Friday, October 29, 2010

Yemen packages trigger terror alerts

Planes at several US airports were searched on Friday after a tip alerted authorities to a potential terror attack. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were cited as being at the top of a list of suspected groups behind what has been described as a dry-run for a real operation. 

The story broke at around 16:45 UK time with media outlets reporting that a bomb had been found on at least one cargo plane and that others were being searched. Details remained sketchy for some time with conflicting reports coming from news organisations. 

After some hours the was a sense of clarity after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs released a statement. He confirmed that intelligence and law enforcement agencies had discovered "potential suspicious packages" on two planes in transit to the United States. "Based on close cooperation among US government agencies and with our foreign allies and partners, authorities were able to identify and examine two suspicious packages, one in London and one in Dubai," Gibbs said. Both of the packages originated from Yemen and it is understood that some aircraft were heading to several locations. Amongst those cited in the media were East Midlands' airport in Britain, and Newark Liberty and Philadelphia International Airports in the US

The President was notified of a potential terrorist threat on Thursday night at 10:30, by John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism. This coincided almost exactly to the time a suspicious package was identified at a distribution depot at East Midlands airport. But according to a UK intelligence source no explosive substances were found in the package and a cordon that had been set up was later removed.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic several planes were checked over by officials. A UPS plane was grounded at Newark Liberty in New York but was given the all clear after several hours. A UPS van was also stopped and checked over in Brooklyn, in the New York area, but that too was given the all clear by authorities. Philadelphia International Airport was the last to be given the okay. Late into the afternoon hazmat teams were still checking over the UPS plane at Philadelphia.

Reports from Dubai suggested that police had taken away a suspect package but there was no word as the contents. As for the 'device' found in Britain, CNN showed exclusive pictures of a toner cartridge with wires attached. Authorities has only said that the items found have been sent for analysis and that it was too early to say if the packages were sent as part of a test-run.

The incident throws up more questions than it answers. Why would a terrorist send toner cartridges 'disguised as a bomb'? Where did the mysterious tip-off come from? The purpose of what is already being called the "package plot" is not clear, but it has certainly raised security levels. Jewish institutions have been told to be on alert after reports that the packages appear to all be sent to synagogues in the Chicago area.

UPS say they are fully cooperating with authorities who are monitoring reports of potentially suspicious packages on board their cargo flights. "We can confirm that authorities have investigated two aircraft in Philadelphia and one in Newark. All of these aircraft have landed safely. Security is of the utmost importance to UPS," the company said. There is no word as to whether they have halted shipments from Yemen, but FedEx has said it has stopped all shipments from the country following the alert. "In cooperation with the FBI, local authorities have confiscated a suspicious package at the FedEx facility in Dubai. The shipment originated in Yemen and as an additional safety measure, FedEx has embargoed all shipments originating from Yemen," FedEx said. [Sky News / BBC / CNN / al Jazeera

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Obama hits comedy central

"Join me in welcoming the President of the United States," said Jon Stewart to rapturous applause. This was a small piece of history in the making, since no serving president had yet appeared on the satirical Daily Show. British Prime minister appeared one year, but after he'd left office. And some members of George Bush's team had been on the show. But this was a first.

However it was not the most relaxed of meetings. The President faces the electorate in mid-term elections and he has been accused of not not doing enough. Even Jon Stewart pulled few punches, though he generalised his criticism to the party as a whole rather than at the president personally. Stewart intimated that the Democrat Party had been "legislatively too timid at times" and suggested that Obama might be more pragmatic in a future campaign.

"When we promised during the campaign 'change you can believe in,' it wasn't 'change you can believe in, in 18 months'," Obama told Stewart. The host responded with a quip, "Yes we can, with conditions attached". The president responded, "What I would say is Yes we can, but..." As he paused the audience laughed. "'s not going to happen overnight," Obama added [CNN].

Reports in today's papers focused on the serious demeanour of Barack Obama who faces crucial mid-term elections next week. "Host Jon Stewart did his best to help the President lighten up during his appearance on The Daily Show - but perhaps he couldn't shake off the fear that his Democrat Party is facing a landslide defeat in next week's mid-term election," the Daily Mail's David Gardener wrote. The Daily Telegraph meanwhile described him as "sombre". There were few smiles from the president, but his party has faced a barrage of criticism over health reforms and a failure to deliver on his promises over the last few months.

Of course he was not facing a hostile audience and as he stepped on to the studio set, one could be forgiven in believing a rock star had arrived. But the Daily Show is well known for its lean towards liberal America. In fact some see the show as pivotal to helping Obama securing the 2008 election. The appearance on the satirical show is seen as an attempt to reconnect with the young voters and as far as last night's audience was concerned, it was mission accomplished.

"He was wonderful," one woman exclaimed, describing him as articulate even without his auto-cue. Asked if Obama had delivered, another member of the audience told the BBC, "We've been screwed for a long time, he's been slowly unscrewing us." Whether he is "unscrewing" America enough will be seen in the polls next week.

In Britain the Daily Show is aired on More4 at 20:30 Tuesday to Friday.  The Daily Show official website [video content unavailable outside US]

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sony to kill off Walkman

Sony has announced it is to discontinue the production of the Walkman, the portable cassette player that revolutionised the way people listened to music from the late 1970s. The device was built in 1978 by audio-division engineer Nobutoshi Kihara for Sony co-chairman Akio Morita, who wanted to be able to listen to operas during his frequent trans-Pacific plane trips. It became increasingly popular and many other manufacturers followed suit in producing similar devices.

But with the gradual demise of the compact cassette and the insurgence of digital formats, the use of the Walkman and other cassette players has declined. In the early 1990s Sony introduced the which it saw as a replacement for the cassette. MiniDiscs were popular in Japan and Asia as a digital upgrade from cassette tapes, but take-up was slow elsewhere. DAT, Digital Audio Tape, and DCC, Digital Compact Cassette, were also seen as competitors, but all these have been consigned to the technology dustbin as the popularity of the MP3 player has grown.

Capacity and quality have been the main issues surrounding these devices continued use. But it is also to do with cost. A compact cassette was relatively cheap but could only hold around two albums. The quality was not perfect either. Hiss was a common failure of taped recordings though Dolby would reduce this to a degree. In addition, tapes might stretch, snap or become tangled in the mechanism. DCC was also prone to similar problems of a physical tape though quality was much improved. But where DCC and Minidisc failed was on cost. Devices were expensive and the tapes or discs were not readily available nor as cheap as the humble cassette. Sony even tried to rekindle portable players with the introduction of the Discman, a compact disc player. But this was prone to problems of skipping tracks.

With the introduction of the iPod and other MP3 players the fate of these formats was sealed. As ownership of personal computers grew so did the use of the MP3 player. Tracks were easily transferred to the device and capacity of the players was much larger than many could have ever dreamed. In a box no bigger than a packet of cigarettes someone can carry more than 60 albums. And of course the quality is better than anyone could have imagined 30 years ago.

The upsurge in digital formats, such as MP3, AAC and WMA, has not only consigned devices to history but also hundreds of hours of music and recordings. There will be few people over the age of 35 without boxes of cassettes they cannot play. These will gradually become unplayable as time takes its toll. Tapes are inherently ephemeral. After time the ribbons of tape may stick together, the surface may disintegrate and they may become demagnetised.

It is unclear what the durability of digital formats is. They appear to be lossless in terms of transfer from one device to another, but whether they last the test of time and another format replaces them, only time will tell. But as of next April the compact cassette will effectively become extinct, joining Minidisc, DAT, DCC, VHS, Betamax, Umatic, Philips 2000, vinyl records and countless other audio and video recording formats [BBC / CNN].

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Monday, October 25, 2010

When China censored premier Wen

Earlier this month, CNN's Fareed Zakaria interviewed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. But like so many things, many Chinese citizens did not see nor even hear about the rare interview with western media. When CNN aired the discussion, Chinese censors blacked out screens. Mentions on blogs were deleted and media did not even mention the interview had even taken place.

