Monthly Archives: April 2009

Scientists Break Brain/Twitter Barrier

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ReadWrite Web | Apr 20, 2009

by Marshall Kirkpatrick

eegUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineering doctoral student Adam Wilson has successfully tested a “brain wave monitor” to Twitter publishing interface, allowing him to compose a message merely by thinking and publish it to the arguably too-popular microblogging service.

Either the gates of Hell have begun to open or this is a grad student who really knows how to publicize his work by riding the bandwagon of popular culture. Both are probably true.

We get a fair number of press releases from Universities about graduate research and we usually don’t write about them. This one was freakish enough that we decided to.

Technically, what Wilson did was come up with an interface combining an Electroencephalogram, or brain wave monitor, with an on screen keyboard for selecting letters. The system lights up each key on the keyboard but is able to notice a difference in brain activity when the desired letter for input is lit. Wilson compares it to clicking through multiple letters when texting on a mobile phone.

Once you’ve found a new way to input text – what are you going to do with it? Use it to Twitter, of course!

Clearly, there’s some gimmickry going on in the news of Wilson’s interface. Who knows if this is better or worse than saying that a technology is developed to assist physically disabled people when it’s really going to be used by the military? Wilson does say that the technology will be helpful for people with active brains but immobile bodies. Now they’ll be able to Twitter, among other things, he says. Fair enough.

Here at ReadWriteWeb we’re proud to have the #1 Google search result for the phrase “Internet brain implant” for our post The Internet Brain Implant: Why We Should Say No. Today could be a good time to go re-read that post. New interfaces are cool, but the sanctity of free, independent thought is very important. Wilson’s work is no brain implant, but it does seem like an important thing to check in with ourselves about.

To be fair, Twitter is clearly a revolutionary technology that we use throughout every day. Anyone who wants access to that tool ought to have it and Wilson’s work may increase access.

We presume many more uses for his work will be found if proven commercially viable. For now, though, we can remember today as the day we learned about the man who Tweeted with his mind.

Will NorthCom take over in Swine Flu Outbreak?

The Progressive | Apr 29, 2009

By Matthew Rothschild

northcomThe swine flu outbreak raises a lot of fears.

Here’s one you might not have thought of yet: The Pentagon may be taking over more and more of our civil society in this crisis.

Back in 2002, President Bush created NorthCom, the Pentagon’s Northern Command, which has jurisdiction over the United States.

And NorthCom has been running preparedness drills in the event of a flu pandemic for at least the past three years.

Making things more alarming, NorthCom got assigned its own fighting unit six months ago—the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, which had spent much of the last five years battling things out in Iraq.

The assignment of that fighting unit alarmed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “This is a radical departure from separation of civilian law enforcement and military authority and could, quite possibly, represent a violation of law,” said Mike German, ACLU national security policy counsel.

Testifying in March, General Victor Renuart, head of NorthCom, said it would provide “assistance in support of civil authorities” during an epidemic. And, he added, “when requested and approved by the Secretary of Defense or directed by the President, federal military forces will contribute to federal support.” But he boasted: “USNorthCom does not wait for that call to action.”

He noted that NorthCom has prepared for a flu outbreak from Mexico. “Because Mexico is our neighbor and disasters do not respect national boundaries, we are focused on developing and improving procedures to respond to potentially catastrophic events such as pandemic influenza outbreak, mass exposure to dangerous chemicals and materials, and natural disasters,” he testified.

NorthCom also has a “private sector cell,” Renuart said in a talk to the Heritage Foundation on August 20, 2008. “We have great participation from industry and from other organizations around the country.”

One private sector group that has worked with the FBI and Homeland Security on pandemics is InfraGard. This is group of more than 30,000 businesspeople who have special access to confidential FBI information and may be assigned special—and lethal—duties in times of an emergency (See “The FBI Deputizes Business”).

An InfraGard chapter held a meeting at NYU Medical Center on February 21, 2007 on “Pandemic Preparedness Planning: the Case for Public-Private Collaboration”.

InfraGard also participated in a conference entitled “Surviving the Pandemic,” held in Madison, Wisconsin, October 12, 2006. That conference was co-sponsored by the Southeast Wisconsin Homeland Security Partnership, two centers at the University of Wisconsin, the Madison Area Technical College, Alliant Energy, and American Family Insurance.

