Daily Archives: April 28, 2011

Cuba to allow homes to be bought and sold for first time under Communist rule

Raúl Castro replaced his brother Fidel as first secretary of the Communist Party Photo: REUTERS

Cubans will be allowed to buy and sell homes for the first time since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 under a package of sweeping reforms.

Telegraph | Apr 19, 2011

By Robin Yapp, Sao Paulo

Since the Communist revolution, inhabitants of the island have only been allowed to swap homes through a complicated system or pass them on to their children.

But a raft of reforms agreed at the first congress of the Communist Party since 1997 includes a plan to legalise property sales.

Under the current system of home swaps, a culture of corruption involving “under-the-table” payments has developed.

However, President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, said that the concentration of property would not be allowed and no details were given on how sales would operate.

The plan to allow home sales was one of about 300 approved by the party, which also include more self-employment, cutting a million government jobs in the coming years, encouraging foreign investment and reducing state spending.

Political reform was also on the agenda with President Castro using his speech at the weekend to propose that top political positions, including the presidency, should be limited to two five-year terms.

The radical changes were backed by Fidel Castro, president of the country for 49 years until 2008, who made a rare public appearance at the closing ceremony on Tuesday.

In a front page column in the Communist party newspaper Granma, he wrote: “The new generation is called to rectify and change without hesitation all that must be rectified and changed, and to continue demonstrating that socialism is also the art of making the impossible happen.”

He described “the impossible” as “building and bringing about the revolution of the poor, by the poor and for the poor, and defending it for half a century from the most powerful military power that ever existed,” referring to the United States.

The 84-year-old also formally resigned as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and was replaced by his brother, who had already fulfilled the role in all but name since 2006.

The reforms announced are aimed at securing the future of socialism in Cuba as the Soviet-style economy struggles and popular uprisings continue to cause political turmoil in the Arab world.

China, one of Cuba’s biggest backers, gave its backing to the changes.

Hong Lei, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the decisions taken in Cuba would have a “profound and far reaching impact on the development of socialism in Cuba.”

But President Castro has ruled out broader market reforms like those adopted by China, saying they would be “in open contradiction to the essence of socialism… because they were calling for allowing the concentration of property.”

Farmer menaced with death threats calls police who turn up to confiscate her shotguns

Officers took 35 minutes to arrive after she was threatened with chainsaws and knives

She was pelted with rocks while a youth threatened to slit her throat and slaughter her cattle

Despite being threatened with chainsaws and knives, police confiscated Mrs St Clair Pearce’s shotgun

Daily Mail | Apr 26, 2011

By Andrew Levy

Treated like a criminal: Terminally ill Tracy St. Clair Pearce was pelted with rocks by some of the travellers while a youth threatened to slit her throat and slaughter her cattle

Having confronted travellers cutting down trees on her farm, terminally-ill Tracy St Clair Pearce found herself subjected to a terrifying ordeal.

Some of the group pelted her with rocks while a youth threatened to slit her throat and slaughter her cattle.

When she dialled 999 she expected the full weight of the law to be on her side.

Instead, however, police officers criticised her for inflaming the situation and confiscated her legally held shotguns – even though they had been locked away in a cabinet at home throughout the incident.

Yesterday, the 50-year-old accused police of causing her ‘harassment and distress’ when she should have been given protection.

‘I’ve been treated like a criminal,’ said Miss St Clair Pearce, who has been given months to live after breast cancer spread to her spine.

The incident blew up after around 18 caravans set up camp illegally in a field owned by Colchester Council last Thursday.

Miss St Clair Pearce, who lives on the adjoining Seven Saints Rare Breeds farm with her brother, Stuart, had a good-natured conversation with one traveller who assured her they would be no trouble and would move on within a couple of days.

But at 7pm on Good Friday she was spraying weeds on the 34-acre farm, where she has ten rare Shetland cattle and three horses, when she heard a chainsaw and found four boys felling trees for firewood.

‘I started shouting “Get out” but they just stood there in my field,’ she said. ‘I said I would spray them with the weed killer and one in a red T-shirt, who was about 14, went ballistic. The language coming out of his mouth was unbelievable.

