Daily Archives: July 24, 2008

EU scientists move a step closer to creating humanoid robots

Physorg | Jul 23, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) — A European research project has brought the dream of human-like robots closer to reality by creating a human-like arm and hand controlled by an electronic ‘brain’ modelled on the human cerebellum.

“Hollywood did a bad job for us,” says Patrick van der Smagt, the coordinator of SENSOPAC, an EU-funded project whose goal is to create a robotic arm, hand and brain with human-like physical and cognitive capabilities.

While the movies have convinced many people that humanoid robots, such as C-3PO or WALL-E are realistic, van der Smagt knows all too well how difficult it is to build robots with even basic human abilities.

Yet robots that could function flexibly and safely alongside people in everyday environments could revolutionise daily life.

Existing robots, such as those that help assemble cars or computers, can perform repetitive actions quickly and precisely. However, says van der Smagt, “they are not very intelligent or flexible and they don’t do very much sensing”.

The international team of neuroscientists and roboticists that he leads decided that the best way to make a robot that is intelligent, flexible and sensitive is to model it on the human body and brain.

This approach, called biomimetics, is inspired by the realisation that evolution has provided the human body and brain with an astonishing range of abilities. “We can run for hours, yet also perform very high precision tasks,” says van der Smagt. “If you compare that to any robot system, it’s oceans apart.”

After two-and-a-half years of research, and €6.5 million in funding by the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research, SENSOPAC scientists have designed and tested a human-like arm with a dextrous and sensitive hand, controlled by a computer program inspired by the human cerebellum.

Sensitive skin

Every step towards this accomplishment required groundbreaking research by the 11 partners in the consortium.

To develop robotic skin as sensitive as human skin, the researchers started by studying how human skin senses not just pressure and position but features such as the direction pressure is coming from.

To mimic the skin’s sensing capabilities, researchers at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), guided by physiology results from Umeå University, in Sweden, created a thin flexible material filled with a form of carbon whose resistance changes with pressure. This approach let them combine information from sensors in different parts of the skin in order to minimise the number of information-carrying wires.

“We can soon integrate hundreds of detector elements and get the information out with just five wires,” says van der Smagt. “And we have the ability to distinguish between shape, the amount of force, and the direction of force.”

The human arm and hand can generate and control a remarkable range of force, from the delicate touch of a watchmaker to the power of a javelin thrower. Much of this range of force and finesse comes from the pairs of opposing muscles that control each joint.

Researchers at DLR took the same approach. The artificial arm they built and are now experimenting with uses a total of 58 motors in opposing pairs, coupled with non-linear springs, to control the arm.

The hand they have built is closely modelled on the human hand. It can snap its fingers, pick up an egg or carry a cup of coffee. Its fingers are moved by 38 opposing motors.

Again, the researchers had to go back to basics, for example making detailed MRI studies of human hands in hundreds of different positions.

“Surprisingly enough, this doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says van der Smagt.

How to build a brain

From the start, the group knew that sensitivity, dexterity, and strength were not enough. They had to provide the biomimetic arm with a high degree of intelligence.

Their ultimate goal is to create a microchip that will allow the arm to carry out tasks requiring human-level skills in a real-world setting.

Van der Smagt envisions an arm that could “decide” to pick up a cup, sense important properties of what it contains, for example water versus flour, and move it from place to place.

“It’s not that the system needs to know that there’s water in the cup,” says van der Smagt, “but how to handle whatever is in it appropriately.”

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, and at Lund University, in Sweden, decided that the best approach was to model the human cerebellum.

The cerebellum is a fist-sized organ at the base of the brain that coordinates sensation and movement.

The researchers are currently using software to simulate important aspects of how the cerebellum processes and integrates information.

“It’s the first neural-network-based controller that can control the dynamics of a robotic system in its full operational range,” says van der Smagt.

In the next six months, they will be seeing how well this system can learn to control the arm.

Although he is excited by the group’s progress towards a robotic arm and hand with human-like capabilities, van der Smagt remains impressed by what nature has already done.

