Daily Archives: February 10, 2009

Press freedom under attack in Nepal

UPI | Feb 9, 2009

By Robert Kittel

Kathmandu, Nepal — A four-day visit to Nepal by an international media mission concluded Sunday with a call for impartial investigations into violations of press freedom, and an end to impunity for those responsible, beginning immediately.

Press freedoms continue to be threatened in Nepal, despite the restoration of democracy through elections in April, 2008 and the abolition of the 240-year-old monarchy. Last year the Federation of Nepali Journalists recorded 342 cases of press freedom violations throughout the country.

Sukumar Muralidharan, from the International Federation of Journalists, raised serious issues of due process, noting that under the current government, “No case of human rights violation has been brought to trial or ended in a judicial verdict.”

At the press conference on Sunday, Muralidharan called for a series of investigations that would be transparent and accountable. He also said this process should include some measure of civil society, saying, “This is a matter that concerns us all.”

The Federation of Nepali Journalists invited the international team of observers to Nepal following continued threats of intimidation and increased instances of violence, especially in the southern Tarai region.

In January Uma Singh, a woman journalist based in the southern Janakpur region, was brutally murdered by 15 armed men who forced their way into her home and stabbed her. She died on the way to the hospital.

Singh wrote frequently about women’s rights issues and against the dowry system, common in Hindu culture, where parents pay huge sums of money to have their daughters married. Her murderers escaped and were never identified.

The mission said that at least three other journalists have been killed. It also condemned recent attacks on media groups including the Kantipur newspaper, Himal media, Ankush Daily and the Ramaroshan FM radio station.

Thomas Hughes of International Media Support, one of the groups involved in the mission, called for “an end to impunity and the proper investigation of cases (of press violation).” Without naming specific political parties, Hauges went on to say, “We are concerned about links between political parties and armed groups that are undertaking these attacks.”

Most of the attacks have been blamed on the Maoists. Even though Nepal has become a democracy and the former Maoist rebels have morphed into the ruling political party, it seems it is hard to shake old habits of violence and coercion against opponents and critics.

“The ongoing attacks, threats, and harassment of media personnel and organizations are having chilling effects on press freedom,” Hughes said.

Members of the international media mission met with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who assured them that cases of violence and harassment of media personnel and organizations would be reopened and taken seriously.

However, there is a credibility gap between the words and the deeds of the Maoist-led government. The People’s Review, a weekly news magazine with leanings toward the former king, has criticized the Maoists for a tendency to say anything as long as it advances their cause.

In a commentary entitled, “Maoist Confrontation, Not Cooperation,” the government is accused of “double talk” and the Maoists condemned for “adopting a totalitarian modus operandi.”

Meanwhile, the former prime minister and president of the Nepali Congress party, Girija Prasad Koirala, told journalists in his hometown of Birathanga on Feb. 8 that the current government is “like the setting sun.” In his opinion, he said, “The government has failed.”

Koirala was instrumental in bringing the Maoists into the peace process, which ultimately led to their winning the elections last year and heading up a coalition government.

The international media mission consisted of representatives from ARTICLE 19 – a London-based non-government organization named after the 19th article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – as well as from UNESCO, International Federation of Journalists, International Media Support, International Press Institute, Reporters Without Borders, International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression, and the World Press Freedom Committee.

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Nepal:UN to Ensure Army, Maoists Stay in Barracks

With the Nepal government and Maoist rebels agreeing to begin the process of arms management, all eyes are now focused on the United Nations to manage a difficult and touchy issue in Nepal’s peace process.

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Obama’s surge and the Afghan heroin trade

Bharath is Truth | Feb 9, 2009

By Johann Samuhanand

Bangalore, India, February 09 — As America surges in Afghanistan, it has created its own stirring in the heroin trade, which has come back to life after NATO forces took over the country from the Taliban. The Taliban, who enforced not only Sharia law but other stringent Islamic conditions on the people as well, ensured that poppy was not cultivated at all. Though this infuriated ordinary Afghans, the Taliban enforced it ruthlessly. This also ensured the vanquishing of the drug mafia run by drug lords like General Dostum, Ishmeil Khan, etc.

When the International Security Assistance Force took over, it opened the floodgates of freedom of the media and personal liberty, and also the freedom to grow poppy. Initially, it ensured that ordinary Afghans were happy with the money that came from this trade. This time, the Taliban did not abolish this trade, but cleverly used it to subvert the central rule of Karzai as desired by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The United States winked at this as long it was supporting the Pakistani army and ISI and didn’t affect its global interest in the painkiller market in Europe. ISI thinks that subverting the Indian economy through heroin and other poppy-derived drugs is as effective as a terrorist attack against India. As the global prices for heroin crash in the European market, the CIA is waking up to face the challenge of protecting its market in Europe and the United States.

