said Stapleton, who with Bush co-owned the St Louis-based Texas Rangers baseball team in the 1990s.

In other newly released cables, US diplomats around the world are found to have pushed GM crops as a strategic government and commercial imperative.

Because many Catholic bishops in developing countries have been vehemently opposed to the controversial crops, the US applied particular pressure to the pope’s advisers.

Europe’s student protests about more than just tuition hikes
The New York Times
(1/1/11)

Europe’s Young Grow Agitated Over Future Prospects

Francesca Esposito, 29 and exquisitely educated, helped win millions of euros in false disability and other lawsuits for her employer, a major Italian state agency. But one day last fall she quit, fed up with how surreal and ultimately sad it is to be young in Italy today.

It galled her that even with her competence and fluency in five languages, it was nearly impossible to land a paying job. Working as an unpaid trainee lawyer was bad enough, she thought, but doing it at Italy’s social security administration seemed too much. She not only worked for free on behalf of the nation’s elderly, who have generally crowded out the young for jobs, but her efforts there did not even apply to her own pension.

“It was absurd,” said Ms. Esposito, a strong-willed woman with a healthy sense of outrage.

The outrage of the young has erupted, sometimes violently, on the streets of Greece and Italy in recent weeks, as students and more radical anarchists protest not only specific austerity measures in flattened economies but a rising reality in Southern Europe: People like Ms. Esposito feel increasingly shut out of their own futures. Experts warn of volatility in state finances and the broader society as the most highly educated generation in the history of the Mediterranean hits one of its worst job markets.

Politicians are slowly beginning to take notice. Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, devoted his year-end message on Friday to “the pervasive malaise among young people,” weeks after protests against budget cuts to the university system brought the issue to the fore.

Giuliano Amato, an economist and former Italian prime minister, was even more blunt. “By now, only a few people refuse to understand that youth protests aren’t a protest against the university reform, but against a general situation in which the older generations have eaten the future of the younger ones,” he recently told Corriere della Sera, Italy’s largest newspaper …

As a result, a deep malaise has set in among young people. Some take to the streets in protest; others emigrate to Northern Europe or beyond in an epic brain drain of college graduates. But many more suffer in silence, living in their childhood bedrooms well into adulthood because they cannot afford to move out.

New technology creates storms in Abu Dhabi’s rainless summer
Daily Mail
(1/3/11)

Have scientists discovered how to create downpours in the desert?

For centuries people living in the Middle East have dreamed of turning the sandy desert into land fit for growing crops with fresh water on tap.

Now that holy grail is a step closer after scientists employed by the ruler of Abu Dhabi claim to have generated a series of downpours.

Fifty rainstorms were created last year in the state’s eastern Al Ain region using technology designed to control the weather.

Most of the storms were at the height of the summer in July and August when there is no rain at all.

People living in Abu Dhabi were baffled by the rainfall which sometimes turned into hail and included gales and lightening.

The scientists have been working secretly for United Arab Emirates president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

They have been using giant ionisers, shaped like stripped down lampshades on steel poles, to generate fields of negatively charged particles.

These promote cloud formation and researchers hoped they could then produce rain.

In a confidential company video, the founder of the Swiss company in charge of the project, Metro Systems International, boasted of success.

Helmut Fluhrer said: ‘We have achieved a number of rainfalls.’

It is believed to be the first time the system has produced rain from clear skies, according to the Sunday Times.

In the past, China and other countries have used chemicals for cloud-seeding to both induce and prevent rain falling.

  • In TIME’s, “Scientists Create 52 Artificial Rain Storms in Abu Dhabi Desert,” they add:
    On the 52 days it rained in the region throughout July and August, forecasters did not predict rain once …
    … the idea that countries in the Middle East could actually create rain in this water-poor region could go a long way to solving the area’s problems with drought and is considered to be cheaper than desalination. But how controllable the weather can be is still in doubt, and the consequences of meddling with nature at this level are yet to be seen.

Here comes computer vision; “there is a dark side”
The New York Times
(1/1/11)

Computers That See You and Keep Watch Over You

Hundreds of correctional officers from prisons across America descended last spring on a shuttered penitentiary in West Virginia for annual training exercises.

