Daily Archives: September 25, 2008

Nazi Waffen SS veterans honored in Austria

AFP | Sep 23, 2008

ULRICHSBERG, Austria (AFP) — Hundreds of neo-Nazi sympathisers honoured Waffen SS veterans at the 50th edition of the controversial Ulrichsberg gathering in southern Austria Sunday.

Grouped on top of the Ulrichsberg mountain in the Carinthia province, a stronghold of the far-right nationalist leader Jorg Haider, about 500 people paid homage to the Third Reich soldiers’ “sense of sacrifice.”

Among the supporters were representatives from veterans’ groups and from the Austrian army, as well as younger neo-Nazis and retired soldiers carrying the banners of the Flemish SS volunteers.

“We want to promote peace and remember that a war does not have any winners, only victims,” said Rudolf Gallob, the president of the Ulrichsberg Association, during a religious ceremony.

“But we also want to remind people that we only did our duty” in fighting with the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS after the Anschluss between Austria and Nazi Germany in 1938.

Skinheads from several European countries applauded the proceedings, while women served out schnapps to stave off the cold weather.

Held since 1958 amid tight security, the gathering sparks controversy every year, not least because of its official status. Anti-fascist demonstrators staged a protest near the venue Sunday.

Haider triggered international outrage at the event in 1995 when he paid tribute to the Waffen SS, describing it as a group “of honest citizens who knew how to stay true to their convictions.”

Valentin Sima, a historian at Klagenfurt University, told AFP that since then, the event’s organisers had asked that the more provocative elements of the gathering — such as the Kameradschaft IV (Comradeship 4) — a veterans organisation of former Waffen SS members, be toned down.

Appearances by Gudrun Burwitz, the daughter of the former Waffen SS chief Heinrich Himmler, have also become more rare, she added.

Nevertheless, the memorial on top of the Ulrichsberg mountain still carries commemorative plaques dedicated to the Kameradschaft IV as well as to Spanish, Flemish, Norwegian, Croatian and Danish Waffen SS volonteers.

Those who received the Ritterkreuz (Knights cross) — the second highest military order of the Third Reich — are also honoured.

Such is the controversy still surrounding the Ulrichsberg gathering that Haider, facing legislative elections in a week, chose not to deliver a speech at Sunday’s 50th commemoration.

Harry Cooper, head of the American Neo-Nazi Sharkhunters organisation, who sent a delegation of 20 members, said the event was unique of its kind because one could still pay tribute to soldiers who has been “honourably defeated.”

Meanwhile, Wolfgang Zinggl, an Austrian Green deputy who acted as an observer at the gathering, told AFP that his party had lodged a complaint over the commemorative plaques and the fact that the army had attended the event.

“It is also inexcusable that during this ceremony, there was not one word about the victims of Nazism, or the crimes of the Wehrmacht (army),” he added.

The owner of the site, Peter von Goess, whose father Leopold fought in the SS, said the complaint was “without purpose.”

“Everything is perfectly legal. And the turnout, which attracted thousands of people in the past, is dwindling each year as more and more veterans die,” he told AFP.

Sci-Fi Predicts Future of Sex

Matt Ganucheau demos one of his creations at Arse Elektronika 2007, a mannequin rigged to make sensual sounds if her receptors are appropriately triggered. Her name? The Moaning Lisa.

With sci-fi shows like Fringe, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Heroes dominating televisions’ fall lineup, and a slew of geeky movies like Avatar, Transformers 2 and The Day the Earth Stood Still in the pipeline, science fiction has never been more popular in mainstream media.

Wired | Sep 24, 2008

By Jenna Wortham

SAN FRANCISCO — Forget wondering whether androids dream of electric sheep. The real question is: Do they have erotic visions and robot orgies?

From movies and television to comic books and the internet, science fiction not only creates fantastical visions of the future, but provides a template for the continuing evolution of sex, according to Johannes Grenzfurthner, founder of Austrian art collective monochrom.

“Good science fiction is not just a metaphor for what’s happening in the present,” said Grenzfurthner. “It often predicts the future and how it can be.”