Censorship in China is not unusual. Dissenting views are quickly deleted from blogs and other websites. And those calling for change are often jailed. But the censorship of China's own premier is unusual. It has surprised many political commentators in the West and angered Internet users in China. None were more surprised than Fareed Zakaria, one of few western journalists to be given access to the Chinese leader. During his weekend show Zakaria expressed his dismay and puzzlement at China's fear at allowing its own people to hear their premier speak.

CNN / GPS, Fareed Zakaria: "Now for our What in The World segment. Let me read you a quote; "I believe that freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country." Whose words are those? Thomas Jefferson, Barack Obama? No, those are the words of China's premier Wen Jiabao, to me, when I interviewed him just a few weeks ago. Powerful words from a powerful man. And it wasn't just about freedom of speech but of political reform as a whole, and about the future of China. His words were called 'pathbreaking' and 'eyebrow raising' by scholars. That's why what happened next really got my attention.

Chinese officials 'harmonised' my interview with the premier, that's the Chinese lingo for 'censor'. There was an official news blackout of the entire video. China's official news agency reported that there had been an interview but it did not report any of what Wen Jiabao said. And if you clicked on links to any real news reports this is what you got; a blank page.

So essentially the only place in China to read what he actually said was on blogs and social media that had been able to evade censors. Then one week after CNN aired the Wen Jiabao interview an open letter was sent from 23 senior Communist Party elders in China, to the top politicians in the land. The letter quoted Wen Jiabao's words from his interview with me, using those words as fodder for the case against the invisible black hand of censorship. These former high up officials called on the current leadership to respect what they say is China's constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. Then China's media began to flout the official censorship and ran quotes from the interview, some papers putting the Time magazine cover right on their front page. And then Chinese officials re-censored it all, reportedly ordering all websites to remove mentions and excerpts of the interview. Truly extraordinary. Amidst all of this the Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao. And once again mass censorship ensued, this time it was blocked out all over, in print, on air and even online. If you typed Nobel prize or the winner's name into Google all you get back is an error page. 

Now China has dazzled the world by the way it handles economic issues. But there's one area in which it still remains extraordinarily backward, and that is politics. Dealing with political dissent, dealing with simple information, free speech. Y'know I was in India last week and I was struck by how on this important issue, India actually has a real leg up, India handles politics, political differences, diversity speech with great skill and openness. 

For China which is such a modern country in so many ways, to have this primitive kind of phony censorship of its own premier's interviews strikes one of an unworthy of a modern nation. China is a world power, it is a great modern nation, it is a great civilisation, but it has to be able to deal both with economics and politics with ease and fluency. Until it does that there will always be a gap between the world's expectations and China's reality."

[CNN video: comment / full interview / CNN: interview transcript]

Not quite every mention of Wen's interview has been expunged. Some clips still remain on Tudou, a Chinese video sharing site. Another popular site, Sohu, also hosts a 24 minute segment. But both are in English and neither focuses on the premier's statements about free speech.

"A lot of Chinese people don't know their premier has been harmonized," prominent Beijing University Internet researcher Hu Yong wrote on Twitter, using the Chinese euphemism for censorship. "Wen Jiabao's comments about political reform being censored at least tells us one thing: In front of the big wall, everyone is equal."

The irony is that by censoring their own premier, China has increased calls for opening up the Internet and raised the debate amongst China's growing army of so-called netizens [WSJ blog].

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Third man arrested after M25 fatal crash

A third man has been arrested by police investigating a fatal crash which involved four vehicles on the M25 in Essex earlier this month. Izabela Derbis, a Polish national, of Warren Street, London, died in the crash in South Ockendon on 15th October. A 24 year old from Basildon and a 54 year old from Wickford had been arrested soon after the incident and have since been bailed on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving. The latest arrest is of a 57 year old man from Folkestone who was taken into custody on Friday. He has since been released on bail until December, police said.

Essex police say they still want to speak to anyone who witnessed the collision which occurred at 05:40 BST on Friday 15th October. Four vehicles were involved in the accident. Izabela Derbis was a passenger in a Renault Megane Scenic. Police say they are keen to hear from anyone who saw a black Jaguar X type estate, a silver or grey Renault Megane Scenic, a white Renault Kangoo van, a blue Alfa Romeo 156 and a white Scania articulated lorry with a sign saying 'David Price' [BBC].

The crash caused massive disruption with many vehicles becoming trapped for more than six hours. The road was finally opened at 14:00 though delays continued for much of the afternoon.

Some 2,222 people died on Britain's roads last year, down 12% from 2008 when 2,538 were killed. It was also the lowest recorded number since 1926 [BBC / Interactive Map].

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E London murder becomes another statistic

Britain's inner cities appear to be increasingly violent with shootings and knife crime becoming more and more common. Many incidents do not get reported as they are considered so commonplace, only making headlines when more than one individual dies. Crime statistics make grim reading, and according to recent figures some ethnic groups are more likely to be perpetrators and victims of violent crime than others. In June, London's Metropolitan Police said that the majority of men held responsible for gun crimes, robberies and street crimes were black. And in the early hours of Saturday, two more young black teenagers fell victim to violence.

The incident was not unusual in itself. But the shooting of two young black teenagers in East London made national headlines. Samuel Adelagun, a 16 year old youth, had been with two friends when masked men approached them at around 3:30 in the early hours of Saturday morning. Samuel was shot in the chest and died at the scene. One of his two friends who was also shot remains in hospital, his condition described as 'stable'. The scene around Chesterton Road in Plaistow remained sealed off by police into Sunday while officers from Operation Trident, which deals with crime in the black community, investigated the scene. 

Many residents were undoubtedly shocked by the killing, especially of someone so young. But one man told Sky News he was unsurprised. "It's not a peaceful area, it's not a peaceful area, just put it that way," the young man told Sky, "You'd clarify this area as like the slums." He intimated that obtaining firearms was not difficult. "Getting a gun is like buying a sweet from a shop, for some people it's just a phone-call away. And you can get them on credit." He raised concerns too of the cycle of crime. "There's people like certain olders [sic] that are like influencing these youngers [sic] to carry on."

Just over 12% of London's 7.5 million population is black, including those of mixed black and white parentage, while 69% is white, according to the Office for National Statistics. But police figures also show that black men are twice as likely to be victims. They made up 29% of the male victims of gun crime and 24% of the male victims of knife crime.

The statistics show a greater proportion of crimes were perpetrated by blacks. Of street crimes, such as muggings, assault with intent to rob and snatching property, blacks were said to make up some 54%. Robbery accounted for 59% and gun crimes accounted for 67%. However the figures are a distortion, given that they only reflect numbers "proceeded upon" and do not account for conviction or dismissal. Unsolved crimes are also not included.

Nonetheless, the statistics clearly show that crime in certain communities is becoming a significant problem. The Sunday Telegraph obtained the figures via a Freedom of Information request after Rod Liddle, the writer, caused controversy last year when he claimed in an online blog published on The Spectator website that "the overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community". The comments led to claims that Mr Liddle was racist, However, Liddle said, "I cannot think of anything more vile than racism. The issue here is not racism, it is one of multiculturalism."

Some reports have suggested that Saturday's shooting in London was connected to a turf war between street gangs in Plaistow and nearby Custom House. One report claimed the victim Samual was nick named "Sammy Gunz" and was linked to the well-known Plaistow gang. Friends in the area denied he was involved in gangs [Sun / Mirror / Daily Mail / Telegraph / Sky News / BBC

The statistics certainly make grim reading, and the disproportionate amount of crime connected to certain ethnic groups may only serve to divide communities and feed racism. But some figures show that Britain may be tackling crime more efficiently than widely perceived. Britain's crime rate dropped again in the third quarter of 2009, continuing a trend that saw London's murder rate drop to its lowest for more than a decade. Home Office figures recorded 8% fewer crimes overall between July and September 2009 than in the three months previous, with burglaries down by 8% and robberies by 9%.Total crime in London in 2009 was down 2.3% and, as well as a historically low murder rate, down by 16% from 155 to 130. Knife crime in 2009 also showed a drop last year, dropping 7.9%. One hundred and fifty five murders is undoubtedly a depressing statistic. But to put in into context, around 200 people die in road accidents in London every year [Road deaths in London]. 