Some officers played the role of prisoners, acting like gang members and stirring up trouble, including a mock riot. The latest in prison gear got a workout — body armor, shields, riot helmets, smoke bombs, gas masks. And, at this year’s drill, computers that could see the action.

Perched above the prison yard, five cameras tracked the play-acting prisoners, and artificial-intelligence software analyzed the images to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. When two groups of inmates moved toward each other, the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.

The computers cannot do anything more than officers who constantly watch surveillance monitors under ideal conditions. But in practice, officers are often distracted. When shifts change, an observation that is worth passing along may be forgotten. But machines do not blink or forget. They are tireless assistants.

The enthusiasm for such systems extends well beyond the nation’s prisons. High-resolution, low-cost cameras are proliferating, found in products like smartphones and laptop computers. The cost of storing images is dropping, and new software algorithms for mining, matching and scrutinizing the flood of visual data are progressing swiftly.

A computer-vision system can watch a hospital room and remind doctors and nurses to wash their hands, or warn of restless patients who are in danger of falling out of bed. It can, through a computer-equipped mirror, read a man’s face to detect his heart rate and other vital signs. It can analyze a woman’s expressions as she watches a movie trailer or shops online, and help marketers tailor their offerings accordingly. Computer vision can also be used at shopping malls, schoolyards, subway platforms, office complexes and stadiums.

All of which could be helpful — or alarming.

“Machines will definitely be able to observe us and understand us better,” said Hartmut Neven, a computer scientist and vision expert at Google. “Where that leads is uncertain.”

Google has been both at the forefront of the technology’s development and a source of the anxiety surrounding it. Its Street View service, which lets Internet users zoom in from above on a particular location, faced privacy complaints. Google will blur out people’s homes at their request.

Google has also introduced an application called Goggles, which allows people to take a picture with a smartphone and search the Internet for matching images. The company’s executives decided to exclude a facial-recognition feature, which they feared might be used to find personal information on people who did not know that they were being photographed.

Despite such qualms, computer vision is moving into the mainstream. With this technological evolution, scientists predict, people will increasingly be surrounded by machines that can not only see but also reason about what they are seeing, in their own limited way.

Kinect, an add-on to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming console, is a striking advance for computer vision in the marketplace. It uses a digital camera and sensors to recognize people and gestures; it also understands voice commands. Players control the computer with waves of the hand, and then move to make their on-screen animated stand-ins — known as avatars — run, jump, swing and dance. Since Kinect was introduced in November, game reviewers have applauded, and sales are surging.

To Microsoft, Kinect is not just a game, but a step toward the future of computing. “It’s a world where technology more fundamentally understands you, so you don’t have to understand it,” said Alex Kipman, an engineer on the team that designed Kinect …

“With every technology, there is a dark side,” said Hany Farid, a computer scientist at Dartmouth. “Sometimes you can predict it, but often you can’t.”

A decade ago, he noted, no one predicted that cellphones and text messaging would lead to traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers. And, he said, it was difficult to foresee that the rise of Facebook and Twitter and personal blogs would become troves of data to be collected and exploited in tracking people’s online behavior.

Often, a technology that is benign in one setting can cause harm in a different context. Google confronted that problem this year with its face-recognition software. In its Picasa photo-storing and sharing service, face recognition helps people find and organize pictures of family and friends.

But the company took a different approach with Goggles, which lets a person snap a photograph with a smartphone, setting off an Internet search. Take a picture of the Eiffel Tower and links to Web pages with background information and articles about it appear on the phone’s screen. Take a picture of a wine bottle and up come links to reviews of that vintage.

Google could have put face recognition into the Goggles application; indeed, many users have asked for it. But Google decided against it because smartphones can be used to take pictures of individuals without their knowledge, and a face match could retrieve all kinds of personal information — name, occupation, address, workplace.

“It was just too sensitive, and we didn’t want to go there,” said Eric E. Schmidt, the chief executive of Google. “You want to avoid enabling stalker behavior.”

