Daily Archives: May 29, 2012

Coldest May in 50 years for Canberra Australia


Snow season starts early at Perisher. Photo: SUPPLIED ZZZ

Snow season starts early at Perisher.

SMH | May 29, 2012

The coldest May in more than 50 years has left Canberra’s gardeners with frostbitten plants and dying blooms.

Incoming president of the Canberra Garden Club, Allan Moss, said plants experiencing new growth in autumn were vulnerable to damage from the cold.

”The biggest issue is that before May, we had a pretty warm autumn,” he said. ”This means the soft growth from the warm autumn is burnt off by the cold.”

Conifers are the only plants that will not see damage from the cold, according to Mr Moss.

”Many natives, bottlebrushes and banksias in particular, put on a flush of soft growth in the autumn, so they’ll see that burning,” he said. ”But you don’t see it on conifers, because they put on their growth in the spring.”

Meterologists at Weatherzone, which is owned by Fairfax, say it’s the second-coldest May on record, with overnight temperatures falling below zero, three degrees below the average overnight temperature.

Canberra hasn’t suffered through a cold spell like this since 1961.

Average temperatures fell to minus 0.2 degrees compared to the historical average of 3.1 degrees.

The only colder May on record was in 1957, when the average low was minus 2.6 degrees.

Record cold hits WA Kimberley

”This freezing weather is more typical of July, when the average minimum is minus 0.1 of a degree,” Weatherzone meteorologist Brett Dutschke said.

The effects the cold snap is having on plants is normal, but it has arrived earlier than usual.

Mr Moss said plants generally begin to see signs of frost burn around June and July. He added amateur gardeners shouldn’t worry.

”People shouldn’t trim their plants yet,” Mr Moss said. ”They should just leave it until the spring.”

Mr Dutschke attributed the cold weather to high pressure systems across the month.

”Skies have been clearer than normal and the air drier than normal, which have combined to make most nights dip below freezing.”

The conditions have made for a drier-than-average month, with only 21mm of rain falling, less than half the long-term average of 44mm.

And Mr Moss said the lack of rain would actually be a blessing in disguise for gardeners.

”By having less rain, you have less soft growth,” he said. ”That means there will be less potential for plants to be damaged by frost.”

Meteorologists are predicting more freezing nights in winter, but they will not be much colder than Canberra has already experienced.

”More freezing nights are likely, but overall, nights should turn out to be near average,” Mr Dutschke said.

”Daytime temperatures and rainfall should also return to normal.”

Police issue fines of $85 for walking while distracted

Pedestrians who write text messages on their mobile phones while walking in the street are facing a crack down in a US town.

Telegraph | May 14, 2012

By Mark Hughes, New York

The police chief in Fort Lee, New Jersey, has instructed his officers to issue fines of $85 (£52) to anyone they consider to be engaging in ‘dangerous walking’, citing texting while crossing the road as a prime example of the offence.

Thomas Ripoli decided to act after noticing an increase in car accidents involving pedestrians.

More than 20 people have been hit by cars this year in the town which has a population of about 35,000, some of whom were absorbed in a text message or phone call when the accident occurred.

Texting While Walking Banned in New Jersey Town

One person was killed while using a mobile phone while crossing the road, the chief said.

His officers spent two weeks handing out pamphlets warning of the dangers of ‘jaywalking’ – crossing a road at a point other than a designated crossing – before bringing fines into play.

Chief Ripoli said: “It’s a big distraction. It’s not always the driver’s fault. Pedestrians are not always aware; they’re not watching where they are walking.”

Since the start of the campaign in March 117 people have been fined for ‘dangerous walking’ although it is unclear exactly how many were texting when fined.

He said that while texting while walking would not be prohibited completely, people caught crossing a street while texting can expect to be given a ticket.

Other safety suggestions by the police chief include refraining from listening to music on headphones and wearing bright clothing.

The memo reads: “Pedestrians need to resist talking on their cell phones and/or taking their headphones off while crossing a street. These distractions can be catastrophic to the pedestrian who is too distracted to notice if a car is coming in their direction.