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Friday, October 22, 2010

China cutting off the competition

China's continued censorship and blocking of websites is a frustration to many Internet users, but it is also stifling business and creating unfair competition. As censors block everything from Twitter to Facebook, YouTube and Blogger, the Chinese equivalents are flourishing. Of course, these services follow the party line and self-censor online content. Reasons for the censorship of China's Internet is rarely stated but the timing of blocks is a clear indication of what rattles the Chinese Communist Party. YouTube was blocked soon after widely publicised pictures of a Tibetan monk being beaten by Chinese police surfaced on the video-sharing website. The blocking of Facebook is likely because banned groups such as the Falun Gong use the social networking site. Twitter was blocked shortly before the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China and when the first pictures of an explosion at a Uighur restaurant in Beijing surfaced on Twitpic that too was blocked.

China insists that any website operating in China, does so "according to the law", a veiled insistence that content deemed offence or subversive be expunged. For sites such as Twitter and Facebook this is virtually impossible. Eradicating contentious content only within China would be cost prohibitive and would not necessarily appease authorities and allow access to the Chinese market. All this means that Facebook are unable to make any money from China's growing Internet generation. But it is not just Facebook, which is perhaps the biggest example of a successful start-up.

Geo-location applications such as Google's Latitude, Gowalla and Foursquare have grown dramatically in the last year. The sites allow users to tell their friends and others their location via a check-in at bar, restaurants and other venues. The applications have also spawned promotional offers. It is known as Location Based Marketing or LBS and has allowed venues to draw in extra custom by offering users that 'check-in' on such services to cheaper meals or samples. In the United States, Starbucks and Domino's have rewarded the "mayor" of their stores free coffee and pizzas. In Britain too some outlets have offered incentives. Weatherspoons for example has offered a 20% discount to the "mayor". But China blocked Gowalla and Foursquare earlier this year thus affecting any chances of businesses there capitalising on the services [Mashable].

But while western apps are unable to exploit the Chinese market other domestic services have sprung up in their place. Jiepang, play4f, and Kaikai are just three of a growing number of such services. But is is difficult to see LBM working in China where the Internet is so heavily controlled. The first major barrier of growth in China includes smartphone penetration. Applications for Foursquare and Gowalla, amongst others, are readily available for the iPhone and Android devices. However in China these will, of course not work. In addition the official Android Market has been subject to blocks in itself. 

Jiepang is the only such service to provide such an app, though reports suggest penetration is low. Those attempting to 'check-in' via the website on a regular Internet capable phone can be disappointing and often results in a failure. Jiepang is said to be doing a good job at using cool promotions in conjunction with retailers and venues to drive user adoption. They have about 60,000 registered users in China and growing rapidly. It is ironic too, that in a country known for consistent surveillance of its citizens, that such a service is rising in popularity. Jiepang and play4f are, according to some sources, increasing their user base by 30% each week. It it difficult to know if such things are sustainable and even profitable for retailers and outlets.

Foursquare, Gowalla may have failed in China before they even began, but even in countries where they are accessible, take-up has been relatively slow. For users there needs to be a clear incentive. In addition there is the issue over whether interest can be maintained. Whether geo-location apps take off and LBM becomes better established will depend too on certain privacy concerns, much raised by campaigners. So-called Facebook murders, stalkers and other scandals have raised the stakes in the use of social media. There have yet to be similar reports concerning Foursquare and other such sites. It is early days but there has already been a check-in from space [CNET / CNN
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Further reading: Techcrunch / enovatechina / Guardian / WSJ / Mashable
Pictured: A sign advertising Foursquare at a London pub. Foursquare is blocked in China

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

China tightens up on rare earth production

China may be stopping exports of so-called rare earths leading to concern amongst technology manufacturers around the world. A recent New York Times report that said China has halted shipments of rare earth minerals bound for the United States and Europe. The reports have rattled the United States in particular. "We've seen the news report and are seeking more information in keeping with our recent announcement of an investigation into whether China's actions and policies are consistent with WTO rules," said US Trade Representative spokeswoman Nefeterius Akeli.

Citing three unnamed industry officials, the New York Times [registration required] reported Chinese customs officials had begun imposing shipment restrictions Monday morning. The move will add to an already strained trade relationship between the US and China. US trade officials recently said they would launch an investigation into whether China subsidises and protects its clean energy producers in violation of World Trade Organization rules. "We strongly support USTR's investigation into whether China is blocking exports of critical minerals to the US," said Representaive Sander Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, who is also the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "If China is found to be blocking shipments of these critical minerals in retaliation to the US investigation ... of Chinese practices regarding green technology, then China's blockade would require the US to immediately challenge these actions as WTO inconsistent," Levin said [CNN / The Atlantic].

The New York Times also reported that China has been blocking shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan for the last month, seemingly in retaliation over disputed territories in the South China Sea [New York Timesregistration required]. China exports around 50% of its mined rare earths to Japan and a permanent embargo would hurt both economies. Production of rare earths has slowed in recent months and the price has risen significantly. 

Meanwhile China has denied it has blocked exports and dismissed allegations made in the New York Times. The Commerce Ministry issued a faxed statement today which stated that "China will continue to supply rare earth to the world." [LA Times / Bloomberg].

More than 90% of the rare earths produced worldwide is mined in China, which cut its second-half export quota by 72% this year, spurring a trade dispute with the US and raising tensions with Japan. The Chinese government said it aims to shut polluting and loss-making mines and ensure it can meet domestic demand as the nation tries to stem environmental damage and develop more value-added industries. However some see the move as an effort to artificially inflate prices.

Rare earths are a group of 17 chemically similar metal elements, including lanthanum, cerium and neodymium, that are used in relatively small amounts in a range of applications, including Boeing helicopter blades, Raytheon missiles, Toyota hybrid cars and wind turbines. They are also widely used in mobile phones, computers and other electronic products.

Rare earths are not as rare as the name suggests, however most mining operations around the world have slowed partly due to issues of pollution. Extraction of these elements can be costly both in terms of man hours and to the surrounding environment.

China's slow down of production, whether motivated by ecological or economic reasons, will likely force buyers to look elsewhere for supplies. The Japanese government has already set aside $150 million to help find alternatives to rare earths and source supplies from other countries, Shigeo Nakamura, president of Advanced Material Corp., has said. Meanwhile the Toyota Tsusho Corp., a trading company affiliated with Toyota Motor Corp., has formed a joint venture with Sojitz Corp. and a Vietnamese state-run mining company to export the metals to Japan from 2012, spokesman Katsutoshi Yokoi said. The company acquired Tokyo-based rare earth metal importer Wako Bussan Co. in December 2008, which will import from India from next year.

In June this year Molycorp Inc. said it was planning to re-open its rare earth mine in California. And Sydney-based Lynas Corp. is building a $532 million rare earth minerals project in Australia. Beijing's belligerence may only only serve to drive custom elsewhere. 

[Rare Earths - USGS PDF / Wikipedia] Pictured: An Apple Store in Beijing. The mobile phone industry relies heavily on rare earths
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Dartford crossing charges to rise

Motoring organisations have criticised proposed hikes of toll charges at the Dartford River Crossing which would see car drivers paying £2.00 in 2011 with a further rise to £2.50 by 2012. The increased tolls are part of the government spending review which was drafted to tackle Britain's deficit [BBC].