Pakistan’s “most courageous voice after Bhutto” murdered
The Guardian
(1/4/10)

Pakistan attack kills Punjab governor

The governor of Pakistan’s wealthiest province has been killed by one of his own bodyguards, apparently because he had spoken out against the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

In the most high-profile political assassination since the murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was shot nine times at Kohsar market, an upmarket shopping area less than a mile from the presidential palace.

The interior minister, Rahman Malik, said that the gunman had told police he had killed Taseer for criticising the country’s blasphemy legislation.

Taseer, who was close to President Asif Ali Zardari and an outspoken critic of militant groups, was pronounced dead at the nearby Poly Clinic hospital. He had recently courted the anger of Islamist extremists by defending a Christian woman condemned to death for blasphemy. Taseer called for the repeal of the “disgraceful” laws after Aasia Bibi was sentenced under the colonial-era law.

“He was the most courageous voice after Benazir Bhutto on the rights of women and religious minorities,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to Zardari and friend of Taseer. “God, we will miss him.”

New Year’s photo reveals Philippine official’s assassin
The Associated Press
(1/4/11)

Slain Filipino official caught suspect on camera

Philippine police investigating the New Year’s Eve shooting death of a local councilman did not have to look further than the last photograph the victim took. That photo led to the arrest of two suspects.

The picture, taken outside the councilman’s house in metropolitan Manila, clearly shows a man aiming his gun from behind the victim’s smiling three-member family, seconds before he was shot.

The relatives — Councilman Reynaldo Dagsa’s wife, daughter and mother-in-law — are seen standing beside the family’s car, which has lights on, and the gunman, wearing a baseball cap, is bracing himself against the vehicle and pointing his gun at Dagsa. His face is slightly obscured by the gun …

He said the main suspect was a car thief who was out on bail and likely sought revenge against Dagsa for ordering his arrest last year.

Dagsa’s wife and daughter, speaking to reporters at their home Tuesday, said the victim had asked them to wake him up before the stroke of midnight so he could join in the usually noisy New Year’s street revelry that comes with lots of firecrackers.

The family members said they did not hear a gunshot because the firecrackers were exploding all around them. They only saw Dagsa falling to the ground after he was hit.

Protester’s death reveals Israel using most dangerous tear gas
Haaretz
(1/3/11)

Protester death shows IDF may be using most dangerous type of tear gas

Questions are surfacing about Israel’s use of tear-gas grenades, as security officials investigate the recent death of a protester at the weekly demonstration near the separation fence at the West Bank village of Bil’in. A 36-year-old woman, Jawaher Abu Rahmah, died on Saturday morning.

The medical report filed in the Ramallah hospital where Abu Rahmah was taken shows that her death was caused by respiratory failure resulting from the inhalation of tear gas.

Haaretz obtained the medical report on Sunday from Jawaher’s brother, Ahmed Abu Rahmah.

Jawaher Abu Rahmah was the sister of Bassem Abu Rahmah, who was killed in April 2009 when Israeli soldiers fired a tear-gas grenade at his chest at a demonstration at the fence in Bil’in. Ahmed Abu Rahmah has three surviving brothers; their father died five years ago …

The Israel Defense Forces uses crowd-dispersal tear gas known as CS, which was developed half a century ago in Britain and the United States. It is used by armies and police forces around the world. In recent years, a number of studies have cast doubts about this type of gas; there have been reports of several deaths caused by the inhalation CS tear gas.

“One of the main factors influencing the extent of damage caused by CS gas is the amount of particles in the air,” said Daniel Argo, an Israeli doctor who regularly takes part in the demonstrations against the separation fence. He also trains activists to tend to injuries caused by police and soldiers using crowd-dispersal techniques.

Argo says recent eye and lung injuries, as well as skin diseases, can be associated with the use of CS tear gas.

“There are other types of tear gas that are not as dangerous as CS; why the defense establishment insists on continuing its use is not clear,” Argo said. “In addition, since no studies have been conducted to identify the long-term effects of the gas, security personnel who use it frequently should be worrying about their own health.”