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The connection between ISI and the CIA through drug money is not much known, since ISI is intricately linked to jihadi terrorism, which gets more media space. ISI cannot survive as an institution with this “oxygen” from the drug trade.

Again, the hawala system in Afghanistan is controlled by poppy-generated illegal money. One finds that the hawala centers and drug routes are the same. Ninety-three percent of the world’s illegal opium is grown in Afghanistan. The world’s intelligence agencies and drug lords have their meeting point in the small but prosperous town of Baramcha in Helmand, which grows 70% of Afghanistan’s poppy. The GDP of Afghanistan is US$7.8 billion, while the illegal opium trade is worth more than US$5 billion!!! Now one can understand how important drug trade is to Afghanistan, to the jihadis, to ISI and to the United States, where the illegal street trade is worth US$200 billion! The Taliban are able to completely ignore or reduce taxes on non-opium trade in the areas they control, as long as one pays 10% tax on the opium produced, thereby winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghan farmers.

Then what is the game plan of the Obama administration in inviting the following people for his inauguration: Gul Agha Sherzai, Dr. Ashraff Ghani Ahmedzai, Ali Ahmed Jalali, and Abudullah Abdullah? Why is he trying to replace Karzai with one of these warlords? These guys are not angels. The reason is drug money, which made even Zilmay Khalizad salivate for the job.

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Mexico ‘to fingerprint all mobile phone users’

Mexico will start a national register of mobile phone users that will include fingerprinting all customers in an effort to catch criminals who use the devices to extort money and negotiate kidnapping ransoms.

Telegraph | Feb 9, 2009

Under a new law published on Monday and due to be in force in April, mobile phone companies will have a year to build up a database of their clients, complete with fingerprints. The idea would be to match calls and messages to the phones’ owners.

Hundreds of people are kidnapped in Mexico every year and the number of victims is rising sharply as drug gangs, under pressure from an army crackdown, seek new income.

Politicians who pushed the bill through Congress last year say there are around 700 criminal bands in Mexico, some of them operating from prison cells, that use cell phones to extract extortion and kidnap ransom payments.

Most of Mexico’s 80 million mobile phones are prepaid handsets with a given number of minutes of use that can be bought in stores without any identification. The phones can be topped up with more minutes via vendors on street corners.

The register, detailed in the government’s official gazette, means new subscribers will now be fingerprinted when they buy a handset or phone contract.

The plan also requires operators to store all cell phone information such as call logs, text and voice messages, for one year. Information on users and calls will remain private and only available with court approval to track down criminals.

Ray Kurzweil to head futurology school backed by Nasa and Google

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Ray Kurzweil speaking to a conference as a hologram in 2006. He first proposed the idea of a school for futurologists two years ago. Photograph: Ed Murray/Corbis

The Singularity University will offer courses in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology

Guardian | Feb 3, 2009

By  Ian Sample

An American inventor who plans to live for ever has been appointed head of a new school for futurologists backed by Google and the US space agency Nasa.

Ray Kurzweil, who worked as a computer scientist before turning to future gazing in the late 1980s, will become chancellor of the Singularity University based at Nasa’s Silicon Valley campus in California.

The institution gains its name from a controversial 2005 book by Kurzweil, entitled The Singularity is Near. In it, he argues that the exponential advance of technology is set to transform society by giving rise to computers that are more clever than humans. The leap in computing power will drive rapid advances in other fields, he claims, that together could solve the problems of climate change, poverty, famine and disease.
In an earlier book, Kurzweil predicts the creation of “nanobots” that will patrol our bloodstreams, repairing wear and tear as they go, and keeping our bodies perpetually young.

“The law of accelerating returns means technology eventually will be a million more times powerful than it is today and cause profound transformation,” Kurzweil told Associated Press after his appointment was announced.

The new institute will offer courses on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology and is due to open its doors to its first class of 30 students this summer.

Kurzweil began discussing the concept for the school two years ago with Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which offers multimillion dollar prizes for technological breakthroughs. The school is backed by Diamandis and Google co-founder Larry Page. Google has already contributed more than $1 million to the institution, and several other major companies are planning to contribute at least $250,000, Diamandis said.