InfraGard wants to be a player in pandemic response. “Utilization of their expertise will help local communities prepare for a possible pandemic event to ensure minimal disruption and quick recovery,” one InfraGard press release stated.

Whether and how InfraGard and NorthCom might be working together in this swine flu outbreak is unclear.

Similarly, it is unclear what actions NorthCom might take if an all-out pandemic ensues.

One last concern: George W. Bush bestowed upon the Presidency enormous powers, essentially to be in charge of every branch of government, as well as state and local and tribal governments and the private sector, in the event of a “catastrophic emergency.” (See National Security Presidential Directive 51)

We’re in a public health emergency now. It’s not “catastrophic” yet. But it appears to be up to the President—and the President only—to make that determination, according to the directive.

Congress needs to hold hearings on NorthCom, InfraGard, and National Security Presidential Directive 51.

We must insist on our rights, even in emergencies.

Barbie doll given make-over with tattoos

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The Barbie doll that comes complete with a tattoo set Photo: BNPS

The Barbie doll has been given a make-over for her 50th birthday and been given tattoos.

Telegraph | Apr 30, 2009

barbie_skull_bones_tattooThe doll now comes with a set of sticker tattoos so children can make her look like their heroes, such as Jordan, Amy Winehouse or Cheryl Cole.

Barbie and her brunette version Nikki are now marketed as “Totally Stylin”, and makers Mattel said the tattoos give children the chance to be creative and express themselves.

The dolls are available online and the description reads: “Over 40 easy, no mess tattoos to design and decorate Barbie doll’s fashions.

“Customize the fashions and apply the fun temporary tattoos on you too. Choose from Barbie or Nikki dolls, both include additional fashions, tattoo stamper and tattoos.”

But parents have expressed concern.

The firm has twice misjudged the public reaction to their Barbie products, once in 1999 when a previously tattooed version was pulled and once when a pregnant doll was brought out.

However, Mattel has released the new doll in California and has no plans to pull it. It is available for under £20.

Barbie is 50 years old and her full name is Barbie Millicent Roberts.

Her first boyfriend, Ken, was brought out two years after Barbie herself in 1961 and was named after the son of Mattel founders Ruth and Elliot Handler.

Barbie and Ken broke up on Valentine’s Day in 2004 after being together more than 43 years.

Prince Charles warns of ‘Dark Age’

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It is the first private audience between the Prince of Wales and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Vatican since 1985  Photo: REUTERS

Prince Charles warned that the world risked plunging into a “new Dark Age” unless urgent action was taken on climate change, during his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.

Telegraph | Apr 28, 2009

By Nick Squires in Rome

The heir to the throne said the global economic crisis was “nothing” compared with the “horror” of global warming.

Flanked by Swiss Guards in ceremonial uniforms, the Prince of Wales met Benedict for a 15 minute reception in the Pontiff’s private apartments – his first Papal audience since his divorce from Princess Diana and subsequent remarriage.

He was accompanied by his wife Camilla, who wore a black dress and a black lace veil, in keeping with Vatican protocol, and appeared nervous in the presence of the Pope.

The Pontiff, who recently turned 82, has made concern for the environment one of the keynotes of his papacy, regularly calling for more action on global warming and installing solar panels on the roof of the Vatican.

The Prince of Wales gave Pope Benedict 12 ceramic dessert plates decorated with hand-painted flowers from his estate at Highgrove. In return he received a copy of a 500-year-old etching of St. Peter’s.

Earlier the Prince addressed the Italian parliament, telling deputies in a mix of English and Italian that time is running out in the fight against climate change and calling for a “Renaissance” of sustainable living.

Global efforts to halt the damage to the environment would define the present era, he said. “Do we want our children and grandchildren to … see this as the time we allowed a new Dark Age to sprawl across our future?” he asked.

Melbourne records coldest April morning for 56 years

The Age | April 30, 2009

by Reko Rennie

You’re right – it’s cold. So cold in fact, it’s Melbourne’s chilliest April morning for 56 years.

The celsius in the city plunged to 2.9 degrees at 6.35am, a brisk wake-up call for Melburnians trying to rouse themselves for work.