Saddam statue-toppling myth finally unraveled
The New Yorker
(1/10/11)

The Toppling

Propaganda has been a staple of warfare for ages, but the notion of creating events on the battlefield, as opposed to repackaging real ones after the fact, is a modern development. It expresses a media theory developed by, among others, Walter Lippmann, who after the First World War identified the components of wartime mythmaking as “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit of reality.” As he put it, “Men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities [and] in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.” In the nineteen-sixties, Daniel J. Boorstin identified a new category of media spectacle that he called “pseudo-events,” which were created to be reported on. But Boorstin was theorizing primarily about political conventions and press conferences, not about events on a battlefield.

The 2004 documentary film “Control Room” featured Al Jazeera journalists who argued that the toppling of Saddam’s statue was merely “a show . . . a very clever idea,” and that Iraqis had been brought to the square like actors delivered to the stage. Skeptics have also questioned whether the crowd was as large or as representative of popular sentiment as U.S. officials suggested. Might it have been just a small group of Iraqis whose numbers and enthusiasm were exaggerated by the cameras? Did the media, which had, with few exceptions, accepted the Bush Administration’s prewar claims about weapons of mass destruction, err again by portraying a pseudo-event as real? And were lives lost as a result of this error? …

My understanding of events at the time was limited. I had no idea why the battalion went to Firdos rather than to other targets. I didn’t know who had decided to raise the American flag and who had decided to take down the statue, or why. And I had little awareness of the media dynamics that turned the episode into a festive symbol of what appeared to be the war’s finale. In reality, the war was just getting under way. Many thousands of people would be killed or injured before the Bush Administration acknowledged that it faced not just “pockets of dead-enders” in Iraq, as Rumsfeld insisted, but what grew to be a full-fledged insurgency. The toppling of Saddam’s statue turned out to be emblematic of primarily one thing: the fact that American troops had taken the center of Baghdad. That was significant, but everything else the toppling was said to represent during repeated replays on television—victory for America, the end of the war, joy throughout Iraq—was a disservice to the truth. Yet the skeptics were wrong in some ways, too, because the event was not planned in advance by the military. How did it happen? …

Other commanders had already concluded that toppling the dictator’s likeness might help get the point across and had tried it elsewhere. A few days into the war, British tanks mounted a raid into the heart of Basra, in the south of the country, where they destroyed a statue of Saddam. The Brits hoped the locals, seeing a strike against a symbol of regime power, would rise up against Saddam. As the British military spokesman, Colonel Chris Vernon, told reporters, “The purpose of that is psychological.” The statue was destroyed, but the event wasn’t filmed and drew little attention. Similarly, on April 7th, after Army soldiers seized the Republican Palace in Baghdad, their commander, Colonel David Perkins, asked his men to find a statue that could be destroyed. Once one was found—Saddam on horseback—a nearby tank was ordered to wait until an embedded team from Fox News got there. On cue, the tank fired a shell at the statue, blowing it up, but the event had little drama and did not get a lot of TV coverage. No Iraqis were present, and just a few Americans, and the surrounding landscape was featureless …

The media have been criticized for accepting the Bush Administration’s claims, in the run-up to the invasion, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The W.M.D. myth, and the media’s embrace of it, encouraged public support for war. The media also failed at Firdos Square, but in this case it was the media, rather than the government, that created the victory myth …

A visual echo chamber developed: rather than encouraging reporters to find the news, editors urged them to report what was on TV. CNN, which did not have a reporter at the Palestine, because its team had been expelled when the invasion began, was desperate to get one of its embedded correspondents there. Walter Rodgers, whose Army unit was on the other side of the Tigris, was ordered by his editors to disembed and drive across town to the Palestine. Rodgers reminded his editors that combat continued and that his vehicle, moving on its own, would likely be hit by American or Iraqi forces. This said much about the coverage that day: Rodgers could not provide reports of the war’s end because the war had not ended. But he understood the imperatives that kept CNN’s attention pinned on Firdos Square. “Pictures are the mother’s milk of television, and it was a hell of a picture,” he said recently.

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