‘I had a short-bladed knife in my hand for the weed removal and he took that as a challenge. He picked up a fence post and hurled it at me. He then screamed “I will slit your throat, I will slit the throats of your calves and cows”. We were face to face and he slid his finger across his throat.’

Miss St Clair Pearce stood her ground and the youth retreated across the brook that marks the border of her land but by this time several traveller men and a woman had come over.

One was the boy’s father, who used ‘sexually explicit language’ before turning away when asked if he was proud of his son. ‘About eight people were still there and they exposed themselves to me, front and back. Then they started throwing rocks at me so I backed off,’ added Miss St Clair Pearce.

Shaken by the confrontation, she called police and waited 35 minutes for a patrol car to arrive before spending three hours giving a statement. An inspector arrived at 11.30pm but questioned her own conduct, accusing her of making threats against the travellers. ‘They said I had been aggressive, the chainsaw was of no consequence, and I should have politely asked them to remove themselves from my premises then walked away and called 999,’ said Miss St Clair Pearce.

Officers eventually visited the camp that evening and the following morning but told her they were unable to find the teenager who had threatened her.

On Easter Monday she was at a dog show when she received a call from Colchester councillor Gerard Oxford, whom she had contacted for advice, and was told police wanted to confiscate her two shotguns.

She refused to start the two-hour journey home immediately and officers began turning up at the farmhouse ‘every couple of hours’ in an attempt to seize the legally held shotguns.

At 3.15am yesterday armed officers appeared and demanded the firearms otherwise they would ‘pull the cabinet from the wall’.

Left with no choice, Miss St Clair Pearce told her brother where she kept the key and he handed the weapons over.

Officers returned later yesterday and confiscated her gun licence to ‘prevent me buying another shotgun’.

Her brother said: ‘I am in shock. I thought the laws in this country protected people who live and work in their communities – not those who visit for a short time and think they are beyond the law.’

The travellers refused to comment when approached yesterday.

Mr Oxford said: ‘The way Tracy has been treated has been quite appalling. It was quite evident the officers were putting more weight on making sure that the travellers were ok than the threats which had been made to Tracy’s life.’

Essex police confirmed they had not yet arrested anyone in connection with the incident.

A spokesman said: ‘Officers became concerned at the behaviour of a woman and laid information before magistrates accordingly.

‘They were given powers to seize guns in her possession and have done so as a sensible precaution in the circumstances.’

US military musical chairs with Gen Petraeus to become head of CIA

General David Petraeus and Leon Panetta Photo: REUTERS

Barack Obama is poised to announce the biggest national security shake-up of his presidency, including naming General David Petraeus as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Telegraph | Apr 27, 2011

By Toby Harnden, Washington

Gen Petraeus, widely viewed as the most accomplished military officer of his generation, will take over the CIA from Leon Panetta, a veteran Washington hand credited with stabilising the spy organisation.

Mr Panetta, a former California congressman and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is to become the new Pentagon chief, replacing Robert Gates, who was appointed by President George W Bush in 2006 and has long made clear his wish to retire this year.

Mr Obama is believed to have persuaded Ryan Crocker, the career diplomat who paired with Gen Petraeus during the Iraq “surge” of 2007 that staved off a catastrophic defeat for the United States, to come out of retirement to become ambassador to Afghanistan.

It means that Mr Bush’s Petraeus-Crocker “dream team” is likely to be re-established, albeit temporarily, in Kabul at a crucial juncture as Mr Obama’s July deadline for the beginning of American troop withdrawals approaches.

The reshuffle means that Gen Petraeus will leave Kabul earlier than initially expected when he was appointed by Mr Obama after the firing of Gen Stanley McChrystal.

Gen Petraeus will be replaced by Gen John Allen of the US Marine Corps. Gen Allen was deputy marine commander in Iraq during the “Anbar Awakening” that accompanied the surge.

He has three masters degrees, once taught political science at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and was a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations.

In Iraq, Gen Allen was particularly influenced by the work of Gertrude Bell, the British archaeologist whose grave is in Baghdad.