The Department of Transport (DfT) said the money would be used to explore ways of improving traffic flow. But RAC Foundation director Professor Stephen Glaister said motorists would be "very nervous" at the proposals.

John Kent, a Thurrock councillor said the rise would hit Essex motorists hard describing the proposed charge as a "huge increase" and a "hammer blow". Motorists have been even more scathing. Many are angry and say that the bridge and tunnels have already been paid for and that increasing tolls is punitive. "What they don't take into account is the lost meetings, missed flights and massive queues," Peter from Colchester told BBC Essex.

The government say there will be a consultation process, but this was dismissed by many callers to the radio station. "They've already made up their minds," one listener said. Others were resigned to further price rises but called for a better way at collecting money from motorists, such as online registration.

The Dartford Tunnel and Queen Elizabeth II bridge cross the River Thames between Dartford and Thurrock. The crossing forms a link in the M25 motorway and carries about 150,000 vehicles a day. Queues often stretch for many miles at the crossing especially at peak travel times, mostly due to the slowing of vehicles as they stop to pay the toll.

In November 2008, motorists protested when the charge was increased from £1 to £1.50 for cars. At the same time the toll fee was dropped for vehicles travelling between 22:00 and 06:00. It is unclear how much lorry tolls will rise by. Currently they stand at £3.70 per lorry [BBC].

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Britain under threat from cyberattacks

International terror attacks and cyberattacks have been cited as the biggest threats to Britain and its interests, according to a government report. The new national security strategy sets out several forms of attack which might target Britain. They include phishing attacks which attempt to steal data and financial resources. But amongst the more serious types of attacks would be those foisted against infrastructure such as the electricity grid or air traffic control systems.

To counter the threat, the British government has announced an extra £500 million to help protect key infrastructure and defence assets. Talking about the initiative prime minister David Cameron said the UK must "radically transform" the way it plans for threats in "an age of uncertainty".

Set up in May, the National Security Council identifies 16 threats to the UK. The most serious they call "Tier 1" which comprises acts of international terrorism, hostile computer attacks on UK cyberspace, a major accident or natural hazard such as a flu pandemic, or an international military crisis between states that draws in the UK and its allies.

"We are entering an age of uncertainty," the report states. "This strategy is about gearing Britain up for this new age... weighing up the threats we face and preparing to deal with them. As a government we have inherited a defence and security structure that is woefully unsuitable for the world we live in today. We are determined to learn from those mistakes and make the changes needed." Speaking to the BBC earlier today, foreign secretary William Hague said the cyberattack was "a rapidly growing threat". The foreign secretary went on to say that Britain should be better prepared and that "such attacks in the future could become a major threat".

Scenarios in "Tier 2" include an attack on the UK using weapons of mass destruction, a civil war in a region of the world which terrorists could exploit to threaten the UK or an significant rise in organised crime.

A conventional large-scale attack on the UK is ranked only in "Tier 3" of possible dangers, alongside disruption to oil and gas supplies, a serious accident at a nuclear power station, an attack on a Nato ally and interruptions to food supplies. Home Secretary Theresa May told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the country was "facing a very serious threat from international terrorism... we must all be vigilant."

While terrorist groups are amongst the list of potential enemies, there was no specific organisation named. Cyberattacks perpetrated by nation states is also a real danger but there was no finger pointing within the report. However there is much speculation as to who might launch such attacks. 

Some academics have dismissed the claims that a cyberattack could be as devastating as described. But speaking ahead of the Prime Minister's announcement, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of the ISC, said cyberattacks could pose "very massive problems". Earlier this year there was a clear example of how such an attack might manifest itself after it was revealed that Iranian nuclear power stations were targeted with the Stuxnet virus. China has been blamed for perpetrating many attacks on western interests including attempted hacking attempts on Google and several other companies last November. The accusations were angrily refuted by China, but the issue resulted in a war of words and Google moving its search engine from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong where it is not required to self-censor search results.

Cyber threat is nothing new

For those that have followed the threat of a cyberwar closely, today's report is nothing new. In March this year The Times claimed that the cyberwar had already been declared as China sought intelligence from the West. "Everyone has been made aware that the Chinese have become very active with cyber-attacks and we're now getting regular warnings from the office for internal security," a Nato diplomatic source told the Times. 

Sources at the Office for Cyber Security at the Cabinet Office in London said there were two forms of attack: those focusing on disrupting computer systems and others involving "fishing trips" for sensitive information. As a result, a special team had been set up at GCHQ, the British government communications headquarters in Gloucestershire, to counter the growing cyber-threat affecting intelligence material. 

According to a report released in March in the US, the number of attacks on Congress and other government agencies had risen exponentially in the previous year to an estimated 1.6 billion every month. The attacks were not confined to the US however. James Lewis, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said, "The porousness of the European institutions makes them a good target for penetration. They are of interest to the Chinese on issues from arms sales and nuclear non-proliferation to Tibet and energy."

The threat from China

Jonathan Evans, the Director-General of MI5, warned in 2007 that several states were actively involved in large-scale cyberattacks. Although he did not specify which states were involved, many security officials have indicated that China now poses the gravest threat. Dr Lewis says that neither the US nor any of its Western allies had formed an effective response to the Chinese threat, which has its origins in a massive boost to Chinese technology ordered by Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese leader, in 1986. The West's own cyber offensives have so far been directed largely at terrorists rather than nation states. This, Lewis argues, has given China virtually free rein to penetrate Western systems with its own world-class hackers and increasingly popular Chinese-made components.

In fiction, China has clearly become the new bogeyman. In a recent episode of Spooks, which follows the work of a group of MI5 Officers, a trio of highly skilled Chinese agents engaged in industrial espionage was the focus. In one scene an MI5 officer exclaims, "you know as much as I do China is only heading in one direction, more oppression and more control..."

Fiction maybe but there are some truly concerned by China's real motives. Whitehall departments were allegedly first targeted by Chinese hackers in 2007. Later that year Jonathan Evans, director-general of MI5, wrote to 300 chief executives warning of potential Chinese hacking attacks and data theft. In the year up to November 2009 Britain suffered 300 cyber intrusions, defined as a sophisticated attempt, successful or not, to steal data or sabotage systems, on government and military networks [Times]. The Office for Cyber Security (OCS), established by the Cabinet Office, was created in the autumn of 2009 after a warning by intelligence chiefs that China may have acquired the ability to cripple key points of infrastructure such as telecommunications.

Joining forces

Britain has already joined forces with America to counter such attacks, but Europe also needs to be more assertive and join the effort. From a Chinese perspective, Europe is regarded as an increasingly divided and enfeebled entity, unable to negotiate with one voice and rapidly being overshadowed by a deepening US-China relationship. The China threat also spreads into areas other than cyberattacks. National governments, led by Britain and France, are concerned that European Commission attempts to seize control of the EU foreign service will delay its creation and allow China to continue to "divide and rule" Europe's 27 member states. The Commission is fighting hard to keep its control over EU-China negotiations on trade, economy, energy or climate change but this would jeopardise the national demands that new EEAS [European External Action Service] embassy be "much more substantial, political and joined up than now". One Brussels official warned, "If they try and take away some out our competence in these areas, we will tie the EEAS up in legal knots and delay." [Telegraph].

The economic war and the cyberwar are posing increased threats to western interests. And without concerted efforts to counter these threats, the West has much to lose. Security analysts say 20 countries, in addition to China, are actively engaged in so-called asymmetrical warfare, a term that originated with counterterrorism experts that now commonly refers to cyberattacks designed to destabilize governments. Countries engaged in this activity range from so-called friendly nations, such as the United Kingdom and Israel, to less friendly governments like North Korea, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

"There are least 100 countries with cyber espionage capabilities," warns Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, an information security and training firm. Today there are thousands of hackers working on such programs around the world, "including al Qaeda cells that are acting as training centers for hackers," he said. 

