Tuesday, August 31, 2010

TV is bad for health, psychologist says

A psychologist has claimed that television poses a health risk particularly for children who spend hours glued to computer and TV screens. Dr Aric Sigman, who is presenting his findings to MEPs today, says television and similar devices are "the greatest unacknowledged health scandal of our time".

Children may spend more than seven hours a day sat looking at a screen and this can increase risks of obesity and heart disease, Dr Sigman claims. In addition there are other symptoms resulting from watching too much television including a lack of attentiveness, sleep disorders and even autism.

Television has long been blamed for a number of social ills. But there is growing evidence that the flickering screen might result in more than square eyes. "Irrespective of what our children are watching or doing on the screen, a clear relationship is emerging between daily hours of screen time and negative medical, psychological, behavioural and educational consequences," Dr Sigman says, "The more hours per day, the more likely the risk of these negative consequences and the greater their intensity."

He says that most of the damage appears to occur after one-and-a-half hours viewing per day, irrespective of the quality of the content. Worryingly a child is often exposed to three to five times this amount. The concerns have resulted in some countries placing restrictions on content. France, for example, banned TV programmes aimed at under-threes two years ago [Daily Mail].

It is not the first time that concerns have been raised over the effects of television on children. In 2004 a report revealed a connection between attentiveness and television exposure. Dr. Dimitri Christakis from the University of Washington in Seattle, said, "We found that watching television before the age of 3 increases the chances that children will develop attentional problems at age 7." The study noted that teachers had seen a virtual "epidemic" of children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), something which had increased dramatically over the last 25 years. These children have less ability to listen, pay attention, and engage in independent problem solving. The teachers have often blamed "the advent of fast-paced, attention-getting children's programming" for the epidemic of ADHD, and authors of the 2004 study believe they are right [Medicine Net].

But it is not only children who are at risk. A study published last year warned that watching television prior to going to bed can result in poor sleep quality and even lead to chronic health problems. Psychiatrists found that watching television was a common pre-sleep activity and sleep patterns were often based around schedules rather than sunset or biological factors.

Dr Mathias Basner, of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology, University of Pennsylvania, said, "While the timing of work may not be flexible, giving up some TV viewing in the evening should be possible to promote adequate sleep. According to our results, watching less television in the evening and postponing work start time in the morning appear to be the candidate behavioural changes for achieving additional sleep and reducing chronic sleep debt" [Telegraph].

The saturation of technology may be making things worse. Outside the living room there are the distractions of the Internet via the PC. Smartphones have made it possible to continue browsing the net while sat on trains or buses and the television may even invade the coffee shop or pub. Reading is fast becoming screen-based as web based news portals replace the newspaper and books are now virtual with the advent of the iPad, Kindle and similar devices.

The traditional reading of the morning paper has been pushed aside by breakfast TV and radio. Those that drive to work may be led by a small screen and a voice giving out instructions, while the radio drones in the back ground. Commuters on buses and trains can be seen buried in games or looking at mobile screens, and for many people the day might be spent staring at a computer monitor. There is no respite at the end of the working day as people return home and flop onto the sofa to catch the evening news, a late night film or DVD before retiring to bed and repeat the same routine again.

Perhaps we will all end up square-eyed with the attention span of a goldfish. Even those who use the net are becoming less absorbed in what they read, and people may spend only a few seconds on a page [BBC]. In fact the chance of you having read this far is probably very slim. But well done if you have [pictured: cover of the 1979 album Remote Control by The Tubes].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Philippine website 'hacked by Chinese'

The website of the Philippine Information Agency (PIA) was defaced by hackers on Sunday and appears to be a reaction to the Manila bus siege which came to a bloody end leaving eight tourists from Hong Kong dead. 

The PIA website was left black with a Chinese flag placed prominently at the top of the page. Underneath were the words "Hacked by 7z1" and "Black Matrix team | 0x.oday@Gmail.com". Shortly afterwards the website was taken down. 

The People's Republic of China demanded an apology for last week's hostage crisis at the Quirino Grandstand. The hostage-taker, dismissed policeman Rolando Mendoza, was killed after police stormed the tourist bus where the hostages were held for 11 hours. However the operation has been widely criticised. In the evening broadcast on Sky News, Peter Sharp described it as "a text book example of how not to carry out a hostage rescue".

There was criticism too when a Philippines flag was placed over the coffin of the hostage taker. The Chinese embassy said the placing of the flag on the coffin inferred that Rolando Mendoza had died a hero. The Philippines government attempted to defuse the situation saying the flag had been placed there by Mendoza's family and been removed later by a city official. There have bee calls from Hong Kong and from official in Beijing for a thorough investigation into the incident. 

While calls from the families for an inquiry is understandable, Beijing's demanding of an investigation is somewhat ironic given their reticence to investigate countless controversial incidents in its past. The so-called Tiananmen Square massacre still casts a dark shadow over the CCP. Accusations of corruption concerning building construction in Sichuan, after the collapse of schools in the 2008 earthquake resulted in the deaths of many children, have never been properly investigated. Even the milk scandal has brought only a few convictions with many seeing some perpetrators as having escaped justice or receiving only light sentences. 

The incident which occurred in the Philippines is a rallying call, and a way for China to build nationalist sentiment, even if unofficially. Attacks and criticism on Chinese values or on China are often met with hostility. CNN came under particular criticism after Jack Cafferty's infamous "thugs and goons" reference to the ruling Chinese Communist Party [Video].

That brought condemnation from millions of so-called netizens and CNN's website was briefly hacked. Similar reactions were seen over the Tibetan protests that followed the Olympic torch around the globe, and of what many in China considered to be biased reporting in western media [Video]. As well as traditional protests, hacking websites appears to be a common reaction [CNET]. Such attacks are not officially sanctioned, and authorities vigorously deny any hand in such activities. Nonetheless, the messages sent out from Chinese leaders is enough to encourage the nationalist hackers.
The reason behind the recent hacks in the Philippines can only be speculated. Several other government websites have been hacked in the past, including those of the departments of Labour and Employment, Social Welfare and Development, Health, the National Disaster Coordinating Council, and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority. The source of some attacks may be domestic. But the Philippines may now have found some new enemies abroad [ABS-CBN / GMA News].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Are employers are watching your tweets?

It was once the case that a job seeker would write a covering letter, print off a résumé or CV and send it off in the post with the hope of securing a lucrative position. But with the advent of the Internet those seeking work were expected to email their application. As well as appropriate skills and qualifications, presentation is all important. Sending an email with attachments in different formats can be seen as unprofessional. Indeed some employers ask that the CV and supporting documents be converted into PDFs.

But the presentation skills employed in a job submission is only part of the story. Employers are becoming increasing selective as to how they choose potential candidates. There have always been faux pas. Some employers would discard any CV which used the full term Curriculum Vitae. Others might bin the application which stated "I have enclosed my CV for your perusal".

Indeed such quibbles are subjective and personal. But with the growth of social networking these issues are minor compared to the minefield confronting today's job seekers. Today they must learn to navigate the sometimes tricky issues of online discourse. Candidates must learn to promote themselves without giving the impression of being concerned only with oneself.

At the same time, they must be constantly vigilant about managing their online presence. Even the slightest mistake could discourage potential employers. And it is becoming a real issue. A 2008 survey carried out by CareerBuilder.com found that more than one in five employers searched social networking sites to screen job candidates [Computer World].

With more people using social networking sites, it is easier for companies to vet applicants. And keeping things private may not always work. Inappropriate photographs posted on Facebook might be easily shared and redistributed.