“It makes one realise that we are still light-years away from achieving what biology has accomplished,” he says. “We are definitely not there yet, but we are getting much closer.”

Fema seeks immunity from toxic trailer lawsuits

Associated Press | Jul 23, 2008


NEW ORLEANS – The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked a federal judge Wednesday for immunity from lawsuits over potentially dangerous fumes in government-issued trailers that have housed tens of thousands of Gulf Coast hurricane victims.

Lawyers for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita accuse FEMA of negligence for sheltering them in trailers with elevated levels of formaldehyde, a preservative used in construction materials that can cause health problems.

But a government attorney told U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt that the FEMA’s decisions in responding to a disaster, including its use of travel trailers after Katrina, are legally protected from “judicial second-guessing.”

“It is what the legislative branch is supposed to second guess, and they are doing that,” Department of Justice attorney Henry Miller said, referring to a series of congressional hearings on formaldehyde concerns.

Plaintiffs attorney Gerald Meunier said FEMA can be held liable for providing hurricane victims with trailers that didn’t meet federal safety standards and weren’t designed to be long-term housing.

“Some of these people are still living in these trailers almost three years later,” Meunier said.

Engelhardt took FEMA’s request for immunity under advisement and didn’t indicate how soon he will rule.

The judge is presiding over several consolidated cases filed against the federal government and the companies that supplied FEMA with tens of thousands of trailers after Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, and Rita struck about a month later.

FEMA spent more than $2.5 billion to purchase more than 140,000 new trailers from recreational vehicle dealers and trailer manufacturers after the storms.

The lawsuits accuse trailer makers of providing FEMA with shoddily built units in a rush to meet the agency’s unprecedented demand for emergency housing. Plaintiffs lawyers also claim FEMA ignored concerns about formaldehyde levels in trailers for months after Katrina.

“At what point do you say, ‘We know there’s a crisis here, but there is a minimal standard where people have got to be protected against danger,'” Meunier said.

Earlier this year, federal officials announced that tests on hundreds of occupied FEMA trailers and mobile homes detected formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes.

Miller said FEMA fielded its first formaldehyde complaint from a trailer occupant in March 2006 and only had seven or eight complaints by June 2006.

“What was the alternative (to using trailers)?” Miller asked. “To move them to Baton Rouge, to move them to Arkansas, to move them to Texas?”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs want the cases certified as a class action on behalf of tens of thousands of current and former trailer occupants in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Engelhardt hasn’t ruled on that request yet.

Chinese ordered to refrain from discussing politics and religion with foreigners

Chinese students balance books on their heads during an etiquette training class.

The latest set of instructions is displayed on “Eight don’t asks” posters in Dongcheng, a central district of Beijing. They urge residents who meet foreigners to avoid questions on their age, salary, love life, health, income, political views, religious beliefs or personal experiences.

Guardian | Jul 23, 2008

Tania Branigan in Beijing

Etiquette experts have long advised hosts to avoid discussing politics and religion. But salaries, love lives and health are also off limits during the Olympics, as Beijing’s courtesy campaign reaches its final stages.

For three years or more, officials have been training residents to be on their best behaviour, launching drives against spitting, smoking and swearing and encouraging locals to form orderly queues.

The latest set of instructions is displayed on “Eight don’t asks” posters in Dongcheng, a central district of Beijing. They urge residents who meet foreigners to avoid questions on their age, salary, love life, health, income, political views, religious beliefs or personal experiences.

“It is normal for Chinese to ask people they just met such questions, but foreigners respond negatively,” said Wang Zhaoqian, a spokeswoman for the Beijing municipal government.

“By educating locals, we hope that they will become more socially sensitive when communicating with visitors.”

Another poster warns against using phrases such as “it’s up there” when talking to anyone visually impaired, or “it’s behind you” to disabled athletes. It recommends comments such as: “You are really great.”

Deference to foreign sensitivities is such that volunteers have even been warned against using rap music as the ringtone on their mobile phones lest they offend visitors, China Daily reported.

Officials also warned today that they would not tolerate “obscene, sexual, superstitious or base” adverts over the Olympic period, saying they could affect the national image. Adverts for cigarettes and products that claim to improve sexual performance are off limits.