The cold snap tested records across the city, with some suburbs dropping below freezing, Weather Company meteorologist Brett Dutschke said.

Mr Dutschke said most areas recorded their coldest April morning for decades, with some as much as 10 degrees below the monthly average.

The aptly named Coldstream recorded the greater Melbourne area’s lowest temperature, with a frosty -2.7 degrees at 6:30am.

Many other suburbs recorded temperatures of less than 1 degree, with Scoresby managing only 0.3 degrees and Essendon 0.6 degrees.

Over in Melbourne’s south-west, Laverton reached 0.4 – its lowest April temperature for 66 years – while Tullamarine struggled to just over a degree.

Mr Dutschke said tomorrow morning would not be as cold due to increasing cloud and a bit more wind, while frosts would only hit east of Melbourne.

War veteran chewed up by mice in nursing home

‘He was being eaten alive’

The Age | Apr 30, 2009

by Christine Kellett

Queensland Health has rostered on extra staff to conduct pest control at a Darling Downs hospital after an 89-year-old nursing home resident had his ears gnawed by mice.

The area’s state opposition MP, Ray Hopper, raised the alarm yesterday after staff at Dalby Hospital’s nursing home, Karingal, found the man covered in blood on ANZAC Day.

The man, a war veteran, was in a distressed state and suffering injuries from severe mouse bites, Mr Hopper said.

“I’m told by his daughter that the poor old fellow (had) been trying to brush the mice away as they continued chewing his ears, head and neck,” Mr Hopper said.

“He was so stressed that doctors put him on morphine to calm him down. He nearly died on Saturday night. He was being eaten alive.”

A Queensland Health spokeswoman this morning said extra staff had been rostered on at the nursing home to deal with the infestation and mouse traps were being set.

Mr Hopper said he had written to Health Minister Paul Lucas over the incident and demanded the Environmental Protection Agency begin pest control urgently.

“I’m told there’s a hold-up in getting approval from the Government’s Environmental agency for poison to be used on land adjoining the hospital.

“Mice plagues are a fact of life for the Darling Downs and we need to be able to control them with whatever we can … traps and poisons and we don’t need to be denied access to effective poisons because some bureaucrats at head office are sitting on their hands.

“Patients being bitten by mice is unacceptable … it’s worse than Third World and the Minister needs to stop the nonsense that poisoning is not an option.”

Federal Ageing Minister Justine Elliot could not be contacted for comment, but earlier told the ABC she would consider evacuating the facility if pest control measures were not effective.

“There has been action taken in terms of the eradication measures that are in place – we are closely monitoring it,” she said.

“If we ever do find a situation where we do find it’s required to evacuate people, we do that very, very swiftly – that’s our main concern but we are closely monitoring the situation.”

Mr Hopper described the situation at Karingal as “disgusting”.

“It’s absolutely pathetic while the Premier is using the Mexican pig flu as another media opportunity, no one wants to do anything to protect sick people from disease-carrying vermin in a local hospital, or nursing home,”  he said.

The pope’s photo-op with Europe’s last dictator

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Pope Benedict XVI is handed a children’s book by Nikolai, son of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (L), during their meeting at the Vatican April 27, 2009. Reuters

Foreign Policy | Apr 28, 2009

Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s PR machine kicked into overdrive yesterday during a meeting with Pope Benedict. RFE/RL’s Luke Allnut notes that the Belarussian strongman’s adorable son Nikola stole the show at the event: “Resplendent in a white cardigan among the papal grays and purples… playing with a football and presenting the pope with his ABC’s book.” It certainly sounds like Lukashenko is getting his money’s worth from his top-shelf British spin-doctors.

Belarussian opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko put the meeting in context for the AP:

“Lukashenko’s main goal is to improve his image and to receive absolution from the pope ahead of the EU summit in Prague, where many European politicians will not extend a hand to the Belarusian dictator,” he said.

On this site last week, David Kramer and Irina Krasovskaya (whose husband was “disappeared” by the Lukashenko regime) argued that the E.U.’s efforts to reach out to Belarus were ill-advised and would only lead Lukashenko to crack down more on political dissent.