But it is not just the drunken office party that might make the landing of that dream job impossible. The top areas of concern amongst employers include information posted about alcohol or drug use. Some 41% of managers said this was a top concern while inappropriate photos or other information posted on a candidate's page accounted for 40%. Poor communication skills posted in social media was an issue. Using emoticons and using text speak was a concern among 29% of employers.

The bad-mouthing of former employers or fellow employees and inaccurate qualifications would likely find the applicant being discarded immediately. The posting of links connected to criminal activity might be enough to remove the job seeker from the short-list. And even using unprofessional screen names could dissuade some employers from hiring.

Such concerns come on the back of comments made recently when Google's CEO suggested that some people might even need to change their name in the future. But these concerns over privacy and the snooping by employers into candidates' lives has also rattled some governments. Germany has announced it may prevent employer Facebook checks. The draft law on employee data security presented by Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Wednesday is the government's latest attempt to address privacy concerns about online services

Anything posted in public would be considered fair game, such as postings on networks specifically created for business contacts like LinkedIn. In contrast, Germany is seeking to make it illegal to become a Facebook friend with an applicant in order to check out private details, de Maiziere said [AP].

Such a law might be difficult to enforce since it would be almost impossible to prove the reason why a candidate was not considered for a particular post.

Social media can of course be used to one's advantage. Though such sites can be used for frivolous activities they can be used to create meaningful relationships and promote an individual as a brand. Facebook in particular is often used as a playground. People spend hours playing Farmville or writing inane comments on their friends' wall. But it can also be used to connect with serious like-minded individuals in a similar approach to the way LinkedIn works [Penn Olson].

Twitter too can be used to brand you or sell you. Journalists have long used Twitter to source and publish information. But it can be a valuable resource to job-hunters too. Several agencies use Twitter to post new openings and there are many cases where it has paid off. In 2008, Oliver Schmid, an I.T. consultant based in Los Angeles, lost his job with a German technology company. Jumping into the job market for the first time in 20 years, Schmid did what job seekers have always done. He sent out his résumé and waited for companies to call him back. But he received no feedback. Realising he wasn't selling himself well enough, Schmid sought information on how to set up his "personal brand" online. He began to blog about his work and then to use Twitter to reach out to others in his profession.

"I was very uncoordinated at first, really stumbling a lot. I didn't know what I was doing or what to talk about," Schmid said. Over a period of a few month his writing improved, he became better at targeting his posts to the right people on Twitter and of being consistent, but not overbearing, in advertising himself.

Out of the blue a former colleague noticed his posts on Twitter and recommended Schmid for a freelance position with a Norwegian technology company. After a freelancing position with the firm he then secured a long-term contract. Without Twitter Schmid says he probably would not have found the job. "They weren't looking for me. They just spotted me online, and it worked out." [NYT]

But most people seem to be oblivious about how their online social activity can blight their reputation. And it may not be just about what an individual posts, but what others say about them and who they befriend. Just as securing a job can be about who you know, those in your friend list might be to your detriment. Even banks and financial institutions are trawling online information to help make a decision. Some banks are using services like Rapleaf to scan social networks and identify contacts connected with you that also do business with the financial institution. Based on the financial stability and credit history of your social network connections, the bank can make an assumption about what sort of credit risk you might be [Montreal Gazette].

There is also a certain amount of unwritten etiquette as to how social media should be used to promote yourself. Job-seekers should make smart use of social media to advertise themselves, conduct research about employers, and build contacts. They must be proactive and not neglect face-to-face networking. Working with online contacts when positions arise is as important ans ensuring one's online brand is consistent and up-to-date.

On the other hand, those seeking woork should not be pushy. Turning up unannounced to see employers and calling too frequently is often considered unacceptable as is the spamming companies with with applications [NBR].

Looking for work has never been easy. It is now more competitive and complicated than ever. Technology and social networking is a lot of fun for a lot of people, but as with every new technology there are things to be aware of. So be careful what you tweet, blog, post on Facebook or upload to YouTube. Etiquette also extends to the use of smartphones, but that's another story altogether [CNN].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Google starts web phone service

Google has begun to roll out a Skype-like phone service which allows users to call from within their GMail service. Calling US and Canada based numbers are free while credit needs to be purchased in order to call other numbers around the globe. Rates range from $0.02 per minute to $0.48 for some international mobile numbers [comparison chart].

However, even though Google's new VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] service is in its infancy, some have already suggested room for improvement. One failure is the lack of integration of details held in a users' contact list. Numbers have to be entered manually rather than selecting from contact numbers directly [PCMag].

The other main failure is that many users outside the US are unable to buy credit, this despite the service being available to some, but not all, international users of GMail. Yet there is a small but limited chance to use the new VoIP service. Google has provided each user with ten cents of free call credit to try out an international call. After this users must purchase additional $10 blocks of call credits via Google Checkout. If a user doesn't use the account for a year or more, then Google reserves the right to terminate the account, including any credit.

Given the quality and service is stable, Google could make a clean sweep over the competition. Skype is currently the clear leader in VoIP calling. But Google has said its international rates undercut those of a "leading internet telephone provider." Google charges 15 cents per minute for calls to mobile phones in France. By comparison, Skype's pay-as-you-go plan costs 20.3 cents per minute.

Skype, however, offers numerous cost-cutting service bundles, including a $10.29 per month plan for 60 minutes of calls to landline and mobile phones in France. This drops the price to 17.2 cents per minute. It is still higher than Google's offering, but the difference may not be great enough to persuade Skype users to switch to Gmail voice. Nonetheless Skype, and other VoIP services such as Vonage, now have some stiff competition [FT / Google blog / The Next Web / CNN].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bike theft in Beijing on the rise

It is inconvenient and costly but bicycle theft is on the rise in Beijing and across China. No-one is immune and chaining the transportation device to a tree or other immovable object will not deter the thieves who often break them up for parts [see above]. In 2007 authorities registered more than 9 million bicycles stolen. Beijing's police often publicise high-profile crackdowns on bicycle thieves. One particularly strict 2007 police campaign against theft lead to 3,708 arrests and the recovery of 11,111 stolen bikes at 27 second-hand bike markets. But in Chinese law, it's not a criminal case if the stolen object is worth less than 500 RMB [about $73]. So, many people do not even report their loss. Instead, they try to prevent the theft by locking up their bicycle.

"I was lucky because I lost only one bike while I was at college in Beijing," graduate Chang Xu said. "But I heard about a professor at our school who was angry because so many of his bikes had been stolen. He bought a brand new bike and put six locks on it and left a note saying, 'Can you steal this!?!', When he returned, he found a seventh lock attached to his bike with a note, 'Can you open this?'." [CBS]

Thieves are increasingly targeting electric scooters. They are a more lucrative source of income for the criminals. They cost upwards of 1,000 RMB and many people fail to lock them up believing that by simply removing the battery will prevent their scooter from disappearing.

Last year Shanghai police stepped up efforts to combat the theft of scooters, electric bikes and motorbikes. In 2008 the loss of powered two-wheelers accounted for 10.5% of all theft reports in the city, up 2.2% from the year before, Bao Zhiming, an official with Shanghai's criminal investigation team said. The rise in the number of electric bikes and those powered by liquefied petroleum gas in recent years and their high value is responsible for the rise in theft, officers said. Nearly 7,000 thieves were caught in 2008 in Shanghai alone, but such criminal activity remains rife [ElectricBikee].