The etiquette campaign appears to have had some success: a “civic index” created by Renmin University, which measures the manners, goodwill and friendliness of residents, rose from 65.21 in 2005 to 73.4 last year. The target for the games is 80.

Beijingers have also been encouraged to make foreigners feel at home by learning 1,000 English phrases printed in the daily paper. With 16 days to go, this morning’s offering, the 984th, read: “Tonight I think I’d like Sichuan food. I prefer the taste.”

With such attention to detail, it is perhaps unsurprising that 96% of the Chinese expect the games to be a success, according to a survey published by the Pew Global Attitudes Project this week. Almost as many – 93% – thought they would improve the country’s image worldwide, while 90% of Beijingers said the games were important to them.

But Olympics fatigue appeared to be creeping in, with 46% of the city’s residents saying the event was receiving more attention than it should. Reuters reported that new slang has emerged to describe such weariness. “Biyun” usually means contraception, or avoiding pregnancy, but the same pronunciation is now being used to mean avoiding the games, as “aoyun” means “Olympics”.

Blackwater mercenaries here to stay

Despite reports that the company is leaving the mercenary business, Blackwater’s future is secure

Guardian | Jul 23, 2008

By Jeremy Scahill

It seems that executives from Blackwater Worldwide, the Bush administration’s favourite hired guns in Iraq and Afghanistan, are threatening to pack up their M4 assault rifles, CS gas and Little Bird helicopters and go back to the great dismal swamp of North Carolina whence they came. Or at least that’s how it is being portrayed in the media.

This story broke on Monday, when the Associated Press ran an article based on lengthy interviews with Blackwater’s top guns. Since then, the story has picked up considerable steam and generated a tremendous amount of buzz online and in the press. After all, Blackwater has long been a key part of the US occupation and has been at the centre of several high-profile scandals and deadly incidents. Add to that its owner’s ties to the White House and the radical religious right in the US and it is clear why this is news. On top of that, Barack Obama – a critic of Blackwater – just completed a tour of Iraq, where he was touting his withdrawal plan.

Among the headlines of the past 24 hours: “Blackwater plans exit from guard work”, “Blackwater getting out of security business”, “Blackwater sounds retreat from private security business”, and “Blackwater to leave security business”. One blogger slapped this headline on his post: “Blackwater, worst organisation since SS, to end mercenary work.”

Frankly, this is a whole lot of hype.

Anyone who thinks Blackwater is in serious trouble is dead wrong. Even if – and this is a big if – the company pulled out of Iraq tomorrow, here is the cold, hard fact: business has never been better for Blackwater, and its future looks bright. More on this in a moment.

Back to the matter at hand. Complaining that negative media attention and congressional and criminal investigations are hurting business and that the Blackwater name had become a catch-all target for anti-war protesters, the company’s brass told the AP that Blackwater was shifting its focus to its other areas of government contracting, like law enforcement and military training, as well as logistics.

”The experience we’ve had would certainly be a disincentive to any other companies that want to step in and put their entire business at risk,” said Erik Prince, Blackwater’s reclusive, 39 year-old founder and owner. Company president Gary Jackson said Blackwater has become like the “Coca-Cola” of war contractors, a brand representing all private companies servicing the Iraq occupation. Jackson charged the company had been falsely portrayed in the media, saying, ”If [the media] could get it right, we might stay in the business.”

All of this sounds a bit like whining on a children’s playground.

Shame on journalists for not recognising the noble work of the gallant heroes and patriots (who happen to be paid much more than US troops and have not been subjected to any system of law and who can leave the war zone any moment they choose) and forcing Blackwater to consider abandoning its (very profitable, billion-dollar) charitable humanitarian campaign in Iraq. Remember, according to Blackwater, it is not a mercenary organisation. It is a “peace and stability” operation employing “global stabilisation professionals”.