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of sci-fi blog io9, called sex a key component of sci-fi. “When science fiction re-imagines the world, sex has to be part of that,” she said Wednesday in an e-mail.

To give the sex-tech revolution a virtual dose of Viagra, Grenzfurthner invited dozens of sci-fi authors, technophiles, sexperts and futurists to San Francisco for this week’s Arse Elektronica, a three-day conference about the ever-titillating intersection of sex and technology.

Jokingly named after highbrow tech and art festival Ars Electronica, the event kicks off Thursday with opening ceremonies hosted by io9’s Newitz, who plans to dole out tips on the dos and don’ts of sci-fi sex.
(For example, don’t have sex with your fembot in a puddle of water, but do have a ménage a trois with two Cylons.)

The event couldn’t come at a better time: With sci-fi shows like Fringe, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Heroes dominating televisions’ fall lineup, and a slew of geeky movies like Avatar, Transformers 2 and The Day the Earth Stood Still in the pipeline, science fiction has never been more popular in mainstream media.

Not to mention the integral role that porn has always played in propelling technology forward.

There will be several sex machines on display at this year’s event, including a “licking” machine outfitted with a silicon tongue, a computer-controlled device displaying erotic images and a seismic-sensitive sex toy that vibrates when an earthquake is occurring.

San Francisco-based interactive designers Chris Noessel and Nathan Shedroff trolled through hours of footage from TV shows and films like Doctor Who, Barbarella and Blade Runner to get a look at how Hollywood sells the promise of sex in the future.

Although virtual reality interfaces — like those seen in Strange Days or Minority Report — and interactive matchmaking services are common, sex with machines proves the most popular on screen, according to Noessel.

“It’s mostly sexbots,” he said. “Largely because they’re easy to cast.”
But it’s not just mechanical advances that are changing sexual experiences. Grenzfurthner and Richard Kadrey will host a talk on “science fucktion,” or porn-heavy fantasy literature, and other Arse panels will explore alien intercourse, homoerotic amateur science fiction and technofetishes involving prosthetic limbs.

Fan fiction, one of the few arenas where horny sci-fi fans can trade their off-screen fantasies about characters from shows like Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who, is gaining steam on the internet.

German researcher Jens Ohlig created software to mine data from hundreds of slash fiction stories, a genre of fan fiction that focuses on romantic relationships between characters, to identify correlations and clusters among the internet-enabled literary porn crowd.

“It may not be what critics would consider high-quality literature,” said Ohlig. “But there is a real desire for those fantasies — and the internet is the only place you could publish that kind of work. It’s something that could never happen in mainstream media.”

Arse Elektronika organizer Grenzfurthner cited cyberpunk author and sci-fi legend William Gibson, whose 1984 book Neuromancer described cyberspace and the world wide web nearly a decade before its existence, as a motivating factor behind the event.

Grenzfurthner said he hopes Arse attendees contribute new ideas and realize their own fantasies as the sexual-technological revolution unfolds.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Grenzfurthner. “It’s science fiction in the making.”

Photos: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid; Lane Hartwell/Wired.com

British bioweapons lab getting an upgrade



Porton Down labs to get facelift

MLW | Sep 22, 2008

THE crumbling Porton Down laboratory, which handles the most-dangerous of all human diseases, is to be rebuilt, it has been announced.

Earlier in the summer, MPs described the Health Protection Agency (HPA) labs near Salisbury as being ‘in need of significant investment’ if they are to continue dealing with novel and dangerous pathogens such as TB and Q fever.

Now, in response to the criticism, the HPA has announced plans for a top-to-toe revamp.

Detailed plans are yet to be drawn up, but the cost of the project is expected to run into millions.

HPA chairman Sir William Stewart said: “The cost will depend on the details of what is to be built and by when, but we can assure it will not be done on the cheap; we are dealing with human diseases.”

The Department of Health has welcomed the decision, putting up funding to enable the agency to begin design work.

Sir William said: “We are delighted the department has given the green light, which will enable us to move forward with the development of a blueprint for new state-of-the-art laboratories and other facilities.