Some fear that the appointment of Gen Allen could leave a gap in knowledge of Afghanistan at the top of Nato at an especially critical juncture. Lt Gen David Rodriguez, Gen Petraeus’s deputy, was been expected by some to take over the top spot but Gen Allen’s presentational and diplomatic skills were judged to be stronger.

Mr Gates is expected to leave the Pentagon this summer, triggering the round of musical chairs. One of the most powerful figures in Mr Obama’s cabinet, he favoured increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, though his cautionary words about air strikes in Libya were not heeded.

Mr Panetta is the consummate Washington insider, with strong links to Capitol Hill and a web of connections throughout the Obama administration.

As a former Clinton administration stalwart, he is well placed to build on the close relationship between Mr Gates and Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, which followed years of fractious tension between the Pentagon and the State Department.

The last time the head of the CIA left to become US Defence Secretary was in 1973, when James Schlesinger moved along the Potomac from the agency’s Langley headquarters to the Pentagon.

At 72, Mr Panetta will become the oldest man to become Pentagon chief, a distinction previously held by Donald Rumsfeld when he was appointed at age 68 in 2001. Mr Rumsfeld had earlier become the youngest Defence Secretary when he replaced Mr Schlesinger in 1975, when he was 43.

Scientologists buy Hollywood production studio to increase global reach through television and the internet

Charlton Heston starred in ‘El Cid’ which was filmed at the studio

The Church of Scientology has bought a landmark Hollywood production studio as it seeks to increase its global reach through television and the internet.

Church of Scientology buys landmark Hollywood production studio

Telegraph | Apr 26, 2011

By Nick Allen, Los Angeles

The 300,000 sq ft lot on Sunset Boulevard is currently home to KCET, the largest independent public television station in the United States.

It was used in the past to shoot films including “El Cid,” starring Charlton Heston, and “The Hurricane,” directed by John Ford.

The studio includes two sound stages and state-of-the-art post production, satellite and internet broadcasting facilities. The undisclosed asking price ran into millions of dollars. It has been valued at $14 million.

The organisation, founded in 1953 by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, counts Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its followers.

It already has production facilities and numerous sound stages on a 500-acre site outside Los Angeles.

It said the newly acquired Hollywood studio would become a “central media hub” for its network of thousands of centres around the world. It will be used to produce television programmes, short information films and internet content.

The studio’s satellite uplink will be used to transmit video in high definition to centres worldwide, including footage of Scientology events.

In a statement the organisation said: “It is a perfect fit, in both size and location, for the expansion of the Church of Scientology’s production of religious and social betterment audio-visual properties, and we welcomed the unexpected opportunity to acquire it.” The struggling KCET station is planning to move to smaller premises.

The property is the longest continuously producing studio in Hollywood and has been in operation since 1912. It was formerly home to Monogram Pictures and Allied Artists.

Its recognised status as a historic and cultural monument protects it from being altered.

The Church of Scientology already owns dozens of properties in Los Angeles, including four on Hollywood Boulevard, and the studio is close to its headquarters in the city.

Natalie Portman’s Dad’s Bizarre Reproductive Science Novel

Misconception’s prologue opens with a doctor inspecting the pubic region of a 12-year-old male patient. He first notes that the boy has no pubic hair. Then, the doctor takes “oddballs” (i.e. plastic balls) and measures them against the young boy’s testicles, noting that the boy’s balls are “size one.” (Pg. xiii) The doctor proceeds to measure the boy’s penis with a yardstick, noting that it is 1.5-inches long. He informs the boy and his doting mother that the child has “Fragile Y Syndrome,” meaning that his X chromosome is fine, but his Y chromosome is weak. In other words: “His penis and testicles will always be small” and he’ll grow up tall and skinny with “a micropenis and two microtesticles.” (Pg. xiii) The story then flashes forward 28 years—the boy has grown up to become Hugh Nicholson, the head of a cloning facility where he and his partner, Dr. Jeremy “Cody” Coddington, duplicate dogs for up to $100,000 apiece.