Most E.U. leaders, at least, seem fairly embarassed by the prospect of standing next to Lukashenko. Some even say they won’t shake his hand. Even Silvio Berlusconi, who became the first Western European leader in 14 years to meet with him yesterday, didn’t hold a press conference and made it clear that he would press Lukashenko on human rights. On the other hand, the Vatican said only that some “internal problems” were discussed at the Pope’s meeting but in a “positive climate”

What is Benedict thinking? There are certainly times when talking with human rights abusers can be productive. But the Pope isn’t a realist, nor should he be. Unlike national leaders he’s in a position to act as a voice of conscience without worrying about political expediency.

Considering the bad press he’s gotten over the last few months, it couldn’t have hurt the pope to say a few words in public about Lukashenko’s stiffling of free speech and dissent in Belarus. Instead, he gave the dictator a photo-op to die for without a critical word.

Given the role his predecessor played in dispatching authoritarian governments from the rest of Eastern Europe, Benedict’s conduct was especially shameful.

“Europe’s last dictator” meets with grand master of Knights of Malta

ITALY-BELARUS

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks to reporters after a meeting with the Knights of Malta at their headquarters in Rome April 28, 2009. Lukashenko, long shunned by the West, on Monday met Pope Benedict on a trip to Italy that ends more than a decade of diplomatic isolation. Reuters Pictures

Lukashenka meets with grand master of Knights of Malta

BelaPAN | Apr 28, 2009

Alyaksandr Lukashenka met with Fra Matthew Festing, grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, in Rome on April 28.

The meeting focused on prospects for the development of relations between Belarus and the Roman Catholic order, which is actively involved in Chernobyl-relief programs, including efforts to provide medical aid to people living in contaminated areas and offer health breaks abroad to Chernobyl-affected children, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.

The Belarusian leader arrived in the Italian capital on April 26 on his first visit to a European Union country in many years. He met with Pope Benedict XVI and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Monday.

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Vioxx maker Merck and Co drew up doctor hit list

The Australian | Apr 1, 2009

By Milanda Rout

AN international drug company made a hit list of doctors who had to be “neutralised” or discredited because they criticised the anti-arthritis drug the pharmaceutical giant produced.

Staff at US company Merck &Co emailed each other about the list of doctors – mainly researchers and academics – who had been negative about the drug Vioxx or Merck and a recommended course of action.

The email, which came out in the Federal Court in Melbourne yesterday as part of a class action against the drug company, included the words “neutralise”, “neutralised” or “discredit” against some of the doctors’ names.

It is also alleged the company used intimidation tactics against critical researchers, including dropping hints it would stop funding to institutions and claims it interfered with academic appointments.

“We may need to seek them out and destroy them where they live,” a Merck employee wrote, according to an email excerpt read to the court by Julian Burnside QC, acting for the plaintiff.

Merck & Co and its Australian subsidiary, Merck, Sharpe and Dohme, are being sued for compensation by more than 1000 Australians, who claim they suffered heart attacks or strokes as a result of Vioxx.

The drug was launched in 1999 and at its height of popularity was used by 80 million people worldwide because it did not cause stomach problems as did traditional anti-inflammatory drugs.

It was voluntarily withdrawn from sale in 2004 after concerns were raised that it caused heart attacks and strokes and a clinical trial testing these potential side affects was aborted for safety reasons.

Lead plaintiff Graeme Peterson, 58, claims the drug caused him to have a heart attack in 2003 after he took it for back pain and arthritis every day from May 2001.

Merck last year settled thousands of lawsuits in the US over the effects of Vioxx for $US4.85billion ($7.14 billion) but made no admission of guilt.

The company is fighting the class action in Australia.

The Federal Court was told yesterday that Merck wanted to gain the backing of researchers and doctors – or “opinion leaders” – in the fields of arthritis to help promote the drug to medical professionals when it was launched in 1999.

Mr Burnside said internal emails in April 1999 from Merck staff showed the company was not happy with what some researchers and doctors were saying about the drug.

“It gives you the dark side of the use of key opinion leaders and thought leaders … if (they) say things you don’t like to hear, you have to neutralise them,” he said. “It does suggest a certain culture within the organisation about how to deal with your opponents and those who disagree with you.”

The court was told that James Fries, professor of medicine at Stanford University, wrote to the then Merck head Ray Gilmartin in October 2000 to complain about the treatment of some of his researchers who had criticised the drug.