"Widespread problem"

"It's been a widespread problem for some time," says University of Texas at San Antonio professor and cyber security researcher Ravinderpal Sandhu. Paller and others agree, adding that the Google incident, in which the Internet giant discovered e-mail and corporate sites had been extensively hacked by programmers on the Chinese mainland, represented just the tip of the iceberg. "The Chinese air force has an asymmetrical warfare division" charged with developing cyberwarfare techniques to disable governments' command and control systems, says Tom Patterson, chief security officer of security device manufacturer MagTek Inc. "They are fully staffed, fully operational and fully active. And when you aim a governmental agency that size against any company, even the size of Google, well, it's an overwhelming force," Patterson says. "It's been going on in China since at least at least May 2002, with workstations running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," Peller says [Fox News].

In February this year, CNN aired a special programme which looked at the possible repercussions of a concerted cyberattack aimed at disrupting US infrastructure. Wolf Blitzer presented the hypothetical scenario We Were Warned, Cyber Shockwave and discussed the issues with several former administration and national security officials. In the discussion that followed the panel pointed the fingers at terrorists and at certain countries capable of launching such an attack. "Well, you heard it in the context of the scenario -- the Chinese and the Russians have this capability," said Francis Townsend, a White House Homeland Security Adviser from 2004 to 2008. A retired USAF General Charles F Wald said, "I think the scenario we saw today is believable." But he said more needed to be done to protect the US and its allies. "I think we're preparing for it. I don't think we are prepared as much as we should be," Wald said. [CNN Transcript]. Clearly the British government has seen the writing on the wall.

Additional reports: BBC / Al Jazeera / Sky News / Telegraph / Guardian / Daily Mail / PA]
See also: tvnewswatch Cyberwar declared as China's attacks increase March 2010

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Harrods set to change with new owners

Harrods the high end department store in London may see changes after being bought by the Qatar royal family for £1.5 billion. There are suggestions of a rooftop hotel and more branches in cities abroad. Harrods was founded by Charles Henry Harrod in 1824 and moved to its current Knightsbridge location in 1849. Since then is has seen many changes and been through several changes of ownership. Its most recent owner was Mohamed Fayed who courted controversy with accusation that Prince Philip had ordered the assassination of Princess Diana. She had died in a Paris car crash along with Mohamed Fayed's son Dodi. The accusations led to royal seals being withdrawn. There is to this day a memorial on the lower ground floor.

The new owners will undoubtedly capitalise on the Harrods name. The store is famous the world over for its opulence with several of its departments, including the seasonal Christmas department and the Food Halls [pictured] being particularly renowned. The motto, Omnia Omnibus Ubique (All Things for All People, Everywhere) has been its intention since its early beginnings, and despite what many might think there are products available to suite most people's pockets.

In the past it was however the rich and famous who shopped at the store, among them Oscar Wilde, Lillie Langtry, Ellen Terry, Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Sigmund Freud, A. A. Milne, and many members of the British Royal Family.

But Harrods has diversified and attracts tourists from far and wide. The dress code has changed over the years and Fayed himself introduced stricter ules banning Burmuda shorts, swim wear and flip-flops. The store still retains many standards. Doormen are employed to assist shoppers and service extends beyond the average department store.

What the new acquisition will mean is not entirely clear. But reports in some papers have hinted that Qatar Holdings may be planning a hotel. Such a venture would indeed be popular amongst wealthy foreign visitors. "You can imagine some people virtually living in it," said one industry source. Following the Evening Standard's revelation of the hotel plan, managing director Michael Ward said it was a serious possibility, although no definite decisions have been taken. "Are we looking at it? Yes. Have we considered it? Yes. It is something we would do."

Plans for extending the brand to other shores has yet to be finalised but Michael Ward has stated that Chinese shoppers in Harrods is increasing and the average spend by a Chinese shopper is three times that of the average American. The business was left in good financial shape by Mohamed Fayed. Turnover in the year to the end of January rose 12% to £519.8million, while profits soared almost 40%, from £56.2 million to £77.7 million. An expansion into parts of Asia may well increase those healthy profits [Vogue / Evening Standard / BBCHarrods].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Health & safety closes art exhibit

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds installation was closed off to the public this week, only two days after it opened to the public. Health and safety was cited as the reason for barring the public access to the Chinese artist's carpet of 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds. Officials for Tate Modern said that people's overenthusiastic interaction with the seeds had created clouds of dust which might pose a health hazard.

Hundreds of visitors expressed their disappointment at not being allowed access. Initially the Tate gallery appeared to suggest they were merely closing the exhibit for maintenance. However as the day wore on it later emerged that the 1000 sq metre bed of sunflower seeds would no longer be trodden under foot. On Tuesday, as the exhibit opened to the public, hundreds of visitors interacted with great exuberance. 

Some relaxed on the bed of Sunflower Seeds as though it were a beach, sifting the seeds like sand. Children ran through the thousands of seeds enjoying the crunching under their feet while others buried their friends under piles of the hand-crafted items.

In a statement, the Tate said, "Although porcelain is very robust, the enthusiastic interaction of visitors has resulted in a greater than expected level of dust in the Turbine Hall. Tate has been advised that this dust could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow visitors to walk across the sculpture."

The Tate had earlier been concerned that souvenir collectors might reduce the size of the exhibit and issued a stern warning after visitors on launch day said they were fighting the urge to take home a seed as a memento.

Ai Weiwei has suffered for his art and run into conflict with authorities in his home country. While he was exhibiting in Chengdu last August, his hotel door was kicked down by police who then beat him about the head. Ai's "installation" was a public list of more than 5000 schoolchildren killed by the 2008 earthquake. A month later, in Munich, he suffered a haemorrhage as a result of the blow.

His latest work may well have stirred controversy in China. Sunflower seeds were one of Chairman Mao's favourite snacks, the Chinese leader said to be responsible for the deaths of many Chinese and of bringing about the destructive Cultural Revolution. While individuals were stripped of personal freedom, propaganda images often depicted Chairman Mao as the sun and the mass of people as sunflowers turning towards him

Porcelain has traditionally been one China's most prized exports and 'Sunflower Seeds' invites us to look more closely at the 'Made in China' phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today, the Tate said. Ai Weiwei has said that he chose to reproduce sunflower seeds in porcelain because during the famine years under Mao they were one of the few reliable sources of food, comfort and social interaction. For him they symbolise the Chinese people. Seen through his eyes, the piece is a powerful political statement about the relationship between rulers and the ruled in China.

The irony is that it was not the politics of his art that stirred up controversy, but political correctness and health and safety. In fact health and safety would be of little concern in China. Meanwhile at the Tate there were many visitors who had travelled to London's South Bank specifically to indulge in the creation standing disappointingly at the edge of the vast sea of sunflower seeds. Small bowls of seeds were provided so visitors could still touch them, but they were clearly unimpressed.

There could be several solutions such as asking visitors to remove footwear and requesting them not to run. But enforcing such rules might prove more of a headache than simply cordoning off the installation [Guardian / Telegraph / BBC / CNN]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hope & faith prevail as Chile miners saved

After nearly 69 days trapped beneath the Earth, 33 miners of a gold and copper mine in Chile have been successfully brought to the surface in what has been the biggest rescue mission in mining history. After weeks of tunnelling the final stage of the operation to free the miners began. Experts from more than a dozen countries had worked together in making it possible to bring the miners safely back to the surface. The shaft was finally completed last week but further tests had to be carried out to make sure the sides were strong enough. After a few dry runs of the Fenix 2 capsule, it was finally lowered to the cavern. A rescue worker, Manuel Gonzalez, descended to oversee the operation at around 23:20 local time [02:20 GMT]. After a tense 50 minutes, and after more than 68 days underground, the first of the trapped miners emerged. To tears and cheers from family, friends and rescue workers, 31 year old Florencio Antonio Avalos Silva was finally free from what had become his subterranean home since August 5th.  finally began late on Tuesday evening in Chile.