Daily Beast | Apr 26, 2011

by Marlow Stern

NEW YORK – As Natalie Portman enters the final trimester of her pregnancy, her father, a reproductive specialist, is shopping his debut novel. From micropenises to incestuous in vitro, Marlow Stern unearths the most ridiculous parts of the self-described “fertility-thriller.”

While tearfully accepting her Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan, a pregnant Natalie Portman thanked “my beautiful love Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed the film and has now given me my most important role of my life.” But before gushing about her fiancé, Portman thanked her parents “for giving [her] the opportunity to work from such an early age.” Around the same time, Portman’s father, Dr. Avner Hershlag was working too… on his self-published debut novel, Misconception.

One of the country’s most renowned reproductive specialists, the Yale-educated Hershlag is Director of the Donor Egg and Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, Director of Fertility Laboratories, and Medical Director of the In Vitro Fertilization Program at the Center for Human Reproduction in North Shore, Long Island. Clearly, he knows a lot about making babies and hopefully for Portman, her situation is far from the plot of Misconception.

Dr. Hershlag’s debut novel is set in Washington D.C. and centers on Dr. Anya Krim, the fertility specialist for the President and his wife. She delivers a deformed baby with “ambiguous genitalia” who later goes missing and its mother is found dead. Krim then discovers Megan Tanner, a senator’s daughter who has been in a coma for two years, is also pregnant. Senator Tanner is the Majority Whip, and chairman of a senate committee overhearing a controversial Embryonic Stem Cell Bill in Congress. If Dr. Krim—a rape victim herself—didn’t have enough on her petri dish, the First Lady’s last-ditch effort to conceive goes haywire when her embryos are kidnapped from the lab.

And that’s only the beginning.

Full Story

Pub singer arrested for racism after Chinese passers-by hear him perform Kung Fu Fighting

Entertainer Simon Ledger was singing Kung Fu Fighting as a Chinese man and his mother walked past which later prompted the complaint to the police

Later that night, he was phoned at a Chinese restaurant and then arrested

Daily Mail | Apr 27, 2011

A pub singer has been arrested on suspicion of racism for singing the classic chart hit Kung Fu Fighting.

The song, performed by Simon Ledger, 34, is said to have offended two Chinese people as they walked past the bar where he was singing.

The entertainer regularly performs the 1974 number one hit, originally by disco star Carl Douglas, at the Driftwood Beach Bar in Sandown, on the Isle of Wight.


Racist? My song’s just a blend of East and West, says Kung Fu Fighting composer

But after one of the passers-by reported his routine on Sunday afternoon, Mr Ledger was arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated harassment.

‘We were performing Kung Fu Fighting, as we do during all our sets,’ he said.

‘People of all races were loving it.  Chinese people have never been offended by it before.

‘But this lad walking past with his mum started swearing at us and making obscene hand gestures before taking a picture on his mobile phone.

‘We hadn’t even seen them when we started the song. He must have phoned the police.’

Officers later called Mr Ledger while he was eating in a Chinese restaurant to arrange a meeting.

The singer assumed it was a prank – but he was later arrested and is still under investigation.

‘They seemed pretty amazed but said the law is the law and it was their duty,’ he is reported to have said.

‘It’s political correctness gone potty. There are plenty of Welsh people at our shows – does it mean I can’t play any Tom Jones?’

Bar owner Sean Ware told the Sun newspaper: ‘The song is in no way racist and nor is Simon. There is no way he would abuse anyone.

‘He didn’t start the song just because Chinese people were walking past. He had already started playing it.’

Mr Ledger, who was later bailed, wrote on Facebook: ‘If the lad who phoned the police is reading this, what is wrong with you?’

A Hampshire police spokesman last night said a 32-year-old man of Chinese origin had claimed he was subjected to racial abuse.

He added: ‘If a victim believes that an alleged crime is racially aggravated, the police will treat it seriously. Investigations into this incident are continuing.’

The spokesman said a 34-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of causing harassment, alarm or distress under section 4a of the Public Order Act 1986.

The man was not taken to the police station at the time, but was released on bail.