Those buying an expensive brand name bicycle or scooter are advised to investing in a decent lock or three. It it also important to park up sensibly. Many areas have designated parking attendants who keep a watchful eye and some subway stations have pay-per-hour parking bays. But this does not always work. In a year of living in Beijing tvnewswatch heard several stories of friends and work colleagues being victim to bike theft. One person had his electric scooter's battery stolen despite it being locked and parked within a guarded community compound. Today a scooter owner tweeted about how he found his bike with a flat tyre and decided to return the following morning to collect it. But on his return there was no bike.

Of course bike theft is not only confined to China, but here are a few tips to at least reduce the chances of seeing your transportation device go missing.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, August 21, 2010

UK: Staged crashes on the rise

Motorists are increasingly becoming victims of staged accidents, costing insurance companies millions, raising premiums and causing distress for those targeted. The Insurance Fraud Bureau (IFB) estimates around 30,000 accidents were staged in Britain last year. It is said to have cost insurers about £350 million and added £44 to the premium of every driver in the country.

Various methods are used to create an incident which results in the victim believing they were at fault and admitting responsibility. One scam involves the perpetrator braking suddenly on a clear road or roundabout sometimes using the handbrake so there are no warning lights.

Sgt Mark Beales, from Greater Manchester Police, said the criminals often choose their "victim" drivers carefully. "What these fraudsters tend to pick on are people who are single mums or elderly people, people who are less likely to cause them any issues. They also target drivers of commercial vehicles, because drivers tend not to care as much if they're not driving their own vehicle," he said.

In addition to claims for damage to vehicles, the scammers are known to feign injury and have the fire brigade cut themselves from the car to lend weight to their claims. In one case highlighted recently a man was convicted and sentenced to a two-year jail sentence, with 12 months suspended, after admitting staging a series of crashes. Abdullah Ahmed used his black Lexus in three staged crashes and as well as attempting to claim for damage and injury, he alleged his victim had racially abused him. He even tried to claim for storage costs but police found he had been driving the car since the 'accident'.

Earlier this month two men, 35 year old Rehan Javed and his brother Rezwan, 33, from Burnley in Lancashire, were convicted of running a £12 million scam. They had even processed many of the claims themselves using their own claims management company. And last year 24 year old Mohammed Patel was jailed for four and a half years after being found guilty of staging 93 'accidents' [Daily Mail].

The rise of such incidents is becoming increasing concerning for police who believe staging such crashes could lead to real injury or even death of those targeted. In the US fatalities have already been recorded after staged crashes went wrong. "Staged motor accidents are on the rise and are potentially extremely dangerous. Not only do they cost honest drivers millions of pounds each year but they also put innocent motorists in danger," John Beadle, Britain's Insurance Fraud Bureau [IFB] chairman, told the BBC in 2007. Some scammers have even invented secret codes to identify each other, such as tying coloured ribbons to car aerials, to show a willingness to take part in fake crashes as the Guardian reported in 2005. But it may not always be so obvious.

Some of the staged crashes can be far more involved than simply braking in front of a victims vehicle. One such scenario has been called the 'swoop and squat.' The first car 'swoops' in while the second car 'squats' in front of the victim. After the 'accident,' everyone in the car the victim rear-ended (usually crammed full of passengers) will file bogus injury claims with the victim's insurance company. They will often complain of whiplash or other soft-tissue injuries. Such injuries are difficult for doctors to confirm. The fraudsters may even acquire the services of dishonest physical therapists, chiropractors, lawyers, or auto repair technicians to further exaggerate their claims.

As well as the so called 'swoop and squat' there are several other scenarios which motorists need to be aware of. There is the 'drive down' where a motorist is attempting to merge and another driver waves the victim forward. But instead of letting the motorist in, the fraudster slams into the victim's car. If the police arrive, the scammer will deny ever motioning to the victim.

The 'sideswipe' is sometimes used. As the victim takes a corner at a busy intersection with multiple lanes, they may drift slightly into the adjacent lane. This is where the fraudster will strike, accelerating in that lane and sideswiping the victim. The t-bone may be employed at an intersection. When crossing an intersection, despite having right of way, a fraudster may target the victims car by accelerating into it. When the police arrive, the driver and several planted 'witnesses' will claim that the victim ran a red light or stop sign.

In the United States staged accidents cost the insurance industry at least $20 billion a year. and as seen in Britain these losses are passed on to motorists in the form of higher insurance rates at an average of $100-$300 extra per car per year.

Now Britain is seeing a rise in this type of fraud. Birmingham tops the list of fraud hot-spots according to an insurance industry-funded report. Until recently the claims were largely confined to north-west England, and the other four top spots for insurance fraud of this sort were Liverpool, Blackburn, Manchester and Leeds. But the scams now appear to be moving south, with parts of London in the top 10 for the first time. East London takes sixth position while north London is in ninth position.

Advice to motorists caught in such an accident is to stay calm, not to accept liability and, if possible, to record photographs of the other driver and any other passengers in the car on a camera or mobile phone. In the US authorities also advise calling the police immediately, even if damage is minimal. A police report makes it more difficult for a stager to intentionally damage his or her car later in order to collect a larger claim against a victim's car insurance company. In addition it is important to report accident claims to your insurance company and not to settle at the scene with cash. Be careful with your personal information, since identity theft can also be an added risk.

But it is better to avoid such incidents altogether. While not entirely impossible there is some basic advice for motorists. Don't tail gate and drive safely. Diving with a mobile phone in your hand is dangerous enough, but fraudsters may take advantage of such behaviour. Young women and older adult drivers are often targeted as they enter or exit a shopping mall or car park, so be doubly cautious at these locations.

As well as the accident risk there have been other scams employed at crash scenes. A stranger may approach victims, or telephone them after the incident. Regardless of whether a set-up or honest accident, the stranger attempts to convince the victim to get repairs at a specific auto-body shop, seek treatment from a certain doctor or chiropractor, or visit a suggested lawyer who can help you sue for injuries. Be careful, this too could be a scam. The body shop may try to illegally pad your repair bill. The doctor or chiropractor may give poor or no treatment, but invoice the insurer for large sums of money. The lawyer may encourage the victim to sue the auto insurer for thousands of dollars even if minor or no injuries have resulted.

In Britain those believing they have been a victim of insurance fraud can call the IFB's cheat line on 0800 328 2550. If you suspect that you've been a victim of or witness to a staged accident in the US, you can report it anonymously through the NICB website, or by calling the toll-free number (800) 835 6422 or by texting your information to TIP411, keyword "FRAUD." [BBC / BBC video / About Crime / FBI / Bankrate / Insurance Fraud]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, August 20, 2010

China falls off news agenda

China has failed to make headlines in the last few months. Despite massive floods, a booming economy, unrest amongst China's workforce and concern over their health, news media barely talks of these events. Even a bomb which killed 7 in Xinjiang yesterday failed to make headlines, and a train falling from a bridge almost completely fell from the news agenda. 

Floods & mudslides

The massive floods which struck the south and later in northern China killing more than 2,000 people have failed to draw strong interest from news organisations. In terms of being able to cope with the aftermath of floods, China is well prepared. The devastating floods that hit Pakistan have overwhelmed authorities far more. However the disaster that has befallen China is no less tragic. 
The floods that struck China's northern Sichuan provice are the worst for more than 100 years [BBC]. But even before the heavy rain moved north, the south had already suffered weeks of chaos. The flooding in the China's south has caused economic losses of at least $25 billion and affected more than 120 million people. And more than 1,100 people were already dead when heavy rain began to hit Hebei, Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces [ABC].