As the final leg of the operation started late Tuesday evening in Chile's Atacama desert, news channels around the world provided saturation coverage throughout the night. By the morning six miners had been winched to the surface. With each passing hour another miner was on his way to be checked over by medical staff. Yet despite their ordeal the rescued miners looked well. The oldest amongst them, 63 year old Mario Gomez smiled and punched the air in victory as he was taken from the mine by paramedics. His wife shed tears of joy as he held her hand and affectionately stroked her face. It was the families who had perhaps suffered the most in terms of emotional stress, not knowing whether they would see their loved ones again.

Every development was covered by news channels. Television stations showed dramatic pictures from within the mine of each worker being strapped into the rescue capsule before being winched the 700 metres to the surface. As the Fenix 2 capsule was hoisted a video camera captured pictures of the journey up along the shaft. And as every miner reached the opening cameras zoomed in to see them emerge.

This has been an epic journey, and the world's media has been following the attempt to reach the miners from day one. More than 2,000 journalists, media crews and photographers are situated at Campamento Esperanza [Camp Hope] at the San Jose Mine in Copiapó, Chile. They had come to the remote desert location from Japan, Australia, Europe and the Americas, 300 organisations and 40 countries in all. Richard Beeston of the London Times described it as a major human interest story which had captivated people everywhere. CNN described it as "a good news story in a world of terrible events" while the BBC called it "a fundamentally good news story." But this rescue is sadly an exception to the rule. In China, scores of workers die every year in coal mine disasters. And even developed countries have seen tragedies. Earlier this year 29 men died in an explosion at a mine in West Virginia, the worst in US history since 1970. But it was not an isolated incident. In 2007, 6 miners and three rescuers were killed in collapses at the Crandall Canyon mine in Emery County, Utah. Twelve died after a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia the year before and five others were killed only months before at the Kentucky Darby No. 1 Mine in Harlan County. More than 60 others perished in the previous two decades [Mining accidents].

Media coverage

While many stations ran continuous coverage of the events on the ground others only occasionally dipped in to show ongoing developments. Sky News, broke away only for commercial breaks and along with the BBC News Channel and BBC World showed a split screen as Prime Minister's Questions began in parliament. CNN too only cut away only for an occasional commercial break. Euronews also provided almost uninterrupted coverage.

There were some stations that did not give the same degree of saturation coverage however. Financial markets did not stop because of the rescue and Bloomberg and CNBC both continued with regular programming. CCTV News provided a continuous update via a small screen popping up as each miner was rescued as did France 24. Al Jazeera, Press TV and Russia Today provided only an information strap though the rescue did feature as the top news story. There was no strap running on NHK World, broadcasting from Japan, though the story did top news bulletins.

BBC Five Live initially gave continuous coverage and the story also featured high on the schedule on the BBC World Service. However, a few hours into the rescue, there was little coverage on the radio.

The BBC, Sky and CNN differed slightly in their coverage. Sky News had a count running in the top left of the screen showing the number of miners rescued and those still left in the mine. Meanwhile a strap rolled by at the bottom of the screen giving further information. Only UK time was displayed on Sky and BBC News, though all channels did occasionally update viewers of local time in Mexico. CNN did not have clock displayed and along with the BBC had only a number displayed showing the number of those having been freed.

There was something riveting about the rolling news coverage. Even if the pictures were a little repetitive, there were inspiring moments. The perseverance of those trapped and the human spirit that allowed them to hang on throughout the last 69 days. As each miner emerged there were cheers of jubilation and world leaders joined in the congratulatory messages. Chile's President Pinera was filmed at one point talking to British Prime Minister David Cameron on the phone and thanked him for his support. "We will never forget this night," President Pinera said. "David, thank you very much for your kind words and we are also following your inspiring .. and next week we will be in Downing Street Number 10 visiting and we'll be sharing a cup of tea."

The operation was meticulous. After every winching the capsule was checked. And nothing was rushed with each mission taking more than 30 minutes. Nonetheless the operation went quicker than expected. The first miner arrived at the surface at 0:10 local time [03:10 GMT] and by 11:00 [14:00 GMT] there had been 13 freed. Sixteen men had been rescued by 13:00 local time [16:00 GMT] Daniel Herrera, the sixteenth miner had reached the top of the shaft.

There was however, a long way to go with another 17 yet to reach the outside world. It was loyalty, patriotism and a strong faith in God that helped the miners through the long weeks underground. This was evident as each miner came to the surface and rescuers chanted, "Chi, Chi, Chi, le, le, le, Viva Chile!" and "Chi, Chi, Chi, le, le, le. Los mineros de Chile y de Dios" ["Chi, Chi, Chi, le, le, le. The miners of Chile and of God."]. Even after their rescue, for some the ordeal has only just begun. Many will suffer from post traumatic stress as well as ongoing physical problems. Some will undoubtedly enter different careers. Many will be fearful of entering a mine again. They have been described as heroes and it is likely that many will write of their experience and appear on television shows. Some, such as Mario Sepulveda Epinace, have though spoken of not wanting to be treated as anything other than a miner and a worker. There is also a strong possibility of a movie given the excitement it generated around the world even amongst broadcasters themselves. "Isn't that amazing, .. isn't this incredible to be watching this 2000ft below the ground .. never before has mankind rescued anyone from these depths," Jon Snow exclaimed on Channel Four News, "Gosh!"

Remaining issues

There are issues still to be addressed and one is that of safety and procedures. President Pinera has already assured that these would be addressed. As for the many millions of dollars the operation has cost he said it was worth every cent. "It does not matter how much it cost, it was worth it," he told the BBC. "Chile is a country that is more respected than before this rescue effort," he added. But he conceded there were still problems that his country had to solve, least of all the poverty that exists in his country.

It is with hope that the story ends as Campamento Esperanza is finally disbanded. As the penultimate miner arrived on the surface he hugged his wife and looked forward to meeting his newborn child they have named Esperanza, the Spanish word for hope. The rescue has certainly gone better than anyone could have hoped. The drilling of the hole and the extraction were both well ahead of schedule. And all the miners were rescued without major injury. After meeting the president and singing the national anthem, the last miner to emerge, Luis Urzúa said, "I hope this does not happen again." One can only hope [Copiapó mining accident / CNN / BBC].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

List of those trapped and the time they arrived at the surface

1st Florencio Antonio Ávalos Silva, 31 [03:10 GMT] 00:10
2nd Mario Sepúlveda Epinace, 39 [04:10 GMT] 01:10
3rd Juan Illanes Palma, 51 [05:07 GMT] 02:07
4th Carlos Mamani Solis, 23 [06:11 GMT] 03:11
5th Jimmy Sánchez Lagues, 19 [07:11 GMT] 04:11
6th Osmán Araya, 30 [08:22 GMT] 05:35
7th José Ojeda Vidal, 46 [09:22 GMT] 06:22
8th Claudio David Yáñez Lagos, 34 [10:04 GMT] 07:04
9th Mario Gómez, 63 [11:00 GMT] 08:00
10th Alex Vega Salazar, 31 [11:53 GMT] 08:53
11th Jorge Hernan Galleguillos, 56 [12:31 GMT] 09:31
12th Edison Fernando Pena, 34 [13:13 GMT] 10:13
13th Carlos Barrios Contreras, 27 [13:55 GMT] 10:55 local
14th Víctor Zamora Bugueno, 33 [14:32 GMT] 11:32
15th Víctor Segovia Rojas, 48 [15:08 GMT] 12:08
16th Daniel Herrera, 27 [15:50 GMT] 12:50
17th Omar Reygadas, 56 [16:39 GMT] 13:39 local
18th Esteban Rojas, 44 [17:49 GMT ]14:49 local
19th Pablo Rojas Vilacorta, 45 [18:28 GMT] 15:28 local
20th Darío Arturo Segovia Rojo, 48 [18:59 GMT] 15:59 local
21st Yonni Barrios, 50 [19:31 GMT] 16:31 local
22nd Samuel Ávalos Acuna, 43 [20:04 GMT] 17:04 local
23rd Carlos Bugueño, 27 [20:33 GMT] 17:33 local
24th José Henríquez, 54 [20:59 GMT] 17:59 local
25th Renán Ávalos, 29 [21:24  GMT] 18:24 local
26th Claudio Acuna, 56 [21:51 GMT] 18:51 local
27th Franklin Lobos, 53 [22:18 GMT] 19:18 local
28th Richard Villarroel, 23 [22:45 GMT] 19:45 local
29th Juan Carlos Aguilar, 49 [23:13 GMT] 20:13 local
30th Raúl Bustos, 40 [23:37 GMT] 20:37 local
31st Pedro Cortez Contreras, 24 [0:02 GMT] 21:02 local
32nd Ariel Ticona, 29 [0:28 GMT] 21:28 local
33rd Luis Urzúa, 54 [0:55 GMT] 21:55 local