While they were at it, Jackson and Prince should have blamed those wretched 17 Iraqi civilians who had the audacity to step in front of the bullets flying out of Blackwater’s weapons in Baghdad’s Nisour Square last September. After all, following those killings, Erik Prince told the US Congress that the only innocent people his men may have killed or injured in Iraq died as a result of “ricochets” and “traffic accidents”. If that is true, Nisour Square might have been the most lethal jaywalking incident in world history.

As for the current hype, the day after the AP story broke, Blackwater’s long-time spokesperson Anne Tyrrell was quick to clarify the matter. Blackwater, she said, has no immediate plans to exit the security business. “As long as we’re asked, we’ll do it,” she said. Meanwhile, the US state department, which renewed Blackwater’s contract for another year in April, says it has received no communication from the company indicating it is not going to continue on in Iraq. “They have not indicated to us that they are attempting to get out of our current contract,” said undersecretary of state Patrick Kennedy.

As of 2005-2006, according to the company, about half of Blackwater’s business was made up of its security work in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and post-Katrina New Orleans. Today, Jackson says it is about 30%. ”If I could get it down to 2% or 1%, I would go there,” he said in the interview.

Blackwater, like all companies operating in US war zones, is following political developments very closely. The company may be bracing for a possible shift in policy should Obama win in November. Blackwater could be contemplating resignation before termination. On the other hand, Obama has sent mixed messages on the future of war contractors under his Iraq policy. While he has been very critical of the war industry in general – and Blackwater specifically – he has also indicated he will not “rule out” using private armed contractors at least for a time in Iraq.

Perhaps Blackwater has already gotten what it needed from Iraq: over a billion dollars in contracts and a bad-ass reputation, which has served it well. In May, Blackwater boasted of “two successive quarters of unprecedented growth.” Among its current initiatives:

• Erik Prince’s private spy agency, Total Intelligence Solutions, is now open for business, placing capabilities once the sovereign realm of governments on the open market. Run by three veteran CIA operatives, the company offers “CIA-type services” to Fortune 1000 companies and governments.

• Blackwater was asked by the Pentagon to bid for a share of a whopping $15bn contract to “fight terrorists with drug-trade ties” in a US programme that targets countries like Colombia, Bolivia, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The New York Times said it could be the company’s “biggest job” ever.

• Blackwater is wrapping up work on its own armoured vehicle, the Grizzly, as well as its Polar Airship 400, a surveillance blimp Blackwater wants to market to the Department of Homeland security for use in monitoring the US-Mexico border.

On top of this, Blackwater affiliate Greystone Ltd, registered offshore in Barbados, is an old-fashioned mercenary operation offering “personnel from the best militaries throughout the world” for hire by governments and private organisations. It also boasts of a “multi-national peacekeeping programme,” with forces “specialising in crowd control and less than lethal techniques and military personnel for the less stable areas of operation.” Greystone’s name has been conspicuously absent in this current news cycle.

At the end of the day, maybe this is just a story, a whole lot of a hype and a dash of misdirection from a pretty savvy company. Safe money would dictate that Blackwater plans on continuing to be, well, Blackwater.

Consider this. The other day Blackwater president Gary Jackson told the AP: “Security was not part of the master plan, ever.”

Interesting claim. It was in fact Jackson himself who, back at the beginning of the Iraq occupation, described his goal for Blackwater as such: “I would like to have the largest, most professional private army in the world.”

Pope apologises for ‘evil’ child sex abuse


Pope ‘led cover-up of child abuse by priests’

Pope blames US for abuse crisis

AFP | Jul 20, 2008

SYDNEY (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI offered a historic full apology for child sex abuse by predatory priests Saturday, saying he was “deeply sorry” and calling for those guilty of the “evil” to be punished.

The pope strayed from a prepared speech to express shame and make his first direct and explicit apology to victims of predatory clergymen in Australia, during a mass attended by local bishops, priests and novices.
His remarks in a homily in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral were the strongest he has used in confronting the scourge which has rocked the Catholic church globally.

“Here I would like to pause to acknowledge the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious in this country,” Benedict told the gathering.

Diverting from the text of his prepared homily which had been made available to journalists a couple of hours earlier, the pontiff said: “I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering.”