Devastating mudslides caused further problems and trapped tens of thousands [CSMonitor]. But coverage on news channels still remained scant. By Wednesday this week the death toll from the massive mudslides in Zhouqu County, northwest China's Gansu Province, had risen 1,287 with 457 still missing, Xinhua reported [CNN]. On Thursday two carriages from a passenger train fell into a river, after floods destroyed a bridge 50 km north of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Miraculously all 1,300 passengers on board managed to escape unhurt [XinhuaAPBBC / CNN]. Even this failed to make more than a mention on CNBC yesterday and a few seconds on the BBC. 

Bomb blast kills seven

It is not only the disastrous floods that have failed to make news headlines. A bomb blast in China's Xinjiang province received only a brief mention despite killing 7 people. Xiao Chunfeng, spokesman for the city's public security bureau, said that the driver of a three-wheeled vehicle threw a bomb at 15 auxiliary police officers at an intersection outside of Aksu. Seven were killed and 14 injured, including law enforcement personnel and local residents. China has pledged to double investment in Xinjiang and replaced the region's Communist Party chief after ethnic rioting in the capital city of Urumqi last year killed at least 197 people. The latest incident is particularly concerning but was barely reported. Bloomberg mentioned it in its early morning report and CNN gave a few seconds over to the event late Thursday, but it was mostly ignored by the media [Wikipedia].

Worker conditions

China of course wants to promote itself as a fast developing country. But China is growing on the backs of the underpaid and overworked. Foxconn was yesterday's focus which said it was to hire 400,000 more people, boosting the number of employees to 1.3 million [BBC]. Foxconn, which makes the Apple iPhone and other premium electronic products, grabbed the headlines earlier this year after a spate of suicides. Employees get paid around $100 a month and many take all the overtime available to boost their salary. But such long hours bring stress and discomfort. To boost morale Foxconn held a festival of sorts yesterday, "to show its support for its workforce" [BBC].

China's economy

China has a long way to go in reducing the gap between rich and poor. And China's currency is a constant focus for foreign financial institutions and countries. On Thursday China began to trade with the Malaysian ringgit which of course made major headlines on Bloomberg and CNBC. And the China Foreign Exchange Trading System (CFETS) has announced that more currencies could be allowed to trade against the yuan in China. The ringgit is the sixth currency to be traded via the CFETS and is now listed alongside the US dollar, Hong Kong dollar, euro, sterling and yen. It also means that trade between China and Malaysia will no longer need to be conducted in terms of US dollar values. But Michael Kurtz, head of China research & China strategist at Macquarie Research, told CNBC that it would be a long time before the Renminbi became an international currency [Economic Times / WSJ].

This is still the feeling amongst some analysts that the yuan is undervalued. Pressured by the US and other countries, China announced in June that it would adopt a "flexible" exchange rate for the yuan. But it still has a long way to go. Despite this, and the fact there are many problems in China, one has to keep focus and not lose sight of this growing economy. This applies to individuals, businesses and the media.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Facebook launches geolocation in US

Facebook has launched its geolocation service, Facebook Places, the latest company to enter into the popular social networking application spawned by Google and Foursquare.

There are more than half a dozen geolocation based services in use around the world. But, just as with Instant Message services, users are stifled by what their friends use. The use of such services is to alert a user's friends to their current location, whether that be a bar, restaurant or theatre. However, if other users are using a rival service, there is the issue of how to efficiently connect with people. There are also issues of privacy. 

Emergence of geolocation

When Google Latitude launched in 2009 there was a slow uptake. Concerns about privacy, and perhaps a lack of publicity, resulted in a low user base. But other geolocation services have become increasingly popular. Foursquare is probably the best known and has swiftly gained a large user base. Foursquare users "check-in" at venues using a mobile website, text messaging or a device-specific application. They are then awarded points and sometimes "badges." The service was created by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai. Ironically Crowley had previously founded the similar project Dodgeball, which Google bought in 2005 and shut down in 2009 turning it into Latitude. As of March 2010, Foursquare had 500,000 users internationally, according to Gigaom. In April that had risen to 1 million and reached 1.8 million users in June. Today Bloomberg cited that their Foursquare's user base had grown to 2.5 million.

Other geolocation services have failed to gain such popularity. Hotlist, Fire Eagle, a Yahoo! owned service, and Gowalla have far fewer users. Gowalla for example had only 150,000 active users as of March 2010.

Privacy issues

Foursquare has risen in popularity partly due to its relative anonymity. Using Google Latitude would publish the user's real name or registered Google account name to the web. However, just as Twitter allows pseudonyms, so to does Foursquare. Mr Bloggy can "Check in" on Foursquare and no real names are displayed. If Mr Bloggy has a Twitter account that too can be linked to Foursquare, but will display the name registered with Twitter. Mr Bloggy may of course have a Facebook account under his real name, say John Smith, and by linking Foursquare to Facebook a "Check in" would show as a Mr Bloggy's real name on Facebook. So by checking into the National Gallery in London, Foursquare and Twitter would post "Mr Bloggy - I'm at the National Gallery, London" while Facebook would post "Mr Bloggy just checked in @ the National Gallery, London" on John Smith's Facebook Wall.

Facebook's new application, which is currently only available in the US, will allow users to "check in" when they arrive at a location, just as in rival service Foursquare, and see whether any of their friends are nearby.

When a Facebook user checks in to a location, an update will automatically be published to their friends' News Feeds. They can also "tag" friends who are in the same location, either by way of a photo or a status update. Facebook has also partnered with other geolocation companies, including Gowalla, Foursquare, InCrowd and Yelp, to integrate their services in to Facebook Places.

Facebook has stressed that only a user's friends will be able to see where they have checked in or been tagged, unless the user explicitly decides to share this information with everyone.

But unlike Foursquare, a user's real name would be broadcast to the world. So if our Mr Bloggy "checked in" on Facebook's geolocation service and connected that to other services Mr Bloggy would reveal his real name of John Smith

And some are already crying foul, accusing Facebook of failing, once again, to protect users' privacy. One blog post titled, "Facebook Places: Check This Out, Before You Check In," the writer from ACLU in northern California criticises the perceived lack of user control, complaining that "in the world of Facebook Places, "no" is unfortunately not an option."

Techcrunch is more forgiving, but warns users to exercise some caution. The concern for some is that Facebook has already raised issues over trust and privacy before after making posts public by default until government warnings, threats and public anger forced them to back down. 

Online risks

It comes down to the age old adage 'Caveat emptor'. Social networking can be rewarding. It can connect friends and family around the world and bring people together. Twitter has revolutionised the spread of information and news. Facebook, with over 500 million users, has reconnected friends and left other such sites like Friends Reunited, with its 19 million users, behind. Blogger, Wordpress, Typepad, Flickr, Picasa Web, YouTube, Panoramia and other sites have changed the face of the web. But users of the Internet must be careful with what they share, and who they share it with.

Even Google's CEO Eric Schmidt has suggested young people may need to change their names in the future as they try to escape their online past. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Schmidt says, "I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time." 

"I mean we really have to think about these things as a society. I'm not even talking about the really terrible stuff, terrorism and access to evil things," Schmidt said.

"Mr Schmidt is completely right about how much information we are giving away online," says Big Brother Watch's Dylan Sharpe. "Right now there are millions of young kids and teenagers who, when they apply for jobs in 10 years' time, will find that there is so much embarrassing stuff about them online that they cannot take it down."