He will visit Newport police station today where he will be interviewed.

Facebook Facial Recognition Could Get Creepy

So far it seems to pose little real threat to privacy–because for now it’s all among friends. But that could change.

PC World | Apr 26, 2011

by Megan Geuss

In early April, Engadget posted a short article confirming a rumor that Facebook would be using facial recognition to suggest the names of friends who appeared in newly uploaded photos. You’d be allowed to opt out of tagging, and only friends would be able to tag each other in albums. Nevertheless, a commenter beneath the story quipped, “Awesome! Now I can take pictures of cute girls at the grocery store or at the park, upload them and Facebook will tell me who they are! (I’m pretty sure that’s not [how] it works but I’m sure it will get there.)”

The commenter’s confidence says a lot: Facial recognition may be just one more way for Facebook to push the visual part of the social graph (photos of us) toward being more public and far less private. Facebook has a history of asking for forgiveness after the fact instead of asking for permission in advance, and its new face-recognition feature could become the latest example of a seemingly innocuous development morphing into a serious threat to the privacy of our (visual) data. And as usual, some Facebook users will like the convenience of the new features so much that they will forget the privacy trade-off altogether, or just choose not to worry about it.

Features You Didn’t Know You Had

As it stands, Facebook’s current feature uses facial recognition technology to pick out faces in your photos. Once you’ve uploaded your album, Facebook will take you to a new screen where you can enter the name of each person below their face. Sometimes (depending on your privacy settings and the clarity of the photo), Facebook will go a step further: If a face matches one you previously tagged in another album, Facebook may suggest that person’s name for you. Facebook quietly added the feature to the Privacy Settings, allowing users to disable the peppy-sounding ‘Suggest photos of me to friends’ option. Most Facebook users probably don’t know that the extra privacy setting is there.

Technological advances in the last 10 years are making it possible for computers to match images and names with impressive accuracy. Though every company using the technology handles it a little differently, the president of Applied Recognition, Ray Ganong, shared some insight into how his company’s product Fotobounce gets the job done: “We scan each image as a bitmap and look for potential face images that qualify. We try to see the two eyes, and based on the eye location we reorient the face and then generate a digital signature, based on that face.” Many builders of facial recognition technology base their matches on “faceprints” of people, where an engine synthesizes information using many photos of the same person from different angles or with different lighting to make a more accurate match. Given that Facebook users had uploaded 60 billion photos by the end of 2010, the prospects for accurate facial recognition on the social network are better now than ever before.

Facial recognition in a social networking context is not particularly new. Third-party app builders have been offering face detection on Facebook since Face.com entered the scene in 2009 with its Photo Finder app, which scanned thousands of photos to find images in which the user appears but isn’t tagged. But the difference between third-party apps and Facebook’s new recognition feature is that the former have always required participants to actively opt in to the feature, whereas at Facebook the feature is turned on by default and requires the user first to learn that it’s in use, and then to expressly opt out. Even then, Facebook’s servers don’t lose the information they’ve acquired for associating your face with your name. They just comply with your request not to use it for the time being.

Despite the service’s need to make users feel at ease about these changes, some comments from Facebook’s management over the past few months have been confusing and a little defensive, adding to the impression that the company is easing in a feature that could generate negative reactions later. In September 2010, Facebook revealed that it would recognize and group similar faces together. During a public announcement regarding the new features, Sam Odio, the newly hired product manager of Facebook Photos, said “This isn’t face recognition […] Picasa and iPhoto–they’ll detect a face and say, ‘This is Sam,’ and they’ll suggest that it’s Sam. We’re not doing that. We’re not linking any faces to profiles automatically. Right now, we want to stay away from that because it’s a very touchy subject.” Apparently the subject wasn’t quite so touchy four months later, when Facebook started suggesting the names of friends in uploaded photos.