“It would also be beneficial to wear some kind of bright coloured clothing. Most coats and jackets are in darker shades during the winter, but adding something that could reflect a headlight would increase the chance for a driver to see you during the night time hours.”

Jaywalking in many US states is prohibited, but is so common that most police turn a blind eye.

Texting while walking has been proven to be distracting. A study at Stony Brook University found that 60 per cent of blindfolded participants, when asked to walk in a straight line, veered off when they texting.

Weeks of wet weather during Britain’s coldest May in 300 years


More rain is predicted for the next few weeks (Picture: Getty)

metro.co.uk | May 8, 2012

Britain’s coldest May in more than 300 years will deliver 50mph gales, 5cm (2in) of rain and flooding.

Central England temperatures so far this month average 8.6C, 1.6C below normal.

The last time May was colder was in 1698, at 8.5C over the whole month.

COLDEST MAY FOR 300 YEARS QUEEN’S JUBILEE A WASHOUT

And the Met Office has warned that weeks of wet weather ahead could wash out the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations.

The Environment Agency issued two flood warnings and 14 alerts, warning of high tides swamping coastlines across South Wales.

Up to 2cm of rain will fall across the south and Midlands today. Severe weather warnings have been issued in the south-west. Wednesday and Thursday will see many parts hit by another 3cm of rain – totalling 5cm, or a month’s worth, in 24 hours – with localised flooding and transport problems expected. Warnings have been issued.

Gales hitting 50mph will buffet vehicles, rip branches from trees and threaten property damage.

Deluges are being caused by 20C south-westerly winds colliding with near-freezing polar air. Significant temperature differences will spark downpours across the collision zone. Met Office forecaster Dan Williams said: ‘With ground already saturated, localised flooding is possible. After a drier weekend, next week is unsettled.

‘The May 22 to June 5 outlook, including the diamond jubilee, has no strong signal for a period of warm, dry weather.

‘We expect sunshine and showers during this period. Even though there’s a hint of warmer, drier weather, it is just a hint – and not much better than a 50-50 chance.’

The Queen’s diamond jubilee pageant faces a washout on  tomorrow’s opening day at Windsor Castle.

Bookmakers William Hill offer 4/1 odds on a jubilee Monday washout. Travel association Abta has reported a rush of overseas jubilee weekend inquiries from Britons fearing another bank holiday washout.

What could possibly go wrong? U.S. Army wants to give war robots more power to ‘make their own decisions’

Military is testing ‘autonomous’ robots that follow soldiers

Robots will use laser-imaging to build their own 3D image of the world

Daily Mail | May 9, 2012   

By Rob Waugh


Giving war robots ‘autonomy’ sparks fears of independent killing machines similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator

Armies of robots including dog-like creatures walking on four legs and huge lumbering trucks are the stuff of science fiction – specifically, bleak films such as The Terminator series.

But the U.S. military not only wants more robots – it wants more ‘autonomous’ robots, robots free to make their own decisions on the battlefield.

A new robot is described as ‘like a dog’ that follows troops on the battlefield – and future models will use technologies such as laser imaging to build their own picture of the world.

Ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have put a spotlight on the growing use of unmanned systems in the skies over the battlefield, from the high-flying Global Hawk to the lethal Predator aircraft and the hand-launched Raven.

But on the ground, thousands of small, remotely operated robots also have proven their value in dealing with roadside bombs, a lethal threat to U.S. troops in both wars.

Of more than 6,000 robots deployed, about 750 have been destroyed in action

This has saved at least that many human lives, the Pentagon’s Robotics Systems Joint Program Office estimates.

Only now is robotics research nearing the stage that the military may soon be able to deploy large ground vehicles capable of performing tasks on their own with little human involvement.

Robotics scientists

The results, among other things, could be more saved lives, less wear and tear on the troops, and reduced fuel consumption.

‘The ground domain is much, much tougher than the air domain because it’s so dynamic,’ said Myron Mills, who has worked on both aerial and ground robotic systems and now manages an autonomous vehicle program for Maryland-headquartered Lockheed Martin Corp.