It is not the first time Schmidt has warned about online caution. During an interview last year, he said, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Data trails

Some might call Schmidt's comments somewhat contradictory considering the vast amount of data collected on individuals and organisations. While browsing data is stored and collected by Google it remains anonymous and data in GMail and Google Docs is private unless shared by the user, and can only be seized by authorities with appropriate court orders. The launch of Google Buzz and accidental collection of SSID WiFi information have embarrassed the search giant. But it could be argued that the public are just as much at fault. Users who signed up to Google Buzz without reading the terms and conditions, and checking how much data was published are just as much to blame. By leaving wireless routers unsecured, one can hardly complain that Google or anyone else gathered data. If Google Street View cameras, or indeed CCTV cameras, capture inappropriate behaviour by members of the public, whose fault it it? The issue over privacy as regards cameras is a particular point given there are few such privacy laws across much of the free world. 

But there are real and unseen dangers about posting too much about yourself. Potential employers have been known to scour the Internet to see whether potential candidates have an unfortunate past. Inappropriate posts or pictures on Facebook or MySpace may scupper any chance of that dream job. For others it may be jilted boyfriends and girlfriend who pose a threat, trawling the Internet for information and stalking ex-partners in the virtual world. Criminals have also been known to collect information to build up enough data to initiate identity theft.

For some the threat is enough to stop some from even joining this virtual world altogether. Robert Cailliau, the co-creator of the World Wide Web, has virtually opted out from the place he helped foist upon the world. "I'm not on Twitter, nor Facebook, LinkedIn or any of these systems. They suck in your soul and they will not let you go," he has been quoted as saying. Nonetheless a quick search will soon pull up a photograph, biography and other details about Cailliau.

The swift growth of social networking shows that few people are greatly concerned about the potential risks. But maybe the true threat has yet to be revealed. [Facebook places: BBC / Sky / CNN / Daily Telegraph / Guardian // Eric Schmidt warning: BBC / Daily Mail / CNET / ZDNet]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, August 12, 2010

PM: Strikes do "nothing but harm" to economy

Britons face an autumn of discontent as workers from several sectors plan to strike. Unite are the latest to announce that members of BAA staff may walkout over a dispute concerning pay. The strike could cause the shutdown of six major airports across Britain and will disrupt travel plans for thousands. Heathrow, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen would be completely shut effectively closing down Britain for most international air traffic [Sky / BBC / CNN / FT

The Fire Brigade Union are also considering industrial action over working practices which may see the army being brought onto Britain's streets to take their place [BBC].

The strikes may spread into other areas too as the TUC call Civil servants, teachers, health and transport workers to join in a national day of action on 20 October, the day the chancellor, George Osborne, is set to disclose details of a spending review designed to cut public spending by £83 billion [Guardian].

The proposed strikes have been condemned by the prime minister David Cameron saying that the action will damage jobs, tourism and the image of Britain abroad. "I very much hope they [BAA] don't go ahead," he said, adding that a strike would do "nothing but harm." There have also been critical comments coming from some airlines. Ryanair released a statement earlier saying BAA staff were "selfish and underworked" and that that should be reflected in their pay. 

Airlines have already suffered weeks of disruption after volcanic ash coming from Iceland filled British airspace this year. A strike by cabin staff caused losses for British Airways and further industrial action is promised. What ever the rights or wrong behind the disputes, Britain will suffer greatly from such strikes. The economy remains weak and is still struggling out of recession. Although unemployment rates have slowed finding work is still difficult. The number of people unemployed in the UK fell by 49,000 to 2.46 million in the three months to June, but despite the big drop in the jobless number, analysts have focused on the small change in the number of people seeking unemployment benefits, saying this was further evidence that the economic recovery was starting to lose momentum.

"This looks like yet another set of strong and encouraging figures on the surface," said Gerwyn Davies at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, "However, cracks now seem to be emerging; with a considerable growth in part-time work, lower pay settlements and a slower decline in the claimant count all features of a more uncertain jobs market." Those with jobs might consider themselves luck to have a job. But with jobs at a premium, employment practices can and do indeed suffer [BBC].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Updates, patches and holes

In just the last few days there have been increased warning over the use of the Internet with viruses targeting people's bank accounts and turning other people's machines into remote computers. In response to these threats the big firms have rolled out updates to patch holes and security flaws. But not all has gone swimmingly. 

Microsoft release critical updates

Last night anyone with a PC will have noticed that Microsoft launched more than a dozen updates for Windows users, the latest in a continuing stream of patches released by the software giant [V3]. Microsoft has received a barrage of criticism ever since it was revealed that a flaw in Internet Explorer allowed hackers to breach Google's servers last year. The incident rattled Google, it rattled Chinese authorities after China was blamed, and it rattled Microsoft who went to work on patching holes and encouraging users to make sure their browsers and operating system was up to date.

But even when the security updates come, they sometimes bring tales of woe. In an attempt to tighten security on its Hotmail service Microsoft rolled out an update. But it has resulted in hundreds of complaints with many saying they cannot send email or in some cases access their accounts [Register]. Microsoft said it is "aware that some customers are experiencing issues with the latest upgrade to Windows Live Hotmail" and suggested older browsers were to blame. While it claimed that IE6 should not have display problems it even suggested users try using competitors browsers such as Google Chrome [Windows Live help]. Despite the problems experienced by some, Microsoft and security analysts have warned users to ignore the updates at their peril [V3]. 

Google updates browser & GMail

There were changes too in the Google camp overnight. The Google Chrome browser automatically updated to version 6.0.472.33 which brought with it an updated user interface, Form Autofill, syncing of extensions and autofill data as well as increased speed and stability [V3 / CNET / Register / Google blog].

The Autofill facility will save users time, Google says, but security will not be compromised. "For your security, any personal information stored in Chrome is safely stored and kept private until a user chooses to share the information with a website. Additionally, your credit card information is never saved without first asking you explicitly," Google software engineer James Hawkins said. Autofill data can also be synced between computers, with the exception of credit card numbers. 

There were a few cosmetic changes too. The http:// prefix no longer shows in the address bar unless the site is secure. In secure sites the https:// prefix is highlighted in green with a padlock, unless there are issues in which case a hazard triangle will be be displayed. The default browser theme colour has also changed from blue to a grey blue. 

GMail also saw some cosmetic changes, but for some it brought with it a few problems. Some users experienced a "502 Server Error" late Tuesday resulting in them not being able to access their GMail account for several hours. The problems were mostly fixed by Thursday. With IE and Chrome patched, Firefox was also expected to roll-out an update on Thursday [Conceivably Tech].

Adobe patches flaws

Adobe also released a security patch for flash ahead of schedule [V3]. It comes after several other issues concerning Adobe's PDF reader which has itself been updated in recent weeks. But there have been several incompatibility issues with some users. Adobe Reader 9 has caused problems for users attempting to open some PDFs which displayed perfectly well with Adobe 8. On contacting the company they said they would be looking into the issue. Adobe meanwhile say they are to release a patchy to plug vulnerabilities found in its reader [Register].

Apple updates iOS

Apple was not immune from vulnerabilities and issued an update to patch the iOS issues disclosed earlier this month by iPhone 'jail-break' researchers. The updates block remote code execution flaws in the iOS PDF viewer and IOSurface components which can be exploited through specially crafted web pages [V3 / BBC].

It becomes a tricky business to deal with updates, especially when they create issues for users. While some software updates automatically, others require users to initiate updates or set programs to auto-update. But it is often better to err on the side of caution, especially when Internet security is at stake

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Virus threat increases for phones, PCs & Macs

Computer and smartphone users are increasingly at risk from viruses with many failing to take adequate precautions to prevent attacks. On Tuesday this week it was revealed that Eastern European cyber criminals had been targeting British bank accounts using sophisticated computer viruses to drain funds amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Up to 30,000 computers had been compromised with the Zeus botnet, according to security firm Trusteer. "It looks like criminal gangs are focused on the UK market and are specialising in UK banks," Trusteer chief executive Mickey Boodaei said on Friday last week. Boodaei declined to name the banks, saying only that customers of all of the major institutions had been targeted.