The pope is leading around 200,000 pilgrims at World Youth Day celebrations that have been partly overshadowed by pressure from victims for a full apology amid claims the church had not adequately addressed the issue.

But in an immediate reaction to his apology, the Broken Rites support group representing Australian victims said it did not go far enough.
“Sorry may be a start but we want to see a lot more,” spokeswoman Chris MacIsaac said.

“We want the victims to be treated fairly, we don’t want them to feel that they have been shut out, we don’t want them to be re-abused by church authorities,” she said.

The pope first spoke of the shame and suffering that predatory priests had brought upon the church during a visit to the United States in April, but his comments were seen to fall short of a direct apology.

In Sydney, the pope called for compensation for the victims of sexual abuse, ordered Australian clergy to help them recover from their ordeals and demanded that predatory priests should be punished.

“Victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice,” he said in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral.

“These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation.”

The pope told the audience of 3,400 people invited to attend the mass to consecrate a new altar for the cathedral that the cases of abuse had “caused great pain” to victims and also damaged the church’s standing.
“I ask all of you to support and assist your bishops, and to work together with them in combating this evil.”

In a homily in which he also reminded Catholic clergy of their vows of celibacy, the pope added: “It is an urgent priority to promote a safer and more wholesome environment, especially for young people.”

The 81-year-old pontiff said he hoped that dealing effectively with the sex abuse issue would “bring about healing, reconciliation and ever greater fidelity to the moral demands of the gospel”.

The church in Australia, as in many other parts of the world, has been mired in a long-running controversy over its response to past abuses and allegations it tried to cover them up.

Broken Rites says 107 Catholic priests and religious brothers have been sentenced in Australian courts on sex charges, and Australian bishops apologised for past abuses in 2002.

Jesuit priest and lawyer Father Frank Brennan told AFP the pontiff had “gone further” in his remarks than he had in the United States by using the term “deeply sorry.”

“I’m pleased the Holy father has repeated the sentiments he expressed in the United States and that he has even very explicitly added an expression of his own deep personal sorrow for the hurt caused,” he said.

In his homily a day ahead of his final World Youth Day mass that organisers say will attract up to 500,000 Catholic pilgrims, the pontiff lamented increasing secularism around the world that has left the church fighting to bolster its membership.

“We find ourselves immersed in a world that would set God ‘aside’. In the name of human freedom and autonomy, God’s name is passed over in silence, religion is reduced to private devotion and faith is shunned in the public square,” he said.

Beijing to set up free-speech zones several miles away from Olympics

A Chinese girl poses near a replica of the Capital Building in the United States seen at the World Park in Beijing, China, Wednesday, July 23, 2008. The World Park is one of three parks designated for protesters during next month’s Olympics, security officials said Wednesday, in a sign China’s authoritarian government may allow some demonstrations during the games.  (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Associated Press | Jul 23, 2008


BEIJING – China will allow a modicum of dissent at the Olympics, setting up special protest zones far from the main sports venues, in a shift that supporters and detractors said Wednesday is meant to safely channel criticism and avoid disrupting the games.

The designated protest areas will be in parts of three public parks, none of them closer than several miles from the main Olympic stadium. One zone is in a park that features large-scale mock-ups of the White House and other world monuments, raising the prospect that protesters will appear to be elsewhere in televised images and news photos.

In making the announcement, the Beijing Olympic organizing committee’s security director, Liu Shaowu, cited the use of protest areas at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

“People or protesters who want to express their personal opinions can go to do so,” Liu told reporters.

The move, however, doesn’t mean Beijing is inviting a flood of protests at the games, which open in 16 days. Liu suggested demonstrators would need to apply for permission in advance.

Tightened visa checks have prevented or deterred foreign groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists from coming to Beijing, although actor Mia Farrow’s Dream for Darfur said its visa application was pending. Overseas broadcasters, such as NBC which paid hundreds of millions of dollars to air the games, are still wrangling with organizers over restrictions on live coverage around the city.

“Until it begins, we will not know how the officials and police will react,” said John Barton, director of sport for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, which represents broadcasters in 57 countries. “It’s a lottery.”