Mills said autonomous ground systems face a series of challenges such as dust, fog and debris – as well as avoiding civilians and troops.

A path may be passable one moment and littered with obstacles a half hour later due to battle damage.

‘It’s just a very, very tough and chaotic environment,’ Mills said. ‘The hardest thing to deal with has been figuring out how to make the system usable for the soldiers and be able to cope with the chaotic environment.’

Enough progress has been made that Lockheed’s Squad Mission Support System, a 5,000-pound (2,268 kg) vehicle designed to carry backpacks and other gear for overloaded foot soldiers, is now being tested in Afghanistan.

Wisconsin-based Oshkosh’s unmanned vehicle system, which would allow one person to control several heavy cargo trucks, has been assessed by U.S. Marine Corps drivers in the United States and is in the final stages of concept development.

A four-legged walking robot designed to carry loads for combat foot patrols – the Legged Squad Support System, or LS3 – is due to undergo testing and assessment with troops toward the end of the year, developers at Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics said.

The potential payoffs could be huge.

Robotic systems could ‘radically alter the balance’ among the variables that are driving the high cost of combat vehicles, according to a report for the Pentagon last year by the nonprofit Rand Corporation.

Taking drivers out of the trucks would reduce the need for thick armor plating that increases weight, boosts the need for ever more powerful engines and ratchets up fuel consumption in places like Afghanistan, where the cost of delivering petroleum can run as high as $400 per gallon, the Rand report said.

Advances are significant enough that military officials say they are committed to continued development of robotic systems despite a budget environment that calls for reducing projected defense spending by at least $487 billion over the next decade.

‘We’ve had some … very good success with unmanned systems. And robotics across the force is going to be more and more evident,’ Marine Corps Lieutenant General Richard Mills told reporters recently.

Before robots can take on new and expanded roles, engineers must conquer the hurdles that prevent them from operating more autonomously. Rob Maline, enterprise director for the military’s Joint Ground Robotics program, calls that a ‘major technical challenge.’

Most of the 6,000 robots fielded so far, including 2,100 now in Afghanistan, have been small, remotely operated systems driven by someone watching a video feed from cameras on the vehicle.

To take on greater autonomy, robotic systems need more than video cameras. They need sensors that can give them an accurate view of the world, and the capacity to interpret that input so they can respond appropriately to the situation.

The perception system on Oshkosh’s unmanned cargo truck begins with a three-dimensional LIDAR, or light detection and ranging system, a technology similar to radar.

While radar uses radio waves or microwaves, the LIDAR uses lasers, which produce a more tightly focused wave that can deliver images with sharper resolution. Fused with that are short- and long-range radars.

A global positioning system, coupled with detailed maps of the route, helps the system navigate and keep itself on the road.

A half a dozen video cameras, including an infrared camera for ‘seeing’ in the dark, help it build an image of the world around it so it can drive without GPS assistance if necessary, or enable a remote operator to take over and drive the vehicle from a nearby truck if the autonomous system runs into trouble.

‘Those sensors feed into the perception systems, which essentially process all that into a map which allows the vehicle to actually drive based on all that information,’ Zych said.

Even with all the sensors, processing the input and dealing with it appropriately can be tough for the software algorithms, the step-by-step computer instructions that drive the system.

Laser beams can bounce back to the sensors from fog, dust, smoke and foliage, making it seem the vehicle is facing an obstacle. They can reflect off water in a puddle and bounce into space, never returning to the sensor and making it appear as if the truck is facing an infinitely deep hole.

‘I think the layperson person thinks … you put a camera on a computer and a computer can understand that scene. And that’s definitely far from the truth,’ said John Beck, the Oshkosh chief engineer for unmanned systems. ‘One of the largest challenges is really getting the vehicle or the robot to understand its environment and be able to deal with it.’

To ensure the vehicle makes the correct driving decisions, the Oshkosh team continuously refines the algorithms to improve the way the system interprets what it is seeing and responds more quickly and efficiently.