“One of the objectives of the university is to really dive in depth into these exponentially growing technologies, to create connections between them, and to apply these ideas to the great challenges [facing humanity],” said Kurzweil.

Nasa has agreed that the school can use buildings at its Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, which is near the offices of US tech giants Google, Yahoo!, Intel Corp and Cisco Systems.

A nine-week course at Singularity University will cost $25,000. The first three weeks will be spent studying 10 different subjects, with the next three weeks focusing on one in detail. The final three weeks will be taken up by a special project. Details of the new institution, which despite its name is not an accredited university, are to be unveiled at the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in Long Beach, California, today.

Kurzweil, who famously consumes more than 100 supplement pills a day and regularly checks around 50 health indicators, has been criticised by some experts who see his predictions as outlandish. In a 2007 interview, Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer prizewinning author and professor of cognitive science at Indiana University compared his ideas to a blend of very good food and “the craziest sort of dog excrement”.

In an earlier book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, Kurzweil and co-author Terry Grossman lay out their vision of humans living radically longer lives within the next three decades or so.

The first step involves adopting a good enough diet and exercise regime to live long enough for biotechnology to unravel the ageing process and for nanotechnology to be capable of slowing it down and ultimately reversing it.

Among Kurzweil’s other predictions are a pill that lets you eat what you want without getting fat – which he believes could be available within ten years; a world where all energy comes from renewable sources within 20 years; and a life expectancy that increases at a rate faster than you age within 15 years.

Rise of the machines, end of the humans?

Could tomorrow’s computers turn humans into has-beens and destroy life on Earth? Yes, say the experts. A nervous Ed Howker investigates

Telegraph | Feb 4, 2009

a world ruled by machines is no longer the preserve of science fiction such as 'Forbidden Planet'

On the brink: a world ruled by machines is no longer the preserve of science fiction such as 'Forbidden Planet'

So, there are these two scientists researching artificial intelligence. One is Satinder S Baveja, director of the University of Michigan’s AI laboratory; the other is Miles Bennett Dyson, director of research at Cyberdyne Systems of California. Both men are asked to reflect on what the ultimate outcome of their work on AI will look like. Might it, for example, get a little bit dystopian out there?

This is how each responds. One says: “Our noses are too firmly pressed into our work for us to ask, to really ask, should we be doing what we’re doing? And if we truly succeed will that be a good thing?” The other replies: “You’re judging me on things I haven’t even done yet.”

These are similar comments – they both have an oddly defensive undercurrent. Both imply that things may not turn out so well. But while Baveja is an academic, and supplied the first comment, Dyson, who provided the second, is fictional. He’s the creator of an artificial intelligence which evolves into “the machines” who attempt to cleanse the world of all humans in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Dyson gave his views after he was told his creation caused three billion deaths.

And if hours of your childhood were spent watching sci-fi movie images of a nightmare future – Blade Runner, 2001: a Space Odyssey, Doctor Who – then you should probably know that academics gather every year at Stanford University, California, to discuss this precise contingency – along with others that could occur on the other side of what futurologist Ray Kurzweil has named “the technological singularity”. They meet, knowing that science has a reputation for ploughing on without first considering the ultimate effects of its discoveries, and only too aware that the consequences of misconceived innovation could prove calamitous. And so they should be, we’ve all seen the films.

In physics, a “singularity” is the point beyond the event horizon of a black hole – so called because it is impossible to see, or comprehend what happens on the other side. Back on earth, when Kurzweil and his followers talk about a “technological singularity”, they refer to a point beyond which we cannot perceive the future – it is simply too complex for our puny human intelligence. And this is why: “Soon,” says Kurzweil, “nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence. It will then soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge. Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in our bodies, our brains, and our environment, overcoming pollution and poverty, extending longevity, and creating full-immersion virtual reality (think The Matrix), “experience beaming” (Being John Malkovich), and vastly enhanced human intelligence. The result will be an intimate merger between the technology-creating species and the technological evolutionary process it spawned.”

This, incidentally, is not the singularity. That’s just for starters. Soon after, claims Kurzweil, “Non-biological intelligence will have access to its own design and will be able to improve itself in an increasingly rapid redesign cycle. We’ll get to a point where technical progress will be so fast that unenhanced human intelligence will be unable to follow it. That will mark the singularity.” Kurzweil’s point is that we don’t know what happens next and, perhaps more importantly, we’re not really geared up to the challenges that any of these developments present – though the “singularity” may be only 35 years from now.