Beijing is now ringed with police checkpoints, designed to keep out bomb-making materials, would-be terrorists and domestic protesters, and dotted with half-empty hotels. But it is also festooned with banners, creating an odd mixture of festiveness and tension.

Still, the decision to permit even small demonstrations marks a turnaround for an authoritarian government that has seemed set on smothering any protests at an Olympics it wants to be a flawless celebration of a friendly, modern China.

“This will allow people to protest without disrupting the Olympics,” said Ni Jianping, director of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, who lobbied Chinese leaders to set up the protest zones. “We’re giving people a platform to express their views.”

While protests have become common throughout China — from workers upset about factory layoffs to farmers angry about land confiscation — the communist leadership remains wary about large demonstrations, fearing they could snowball into widespread anti-government movements. Three violent protests have occurred in far-flung provinces in recent weeks.

After foreign groups critical of China’s human rights, media controls and foreign policies in places like Sudan’s Darfur area began targeting the Olympics a year ago, Beijing ramped up an intelligence-collection effort to identify critics to keep them out. The melee of protests that greeted Beijing’s international torch relay in April brought a redoubling of efforts.

Amid the uproar, some sought to persuade Beijing that flexibility and openness would deflect the criticism. Ni, working with Susan Brownell, an American academic at Beijing Sports University, pointed out there were protest zones at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 as a positive example in a paper forwarded to officials they declined to identify.

Security is still the utmost priority. Liu, the security official, reiterated the government’s view that terrorism poses a great threat, saying the half-million expected visitors offer an opportunity for terrorists to infiltrate. Brownell said Chinese leaders would not have agreed to protests unless they felt it would enhance control.

“It was about placating the West. They were really concerned about social order,” said Brownell, a China expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “They must have come up with a plan to improve social order rather than make it worse.”

Human rights campaigners assailed the protest zones as cosmetic, with one likening them to a “fishbowl” — sealed off from society at large.

“Designating unilaterally ‘protest zones’ for demonstrators does not equate to respecting the right to demonstrate, because in this situation control comes first and the right second,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

Signs abound that the government intends to keep a tight rein. Housing activist Ye Guozhu, who was jailed for trying to organize a protest of evictions for Beijing’s Olympic makeover, was taken from the Chaobai Prison to an undisclosed location Tuesday, four days before his release, said the China Human Rights Defenders activist group.

In Shanghai, which hosts preliminary Olympic soccer games, dissident lawyer Zheng Enchong was taken away Wednesday by police, Bequelin said. Police in Shanghai and Beijing said they did not know about those two cases.

The special protest areas are not near the Olympic green where most venues, the main media centers and the medal ceremonies are concentrated, but rather are in distant parks: the World Park in the southwest, three miles from the softball field; the Purple Bamboo Park in the west, south of the volleyball arena; and Ritan Park in the east, near no venues.

Mention of the protest zones was expunged from the briefing’s official transcript. Ni, the Shanghai scholar, said that Chinese protesters may be allowed only in the rather far World Park, not in the other venues.

Liu also reiterated that Chinese regulations require that all protesters apply and receive permission in advance. “Generally speaking, we will invite those participants to demonstrate their demonstrations in designated places, and this is also a common practice in other countries,” Liu said.

Even if protests do occur, they are unlikely to find favor with Chinese at large. The raucous protests abroad of the Olympic torch relay incited a patriotic backlash among Chinese. Brownell said her research found that many Chinese view the Olympics as a solemn affair in which they are inviting guests into their homes and all sides should show respect.

“Whereas we see controlled protests as a way of venting steam, Chinese see this as inviting people to riot,” she said.

Britain ratifies EU treaty – The Queen signs goatskin “instruments of ratification”

Ed Comment:

Three questions to keep in mind while reading this article:

1: What is the symbolic significance of signing goatskin?

2: Why are the documents tied in a blue ribbon and bound in blue leather?

3: Why are the documents lodged in Rome?

Britain has officially ratified the controversial Lisbon Treaty

Red Ice Creations | Jul 21, 2008

The Government confirmed that the final stages of passing the agreement have been completed.