Rescue Team who descended to mine to oversee operation: 
Manuel González / Roberto Ríos / Patricio Robledo / Jorge Bustamante / Patricio Sepúlveda

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sunflower Seeds of joy & discontent

Ai Weiwei's installation Sunflower Seeds opened this week at the Tate Modern on London's South Bank bringing more than a stir to the London art scene.
Seeing Ai Weiwei's installation at Tate Modern was a fascinating insight into human behaviour. It was strange to watch what people were doing as they became saturated in a sea of fake seeds. Some were relaxing on the bed of Sunflower Seeds as though it were a beach, sifting through the seeds like sand. Children ran through the thousands of seeds enjoying the crunching under their feet while others buried their friends under piles of the hand-crafted items.

Meanwhile small gatherings of art students sat and discussed the meaning behind 100 million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds lying on the floor. Sunflower seeds were one of Chairman Mao's favourite snacks, the Chinese leader said to be responsible for the deaths of many Chinese and of bringing about the destructive Cultural Revolution [Bloomberg].

While visitors are encouraged to pick up the sunflower seeds and crunch them underfoot for an interactive art experience, the Tate has issued a stern warning after visitors on launch day said they were fighting the urge to take home a seed as a memento! "We are encouraging people to walk on them, but certainly not to take them," said Juliet Bingham, the curator.Apparently Ai was somewhat tickled by the notion of his work spreading across the world via the pockets of visitors. But he said, "For the museum's part, the argument is very clear. This is a total work and we want people to see the full effect of 100 million seeds."

He was seemingly more concerned that somebody could mistake his seeds for the real thing. "People might also like to eat them. That's a safety issue. They might try to sue the Tate for that," Ai said.

In fact tvnewswatch did witness one child outside the gallery trying to tempt a pigeon with a seed he'd appropriated. With so many seeds making up the 1000 sq metre exhibit, it might need quite a few souvenir hunters to make a dent on the vast carpet of sunflower seeds. But with hundreds of visitors every day and with the exhibit set to last until May next year, the carpet of seeds could become thinner [Telegraph / Guardian].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, October 11, 2010

Insults, inaction & large carbon footprint in Tianjin

UN climate talks have ended in China without any major agreement. Delegates from NGOs, government officials and representatives from environmental groups had been brought together in Tianjin, a coastal city 137 km south-east of Beijing, to flesh out a strategy to combat climate change. But the talks were dominated with bickering which does not bode well for more talks to follow in Cancun, Mexico in two months' time.

There was continuing deadlock between China and the United States. Both major emitters of greenhouse gases refused to come to any consensus. Chief US negotiator Jonathan Pershing said he was disappointed by the resistance of China and other developing nations to address major issues, specifically to allow the monitoring and verification of their efforts to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for global warming.

"We have made very little progress on the key issue that confronts us," Pershing said. "These elements are a part of the deal. The lack of progress on these gives us concern about the prospects for Cancun."

Meanwhile his Chinese counterpart, Su Wei, accused developed countries of failing to commit to substantial reductions in carbon emissions while making unfair demands of developing nations. "After five years of negotiation, we have seen slow or no progress. The developed countries are trying every means possible to avoid discussion of the essential issue, that is emission reductions," Su said.

Earlier in the week Xie Zhenhua, vice minister of the National Development and Reform Commission, had asked developed nations for more money to help China tackle emissions. He insisted China's greenhouse gas emissions would peak at an earlier date if developed countries complied with international protocols. "We will try to get passed the peak of emissions as early as possible, but this also hinges on how much money the developed nations will offer and what technology they will transfer as required by international protocols," Xie Zhenhua told reporters on the sidelines of the United Nations climate talks. "The more money they provide, or the earlier the money arrives, the sooner we should be able to pass the emissions peak," Xie said.

He pointed out that some developed countries, although with a per capita GDP of more than $40,000 a year, still were yet to reach their emissions peak as their greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise. "Under such circumstances, how can you ask China, with a per capital GDP just over $3,000, to foresee its peak?" he asked [Xinhua].

There is some hope that the meeting in Cancun might reach an agreement which would see the transfer $100bn a year in funds from richer developed countries to help poor nations cope with the projected consequences of climate change. But as Xie expressed many see this sum as inadequate.

Then came what appeared to be a trading of insults as the US was accused of being a 'preening pig'. US criticism of China's apparent unwillingness to reduce its emissions was strongly contested by Su Wei. He likened the US to Zhubajie, a pig featured in a traditional Chinese novel, which in a traditional saying preens itself in a mirror. In fact in the original Chinese novel, he is often called dāizi (呆子), meaning "idiot". According to some reports Su Wei said "the pig falsely accuses" [猪八戒倒打一耙 ] before proclaiming, "It [the US] has no measures or actions to show for itself, and instead it criticizes China, which is actively taking measures and actions." [Shanghai Daily / Business Green / Chinese: Zaobao / Huanqiu]

Whatever the implication of Su's remarks, the comments are unlikely to bring the US and China closer together. The infamous "lipstick on a pig" faux pas uttered by Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign almost lost him the election. Su Wei may have meant little by his pig reference but diplomacy and an understanding of cultural differences is all too important especially when dealing with tricky negotiations.

The head of the US delegation, Jonathan Pershing, was more diplomatic and did not refer to his counterpart in colourful metaphors. But he was reserving judgement as to whether a decision could be reached at Cancun. He said that there could be no US signature on any binding deal that did not also bind China. Even before the end of the Tianjin event, Pershing was only vaguely optimistic. "There is less agreement than one might have hoped to find at this stage, and it's going to require a lot of work to get to some significant outcome by the end of this week," Pershing said on Wednesday [AP]. But by Saturday there had only been scant achievement. "This week has got us closer to a structured set of decisions that can be agreed in Cancun," Christiana Figueres, the UN's top climate official, said, "Governments addressed what is doable in Cancun, and what may have to be left to later." [CNN / BBC / AP]

There is a great deal left to do and an apparent unwillingness by most parties to even recognise the problem. As the Tianjin talks took place, there was a stark irony as the city remained shrouded in smog [twitpic]. In Beijing, only a 30 minute journey by train, residents were choking on thick pollution with air quality being measured as hazardous for much of the week [twitpic]. Cynics might pour scorn on the UNFCCC event and the COP15 given the wasted opportunities. The events have also used vast energy resources in themselves. COP15 was widely criticised at the time for its huge carbon footprint when air travel and other factors had been taken into account. Tianjin would have been little different with delegations flying in from 150 countries around the world. It is all to be repeated once again in Mexico, and next year in South Africa. Such discussions, it could be argued, might be better organised using online discussions rather than burning up valuable resources in order to discuss how mankind might conserve energy. Yet another irony in the battle of environmental conservation.