“Even worse were allegations of Merck damage control by intimidation,” he wrote, according to Mr Burnside.

“This has happened to at least eight (clinical) investigators … I suppose I was mildly threatened myself but I never have spoken or written on these issues.”

Mr Burnside told the court Dr Fries went on to describe instances of intimidation, including one colleague who thought his academic appointment had been jeopardised and another who received phone calls alleging “anti-Merck” bias.

Dr Fries said in the letter that Merck had been systematically playing down the side effects of Vioxx and said the company’s behaviour “seriously impinges on academic freedom”. The court was also told a rheumatologist on Merck’s Australian arthritis advisory board was angry he did not find out about Merck’s decision to withdraw Vioxx until an ABC journalist rang to tell him. Mr Burnside said James Bertouch wrote to other members of the board saying he was “extremely disillusioned” with the company.

“In every possible way the company exerted itself to present the impression to the world at large that Vioxx did not provide any increased cardio risk … when (a) it probably would and (b) it probably did,” he wrote, according to Mr Burnside.

Peter Garling, acting for Merck, accused Mr Peterson of not taking the drug Vioxx in the months leading up to his heart attack in December 2003.

He said Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme figures showed he did not fill a Vioxx prescription for the drug in the two months before his heart attack.

Mr Garling put to Mr Peterson during his cross-examination that this was because he had retired from his job as a safety consultant and therefore he did not need to take Vioxx because his back pain lessened.

Mr Peterson denied this meant he was not taking the drug.

“No, I wouldn’t accept that at all,” he said. “I can remember taking Vioxx regularly.”

The trial, before Justice Chris Jessop, continues.

Blackwater guards still at work in Iraq despite lacking license to operate

Armed guards from the security firm once known as Blackwater Worldwide are still protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq, even though the company has no license to operate there and has been told by the State Department its contracts will not be renewed two years after a lethal firefight that stirred outrage in Baghdad.

Associated Press | Apr 26, 2009

By MATTHEW LEE and MIKE BAKER

WASHINGTON — Armed guards from the security firm once known as Blackwater Worldwide are still protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq, even though the company has no license to operate there and has been told by the State Department its contracts will not be renewed two years after a lethal firefight that stirred outrage in Baghdad.

Private security guards employed by the company, now known as Xe, are to continue ground operations in parts of Iraq long into the summer, far longer than had previously been acknowledged, government officials told The Associated Press.

In addition, helicopters working for Xe’s aviation wing, Presidential Airways, will provide air security for U.S. diplomatic convoys into September, almost two years after the Iraqi government first said it wanted the firm out.

The company’s continued presence raises fresh questions about the strength of Iraq’s sovereignty even as the Obama administration urges the budding government to take more responsibility for the nation’s future.

Iraqis had long complained about Blackwater’s operations. Then a shooting by guards in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in September 2007 left 17 civilians dead, further strained relations between Baghdad and Washington and led U.S. prosecutors to bring charges against the Blackwater contractors involved.

That deadly incident was the end, Iraqi leaders said. Blackwater had to get out.

But State Department officials acknowledge the company is still there.

The company declined to comment about a timetable for leaving.

“We follow the direction of our U.S. government client,” Xe spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said.

Last February, Blackwater changed its name to Xe — pronounced ZEE — in a bid to leave its reputation behind.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said that while Xe will not be allowed to work in Iraq, the company needs “some time” to fully shut down its operations there. The official did not give further details on the timetable.

State Department officials said this month Blackwater guards would stop protecting U.S. diplomats on the ground in Baghdad May 7, when the contract for that specific job expires and a new security provider, Triple Canopy, takes over.

But in its statement after the Iraqi government’s decision to prohibit Blackwater from operating there, the department did not reveal the firm has two other contracts — known as “task orders” — that do not expire until August and September, respectively.

Blackwater guards will remain on the ground protecting American diplomats in al Hillah, Najaf and Karbala, all south of Baghdad, until Aug. 4, according to the department.

And Presidential Airways, which operates some two dozen helicopters, will continue to fly until Sept. 3, it said.

After the Nisoor Square deaths, Iraqi officials ruled that North Carolina-based Blackwater would be barred from operating in the country.

Despite the ban, the State Department renewed Blackwater’s contract seven months later, in April 2008.