But the future of the deal is still in doubt as EU leaders consider how to respond to Ireland’s surprise referendum “no” vote last month.

Under the UK’s ratification process, both houses of Parliament must pass the treaty.

The Queen then gives Royal Assent, and signs goatskin “instruments of ratification” along with the Foreign Secretary.

These are then sealed, bound in blue leather, and deposited with the Italian ministry of foreign affairs in Rome.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said all these stages had now been completed.

“The documents were lodged in Rome yesterday,” he said.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband is due to deliver a statement to Parliament on the matter later.

The process had been stalled while a High Court challenge was considered over the Government’s refusal to hold a referendum on the treaty, but that was dismissed last month.

Under EU rules, all 27 member states must ratify the Treaty before it comes into effect.

Unique fossil discovery shows Antarctic was once much warmer

Figure of the fossil ostracod from the Dry Valleys. The specimen is less than 1 mm long, but preserves an array of soft tissues including legs and mouth parts. The head end is to the right. The specimen comes from a fossil lake in the Dry Valleys of the Antarctic. The lake sediments have been dated at 14 million years old (Middle Miocene). This is the only fossil of its kind from the Antarctic, and is special from the point of view of fossilization style and for its implications about a warmer tundra climate persisting here in the Miocene. Image: Mark Williams, University of Leicester

Physorg | July 23, 2008

A new fossil discovery- the first of its kind from the whole of the Antarctic continent- provides scientists with new evidence to support the theory that the polar region was once much warmer.

The discovery by an international team of scientists is published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It involved researchers from the University of Leicester, North Dakota State University, the British Geological Survey, Queen Mary University of London, and Boston University.

The team made a new fossil discovery in the Dry Valleys of the East Antarctic region. The fossils (ostracods) come from an ancient lake – 14 million years old – and are exceptionally well preserved, with all of their soft anatomy in 3-dimensions.

Dr Mark Williams from the Department of Geology at the University of Leicester said: “This is a rare occurrence in the fossil record – but is the first of its kind from the whole of the Antarctic continent.

“Notwithstanding the significance of the fossil preservation, the presence of lake ostracods at this latitude, 77 degrees south, is also of great note. Present conditions in this Antarctic region show mean annual temperatures of minus 25 degrees C. These are impossible conditions to sustain a lake fauna with ostracods.”

“The fossils therefore show that there has been a substantial and very intense cooling of the Antarctic climate after this time interval that is important for tracking the development of the Antarctic icesheet – a key factor in understanding the effects of global warming.

“The fossil ostracods of the Dry Valleys signal a high latitude lake viable for animal colonisation that indicates a dramatic change in the climate of this region, from tundra conditions 14 million years ago, to the intensely cold continental interior climate experienced today.”

The researchers point out that there is no evidence to suggest the fossil discovery points to a once widespread Antarctic lake ostracod fauna: “It is most likely their introduction was by chance, perhaps via birds as dispersal of ostracod eggs attached to the feathers or feet of migratory birds is an important influence on modern ostracod distribution.”

The ostracods were discovered by Richard Thommasson, an undergraduate student, during screening of the sediment in Prof. Allan Ashworth’s lab at North Dakota State University.

Toxic chemicals found in common scented laundry products, air fresheners

Physorg | Jul 23, 2008

A University of Washington study of top-selling laundry products and air fresheners found the products emitted dozens of different chemicals. All six products tested gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws, but none of those chemicals was listed on the product labels.

“I first got interested in this topic because people were telling me that the air fresheners in public restrooms and the scent from laundry products vented outdoors were making them sick,” said Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. “And I wanted to know, ‘What’s in these products that is causing these effects?'”

She analyzed the products to discover the chemicals’ identity.

“I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of the chemicals that were found,” Steinemann said. Chemicals included acetone, the active ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover; limonene, a molecule with a citrus scent; and acetaldehyde, chloromethane and 1,4-dioxane.

“Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds were emitted from these six products, and none were listed on any product label. Plus, five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants,’ which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level,” Steinemann said.