Pictured: Jonathan Pershing, US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change and Chief US negotiator, who was referred to as a 'preening pig' by Su Wei [right] at the Tianjin UNFCCC event.

tvnewswatch, London, UK with additional reporting from worldnewsreview, Tianjin, China

Friday, October 08, 2010

Chinese dissident wins peace prize

Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident and writer serving an 11-year jail sentence, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. The decision to award the prize to Liu has angered the Chinese government who have called it "blasphemous". The Nobel committee said on Friday that Liu, who was sentenced last December on charges of "incitement to subvert state power", had demonstrated "a long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China".

News of the award has not been widely reported in China. State news organisations have yet to publicise the award, though Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu Quan did respond to questions earlier. The Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded "to promote national harmony and promote international friendship and to promote disarmament and peace for the convening of meetings and promotional efforts of the people", which is Nobel's wishes, Jiang said. "Liu is in breach of Chinese law by the Chinese judicial organs of criminals sentenced to imprisonment, and its behaviour and contrary to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize. Connaught Committee awarded the Peace Prize to such a person, completely contrary to the purpose of the award and also the desecration of the Peace Prize." She went on to suggest that the award "will bring damage to the Sino-Norwegian relations." [FMPRC].

CNN's reporting of the story has been blanked out within mainland China, though the news has spread on some social networking websites. The BBC World news channel was also censored by Chinese authorities. As the announcer began to introduce the story the screen went blank. "An imprisoned Chinese dissident wins the Nobel Peace Pri..." (screen goes black). However, many Chinese are unfamiliar with Liu Xiaobo, or indeed his Charter 08 campaign which called for greater human rights. "Who is he?" said one Chinese national who spoke to tvnewswatch online from China earlier today. 

Chinese censorship went into overdrive on Friday with search terms such as "Nobel Peace Prize" and ""Liu Xiaobo" returning errors. There are also reports of SMS messages being blocked containing the dissident's name in Chinese; 刘晓波. Sina and other social networking portals were reportedly being heavily censored with any mention of the Nobel Prize winner being expunged. 

It was early evening in Beijing before Xinhua finally published the story. Both the English and Chinese versions were critical of the award. "The Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded to people who contribute to national harmony, country-to-country friendship, advancing disarmament, and convening and propagandizing peace conferences," Ma Zhaoxu, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo "desecrated the prize and could harm China-Norway ties," Ma was reported as saying.

While China has been critical of the award, most countries have applauded the decision. The British Foreign Office released a statement saying it "shines a spotlight on human rights' defenders worldwide." German government spokesman Steffen Seibert speaking at a news conference said that his government had congratulated Liu for winning the award. Seibert said he has asked China to release Liu so he can pick up his prize. Germany has sought his release since he was jailed in 2009. 

Bernard Kouchner, French minister of foreign affairs, said the decision to award Liu the Nobel Prize "represents the defence of human rights around the world. France, like the European Union, expressed concern upon his arrest, and called for his release on several occasions. It reiterates that call now. France also repeats its support of freedom of expression around the world. The Nobel committee, which made its choice independently, wanted to send a strong message to all those who peacefully advocate for the promotion and protection of human rights."

The Dalai Lama, a former Nobel Peace prize winner himself, published a post on his website offering his "heart-felt congratulations" to Liu. "Awarding the Peace Prize to him is the international community's recognition of the increasing voices among the Chinese people in pushing China towards political, legal and constitutional reforms," the Dalai Lama said.

It is the first time that the Nobel Peace prize has been given to a Chinese national. But it is not the first time that China has been angered over the decision to award the coveted prize. When the Dalai Lama was given the Nobel Peace Prize, China lambasted the decision. "I still can't figure out how he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize," said Zhang Qingli, the party chief of China's Tibet Autonomous Region, said at the time. "What Peace has he brought to the world?"

China's state controlled news agency has continually dismissed the value of the Nobel Prize for Peace, saying "it is awarded in accordance with western values, so it contains intense subjective political characteristics and lacks objectiveness." Giving the peace prize to what China sees as a criminal is likely only to bolster nationalistic sentiment. Some fear it may result in lengthening Liu's jail term. 

In his last post before being jailed Liu said, "I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints."

He may be happy at his having been given this award. But it may also make things more difficult for him and his family. According to latest reports his wife has been ordered to leave Beijing by police. "They want to distance me from the media," Liu Xia said [Reuters / BBC / SkyCNN / Al Jazeera / France24 / RTWashington Post / FT / Wikipedia]

see also: tvnewswatch - Liu Xiaobo sentenced amid protests

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, October 04, 2010

London Transport strike causes chaos

London's Mayor Boris Johnson has condemned unions for bringing London to a halt calling it "irresponsible" and "politically motivated". He spoke as the Conservative Party conference began in Birmingham and where he is to lobby for a change in the rules concerning strike ballots. In what will be seen as contentious by unions, he is to propose that a strike should not be legal unless at least 50% of the membership has voted for industrial action.

Commuters on the streets of London certainly felt the effects of today's strike with around 90 stations from 274 on London's Underground network closed and less than half of trains running with most lines disrupted. The Central and Circle lines were completely shut down and most others were only running partial services.

Where skeleton services were running, hundreds were queueing to get into some stations. There were also large queues at taxi ranks and at bus stops across the capital despite 100 extra buses being laid on by Transport for London. The roads were also packed with many routes extremely slow. Trafficmaster services showed delays on most major routes into town and local traffic reports listed a series of traffic jams. The congestion charge remained in place, adding to the woes of those who decided to take their car into the capital.

Members of the RMT and TSSA unions walked out at 18:30 BST on Sunday over plans to cut 800 ticket office jobs. They claim that proposed job cuts will turn the tube into a death-trap and affect safety on the Underground.

Boris Johnson called the action nothing less than being "politically motivated" instigated by a "die-hard militant union membership". He accused the unions of using London's commuters as pawns. With the advent of automated ticket machines and the use of Oyster cards, "we need to make some sensible and moderate changes to the ticket offices" the mayor said.

Union leaders dismissed his claims and said that ticket office staff were still needed but in different roles. But speaking on the BBC, Gerry Doherty [above left], the TSSA general secretary, was unable to provide statistics or detail saying it was not up to his union to carry out a study. "We are acting on what our members have told us," he told Vanessa Feltz on her morning show on BBC London. "We are not trying to make a political point," Doherty insisted. "My union hasn't been involved in industrial instruction since the 1926 General Strike," he added, "Calling my union a militant union is like the pot calling the kettle black".

Meanwhile, RMT General Secretary Bob Crow [above right] has accused the mayor of going back on his word. "The cuts to ticket offices, and safety-critical station staffing levels, that RMT members are fighting to prevent in the action today are the same cuts that Boris Johnson opposed before he was elected London Mayor," he said. "To attack RMT and TSSA members standing up for tube safety is hypocrisy of the highest order on the part of the Mayor," Crow exclaimed. "The anger of the Mayor's tube staff at his repeated attacks on them is shown in the rock solid support for today's action and the fact that hundreds of staff have turned back at the picket lines. The Mayor's assault has hardened attitudes and reinforced the determination to stop these cuts."

But the vociferous statements from union leaders were of little consolation for commuters struggling to work on Monday morning. Countless numbers of the travelling public condemned the strike, calling radio stations to voice their anger. "They should be lucky to have a job at all," one caller told Vanessa Feltz. Social networking sites were also filled with comments. Martina Capodanno complained on her Twitter feed that it had taken "FOUR DAMN HOURS TO GET TO THE OFFICE!" Some praised Boris Johnson's bicycle hire scheme. "I love Boris's Bikes. Beats the Tube Strike easily - even in the light drizzle," Paul Brennan tweeted.

Londoners face further disruption in the coming weeks as more strikes are planned. Industrial action is scheduled for 2nd and 28th November, though talks between the unions and London Underground are continuing [Sky News / BBC / BBC Travel Info]

tvnewswatch, London, UK