This is far-fetched stuff, of course, but it is difficult to dismiss, as a Trekkie or sci-fi crank, Kurzweil, who first fleshed out these ideas in a bestselling book, The Singularity is Near. Bill Gates describes him as: “The best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence”. Kurzweil developed the first computer program capable of recognising text in any standard font, a text-to-speech synthesiser, and the first electronic instrument capable of accurately duplicating the sounds of real ones. And in March, he will add movie co-director to his quiver of achievements, releasing a film of his book, part documentary and part drama based around an intelligent machine called Ramona – the name of the “photorealistic avatar” who hosts his website KurzweilAi.com.

His ideas are shared by an equally illustrious bunch. Google and Nasa have announced plans to put their weight behind a new school of futurists headed by Kurzweil and backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, to be known as the “Singularity University”. Similarly, the delegate list at Stanford’s 2008 Singularity Summit is a directory of businessmen, academics and writers at the razor edge of high-tech. It is hosted by Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford’s AI laboratory, co-hosted by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, and attended by the director of research at Google, Peter Norvig. For all that their Hawaiian shirts may suggest otherwise, these are serious men. And there is some serious evidence to support their predictions.

For example, they point out that technological progress is developing at an exponential rate – with increasingly regular “paradigm shifts” that emerge when the refining of an established technology slows down, and we are then able to cross the barrier into a world shaped by a radically new technology. One such “paradigm shift” is the development of nanotechnology – materials and eventually robots that are designed to operate at a molecular level. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which launched in 2005, estimates that more than 800 manufacturer-identified nanotech products are publicly available, with new innovations joining the market at a pace of three per week. Most are “first-generation” passive nanomaterials which include titanium dioxide in sunscreen, cosmetics and some foods. However, we have already created synthetic molecular motors, and it won’t be long before much more complex, self-replicating nanotechnology is available. Only last week, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced a joint research plan with the US Environmental Protection Agency to predict the consequences of these developments in a frantic bid to regulate them.

Baveja, at Michigan’s AI lab, explains their medium-term implications: “One can argue about time-frame, but we are already seeing how human abilities are advanced through technology, through the iPhone, through Google. Computer devices already augment our memory and, pushed to an extreme, it becomes even easier to have that kind of assistance. Think of how many things we do that involve sitting at a computer – eventually we won’t be constrained to any physical device or locations. And as devices get better, as brain-machine interfaces get better, we will see that humans will be augmented by computers, and eventually that will change what a human is.”

There are plenty of people who are rather more pessimistic. One of them is the billionaire Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, who wrote a withering critique of the failure by the scientific community to accurately appraise the dangers of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics in 2004. “The Pandora’s boxes are almost open,” he wrote, “yet we seem hardly to have noticed. Ideas can’t be put back in a box; unlike uranium or plutonium, they don’t need to be mined and refined, and they can be freely copied. “An immediate consequence of obtaining the great power of nanotechnology is that we run a grave risk that we might destroy the biosphere on which all life depends.” Others express specific concerns that even if we were able to control superior robot intelligence, it could ultimately destroy us by mistake. We may, for example, ask it to perform a complex calculation and it could respond by turning all matter on the planet into a calculator.

Of course, these are not the questions we have been told to ask. This is not the future we were taught to expect. Ever since the Czech playwright Karel Capek wrote about a battle between humans and mechanoids – coining the term “robot” – in 1921, we have been suspicious of our technological future. But in the 20th century we were told that robots would be our slaves, eventually our enemies, and be they the Terminator, Robby the Robot, or Hal 9000, they would resemble us, but would be fundamentally alien. What’s more, every time we sat enthralled by tall tales from the future, they told us that the robots were limited by their mechanics; that the machines’ murderous rationality would ultimately and always be vanquished by the indomitable human qualities of courage and ingenuity.

As we reach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we can admit that these predictions were unrealistic. Whether a technological singularity occurs or not, there is an inescapable conclusion: yesterday’s tomorrows are dead. The future will be rather more complicated.

British academic flees Thailand after “insulting king”

giles-ji-ungpakorn

Giles Ji Ungpakorn was due to report to police on Monday and faced 15 years in jail on charges of lese majeste over his book A Coup for the Rich, which criticised Thailand’s 2006 military coup d’etat

A prominent Anglo-Thai academic has fled Bangkok after being accused of insulting Thailand’s monarchy.

Telegraph | Feb 9, 2009

By Thomas Bell in Bangkok

Believing he would not receive a fair trial he slipped out of the country and fled to Oxford.