‘When you’ve got a 15-ton truck, potentially with a 7-ton payload in the back, moving at 35 mph, an extra 20 milliseconds, 40 milliseconds of processing time … means you may not be able to drive that fast because you wouldn’t be able to stop in time,’ Zych said.

Feedback from the Marine Corps drivers who tested the vehicle last year has helped to improve performance.

‘One of the largest complaints they had was about the way it drove,’ said Captain Warren Watts, the Marine Corps liaison with the project. ‘It had a big stop-and-go jerkiness reaction.’

The software was tweaked in response to the criticism to let the vehicle anticipate stopping and starting, enabling it to brake and accelerate more smoothly so it would ‘drive like Marines drive and not like a robot drives,’ Watts said.

One system with significant autonomous features is already being tested in Afghanistan. The Squad Mobile Support System – a rugged, six-wheeled vehicle about the size of a golf cart – is billed by Lockheed Martin as the largest autonomous ground vehicle ever deployed with ground troops.

The SMSS, whose mission is to lighten the load of overburdened foot soldiers, is capable of carrying some 1,200 pounds (544 kg) of gear.

It can be driven, or allowed to drive by itself using points on a route map, or even programmed to follow behind a soldier at a fixed distance, regardless whether the person is walking or running – an experience Mills said can be a bit unnerving.

‘It’s a little like having a 5,000 pound (2,268 kg) dog following you around wherever you go. If you speed up and start running, it speeds up and stays right with you. If you suddenly come to a halt, it suddenly comes to a halt behind you,’ he said.

Like other autonomous systems, the SMSS can run into difficulties that force it to stop and call for human help. That means it needs supervision and oversight.

Mills calls it ‘supervised autonomy,’ saying: ‘It doesn’t require constant attention and fiddling and correction, but there are times when you do have to intervene.’

That’s not likely to change soon, Maline said. Fully autonomous robots are still years away, and until that goal is reached, there will have to be humans in the loop.

Beck and Mills said full autonomy would likely be an evolutionary process, both for military systems as well as the automotive industry. Driverless features are likely to be added as they are shown to contribute to highway safety or efficiency, eventually progressing toward full autonomy, they said.

‘We’re taking baby steps,’ Beck said, pointing to features like automatic braking systems and stability control on commercial vehicles.

‘I think there’s going to need to be a human in the loop for quite some time before we can basically black out the windshield and be texting as we’re going down the highway,’ he said.

Saudi woman makes a stand against feared religious police


As of Monday, the video was viewed more than 1,142,000 times Photo: YOUTUBE

A YouTube video of a Saudi woman defying orders by the notorious religious police to leave a shopping centre because she is wearing nail polish has gone viral, attracting more than a million hits in just five days but thousands of negative comments.

Telegraph | May 28, 2012

The three and a half minute video posted on May 23 shows members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice telling the women to “get out of here”

But she refuses to comply, saying: “I’m staying and I want to know what you’re going to do about.”

“It’s none of your business if I wear nail polish,” the unidentified woman, who is not seen on tape, is heard shouting at bearded men from the feared religious force.

“You are not in charge of me,” she defiantly shouts back, referring to new constraints imposed earlier this year on the religious police banning them from harassing Saudi women over their behaviour and attire.

“The government has banned you from coming after us,” she told the men, adding “you are only supposed to provide advice, and nothing more”.

Saudi Woman Defies Religious Police: It Is None of Your Business If I Wear Nail Polish

As of Monday, the video was viewed more than 1,142,000 times, with over 12,000 people posting comments online, most of them denouncing the woman’s behaviour.

One posting said she had “no shame” and accused her of “prostituting” herself. Another called her a “slut” and a “whore.”

The clip earned only about 1800 “likes”. The number of “dislikes” reached almost 7000.

In January, Saudi King Abdullah appointed a more moderate head of the religious police raising hopes that a more lenient force will ease draconian social constraints in the Islamic country.