Zeus, also known as Zbot, steals data by installing a keystroke logger on the victim's machine. People who click on a link in an infected email or compromised website could end up exposing their online banking credentials.

Trusteer said it gained access to the command-and-control servers of the botnets, and this allowed it to pinpoint the location of the zombie computers from their IP addresses. The company then analysed attack commands from the servers to determine the targets of the Zeus variants.

Traditional anti-virus software has been slow at identifying the threat. Boodaei said that international antivirus companies may not detect the Trojans due to their localised nature. Antivirus companies normally deploy a network of sensors, including computers designed specifically to capture malware samples, in networks called 'honeynets'. But the Trojans may not be hitting these sensors, Boodaei said.

Bradley Anstis, vice president of technical strategy at M86, told The Times, "This is an extremely sophisticated version of the virus and it cannot be detected by traditional security software". The experts also warned that such viruses are no longer confined to "red light district" sections of the web, such as gambling and pornography sites, but can be found on popular search engines, blogs and news websites. Last year for example, attackers placed a virus in an advertisement on the New York Times website.

M86 Security said that online banking customers had transferred the virus from legitimate websites onto their computers through "security holes" in either Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser or Adobe Reader software [ZDNet / Telegraph / CNETSky]

Failure to take precautions

However, many people have opened themselves up to attacks by opening unsolicited spam email posing as official bank communications. This despite continued warnings from banks, security firms and media not to follow links sent via email.

Despite continued warnings in the media and by anti-virus software firms, millions of Internet users are falling victim to scams that leave them open to hacking and identity theft, Internet security firm Symantec said last October. In particular more than 40 million Internet users have in the last year fallen victim to criminals targeting them with fake security software.

Symantec says such downloads are not only harmful but allow criminals to obtain the victim's credit card details or other private information. The firm has identified 250 versions of what it terms 'scareware' which may earn criminals more than 1.2 million U.S. dolllars every year.

The fake software is often distributed through the use of pop-up advertisements which are deliberately designed to look legitimate, using the same typefaces as Microsoft and other well-known software providers. Falsely warning that a computer's security has been compromised, Internet users are duped into downloading the software for a fee of around $100.

Con Mallon, from Symantec, warned the purchase had two major risks. "Obviously, you're losing your own hard-earned cash up front, but at the back end of that, if you're transacting with these guys online you're offering them credit card details, debit card details and other personal information," he said. "That's obviously very valuable because these cyber criminals can try to raid those accounts themselves or they can then pass them on or sell them to others who ultimately will try to use that information to their benefit not yours."

Symantec says that some criminals were also extorting money from victims. "[They] could hold your computer to ransom where they will stop your computer working or lock up some of your personal information, your photographs or some of your Word documents," Mallon said, "They will extort money from you at that point. They will ask you to pay some additional money and they will then release your machine back to you."

Internet search giant Google has also warned of the growing risk of fake anti-virus software being downloaded by unsuspecting computer users. Millions of computer users are being duped in to installing the software which they think will protect them online but which actually leaves their computer more vulnerable to hackers. Over a period of 13 months Google analysed more than 240 million web pages and found that fake antivirus programs accounted for 15% of all the malicious software it detected online.

Cyber criminals are using increasingly sophisticated tactics to trick unsuspecting computer users into downloading and installing software laced with malicious code. When activated the software allows hackers to obtain "back door" access to a computer. This in turn could allow criminals to use the machine to send spam emails, or to try and capture personal information and login details for online banking and email accounts.

"The fake antivirus threat is rising in prevalence, both absolutely and relative to other forms of web-based malware," said Google in its findings. "Clearly, there is a definitive upward trend in the number of new fake antivirus domains that we encounter each week. "Surprisingly, many users fall victim to these attacks and pay to register the fake antivirus software. To add insult to injury, fake antivirus programs are often bundled with other malware, which remains on a victim's computer, regardless of whether a payment is made."

Google said that although it uses special tools to filter out websites containing malicious code from its search results, cyber criminals often moved their sites from one location to another in order to thwart efforts to stop their activity. Security experts have advised computer users to ensure they only install legitimate antivirus programs from reputable companies, such as Norton and McAfee, and not to click on any unsolicited pop-ups that claim to have detected a virus, and offer tools to remove it.

Apple Macs also at risk

But many people still fail to follow simple rules online. Apple Mac users in particular leave themselves and others at risk. Apple is not so readily targeted by viruses due to its low user base. As such many Mac users fail to use anti-virus software, leaving themselves open to a potential attack and making their computers a host to malicious software which might be passed on to PC users.

Apple first began to advise users to use anti-virus software in late 2008 [Register]. But even in 2010 some still question the need for such software on the Mac [Guardian]. But the risk does exist as Graham Cluley explains in a video posted on YouTube.

The risks highlighted by Cluley include that of hitting shortened URLs, much used in Twitter to condense an otherwise long web address to only a few characters. Users must ask themselves whether it is safe to click these links. Most will be safe, but some may link to sites embedded with malware. Google actively scans many websites and those using Google Chrome will be familiar with the red warning page warning that a site may damage your computer. But not all browsers display this.

One way to find whether a link is legitimate is to use a URL lengthener, such as Longurl which allows users to see where a particular link goes. Such services have also proved useful in countries such as China where some URL shortening services such as bit.ly are blocked.

Phones now at risk

With mobile phones becoming ever more complex, the risk of being hit by viruses is growing too. This week several reports showed that attacks on the Android mobile operating system had been discovered. Malware posing as a movie player had been found to send premium-rate text messages. Google have responded saying that users should exercise caution when downloading and installing apps. "Our applications permissions model protects against this type of threat. When installing an application, users see a screen that explains clearly what information and system resources the application has permission to access, such as a user's phone number or sending an SMS," the company said. "Users must explicitly approve this access in order to continue with the installation, and they may uninstall applications at any time. We consistently advise users to only install apps they trust. In particular, users should exercise caution when installing applications outside of Android Market." [ZDNet / Guardian]

The risks posed to users of Android smartphones has prompted several security firms to release anti-virus software. Symantec have released a beta version of Norton for Android, and Avast and Mobile Defense have also issued similar products [Androidandme].

Owners of iPhones may be smirking, but the Apple iPhone is not imune from software attacks. In November last year a new worm was identified which redirected iPhone users from a legitimate banking website to a counterfeit website potentially run by cybercriminals. The worm which was identified by security experts at F-Secure, predominantly affected Dutch iPhone users attempting to log on to their ING bank accounts on the device. Users visiting the legitimate home page of the bank were unwittingly redirected to an imitation site by the worm, leaving them vulnerable to cybercriminals, who could capture their username and password and use the information to commit fraud.

Only so-called "jailbroken" iPhones were identified as being vulnerable to the worm attack. "Jail-breaking" is a process whereby a user removes Apple's protection mechanisms in order to allow the use of non-Apple compliant software. However, by doing so it has left some users open to such attacks. Up to 10% of all iPhones and iPod touch devices are believed to have been tampered in this way.

Security experts at F-Secure warned that the worm could effectively turn infected iPhones into a "botnet", a network of compromised computers which could be accessed or controlled by hackers or cybercriminals. The worm can be transferred from one jailbroken iPhone to another if they are using the same wireless internet connection or hot spot according to F-Secure.

The discovery of the latest worm came just weeks after the first ever iPhone worm was discovered. That worm, written by Ashley Towns, "rickrolled" the iPhone's owner by changing the phone's wallpaper to show a picture of pop singer Rick Astley and displaying the message "ikee is never going to give you up". The 21-year-old hacker said he had made the program to raise the issue of security.