“The Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response at Porton is one of the agency’s major research centres and is world-renowned for its work on detection, diagnosis and containment of highly-infectious diseases and it is uniquely placed within the public sector to ensure new discoveries are translated into real health benefits for patients.

“Ongoing work and options will now be submitted to the Government for formal review and, hopefully, this will lead to the go-ahead for the multi-million pound redevelopment of the Porton site.”

At a meeting of the government’s Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee in the summer MPs described the buildings as so ‘dilapidated’ they feared an incident similar to last year’s devastating escape of the foot-and-mouth virus from a laboratory at Pirbright in Surrey. And they warned an outbreak of human disease could have even worse consequences.

Once revamped, the facility – which houses the majority of the agency’s high-containment facilities – will be used for the study of diseases that pose the biggest threat to public health, notably those caused by new and immerging threats that may be imported to the UK naturally or through intentional bio-terrorism routes.

Homland Security’s ‘Pre-crime’ detector shows promise


Army to Build ‘Minority Report’ Fast Iris Scan

New Scientist | Sep 23, 2008

Last year, New Scientist revealed that the US Department of Homeland Security is developing a system designed to detect “hostile thoughts” in people walking through border posts, airports and public places. The DHS says recent tests prove it works.

Project Hostile Intent as it was called aimed to help security staff choose who to pull over for a gently probing interview – or more.

ommentators slated the idea that sensors could spot people up to no good from their pulse rate, breathing, skin temperature, or fleeting facial expressions. One likened it to the “pre-crime” units that predict criminal behaviour in the movie Minority Report.

However, last week, the DHS science unit gave an update on the project, now dubbed the less-hostile-sounding Future Attribute Screening Technologies (FAST) programme. And, if DHS claims are to be believed, the research appears to be getting somewhere.

At an equestrian centre in Maryland, 140 paid volunteers walked through a pair of trailers kitted out with a battery of FAST sensors, including cameras, infrared heat sensors and an eyesafe laser radar, called a Bio-Lidar, that measures pulse and breathing rate from a distance.

Some subjects were told to act shifty, be evasive, deceptive and hostile. And many were detected. “We’re still very early on in this research, but it is looking very promising,” says DHS science spokesman John Verrico. “We are running at about 78% accuracy on mal-intent detection, and 80% on deception.”

That sounds incredibly high at such an early stage in the research – but only tests on vast quantities of real people, rather than eager volunteers, will present any real test.

Questions remain, however, as to how secure the system is. The machines could reveal health conditions like heart murmurs and breathing problems as well as stress levels – which would be an invasion of privacy.

But Verrico says FAST has been through stringent privacy controls (pdf) and that the data is never matched to a name. It is only used to make decisions about whether to question someone, and then discarded.

The trial technology was installed in a trailer because it is planned to be easily transportable, so that FAST trucks can appear at any sports or music event as required. They look set to become as regular a sight at such events as mobile toilets and catering trucks.

But is going to make a real difference? Or will bad guys learn to play the system and render it another piece of what expert Bruce Schneier dubs “security theatre”.

Given that the FAST approach is not much different to the long established – and long established as unreliable – polygraph, that certainly seems plausible.

Paul Marks, technology correspondent

Estrogen levels skyrocket in St. Lawrence River around Montreal

CBC News | Sep 17, 2008

Scientists have noticed some disturbing changes in the water, and the reproductive organs of fish, in the St. Lawrence River near Montreal.

Concentrations of estrogen as high as 90 times the normal rate have been discovered just downstream from the island of Montreal, according to researchers from l’Université de Montreal.

“What we measured is about 100 times more than the level known to have significant endocrine-disrupting effects,” said Sébastien Sauvé, a professor of environmental chemistry at the university.

While researchers found estrodiol, a naturally occurring hormone that all women — particularly pregnant ones — release, they discovered synthetic estrogenic compounds as well.

“They’re really pharmaceuticals which are used either as contraceptives or in hormone replacement therapy,” Sauvé said.

Sauvé said even though HRT use has dropped dramatically in Quebec in the past few years, what ends up in the wastewater is still significant. Some compounds are filtered out at the sediment plant, but most ends up in the St. Lawrence.