Before leaving Thailand, Dr Ungpakorn said: “the use of lese majeste laws in Thailand are an attempt to prevent any discussion about one of the most important institutions.”

Dr Ungpakorn, the son of a British mother and a famous Thai father, is a politics lecturer at Chulalangkorn University in Bangkok. He said that it was an employee at the university’s book shop who reported his book to the police special branch.

The book criticises a military coup in 2006 in which the army claimed it toppled an elected government to “protect” the monarchy. King Bhumibol, 81, later publicly endorsed the coup.

The Thai government has made the enforcement of lese majeste one of its top priorities since coming to power at the end of last year. It has blocked an estimated 50,000 websites, most of them on the grounds that they are insulting to the monarchy. Many had message boards on which Thais discussed the political situation in the country.

Last month a man was arrested for comments he posted on the internet.

Over 30 people are under investigation for lese majeste – a far higher number than usual – including the BBC correspondent Jonathan Head. They face between three and 15 years in jail if convicted. At least three people, including an Australian writer, are in prison.

The government recently opened a new website, on which Thais are encouraged to report on people they suspect of disloyalty to the king. Political observers say that the lese majeste “witch hunt” is a symptom of the political divisions gripping Thailand.

The generals who toppled Thaksin Shinawatra’s elected government in 2006 claimed they were acting in defence of the monarchy. Yet in elections 15 months later supporters of Mr Thaksin, now in exile, were re-elected.

That administration faced persistent protests from a group misleadingly called the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The PAD wore the royal colour –yellow- and claimed they were trying to topple the government to protect the monarchy. For three months they illegally occupied Government House and for a week closed down both Bangkok’s airports.

During the Government House protests King Bhumibol’s wife, Queen Sirikit, attended the funeral of one of the protesters, in what was widely seen as a gesture of royal support for the movement.

In video footage Thais watched PAD gunmen brandishing pictures of the king while they fired at police. No-one was ever punished over the incidents, leading many to conclude that the PAD had powerful backing.

According to Dr Ungpakorn: “The campaign by the PAD and the [2006] coup d’etat have pulled the monarchy into political life to an extent that we could wonder whether the monarchy is facing a crisis as a result.”

Subversive websites and incidents of lese majeste – or official alarm about them – appear to have risen sharply in recent months.

The airport protests ended when a court dissolved the then government.

The army then reportedly played a key role in creating the new government, which includes veterans of the airport protests.

The new administration, led by old Etonian Abhisit Vejjajiva, says that clamping down on lese majeste is a matter of “national security”.

The army, meanwhile, is closely involved in policing the internet and suppressing dissent in regions seen as supportive of Mr Thaksin and his allies.

According to one political commentator, who asked not to be named speaking about such a sensitive subject: “What you have from the bottom is indoctrination, from the top you have lese majeste and from the side you have the army and [Mr Abhisit’s] Democrat Party. Thai society is actually very repressed now.”

Real-Time Holographic Communication Could Soon Be a Reality

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Predictive programming in sci-fi. Yoda attends a meeting of the Jedi Knights as a hologram.

From Star Wars to Dead Space, holograms are a staple of the science-fiction genre, but it could become science-fact in the next five years according to experts.

The Escapist | Feb 7, 2009

By Logan Westbrook

Holography isn’t exactly new, having been invented in 1947 by a Hungarian physicist, but technical limitations have always meant that any holographic appearances, such as Prince Charles’ appearance at the World Future Energy Summit, had to be pre-recorded. However, advances in video compression and high speed broadband internet mean that real-time holographic communication may be commonplace in as little as five years’ time.

Talking to UK newspaper The Telegraph, Ian O’Connell, director of Musion, a company pioneering the use of real-time holography, said, “This is cutting-edge stuff. One of the main uses we envisage is celebrity cameos at big conferences or concerts… a number of musicians we’re talking to want to see this technology used to provide live cameo performances from stars at their concerts.”

O’Connell went on to suggest other uses might include long distance learning, or education programs in the developing world.

There are a couple of snags that make the five-year time-scale seem a little ambitious, though. First and foremost is the guaranteed 20 megabit a second minimum broadband speed required, as well as the staggering £250,000 price tag for the equipment and the extra room needed to house it all.

O’Connell acknowledged these issues, but remained confident that it was only a matter of time, saying, “It’s going to necessitate a change in architectural design for residential homes for it to be embraced fully. It’s going to need a room that can accommodate the screening and delivery technology. But I think we’re five years away from holograms being a ubiquitous, affordable tool.”