Her study was published online today by the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review. Steinemann chose not to disclose the brand names of the six products she tested. In a larger study of 25 cleaners, personal care products, air fresheners and laundry products, now submitted for publication, she found that many other brands contained similar chemicals.

Because manufacturers of consumer products are not required to disclose the ingredients, Steinemann analyzed the products to discover their contents. She studied three common air fresheners (a solid deodorizer disk, a liquid spray and a plug-in oil) and three laundry products (a dryer sheet, fabric softener and a detergent), selecting a top seller in each category. She bought household items at a grocery store and asked companies for samples of industrial products.

In the laboratory, each product was placed in an isolated space at room temperature and the surrounding air was analyzed for volatile organic compounds, small molecules that evaporate from the product’s surface into the air.

Results showed 58 different volatile organic compounds above a concentration of 300 micrograms per cubic meter, many of which were present in more than one of the six products. For instance, a plug-in air freshener contained more than 20 different volatile organic compounds. Of these, seven are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws. The product label lists no ingredients, and information on the Material Safety Data Sheet, required for workplace handling of chemicals, lists the contents as “mixture of perfume oils.”

This study does not address links between exposure to chemicals and health effects. However, two national surveys published by Steinemann and a colleague in 2004 and 2005 found that about 20 percent of the population reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and about 10 percent complained of adverse effects from laundry products vented to the outdoors. Among asthmatics such complaints were roughly twice as common.

Manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients used in laundry products and air fresheners. Personal-care products and cleaners often contain similar fragrance chemicals, Steinemann said. And although cosmetics are required by the Food and Drug Administration to list ingredients, no law requires products of any kind to list chemicals used in fragrances.

“Fragrance chemicals are of particular interest because of the potential for involuntary exposure, or second-hand scents,” Steinemann said.

“Be careful if you buy products with fragrance, because you really don’t know what’s in them,” she added. “I’d like to see better labeling. In the meantime, I’d recommend that instead of air fresheners people use ventilation, and with laundry products, choose fragrance-free versions.”

The European Union recently enacted legislation requiring products to list 26 fragrance chemicals when they are present above a certain concentration in cosmetic products and detergents. No similar laws exist in the United States.

“I hope this study will raise public awareness, and reduce exposures to potentially hazardous chemicals,” said Steinemann.

Son of WWII Fascist leader expected to win Nazi sex case

Max Mosley speaks with reporters (Photo: MSNBC)

The News of the World is braced for defeat in its landmark privacy case with Formula One chief Max Mosley
Telegraph | Jul 24, 2008

By Andrew Pierce

Expert opinion in legal circles was that Mr Mosley, 68, was likely to secure a decisive victory and damages in the judgement which will be handed down this morning by Mr Justice Eady.

Mr Mosley sued the Sunday tabloid after it alleged on its front page and over several pages inside that he had taken part in “Nazi” style sadomasochistic sex sessions with prostitutes in his Chelsea flat in March.

Mr Mosley, the son of Sir Oswald Mosley the 1930’s British fascist leader, sought exemplary or punitive damages. He said his life was devastated after the newspaper alleged: “In public he rejects his father’s evil past but secretly he plays Nazi sex games.”

Mr Mosley decided not to issue defamation proceedings but sued the newspaper for an intrusion of his privacy. His case was bolstered, according to lawyers, by the Human Rights Act which came into force in 2000. The legislation brought in a new civil law known as “misuse of private information”.

James Price, QC, for Mr Mosley, told the court that the “gross and indefensible intrusion” was made substantially worse by the entirely false suggestion that Mr Mosley, president of the FIA, the motor racing governing body, was playing a concentration camp commandant and a cowering death camp inmate.

Legal experts predicting victory for Mr Mosely thought that the newspaper’s case was undermined when a key witness failed to testify on its behalf about the alleged Nazi-style sex sessions. Mr Mosley and his legal team maintained that his sex life was a private matter and that the story was not in the public interest.

Damages in previous successful privacy cases have not been substantial with the model Naomi Campbell winning £2,500 from the Daily Mirror in 2002 after it revealed details of her therapy with Narcotics Anonymous.