While the Rick Astley worm was not particularly harmful it was a clear warning that other more malicious worms might follow. "The creator of the (Rick Astley) worm has released full source code of the four existing variants of this worm," Mikko Hypponen of security firm F-secure said at the time. "This means that there will quickly be more variants, and they might have nastier payload than just changing your wallpaper."

Hypponen's analysis appears to have been proved correct with the discovery of the first malicious iPhone virus. "There's a clear financial motive behind it," Hypponen told the BBC at the time. "It's fairly isolated and specific to the Netherlands, but it is capable of spreading."

And the threats continue with Germany's Federal Office for Information Security warning that Apple's iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch have potentially serious security problems [Chosun Ilbo]. And this week the BBC showed the ease at which hackers could exploit mobile phones by writing malware.

User beware

Makers of software and devices must of course make sure their products are as secure as possible. But consumers must also take responsibility too. If you don't lock your car and leave the keys in the ignition, one can hard blame the motor manufacturer if it stolen. Computer and smartphone users must educate themselves and be aware of the risks of the online world and protect themselves accordingly.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

China's "barbaric animal abuse"

A year long investigation by a team of British and Chinese activists has revealed that cruel and abusive treatment of animals remains common in China's zoos and safari parks. Sky News highlighted the continuing animal cruelty on Tuesday with a report by their China Correspondent Holly Williams [Sky - video].

British charity Animals Asia, has published a report after a year long investigation in China, and it makes grim reading. Videos and photographs show bears being forced to box, toothless tigers riding on the back of horses, pigs being pushed off a 10ft diving board and monkeys performing handstands on the horns of a goat.

David Neale, Animals Asia's animal welfare director, said that many of the animals were often brutalised during training for their "tricks". They are also kept in unsanitary and cramped conditions, the charity found.

"The animals are housed in small, barren, concrete enclosures often in darkened rooms at the back of the performance areas away from the visitors," the report said, "Many of the animals have no visible access to water. Animals have no access to a shelter to hide from individuals within their enclosure, and no attempts are made to meet the behavioural needs of these species."

"Teaching animals to perform inappropriate tricks does nothing to educate the public or foster respect for animals. These performances teach the public nothing except for the animals' size, shape and colour" [ITN / Telegraph].

At zoos across China it is not uncommon to see visitors taunting the animals. Small cages result in stereotypy in many animals. These behaviour may be maladaptive, involving self-injury or reduced reproductive success. At Kunming Zoo tvnewswatch witnessed elephants pacing back and force in repeated motions. Nearby big cats and black bears were confined in small cages as audiences gathered to watch live animal acts. In Beijing black bears are trained to perform for tourists at the Badaling section of the Great Wall. But these are just the tip of the ice-berg. There are far more cruel examples which the tourists do not see.

China is increasingly aware of its poor image abroad for animal welfare, and last week the country's State Forestry Administration (SFA) launched a campaign to stop animals being abused for profit and public display. But it will take time to have an effect in a country which sees animal welfare as being low on people's priority [Animals Asia].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Google draws more criticism

The announcement that Google was no longer going to actively develop its collaborative tool Google Wave any further drew a great deal of media attention in the last week. Many have taken great pleasure in referring to the platform as a failure. It is the latest in a series of stories pouring criticism over the search giant. But is the criticism, of what is arguably one of the most inventive and biggest companies of all time, warranted?

For those who don't use Google services, the demise of Wave will mean little. Even those who do use Google's search engine and their GMail service may not have heard of Wave. But whether or not people use Google products it cannot be argued that the company has not changed the world and generated a vast amount of wealth, not only for themselves, but for many others.

Google's rise

The very word 'Google', drawn from googol meaning 10 to the 100th power, has become common diction. How many times have you heard the phrase "just Google it." Few would suggest you "Bing it", "Yahoo it" or even "Ask Jeeves". But Google has gone beyond search. Innovation and a strive for perfection has foisted dozens of products on the public. Though some still retain Hotmail and Yahoo email accounts, Google's GMail service has attracted millions with its simplicity and functionality. It also provides its users with the biggest amount of free storage space, currently standing at 7.4 Gb. Hotmail now provides 5 Gb and Yahoo claim to offer unlimited storage though it was Google that forced their hand [Comparison of webmail providers].

It was Microsoft's Bill Gates that once envisaged the idea of cloud computing. But it it Google that have embraced and perfected it. Google account holders not only send email, but can store details in Google Calendar, compose and share spread sheets in Google Docs, upload pictures to Picasa Web and share video on Google's YouTube.

Google made blogging popular after offering a free service via Blogger. While it was not the first others have come and gone. Typepad and Wordpress remain popular but others have been killed off. The once popular and first major major blogging service, Geocities was unceremoniously shut down by Yahoo last year which angered many people as it consigned much history to the digital furnace.

The search giant has also change the way people find their way around. There were mapping services before Google. Microsoft released a program called Autoroute and in 2007 they bought Multimap.com which later became Bing Maps. But it is Google that revolutionised mapping on computers and the web. Launched in 2005 Google Maps has continually improved with added features. Directions, bus and transport information as well as satellite information has made Google Maps indispensable for many people.

Google Earth which also launched in 2005 has further enhanced people's virtual experience of travelling the globe. It has also helped emergency services by enabling layers of information of fire hydrants and allowed environmental groups to broadcast their message by enabling the showing of information about rising global temperatures. In fact without Google, we might still be using paper maps.

Rising criticism

Of course none of these innovations have come without scrutiny or criticism. StreetView has drawn a mountain of criticism over issues of privacy especially after it was revealed the company had inadvertently captured WiFi data. The fact the data captured was relatively innocuous, and something that anyone with a WiFi enabled laptop or mobile can capture, has not stopped the litigations.

The European parliament has raised the loudest objections and put what Google has called unworkable restrictions on its Street View service. The company has said they may not map Europe again with photos for its Street View service if European Union data-protection regulators reduce the images' storage time from 12 months to 6. Under current rules the images may only remain on the site for a total of 6 months and would require Google's cars to continually navigate European roads to keep the service working.

"I think we would consider whether we want to drive through Europe again, because it would make the expense so draining," Michael Jones, Google's chief technology advocate and founder of Google Earth, said in an interview at the Cebit Technology Fair in Hanover in March. Google has negotiated with EU authorities, agreeing to one year storage from the day the images are published on Street View, according to Jones. Shorter periods won't be possible as Google can't reprocess its data quicker because of software restraints, he said.

"I think that privacy is more important than technology but for privacy people it is only about privacy but for us it is also about technology," Jones said. "We have to be actually able to do what they want us to do. What we want is to have enough time." [Business Week]

Google Street View has been banned temporarily from taking photos in Austria due to privacy concerns, although the Romanian company NORC already features Austrian cities in a similar product. In Germany authorities are said to have finally relented to allow Street View to go live [AP]. But meanwhile in South Korea, Google's offices were raided over privacy concerns surrounding it's project. In a statement released by the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA), they said, "[We] have been investigating Google Korea on suspicion of unauthorised collection and storage of data on unspecified Internet users from wi-fi networks." [BBC]

Net Neutrality has become the latest bone of contention after Google announced it had been in talks with mobile telecoms provider Verizon over how internet traffic should be prioritised. In a blogpost Google have said while there should be neutrality on the web, such rules should not necessarily apply to mobile networks.