Also implicated are the byproducts of plastics as they break down, and effluent from pulp and paper mills.

Meanwhile, other researchers studying a common species of minnow downstream from Montreal are finding ovaries in the testes of one-third of the males.

Scientists at Quebec’s National Institute for Science Research made the discovery while studying how excessive hormones in the water were affecting fish.

“What we saw was that in the male fish, many of the male fish were developing ovaries — true feminization,” said Daniel Cyr, a reproductive toxicologist at the institute.

Environmentalists say the findings make a potent argument for better testing of drugs and how they affect the environment.

“Pharmaceuticals are present around every big city in the water and that water is being retrieved and given to us as drinking water, so we could be exposing ourselves to very small quantities of a large number of prescription drugs,” said Anne Wordsworth, a research associated with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

Environmental engineers are hoping the hormones and other pharmaceuticals in human waste will be destroyed for good once Montreal installs a new ozonation process at its plant.

The project will cost $200 million, and has never been tested in a treatment plant the size of Montreal’s.

Sauvé’s fellow researchers are among those now running tests to make sure the process will work on a grand scale.

Chinese government ordered cover-up of toxic milk scandal

Despite Sanlu’s warnings that its baby formula was contaminated with the chemical melamine, no recall notice was issued to consumers  Photo: AFP/GETTY

Chinese authorities ordered a cover-up of a tainted milk scandal that has poisoned tens of thousands of babies because they feared social unrest if the news was made public.

Central government issued orders to suppress “bad news”

Telegraph | Sep 25, 2008

By Richard Spencer in Beijing and Peter Foster in New Zealand

Senior officials gave the order to Sanlu, the firm whose poisoned milk powder is said to be responsible for at least four deaths and illness in almost 53,000 infants.

It was passed on during three meetings at which the company told officials in the city of Shijiazhuang, where the company is based, of the extent of the crisis.

Present were local representatives of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), China’s national product safety watchdog.

AQSIQ had already carried complaints on its website from a doctor concerned about the numbers of children who had drunk Sanlu suffering from kidney stones.

Yet despite Sanlu’s warnings that its baby formula was contaminated with the chemical melamine, no recall notice was issued to consumers.

The central government had issued orders to suppress “bad news”, including about health scares, during the period of the Olympic Games, which were due to start the same week.

But the authorities also said they were concerned about the effect on “social stability”, according to a source briefed by those present. “Social instability” is a catch-all phrase used by the Chinese government for public protest.

The details of the meetings are the first confirmation that the cover-up was deliberate policy and not bureaucratic inertia.

After finally being exposed, the scandal spread to other major Chinese firms and liquid milk. Supermarket shelves have been cleared of products made from Chinese milk from Taiwan to East Africa, while Tesco yesterday said it was recalling a Chinese-made sweet, White Rabbit, from stores in Britain.

The details also raise new questions for Fonterra, the New Zealand company which has a 43 per cent stake in Sanlu and three of seven directors on the board, and which had representatives in the meetings.

Andrew Ferrier, its chief executive, said when the scandal broke that it would have been “irresponsible” not to work “within the guidelines” set by the Chinese authorities.

Fonterra’s experience is a dramatic warning of the dangers faced by western firms doing business in China.

The company, the world’s biggest trader of dairy products and best known in Britain for Anchor butter, wrote off £75 million, two-thirds of the value of its £107-million investment in Sanlu.

“Sanlu has been damaged very badly by this tragedy,” Mr Ferrier said. “The brand cannot be reconstructed.”

Fonterra says that despite complaints to Sanlu about children suffering kidney stones as far back as December it knew nothing was wrong until it was informed by its partners on August 2.

The three meetings followed, but a Fonterra executive also mentioned the crisis to a New Zealand diplomat at a drinks party on August 14, and provided an official account at a meeting on August 22, two days before the Olympics ended. The New Zealand ambassador asked for more details before passing on a report to Wellington on August 29.

The whistle was finally blown by the New Zealand government on September 9.

In all, it took six weeks between Fonterra discovering the contamination and a recall being issued.