Two weeks into his post, Sheikh Abdullatif Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh banned volunteers from serving in the commission which enforces the kingdom’s strict Islamic rules.

And in April he went further prohibiting the religious police from “harassing people” and threatening “decisive measures against violators”.

The woman filmed the incident herself and posted it on YouTube. At one point during the video, she cautions the religious police that she has already posted the exchange online.

It is also not clear if the woman was eventually forced to leave the centre. The religious police prevent women from driving, require them to be covered from head to foot in black, ban public entertainment, and force all commerce, from supermarkets to petrol stations, to come to a halt at prayer times, five times a day.

JPMorgan injects $400 million into China unit, eyes expansion

Reuters | May 28, 2012

SHANGHAI  – JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) has injected 2.5 billion yuan ($394.08 million) into its China unit, the latest foreign bank to beef up its Chinese operations.

Foreign banks, including HSBC (HSBA.L) and Singapore’s DBS Group (DBSM.SI), have either injected or are planning to pump in capital into their China units which are expected to grow rapidly over the coming years even as growth in the world’s second-biggest economy comes off the boil.

“The additional capital will better position the bank in the evolving regulatory environment and cement our commitment to clients in China,” Zili Shao, Chairman and chief executive of J.P. Morgan China, said in a statement on Monday.

“The capital will be used to expand the bank’s branch network, develop products, increase corporate lending, and recruit employees,” Shao added.

The injection brings the registered capital of the locally incorporated unit to 6.5 billion yuan.

The local unit, which conducts commercial banking businesses in China, has also received regulatory approval to open its 7th branch in China in Suzhou, west of Shanghai, the statement said.

JPMorgan has a separate investment banking joint venture in China.

HSBC (0005.HK) injected 2.8 billion yuan into its China unit last year, even as it laid off several hundred investment bankers in London, Hong Kong and elsewhere as part of its jobs cull to save billions of dollars.

DBS, Southeast Asia’s largest bank, said in April it is planning to make an injection of 2.3 billion yuan into its China unit to increase its network and staff, and upgrade infrastructure and other technology platforms.

($1 = 6.3439 Chinese yuan)

Vatican says trust in Church hurt by corruption scandal

Vatican tries to play down extent of scandal

Reuters | May 28, 2012

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY, May 28, (Reuters) – The Vatican, engulfed in the worst crisis in Pope Benedict’s papacy, on Monday denied Italian media reports that cardinals were suspects in an investigation into leaks of sensitive documents that led to the arrest of the pope’s butler.

But while denying the reports, which said the butler was merely a courier in a behind-the-scenes struggle for power in the Holy See, the Vatican acknowledged that the often sordid affair would test the faith of Catholics in their Church.

The scandal exploded last week when – within a few days – the head of the Vatican’s own bank was abruptly dismissed, the butler was arrested over leaks and a book was published alleging conspiracies among cardinals, the “princes of the Church”.

Documents leaked to journalists allege corruption in the Church’s vast financial dealings with Italian business.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told a news conference: “This is naturally something that can hurt the Church, and put trust in it and the Holy See to the test.”

Italian newspapers, quoting other whistle blowers in the Vatican, said the arrested butler was merely a scapegoat doing the bidding of more powerful figures, punished because the Church did not dare implicate cardinals behind the leaks.

“There are leakers among the cardinals but the Secretariat of State could not say that, so they arrested the servant, Paolo, who was only delivering letters on behalf of others,” La Repubblica quoted one leaker as saying.

The Secretariat of State is run by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope’s powerful right-hand man, and the scandal appears to involve a struggle between his allies and enemies, reminiscent of Renaissance conspiracies inside the Vatican.

It has been brewing for months, but since it burst into the open it has shaken the very heart of the Roman Catholic Church.

La Stampa daily quoted one of the alleged leakers as saying their goal was to help the pope root out corruption.

After an investigation inside the Holy See, the butler, Paolo Gabriele, 46, was charged on Saturday with stealing confidential papal documents. Leakers quoted by La Stampa, La Repubblica and other media said the leaking plot went much wider and higher.