Over the last week, rumours have circulated that Google and Verizon were on the verge of a commercial deal that might, for instance, have allowed YouTube video priority over other traffic. However the proposals revealed that no such commercial deal has been done. Critics, however, said that the companies planned to exempt wireless internet, which they have themselves previously said will form the future basis on the majority of innovative services, and that there was an exemption for so-called "differentiated services". In the blogpost, Alan Davidson, Google director of public policy and Tom Tauke, Verizon executive vice president of public affairs, policy, and communications, said that Verizon and Google had discussed a principled compromise concerning the thorny issue of "network neutrality." Nothing has yet been finalised but the debate has raised temperatures [FT / Telegraph].

Rising above the criticism

No company is perfect, and Google is no exception. It claims it has made mistakes and looks at its failures as something from which it can learn to make things better. Google has acquired dozens of start-up companies over the years. These have been augmented and turned into viable products [List of Google acquisitions].

In 2009 Google made only five major purchases, On2, a video codec technology company, reCAPTCHA a company specialising in optical character recognition, the VOIP client Gizmo5, the online advertising company Teracent and the collaborative realtime editor AppJet. This year the list may grow as the company expands and pushes into other areas. Wave may flutter away in its current form, but many of the tools it developed may well be incorporated in future products or even in GMail itself. Some publications have taken much delight in poking Google over the demise of Wave [Telegraph / Techcrunch].

But this is not a company that is likely to fail any time soon. Google's main source of income is after all something many rarely think about at all when they think of the world's favourite search engine; AdWords. It has made Google rich, but it has also made the smallest of companies richer. In fact in 2009 Google said in a blog posted in May that the effects of its search and advertising businesses helped generate an estimated $54 billion in economic value for the United States. With Android coming into its own and a Google pad in the offing the most powerful technology company in the world is not going to disappear [CNBC / CNBC video 'Inside the mind of Google'].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, August 06, 2010

Halal meat in schools fuels debate

Parents and animal welfare groups have condemned a plan to offer only halal meat in some London schools. All 10 secondary schools in Harrow, north-west London, will adopt the controversial menus from September and it has been reported that the borough's 52 primary schools might also be included in the scheme. The decision has outraged animal rights' groups and families who claim their views on the treatment of animals were being compromised to accommodate the Muslim faith.

It is thought to be the first time that a local authority has insisted on a halal-only meat menu and campaigners fear similar measures could be forced on all schoolchildren. According to the 2001 census, just 7% of Harrow's population are Muslim. Halal meat production is condemned by the RSPCA and the Government's veterinary advisers, but is permitted in Britain and across many parts of Europe.

Origins of ritual slaughter

Some 2,700 years ago God is said to have said to Moses "Only ye shall not eat the blood; ye shall pour it upon the earth as water" [Deuteronomy 15:23]. Many of the rules laid down in the Bible remain and some have bee taken up by other religions.

Many Jews insist that their meat must come from animals which have been slaughtered according to Jewish law. These strict guidelines require that the animal is killed by a single cut across the throat to a precise depth, severing both carotid arteries, both jugular veins, both vagus nerves, the trachea and the esophagus, no higher than the epiglottis and no lower than where cilia begin inside the trachea, causing the animal to bleed to death. It is a practice known as shechita.

Muslims too have long adhered to a form of ritual slaughter. The Qur'an lays down many rules about the consumption of food. Just as the Bible prohibits the consumption of animals that have died naturally, killed by a beast or carrion, so too does the Qur'an. Pork is prohibited, as in the Jewish faith, and blood is also outlawed.

To provide halal meat, Islam also requires a form of ritual slaughter known as Dhabiha. The method of slaughtering animals consists of a swift, deep incision with a sharp knife on the neck, cutting the jugular veins and carotid arteries of both sides but leaving the spinal cord intact.

It is claimed ritual slaughter results in minimal suffering to the animal as it cuts off the blood supply to the brain hence the pain centre. However many animal rights' advocates insist the animals suffer as they bleed to death. In Britain and across Europe the most accepted method for slaughter is to stun the animal, rendering it unconscious, followed by the kill where  the animal either has its throat cut or has a chest stick, cutting close to the heart, both where main veins and/or arteries are cut, and allowed to bleed causing death by exsanguination. In the United States animals may be rendered unconscious by an electrical bolt, gunshot or through the use of carbon dioxide gas [Animal slaughter].

Divisive issues

No method has been proved to cause less suffering than any other, and there are conflicting views over whether animal slaughter is humane. However ritual slaughter has attracted particular criticism. Disturbing videos have been uploaded onto YouTube [viewer discretion advised] said to show ritual slaughter of cows, sheep and goats. On face value many people may see such methods as cruel. But ritual slaughter has become a divisive issue.

Calls to the BBC's Vanessa show on Friday saw many describing the decision to only offer halal meat at schools in north-west London as being at best unfair. Some in the Muslim community were also fearful that the decision would lead to a rise in Islamophobia and the issue would be exploited by far-right groups.

But Harrow council have said the decision was up to the schools concerned. Harrow councillor Brian Gate said it would be the choice of individual schools as to whether or not they chose to use catering firm Harrison Catering Services, which serves halal-only meat. "The decision about whether to use an individual provider is for schools to make, as the funding is delegated to them," he said [BBC / Daily Mail / Daily Express]

[Picture of a cow being slaughtered in a Belgian halal slaughter house via YouTube - view discretion advised]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Hiroshima marks 65th anniversary

For the first time in history a US representative will attend the commemorations held at the peace park in Hiroshima on Friday. US ambassador to Japan, John Roos, will join Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan, officials and survivors in marking 65 years since America dropped the first nuclear bomb used in war.

The bomb which many American believe brought World War II to an early end, killed upward of 90,000 people. On the 9th August another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki killing a further 60,000 or more [Wikipedia].

Whether or not the use of the weapons brought a swift end to the war in the Pacific, their use polarized opinion and spawned a peace movement around the world calling for the destruction of all nuclear weapons. Survivor Masahiro Kunishige has long kept his silence about what he witness at 08:15 on the 6th August. But 65 years on he has decided to speak out in an attempt to persuade leader to move on a path of nuclear disarmament. "I used to be filled with bitterness, and wanted retribution ... I now believe working to rid the world of nuclear weapons is the best way to find that retribution," he says. But he is pragmatic enough to realise it will take many years. 

As the US and its second world war allies, France and Britain, send delegations to the annual memorial, he sees this as a turning point. "It is a small, but significant step forward," Kunishige says [Al Jazeera].

According to the Financial Times, Ambassador John Roos is representing the US in the City of Peace "to express regret for all of the victims of World War II". However there appeared to be some confusion whether it was "regret" or "respect" that was being offered. Fox News reported that the US was not ready to apologise. It quoted the US State Dept as saying, "Ambassador Roos will attend the ceremony to express respect for all the victims of World War II. From the tragedy of that war, the U.S. and Japan have become close friends and allies. We must continue to work together to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again."

Nonetheless his appearance was still welcomed with Japan's foreign minister Katsuya Okada calling it "a big first step". Around the world there will be other events marking Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In London an exhibition opens at the Brunei Gallery displaying portraits of some 65 survivors [Guardian].
As the threat of nuclear terrorism  grows and tensions increase as nations such as North Korea and Iran develop their own weapons, the risks of annihilation remain. But it has not put off the peace activists and the survivors who still campaign.

"Denuclearisation [sic] has got to happen," says 79 year old Kunishige, "I have to believe this otherwise I would be wasting my time telling my story". But he knows it will not happen soon. "I am sure it will never happen in our lifetime or for a very long time for that matter, but I believe it will happen. Maybe in our grandchildren's generation." [Pictured: Hiroshima in 1950]

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