Paul French, director of Access Asia, a Shanghai-based consumer consultancy, said too many Western executives in China believed advice in business books that they must avoid making their local partners “lose face” at all costs.

But in an internal report to staff, Mr Ferrier defended the decision to “work within the system”, saying that ultimately it succeeded in bringing about a recall.

Pregnant women to be injected with flu vaccine to “protect their babies”

Pregnant women are set to be offered flu jabs from next year to protect the health of hundreds of thousands of babies.

Telegraph | Sep 25, 2008

By Rebecca Smith Medical Editor

Government health advisors said pregnant women should now be offered the seasonal flu vaccination after a new study found it benefits the newborn baby as well as the mother.

Researchers found it reduced cases of the disease in babies by more than half after expectant mothers were immunised.

Babies are extremely vulnerable in the first months of life as their own immune system develops and they rely on inherited protection they carry over from their mother.

The risks of complications including bronchitis, swelling of the brain and pneumonia are greater in infants but babies under six months cannot be vaccinated.

Previous studies have also found that babies born to women who suffered flu while pregnant were more likely to have brain damage that caused emotional and development problems including ADHD.

Advisors first called for pregnant women to be vaccinated two years ago but the plan was turned down by ministers due to concerns that the move would not be cost effective because of the huge numbers of women who would need the jab.

However, one member of the Government advisory panel the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said it is now “very likely” that pregnant women will be given the jabs from next year.

The vaccination is safe to give to pregnant women after the first trimester (three months) but expectant mothers may be wary of having a vaccine while carrying a child.

It is thought at least 600,000 women could be offered the jab each year.
Professor Mark Steinhoff, from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, who led the latest study, said: “It’s a two-for-one benefit. Pregnant woman should be encouraged to be vaccinated for the flu to protect their infants and themselves.”

Pregnant women are routinely vaccinated in America and some experts have been calling for the same policy in the UK for years.

About 15 per cent of the population contract flu in any year and there can be around 4,000 deaths directly caused by the virus although in epidemic years this can be ten times higher.

Every year around 15 million people are vaccinated against flu in the UK at a cost of £115million.

The research carried out by a team in America randomly assigned 340 women in Bangladesh to have the flu vaccine or the pneumoccocal vaccine, against meninigitis and similar infections, while pregnant.

There were fewer cases of flu in the newborn babies whose mothers had the flu jab and one third fewer cases in the mothers also.

The authors of the study that was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine concluded: “Inactivated influenza vaccine reduced proven influenza illness by 63 per cent in infants up to six months of age and averted approximately a third of all febrile (feverish) respiratory illnesses in mothers and young infants. Maternal influenza immunization is a strategy with substantial benefits for both mothers and infants.”

Dr Douglas Fleming, a GP from Birmingham and member of the JCVI influenza subgroup, told GP magazine: “This is just the sort of research that we need to influence Department of Health policy.

“Previously, there had not been a detailed level of evidence to support vaccinating pregnant women. It is very likely that pregnant women will now be vaccinated from next year.”

Dr George Kassianos, Royal College of General Practioners immunisation spokesman and a Berkshire GP, backed the call for pregnant women to be vaccinated against flu.

“Pregnant women will benefit greatly themselves from receiving a flu vaccination. They should receive the jab after the first trimester.

“This is the first study to show that this benefit can be extended to the infants whose mothers are vaccinated during pregnancy.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “Influenza vaccine is currently recommended for pregnant women who are in one of the clinical risk groups recommended flu vaccine.

“JCVI is keeping the issue of flu vaccination and pregnant women under review.”

Dr David Elliman, consultant in community child health and spokesman on immunisation for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, urged caution, saying it was not possible to extrapolate data from a study carried out in Bangladesh to the UK, as rates of flu and complications caused by it will almost certainly be higher there.

He added: “It may not be appropriate to immunise the whole pregnant population for the very small group of babies who are at risk.”

Adverts urging people who are at risk of complications if they contract flu and and the elderly to have the flu jab are due to start next month.

People living in care homes or nursing homes are encouraged to have the jab, along with NHS staff who treat particularly vulnerable patients and those who have long-term conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and lung disease.