Lombardi denied that any cardinal was being investigated for leaks. “I categorically deny that any cardinal, Italian or otherwise, is a suspect,” Lombardi said.

The pope was being kept fully informed of the case, Lombardi said: “He continues on his path of serenity, his position of faith and morals that is above the fray.”

BUTLER TO COOPERATE

One of Gabriele’s two lawyers, Carlo Fusco, said his client, who is being held inside a Vatican police station, would cooperate fully with investigators who are trying to track down other suspects.

He said Gabriele, who attended mass on Monday morning and was visited by his wife, was “very serene and tranquil.”

Critics of the pope say a lack of strong leadership has opened the door to infighting among his powerful aides – and potentially to the corruption alleged in the leaked documents.

Many Vatican insiders believe the butler, who had access to the pope’s private apartment, could not have acted alone. He is being held in a “safe room” in the Vatican police station and has been charged with aggravated theft.

Now known in Vatican statements as “the defendant” – he was until Wednesday night the quiet man who served the pope’s meals, helped him dress and held his umbrella on rainy days.

“I think this is a very serious moment it is a grave crisis because it has to do with the breach of trust in the inner circle of the Vatican,” said Robert Moynihan,” editor of the magazine Inside the Vatican.

“The pope cannot be sure that a document at his own desk isn’t going to be taken and photocopied. It seems that the person taking those documents has been discovered but there is a general feeling that this represents more than that, that there is someone else behind it,” Moynihan told Reuters television.

But Gianluigi Nuzzi, the Italian journalist who has received many of the documents over recent months and last week published his book “His Holiness”, criticised the focus on rounding up leakers, rather than rooting out the corruption they expose.

“Surely, arresting someone and rounding up people and treating them like delinquents to stop them from passing on true information to newspapers would cause an uproar in other countries,” he said. “There would be a petition to free them.”

WEED OUT CORRUPTION

While news of the butler’s arrest has filled newspapers in Italy and beyond, the Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has ignored the story. Some say this may be because the paper itself has been an instrument in the power struggle between Bertone’s allies and foes.

The Vatican’s announcement of the arrest of the butler came a day after the president of the Vatican bank, Italian Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was fired after a no confidence vote by its board of external financial experts, who come from Germany, Spain, the United States and Italy.

Gotti Tedeschi’s ousting was a blow to Bertone, who as secretary of state was instrumental in bringing him in from Spain’s Banco Santander to run the Vatican bank in 2009.

The Vatican bank, officially known as the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), was set up during World War II to manage the accounts of Vatican agencies, church organisations, bishops and religious orders.

It has been involved in financial scandals – most notably in 1982 when its then-president, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, was indicted over the collapse of what was then Italy’s largest private bank, Banco Ambrosiano, with more than a billion dollars in debts. Banco Ambrosiano’s chairman Roberto Calvi was found hanged under London’s Blackfriar’s Bridge in 1984.

In September 2010, Italian investigators froze millions of euros in funds in Italian banks after opening a probe into money laundering involving IOR accounts, which the bank denies.

The Vatican is trying to make the IOR more transparent and join an international “white list” of countries that comply with international safeguards against money laundering and fraud. A decision is expected within months.

Documents leaked over the last few months included letters by an archbishop who was transferred to Washington by Bertone after blowing the whistle on what he saw as a web of corruption in a memo that put a number of cardinals in a bad light. Other documents alleged internal conflicts over the Vatican bank.

“I feel very sad for the pope. This whole thing is such a disservice to the Church,” said Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus charity group and a member of the board of the Vatican bank who voted to fire Gotti Tedeschi.

Anderson told Reuters Gotti Tedeschi was sacked because of “a fundamental failure to perform his basic responsibilities”. Gotti Tedeschi has said he was ousted because he wanted the bank to be more transparent, but Anderson rejected that assertion.

“Categorically, this action by the board had nothing to do with his promotion of transparency,” Anderson said. “In fact, he was becoming an obstacle to greater transparency by his inability to work with senior management.” (Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Barry Moody and Peter Graff)