Some might argue that the facial recognition tagging feature actually gives users more privacy by increasing their chances of being tagged, and in that way discovering where their image is appearing and how it’s being used. But for some, the worry is less about how friends might use your photos and more about how Facebook could use your information–and give others access to it. Even if you choose to disable the ‘Suggest photos of me to friends’ option, Facebook will still have the technical ability to connect your name with your image. And even when Facebook doesn’t suggest the name of your friend, picking out a face and asking you to tag it is essentially the same thing as offering the name of your friend, except that it enlists you as a participant in the process. “Facebook is being really clever about it […] they’re not assigning names with it, but the minute you assign a name to it you’ve completed the recognition,” says Marisol MacGregor, head of marketing at Viewdle, a company that specializes in making lightweight facial recognition technology.

Safe Now, But What’s Coming?

In the hands of smaller developers like Viewdle and Fotobounce, which keep little if any personal information on their company’s servers, face recognition could be minimally worrisome. But in the hands of Facebook, which sits on a monster database filled with dense detail about the personal lives of more than 500 million people, the technology has the potential to be creepy.

Of course, as far as we know, the company is not going any farther with its current technology than suggesting that you tag people you are already friends with in newly uploaded photos. But could Facebook ever identify people you’re not friends with and suggest that you become friends with them? “Absolutely, it would be easy to do. All that data would be on that server farm. Technically, it’s totally possible to expand that,” says Applied Recognition’s Ganong.

It’s not hard to imagine Facebook’s “Suggest photos of me to friends” privacy setting becoming “Suggest photos of me to friends of friends” and then “Suggest photos of me to others”–essentially allowing you to take photos of strangers on the street and request a friendship. No other company except Google could realistically offer a feature that tells you the name of a complete stranger you’d seen in the park or at a concert. In 2008 the company offered face recognition on Picasa, Google’s photo-sharing site, but it recently removed face-finding tech from its Google Goggles app until privacy issues could be resolved. It turns out that algorithmically finding faces is cool, but sharing faces can get scary.

Though Google is a giant company, one reason why its facial recognition feature in Goggles may not work is that Google doesn’t have the kind of built-in emphasis on friendship and sharing that Facebook has. Facebook’s ubiquity, and its financial interest in getting people to connect, makes it perhaps the only company in the world that could roll out the ability to recognize strangers, and get users to accept it. Some people might relish the idea of being spotted and of making connections with new people, but being able to identify a face with nothing more than a camera could have serious adverse consequences. “Facial recognition is especially troubling because cameras are ubiquitous and we routinely show our faces. And of course, one can take pictures of crowds, so it scales a bit better than, say, fingerprints,” says Lee Tien, Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney, via e-mail.

Misidentification is another problem. Gil Hirsch, CEO of Face.com, says that his company set up a very high threshold of recognition to confirm face matches on its Photo finder app. “We don’t want to send you a message saying ‘Hey Megan we found a photo of you’ and it’s not really you,” he explained. But that threshold of recognition will be different with every system, Facebook’s included. Nevertheless, better and faster algorithms are slowly whittling down the likelihood of erroneous identifications. Compared to being accurately identified to a stranger, misidentification may register as a lesser concern. Tien of EFF notes, “If Facebook misidentifies someone, the consequences are not the same as when a police video-camera misidentifies you as a suspect.” True, unless a misidentification implicates you in dubious activities. The imagination reels.

From a business perspective, it’s important to Facebook that its users tag themselves and each other in as many photos as possible. These tags create more page views, which is valuable to Facebook’s advertisers. But it could go much further. If you are tagged in a photo with three friends, advertisers could tailor information to what they think you might want based on your friend’s preferences. Though perhaps not at the level of an infringement of legal privacy rights, facial recognition in the hands of Facebook does permit advertisers an unprecedented level of information about how to get a message across to you.

Facial recognition is a cool technology that Facebook is using to add more convenience to the act of tagging people in photos. The technology may indeed create more connections between friends, and so far it seems to pose little real threat to privacy–because for now it’s all among friends. But that could change. If you are uncomfortable with facial recognition, pay a visit to your Facebook privacy settings and opt out of the feature. In the broader view, it’s important that we all keep a close eye on Facebook’s use of this powerful technology, and that we let tech privacy groups and lawmakers know if the technology is being abused to enrich social networking sites and their advertisers, at the expense of our privacy.